Six Million Dollar Band
Larry Elyea, guitarist and mastermind behind Bionic Jive, had a flexible but definite concept in mind last year when he put this sextet together. He wanted to do something original, and he didn't care if it sucked.
On first impression, Bionic Jive seems anything but original. Its in-your-face mix of slamming guitar riffs and funky grooves might even qualify as the sound of the moment, as band after band takes its cues from the funky metal of Living Color, the metallic funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and all their musical progeny. In Tempe alone, you could identify a movement led by Fred Green, and featuring such bands as Bldg 5, Dislocated Styles, Yoko Love, and Plaidstone.
The appeal of the funk-metal idiom isn't hard to figure out. At its best, it delivers enough groove to free your ass, and enough get-your-rocks-off aggression to free your angst. It's a crowded field, though, and in the wrong hands it can be deadly boring.
Fortunately, upon repeated listenings of Bionic Jive's debut CD, Six Million Dollar Band, the band's distinctive sense of detail starts to reveal itself. For one thing, lead singer Derrick "D" Burrows is a real find, a charismatic live performer who's patented an unusual half-singing, half-rapping approach which is consistently soulful and impassioned. Unlike so many bands plying the funk-metal genre, these guys actually seem connected to the R&B tradition, albeit with a jones for big volume and guitar distortion. When the band digs into the thunderous hard-rock chorus of "Things in Life" (the tale of a misbegotten gig in Mexico opening for Coolio), Burrows turns on his best soul-man croon, offering a dose of measured philosophy amidst the maelstrom.
The rest of the band gracefully handles the always-demanding time signatures, but a particular standout is multi-instrumentalist Chris "TG1" Elsner. On the salacious "Call Me," Elsner lays down a smoky sax riff that takes the song back to its James Brown roots, before he cuts into a turntable-scratching break that propels the song headlong into the present tense. It is just this kind of artful style-hopping that makes Bionic Jive a leader of the pack in the funk-metal sweepstakes.
The Gulf Between
On his 1989 debut album, Michael Penn found a way to use reticence as a weapon. Naturally uncomfortable with the act of exposing his emotions to the public, yet drawn to a job (singer-songwriter) that requires more than a bit of self-revelation, Penn used the tension in the situation to say what he preferred not to express. Behind the formal pop architecture of his tunes and his emotionally restrained voice lurked a sadness made all the more tangible by Penn's inclination to hide it.
Much the same sensation comes from the new album by Pete Forbes, a singer-songwriter who shares much with Penn vocally and creatively. Ably assisted by Tempe producer Clarke Rigsby, Forbes puts a shiny veneer over his melancholy, allowing the emotional gravity of his hummable tunes to slip out with the random force of a stray bullet.
The leadoff track, "Clock Tower Face," actually makes Forbes' placidity the subject: "I only watched/From the tower I watched/But nothing would begin in me." With the slow, haunting "Every Fault," Forbes mulls over the dangerous cracks that lurk beneath all apparently solid surfaces: "As I walk above the crust of Earth's command/At any moment, I could be shaken where I stand."
Forbes' word play is consistently thoughtful and smart, if occasionally a bit showoff-y ("Are you trying to tell me I'm the king of mental masturbation?"). Similarly, the production is tasteful and free of overt gimmickry.
Unfortunately, in 1998, such mature pop confessionalism doesn't register too high on the Richter scale of hipness. Forbes' work is in tune with such veteran melody makers as Penn, Sam Phillips, Aimee Mann, and Neil Finn, all worthy artists, but none of whom is causing Sean "Puffy" Combes any sleepless nights. But, like his peers, Forbes is offering proof that pop doesn't have to be cutesy or mindless, and that emotion doesn't need to be wrapped in the overwrought pipes of a Celine Dion.
Radio Free America
There are two hierarchies at work in any local music scene. There's the pecking order of bands on the club scene, based on the ability to pull a crowd and maintain a prominent live presence. Then there's a second hierarchy, a secret jostling for chairs at the music industry's big banquet table. We all know that sometimes the hierarchies don't correspond, that an artist who has only a small presence on a local club scene will occasionally nab a recording deal before the hometown folk got a chance to learn his name.
Radio Free America could be one of those bands. Sure, the techno-industrial quartet plays its share of local gigs, but it has yet to become a huge force on the Valley club scene. But clearly this is a band built for the studio, and killjulie shows it to be a fully formed recording collective. Though often grouped with the Valley's highly aggressive industrial bands, Radio Free America leans more toward melodious fare, as though the band members fell in love with the first Nine Inch Nails album, and tuned out when Trent Reznor started wigging out. Like much of the band's material, "Girlfriend for a Day" straddles the genre fence, sounding like it could cut it in a crowded dance club or on a Top 40 radio station.
Radio Free America is either a few years behind its time or ahead of it, but it really doesn't matter. In an era driven by the demands of the dance floor, RFA has the beats, but, more important, it also has the tunes to grab the multitude not yet willing to commit to the electronica revolution.