As soon as I started working at New Times last November, before I had even memorized my new phone number, the demo tapes started pouring in. I must have received at least five my first week here -- little C-60 missives from this band or that singer/songwriter, usually accompanied by a black-and-white photo, an artist bio, and a letter asking for some kind of review or writeup.
The first one I got was sent by the guitarist of a local heavy-metal band with some kind of bloody, pseudo-satanic name. (Demon Blood? Beelzeblood? Really, I can't remember, but I do recall their photo being kinda scary in a comical way. They looked like the cast of a low-budget sequel to The Lost Boys.) Anyway, the tape came with a very nice letter welcoming me to Miami and asking me to please take a listen to the band, which was -- and I'm paraphrasing -- going to do things in Miami that this city's never before seen. He didn't elaborate and I didn't want to know.
Expecting to hear a four-song discourse on the ins and outs of animal sacrifice, I popped the tape in the deck on my way home from work. What I heard wasn't satanic, but it was very frightening. Despite its demonic pose, Demonbeelzeblood or whatever played a slick, poppy brand of lite-metal that was more Bon Jovi than Black Sabbath, with shrieking vocals, ham-fisted guitar breaks, and a rhythm section that, despite the band's obsession with vital fluids, was utterly bloodless. I never called the guitarist and he never called me, and to my knowledge the band never got around to accomplishing whatever it was it had set out to accomplish.
Since then the tapes have kept coming -- from Latin rockers and oddball jazzbos; from frat-daddy party bands and brooding disciples of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder; from white-boy funkateers and soul-searching folkies. Some have been pretty good; others have been . . . well, not so good. When I'm feeling dutiful and diligent, I listen to them if I have a free 30 or so minutes. Usually, though, I stack them beside my desk while opening the mail, and when the pile gets about waist-high, I take them home and swear I'll get to them later.
Well, now's later, so gather around as we troll through the low-fi efforts of Miami's unsigned finest, something we should be doing every six or eight weeks. I thought about grading them a la Robert Christgau, but that's not fair. These are demos, after all -- not exactly the place to look for well-developed ideas (although occasionally some real inspiration will surface). They're arranged pretty much in the order that I played them, and I've tried to be as democratic as possible, without glossing over shortcomings or bad-mouthing genuine efforts. If you want to send a tape for possible mention in a future column, help yourself: Send it to my attention at Miami New Times, Box 011591, Miami, FL, 33101. It may take awhile, but I swear I'll listen to it.
The Jongleurs. Imagine a slightly adventurous MOR jazz group with a crush on Frank Zappa and you've pretty much got an idea of where this Coral Gables outfit is coming from. They have a skronking sax player, a nimble-fingered bassist, and a smart-assed vocalist who offers lines such as "Put some latitude in your attitude/Put some longitude in your Under-oos." There are some nice touches on each of these four songs A off-kilter rhythms keep things interesting for a while, and the bass-sax work that kicks off "Midwest" made me hit the rewind button twice. By side two, however, the drum solo during "Big Dick" had me thinking about the stop button, and maybe I'm just too damn PC for my own funny bone, but I have a hard time laughing at a song called "Psycho Bitch from Hell."
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Mike Barra. Three-song cassette from a grumbling singer/songwriter folkie who falls in love with a Wisconsin tourist (song one), wonders why we all can't just get along (song two), and figures out that in this crazy world of ours, it's not what you know, but who you know (song three). Is it Jimmy Buffett with a beef or Guy Clark without a clue?
Mrs Nova. Yipes, look at the influences cited in the bio of this youngish rock en espanol quartet: Charles Mingus is a pleasant surprise, but Rush? Sting? Jane's Addiction? Yanni? I don't hear the mark of any of them, though. Instead, this is perfectly competent, slightly brooding modern rock; the three songs are at least as good as anything on the other Latin rock demos I've heard. I like the way "Lovely People" builds from a Bo Diddley intro to a good ol' arena-rock climax, then back again to the shave-and-a-haircut shuffle. Both "Bob" and "Emotional Shroud" are moody ballads with some Byrdsy guitar work by Emilio Cueto. Overall, very impressive.
The Way, Laughing at Nothing at All. The songs are slow and grinding and tend to wander a bit, the guitar sound reminds me of a thousand other metal bands, and on the first and fourth cuts the singer sounds just like the guy in Green Jelly, the group that had a hit a few years back with a putrid funk-rock retelling of the Three Little Pigs fairy tale. The turgid tempos don't bother me that much, nor do the meandering riffs, and I've never been above succumbing to loud, fuzzy, and generic hard-rock guitars. However, I have to draw the line at anything that recalls Green Jelly. It's something of a law around these parts. Absolute nadir: "I Am," an open-heart power ballad.
Fay Wray. Well, holy moly, what is this? An honest to God punk-rock anthem about paternal sexual abuse? Don't know for sure, but "Father to Son," the first cut on this extremely good six-song tape, rocks with the same kind of desperate, determined spirit of the Replacements circa "I'm in Trouble" and "Color Me Impressed." The singer's name is Jeff London, and he snarls with a vengeance without ever coming off like a snot-nosed jerk. The guitar player's something else, too, but really it's the hooks and riffs that make nearly every song here worth hearing again and again. Inspirational title: "Tonight I Just Don't Give a Damn." Runnerup: "I Think I Hate