Beyond the Desert
By David Holthouse
Exile on Cameron Harper Street
Exile on Cameron Harper Street--an ambitious compilation of Arizona bands produced by Planet magazine and (irony of ironies) released just before that publication folded onJanuary 17--is well worth the $10 asking price, if only for historical value. Ten months in the making, this album nails the state of this state's rock scene, circa late 1995.
Which means that many of the 21 tracks sound annoyingly alike. Most of them fall under the ill-defined category of "desert rock," and most of them are not very good. On the flip side, there are several cuts that stand apart from the herd, most of them excellent. The only commonality among these tracks is that each sprouts from a distinct set of sensibilities.
For example, Trunk Federation offers the strongest, sharpest, most original sound of all the hard-guitar bands included here. "History of Dead Ends" (commonly known as "Jenny's Dead"), from the group's 1995 seven-inch single Hi-Fi for Small Fry, simply operates on a higher plane than its peers. Or make that a lower plane--because it's the depth of Trunk rock that gets the listener high. "History" sports two well-carved hooks: The speedball rhythms and frantic wah-wah bursts that propel the song out of the chute later turn into thick slabs of distortion molded to fit a low, slow groove that hurts so good.
The padlock on a trunk full of bloody torsos is usually damn tight, and so is Trunk Fed. Time signatures in "History" seem to shift like the mood of a schizophrenic, but the Feds never fail to stop on a dime--or at least a nickel. It's sweet temptation to hear Trunk Fed on plastic. Now if the SXSW-bound quartet would just quit screwing around and record an LP, all might be right with the world for a day or two.
Also worthwhile is "Sore Eyes," from the aptly named Tucson trio Fuzz. "Eyes" is punked-out jazz with a slightly chili, distorted funk chorus, all of it laced with opium dreams of feedback. Tasty like potato chips in the morning. Fuzz's debut CD, Lipsmack, is scheduled for release in late February.
Still on the heavy side of the scale, Pig Iron and Seven Storey Mountain turn in tough efforts as well. The guitars on the Iron song "Big Chief" are like schoolyard bullies: big,mean and not to be messed with. Given the rolling snowball of hype behind the recently emerged Seven Storey Mountain, the band had high expectations to meet with "Your Lips." The verdict? True to the word, this band rocks. "Lips" might sound a bit tooclose to Catherine Wheel for totalcomfort, but the sizzling guitar work and ferocious energy of Mountain's first recording bode well forthisPhoenix band (a debut EP on the Art Monk Construction label should be out before March). Don't be embarrassed--go ahead and bang your head. It's not metal or anything. It's, uh, "hard alternative." Yeah, that's it.
Of all the Cameron tracks, the most intriguing is the work of local vocalist Simone Grey and technophile Chris Bailey, who also plays guitar for the Tempe band Beats the Hell Out of Me. Bailey is credited with "all instruments," which, on "Deprivation," include a sampler, languid bass playing and sparse dabs of piano color. Reminiscent of Sinead O'Connor's "Stretched on Your Grave" (primarily for the snare-drum loop), this song is deliberately minimalist--a smart setup to showcase Grey's eerie, exotic and ultimately gorgeous voice.
Rarely content to just let a note be, Grey quavers, growls and keens without sounding fake. She doesn't bend notes so much as she sculpts them, and when she airs one out, that little voice inside you moans, "Don't stop."
Performing as Urethane, old friends Grey and Bailey have played but a few, ill-publicized gigs in the Valley. No word yet on if this studio gem gleams as brightly under the stage lights. Either way, Urethane's first album is due out in six weeks.
Exiled songs that get props for pure pop songcraft are Glass Heroes' "Turn It Up" (peanut butter in your brain refrain: "It's been 16 years, and there's still nothin' on the radio"); Beat Angels' fun-for-all throwback single "Don't Kiss Me"; and Serene Dominic and the Semi-Detached's "Master of My Only Emotion," on which Mr. Dominic demonstrates that, as many already suspected, Elvis Costello and Tom Petty did spawn a love child, and he is it.
In a live show, 35 Summers has more heft to its sound than you'll feel coming from "Shine," the Tucson fivesome's Harper offering. But so what? It's a love song, and love doesn't always have to be a heavy topic. A sweet slice of pop pie, "Shine" bookends the chorus "I'd shine my shoes for you" with a bubbly guitar line that'll make you think of bunnies hopping. Written by rhythm guitarist/vocalist Tammy Allen, this song's about that stage of love when you're too damn happy to concern yourself with the inevitable end. Allen's sentiments are sugary but from the heart, and her singing punches the lyrics through in all the right places.
Shoebomb's "Argumentative" is less effective, but still a decent ditty. Melissa Miller's vocals drip with attitude, but this three-girls-and-a-boy Tucson band (someone should write a term paper on why the Tucson rock scene kicks Phoenix in the ass on such a regular basis) plays it a bit loose and sloppy, and the song's simple structure magnifies every glitch. Miller can carry a flawed tune a long way, however, and Shoebomb is worth keeping a peripheral eye on.
The last band on Exile that seems to have anything new to say is Naked Prey, a septet from (this is getting a bit old) Tucson. It's hard to say which part of the Prey equation works best on the cheap-beer-and-lost-love anthem "Lucky Lager." Three top contenders are Joey Burns' soul-man accordion and acoustic-bass work, Tom Larkins' Latin-influenced accessory percussion, and vocalist Chuck Prophet's Tom Waits-esque laments. And those lyrics! "One by one the tears started falling/I caught 'em with an oil rag." Hell, this stuff's not so bad if you drink it cold.
So that's, what, 11 tracks out of 21? Do the math and that leaves ten, all easily dispensed with.
Flathead's "Alcoholin'" boasts some flashy pickin' and a stripped-down, chug-along "rig rock" sound (the band recently renounced the term "rockabilly," so whatever). As always, Flathead is an "if you're into that sort of thing" scenario, and its appearance on Cameron Harper neither hurts nor noticeably helps the compilation. It's those last nine songs where Exile on Cameron Harper Street gets into trouble. The reason is simple: Most of them are derivative drivel.
The evil of bands cannibalizing one another's sound is grossly compounded when said sound isn't that great to begin with. Such is the case with "desert rock," "saguaro pop" or whatever else you want to call the simplistic, spacious, twangy, lightly distorted bar pop that runs roughshod over Arizona rock.
Part of the problem is that the stuff's so easy to play that bands that should still be in the garage get gigs because they can churn out the "Arizona sound." Shit--if you know five chords, own a harmonica or a fiddle (or can call someone who does) and possess a rudimentary understanding of the "verse/chorus/repeat" concept, the Arizona sound is yours for the claiming.
That's not to say no band can pull it off. Done well, desert rock translates to countrified pop with cojónes. Dead Hot Workshop comes to mind. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a song on this CD. Good thing the Drakes do. From its giddy guitar line to the way Tom Stauffer attacks his vocals without losing a conversational, bar-buddy tone, "I Did That" is desert rock's redemption where Exile is concerned. Past it, the pickin's are pretty grim (the Drakes, by the way, are from Tucson).
As mood music, Exile on Cameron Harper Street is a disaster. Mood music is consistent, which this disc is not. The tracks bound from style to style like a jack rabbit on Josta. Which evidences the compilation's greatest achievement: a clear, comprehensive look beyond the accepted to what lies on the horizon of Arizona rock, in all its forms.--David Holthouse
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