RPM vs. Sombertown

Sombertown are what so many Minneapolis combos promise to be but rarely make good on--a pop band with actual pop songs

THE TUESDAY MID-EVENING crowd at First Avenue is emptying out, clearing way for the second shift, Club 241. Closing an unaccompanied, acoustic set, poor, poor pitiful Warren Zevon has just been forced to exhume his umptillionth rendition of "Werewolves of London," when he'd certainly rather be premiering more material from his largely overlooked and underrated, Life'll Kill Ya. Regardless, Zevon adepts "aah-ooh" along with the singer as they file out, none willing to admit the mature truth they've just witnessed--that you really can't be a full-on wildman with an acoustic guitar.

Over the loudspeaker, the DJ carries out the empty ritual of announcing upcoming bands, a litany that everyone is always too busy grabbing a coat or a drink or a member of the opposite sex to notice. "And in the Entry tonight we have New Band Night with"--the announcer pauses here, maybe searching for a list, or maybe just deciding to ignore the list in front of him--"with new bands."

It's no coincidence that New Band Night and two-for-one drink specials fall on the same evening. The specially designated evening can behave as less a spotlight for new bands than a kind of quarantine, branding new combos with a scarlet A for "amateur." And while drink specials may help fill the Entry, the promotional gimmick doesn't always help the band--after all, not all bad music is ameliorated by two-fisting.

The music of Blues Is Blood, however, sure does capitalize on mass inebriation. Stage right, an amiable, bearded patriarch sits and pronounces readymade couplets with a hippie regality I slightly resent--I don't have a seat, so why should he? Stage left, a lanky, longhaired guy strums accompaniment. In between, a man and a woman pound out rudimentary polyrhythms on congas and bongos and such. And everyone in the Entry flops around in that loose-limbed hippie facsimile of dancing that kicks in when there aren't any Frisbees in the house. Can't remember the last time I got such a jolt from grooving to music I didn't particularly want to hear.

The band I do want to hear is Minneapolis's Sombertown. That's not a promising name, suggesting the sort of glacial drift that affects musical Minnesotans when they court arty drones in their basements. Yet it turns out that Sombertown are what so many Minneapolis combos promise to be but rarely make good on--a pop band with actual pop songs. They don't indulge in the strummy, two-chord abdications of hookcraft common to many indie shoegazers, nor do they overcompensate with overripe slabs of power pop. They play it slack but not sloppy, like a less snarky Imperial Teen.

This loose approach includes a boy-girl vocal tradeoff between Chris Prew, a big guy who dwarfs his tiny guitar and sings in a perky yet quizzical tenor, and bassist Merin Coats, whose sleeveless black dress contrasts with the utilitarian garb of her male bandmates. Prew gets the bulk of the leads, while Coats generally widens (and occasionally rolls) her eyes thoughtfully with background "la's."

Matt McGuire is a New Wave-schooled guitarist who chimes in with hooks that never seem manipulative--one riff sounds like it's about to echo "Back on the Chain Gang," then toodles off into a melody of its own. He jangles a bit, he wanders some, yet even when McGuire seems prepared to slip into arpeggiated boredom, the chorus kicks in--not with the triumphant blare of post-Nirvana overkill, but simply with an energetic burst of keen melody. And drummer Scott Homan and bassist Coats are equally comfortable in rave-up mode or shambling coda.

The band members, who seem to be in their late twenties, also lug around a cadre of fans who are refreshingly unhip enough to fill the no man's land in front of the stage usually reserved on New Band Night for particularly dutiful girlfriends. Supporters of the band aim point-and-clicks at their pals. A contingent of beefy guys in buzzed hair and letter jackets file in mid-set, like someone has announced a cattle call for the role of Biff in Back to the Future 2000. At one point, the band sings an a cappella "Happy Birthday" to Corey, whom everyone on the floor seems to know. I don't know Corey. And I don't see anyone nearby embarrassed enough to possibly be Corey.

Though the vocal mix is typically low, the lyrics that emerge from the blare don't embarrass anyone, tweaking the vernacular to coy and expressive ends. "I mean what I say/When I say/I mean what I say," Prew sings. "Do you know what I mean?" Then, as Coats chimes in, Prew sings, "La la la la la la." And I think he means it.

 

To request a live-concert review under the RPM Band Challenge send pertinent info (band lineup, CV, show date, ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol) to: kharris@citypages.com.

 
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