It's the kind of wisdom you might find in a fortune cookie: ""You will achieve success only when you have stopped seeking it."" And yet that has been the experience of the Great Unknowns, a band that has managed to spread what it calls ""rock music for the open road"" with a decidedly low-profile approach. Each of the Great Unknowns has been in bands that followed the rules of self-promotion, hawking enough CDs and extracting enough email addresses to earn spots on bills with artists ranging from Primus to the Verve Pipe to the Black Eyed Peas. But, as their name suggests, the Unknowns came together to pursue a different agenda, putting less emphasis on getting a following and more on following their musical passion. Despite their best efforts to remain anonymous, they have attracted significant attention first, top recognition on the internet site GarageBand.com, and now a distribution deal with Daemon Records. Their debut album Presenting the Great Unknowns, a set of country-tinged rock songs described by Indigo Girl Amy Ray as ""one of the best things I have heard this year,"" will be released December 7.
Becky Warren, who fronts the band, wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album. She hails from the American South, and she's proud of it, in a low-key way. Transplanted to Boston, she wrote songs and released an album with a band called North House, winning second place in a national battle of the bands sponsored by the indie music site IUMA.com and webcast at RollingStone.com. But the album never took off, and North House disintegrated.
Warren continued to write and perform, though, seeking inspiration on roadtrips to the heartland and in recordings by heroes like Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin. She found a like-minded collaborator in Mike Palmer, a member of power-pop quintet Invisible Downtown. Drawing on their shared roots in southern rock and affinity for songs about leaving, the pair began swapping song ideas. They began performing the material occasionally, backed by North House alums Andy Eggers on drums and Altay Guvench on bass. The band's shows were heartfelt and passionate, refreshingly free of pleas to join mailing lists and visit websites. Once Warren and Palmer had assembled ten songs they were proud of, the band spent a few days recording them in a dingy, dormitory-basement studio, with bassist Guvench handling the recording controls. They were pleased with the result, and were happy to watch a number of tracks ascend the Folk/Country charts of GarageBand.com. But no one, least of all the Unknowns, expected the album to become anything more than a memento of a their youthful aspirations.
And that would probably have been the end of it, if singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani (who sings harmony on the last track of Presenting) hadn't played the record for some friends at her record label. A week later, guitarist Palmer was astonished to receive a phone call from Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls saying she wanted to put out the Great Unknowns record. Ray, the founder and president of Daemon Records, explains, ""It's really excellent songwriting in the Americana tradition. The band jokingly says they made the record for their grandmothers, but everyone should check it out.""
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