Desert Discs

The promised reviews are here at last

The Slims
Slow Road to Hell
(Mainliner Music)

Slims drummer Scott Seymann sports a "London Calling" tee shirt in this CD's insert photo. That's tres cool, but the Clash is light-years from the Slims' stripped-down, medium-tempo fare, which more easily recalls the Feelies. Greg Simmons' guitar unfurls melodic lines with a kick of distortion, and when he yanks that whammy bar in "Writin' Me a Letter," the gritty riffs float up like camp smoke in a spaghetti Western. The Slims' rhythm section is consistently solid as Joe Vallee's bass bounces along over Seymann's irrepressible snare and crash cymbal. There's a garage angst to the sound, but it never seems like the kids are just beating on trash cans.

Singer/guitarist Connie Maverick has one of those voices people either love or hate; she's a little bit Ricki Lee Jones, a little bit Eddie Vedder on estrogen-replacement therapy. There's no question she's a gutsy lead vocalist, but at times she lays on the theatrical quavering a bit thick. Maverick is more fun (and much more convincing) when she's either unabashedly rocking or dancing around the vocals with campy hick stylings (best used in the introduction to "Sweet Dreams").

The slender ones demonstrate considerable versatility, moving from the countrified stylings and political high voltage of "Nothin' Wrong" into the bluesy title track. And when Simmons isn't proving how tight a lock he has on linear Lou Reedy licks, he's whipping out a chunk of power pop that would make Iggy Pop lacerate himself.

Not to be confused with Richard Simmons' back-up band on "Sweatin' to the Moldies," the Slims are four highly skilled,tightly knit Tempe bar rockers who aren't afraid to let their Southwestern jangle hang out all over this debut disc--a desert treasure chocked with cool surprises.--Matt Golosinski

Idly Rove
Idle Hours
(self-released)

From a self-marketing standpoint, Idly Rove is a monster band. The Phoenix metal outfit's promo pack, printed on a dozen sheets of heavy-bond paper (maybe Kinko's had a special), includes a mission statement, an analysis of Idly Rove's target audience ("16-23-year-old girls and 15-25-year-old boys"), and individual resumes that have the precise number of hours each band member has logged onstage and in the studio. Idly Rove even has a bar light bearing the band's logo in a back corner of the Mason Jar.

Above all the glitter and slogans, however, hovers a question: Are the Rovesters the megaband they claim to be, or just well-funded poseurs? The answer depends largely on the listener's frame of mind. If you're just coming down from the latest Chili Peppers rush, Rove will leave you idle. However, if you've been dredging your secret Eighties pop-metal stash, jonesin' for faux-medieval ballads that burst into roaring guitar orgies, or mundane lyrics like "Gonna do her on the ground" delivered like a Wagnerian aria, then stop rummaging--Idly Rove delivers the goods.

Stealing the show on every cut is lead guitarist Mike Ehmann, whose 120 hours of live performance and 132 hours of studio time have evidently fashioned him into a stalwart metalhead with a heavy, sharp ax to grind.

A few words for Rove's talented vocalist, Chad Ehmann (brother of Mike): If you're going to copy the style of Queensryche's Geoff Tate ("Leading Them On," "Scanner"), either nail it or don't even try. Mimicking Tate is like counterfeiting a Cnote: You can get in deep trouble quick if it's not just right.

Don't worry, Rovesters: Your meaty licks, rippled arms and flowing manes will surely satisfy the heavy-metal fantasy of any "16-23-year-old girl." I'd bet my limited-edition Ratt poster on it.--Leigh Silverman

Flathead
Flathead
(Truxton)

If the sound of "Hot Rod Lincoln" drives you to drinkin', it's a pretty safe bet this trio's self-titled debut was not recorded with you in mind. Flathead packed this sucker bumper to bumper with chugging "rig rock" rhythms. In New York, there are more than a dozen bands churning out similar stuff on the Diesel Only label; but here in the lonesome Valley, Flathead has the genre all to itself.

