Music News

A Band Thorned

When Tucson's River Roses put out their EP Phoenix 99 in 1987, it seemed to be imminent that the group would make an impact in locales far beyond the Old Pueblo. After all, the title song took its name from the road-mileage sign marking the exit out of Baja Arizona, and the band actually was going places.

The EP brought the electric-folk quartet critical acclaim and caught the attention of northern California's Camper van Beethoven. Camper released the Roses LP Each and All on its label, Pitch-A-Tent Records. The album included more of front man Chris Holiman's desert highway ballads as well as two jewels from bassist Caitlin von Schmidt, who's since left the band.

But now the Roses find themselves at an impasse. While similar-sounding bands from Tucson--namely the Sidewinders--are already signed to extensive record deals, the foursome finds itself still playing the same old clubs. One could even have caught the band at a campus keg party as late as last spring.

The Roses are still very much the quintessential "too-stoned" band, creating naive rock around Holiman's lullaby vocals, the whirlpooling guitar of Gene Ruley and the errant drumming of Peter Catalanotte. Peter Murphy has since replaced von Schmidt. But running in place in Arizona is getting old.

All the band's hopes are currently wrapped up in its unreleased second LP, Hope It Rains, full of material that no record company seems to want. Yet. (The Roses are looking to play for reps of two major labels in the near future).

The group's woes in part stem from bad blood with Rough Trade, Each and All's distributor. The Roses' trials with Rough Trade are the stuff of every indie group's nightmares.

"When our first album came out, Camper's first record on Virgin was just coming out, and pretty much once the album came out, they didn't have time for their label," Holiman says before his group's show last Saturday at the Sun Club. "We hadn't been talking to Rough Trade because we were always going through Pitch-A-Tent. The whole thing was kind of weird."

Then Rough Trade refused to put out a second pressing of Each and All, Holiman says, after a poor effort of promoting the album in the first place. All did not look good, but there was still the South by Southwest festival last spring in Austin, Texas, where the band hoped to be noticed by another record company.

Then something went dreadfully wrong. The event's organizers liked the Roses--so much that they made the band a headliner at a Rough Trade showcase.

"That pissed off Rough Trade," Holiman says, "because Lucinda Williams was playing and they were really trying to push Lucinda Williams and here we are a band they don't even care about headlining their showcase. They treated us like shit after that."

Yet, the Roses' problems do not all stem from Rough Trade and poor luck, says Holiman. The band's real problem was its reluctance to leave the womb of Tucson. This has resulted in the Roses' status as a no-name outside Arizona, while fellow desert dwellers, the Sidewinders, have landed a record on the Billboard albums chart.

"The reason I don't really resent the Sidewinders is because we kind of shot ourselves in the foot," he says. "When the album came out on Pitch-A-Tent, we toured in California. Because touring was really stressful for us, we didn't go back on tour, and that really hurt us. If we would have gone back on the road after we came back, we probably would have been signed a long time before the Sidewinders. I think the Sidewinders deserved to be signed, and I think we deserve to be signed, too. It's just going to take us longer because of our mistakes."

Von Schmidt's leaving probably didn't help the band either. Without her harmonizing, the Roses lost some of the loftiness of their vocals. Holiman insists that von Schmidt wasn't that crucial, though some critics would disagree. Her songs "Black Velvet Postcard" and "Good Folks Gone Away" on the first LP surpassed some--maybe all--of Holiman's better efforts.

On the upswing, the rhythm section is more hard-edged with Murphy, and Catalanotte has become one of the more revered drummers in Arizona. "I consider them two separate bands," Holiman says of the two line-ups. "The name of the band just stayed the same."

Minus von Schmidt, the Roses continue to provide Holiman with a useful vehicle for his songwriting. On the new album, Holiman shows off the same romanticism he displayed on Each and All. But the new work has more of a country feel than Each and All, contrary to the electric sound the band pumps out in its live sets these days.

Though Hope It Rains is marred with inconsistency at points, as well as songs that often start with the same strum-strum-strum of the acoustic, Holiman is still capable of sending his songs on extended daydreams and wondering out loud the heartfelt couplet: "I dream of you/Why can't you dream of me?"

Could the band leader possibly be crooning to a major label? The group is planning to journey out to both coasts soon to play for RCA and Geffen officials. And Holiman claims the Roses have overcome their post-Each and All doldrums.

"Right now we're in a really good place. If we were going to break up, we would have already done it.

"We're getting to the point where we're working on getting signed to a real record label who's going to promote us and not just be like an independent thing that puts out the records and that's it. We're looking for some kind of promotion. If you want to approach that kind of level, it takes more time, and it's harder. But in the long run, it'll be worth it.

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John Pacenti