The Connells: Ring | ★★★½  | Craft Recordings | August 11

When they released Ring, which recently received a deluxe 30th-anniversary reissue, the easygoing jangle-pop band The Connells was already a pretty big deal. On debut album Darker Days in 1985, they seemed like Raleigh’s own R.E.M., an impression they courted by linking up with producer Mitch Easter for Boylan Heights two years later.

Elvis Costello’s boutique label released the former in the UK, while the latter went to the ambitious mid-major TVT. Tireless touring then entrenched The Connells in the college radio circuit as their next two albums brushed the Billboard charts. 

In 1993, when small bands were big business, they were ready. But as usual, their success came from a surprising direction.

TVT sent them to Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, to record Ring. Basking in the auras of The Band, The Isley Brothers, and yes, R.E.M., they reached the pinnacle of their humble, endearing, radio-ready songwriting. “Slackjawed”—on which Doug MacMillan’s disarmingly sweet, airy voice coasts over a liquid gleam of guitar distortion—reached number nine on Billboard’s Alternative chart.

But it was “’74-’75” that unexpectedly took off after Ring was licensed to a German label as an afterthought. A sort of Celtic acoustic ballad, it became a European hit, breaking the top 10 in 11 countries.

“There was nothing to prepare us for how lucky we got with that tune,” songwriter-guitarist Mike Connell told the INDY in 2021 when the band released comeback record Steadman’s Wake. But in retrospect, it makes sense. The Connells were influenced by English bands, from The Yardbirds to The Smiths, as well as the newfangled power-pop of the American Southeast, and “’74-’75” is one of those tunes that seems unassuming but sticks in your head. Every version of it on this reissue is welcome.

Remastered for vinyl and digital by Brent Lambert at the Kitchen in Carrboro, Ring sounds better than ever, tender and tawny even when it rocks, dripping with bonus tracks and new liner notes by David Menconi. It captures a band that stood out by blending in. The Connells weren’t snotty, like Superchunk, or brawny, like Archers of Loaf, or brooding, like Polvo.

They were guys in collared shirts playing thoughtful songs, each with ample space for one or two measured guitar solos, as well as they could. Thus did a group of mild-mannered Raleigh indie rockers wind up doing things like playing for 100,000 people with Def Leppard in Rome.

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