Maybe it was the fact that when they released their first full-length cassette, they designed each one for its individual purchaser. Maybe it was the night they opened for Nuclear Valdez at a packed University of Miami patio and took everyone on an unforgettable mystery tour. Maybe it was the powerhouse drumming of Chez Pazienza, or the dynamic antics and vocals of Robert Melendez, or the shining guitar work of Jay Walsh, or the strong bass and even stronger songs of Robert Allen. Whatever it was, for a while there it looked like Coral Gables was on its way to becoming Miami's number-one rock band.
And maybe it was all too much. The beginning of the end was the departure of vocalist Melendez. Soon after, Coral Gables -- they of the too-smart-for-school lyrical poetry and complex instrumental interactions -- was off the map. Allen and Walsh were somewhere in North Carolina, teaming up on new songs and a new sound. Then Walsh was back in town, working solo, cutting a demo and playing live with local all-stars backing him. Now Allen's back, too. At least for a visit.
This April will mark two years since the end of one musical chapter and a new beginning for Allen. "It got nasty at the end," he says of Coral Gables's demise. "It reached a point where it was getting so bad I was writing songs and keeping them to myself rather than bringing them to the band. I thought, This has to stop." He and Walsh took off to Greensboro, North Carolina, and worked together on one project. "I had planned on going to Atlanta," Allen says, "but the cost of living there is sick. Once we got up here, Jay decided he didn't like North Carolina. Unfortunately it caused our relationship to sag, and then he said he was leaving. I've heard Jay's new stuff, and I'm pleased with it, but I haven't been in touch with Miami other than that."
Besides low-cost realities, Allen feels Miami is a "dangerous" place for a band. "I'm loyal as always to Miami," he explains. "I miss the city itself. But Coral Gables at its peak could only play a couple of shows a month, because as much support as we had, when fans see you too much they can become fickle. You could play the Beach, Churchill's, and the Grove if there was a club open there that month. Maybe West Palm Beach and Tampa. But Atlanta's thirteen hours away." From his current home, Allen adds, he can drive to Atlanta, play a show, and get back to Greensboro the same night. "We're playing all these places up here," he says. "We did ten shows just in January."
The we is Hat, Allen's new band, formed in Greensboro. His first move was to plaster local campuses with fliers. Drummer Davidson Smith saw one and dropped a dime. "I'd just come back from Japan, the Air Force," Smith says. "I had done a lot of practicing, the first thing I did when I got to Japan was buy a drum set. The military kind of took a lot of the music out of me. But I needed the Air Force to kick me in the ass and get me going. Music was everything I dreamed of." He and Allen hit it off immediately. "It clicked perfectly," Allen says. "So we decided to look for a bass player." Allen had played bass with Coral Gables, but picked up guitar after relocating. He also began singing, something else he didn't have much chance to do with Coral Gables. "I always knew my voice wasn't as strong as Bob's [Melendez]. I didn't have his charisma, either. But, hey, if Neil Young can do it, I can do it."
After finding bassist (and studio whiz) Christian Martin this past fall, the trio went into the Smith family's basement with a Tascam four-track and recorded a seven-song cassette, Trains Like Angels. As always with Allen, the lyrics are primary, smartly crafted word-movies often stunning in their impact and insight. You don't need a good voice to sing those songs, you need inflection and passion and phrasing, and Allen has all that down pat. The clutter of pots and pans banging together (or something that sounds like that) and weird effects and involved arrangements -- Hat pulls out all stops to create what every band seeks (or should seek), a new sound.
"I started writing on guitar," Allen says, "and now I'm playing it full time. I know, ability-wise, I can't keep up with the heavier stuff. So we stripped it, sort of Velvet Underground meets Cowboy Junkies. Club people generally want to hear faster, louder stuff. But I think it's worth it to stick to what we're doing and develop an audience. If I like it, then there must be an audience somewhere for it. So far it's going over well because we're doing something others aren't doing."
It certainly works on the new tape, a collection of songs that will leave the listener emotionally exhausted. The competition on the Atlantic Coast circuit, however, is tough. Allen admits he's heard all the talk about the Carolinas becoming (or already being) the "new Seattle," but he prefers to dissect the musical ramifications of that sort of geographical hyperbole. "It's not going to be what everyone thinks," he opines. "I think it'll be the pop stuff that breaks out. Not innocent pop, more of R.E.M. without the R.E.M. sound."
Don't be mislead. Trains Like Angels travels many musical roads, from the bizarre and almost frightening inventions of "In God's Sight" to a similarly over-the-edge surrealism in the ten-minute-plus "Grace" to an urgent, speedy, and vocally distorted reworking of "Mr. and Mrs. Hammer," a song made known with Coral Gables. "We were in Davidson's basement," Allen says, "and his dad collects political stuff, all these antiques and junk lying around. We found this portable voice amplifier for old people to hang around their necks, a real ancient type of voice amplifier. It has a cool sound. That's what I sang through on 'God's Sight' and 'Hammer.' What I lack in ability I try to make up for in that I feel strong about the lyrics. Tom Waits and Neil Young and Springsteen and Bowie, technically don't have great voices. But they pull it off on the strength of their material. Not that I'm close to their shoes."
Despite some truly spectacular playing by his new cohorts, despite a way with arrangements as adept as the four biggies he mentions, despite a new sound, it keeps coming back to those lyrics, that poetry in sonic motion. Allen's songs are places where "the clouds above sweat like a murderer" and "things have been worse since I lost her St. Christopher" and "the dust wants to sing some tornado song/but the words are forgotten and all of the sheet music's worn" (yes, Gables's "Without Roses or Charms" is also redone on the new tape). And new songs such as "She Builds Monsoons" carry on a great songwriting tradition. The lead track even elevates the craft, which is saying something when you recall Coral Gables classics such as "Thirty Pieces of Silver" and "Ellison." But there it is, "Palm Sunday Downpour" -- which begins by describing a beleaguered woman with her ex-husband's pistol by her bed "to scare the ghosts that come" as "the bourbon slips to the back of her head and spills down her spine" -- before reaching this remarkable verse:
The trains in the south are like angels
without all the light and the prayers and the need
The cops found a dress stained with blood
in the back of the barber's shop
and they called it a lead
The dress was a gift, I remember the girl
but I have nothing to do with that now
I paid the man for my beer
and I got a ticket on the first bus leaving town
By the end, the serial-killer theme is fully developed, reaching this conclusion: "The dead girl's mother picked up the pistol/the gun felt so heavy it made her feel small."
Allen says he looks forward to playing the new stuff with his new band for his old fans and friends. But he doesn't plan on doing any house-hunting during the homecoming visit. "I'm not going to settle down up here, either," Allen, who recently became engaged, says. "Couldn't happen. Jay came for a month. After that I went through three or four months of never talking to a person my age at all. A lot of heavy drinking and a lot of writing. But now that it's going well, I'm back to being a homebody. In Miami there was always a need to go out, but my preference is to rent a movie and get some Chinese food. That's how I am. Right now I'm looking forward to having some Cuban food. I need more action. I doubt I could survive long without a real city around me. Right now we're staying busy enough. From as dark as it was, it's picked up really well."
Hat performs after 10:00 p.m. Saturday at Washington Square, 645 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 534-1403. They also perform acoustically at Yesterday & Today Records, 5753 SW 40th St, on Sunday. Call 665-3305.
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