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.

Stones for Steven
(UR Records CD)

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
(Ponderous Bulk cassette)

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.

Since I...
(independent cassette)
By Christina Henriques

Since I...? That's the band's name, strange but appropriate. Not only is their name an incomplete thought, so are some of their lyrics: The three-song tape begins with "Lost Dreams" and a chorus that goes, "Come to me, come to me/...Lost dreams of.../Lost dreams of...." They've got a fill-in-the-blanks kinda thing going. The music itself is built on a keyboard foundation, a Ray Lynch "Celestial Soda Pop" sound. The second track, "Spend the Night" (a totally original theme), sounds like a continuation of the first song. And "Filthy Rich" gives a little room for guitar and bass to be heard along with those keyboards.

Not that this demo is all bad. If the band would dig deeper into the lyrical suggestion box and vary its sound a bit, it'd open some ears on the alternative/new wave front. In fact, the vocals are a vague cross between the Furs and a-ha, straight outta the early Eighties, so if Hollywood ever makes a sequel to the movie Pretty in Pink, these guys will be contenders for the soundtrack.

Barnyard Delights & Other Songs
of Protest
(Style CD and cassette)

Was that the Beatles? No, no, it was the Byrds. Or Neil Young. The Silos? Matthew Sweet? Who the hell am I listening to?

Oh, Rooster Head. No wonder.
A music writer could go completely 'round the bend trying to pinpoint all the influences, homages, and appropriations the members of this incredibly talented and unrepentantly diverse outfit bring to their music. Barnyard Delights, their third release, finds SoFlo's best and brightest at the top of their craft, rolling out more sweet stuff than Willie Wonka's chocolate factory.

Rooster Head remains the most accessible original rock band on the local scene, the band that single-handedly contradicts all those who would put down the area's rock talent pool, the (dare we say it?) thinking person's rock band. If they have a shortcoming (they must; they haven't yet outsold Garth Brooks or Pearl Jam, and we all know how closely related sales charts and artistic merit are, don't we?), it's that lead vocalist/songwriter Michael Kennedy is not blessed with golden pipes. So you won't hear Rooster Head cover octave-stretchers like Mariah Carey (at least not faithfully). Big fucking deal. Non-Davie residents (and perhaps even a few of the shitkickers themselves) with enough functioning brain cells to recall the Chuck Berry tune that inspired it will break their achy hearts over "Going Back to Memphis." Kennedy's voice is confident and expressive, his phrasing refreshingly original, and his timing dead on the money. And, yes, most of the songs he writes fit comfortably within his range. He's no fool.

If you've been thinking about sampling some local original fare but haven't opened the menu yet, take a tip from a regular: Rooster Head should be your first course. They're accomplished and versatile enough to please even the most discriminating gourmand, yet sufficiently hook-conscious and melodic to appeal to those not yet fully weaned from Top 40/AOR. As Americans prepare to usher in a new era in presidential politics, the time has come to begin thinking about a Rooster in every pot.

Buy This Tape, Or We'll Shoot the Cat
(independent cassette)

The cat lives, nine times over. The music -- psych-funk groove rock -- makes the sale, and the packaging is a bonus not always found in local releases (as is a nod to an old National Lampoon cover). With the major exception of the Goods' 5 Steps to Getting Signed, we can't think of too many area releases that include so much fodder on the J-card, not to mention such dramatic and tasteless cover art. That would be a b&w photo of a handsome black cat being held by the scruff of its neck while a variety of firearms are pointed at its face, the expression of which reveals that this grimalkin is none too happy being a model. God forbid they make a video, the kitty seems to be thinking, its eyes at half mast and its little kitty teeth protruding slightly. There is a disclaimer inside: "No small furry animals were harmed in the course of producing this tape," and besides, an inner-sleeve photograph reveals that the puss is running this show, as cats are wont to do.

Of course, no one buys a tape just to read the liner scrawlings, but we support the belief that an album is an album -- a package of recorded music plus the package itself. Hell, R.E.M. made an (abstract) art of it back in the days when vinyl existed. Nonetheless, Swyambu scores high on the music front, too; the feline need not fear.

