PLAYINT THE SKIN GAME
Liars, Gods & Beggars
eccentricities, idiosyncrasies & indiscretions
In musical terms, everything north of the dog track at Black Canyon City is Arizona's musical wasteland. For some reason, residents of El Norte have a peculiar obsession with elevating musical mediocrity to ridiculous heights. Prescott's Liars, Gods & Beggars (better known as LGB) and Jerome's Major Lingo are both beneficiaries of this blind fever. Both bands have huge followings. Lingo shows tend to devolve into rasta scenes resembling the parking lot at Dead concerts. LGB has made six albums, has become a star in Germany and now has its own publicist, fan club and fanzine.
But after repeated listens to recordings and attendance at more than one live show, I have to say that neither band does a thing for me. Although they differ musically, both groups are overblown, undertalented ensembles with no memorable material to speak of. Because they are the more successful, LGB's appeal is particularly mystifying. While Major Lingo is prone to long, jam-happy sets meant to numb the ache that Dead fans get between gigs, LGB is a plain, vanilla pop-rock band. The idea here is to sound like a rock-heavy Little Feat. And while the six players in the band can play, their material is Seventies rehash. Vocalist Lee Lozowick (listed on the CD as "Mr. Lee"), who pens all the words and music, is to blame. His originals mimic what Head East and a number of other corn-fed rockers were doing 20 years ago.
What finally drags this band down, though, are Lozowick's banal lyrics. There are a few mildly amusing lines: "Today, I got down on my knees/I said, 'Won't you save me, Jesus' . . . /When he spoke, it knocked me out/Threw me for a tizzy/I never thought I'd hear him say/Save yourself, I'm busy'" (from "I'm Busy"). But mostly the lyrics are drivel. Check out this gem of enlightened manhood: "Oh, honey, you got taste to waste/You're almost hipper than God/Oh, baby, can I squeeze you please/Don't worry if you're ready or not" (from "Turn On the Lights"). If this is humor, it ain't funny. After five albums, you'd think this band of budding stars would have more to say. And this from a group so popular that it needs its own personal fanzine? There's truly no accounting for taste.
Pick the Shiniest Fruit
It's a cheap shot to say that every female vocalist with a penchant for passion is simply working out her Janis Joplin fantasy. In Fearn Smith's case, that gross generalization has to be modified to read Grace Slick instead of Joplin. Smith's strong, rich voice has more than a passing ring of Slick's tone and phrasing in it. On Pick the Shiniest Fruit, Smith applies her Surrealistic Pillow attitude and pipes to mod-rock guitar grodiness. Overall, Brick Chair's sound is somewhere between Seattle grunge and mainstream alt-rock with touches of punk abandon and psychedelic guitar. Honed by lots of local club work, the band obviously knows how to get heavy and rock.
On this CD's four songs, this Tempe band's songwriting pair--guitarist Guy Weigold (music) and Smith (lyrics)--shows it's beginning to work on the finer points, as well. Control of dynamics (soft-loud-soft-loud), for example, is beginning to take root. All the group needs now is something to play. Tunes like "Clean" are an excellent start.
Loud Ugly Pop Compilation
If you have any doubts that local punk trio Horace Pinker is becoming a first-rate, in-your-face punk-pop band, give this a listen. The best of the three Valley acts featured on this 12-song CD, the boys in H.P. obviously know their Ramones history and how to use it. Pinker cuts, like the instrumental "Knives" or its pointed "Punker Than G.B.H.," are by far the best cuts here. Look for the band's new album, Powertools (also on FATbeat). These flannel-shirted skatepunks are rapidly approaching the "being signed" stage of their careers.
After that, though, Loud Ugly Pop is a mixed bag. Newcomers Six6 start out strong with the tuneful "All in My Mind," but stumble thereafter. And besides the stupid name, Man Dingo plays loud, bland punk that fails to make a strong impression.
Words & Miles
If David Grossman could sing an octave or two lower, he would have Paul Simon down to a tee. Some artists, those without songs or a voice, could build a career on that kind of accident. But for someone with talent like Grossman, it's an unfortunate coincidence he'll spend his career trying to explain away.
But if Words & Miles is any indication of what he can do, Grossman may have the skills to outrun his Paul Simon doppelgnger. As a songwriter, Grossman tends toward the quiet, introspective side of the emotional universe. Happiness is the general mood here. Deep in thought is about as close as he comes to darkness. Grossman is also the kind of singer-songwriter who paints detailed miniatures about life and love. Happy originals like "Kaleidoscope Girl," "Smiles in the Morning" and "Junkyard" set up Grossman's way with up, up and away folk ditties. The songs don't have enough edges or ambition to fit in with the Colvin-Gorka-Wilcox neofolk axis. But that doesn't take away from the fact that there are lots of pleasing moments on this CD or that there is real, if lightweight, talent at work here.
With a name like "Zen," it's not too hard to guess where this band is going. Down a road once traveled by another band with a dreamy, one-word title like "Styx," perhaps? Multipart harmonies, chunky guitar chords, arena-rock wardrobe, cover photos of the band holding crystal balls--if you were a fan of "Lady," this record may make sense to you. Otherwise, it's not a pretty sight.
The biggest problem here is that the band and its co-producer, John Kelly, loaded this CD down with 21 cuts, half of which are throwaways. One listen to a jam-in-your-parents'-garage cut like "Shouldna Been Driving" tells you that Zen needs a real producer, manager or both. Next time, guys, cut it down to the best ten tunes and work on the arrangements.