This album contains three prime trucker anthems, addressing the joys of endangering lives through reckless gear-jamming ("40 acre"), running moonshine ("Alcohaulin") and amnesia as an occupational hazard ("Highway"). Given the monotonous "yahoo, Mountain Dew" harmonies that hallmark every number save the instrumentals, Flathead seems to have a monopoly on hillbilly music too corn-jug for Tempe's other Western swingers, Ned Beatty and the Inbreds.

Singer-songwriter Greg Swanholm and his two cohorts have clearly mastered their musical idioms, but the band rarely ventures outside the limitations of its form. Flathead seems content to stick to its roots, rather than trying to see what can grow out of them--like, say, the Reverend Horton Heat. As a result, the band covers traditional material like "Old 97" and "Tennessee Stud" in the same traditional vein it affords Swanholm's originals.

Surely, within the confines of a recording studio, more liberties could have been taken with Flathead's familiar live sound. The band and producer Dan Nelson capture that sound here with little or no overdubbing, making this debut the ideal audio souvenir for anyone who's packed themselves into Long Wong's to see this band kick into gear. But, apart from the mournful ballad "Red Sky Waltz," this road map of the group's music offers little indication of what lies beyond Mill. Perhaps audio verite looms large in Flathead's future. People who miss the sound of manual turntables will enjoy the seven minutes of run-off groove-surface noise the band generously supplies at the end of this CD.--Serene Dominic

Victor J. Palagano III
Lucid Dreaming
(O(h)m Productions)

In the netherland between Yanni and Shadowfax lie the unusual dreamscapes of24-year-old Victor Palagano. Built on mountains of guitar and piano improvisation, and tastefully adorned with samples of waterfalls and thunderstorms, Lucid Dreaming is an insomniac's blessing. This recording puts you to sleep, but in a good way--and isn't that what adult contemporary is all about?

The most compelling of the 14 instrumentals here is "My Mountain," which opens with a pressing guitar line that conjures the authoritative precision of Joe Satriani. Softened by downy piano lines and voices slipped onto the ends of phrases like satin sheets, "Mountain" rises like a new-age fugue.

Although most of Lucid is similar fodder for reverie, Palagano's hard-rock schooling in bands including New York's Epitaph and the Valley group Firedancer surfaces in the final seconds of the album, when he opens the distortion on his guitar to full throttle. The effect is that of a giant door slamming shut, yanking the listener back from the land of Nod.--Leigh Silverman

Naked Prey
And Then I Shot Everyone
(Epiphany)

This is, hands down, the best-titled Desert Disc we've come across this year. Lucky for Tucson's Naked Prey, most of the tunes live up to its malevolent promise. Front man Vann Christian is no disgruntled postal worker, but he delivers on this latest installment of Epiphany's ongoing campaign to bring desert rock to, uh, the desert.

One time I posed the question, "What is 'Desert Rock,' anyway?" to a longtime Valley resident while a band pegged as an example of said genre flailed away on a nearby stage. His answer sounded like directions from a gas station attendant: "You hear that E minor chord? You'll be hearing a lot of that, but keep on going and you'll eventually get to a lot of D, followed by G."

There's more to Desert Rock than that. It's a music of quiet desperation, fueled by the lazy realization that you can't change the world, so you might as well redecorate the inside of your liver. Nowhere is this depressing notion better illustrated than on Prey's "Lucky Lager," which is like a Nineties update of the Amazing Rhythm Aces' "Third Rate Romance," except Naked Prey's low-rent rendezvous turns out to be a car parked in a truck stop. Worse, Mr. Christian doesn't even know whether strands of his nocturnal companion's hair in his sleeping bag mean she slept with him or just passed out there.

"That's How Much I Love You" manages a tasty alliance of Captain Beefheart and the Stones ("If I had a nickel, I'd tell you what I'd do/I'd spend it all on bubblegum and stick it on you"), while Shot Everyone's closer, "Dilionious Skunk," recalls the playful experimentation of the last few Tom Waits releases. A little off-putting at first, And Then I Shot Everyone ultimately wins you over simply because Naked Prey doesn't sound like it cares if you're impressed or not. And that's impressive.--Serene Dominic

Satellite
Satellite
(self-released)

It's with a reluctant knife that this sacred cow is slain, but here goes: Satellite, an excellent live band and staple of the Tempe scene, has gone to great trouble and expense to effectively channel every boring moment from the Crash Test Dummies discology (no small feat) onto one CD.

