MUSICAL HORS D'OEUVRES
Have you noticed that the EP, that five-song minialbum once considered a strictly European innovation, has come back into its own after years of disfavor? Why EPs, one of many now-extinct New Wave-inspired phenomena, lost favor in the mid-Eighties remains a mystery. But today they're back with a vengeance, both in CD and cassette.
For a lot of cash-conscious record labels, EPs have become the favored method of testing the waters, seeing if a band has a chance with radio and the critics. A local example is the Gin Blossoms, who began their major-label recording career with the EP Up and Crumbling. Critical response and airplay were good, so A&M Records gave the green light for the 11-cut album scheduled for August. Labels also look at EPs as cost-effective ways of repackaging older material, releasing live cuts, creating excitement around an albumless tour or, most important, keeping something new in the stores while fans wait, sometimes for years, for a new, full-length album.
EPs have also become the new model demo. Not only are they the favored currency of understaffed A&R departments that have too many records to listen to, they can be sold in record stores and from the stage. For musicians, putting five songs on tape costs half of what it takes to make a full-length album. That means you can spend extra money on cover art--or cold beer.
Without further rambling, here is a selection of new local tapes and CDs, most of which are EPs. As always, if something in these reviews strikes your fancy, go out and buy the tape. Better yet, see the band live. Local music--try it, you'll like it. ECHO HOUSE
Living in My World
Here's a band with several styles. On the one hand, it fits squarely into the pop-alternative camp. A tune like this five-song cassette's opener, "Don't Worry," could easily have been on the last Judybats record. But this Tempe quintet is also shaped by a vocalist and two guitarists with a weakness for big voice-big guitar anthems. Back in the late Seventies, when Journey and AOR radio were one, critics everywhere offhandedly dismissed the group as a flash in the pan. Little did anyone realize just how deep radio fodder like "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'" would burrow into our musical psyches. Here, in tunes like "Do You Still Believe," vocalist Neal Williams sounds so much like Steve Perry it's scary. At times such Journeyesque leanings lead Williams and his band into unwise moves. The song "Seagull Cry," with its cry-of-freedom vocals and electric-guitar squeaks imitating a seagull, is an experiment that failed. Its overinflated lyrics--"Living in a perfect world/Never even wonder why/I can see you drifting there/Spread your magic wings towards the sky"--make these guys look and sound a lot more touchy-feely than they are.
In terms of songwriting, the best pieces here are "On the Outside" and "Don't Worry." Both tunes have hooks that show these guys can write when they want to. And in both, Williams and guitarists Sean Seckel and David Searle show praiseworthy restraint; the band works together as a single unit instead of a soloist's showcase. "Living in My World" is the work of a band finding itself and its sound. If Echo House can build its music into something less retro, and play more as a band than individuals, the group can become a force on the local scene.
TERRY POLLOCK Thunderhead North
In the past year or two, singer-songwriters have gone through a renaissance. John Gorka, David Wilcox and Shawn Colvin have all built careers in a remarkably short period of time.
A longtime member of Tucson's music community, Terry Pollock is hoping this CD will do the same for him. A strong solo performer, Pollock has spent much of his career fronting electric-folk bands patterned after the model of Dylan's outfits.
Singer-songwriters need two things to stand out from the crowd: simple, unadorned melodies and something to say. In both cases, Pollock's debut cassette is a mixed bag. Many of the tunes here are uninteresting. Some of his lyrics are self-absorbed and self-indulgent. And Pollock's habit of falling into an offhanded, Dylanesque style of phrasing can get annoying.
But just when you're ready to push the "stop" button on your CD changer, Pollock broadsides you with a gorgeous tune like "Santa Marcella," whose words are equally fine: "Santa Marcella so hard to convince with the truth/She's gamblin' with scoundrels whose faces show no trace of youth/Through the nights on street corners in winter so bitterly tender/Aw, Santa Marcella, it's the truth about you I'll remember." Thunderhead North is the name both of this album and of the band that backs Pollock. Although his voice is the focus of the record, the group plays well. Former Sand Rubies drummer Bruce Halper, also a former member of Thunderhead North, returns for these sessions. Guitar master Rainer adds dobro tracks and well-known Tucson keyboardist Duncan Stitt contributes keys and a drum-machine program.
Comprised of old and new material, Thunderhead North has enough rewarding moments to make it worth seeking out. Given its intelligence, and flashes of musical brilliance, Pollock's next album should be worth waiting for.
INVISIBLE HAND Invisible Hand
If you're going to spend the time and money to make a tape, do yourself a favor: Pay for a quality duplicator and use quality tapes.
The music on this six-song cassette reminds me of Pablo Cruise with bad vocals. Cymbals, keyboards and a lite-pop sound add up to weak fluff. But the biggest problem is the cassette. Whoever duped it used an ultracheesy tape box that inevitably runs slow and makes the songs sound sour. The first cuts on each side, in fact, were lethargic to the point of unlistenable.
