TOPS AND FLOPS II
Time & Place
The owners of Soft Shoulder Music, Connie Mableson and Ted Bulger, say they are guided by the idea that there's an identifiable "desert," or "Southwestern," sound to the alternative scene here. It's a sound they want to document with their new record label. It's an idea driven by the notion that somewhere, somehow, there's just got to be another "Seattle Scene" waiting to happen. Not.
Many have tried to prove that the magic amalgam of heat, sand and succulents can influence white guitar rock. But as romantic as a desert subgenre sounds, it just doesn't exist. And if there was such a sound, no self-respecting band would emulate it. Ask the Gin Blossoms how they feel about being purveyors of "desert rock" and they'll gag. Like "America's Team," or the term "alternative" itself, labels are limiting. Besides, Arizona bands such as genepool, Gin Blossoms and Sand Rubies don't get their inspiration from the desert sand. They get it from the same place R.E.M. does--the Byrds.
The only possible exception to this is the sloppy, twangy cow-punk typified by Tucson's Green on Red and Giant Sand. But even that had as much to do with the Flying Burrito Brothers as it did with cholla and dry heat. As soon as those two now widely influential acts began hearing terms like "desert rock" applied to them, they split for L.A. All of which brings us to genepool. This is sweet pop. If the band had a regional musical connection, it might be to Great Britain's Manchester scene. The arrangements here are a cut above the usual alternative strum-and-hum monotony. Most of the tunes are good, too. And Ted Bulger's studio expertise--he also manages Wild Whirled Recording--shows throughout. This is one of the cleanest, best-produced local cassettes I've ever heard. The sound quality is extraordinary.
As bands go, this trio manages to put out a big, full-bodied sound--so big it makes you wonder if the group is able to reproduce it outside the studio. Still, this is the strongest, most listenable debut to come from the local scene this year.
Freedom of Choice Compilation
This eight-song compilation was timed to coincide with an abortion-rights benefit a few weeks ago at Silver Dollar Club. Musically, what this cassette lacks in finesse, it makes up for in heart. None of the bands here--Dr. Divine, Think Feed, Generiks and Man Dingo--is particularly accomplished. But none stinks, either.
If this tape has a problem, it's that the overall sound between bands doesn't vary much. All four stick to grungy guitar-slogging. In Dr. Divine's "Black Sex Kitten," a little funk is detectable. And in the appropriately titled "Fetis," Generiks go for a full-blown speed-metal rush. But mostly the tape just rocks the same.
Where's the Grey?
There are two solo performers in Arizona whose times have come. One is Tucson's talented guitar master Rainer. The other is Hans Olson.
This excellent tape and Olson's recent tour opening for Michelle Shocked ring like shots across the bow, serving notice that his career may be heading for a faster track. Where's the Grey? is an effective, entertaining showcase for Olson's musical range. On side one, for example, "Who's Trying to Run My Life?", a snaky, John Hiattesque rock number whose kick comes from guitarist Chuck Hall's blurry leads, sits next to "My Gina," a Tex-Mex-flavored ode to Olson's wife. And the cut-by-cut variety goes on. There's some great material, but this album also hits because of the guest list. Other guests besides Hall are vocalist Francine Reed and Dead Hot Workshop singer Brent Babb and guitarist Steve Larson, with both of the latter contributing mightily to the rockin' "Gods of Hardball." For those who think of Olson as a guy on a stool playing quiet tunes, "Gods" will be a shock. It gets down and jams hard. Old fans shouldn't give up, though. For those who love his blues, Olson has included his own traditional, "50 Ups & 50 Downs."
As usual, Olson's vocals and guitar work shine throughout. Most impressive, though, is his harmonica playing. The title tune, for example, is full of absolutely steamin' harp licks.
While Where's the Grey? isn't label-ready, it should prove to be a killer demo. Between this cassette and his connections to Shocked, Hans Olson should turn a few record-label eyes his way.
Cut to the Chase
(Art & Commerce)
Mark Manley is a bass player with a lot to say. Over a bed of samples and drum machine-driven dance thumps, Manley lays out his lyrical visions of what's wrong and what to do about it. Along the way, we hear about "cocaine-heads-of-state," "fat cats," "L.A. burning in the fires of change" and "proud virgins and boys who don't cry." When it all works, the stuff does move.
The flaw in Manley's approach is that as he loses himself in his words, he forgets to vary the beat. It often gets annoyingly repetitive. A singer of limited range, he also has a tendency to speak rather than sing. This heightens the preachy tone of his lyrics. As solo projects go, however, Hard has its admirable qualities. Manley obviously put a lot of work into this. But if he'd spent more time programming the drum machine and less time preaching, Hard might be easier to swallow.