The nicest thing I can say about this release is it's an EP; a full-length dose likely would have sent me into a coma. It's hard to say what's worse: Stephen Ashbrook's overused high-tenor breaks, his annoying guitar solos or his infuriatingly trite lyrics. What's certain is that everything on this album is weighed down with chains of calculated sincerity. The guitars are so, so sincere. As are the drums, the production, the lyrics. The whole recording sounds like it was designed not to repel anyone, which is, in itself, repulsive. Satellite would have benefited greatly from a shot of pure VU-style cynicism. Plus a nice new distortion pedal.

The shame of it is, there's a good band in there trying to break out: The promising bass/guitar duet on the menacing "E" is completely washed away by bland lyrics about going to church. Ashbrook's voice is a subtle instrument with a wide range (as evidenced by "Sometimes Just One Time"); it's just that he seems to have nothing to say (as evidenced by "Sometimes Just One Time"). And there's no excuse for Allman Brothers excursions like "Watch You Through Your Window," a song about voyeurism that is all-too-literally an empty wank fest, with a trite finish straight out of Guitar magazine's 1978 phrasebook.

Two final suggestions to Ashbrook, et al.:
1. Using your talent to such trivial ends is a sin. Take note of Hootie and the Blowfish, a good band seduced by the dark side of the force that's sure to go straight to hell.

2. Eliminate the word "baby" from your lyrics, except when referring to an actual infant. The last artist to convincingly use the word "baby" was Peter Frampton, and one of him was more than enough.--Jon Kinzler

Bob Bingham
Alone at Last
(Mitawan)

This is an accomplished solo debut from a sizzling, finger-pickin' bluesman that prompts an immediate craving for a follow-up. Bingham's a Minnesota transplant, and his one-man act relies on an amplified acoustic guitar and flurries of notes interspersed with string slapping and damping that give a percussive feel to songs about trains, rivers and jail. While Bingham's vocals take a back seat to his fretwork, his gruff voice is a serviceable means of delivery for this tough pairing of country and Delta blues.

Bingham dedicates three fourths of the material on Alone to inspired interpretations (as opposed to covers) of standards like "Slidin' Delta" and "El Capitan." However, mellow, semiautobiographical tunes like "From the Cradle to the Grave" and "Footsteps of a Fool" give a hint of what lies in the songwriter's own introspective imagination--and indicate that Bingham could have issued an all-original album without a hitch.--Matt Golosinski

The Stumbles
The Stumbles
(self-released)

After Jefferson Airplane, but before Styx, "eclectic" became a dirty word in rock. An "eclectic" young band is one that hasn't figured out what it wants to be when it grows up, while an "eclectic" older group means even the drummer thinks he can sing (and, worse, write). The Stumbles fall somewhere in between. The band boasts two strong front men/guitarists, Ron Walker and Mark Moffatt--and Walker plays all the drums on this CD.

Any group that runs as wide a spectrum of styles in a 40-minute live set as the Stumbles can is eclectic in the best sense of the word. This band can harness the power of Sugar or Live and tack on highly polished block harmonies worthy of the Plimsouls or the Rembrandts, as demonstrated here on "SSS Man" and "Undertow."

"And She" is a whisper-to-scream pop gem that starts out with chiming acoustic 12strings like The La's "There She Goes," before launching into a nasally Bob Mouldish chorus. When he sings this song live, the large-framed Moffatt resembles Ed Wood's beloved wrestler/actor, Tor Johnson, at his eye-bulging best. In the recorded version of "And She," Moffatt states that his beloved "gets on my face." Live, however, I could swear he sings "sits." In any case, "And She" is a killer song, and the band has more where that came from: The number of new tunes the Stumbles are currently playing out indicates the band didn't succumb to debut fever and shoot their wad on one album. Good thing. A recording this good deserves a quality follow-up. --Serene Dominic

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