BELLRAYS, MEANS 10/11, EMPTY BOTTLE The MC5 were as steeped in soul and jazz as they were in hard rock, but you’d never know it by listening to the bands who name-check them in interviews. The Bellrays reestablished this stylistic connection in 1999 with Let It Blast; on last year’s follow-up, Grand Fury (Uppercut), they took the testifyin’ even further over the top but weren’t afraid to bring it back down slow and blue. They’re touring behind the reissue of their debut, In the Light of the Sun (In Music We), recorded in 1993, when bassist Bob Vennum still played guitar. The Means draw members from local group the Spiveys and Ohio hard rockers Bob City, and recorded their debut, Vil/Viol (Doubleplusgood), in Chicago last summer at Acme. Vocalist Jason Fredrick shrieks desperately above the abusive garageabilly shuffle in an attempt to remain the center of attention, but the scrawny-alley-cat riffs and mean rhythm section steal the show. CHRIS BROKAW 10/11, SCHUBAS Though probably still best known as the drummer from Codeine or as Thalia Zedek’s guitar foil in Come, Chris Brokaw has also backed Steve Wynn and is a member of the New Year, Pullman, and Clint Conley’s new band, Consonant. He plays everything on his first solo album, Red Cities (Atavistic); the carefully draped layers of viscous guitar in particular sound like the product of much hard, solitary work. No one would mistake Brokaw for a radical player–his thick, shimmering sound has been standard in your meatier indie rock for quite a while. But he can really stretch out in a lighter atmospheric mode. Now that bands like Pullman and Calexico have made the world safe for instrumental rock that emphasizes setting over plot, Brokaw’s moody shadow plays, punctuated by ripples of distortion, are free to map a place where anything can happen. HOTHOUSE FLOWERS 10/11, ABBEY PUB These Irish white-soul brothers and certified Friends of U2 sure pump up the energy live, but they’re downright lethargic when it comes to recording: their forthcoming album, due in early 2003, will be only their sixth since 1988–and that’s counting the live one. The Flowers are one of those bands that can’t stay together or apart for very long, and this on-again, off-again game has kept their cult raptly tuned in for the latest developments. The two cuts I’ve heard from the new album back away cautiously from the electronic edge of their last, Born; this time they’re lowering the ante and aiming to uplift the masses with some light Gaelic Springsteen. FLY PAN-AM 10/12, EMPTY BOTTLE Sharing a city (and a member) with Godspeed You Black Emperor! and an experimental sensibility with Toronto-based billmates Do Make Say Think, this Montreal band has scene power to spare. (If they’re lucky, tough immigration laws and American mono-lingualism will save that scene from the usual invasion of wannabes.) Their second full-length, Ceux qui inventent n’ont jamais vecu (Constellation), is as joyous as instrumental-rock-influenced sound games come: the tape edits and the is-my-CD-player-busted glitchfuckery are unified by a groove this band rides head-on into the inevitable burbling rupture or seething pouf of guitar magma. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect them of smiling while they play this stuff, which I’d never say about Godspeed. THOTH 10/12, INTUIT The Intuit Gallery’s “Intuitive Music” series gives me another opportunity to express my reservations about the idea of “outsider art.” Consider Eugene Chadbourne, who appears Sat-urday, October 19. By whose definition is this highly respected avant-garde musician and collaboration slut any kind of outsider? Does that mean that, say, John Zorn, Jim O’Rourke, and DJ Spooky are outsider artists too, or would they have to live in North Carolina like Chadbourne to qualify? The music-video screening planned for October 10 boggles my mind even more: What can Tiny Tim, Wesley Willis, and Harry Partch be said to have in common? Personally, I’d limit the definition to those who work outside all mainstreams, including the indie and avant-garde ones. That would make the series a lot shorter, but it might favor figures like Thoth, a performance artist and street musician whose preferred venue is Central Park and whose usual costume, a loincloth and feathers, I would never expect to see on Eugene Chadbourne. The subject of an Oscar-winning documentary last year (Thoth), this talented