Unsigned 1 -- Nuth'n But Hits
Picking up a compilation of local unsigned bands is like spying your co-worker's kid selling chocolates around the office -- the rush of generosity is usually supplanted by a sick, queasy feeling in the back of your gullet. All the telltale trouble signs are there on Nuth'n But Hits, the bitmapping record-company logo on the cover, the overstated self-congratulatory liner notes in which Ameritone president Freddie Vasquez defines his capital-lettered "QUEST" to bring music of all races and credos together -- who died and made him Tiger Woods' dad? And then there's the rock-and-baseball motif, which we've all been trying to forget since The Outfield.
Yet I haven't pitched this CD out because in this case, "unsigned" frequently means once-signed bands that were shown the dugout. Thus, the strikeouts are fewer than on your average "unsigned" compilation. Vasquez programs some prime Americana at the top of the batting order, including three previously released tracks from Tempe's premiere roots-rock bands (Dead Hot Workshop, Peacemakers, Ghetto Cowgirl) plus a fine unreleased Pistoleros cut, "Everybody, Sometimes." Only Ghetto Cowgirl's "To the Point" sounds like a band contributing the "big" hit single off its CD as opposed to a marginal album cut. Marc Norman's sing-with-a-drawl sound has a nice "c'mere kid" style about it that makes me glad he ditched the hard-rock gravel of some of his previous groups. (Once I thought that side-of-the-mouth singing might be an acquired affectation, until I had a conversation with ol' Norm recently and realized he actually talks like W.C. Fields, too.)
Other great early starters include the Drizz (a.k.a. Victor Indrizzio, from Studio City, California) with "Not Myself," just about the best song in the lot. Against a heavy bossa nova beat, the Drizz alternates between acting like a consoling friend with chiming vibes and a cajoling foe when his feet connect with the distortion pedal. When the massive Hammond organ kicks in on the chorus, you can feel Drizz's exhilaration at having found a grungy, long-lost Faces cut before Wilco has. On "Blue Sky Day," Chicago's Front of the Truck also resembles The Jeff Tweedy Experience in the most positive way, with an irresistible chorus and several surprise arrangement twists and key changes.
Someone's got to ride in the back of the team bus, so it's no surprise on an album filled mostly with new Depressionists that it's gonna be the token rap, industrial and zany ska-pop bands. The saucy De La Soul grooves of old school rappers like North Carolina's Sankofa (short for Sandy Koufax?) and Colorado's nGomA provide surprising grand slams at the end of this roster, with the former even working a "going to Carolina in my mind" reference. But it's not hard to shine when you're surrounded by wild pitches like California's The Assholes, Sour and Sammy so-sos like Exit (a self-important excursion into Bush country).
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The Assholes begin their at bat with a fair Casey Kasem long distance impersonation, but once the ska-rock beat everyone got sick of three years ago kicks in, you know this is never gonna be a hit single no matter how many Howard Stern references they try to work into the lyrics. And I guess it must be the train-wreck spotter in me, but I'm starting to warm to Sour's "Memetic Me." Who can resist the sound of Gwen Stefani being stuffed in a trash compactor? Better still, they sing couplets even Shakespeare's shrink couldn't come up with: "When I look into your eyes I should be mentally sterilized 'cause I can feel your bullshit infecting me." It's foul -- no, it's fair!
With Unsigned 1, Ameritone has made some good calls, though the collection is burdened with some players that should be forever banished to left field. Hopefully a few here will find a home in the major leagues soon. (Okay, okay, I'll stop with the baseball metaphors now). -- Serene Dominic
The Ameritone Records CD release party featuring Brent Babb, Ghetto Cowgirl, and the Pistoleros is scheduled for Friday, April 28, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.