You see them at work. You see them at school. Loners. Weird guys with strange looks on their faces. Goofy guys with bodies that don't seem to fit together and minds that don't seem to work just right. They wear the wrong clothes, they laugh at the wrong times. They're a couple of Ding-Dongs short of a snack.

We're talkin' nerds here. Dweebs. Dorks. Goobers and the like.
Not imitation nerds, mind you. Not the kind of trendy "outsiders" who go out of their way to be out of the way. The focus here is the long-suffering geek. The guy who really wants to be one of the guys. Lifetime losers still looking for a way to win.

Alternative music used to be an artistic haven for those who perennially finished out of the money. The Sex Pistols, after all, were fronted by a hunchback. The Ramones sang sympathetically of pinheads. Bands with sounds as disparate as the Germs and Joy Division achieved instant--if posthumous--authenticity by way of lonely-lead-singer suicides.

Over the years, though, as punk and New Wave coalesced with metal and rap into the mishmash we have today, pretty people slowly took over the underground. Look at the "alternative" videos on 120 Minutes. Check out the rising stars in SPIN. They're all handsome and peppy and bursting with cool.

Sid Vicious died for this?
Looks like it. But if you search hard, you can still find music being made by irregular guys who've crawled in from the wreckage to produce honest and heartfelt sounds.

And, oddly enough, a lot of these introverted, off-balance artists can be found on major labels.

A Man Called E is a good example. It's the self-titled debut on Polygram by a man who calls himself "E." The alphabetic a.k.a. doesn't work, but that doesn't really matter. This awkward, bespectacled D.C. export to L.A. is a true find.

E's influences are easy to figure out. They lie somewhere between the first and last cuts of the Beach Boys' epic Pet Sounds album. Indeed, Mr. E, who sings and plays almost all the instruments on his disc, sounds like he was there 25 years ago checking out the view from Brian Wilson's room. Actually, according to Polygram, E's similarities to the youthful, increasingly reclusive Wilson are more than musical. Press releases report that E wrote most of his CD's songs while holed up in a tiny L.A. apartment.

The story adds a hint of mystery to E's muse. But the results of his work habits are clear: E is an A-plus singer-songwriter.

Songs like "Are You & Me Gonna Happen" and the utterly wonderful "Looking Out the Window With a Blue Hat On" feature sophisticated chord changes that bounce off each other in perfect Pet Sounds formations.

The CD's overall mood is a bit twee because of E's tissue-soft vocals, but there's a subtle twinge of anger and bitterness evident throughout the proceedings. "Nowheresville," an overtly tuneful number, finds our restless hero lamenting his static position in life as he notes, "I'm going nowhere/Becoming everything I said I'd never be." A similar sense of disillusionment gets crossed with an unexpected exultation on the charming "Fitting in With the Misfits": "Dear Ma," E sings softly alongside a lilting string section, "You might find it hard to believe/But I think I finally found a home."

The only problem with A Man Called E is that, well, he's a man called "E." The guy sweetly and boldly bares his soul but then compromises that honesty by hiding behind a vowel. It's hard to disappear when you put songs this good up for the rest of the world to see.

Of course, E may simply be hiding from himself. The CD--dedicated "to everyone who rained on my parade; thanks for the inspiration"--is a testament to insecurity and a precarious self-esteem.

While E filters his emotions through gorgeous sounds and melodies, Mark Edwards of the startlingly monikered My Dad Is Dead takes a much darker approach.

Edwards, from Cleveland, has put out seven recordings over the past six years, all dealing in various ways with a deeply personal sense of loss--like the death of Edwards' dad, which was the main focus of My Dad Is Dead's first album.

But the title of that disc--My Dad Is Dead. . .and He's Not Gonna Take It Anymore--displays an underlying self-deprecation that helps round out Edwards' bare-boned and achingly honest expression.

Chopping Down the Family Tree, the latest for Edwards, shows continued maturation in musicianship and songwriting. This is not necessarily a good thing. Edwards is at his best when he forgoes formalities and simply closes his eyes and spills out a haphazard kind of melancholy. On the new disc such moments are occasionally overshadowed by a nagging neometal ("Cool Rain") sound and a general sense of glossy stasis.