eccentric challenges the standard outsider-artist cliche: he’s not mentally ill, naive, or childlike, not an idiot savant of any sort. Stephen Kaufman, as his mama calls him, is an extreme idealist with a college degree and an artistic background; just so happens he prefers the liminal zones where race and gender and “outsider” and “insider” blur, and feels he has a calling for traveling street “prayformances” like some folks do for medicine or the military. He’s written an elaborate opera and play for solo performance (The Herma: The Life and Land of Nular-In, available now on CD), he’s invented his own languages, and he plays violin with classical skill. And he does it all with the sort of clear intentionality that ought to make any half-aware consumers of outsider art remember some impossible dreams they might once have written off–and possibly, for just a second, feel a little ashamed of themselves. FAUN FABLES 10/16, HIDEOUT Longtime readers of this column know that every year or so I throw a tantrum about pretty young women with pretty guitars who sing pretty songs that are pretty much indistinguishable in their do-re-me-me-me-me. My feminist side is turned off by the utter conventionality of these traditionally “feminine” tropes, and the fan in me is simply bored to death by all that girly-girl ruminating. I like to bring this up when something crosses my desk that I can point to and say: “This! This is what I mean! Women, be brilliant! Be weird! Scare! Enchant! Disturb! Make a racket! Take up some fucking space and fill it with something that didn’t exist before!” Dawn Fables, aka Dawn McCarthy, who has worked with performance artist Nils Frykdahl (of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) and the Bindlestiff Family Circus, is a singer of prodigious range and a writer with an unconstrained sensibility who’s mostly inspired by hiking and traveling. I’m not surprised that she grew up in a west-coast community of musicians–in fact I’d be surprised if she didn’t have childhood friends named Freedom, Galadriel, and Sinsemilla. The structures of the songs on her second album, Mother Twilight (Earthlight), are as wide-open as a cathedral or a grove, and their unbound sense of timing has pagan overtones. When Fables lets loose, her operatic bursts emerge from a tight knot of restrained guitar circles like a flock of birds scattering loudly out of the trees. She and Frykdahl play autoharp, toy organ, percussion, and wind instruments as well as guitar, and often draw local musicians, dancers, or whatever into their performance. Locals Spires That in the Sunset Rise, who have an album in the works, share the bill. GLANDS 10/16, ABBEY PUB Unflashy music makes for a dark horse in any genre. But in the morass of indie pop, whose glut of indistinguishable earnestness has afflicted me with decades’ worth of earwax, the unassuming risks disappearing altogether. This Athens band’s self-titled second album, which got lost when it came out a couple years ago, was rereleased this summer on Velocette–a good save. Settle down for a spell with Ross Shapiro and eventually his sweetly sardonic shoulda-been-hits of college-town soul will find just the spot on your lobes to nibble. The laid-back but rollicking “Lovetown” is stuck in my head right now, reminding me that indie pop, like any kind of pop, is supposed to have hooks and tunes. SONS OF THE NEVER WRONG 10/17, ABBEY PUB These locals are celebrating the release of their fourth album, 4 Ever On (Gadfly), which they bill on the cover as “misinformation and observations on reincarnation and transformation.” Well, it’s ballsy for a folk-rock band to take on this theme now, 30 years after Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge” summed it up, complete with eternal cycles of goose bumps, in less than three minutes, but I applaud the attempt. The Sons of the Never Wrong are weakest when they descend into generic, radio-friendly folk pop, as on “Way to Go” and “Everybody’s Gotta.” But their three exquisite voices and considerable instrumental skills roam comfortably along the mistier, grander, and more haunting vistas of the folkways, from which they return with travel stickers from Ireland, Appalachia, and the Otherworld (as on the very Thompsons-ish “Queen of Today” and “If You Come to Take Me”) slapped across their suitcases.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Shinichi Momo Koga.