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Local Calls

Keeping the lines open and dialing in area codes
With the three previous installments of this feature (April, June, and September) we covered 23 recordings, a mere drop in the local-sound bucket. We hope by now you have the idea -- some of these are on sale, those that aren't are reviewed because the bands can at least (or at best) be experienced live in local clubs. If you're a musician, send your material. If you're a fan, consider our opinions, and let us know if we're missing something you'd like to see pondered here, or just missing the boat altogether. We appreciate your input, because without this local music we'd be selling women's shoes at the mall to pay rent.

FORGET THE NAME
Stones for Steven
(UR Records CD)
BY TODD ANTHONY

Rene Alvarez has one big voice. There are other original-rock vocalists in town who can, in an acoustic setting, win over almost any audience (Diane Ward and Paul Roub spring immediately to mind), but in terms of sheer intensity and raw power, the Forget the Name front man and recipient of the Best Male Vocalist honor at this year's SoFlo Rock Awards may be in a league of his own. This is a guy who, on a recent acoustic night at Washington Square, covered the Police's daunting "Roxanne" and positively owned the song. Seconds after Alvarez opened his mouth, a typically boisterous, alcohol-stoked crowd fell respectfully silent. Few vocalists in any musical mode have that uncanny ability to commandeer a room through the pure forcefulness of their singing. It is an awesome sight (and sound) to behold.

Forget the Name bassist Jose "Pepe" Tillan and drummer Derek Murphy are two of the most sought-after players on the local scene; when Mary Karlzen (no slouch in her own right) needed a rhythm section to back her on her soon-to-be-released CD and her recent opening-for-Dylan gigs, Tillan and Murphy got the call. Afterward, Karlzen lavished praise on her temporary sidemen. FtN guitarist Rafael Tarrago is one of the tastiest and most facile axmen plying their trade in Dade County this side of transplanted New Yawkuh and former John Cale sideman Sturgis Nikides. Together, the four of them constitute a veritable local rock supergroup loaded with so much talent it's almost unfair.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Stones for Steven is simultaneously impressive and disappointing. Impressive because every song is dense, lyrically sophisticated, and sonically ostentatious. Disappointing because, in spite of their manifest musical talent, and with the possible exceptions of the CD's opener, "Suffer," and closer, "Sarah," no song on Stones for Steven lands a knockout blow. FtN is in danger of becoming the Evander Holyfield of local rock -- technically excellent, but lacking the killer instinct. In sticking to the musical high road, FtN has produced an album that fails to rise above the sum of its gifted parts. Live renderings of these same songs, whether by the entire band as a unit or by Alvarez solo, spit fire and burn with anguish. On the CD they come across as strangely distant, like an echo off the side of a mountain.

Even with the aforementioned shortcomings, Stones for Steven, like Holyfield's gutty performance in his recent loss to Riddick Bowe, is nothing to be ashamed of. FtN remains one of South Florida's best bets to break into the big time. That the band consciously eschews obvious hooks, hummable melodies, and simple-minded choruses repeated ad nauseum demonstrates admirable commitment to quality. Relocate them to Seattle or Athens and they'd be bucking for the cover of Rolling Stone in a year. But FtN are aiming for more than flavor-of-the-month status. To that end, Stones for Steven is an accomplished, audacious work. It is not, however, Forget the Name's Nevermind.

SMOKE DOG
Smoke Dog
(Ponderous Bulk cassette)
BY GREG BAKER

Considering the punky-thrashy nature of this band -- the breathless power riffs and runaway-train tempos -- somebody, namely engineer Roy Morris at his Hellraiser Studios, deserves special mention for capturing more than noise so effectively on this tape. Not only can you understand the lyrics -- and that's vital in this case -- but the balance of elements and clearness of the individual mix-tracks elevate Smoke Dog way above the level of most bands who think that loud fast rules.

Not that the Dog doesn't fetch that schtick as well. While they can thank Unsane, King Carcass, and Dwarves in the liner credits all they want, if you're looking for real influence clues, pull out your early Eighties, Minneapolis slabs, your pre-SST Husker Du, pre-A&M Soul Asylum, and pre-Let It Be Replacements. "Poison City" borders on the elegant, even with Pete Harris's ear-piercing guitar run. And when "High School" slows, stops, and turns into a soliloquy, the screaming return to speed is so savagely right it must come from the heart, or at least the bowels. In fact the only real exception is "One Track Mind," a pure-punk cover of the old song by the Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders' group, not Tom Petty's).

The whole package (eight songs) is solid young-blood rock, clever but hard. And speaking of hard, two songs on Side One, sandwiched between the anthemic "Weed & Whiskey" and gorgeous "Poison City," are the stuff parental advisory stickers are made of -- "Fratboys Don't Dance" and "Ron Jeremy's Cock." The latter pays tribute to the short, pudgy, ubiquitous, and well-endowed porn star. That's funny, although celebrating the tool of the hairy thespian's trade is debatable. There are better-known dicks to write about. More debatable is the wisdom of "Fratboys." On its surface the song is so misogynistic it makes the 2 Live Crew look like Gloria Steinem. The female wanted it, the song goes, else she wouldn't dress that way; that damn whores wear skimpy clothes means man has a right to violate. Of course, anyone with half a brain can see beneath the surface and will catch Dog's satiric intent. As with Geto Boys' "Mind of a Lunatic," the listener must understand that he is hearing the voice of a character, and it's not what he's saying but the fact he's saying it that makes the song's point. So Smoke Dog is presuming that people who listen to edgy, thrashy post-punk have more than half a brain. Risky, but worth it.

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