Nearly a decade and a half -- and umpteen albums -- after Inner Marshland set its controls for the suns of our hearts, the Bevis Frond (a.k.a. Nick Saloman) is a rock 'n' roll institution. Admittedly, one wrought of cult-fandom and, by industry standards, minuscule record sales, but a highly respected, much-loved institution just the same. How much love does Saloman feel when he walks into a room? Not even counting those artists who have clamored to share bills with the Frond (okay, count a few -- Jon Spencer, Country Joe McDonald, Mary Lou Lord, Hawkwind, Tom Rapp), Saloman's songs have been covered by everyone from Teenage Fanclub and Elliott Smith to Juliana Hatfield and Mary Lou Lord, the latter artist frequently teaming up with good ol' Saint Nick on album and in concert. Why the appeal? Hard to say. But a mixture of personal charisma (Saloman is witty and self-effacing, and he's eternally respectful of fellow struggling musicians, not to mention a staunch believer in the indie D.I.Y. aesthetic), obvious musical chops (he's from the Hendrix/Randy California school of innovative fretboard squall) and an old-fashioned, open-minded, encyclopedic appreciation of nontrendy musical styles can go a long way toward painting an individual as a seriously righteous cat.
For the latest Bevis Frond album, multi-instrumentalist Saloman opted to forgo the budget-conscious, one-man-band route and employed his good friends and touring stalwarts Ade Shaw and Andy Ward for bass and drum chores, respectively. Together, the power trio surpasses even the usual Frond high standards. Hardline fans will appreciate the retention of Saloman's signature blotter-acid frissons; in particular, the monster Rory Gallagher-style boogie "China Fry" and the no-nonsense fuzz-garage rawk of "We Are the Dead" support the contention that the hirsute Saloman is in clear sympathy with the hippie-inclined elements found in his fan base.
Overall, however, the focus here is more on tightly wound compositions and less on some of the sprawling 15-minute jams that populated early Frond albums. Highlights? "By the Water's Edge" chimes out solvently amidst one of the sleekest melodies and vibrant solos since '88 Bevis classic "Lights Are Changing" (which Mary Lou Lord covered, incidentally). Both sitar 'n' strum nugget "Artillery Row" and the wistful piano ballad "The Speed of Light" are lush Beatlesque poppery at its finest. And "Sugar Voids" deftly balances the hard-rock imperative (sporting a killer Led Zep/Who main riff) with tingly pop dynamics and a stick-in-your-head melody to die for.
In a sense, Bevis Frond is kinda like your friendly local music nook that's cramped with unpainted record bins, displays ancient plastic-sleeved albums up on the walls and is tended by unkempt but musically knowledgeable clerks who couldn't care less about what's on sale over at mainstream venues like Best Buy, Tower and Zia. Most likely, Saloman will be around for a good while, adding without undue ceremony to the vibrant underground musical dialogue. But as with the record shop, don't take him for granted. Because nothing lasts forever.