RECENTLY I'D PREDICTED the next big trend in local rock would be a post-Soul Asylum classic- rock/power-pop hybrid. It seemed like a good guess at the time, but in the past month I've come to a different conclusion about the future of local pop rock, and it owes a lot to London. Get ready for a wave of "chorus and delay" bands, i.e. post-Cure and Cocteau Twins composers and sound explorers dubbed for the dreamy, oceanic effects created by their electronic tone-control pedals.
Perhaps it's apt that the next musical generation may be defined more by the technology they employ than by narrow stylistic niches like "surf" or "blues." In fact, a flurry of local bands are putting a lot of art and soul into the new machinery, and making standard retro-pop look rather old school.
Ironically, many of the new art-rock bands are headquartered at Twin/Tone Records, for many years the fortress of no-frills post-punk rock. It's in that bustling old bank building on Nicollet that Chris Strouth, former music curator for the Red Eye Collaboration theater project, heads Ultra Modern Records, a Twin/Tone imprint devoted to neo-psychedelic and assorted adventurous pop (plus his more personal pleasures, such as drum gods Savage Aural Hotbed, and the inexplicable Vinnie and the Stardusters). The label debuted in March with a single by leading dream-pop newcomers February, while the latest batch includes the more obscure but intriguing band Purblind, and the critics' well-kept secret, Overblue.
Ultra Modern also lends promotional support to younger, like-minded bands such as Shapeshifter and Colfax Abbey who, along with February, have quietly risen to headliner status--especially on Sunday night all-age shows. This quiet eruption indicates that the "neo-psych" sound may be a profound generational shift, not just a trendy blip. "The under-21 crowd hasn't been exposed to years and years of flannel rock, and isn't biased against bands that might have a keyboardist," says Strouth dryly.
Lately, my most heavily played local-music recordings are two ethereal prog-pop demo tapes. One is by the aforementioned Overblue, whose keyboardist/"Eno figure" Bob Demaa is no longer a full-time member since being hired as an engineer at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls. One song from the demo is the flipside of their groundbreaking Ultra Modern A-side, "Monoatomic," which magically mixes jangly hooks and the singer's brown-sugar melodies, before a mid-song dub-style breakdown that takes local atmospheric pop to new limits of studio sophistication.
The other tape that's been demanding my round-the-clock attention is A Very Special Christmas, by virtual unknowns 12 Rods, co-led by brothers Ryan and Ev Olcott. The Olcotts--and drummer Chris McGuire--are recent transplants from Oxford, Ohio, where their father is a college jazz professor. McGuire drummed in his father's rock & roll cover band from his early teens; bassist Matt Foust is from Eau Claire, and also leads rock band Ether Bunny, with Ryan on drums. Ev chose this little funkytown to build his career mainly due to his admiration of The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince, landing a job at the short-lived Entercor Studios, and catching on with funk/ska/rap octet Lippa Boogie Garoovians on saxophone (his major instrument in college). Ryan escaped Cincy shortly after, and occasionally subbed for the Lippas on drums .
The similarities between the Lippas and 12 Rods pretty much end there, however. The latter made their local debut March 4 at the Purple Onion, and have since played mostly new-band weeknights and out-of-the-way bars. Thanks to a work connection with bassist Ward Harper of Tin Drum/Rhea Valentine, they've played a few choice shows at Red Sea, catching on mostly with other musicians. Members of February and Passage (a rebirth of local trance-pop pioneers Judgement of Paris) are not only confirmed fans, but fellow students of a new musical philosophy that espouses adventurousness more than musical formula.
"We're extremely conscious of the subconscious," says McGuire, the band's more outspoken member and media coordinator. "We try to understand what it is about a certain guitar chord or a bass note that just makes you go, 'wowww.' And we're careful about what part of a song should just lie there and digest, and what part should knock you back a bit. One time in Cincinnati, we ended with a really slow song. Afterwards there was a minute and a half of total silence in the club. It didn't break until I got up from the drums. The fact that you can physically do that to someone is what's so cool about music. It's like witchcraft."
Besides an advanced sense of tasteful tone (and Ev the recording expert doubling on keyboards and guitar), the 12 Rods's secret weapon is fascinating rhythm, and the sense to know that trance-inducing pop can groove with great force through a light touch. The rhythmic emphasis owes to the band's two drum prodigies: Ryan represented all Ohio high schools in the state honors band in 1992; the next year, McGuire won the award. Says McGuire: "I've tried to abandon the notion that the beat always has to be the snare, hi-hat, and kick drum. I think listeners know instinctively what good time is, so I want to play the rhythm in a more interesting way, and be an active part of the music that's going on around it."
But all the members bring a jazzy ambition to techno-conscious pop, without mucking up the hooks. Demo track one ("Mexico") recalls Police drummer Stewart Copeland, New Order bass master Peter Hook, and XTC's vocal and guitar touch all at once. At other times, the slow-burning structures and sparkling chords offset Ryan's earnest, un-macho lyrics.
When discussing the band's hypnotic effect, Ryan explains that "We play to people who are most aware at the moment, and try to get off on that. People give us the title of art-rock, which I guess is understandable, but I was never a big fan of Rush or Yes. We're just tired of guitar rock; it's been done right too many times, and you can't really expand much on the perfecters of that."
Perhaps symbolic of the 12 Rods's healthy creative tension, brother Evan politely disagrees about the redundancy of rock. "There was guitar rock in the '70s and there's guitar rock in the '90s. It's the same, yet it's an extension. I can see in 20 more years there'll be a whole new version of it altogether." Personally, I can hardly wait. But until then, I'll surrender to 12 Rods and the Twin Cities' ultramodern underground.
12 Rods perform a middle set tonight between Gusto Busto and Salmon Bladder 2000 at the Ace Bar (University and Vandalia), and next Thursday at Red Sea with Ultrasonics and Own. Visit the 12 Rods Web Site at http://www.xmission.com/~triplo/12RODS
SPANNING THE GLOBE: Coincidentally, 12 Rods's current faves, Medicine, play the 7th Street Entry Sunday night with Long Fin Killie; check A List (page 23) for details. Other shows of note include the arrival of British chart-toppers Blur, touring the States to promote The Great Escape (Virgin). In fact, King of the Kinks Ray Davies endorses them, which isn't surprising since their tuneful depictions of English life and suburban psychosis trace back directly to the Kinks's second peak era, circa Arthur. Not to be missed are the opening act Whale, Sweden's answer to the Sugarcubes on acid (or maybe a high-dosage aphrodesiac). They lit up MTV last year with "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe," which is also on their randy, rowdy new CD We Care (Virgin)--which features some twisted knob-twisting from the globo-humpin' Tricky. Age restriction (18+) in effect! Thursday, $8/$10. Doors open at 8 p.m.... Also, German/American industrial giants KMFDM are a late addition to the First Avenue slate. They perform Sunday in the mainroom with Life of Agony, and American Records artists God Lives Underwater.
CLOSER TO HOME: One of Amphetamine Reptile's latest signings, Unsane, open for Guzzard Friday night in the Entry. The band has left Atlantic Records and just released Scattered, Smothered & Covered, recorded with Tim Mac at AmRep Studios. Local rockers to watch, Gnomes of Zurich, fill out the bill. Creeping Charlie opens. Friday, $6. Doors open at 8 p.m.... Earlier on Friday, Jim Rose Circus entertains us with a mainroom show around 7 p.m. Techno-rock adventurers Machines of Loving Grace open. $8/$10.
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