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It's Friday night, and if the collegiate types, Eritrean regulars, and hip-hop kids at the Red Sea aren't exactly pumping their fists in the air to tonight's indie-pop headliners, Sliver, they aren't taking their eyes off them either. Outside this West Bank bar there's an almost tropical downpour, and the quartet's two charismatic singer/guitarists, Teddy Kim and Laura Harley, provide a soothing counterpoint to the tempest on Cedar Avenue.
Kim and Harley play a succession of delicate and arresting pop songs, each sung with enough aching emotion to hook the audience. Though the rhythm section has been plagued by lineup changes--they've gone through four drummers and three bassists in two years--you get the feeling that all Sliver needs is a dose of conviction to become the great pop band it wants to be. On Sunday morning, the rain has evaporated, and the band, minus bassist Kirk Nelson, waits for a patio brunch at the Egg and I restaurant. Kim, 27, has a nasal speaking voice that is nearly the opposite of his full-throated singing style, but his self-deprecating wit and soft Korean features make it seem endearing.
"I'd just moved here from Chicago," he says, recalling a certain fortuitous "Battle of the Bands" contest he attended at Stillwater High School back in February of 1996. "I'd tried to form a band. But I'd kind of given up until I saw Laura's group play in the contest. She just shined: It was like when you're driving through the suburbs and you see a manger scene, and there's the baby Jesus with a little star, and you're like, 'Oh my God!'" Everyone, including Kim, laughs at the overblown imagery, but his sentiment seems sincere.
"My high school was actually Convent of the Visitation, an all-girls school," says Harley, a striking 20-year-old blonde from West St. Paul. "We were playing Stillwater because everyone else in the band was from there. And after Teddy and I met, we started playing together and writing together."
The new band, whose name is a reference neither to the Sharon Stone movie nor the early Nirvana song, debuted at the Turf Club in late '96. But the group's lineup was anything but fixed, and after several membership shuffles, Sliver pressed bassist Matt Leitl, a gentle 22-year-old UM student from Milwaukee, into service as full-time drummer. "He started playing drums a year ago," says Kim, turning to Leitl, "and there was that horrible summer when we were in the practice space every day."
"I was basically learning from scratch," says Leitl. "And you sat behind me with a whip, yelling, 'Faster! Harder! Steadier!'" Though Kim dubs Leitl the group's old-timer, Kim and Harley remain the core of the band; they lay down Sliver's trademark strummy, muddy, and chiming guitar sounds while expanding on their hooks with moody melodies that recall the Spinanes and local peers Mollycuddle.
The band's demo impressed Radio K programmers enough to earn cuts like "Moon Induced" sustained airplay well before the tune was officially pressed. That and other songs now resurface with a cleaner production on the band's auspicious debut album, Beneath the Waves (Guilt Ridden Pop), which was recorded over the course of two years in Chicago and Minneapolis. At times both subdued and remarkably catchy, the CD documents the emotions before and after Kim and Harley met, made music, and subsequently--ahem--made beautiful music together.
In conversation the two are cagey about discussing their romantic relationship, but the opening cut on the album, "Roo," evokes the way the pair found refuge in each other after a particularly dark time in both of their love lives. "Pull the covers tight/Draw shades against the night/So I can sleep again and dream a life with you," Harley sings in one representative lyric.
"A lot of the songs are about getting on your feet and looking forward again," says Kim. "They aren't about our relationship, necessarily, except in maybe a tangential fashion. It's more about being in this situation that's kind of, like, crushing your soul."
"Well I wasn't crushing your soul," laughs Harley. "We were both coming out of bad relationships. At least I was. And I tend to write about issues women might identify with, like the loss of self, finding your own voice, and following your intuition."
In the kind of confluence that animates the best couple-pop bands (see the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group), Sliver's two singers found both musical and emotional salvation through playing together. "When we first started writing songs I was a pretty unhappy person," admits Kim. "I feel like one of the things that made this band work was that we were holding each other up through a pretty difficult period of our lives. This band still exists because of our persistence."
Sliver play a CD-release concert with Florida and Pilot Light Sunday, July 12, at the 7th Street Entry; call 338-8388. They also play with Darling on July 17 at Foxfire Coffee Lounge; call 338-2360.
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