The Talent Shows

Straight from the garage, the Figgs wear many influences on their sleeves

Observing that "Opening Night" is reminiscent of "Talent Show," for example, doesn't quite do the similarity justice. From Gent's guitar to bassist Pete Donnelly's handclaps, and Pete Hayes' two-four drum beat that sounds like he's about to come crashing through the skins, the song doesn't just deliver a similar metaphorical conceit; it's almost like hearing what "Talent Show" would have sounded like if Paul Westerberg had gotten the idea a few years earlier, maybe around the time of Hootenanny. Ditto for the song "Dance Lesson"; if this ain't a rework of Elvis Costello's "Mystery Dance" . . . well, why go on? It is a rework, down to the faux-Elvis (the other Elvis) echo-saturated vocal delivery and the pregnant pauses where the entire band cuts out, then leaps back in for the chorus.

Now, you might rightly suggest that praising a band for what sounds only like a talent for mimicry constitutes fishy praise at best; but let it be stated -- firmly -- that the Figgs aren't rip-off artists in any formulation of the phrase. Hearing Sucking in> Stereo isn't at all like listening to febrile rewrite after facile deconstruction of other, more famous performers' songs. What it's more like is playing connect-the-dots with the band's record collection.

"I kind of like that quality about some records, where I can listen to it and think, 'Oh, yeah, I know exactly what this guy owns.' I don't mind us getting compared to Elvis Costello, for example. There are a lot worse people to get compared to. It's funny, this guy, a fan of ours, sent this huge e-mail to us after the new album came out. It was a song-by-song critique where he pointed out all those references, every single one that he heard. I couldn't believe it. He pointed out that the structure of 'The Wrong Chord' was 'Born in the U.S.A.' I listened to it again and I thought, 'Holy shit, he's right. How did I miss that?' I didn't catch any of that at first.

The Figgs: From left, Pete Hayes, Pete Donnelley and Mike Gent.
The Figgs: From left, Pete Hayes, Pete Donnelley and Mike Gent.

"Presswise, we always get compared to a lot of the same bands," continues Gent, and that's dead accurate. Rare is the Figgs interview or album review that doesn't name-check the Mats, the Jam, the Kinks and the Clash, often all in the same sentence (like this one, mea culpa). "We get compared to a lot of British bands, which is great; I love British rock," Gent says. "But we all love American bands, too. We've all got wide-open record collections. And like everybody, I'll go through phases where I'll listen to one person or group almost exclusively. Neil Young is the man right now.

"But I've never really felt that any of our records had gone somewhere cohesively from start to finish. So when we went in to record Sucking" -- a process that took all of two weeks -- "we were definitely thinking about the sequencing a little more, and what we should and shouldn't include. Whenever we start a record, I have a big vision about what it should sound like, and it never sounds that way. But I think this album is definitely a step forward in that direction. It takes a couple of years for me to really start to get distance on whether or not our albums work or not, though."

The Figgs are at the start of a 20-city tour that will close out at the Knitting Factory in New York in April. But along the way, Gent reports, they're going to take at least one more lesson from another musician's example.

In a move that recalls Neil Young's construction of Time Fades Away, an album of new material recorded live on the Harvest tour, the Figgs are going to commit some new songs to tape during this jaunt. "I think we're gonna try to record maybe 10 songs from different shows that aren't on any of the records. Ones that got left behind, with a couple of new ones. Maybe we can put it out as a limited release. Sell it through the Web site."

Gent is quiet for a moment. Then, as if it somehow sums up the Figgs' track record: "We've always been into putting out obscure records."

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