Pure Phaser

Phaser frontman Siayko Skalsky recently had a daughter. "The first thing I did when I brought her home was put her on the stereo," he says. "I played her the new Wilco record. I played her some Grandaddy, some David Bowie, some Beatles. A little bit of the new Queens of the Stone Age. I played her some old Verve stuff." By this he means, of course, the beloved songs of Richard Ashcroft's Brit-band the Verve, not the collected works of Ella, Dizzy, and Billie.

Music is still the Skalsky family's salt of life, something its members pass on to each other for good flavor and toss over their shoulders for good fortune. Skalsky's brother, Boris, is Phaser's keyboardist/ bassist, and their mom originally trained to be a concert pianist. Their dad played rock n' roll albums in the house. Paul Wood and Ritse DeJong round out the Washington, D.C.-based quartet on guitars and drums, respectively. The band formed in 1999 and recorded its first EP, Skydive, in its own studio and issued it independently in 2000. Folks from the Emperor Norton label heard songs from it on satellite radio and picked up the band for the current release, Sway.

"Sweeping keyboards, string arrangements, and even the occasional gospel chorus settle comfortably next to churning psychedelic guitars, numbing vocal reverbs, and desolate space echoes," the band's bio boasts of Sway. In the last year Phaser's sound has been filed under a half-dozen obscure music-critic definitions, including space rock, bliss rock, dream rock, shoegazing rock, and new-gazing rock.

"I'm sick of those terms," Skalsky confides, clarifying that, for him, Phaser's music is an unintentional "mix between the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and late-Nineties British music." For two brothers who bake their musical buns in a British oven, comparisons with Oasis are unavoidable. "At this point, I don't know what to say about it anymore," the singer adds. "We're brothers. Sometimes we get compared to Oasis. I don't hear it. All those internal bickering issues, we don't do it. But we can be just as feisty -- it depends on how much we drink."

Space rock, bliss rock, dream rock, psych rock, shoegazing, whatever -- it's all writing on the wall, not just for Phaser, but for an era of simple, well-crafted rock that the corporate tastemakers seem to have buried while it was still warm. "There was more variety five years ago," Skalsky says. "Now, I feel like every time you turn on the radio or the TV, you hear the metal stuff. It's just not my thing. I can't even tell you who [the bands] are anymore."

Five years ago, critics and reviewers probably would've simply called Sway a pop album. The title track is tailor-made for cheek-stroking; the choir background vocals and transcendent keyboards ("Northern Light") are paeans to Pink Floyd. Though "Life and Illusion" is very similar to an early Oasis track, the band hits its own unique, beautiful stride with the soulful "Baby Blue." Sway is reminiscent of the days when heartbreak was treated with alcohol, cigarettes, and rain. What's ironic -- only three years into the new millennium -- is that this sound has been relegated to a small market niche. Meanwhile the aggressive nu-metal that only tortured kids once imbibed is now what young stockbrokers driving BMW 745s crank up to get pumped for their workouts.

However, Skalsky adds, "There's a lot of good things going out now, like satellite radio, because you hear a million things you'll never hear on FM," mentioning the recent renaissance of garage rock. "We're not looking to be a 'stadium' band. As far as I'm concerned, we have a kind of cult status." That stadium is an adjective is a troublesome development -- it seems like the kind of bottom-line word an A&R suit would conjure up while guessing at the number of asses a band might be able to squeeze into seats. "Stadium rock" is a phrase Kurt Cobain would have spit out before he swallowed it, so it's heartening to hear Skalsky trash it.

Only a few years ago, Sway might have been dismissed as imitative, but its music now feels like a welcome trip into a forgotten past. Maybe cult status is good. Maybe if enough people rest their newborns on stereos playing the Beatles, so many space rock/bliss rock/dream rock/ shoegazing/new gazing listeners will rise up that we won't ever again have to turn to outer space for harmony on rock radio.

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Marli Guzzetta