Making tapes before playing out works only with all-star bands. And recording projects only work with strong players and even stronger material. Invisible Hand is an alternative group that to my knowledge has been invisible on the local club scene. That means that Scott Dalziel and his musicians are rehearsing just to record. With shimmery keyboards and lyrics like, "She struck a chord inside me/I was resonating head to toe/Naturally she set my spirit free/I was overcome with desire to dance with her," Invisible Hand has a long way to go. 100 ICED ANIMALS
100 Iced Animals
The charms of grunge are akin to the charms of rolling in the gutter dead drunk. Both are filthy and acquired tastes, but when you're in the mood, there's nothing like them.
Here, one of the Valley's oldest cram-power-chords-into-your-skull bands shows why it's also one of the best. These guys may not be quite ready for Sub Pop, but they ain't that far off. On this five-song cassette, the Seattle sound predominates--lots of sloppy guitars, thrashy rhythms and vocals yelled, not sung. As grunge goes, this stuff is pretty drippin'. It growls, it sweats, it assaults.
What more can you ask? A "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and they're outta here.
On the Prowl
Pat Flannery's got a David Lee Roth kind of voice. That's okay; he pulls it off. The rest of the group is tight, and knows how to rock hard.
Blitzen's On the Prowl is straightahead metal-hard rock with nothing fancy. Jonny Smoke's guitar fills show he knows his way up and down the frets, and G.J. Rex is the kind of overactive basher every metal band needs behind a drum kit. Lyrically, these guys are consumed by sex. In one tune, the hunter finds the hunted at a bar. In another number, he is propositioned by the "bitch" at a local liquor store. That tune, "Jizzum Jazzum," is destined to be a classic of the threw-her-down-and-had-his-way-with-her, testosterone-fueled, loud-guitar school of rock songs. Its chorus starts out, "Jizzum Jazzum Spizzum Spazzum/All over the place/Jizzum Jazzum Spizzum Spazzum/All over her. . ."
Bet you can guess the rest.
BROKEN ROMEO Broken Romeo
Alternative and hard rock have been coupling again, and Tucson's Broken Romeo is one of their offspring. Judging by Steve Turpin's heavy guitar and brother James' guttural, Ozzieland vocals, Broken Romeo got most of its musical leanings from the hard-rock side of the family. A lot of what's here sounds like washed out, latter-day Black Sabbath, or present-day Rhino Bucket. The material needs work. "Simone" starts with an almost interesting chord progression that ends up buried under the Turpins' heavy guitar-vocal one-two punch. Another cut, "Mother," has a decent bridge but is marred by hoarse vocals. A sharp guitar fill or two--the key word is "sharp," as in "short"--might help. That and some vocal discipline might haul this band out of its run-of-the-mill rock rut. The vocals, in fact, are the biggest problem with this tape. Less mock-evil scream-snarling and more carrying of tune would help. Despite its problems, this tape's last song, "I'm Sorry," shows a flicker of promise. It's a gritty, mature ballad in which songwriting shines and James Turpin tones down the scream to display a decent singing voice.
In contrast to many local tapes, Impact's debut looks and sounds professional. Even the cover art--which lost some of its punch when reduced to fit a cassette-size liner--is good.
Inside is a hard-rock band trying to cover as much stylistic ground as it can in three songs--the Aerosmithlike "Serena," the mainstream schlock-rocker "Prove You Wrong," and the rock ballad "My Heart."
All three were penned by vocalist Pat Laferty and guitarist Brett Richey. All are well-arranged and produced with good vocal overdubs of the wailing Laferty.
With a name like "Impact" and a publicity photo showing the band gathered around a smashed Corvette, subtlety appears to be out of the question here. Not as brutal as its name implies, however, Impact is hard pop with hard-rock edges. PSYCHOPANDA
Ah, yes, another cassette with none of the players' names listed. But don't worry--Tucson's Psychopanda used all the space on the cassette slip card to hawk its "tee shirts, stickers, tapes and other fun information," to print a telephone number for bookings and to thank all the pals without whom they "would still be doing shows in people's living rooms." In some ways, they're still back in the parlor. Just guessing, I'd say Psychopanda is a bunch of UofA mates who got together and after six weeks concluded they were as good as Social D has ever been. College bands, you gotta love em. Together for two semesters, legendary for eternity. The funny thing is, despite this cassette's wretched sound quality, Psychopanda isn't half bad. What makes the group different is the presence of what sounds like an alto saxophone. Often in the lead or doubling with the guitar, the sax gives an otherwise average guitar-pop band a different twist. Some of the arrangements are rough--"Seamonster," for example, is interminably long. And the vocals are amateurish throughout. But as long as these Pandas keep the sax out front, they'll remain more interesting than the average bear.
At least they'll always have good stories to tell about being in a band. I can hear them now: "We were this close to getting a deal.
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