By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
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By Derek Askey
Being the best that never was can be a drag. Just ask Dead Hot Workshop. They've been Tempe's top alternative band for almost a decade. They've wowed critics, won (and lost) record contracts and watched their work championed by "lesser" local bands like the Gin Blossoms--Robin Wilson wore a Dead Hot tee shirt on the Blossoms' debut David Letterman appearance--and the Refreshments, who quipped about pretending to be Dead Hot Workshop on the single "Down Together." It says something that such big-time acts have long pushed for Dead Hot's success. It says even more that Dead Hot still hasn't made it.
Karma Covered Apple could change that.
The new CD is Dead Hot Workshop's most spirited recording to date, a considerable jump from the solemn, scattershot brilliance of the band's previous efforts. Singer/songwriter Brent Babb has always had a way with melody and poetic suggestion, and his vocals, at once passive and impassioned, have helped shape his angst-riddled efforts. But Babb's past songs also tended to sound weary, especially on disc, as if he and his ever-promising band grew old before they had a chance to be new.
Karma Covered Apple presents a born-again Dead Hot. The CD's opening cut, "Both Ways," kicks with bright dynamics, assertive playing and peppier, more confident vocals. The newer, tougher Babb comes out swinging again on "Push Luck Shove," asserting that "I'm not crazy/My free fall spins farther round/I never wanna come down." This is far from the over-introspective Babb of past CDs, the one slump-shouldered by the weight of his own world.
Even so, Babb's still no Mr. Rogers. There's always been a theme of confused identity in Babb's writing, and it's here, too. "You say I'm the only one/I see a little bit of me in you," he sings in "Push Luck Shove," before adding the inverted question mark, "Are you with me or against me?"
Babb's genius is to couple such near-existentialism with an honest feeling for the lost and the weak, even if he indeed finds it's him he's singing about. The bend-until-you-break ennui makes for an open empathy for fellow souls: "You hide in your room," he sings on "Round Record." "But you're my favorite tune/Somehow sometime soon/I'll hear you."
Karma Covered Apple shines best when Babb literally searches the heavens for answers to his glancing doubts and concerns. "Noam Chomsky," for example, is ostensibly a stunning song of meandering melody and only occasionally sensical word forms. It doesn't matter that you can't actually define "demographic acrobats riding elemental artifacts through realistic kinds of cul-de-sacs." What does matter is how the tune wanders in search of a chorus, settling in on itself like some dwarf star as the Babb "whispers to the heavens through a megaphone." The song's buildup, enhanced by beautiful keyboard work and backup vocals from fellow Tempean Emily Curtis, is a wonder, a cosmic, stargazing goosebumper that proves art exists in the most ambiguous of platforms.
Equally impressive is "Oh Well," a beautifully contemplative song more reminiscent of Dead Hot's older, reticent world view, yet more convincing. Babb sings of himself ("Sometimes you come up short, sometimes not at all"), others ("Every friend in need/I sometimes see 'em come/I sometimes watch 'em go") and the wish to escape it all. Yet even here, by the end of the song's mournful, country-tinged melody, there's a hint of hope: "You pull up your stakes you won't get very far/Maybe there's no reason/Maybe we just are/Oh well."
Babb's touch-and-go reflections are bolstered by his longtime bandmates--bassist G. Brian Scott and drummer Curtis Grippe--who deftly handle the many drop-step melodies and subtle tempo shifts with an ease appropriate to Babb's lyrical shrugs. A small galaxy of local musicians adds to the mix, most notably the aforementioned Curtis, who seems to appear on the CD's best songs, and ubiquitous hard-rock guitarist Michael Johnny Walker, who helps push the sneaky-good "Magic Bullet," and kicks even harder on "K-Tel," the disc's most energetic basher and one of the band's better live tunes. (Also of note: Dead Hot's former lead guitarist, Steve Larson, whose gnarled leads gave added texture to the band's live sound, is featured on only one Karma cut, "Slide Song.")
As solid as the new CD sounds, the packaging is saddled with the type of screw-ups expected of Tempe's prototypical slacker band. The lyrics to "Noam Chomsky," for example, are nowhere to be found on the CD booklet; "Slide Song" is identified as "69" on the lyric sheet; and some of the songs on the back cover are out of order while others seem to be hiding.
All of which is almost forgiven when considering the band's photo in the CD booklet, a goofy portrait of the trio as all-American astronauts. It's an inspired piece of weirdness that somehow makes sense.
But making sense is far from Dead Hot's strength. The band breathes through Babb's wonderfully elliptical songs, and by the end of the CD, he still sounds at once upbeat and confused, his bewilderment and self-assessment good-natured but soul-deep. For instance, on the CD's closing cut, "Strangers," he ponders how we "step outside of ourselves like strangers," adding, "I guess all my friends are strangers in the end." The song sways like an anthem and it works as an all-encompassing take on Babb's muse, an honest mix of hope and genuine wonder at what makes strangers tick even to themselves.