Pets Sounds

Tunefully metallic, eschewing imprecision, the Dallas-based Buck Pets are a silver key crunching in an unfamiliar lock, a small room filled with sharp slant-angles of sunshine. The Pets's third LP, To the Quick, is their strongest effort to date, and should secure the band's fame among fans who like their guitar rock tight, terse, fast, and furious...

Among the congenital defects of all rock critics is a certain conceptual blurriness, an inability to come clean about the impossible alchemy the profession requires. When you spend your life trying to harvest sheaves of prose from fields of noise, trying to turn one sort of energy --- whether the wind shear of powerchords or the thunder of a drum roll -- into another, you tend to overlook the vanity of the undertaking. Every once in a while, though, a band comes along with a sound so clear, determined, and pure, that you wish you could just set up a transmitter and let the music speak for itself. So here's a little experiment. Press the page against your ear. Breathe quietly. Listen closely. Meet the Buck Pets.

Founded in mid-Eighties Dallas by highschool pals Chris Savage (guitarist/vocalist and principal lyricist) and Andy Thompson (guitarist/vocalist), the Pets added drummer Tony Alba and soon rounded out their lineup with bassist Ian Beach, who joined the band after a chance encounter at a Pennsylvania gas station. "The guys were passing through on their way to a show," says the soft-spoken Beach, "and they needed directions. I ended up going to see them, liked the band, and their bass player wasn't working out. So I went to Dallas."

In true Cinderella fashion, the band signed to Island and released an eponymous debut in 1989. With its incendiary twin-guitar attack and penchant for stinging hooks, The Buck Pets shot from the doublebarrels of punk edginess and dinosaur-rock brawn; and songs like "More and More" and "Perfect" hit their mark with a caffeinated, riff-happy abandon (think cigarillo remix of "Smoke on the Water").

The following year, the Pets tested their reach with Mercurotones, an exhilarating but flawed LP that cluttered the drag strip axcraft of the debut with eclectic instrumentation and other ambitious debris. Whether unplugging for "Some Hesitation" or importing strings into "Ready to Break," the band squandered its high octane by leaning too hard on stylistic leaps. "We had trouble with [producer] Michael Beinhorn," says Beach. "He wanted a glossy, poppy sound, and after a while we just began to wonder how much shit he actually did know. In the end, he got some good sounds, and he got some bad sounds. For instance, there's hardly any bass on the album."

For all the patchiness, the music on Mercurotones still shone in spots. "Moon Goddess (R.T. Cocaine Blues)" and "Guilty" blazed away, and midtempo numbers such as "Five O'Clock or Thursday" (with the insinuating chorus "Now it's up to you/To set the mood") exhibited the band's songwriting growth. And then there was the ebullient, hip-hop flavored "Libertine," which was produced by the Dust Brothers and employed James Brown samples and Earth, Wind, and Fire horn charts along with the guitar buzz. "We were listening to a lot of hip-hop at that time," says Beach, "and we wanted to see what we would sound like in that kind of environment. Working with [the Dust Brothers] was the most fun we had on the second record, and it's the best sounding song on the second record." Though Mercurotones spent months in the upper reaches of the college music charts and brought the Pets countless critical kudos, it remains a painful memory. As Beach says with a rueful laugh, "We call that album 'Stepchild'."

The tension with Beinhorn and the band members' own complex ambitions notwithstanding, most of the problems surrounding the sophomore effort arose from increasingly strained relations with Island. "Frankly, we were dissatisfied with the label," says Beach. "Not so much with their performance marketing us -- they did all right, did what they needed to -- but with smaller things that showed us that they didn't understand the band. Also, there was upheaval at the label, and by the time the album got done, we didn't know who was running the company anymore." And whoever was running the company didn't care too much for the Buck Pets, who were suddenly and unceremoniously dropped from their recording contract in 1991. Six months later, Alba left the band to get married.

With neither label nor drummer, the Buck Pets could have easily slipped into rock oblivion. But the three remaining players simply took deep breaths and got back to work. After passing Alba's sticks to converted guitarist Ricky Pearson, who had been a roommate of Savage's, the Pets began the search for a label, considering both majors and minors, corporate giants and indie iconoclasts. Roughly five years after they first signed on Island's dotted line, the Buck Pets joined up with the Hollywood-based Restless Records. "When you go to an independent label, you lose one thing," says Beach. "Money. And that translates into marketing, promotion, payola, everything. When we were young, we knew of the possible problems involved in signing with a major label, but we thought we could do it. We just didn't expect the kinds of difficulties that we ran into. Restless has been great. We're very happy with the move."

Fans of the band should be thrilled as well. On To the Quick the Buck Pets have navigated their trying past and emerged with vision and power intact. Savage's songs are older and definitely wiser, with enough world-weary asides about the soul-kill of the music biz to make you think you've stumbled into Paul Westerberg's journal. From the first verse of "Living Is the Biggest Thing" ("I was up at eleven/In the bitter cold/Now I'm drunk as the devil/And I'm going home") to the title track ("Twenty years of doubt/I'm ready to throw it out/If I could change anything/I would change everything"), the LP is filled with images of disappointment A dark corners and dreams deferred that shade imperceptibly into declarations of purpose. Under the able guidance of producer Ted Niceley (Fugazi), the sonic grip of the band has tightened, pushing vocals higher in the mix while keeping guitars crisp; if songs like the blistering "Nothing's Ever Gonna be Alright Again" or the CD-only cover of the Who's "Bargain" don't induce nitrogen narcosis, don't even bother checking for a pulse. You're dead.

Beach says that the raw, almost live sound draws closer to what the band wants from its recordings. "If you listen to that new PJ Harvey album [Rid Of Me, produced by Steve Albini], that's about as bare bones as it gets. A couple of us are just loving that record, and on our album, we went for something similar. There are a lot of tracks that are live in studio with just a few guitar overdubs."

Not simply a topnotch LP, To the Quick is the rarest and most heartening of pop artifacts -- the sound of a band becoming both more specific and more universal. As they begin what one hopes will be a long and fruitful association with Restless, the Buck Pets are more powerful than ever, capable of evoking comparisons as diverse as Sonic Youth and Soul Asylum, Afghan Whigs and Public Image Ltd. And on the road, as always, they remain an awesome presence, a sound to be reckoned with. Though they've taken three albums to achieve their full strength, the Buck Pets now have a bite to match their bark. Or, as the ol' rock adage goes: Some bands are subject to dispute and some aren't. Lavish your attention on the second group. You'll be amply rewarded.

The Buck Pets perform with Season to Risk and Mind Over Four at 10:30 p.m. Thursday at Washington Square, 645 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 534-1403. Admission costs $6 and $7.

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Ben Greenman