NERDS RULE

PICK YOUR NOSE, TAPE UP YOUR GLASSES, GRAB YOUR PLASTIC POCKET PROTECTOR. NERD ROCK IS ALIVE AND WELL.

You see them at work. You see them at school. Loners. Weird guys with strange looks on their faces. Goofy guys with bodies that don't seem to fit together and minds that don't seem to work just right. They wear the wrong clothes, they laugh at the wrong times. They're a couple of Ding-Dongs short of a snack.

We're talkin' nerds here. Dweebs. Dorks. Goobers and the like.
Not imitation nerds, mind you. Not the kind of trendy "outsiders" who go out of their way to be out of the way. The focus here is the long-suffering geek. The guy who really wants to be one of the guys. Lifetime losers still looking for a way to win.

Alternative music used to be an artistic haven for those who perennially finished out of the money. The Sex Pistols, after all, were fronted by a hunchback. The Ramones sang sympathetically of pinheads. Bands with sounds as disparate as the Germs and Joy Division achieved instant--if posthumous--authenticity by way of lonely-lead-singer suicides.

Over the years, though, as punk and New Wave coalesced with metal and rap into the mishmash we have today, pretty people slowly took over the underground. Look at the "alternative" videos on 120 Minutes. Check out the rising stars in SPIN. They're all handsome and peppy and bursting with cool.

Sid Vicious died for this?
Looks like it. But if you search hard, you can still find music being made by irregular guys who've crawled in from the wreckage to produce honest and heartfelt sounds.

And, oddly enough, a lot of these introverted, off-balance artists can be found on major labels.

A Man Called E is a good example. It's the self-titled debut on Polygram by a man who calls himself "E." The alphabetic a.k.a. doesn't work, but that doesn't really matter. This awkward, bespectacled D.C. export to L.A. is a true find.

E's influences are easy to figure out. They lie somewhere between the first and last cuts of the Beach Boys' epic Pet Sounds album. Indeed, Mr. E, who sings and plays almost all the instruments on his disc, sounds like he was there 25 years ago checking out the view from Brian Wilson's room. Actually, according to Polygram, E's similarities to the youthful, increasingly reclusive Wilson are more than musical. Press releases report that E wrote most of his CD's songs while holed up in a tiny L.A. apartment.

The story adds a hint of mystery to E's muse. But the results of his work habits are clear: E is an A-plus singer-songwriter.

Songs like "Are You & Me Gonna Happen" and the utterly wonderful "Looking Out the Window With a Blue Hat On" feature sophisticated chord changes that bounce off each other in perfect Pet Sounds formations.

The CD's overall mood is a bit twee because of E's tissue-soft vocals, but there's a subtle twinge of anger and bitterness evident throughout the proceedings. "Nowheresville," an overtly tuneful number, finds our restless hero lamenting his static position in life as he notes, "I'm going nowhere/Becoming everything I said I'd never be." A similar sense of disillusionment gets crossed with an unexpected exultation on the charming "Fitting in With the Misfits": "Dear Ma," E sings softly alongside a lilting string section, "You might find it hard to believe/But I think I finally found a home."

The only problem with A Man Called E is that, well, he's a man called "E." The guy sweetly and boldly bares his soul but then compromises that honesty by hiding behind a vowel. It's hard to disappear when you put songs this good up for the rest of the world to see.

Of course, E may simply be hiding from himself. The CD--dedicated "to everyone who rained on my parade; thanks for the inspiration"--is a testament to insecurity and a precarious self-esteem.

While E filters his emotions through gorgeous sounds and melodies, Mark Edwards of the startlingly monikered My Dad Is Dead takes a much darker approach.

Edwards, from Cleveland, has put out seven recordings over the past six years, all dealing in various ways with a deeply personal sense of loss--like the death of Edwards' dad, which was the main focus of My Dad Is Dead's first album.

But the title of that disc--My Dad Is Dead. . .and He's Not Gonna Take It Anymore--displays an underlying self-deprecation that helps round out Edwards' bare-boned and achingly honest expression.

Chopping Down the Family Tree, the latest for Edwards, shows continued maturation in musicianship and songwriting. This is not necessarily a good thing. Edwards is at his best when he forgoes formalities and simply closes his eyes and spills out a haphazard kind of melancholy. On the new disc such moments are occasionally overshadowed by a nagging neometal ("Cool Rain") sound and a general sense of glossy stasis.

Even so, Edwards has a knack for finding his soft spots and pressing hard. "Give me a cross and I will carry it," he sings on the title cut. "Show me a feeling and I will bury it." Later, on the poignant "Come to Me," Edwards allows a hint of desperation to break through his otherwise monotone vocals: "I want to feel like nothing that I say is wrong/I don't want to be the one that always has to be so strong." You can almost hear Edwards flinch as he enunciates the words.

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