Galen Herod and the Skin People
"Mr. Frotian" b/w "Have a Heart"
How do you assure that a record will get played and reviewed? Galen Herod's found a sure-fire way. This seven-inch disc is produced by Butch Vig, the man behind Nirvana's smash, Nevermind.
But while Vig's name means instant publicity, questions about his actual talent still loom. In a nutshell, is he a major producing talent or did Kurt Cobain's "Teen Spirit" inspirations make him look like a genius? In the case of Nevermind, the answer ended up being a little of both. Cobain's very promising material was brought into sharp relief by Vig's aggressive passion for sonic cleanliness, understandable vocals and big guitars.
Now that the Nevermind tsunami has passed, however, it will become easier to judge whether Vig belongs in producer heaven or hell. In Rolling Stone's last "What's New" issue, Vig mentioned that he was working with longtime Valley musical presence Galen Herod. Sessions at the Center for Advanced Studies here in the Valley and at Vig's own Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, followed. This seven-inch disc on Vig's Boat label is the first peek at what that tantalizing association has wrought.
While there's no Nevermind magic here, Vig's high-class production and Herod's solid songwriting make this one of the most interesting local projects to come along in years. Both tunes are twangy, straightforward, guitar-pop tunes. Typically, Vig emphasizes clean, crisp guitar chunkiness. Herod's thin voice is beefed up and his band--at times his Achilles' heel--sounds like it's improving. If there is a downside to this very promising bit of green-tinted vinyl, it's that there's no variety. Both sides have similar chord progressions. And both proceed at an identical, lope-along tempo. Still, that's nit-picking. An intriguing taste of what should soon grow into an album, this single is available in the Valley at Eastside Records and Zia.
Perhaps the worst thing about the generic horde of hard-rock/alternative bands inhabiting this planet is that the vocalists inevitably grow convinced they, too, can soar like Yes' Jon Anderson or power through like Journey's Steve Perry.
Besides being self-titled, these three Arizona bands have one striking and ultimately limiting similarity--a vocalist who needs to put away Yessongs and just be himself. In the case of 22 Fires, singer Brett Miller--more a shouter than a singer--is way too loud in the mix. The band's music, however, has some promise. Hard rock enlivened by keyboards and other progressive-rock touches, 22 Fires' music occasionally bursts into flame, as in the convincing rocker "Astronaut Song."
Glendale's Spirecrane follows the same path, but with more of a mainstream guitar-rock edge. Again, vocalist Tim Barnett needs to rein in his voice. A tune like "Bottomless Well," where his serenading dominates the mix, is difficult to listen to.
Andrew Creighton nearly single-handedly sinks Poor Richard's recording debut by constantly straining to take his voice higher. Although there are some interesting touches--reggae beats and organ riffs--Poor Richard is just generic rock. It also commits a rookie sin--if your material is weak, don't compound the error by stretching songs out to six and seven minutes. Do we really need a tune like "The Burning Wick" to go on for 7:07?
(Loft Studios Music)
To make Madonna's "more skin, less music" formula for success click, you've got to have several attributes--a body, a big producer and, yes, a brain. So far, Tess, the Valley's most ambitious sex chanteuse, is batting two out of three. Her producer is Sir David V. And if the cover photo on this tape is any indication, her assets are easily in Madonna's league.
Whether Tess can master the last B and make her music match her image is an open question. Draping her voluptuous physical presence over a cassette cover is great. But tapes are made for listening, and in that department, Tess is still a plain-Jane. Although she bills herself as "alternative," Tess is mining the fertile fields of titillating dancetrax that Donna Summer began with "I Feel Love." Titles like "Sin," "Yes" and "What I Want" leave little to the imagination. On this, her first solo album--her last project was the duo Sons and Lovers--Tess works the panting, moaning, whispering sweet nothings side of the dancetrax spectrum. The music is drum machines, keyboards and Tess' breathy, low voice. Overall, Tess' trip is calculated but amiable fluff that should play well in the 12-inch deejay market. There's also a glimmer of something else here. This cassette's only nonthumper, "She," is a surprisingly real acoustic ballad. One intriguing note here is the "thank you" list, where, along with international stars like Jimmy Jam, Lenny Kravitz and Madonna, Tess pays her respects to Zia owner Brad Singer! Hoodwinks
the boys in The Hoodwinks
While they look and, at times, even sound like an alternative guitar band, the Hoodwinks really play middle-of-the-road hard rock. Which means that while they do have talent, these guys fall into the pack with a hundred zillion other acts. A band that has promise here degenerates into a big guitar sound burdened by arena-rock clichs and songs that sound too much alike. Biggest waste of a great song title: "Lack of Peanut Butter."
Is this a joke? When I played side one of this tape, I was sure one of two things had occurred: the motor in my tape deck was shot or these guys had found the worst tape-duplicating service on Earth. The entire opening side is filled with banging and popping noises that sound vaguely like gunfire, ominously slowed-down voices and other annoying nonsense. When side two played fine, I began to suspect a darker purpose. Do I smell the rotting stench of "art," or is this just a mysterious technical problem? Either way, side two is filled with very listenable, strummy guitar workouts that sound like the Chili Peppers without the crunch. The Flea/Anthony comparison obviously works for this band. Otherwise, it would have stayed clear of titles like "jiggysugarlovecup.
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