The themes are the standard stuff -- deep psychosis, cultural rebellion, and darkly brooding, introspective moroseness of the sort upon which Pink Floyd built a career. That's just the themes, Swyambu sounds nothing like Floyd. The Chili Peppers and any number of other neofunk, hard-rock outfits, maybe, especially on "Psycho-Freak," which deals that cranking hand, even upping the ante with a sweet, recurring keyboard-generated boing that was almost deleted in the final mix. Here's one sucker for hooks who's glad the decision went the other way.

But again, toss out the comparisons when it comes to the sum. Too much variety -- "Purpal Pains" is a potent acoustic mood piece, richly textured and evocative beyond its lyrics, a shining moment of gentle splendor. "Turn the World Green" is not. It rocks, Alice Cooper meets Hendrix, rattling the walls with forceful melodics and earthquake guitar work. Great unforced and unpretentious contrasts, great music.

Songwriter, bass player, and singer Andre Dionne, who we should note has one of the strongest voices in the current musical milieu, reports that the band is adding a pair of female backup singers and occasional sax to live shows, and that a second pressing of Buy This Tape is forthcoming (the first 300 are about gone, damn if you local fans don't have good taste). And Psycho-Kitty, his friend and cover-art model, is livin' large, eating sushi and continuing to turn down offers from Cat Fancier magazine. Dionne also says that another release is in the works and that "the cover concept will be even funnier." We'll see. But we won't spend a lot of time looking at the cover. We'll be in too big a hurry to hear what Swyambu comes up with next.

The Bellefires
(demo cassette)

You've got to hand it to Louis Lowy. After playing bass and writing songs with Diane Ward -- first in Bootleg and then in the Wait -- for a half dozen years, only to see the latter band break up shortly after this publication named it Miami's best local rock-and-roll band in 1991, he wasted no time in hooking up with another highly regarded ensemble fronted by a passionate blond vocalist with a knockout voice. The Bellefires, and their fiery lead singer Valerie Campbell, have been a fixture on the original rock scene for more than a year. Guitarist Lisa Cattoretti was a member of Daisy Chain with Campbell, and drummer Henry Riesco is a reformed Strangler of Bombay.

Daisy Chain won the Snickers New Music Search in 1990, and Campbell was nominated for best female vocalist at the South Florida Rock Awards in 1990 and 1991 (Ward was the '91 winner). Their music has improved a lot since the early days; the Bellefires are tighter than ever, which, in turn, gives Campbell the confidence to cut loose, especially in a live setting. On tape, however, the immortal David Byrne line applies: This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around.

"New Faith" and "Beautiful World" register well at the moody, introspective end of the musical spectrum. Minor chords and atmospheric guitars rule. Campbell's voice cuts through the mix like a siren through a foggy night, solid and strong, yet every bit as melancholy and ethereal as the mist on which it's borne. Think Martha Davis and the Motels, only edgier and less radio-conscious. At times the effect is chilling, and at other times it sounds nebulous and murky, like Campbell and the band could have used a little more time to find a handle.

Still, the songwriting is interesting if not always compelling, and Campbell's vocals are captivating. Smolder, baby, smolder.

Brave Nude Behavior
(Shiva cassette)

WARNING: To avoid hazardous electrical shock do not operate near water. A new twist on Tipper stickers, that caveat should be pasted on the cover of this new five-song tape.

What's going on here is a powerful surge of crunchy rhythms ripping through the whole tape-a-real rhythmic stampede, layered with the slow-driven vocals of Joe Roland. Like the ever-changing guitar parts characteristic of Iron Maiden, guitarist Erik Kothern's varied chords and licks on "Meadowfly" draw you in faster than quicksand, minus the sinking feeling. Naked Rhythm mixes it up, so you're always looking forward to the next song, because you know, just know, it's going to sound different, all the way up to the closer, "Mind-N-the Way," which plays around with breaks and drum crescendos and is distinguished by its eerie-echo vocals. As with their previous effort, Your God Is Dead, teamwork prevails, all members contributing in measure. If being naked means being yourself, the name is perfect testament to what these four progressive rockers are all about. Some label should sign these guys. Soon.


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