The Schramms, Tom Heyman, Matt Piucci, and Guru Guru

One Hundred Questions, Boarding House Rules (Innerstate), Hellenes (Inbetweens USA), 2000 Gurus (Funfundvierzig, dist. by Innerspace)

Starting an indie label these days is ludicrously simple. All you need is a modest stash of cash (CDs are dirt cheap to manufacture), a smidgen of promotional savvy (two hints: Do hook up with an established independent publicist who's into the music you're flogging; and don't send promo discs to commercial radio, as the stations' music directors will only sell 'em down at the used-CD store) and an undetermined amount of good taste re: what you produce and how you present your product (it's easy to spot consignment discs in the bins because they look like shit, something Phoenix and Tucson bands should learn). So why do so many indie labels fail to make much of an impact beyond a small circle of glue-huffing buds and their titty-dancer girlfriends?

San Francisco's Innerstate Records has, over the last several years, mastered the art of indie-ing. Helmed by Pat Thomas, once of Absolute Grey and the guy who previously launched Heyday Records, and Russ Tolman, from the late, great True West and with several fine solo records to his name, the label operates with a creatively open-ended policy that nevertheless attends the three bottom-line elements noted previously. Businesswise, there's Innerstate proper, psychedelic imprint Innerspace, an affiliation with Holland's Inbetweens label as Inbetweens USA, and ad hoc distribution schemes with several other European taste makers, all attended to without any waste -- why send a country-rock disc to a punk magazine for review? -- and with far more attention paid to how their CDs will look and sound. To date, Innerstate's projects have included everything from roots/alt-country (Okra All-Stars, Map of Wyoming), singer-songwriter folksy twang (Jean Caffeine), psychedelic Prog/Krautrock (Damo Suzuki's Network, Mushroom) and pop 'n' rock by well-known refugees from other indie labels (Barb Manning, the Walkabouts). The Inbetweens connection additionally yielded the two-CD Neil Young tribute This Note's for You Too!.

Innerstate's newest undertakings provide a wonderful introduction to the label, and all come highly recommended. For No Depression subscribers and fans of precision-crafted roots-pop with an emphasis on virtuoso guitar and tight ensemble playing, look no further than the Schramms' One Hundred Questions and Tom Heyman's Boarding House Rules. The former group is led by one Dave Schramm, an original member of Yo La Tengo and in-demand sideman to the likes of Richard Buckner, the Replacements, Freedy Johnston and others. On their fifth long-player, the Schramms broaden their already colorful palette, one minute indulging countryish folk ("I Know It's Mine," featuring harmony vocals from Buckner), the next some atmospheric, big-sky twang ("300 Answers") and still the next some artsy-funky, boho garage rock descended from the likes of the Velvets or Television ("She Says," "Torn in Two"). As produced by well-known studio vet J.D. Foster, the Schramms sound refreshingly -- simultaneously -- urban and rural.

As for Heyman (ex-Go to Blazes and currently of Frisco popsters Map of Wyoming), he's a straight-up country rocker no doubt smitten equally by Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, John Fogerty and the Stones. Vocally, Heyman resembles Steve Wynn, bringing a convincing sardonic drawl to numbers like the Sticky Fingers-esque "Gravedigger" and the Dream Syndicate-meets-Beatles "Born to Bleed" (which features guest Chuck Prophet on gunslinger lead guitar). Too, Heyman's a master of the brooding ballad, charting with equal dexterity the beginnings of an illicit, lipstick-stained affair in "Baby Likes" and its tears-in-my-shot-glass aftermath in "Till I Forget Her Name." Heyman keeps his focus inside traditional lines, and by doing so comes off as more authentic than nine-tenths of the songwriters in Music City, USA.

The name Matt Piucci will be familiar to anyone who once swooned -- or, more likely, tripped -- to the psychedelic sounds of the so-called Paisley Underground bands during the mid-'80s. Piucci's outfit the Rain Parade helped lead the retroactive charge on such classics of the genre as Explosions in the Glass Palace and Crashing Dream; here, Hellenes is a rightful, stylistic follow-up more than a decade later. The album kicks off with the swirling, lushly anthemic "Beautiful Fire," which is quickly followed by the shuddery chordal crunch and maraca-fueled beats of "Love Is Mine' -- vintage, exhilarating stuff. From there, Piucci veers between dreamy, Abbey Road-style pop ("Understand") and moody, drifting psych ("Antigone"), occasionally pausing for an acoustic breather but always with the third eye wide open, probing the horizon for signs of what lies beyond the edge. Piucci, joined by some of his old Rain Parade cronies as well as members of Crazy Horse (he moonlights in the Horse when they're not pressed into duty with Neil Young), sounds inspired to be finally getting around to a solo record after all these years. Critical kudos and a buck-seventy-nine will buy an old rock 'n' roller a cup of coffee at Starbucks, so here's hoping that folks who tuned into him back in the day will adjust their dials in his direction once again.

And if it's old rock 'n' rollers you want, Guru Guru is as old as the hills. Veterans of the original space rock wars of the late '60s, the German outfit helped define the more jamming side of Krautrock and has a tangled, lengthy history. Suffice to say that original drummer Mani Neumeier and sax/guitar player Roland Schaeffer (who joined around '76) have of late been enjoying a creative renaissance as world beat-cum-fusioneers. 2000 Gurus, issued in Germany by Funfundvierzig and distributed Stateside by Innerspace, handily straddles multiple genres, ranging from the groove-oriented ethno-techno of the title cut (it recalls the Talking Heads-Eno Remain in Light project) to the whispery, effects-ridden noir jazz of "Night Birds" to the exotic, acoustic-flavored tribal/African psych of "Marabut." None of this particularly "rocks" in the purest sense, and a couple of tunes verge on New Age, but Guru Guru's exploratory instincts have made the triple-decade transition intact.

Looking to start your own label? You could do worse than to use Innerstate (www.innerstate.com) as a role model that's eclectic and fiercely independent on artistic terms, yet absolutely blessed with an ear for quality music and a knack for reaching those who care.

 
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