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Groove is in the heart

Rock 'n' roll can be a bracing tonic for tough times. Just ask the hard-luck waitress at the heart of "Jukebox Queen," a bittersweet ballad that's one of the best things on Baby Strange's full-length debut, "Put Out," which is being released this month on the upstart Cambridge label Primary Voltage Records.

" `Jukebox Queen' is such a joy to me because it's a real song," says Baby Strange singer Eric Deneen. The tune is about a woman he once knew who, despite battling personal hardship and despair, would show up for her restaurant shift, "put on a brave face," and sing along to the songs on the jukebox as a means of escape -- or temporary reprieve.

"I've been wanting to write a song about it for years, but to be honest, I was not a good enough songwriter to express it in a way that was honest and true," explains Deneen. "Our songs used to be about sex and drugs and good times, and I just feel like I, as a songwriter, have grown a lot."

Much like the troubled waitress leaning on that jukebox for comfort, "Put On" can be heard as a sonic respite from the setbacks that visited Deneen during, and after, the making of the album. On its surface, the sinewy, retro-fitted guitar hooks, swinging rhythmic grooves, and blustery melodies offer few hints of crisis, but the disc's material was actually written around the time Deneen ruptured a disc in his neck, an injury that left him in agony and laid up for four months, unable to sing or perform. On top of that, the band's preparation for its CD-release party, set for July 16 at the Middle East, also comes at a time when Deneen has been coping with the terminal illness of his mother, a lifelong music lover whom he affectionately describes as both "our biggest fan" and "the biggest rock star I've ever met." His mom's endorsement of "Put On," the singer says, was all the proof he needed that his band had a solid record on its hands.

The one small solace that came during the dark days following Deneen's injury was that the quintet -- which also includes guitarist Kris Ehrig, drummer Ryan Ennis, bassist Jason Horvath, and lead guitarist Hugh Wyman -- used the time off to immerse itself in listening to and studying Motown records. While nobody's going to mistake "Put On" for a Temptations album, it does reflect the band's effort to work with a broader percussive palette (including tambourine and congas). The Motown influence "was really about the attitude" of finding the right groove and then honing it, Deneen says.

"I think that people are starting to see that we might be the band that could put Boston on the map," Deneen says. "I'm sorry, but Aerosmith is passe at this point. They're great at what they do, but what they're doing is 30 years ago. In fact, I think if they got a copy of this record, they'd really dig it." Deneen pauses, then adds, "I, obviously, am ridiculously biased." 

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