Avoid the Past . . .
Everyone has a different idea of what's profound. For the Rolling Stones, it all came down to "It's only rock n' roll, but I like it." The Beatles often preferred the phantasmagorical: "Everywhere there's lots of piggies, living piggy lives." And a band like Aerosmith always went for the crotch: "I'm baaaaack, I'm back in the saddle again."
For Light Force, truth means writing vague, is-it-a-dream-or-is-it-reality lyrics that say absolutely nothing except, "We're trite!" Lines like "Here we stand, heaven and man/On the doorsteps of time/Looking for a sign" or "Where do we go, our time is near/Looking for salvation, bringing us fear" belong on the Susan Polis Schutz card rack, not in a song. They're pure nonsense. Weighed down by this kind of lyrical blather, the music here never stands a chance.
Not that it really deserves one. Musically, Light Force fits squarely into the uplifting, keyboard-and-ethereal-female-vocals pop-rock category. The band's two main styles are a swirly, 10cc synth sound and an upbeat rock mode. Rockers like "Silhouette of a Dream" suffer from Bob Harris' going-nowhere-badly guitar work. Listenable only at the Holiday Inn near the airport, Light Force is more "lite" than force.
Death-metal with all its gory, loud trappings is the mayhem du jour here. Axetra manages to work up a convincing sweat, not to mention a few decibels, laying out its "visions" of "searching beyond the darkness." Vocalist Pat Driscoll has the screechy pipes that are critical to being heard over the din. The rhythm section of drummer Rick Walker and bassist Nick Rivero has the rapid-fire thrash thump down. Beyond that, the liner "thank you"s say it all: "Our special thanks goes out to all of you who support what we are trying to accomplish. . . . Everyone else f**k off!!!"
U and the Risk
For some reason, this Nogales-Tucson band recently decided to resurrect itself after years of dormancy. Too bad no one staked these musical undead the first time they were laid to rest.
In the early 80s, this band of Nogales High School classmates prided itself on being "danceable," in a jumpy, Talking Heads-without-the-keyboards kind of way. On It's Just, the shakability returns, leavened, as in the past, with a can't-see-what's-good-for-them pop sensibility. Well-produced and nicely packaged, this CD nevertheless sounds like a moldy blast from the past--a local band whose moment came and went years ago.
Most of the time, U (it actually began using the single letter before Prince) and its very average songs fail to impress or annoy. Only in "Stop for the Minute" does the songwriting shine and the performances--particularly Eduardo Valencia's vocals--show any trace of discipline. Valencia, in fact, is the main problem here. He yells, growls and uses a corny vibrato, but rarely just sings. Of course, Valencia's lyrics don't give him much to work with, anyway. In "Getting Gawd (San Diego)," an empty-headed ode to babes, beaches and getting high, Valencia hoarsely yells, "I love them skinny women/'Cuz they make you feel so good/When you're on the ground." Heavy. The lyrical low point, though, comes in a tune with the album's most promising title, "Wild Planet Love." Check this chorus: "I want to dance/I want to fight/I want to fuuuuuuuuck [with vibrato] you all night/I want to crash/I want to burn/I want your monkey lust at every turn." Monkey lust? It's not something U want to waste time thinking about.
New Jersey transplant Michael Nitro has built a musical career here quicker than most newcomers do. The biggest factor is that Nitro was noticed by Danny Zelisko, owner of Evening Star Productions, who signed Nitro to a management deal. Through that connection, Nitro has gained invaluable experience opening for a slew of national acts. It's the kind of seasoning no amount of club gigging can provide. But that edge doesn't take anything away from the fact that Nitro wrote everything on this 15-cut CD. Working in a Bad Company/Jersey-rock vein, Nitro has concocted an appealing, pop/hard-rock disc. The high points vary, from the bluesy "Winning" and the power ballad "Memories" to the more rockin' tempo of "You Got What I Like." Throughout, Nitro's voice is the strongest part of the mix. And his band--Sean Cooney, Steve Helm and Freddie Macarone--provides solid support. Lyrically, this is lightweight stuff. Comings and goings in relationships is the subject. At times this sole focus leads Nitro into idiotic, white-noise clichs like the Foreigner rip-off "Women Are Crazy." Overall, though, this is a promising, distinctive debut in an often faceless genre.
35 Dollar Guitar
A previously unheard voice in the Valley's music scene, Jeff Farr is a talented songwriter. Unfortunately, Farr's voice is not the equal of his pen or his guitar pick. This tape is filled with promising tunes, all marred by Farr's monotone moan. The back-up band here is stellar, though, including former River Roses Chris Holiman, Gene Ruley and Peter Catalanotte. This tape is only available by sending $5 to P.O. Box 84451, Phoenix,
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