Message in a Bottle

A few weeks ago, the City of Tempe hosted a battle-of-the-bands competition at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

It was a long, thinly attended event with the expressed purpose of "keeping the kids off the street." One of the few people who did attend--at least for a few minutes--was a local TV reporter, who wrapped up her live afternoon report with these words of vague encouragement to the young bands vying for first prize: "I hear the Refreshments started like this."

Well, maybe they did, and maybe they didn't. But the offhand reference to the Tempe quartet, innocuous as it was, said a lot. When TV talking heads with no particular interest in the local-music scene name-drop your band, there can be no doubt that you've become property of the masses. You've reached that danger zone where some people start liking you 'cause they think they're supposed to, and others start hating you 'cause they don't wanna follow the herd.

The whole thing brings to mind an eternally pesky problem in our culture. As masochistic as it might be for a critic to mention, too many of us let other people tell us what to think. It's a familiar mindset: Vote for a candidate because the polls swing in that direction, see a film if its box-office returns look impressive, love or hate a big-selling artist, depending on your eagerness or refusal to conform. In all these cases, we're not reacting directly to something with our own hearts and minds. We're reacting to other people's reactions.

What does this have to do with the Refreshments? Well, they have a new album out, and it's neither the biggest thing that ever happened to music nor a mindless waste of time. It's a modest, likable album by a modest, likable band, albeit the biggest-selling one in the Valley.

The recording, The Bottle & Fresh Horses, is a tentative step in a more serious direction from a group willing to stare down the sophomore jinx and deal with inflated commercial pressures. Singer/guitarist Roger Clyne says things got so out of hand, he actually reached a point where he wanted the unexpected success of the band's Mercury debut, Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy, to slow down a bit.

"Ironically, for the first time in my life I was actually glad that we didn't have a platinum record," Clyne says. "During the recording and writing of the second record, I was actually glad that we weren't standing under the tall shadow of platinum. It just helps to take a little more off your mind.

"I know as an artist you're not supposed to think about things like sales, but we know our pieces on the game board. As much as I'd like to put that out of my mind, it's still somewhere in there."

The cliche says that you have 20 years to write your first album, and six months to write your second. Even if it's an exaggeration, it explains why so many artists fall into a music-biz black hole with their sophomore releases. That's why the Refreshments hoarded several songs from their old Tempe club days when they recorded Fizzy Fuzzy, for fear of a writing block. Nonlocals who hear the new album's "Fonder and Blonder" may think that Clyne is consciously paying homage to his hit "Down Together" when he sadly sings a line from that song's bridge: "Cars break down, people break down, and other things break down, too." However, longtime fans probably will know that the chronology is a little more tangled than that.

"The chorus of 'Fonder and Blonder' was written before that bridge part on 'Down Together,'" Clyne says. "I stuck that in there 'cause I liked it and I wasn't sure we would ever use 'Fonder and Blonder.' I actually thought at the time that 'Fonder and Blonder' might be beyond the scope of this band. But I think we kind of grew into the song, in a good way.

"In my opinion, it's got a little more depth than some of the songs on the last record. It doesn't skirt any emotions; it pretty much goes right into them. It's not a self-deprecating thing, which was a self-defense mechanism on the last record."

The new album does suggest a newfound willingness to confront real emotions. When the Refreshments revive the Mexican outlaw theme of their hit "Banditos" with the new song "Wanted," they've got more than cartoonish outlaw fun on their minds. In this song, Clyne's still wanted by the law, but he seeks to be wanted by the girl of his dreams. It sounds like cutesy-pun time, but Clyne sings it straight, with more than a hint of sadness.

Similarly, "Good Year" might seem like a halfway-clever self-pity anthem ("It's been a good year for bad days, or a bad year for good days"), but the band creates enough tension to lift it above the jokey material on Fizzy Fuzzy.

Some credit should go to the album's producer, Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary, who steered the band away from doubling guitars and vocals to create an artificially thick sound. On The Bottle, the sound is clean, natural and more in tune with the Refreshments' live sound.

Clyne says the band members picked Leary when their A&R man gave them an unlabeled tape of various producers' efforts. When they realized who they'd unanimously selected, the nervousness set in.

"We all kind of cringed, being from a relatively conservative band," Clyne says. "The Butthole Surfers have a reputation that certainly precedes them, and we were kind of frightened. But we liked his sound a lot, so we flew him out here, we had dinner with him, and he's really a regular guy. He's just a Texas son, who's got the biggest heart in the world.

"It was a perfect marriage for this record, 'cause he made us really stick to our art in a way that I'm not so sure that we would have without him. The Butthole Surfers have always been a very independent, self-sufficient art band, and, not that we have those sorts of qualities, but he encouraged those qualities in us."

The Bottle isn't without its flaws. "Una Soda" reveals a potentially hazardous maudlin streak ("Can't drink cervezas anymore"), and Clyne's fascination with Mexican and Old West mythology might be reaching its breaking point, particularly if the tired cantina waltz "Horses" is any indication.

But The Bottle shows a welcome willingness to shed the novelty-rock image. Caught between loyal old regulars--for whom they'll still play the occasional unannounced gig at Yucca Tap Room--and the people who'll blindly put them on a pedestal because they're a local band with a national audience, the Refreshments have made a cautious step forward.

"I'd like to think I'm growing up a little bit," Clyne says. "I'm trying, anyway."

Fife's Hit Parade: What do you give the governor who has everything? Party tapes show such a personal touch. What follows is a Top 10 list of songs that would make appropriate party-tape listening in a confined Fifedom:

1. "Have Mercy Judge"--Chuck Berry
2. "It's Money That Matters"
--Randy Newman
3. "I Fought the Law"--Bobby Fuller Four
4. "Let Me Out"--the Knack
5. "The Overdraft"--Warren Zevon
6. "Jailhouse Rock"--Elvis Presley
7. "Tie a Yellow Ribbon"
--Tony Orlando and Dawn
8. "Riot in Cell Block No. 9"--the Robins
9. "Money Changes Everything"
--the Brains
10. "Release Me"
--Engelbert Humperdinck

Genius is Payne: One of the highlights of the Yo La Tengo show last week was the great, acoustic opening set by Les Payne Product. Yo La Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan thanked Les Payne for its wildly funny performance, but offered with a smirk that the band was his second choice, after Wayman Tisdale couldn't make the gig. Les Payne has six home-recorded songs in the can, as they say in the biz, and should make them available--either on CD or a series of seven-inch singles--sometime in October.

Packing the Trunk: Trunk Federation's September 5 show at Hollywood Alley in Mesa was its last in town until November. The lovably warped quartet is on tour, and soon will head out to Los Angeles to record the follow-up to this year's Alias debut album, The Infamous Hamburger Transfer. Look for it early next year, most likely in February.

--Gilbert Garcia


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