In previous installments of this column, we've sufficiently covered the mail part of our equation -- how the music written and recorded by you good people out there arrives at our doorstep. We've discussed in excruciating detail the advantages of certain kinds of corrugated mailers and explained how your parcels are sorted by zip code at the post office and looted for anything that sounds like loose change. What we haven't touched upon are muses, those sensuous agents of divine inspiration responsible for every molecule of melody since time began, from the first tribal rain song to that snazzy rendition of "La Cucaracha" programmed into your cell phone. Forget Napster, muses have been downloading songs to blockhead musicians for ages and have gotten none of their just glory.
We've done a fair amount of research on the subject of muses and found the following to be true:
1) Muses are by and large always female. Anytime someone claims to have a male muse, it usually ends in disaster -- like when Dennis Wilson referred to Charles Manson as "my wizard."
2) Unlike glorified depictions in sonnets and poems, real-life muses do not have gentle, soothing voices. Most sound like a cross between Tom Waits and Joan Crawford and can cuss a blue streak. Especially after bellowing "You call that a guitar solo?"
3) Their names are usually long and unpronounceably Greek with a lot of consonants clustered together like Mnysekmlostyfanes.
4) Like baseball, muses operate on a kind of farm system. There are national muses just as there are local ones, the latter usually coming up the ranks here in Phoenix or fresh from a demotion from Limp Bizkit. So now, we invite you to check out the following Valley bands and their suspected muse at a club near you, but be forewarned. Muses are pretty but tiny things; it might take four or five Bass ales before you can spot one hovering around the ceiling sprinklers. And if you don't like the sounds you're hearing, don't take it out on a band who's just following a higher power. Instead, roll up this 160-page fly swatter and fight the real enemy.
Extremes of Violet
(Amplify Stimuli Records)
Suspected Muse: Spliffincessicuss, goddess of bong water and navel research
This Phoenix trio has served as the mouthpiece for a psychedelic mosh muse for two years now. While the band's instrumental prowess handily invokes lost nights of scooping the last bits of pot resin out a Hawkwind album cover, and singer Sean Watson has a believable snarl, the muse has left the group a bit shorthanded in the "song" department. Extremes usually get to grooving for a few bars before the magic carpet gets pulled out from under them and they're left to jam until their muse returns with some more weed. Three of four songs are spent freaking out in the key of E, and like Dead Hot Workshop, the band had the temerity to name a song after it. If Extremes can summon up more moments like the powerful "In You" (which features a nice sinister violin) and less formless flapping in the breeze like the opener "Sanctity," the group might be able to snag a national muse like Deftonepavementus, goddess of head shop and foot pedal endorsements.
East of the Sun
Suspected Muse: Davematthewuss, goddess of adult chick rock
This Phoenix quartet occasionally rocks out with the vigor of a heavy metal band, in an effort to counteract the abundance of relationship ballads with "what is it you're looking for?" lyrics. All of this would be rather soothing to the ears if the group's singer wasn't such an uncomfortable cross between Blues Traveler's John Popper and a crusty pirate trying to push a parrot out of his ass. Case in point, "Up for Review," a song about the very thing we are doing now. "It's time my dream came up for review," bellows singer Jerry Scheier in between bouts of yelling "Com-plaaaaaaa-ce-hunnnntaaaahhhh!" (Translation: "Complacent"!) The end result of this growling is adult alternative chick rock that only a guy can like. The kind of guy who insists on having painful nasal surgery without anesthesia because he can "take it."
Known to Eat Their Own Kind
Suspected Muse: Wuhnn-tuh-three-fawwwahh, goddess of speed and elocution
What's the shortest song you can name? The Beatles' "Her Majesty"? Nice try, but that ditty clocks in at 23 seconds. Phoenix punk rockers Grissle impart twice as much worldly wisdom as old Macca in almost half that time with their 13-second blast "I Hate Music." Here in its entirety, re-printed without permission, are its sage lyrics: "It all sounds the same/It's so fucking lame/Bands come and go but the styles stay the same/I Hate Music (four times)/It's junk food for the brain/It's driving kids insane/It's responsible for the problems of today" (repeat chorus).
What economy! They manage a cover of "Paranoid" in 1:28 without playing it any faster than Black Sabbath! How does Grissle do it, cram 18 songs in 24 minutes, including all the count-ins? They skimp on syllables, dead ones you don't really miss until you realize that the opening track "Anxiety" isn't "Excited" and "I Hate Music" isn't "I'm Sick." But who ever thinks to ask for subtlety in a speedy, full frontal assault such as this? Lyrically, the Grissle boys maintain a belligerent humor best appreciated on cuts like "Let's Get Arrested," where they explain that it's everyone's civic duty to misbehave so bored cops have something to do. Although Grissle's live sonic blast can clear a room if there's an unsympathetic soundman on duty, this CD will bring you all the news you need to hear, equalized for your protection.
