ALAN SCULLEY - for The Columbian
The Minus 5 that will roll into Portland for a show at Dante's may not resemble the group that would have played in town a decade ago.
Back then, The Minus 5 was a true side project for frontman Scott McCaughey, who spent most of his time in the critically acclaimed band the Young Fresh Fellows.
It gave singer/multi-instrumentalist McCaughey a vehicle for songs that were too introspective and restrained to fit the exuberant power pop of the Young Fresh Fellows.
In recent years the Young Fresh Fellows has gotten together only for occasional live shows (although McCaughey said there is talk of making a new Fellows CD). As a result, The Minus 5 has undergone a personality makeover that McCaughey said has blurred the once clear musical distinction between the two bands.
The Minus 5's identity has changed, McCaughey said, noting that most of his songs now go to The Minus 5. "It doesn't mean there's still not a place for the Fellows, I mean, when the time is right. There are certain things about the Fellows that just can't be recreated elsewhere. That's kind of this camaraderie we have on stage."
In fact, these days The Minus 5 is essentially a full-fledged band --- something that was certainly not the case when McCaughey released The Minus 5's debut EP, "The Hello EP," in 1994.
Back then it was designed to be a shifting collective of musician friends that would come in and out of The Minus 5 lineup as schedules and projects dictated. Today, a regular lineup has solidified both in the studio and on tour, not that McCaughey is complaining.
After all, today's The Minus 5 often gets called a super group, an understandable term for a lineup that includes the likes of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Rieflin (who has worked with Ministry and R.E.M.) and guitarist John Ramberg.
"It's nice," McCaughey (pronounced McCoy) said of the stability of The Minus 5 lineup. "It's kind of like the best of both worlds. It's kind of like we're a real group, but we can still bring in all of our friends and other people we like and respect and want to work with."
These days the activities of The Minus 5 aren't dictated by the Young Fresh Fellows, but by R.E.M.'s schedule. McCaughey and Rieflin are auxiliary members of R.E.M., playing on that group's most recent CDs and touring with that popular and respected band.
But following last summer's European tour, R.E.M. began a year-long break, which gave The Minus 5 a chance to swing back into action.
First came the recording of the newly released The Minus 5 CD. Although it's technically a self-titled release, it's nicknamed "The Gun Album," the result of a number of lyrical references to firearms and cover art that features a pistol. The CD was pieced together over the course of several months and came to involve a number of additional musicians, including the rock innovators Wilco, who collaborated with McCaughey on the 2003 Minus 5 CD, "Down With Wilco."
The sporadic recording process hasn't seemed to diminish the quality of the six previous The Minus 5 CDs, and "The Gun Album." Each reflects a consistently tuneful and well-rounded effort.
Several songs show an appealing folk-rock influence, including "Out There on the Maroon" and "With a Gun," which have a distinct Byrds influence. There's also Beatles-esque pop on the piano-laced "Rifle Called Goodbye," raucous rock on "Aw S--- Man" and a bit of mid-tempo organ-fueled pop on "Twilight Distillery."
McCaughey said fans can expect The Minus 5 material in the group's live set to display more juice than the songs do on CD.
"When we play live, we're pretty much a rock band," he said. "We play quite different from the records in a lot of ways."
In between live dates, The Minus 5 has remained busy, first doing a second recording session for Robyn Hitchcock's next CD.
The group has also served as John Wesley Harding's backing band on his next CD.
"My vision of it, and the stuff we've recorded with Wes in the past, is real electric folk rock," McCaughey said. "So I'm kind of hoping he's coming up with that kind of stuff, where we get Peter playing a lot of 12-string (guitar) and put on some good harmonies and let our Byrds freak flag fly."