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Three photos of Kurt Ralske lay across my desk. The one on the left dates from 1988, around the time his one-man-band debut, Ultra Vivid Scene, was released by Britain's 4AD Records. With an utter lack of guile, his gaze is directed straight at the camera. In his crew-neck sweat shirt and tousled hair, he looks like the shy, polite kid who grew up next door, dreaming impossible dreams of someday playing in a rock band.
The middle photo, copyright 1990, accompanied the second Ultra Vivid Scene album, Joy 1967-1990 (issued in America on 4AD/Columbia). This time, the eyes are shrouded by aviator shades and Ralske's wearing a semiposh corduroy jacket. With his enigmatic, crooked smile, he resembles a younger, coiffured Paul Shaffer.
The photo on the right is the current one. Here, the gaze is slightly averted and the smile has a more cautionary curl. The leather jacket is the experienced rocker's uniform of choice.
Ralske's musical evolution isn't all black and white, of course, but photos do tell a tale. This one's clearly a case of someone being bitten by the bug early on and doggedly chasing the muse ever since. Calling from Detroit, about a week into a five-week headlining club tour, a candid Ralske maintains that music is more important and more fun than ever for him. Of his new Ultra Vivid Scene recording, Rev, and his new touring band, he says firmly, "It's working out great."
It's actually our second conversation. In 1990, we linked up via telephone and he impressed me as one who appreciates the intricate dynamics of rock n' roll and the musical form's continuum. "I believe in change on a personal level," he told me then. "I believe in your own private little revolution inside yourself."
The 27-year-old pop philosopher seemed to appear out of nowhere in 88 at the behest of 4AD. However, Ralske's r‚sum‚ included: studying jazz trumpet at Boston's Berklee College of Music; switching to guitar in New York during the early-80s days of the avant-pop No Wave fractures; playing and recording in an experimental group called Crash; and winding up in London, where the 85 underground scene centered on such bands as Jesus and Mary Chain, Loop and Primal Scream.
Take an anything-goes musical ethic, add a record collector's devotion to the classics (from Byrds to Velvets to Hendrix to Love to . . . Hank Williams?), stir in an instinctive knack for twiddling knobs, and you've got a debut album that had the critics smacking their lips, penning kudos along the lines of "luscious rhythms and divine melodies" and "incisive evocations of a state of mind." By the time Joy came out a couple of years later, Ralske demonstrated a keen propensity for penning 60s-ish, harmonious pop nuggets alongside sizzling psychedelic waltzes. Columbia Records lent encouragement, allowing Ralske to put together a full-fledged band to support the stateside release of Joy. After that, well . . . what took so long with Rev?
Recalls Ralske, "I went out to San Francisco for about a year. I thought it was time for a change. New York, just day-to-day life there can wear you down. A lot goes on between records: you tour, then you want some time off. Then you have to write, and that can take a long time. Finding a band and recording can take a long time. And then, once it's done, the record company can wait six months, which they did!
"Before I recorded the album, I put together a group to do about a month's rehearsal of jamming," Ralske begins. "On the record, it's myself doing guitars and vocals, Julius Klepacz on drums and Jack Daley on bass. [Guitarist Knox Chandler rounds out the live unit.] Last time, I put the group together after the album was finished so people were sort of scrambling to make it work. This time around, I took more time finding the right people, getting to know each other better and spending more time getting a musical communication going."
As far as the communication factor goes, Rev is ample testimony to the telepathic grooves a working ensemble can develop. Right off the bat, "Candida" kicks into lowrider gears, a fat bass line and Latino percussion (courtesy of guests Matthew Sweet and Fred Maher, respectively) egging on Ralske's chunky guitar riffs and sardonic, breathy vocal reminiscent of T. Rex's Marc Bolan. Who's this temptress called Candida? Some surreal vision caught in a fun-house mirror, dressed in blood and candy floss? When asked, Ralske claims to be inspired by "emotional experiences and by people," but that he frequently writes when he's "half asleep . . . in the morning, there's stuff that I don't remember writing."
One of Ralske's favorite tunes is "Thief's Love Song," which weds stream-of-consciousness lyrics (A flower lip to lick a flower lip a silent wingtip bring a silent wing to tip a head . . .) to an equally dreamy musical arrangement, featuring phased guitars and eerie overlays of female vocals. The album also contains a bona fide epic, the ten-minute "Blood and Thunder." Rife with religious imagery--a Ralske trademark--and phrases like "We had discovered a cross would bear him" and "We saw him fall in blood and thunder," the tune unfolds in a frenzied mass of wailing slide-guitar riffs and polyrhythmic drumming.