Suspected Muse: Edgefestsidestagicuss, goddess of modern rock appreciation
This band is clearly going places. In fact, they've already left. Tempe. Years ago. Yes, onetime local favorites Honey Bucket have resettled in the sunnier climes of San Diego, where they've been openers for the likes of Kid Rock, Sugar Ray and Incubus, and their music has been featured on MTV's Undressed and the USA Network's Core Culture. For better or worse, Honey Bucket has the most credible grasp of what passes for modern rock on radio these days, a delicate balance of white boy rap, metal riffing and Hendrix "Little Wing" licks that figure in every slow Red Hot Chili Peppers song after 1992. To the latter, the group even pays a homage of sorts with "Kalipornia," a sleazy synthesized number which would sound apropos in any Linda Lovelace retrospective. Rather touchingly, the band hasn't forgotten its roots as it also registers in a song called "Ladmo Bag." The nicest element throughout that number is the fat keyboards, provided by a guy nicknamed "$trat," which separates Honey Bucket from the rest of the local funk brigade. What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? These guys aren't local and shouldn't be here in Mail or Muse? Let's just let singer Justin Palicki get the last word in: "I rock in AZ, I rock in Dallas, rubbed it so hard one time I got a callus." Okay, smart guy, you try rhyming something with San Diego besides Lou Bego, Lego, Pago Pago, Winnebago and the Del Fuegos.
The Mug EP
Suspected Muse: Doug Llewellyn
What can you say about a band that strikes up solidarity with the most loathed man on television, the announcer who used to stick a microphone in the face of the loser on The People's Court and say, "You must be feeling pretty bad about this verdict." Dug Lawelon would have to be a pretty goofy group, and indeed track one lives up to that promise. It's a flippant funk number called "Pickles" that has rather square, Llewellyn-style raps ("I need more time to be the perfect asshole"), as well as some tight harmonies that could pass for Destiny's Child on steroids. But then the muggin' turns serious too soon, and Dug the band sounds like every other Creed wanna-be. What this group needs is Judge Wapner's gavel to sort its identity problem out. Or better yet, Judge Judy's poking finger.
A Muse of Fire!
Selections From Shakespeare Performed by James McKenna
Suspected Muse: Willy You-Know-Who
Not a band or even music, but some local lover of the great Bard who's got his own new version of the Tempe sound -- no jangle, all jargon. All the hits are here: "Too Too Solid Flesh," "To Thine Own Self Be True" and of course the rollicking "What a Piece of Work Is Man." McKenna writes, "I have always believed I am a better poet for my knowledge of Shakespeare," but we must confess to not being scholarly enough to know if he's ad libbing on "Begging to Sleep" or "A Father's Curse." Of course, if he'd thrown in a verse like "I rock in AZ, I rock in Dallas, rubbed it so hard one time I got a callus," it might've livened things up even more for the kiddies. Unlike most dramatic Shakespearean recordings, this one's got sound effects and crowd noises (on "Once More on to the Breach") that really help turn things up a notch. And it needs that extra umph, since McKenna possesses the kind of lisp that reminds us not of Olde England's Olivier or Gielgud so much as New Englander Spalding Gray. It doesn't get really distracting until he pushes his voice to its brink and makes a classic Shakespearean line like "When the blast of war blows in our ears -- imitate the actions of the tiii-gaah!" sound like Burgess Meredith coaching Rocky Balboa on how to fight Apollo Creed.
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4 Song Cassette
Suspected Muse: Budweissah, goddess of 25-cent drafts
Here's a band that's like a three-man preservation society. Not only do they play covers of Clapton, Creedence, Hendrix, the Beatles and the Dead every Thursday at Mustang Sally's, they're also the only people to send in a demo on an actual cassette! Ah, what memories that brings back, the days when we could erase anything we really disliked. But we wouldn't want to tape over Record Heat. Sure, these lazy blues shuffles masquerading as originals are nothing special, but there's something really likable about a band submitting music this unbelievably groggy, this persistently unimpressive, save for the occasionally interesting guitar solo. If we didn't know better, we'd say these guys were sampling their share of cheap drinks in an effort to keep up with the audience. Kind of reminds us of why Neil Young used to like to record late at night, so everyone would play "his speed."