The Sound of One Fan Clapping

If a local CD falls into the retail bins, does it make a sound? Peter S. Scholtes reviews this month's batch of releases.

Both groups trade in voguish styles. St. Paul's Tigers enlist ex-members of Lefty Lucy and Arm to play buzzing, boiling temper-rock with hooks of steel on their six-song Year of the Tigers CD, much in the general tradition of Olympia's baddest bands, Sleater-Kinney and Unwound. But their songs' specific gripes often take six or seven listens to decipher ("Job Corps Riot" is either about losing your nerve in love or at work, or both), and in the moment, you find yourself enjoying the sandpapery guitar textures and unique boy-girl-boy-girl vocal interplay. Not only do all four sing, but you get the feeling that in their little movie they're each eager to play the leading role.

On the four-song Deeply Thoughtful CD, Chromaphase pump out a thick lather of pop and electronics worthy of the Rentals or Stereolab, and they capture the giddy fun that comes with hearing a good sound find even better songs. Here, texture is the thing, with the fuzzy vintage synths smartly played off gentle, boyish vocal harmonies. But as Stereolab might say, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that axis-tilting chord change. A friend offered Ultravox as a reference point, but I hear the kinetic futurism of Sweden's chronically nerdy but nonetheless fascinating Komeda. Little surprise, then, that the Minneapolis quartet has found its way on the air via the support of select Swede pop boosters at Radio K.

Dylan Hicks
No Alternative

If the singer-songwriter mode is becoming dominant in this once band-crazy town, then it's the "& the"s, as in "Tina & the B-Sides," who'll save us from a local infection of late-'90s Gram Parsons wannabes. Dylan Hicks has had plenty of his own "& the"s: "Dylan Hicks & the Three Pesos," "Dylan Hicks & Golf Ball-Sized Boogie," and now "Dylan Hicks & the Rockin' Tigers." Martin Zellar has his "& the Hardways" to keep him in check, Mark Mallman his "& the Heat." But Hicks's various "& the"s usually provide more than just a vehicle for Herr Hicks's songs, and on his new album, the collaborative effort lets the "& the"s have quite a bit of input.

In fact, the big news on Hicks's new Poughkeepsie CD isn't that he can write a classic heartfelt song, as he does with "That Look Wasn't Meant for You." (Though even here, the famous wit can't resist tossing in a line like, "I can hear them bullies calling me a fairy/Now they call me adult contemporary.") The news isn't that Hicks's singing can suggest the image of a scrappier Mick Jagger, which we knew, or that he's perfected a twentysomething bachelor tune like "100 Dollar Bill." Sure, the latter gift is evidenced on a new "Governor of Fun"-style anthem called "Bad Boyfriend," where he sings, "When I come, I fall asleep"--but that's no big deal.

Nope, the real scoop on this CD is how sonically absorbing it is. That's a bigger accomplishment than it sounds. After all, interpreting old soul music through a filter of roots rock, indie-twang guitar, and winsome folk is a dicey business for any singer: Plenty of people can't stand Billy Bragg, who's tried the same clever lyrics/earnest chord changes formula with some success.

Poughkeepsie's serious sound-tinkering manages to cook up the kind of album Hicks probably wouldn't mind owning in his expansive collection. The weird, funk-guitar noises on "I'm Not from Around Here," the juicy synthesizer figures on the opening "Waterbed," and the subtle sampler-fueled atmospherics of "The Forest Through the Trees" and "Claude Debussy" (courtesy of Jason Heinrichs)--all these give listeners room to wander around the album's soundscape. You can admire the scenery while laughing at the tour guide's self-deprecating jokes and stories, swallowing those stray pangs of empathy along the way.

The Minnesota Klezmer Band
Bulka's Song
Frozen Chozen Productions, Inc.

The fact that any single group of musicians could have the chutzpah to call itself "The Minnesota Klezmer Band" probably says more about this giant, gentile White Castle of a state we live in than anything else. Still, I don't know a better set of folks to fit the Klezmer job description--at least if MKB's lovely new disc, Bulka's Song, is anything to go on. Brimming with humor and a touching sense of reverence, the album is a pleasure from beginning to end. And it works as an introduction to Jewish folk music that also whimsically reworks the form.

Clueing you in right away to the Band's prominent funny bone is the CD's label, named as a playful reference to the Public Enemy lyric, "So-called chosen/Frozen," from "Welcome to the Terrordome." The joke appears again in their song "Land of the Frozen Chosen," where "the Jews are few but bold/Even women rabbis grow beards/For protection from the cold." Note also the band's wry slogan: "Jewish music's much better than Jewish wine!"

Still, before you write them off as a mere novelty, listen closely to Joseph Vass's frank and moving lyrics, especially in the title track: "My father's father died too long ago/He went up in smoke so I was told... I will play for two grandfathers I never met/And imagine them playing with me."

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