It's no accident that this Phoenix trio decided to lead off its debut CD with a song called "Freedom Sleeps in the Arms of Diversity."
On one level, the song can be seen as just a likable reggae skank with a few bars of metal aggression thrown in just to keep you off balance. But on a deeper level, this tune defines the Bldg 5 aesthetic. These guys, who named their band after the number of the downtown warehouse where they rehearse, are rhythmic chameleons who slip in and out of musical genres faster than Bill Clinton drops trou for a new intern.
Initially, the effect can be a little jarring. When "My Only Guitar" kicks off, you anticipate a heavy Hendrixian guitar jam, only to be abruptly steered into a smooth ska vibe on the verses. After a couple of listens, though, the mood shift seems perfectly natural, and almost inevitable.
Basically, Bldg 5 is a groove band, but its vocabulary of grooves reflects the rampant eclecticism of this decade, when such seemingly disparate genres as hip-hop and speed metal can find much common ground. No one track can capture Bldg 5's sonic wanderlust. If you heard the fiery "Build" on the radio, you'd be convinced that this band is a cross between "Aneurysm"-era Nirvana and early Police. If you sampled the jazzy funk of "Clean the Green," you'd presume that this band permanently resides in Bootsy's house of Parliament.
Both this promising CD and the band's sweat-inducing shows at clubs like the Big Fish Pub offer indications that Bldg 5 is following in the footsteps of Fred Green, sharing that trio's commitment to rhythmic misadventures and ganja-inspired utopianism. At the beginning of the album's final track, "Someone You'll Never Owe," singer/guitarist Kevin Dye implores someone to "turn on the station, there's no variation." Certainly, no one who puts on this CD can ever make the same complaint.
In the six years since the Gin Blossoms went national, the Tempe scene has evolved and expanded to the point where no single style of music can accurately be called a "Tempe sound."
But if you were guiding tourists on a Tempe club tour, and you wanted them to see one band that matches the national perception of the Tempe scene, Satellite would best fit the bill.
Part of that faded continuum stretching from the Gin Blossoms to Dead Hot Workshop to the Refreshments to the Pistoleros to the Low/Watts, Satellite often sounds like a computer-generated combination of all those bands. To paraphrase an old quote about Bruce Springsteen, if Satellite hadn't already existed, Long Wong's would have needed to invent it.
The guitars jangle. The rhythm section rocks, but always with tasteful restraint. The songs swing with just a touch of that country lilt--enough to please Gram Parsons fans, but not enough to set off any boot-scoot alarms. In other words, Satellite, like the Tempe bands it follows, constantly dangles near the edge of blandness with a familiar, generic rock sound, and it needs superlative material to rescue it.
Singer/guitarist Stephen Ashbrook is an earnest lyricist and a relentlessly impassioned singer. When he's got a solid hook behind him, as on "Another Boring Day," or the vaguely countryish title song, his obsessive melancholia is palatable. During the course of a 10-song CD, however, the self-pity gets a bit oppressive. Hey, even chronic mopers like Leonard Cohen and Morrissey know that despair can be funny at times. For Ashbrook, the veil of gloom never lifts on this album. He goes from singing "Now's not a good time for me" to "I'm at an all-time low," before determining "There's no rhyme or reason why this man for all seasons can't break down and cry." If the sentiments seem monochromatic, the same goes double for the midtempo guitar rock the band dishes out here.
Drive is a solid, well-crafted, gimmick-free effort sure to please Satellite's loyal fans, but for the rest of us, it's a bit too tentative to make its way out of neutral.
Ride the Bus
(Skill Shot Records)
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When recently asked about the proliferation of American ska bands during the past couple of years, Green Day leader Billie Joe Armstrong dismissed the current crop of pseudo-rude boys as failed punks who scrambled to learn a new rhythm. What really seemed to annoy him, though, is that too many ska bands are just "too fucking happy."
Armstrong might be a derivative little twerp, but his point is a valid one. Ska began as rebel music in Jamaica, and it was this sense of anger and alienation that inspired the late-'70s British revivalists to don their porkpie hats. It is an element missing among many of the cartoonish, party-crazed ska-punks infiltrating the airwaves at the moment.
Fortunately, Kongo Shock understands that while ska can be fun, it needn't be mindless. This Phoenix quintet's sophomore CD overflows with the kind of class-conscious, working-week vignettes that would make the Skatalites proud. For example, "Bus" is a workingman's lament about public transportation, while "Working Hands" explains what that same man does between his morning and afternoon bus rides. In the working hands of Kongo Shock, horn-driven ska ecstasy is a release from the ever-present drudgeries and frustrations of life. Ride the Bus leaves no doubt that Kongo Shock is a cut above the crowded pack of pretenders.