Beautiful Things, Beautiful Album
By Mike Tomano
© 2020 Fossil Entertainment Group
Summer of 1987. I am tuning up my drums in the dank basement of J & D’s Lounge on Archer Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, waiting for others to arrive for rehearsal. I had recently replaced the drummer in the band A-200, a new wave group led by John, a David Bowie devotee, who I grew up watching in various bands and who wrote moody, dark new wave songs that I dug. The guitar player, Mark, descends the stairs, holding his guitar case and a cassette tape. “Tomanz, you gotta hear this band,” he tells me. “Who is it?” I ask. “It’s the band Gene was in, Enough Z’Nuff.” (Gene Strenz, a.k.a Gino Martino, a guitar wizard from the area, owned a guitar shop in Worth. A cool guy and a monster musician.)
Mark pops the tape in and mentions the band has a couple new guys playing guitar and drums, Chip on bass, who we knew from a punk-pop band, We’re Staying, and a singer named Donnie Vie. The cassette has “Hollywood Squares” written on the cover and I’m immediately drawn in to the first song I hear called Fingers On It.
“Damn, I love this guy’s voice!”, I tell Mark, “This song is killer!” And then, when the bridge hits, “Holy Shit!”
Needless to say, I copied the tape and wore it out. (Luckily, the collection released as “1985” in 1994.) From then on, every area show or new album was an opportunity for me to introduce friends to the band. (Later, and throughout my radio career, I continued to champion the band; frequently playing cuts and having them guest on the show.)
From the mid-to-late 80s, Enuff Z'Nuff was a staple in the Chicago music scene, churning out colorful hard rock at legendary clubs like Haywire's and The Thirsty Whale. I first caught the band at The Adriatic Lounge in Lyons, Illinois, a dive on Ogden Avenue next to a submarine sandwich shop and a strip club. From then on, I didn’t miss ‘em.
The band's influences were rooted in melodic power-pop, with ample stains of The Beatles, Cheap Trick and The Raspberries on their sleeves. Donnie’s passionate vocals, a blend of Lennon, McCartney, Costello & Tilbrook; perfectly matched the incredibly catchy tunes. The band was signed to Atco in the late 80s, emerging in MTV videos for their New Thing & Fly High Michelle singles as what Rolling Stone deemed in 1991 “The Next Big Thing.” They toured the world, garnering critical acclaim and winning over a legion of admirers .
Aesthetically, however, they seemed to be members of the Poison-esque glam/hair metal collective of the era. Vie's songwriting, and Enuff Z'Nuff's dedication to musical detail, belied the metal motifs, poofy-dos & lipstick that lumped them in with an inferior collective. This erroneous marketing ploy, as the burgeoning Grunge movement took hold, along with record company hopscotch, personnel problems and the usual trappings of Rock & Roll excess , left the band in cult status for the next two decades. The band were left to tour on nostalgia packages with far-lesser bands, while releasing a slew of great albums that went criminally unnoticed. David Letterman, who invited them to guest twice, said Enuff Z'Nuff were "as good as it gets" when it came to Rock and Roll, a notion hard to argue.
Donnie departed and rejoined Enuff Z'Nuff numerous times. Terrific releases notwithstanding, internal turmoil finally found him closing the door behind him.
He released a number of indie albums with acoustic versions of Enuff Z'Nuff favorites, choice covers, and new originals. He played out sporadically, collaborated with different artists and then, seemingly, settled in for a massive re-think. After a tumultuous decade better left to his own telling, he contemplated an end to his musical career. His last song would be Unforsaken; a heart-felt farewell to a life on the stage and in the studio. But something funny happened on the way to wrapping it all up. He found himself writing another tune. Then another. Donnie's songwriting and vision began to coalesce with a renewed vigor and direction. His sprawling 2014 double album, The White Album, was a tour-de-force of confessional ballads and straight-ahead rockers. The lyrics were inspired; the music as irresistibly hook-driven as anything he'd ever done.
In the last couple years, Donnie started a campaign to record a new-batch of songs with the help of crowd-funding. The result is the stunning Beautiful Things, released on Deko Music, a collection of 10 slices of pop-perfection.
Kicking off with the title track, Donnie channels the spirit of John Lennon in a swirling mix of soaring guitar and angelic harmonies with frequent collaborator, Phil Angotti. Plain Jane follows, a top-down-cruisin'-down-the-highway sing-a-long serenade to that crush with a sparkle in her eye. Breaking Me Down follows; another examination of a complex relationship, wrapped in a typical Vie-Chorus that will etch itself into your mind...and heart.
I Could Save The World is a middle-aged rocker's look at the state of the world; recalling the simpler days of "Led Zeppelin, Stones and Beatles", young love, and freedom, while offering a plea of understanding, kindness and unashamedly bringing "the good shit back." The song is exemplary of Vie's ability to tackle existential concern in frank tone.
Donnie's prowess at writing ballads is apparent on Fly. His tender vocals are backed by Alton Smith's melancholic piano and string accompaniment for a timeless tune of encouragement. Tender Lights tackles romance and relationship in a country-tinged tale of tired, yet tried-and-true, commitment. The acoustically-driven I'll Surrender is another gem, a tune of cautiously approaching love, surrendering on the agreement of "Please be good to me / 'cause I'll be good to you."
Donnie unveiled his new touring band to a packed house at Fitzgerald's on January 4, 2020, in an emotionally uplifting performance. He introduced Whatever as the song that "literally sums up my life." In a bouncy homage to early-Beatles, Vie recalls hearing Ticket To Ride on his "Daddy's 45" and sets forth telling the tale of his career to current day where maturing has found him "still wild, but settled down."
Donnie's love songs eschew the happily-ever-after pop clichés, opting instead to focus on personal flaws and challenges that affect romantic partnerships. This honesty is evident on Fallin' Through The Pages, looking to overcome love's inevitable obstacles with the promise, "Baby, as long as you are happy / I am too." a line which lends itself as much to optimism as it does skepticism.
The record ends with four minutes of bliss in Back From The Blue, as fine a "farewell, wish you well" song as any written; its cascading melody capturing the feeling of loss in its lyrics.
The album features a stellar line-up of backing musicians, including Phil Angotti (guitars & vocals), bassists Mike LaPond, Casey McDonough, guitarists Johnny Monaco, Jonny Polonsky, Lothar Keller and Jay O’Rourke, drummers Ed Breckenfield and Matt Walker, Alton Smith on piano and vocalists Baz Francis and Jay Goeppner. Guest musicians include Mr. Big’s Paul Gilbert and Roger Joseph Manning, formerly of Jellyfish.
There are few pop songwriters that can match Donnie Vie's penchant for infectious melodies and poetic lyrics. His songcraft is on-par with the giants of the field. Music lovers who cherish the earworm-delights of Squeeze, Badfinger, XTC, Jellyfish, Todd Rundgren, Emmitt Rhodes and others who have elevated the power-pop form need to hear this record, and everything else he’s done, as well.
Donnie Vie's Beautiful Things will make you sing. It will fill your heart with joy and make you cry. It's the rare record that makes you want to hear it again the moment it ends. With Beautiful Things, Donnie Vie has successfully brought "the good shit back."