Even so, Edwards has a knack for finding his soft spots and pressing hard. "Give me a cross and I will carry it," he sings on the title cut. "Show me a feeling and I will bury it." Later, on the poignant "Come to Me," Edwards allows a hint of desperation to break through his otherwise monotone vocals: "I want to feel like nothing that I say is wrong/I don't want to be the one that always has to be so strong." You can almost hear Edwards flinch as he enunciates the words.

But it's not all gloom and croon here. "Shine" comes close to being a goo-goo love song and "Don't Burn Down the Bridge" closes the CD with Edwards showing enough strength to realize, "I need a little time to be without you, some time to check out how it feels to be alone."

Good stuff. Good record.
Even better is Chris Mars' debut, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. Like E and Edwards, Mars is a virtual one-man band. But unlike the others, Mars has a history of being cool; he used to be the drummer for alternative demigods the Replacements.

But Mars never really seemed that cool. He always looked kinda wimpy back there, keeping time to the chaos of his more volatile band mates.

On Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, though, Mars steps to the front of the stage with a surprising confidence. Granted, he still sees himself as a self-conscious outcast on songs like "Reverse Status" and "Popular Creeps," both as heavy on "us against them" alienation as their song titles indicate.

But both songs are also surprisingly melodic and listenable. As is the clap-along "Monkey Sees," the CD's best cut. Mars knows hooks and he apparently knows how to use them.

Mars also knows a lot about the Kinks. Many of the vocal melodies on Horseshoes and Hand Grenades crackle with a sardonic Ray Davies feel. And Mars' gruff, double-tracked vocals are a dead ringer for Davies' when sweeping up to reach the high notes.

On the downside, Mars misses badly when he substitutes energy for substance ("Ego Maniac") or foolishly tries to outdo Replacements' leader Paul Westerberg on a drinking song ("Last Drop"). Chris Mars should know he's no Westerberg. Not yet, anyway.

But Mars is a good songwriter. And he's got some great tunes to his credit on this, his first time out. (Note: Mars is also a fantastic visual artist. That's his work on the CD's front cover and inside booklet.)

Despite Mars' versatility, there's a guy named Freedy Johnston who may be the most talented of the current crop of dweeby singer-songwriters.

He's probably the most frustrating, too.
Johnston, a Kansas native now living in Hoboken, New Jersey, tiptoed onto the scene a couple of years ago with The Trouble Tree, arguably the best unknown album of 1990. The Trouble Tree started off with Johnston, swimming in naivet, proclaiming, "This boy is innocent and now he's going to prove it"--which he did for the rest of the CD as he outlined the struggles, pains and fleeting pleasures of a small-town guy in a small-town world.

But The Trouble Tree's long-awaited follow-up, Can You Fly, only occasionally touches on Johnston's established poetic brilliance.

The new record's better songs showcase Johnston again positioning himself as a young Neil Young with a nervous Nils Lofgren tossed in. Killer songs include "Trying to Tell You I Don't Know," which features a strong back-up-vocal hook, and the catchy "In the New Sunshine," with Johnston warning, "Now I will burn before I sing/Wouldn't get too close."

Elsewhere, though, Johnston dog-paddles with vague lyrics and bland song structures: "Wheels" is a leaving-home song that encapsulates many of The Trouble Tree's themes without the previous album's energy; "Will She Shine" drags with a weariness that falls far short of redemption; and the CD gives off an odd sense of smugness with the inclusion of such "friends of Freedy" as Marshall Crenshaw and Johnston's fellow Hoboken bohos Syd Straw and Chris Stamey. Too many "cool" names for a guy claiming to be an innocent.

And yet every song on Can You Fly is finger-painted with a skewed, shaky narrative that offers glimpses of moments and moods. "There's a lonely dove on the telephone wire/I turn my head and she flies away," Johnston sings with simple evocation on "The Mortician's Daughter." Better yet is "The Lucky One," on which Johnston as narrator reassures himself as he wanders from a bus stop in the cold Nevada night. "I'm the one," he repeats, trying hard to summon optimism. "Standing in the last light/Artificial daylight/I know I am the lucky one."

Johnston's more than just lucky. He's good. Good enough to run laps around the longhaired macho boys piled high on alternative playlists.

Good enough, indeed, to maybe win one for a change.



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