A FEW YEARS ago Red Red Meat was poised for alt-rock semi-stardom. They played loud, focusing on searing guitar interplay. They recorded for Sub Pop, they hailed from Chicago (one of many "Next Seattle"s circa 1993-94), and they toured with Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins. But RRM had grander things in mind than guest-host spots on 120 Minutes. By their third album they had turned down the guitars, picked up a second percussionist, and concentrated on the kind of sprawling, mucked-up soundscapes that Tricky might prattle over had he grown up on America's suburban side streets. Then they split up.
Yet, the red red flame burns on with new records, one by Loftus (a joint effort between Red Red Meat and the New York band Rex) and another by a Red Red Meat spin-off called Califone, whose studiocentric debut plots the same crooked course suggested by late-period Red Red Meat. In fact, Califone is Red Red Meat, only with less involvement from drummer Brian Deck, who appears here as producer and keyboardist. The absence of a traditional rock drummer gives the band new room to romp about. Twisted noises throb throughout, generated by guitars and an array of percussion sounds described in the album's liner notes as "bag of nails" or "black scraping across the floor."
The opening track, "On the Steeple w/ the Shakes (X-Mas Tigers)," surrounds frontman Tim Rutili's wails with a bubbling stew of piano tinkering, electronic spurts, and twisted guitars, on the way toward an ebullient percussive powwow. "To Hush a Sick Transmission" and "Red Food Old Heat" construct wailing walls of sound, seemingly out of the aforementioned rhythmic equipment. This sonic terrain might be mistaken for Eno-land. As with the sound maestro who sculpted such masterworks as Another Green World and Music for Airports, Califone creates their biggest winners when they reach into the atmospheric goo and pull out a pure pop song, as on "Pastry Sharp" and the acoustic ballad "Silvermine Pictures."
Loftus has twice as many members as Califone but half the sound. Conceived during jam sessions between Red Red Meat and Rex during encores on a 1995 tour, Loftus often struggles to move past plodding mope rock. The record occasionally succeeds, particularly on sonic curveballs like "Blind" and "Bell and Hammer." Yet languid guitar-plateaus such as "Nervous" and "Theme from Loftus Nine" ultimately seem more appropriate to the hootenannies from which they originated than the LP on which they're sold.
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