IMAGINING THE WORST possible review for their debut CD Live at the Jungle (in stores this week), The Tropicals' singer/lyricist Craig Wright offers: "These guys obviously have talent. It's a shame they don't wanna be in a rock and roll band, because they'd write the great songs we're having to suffer without."
To which the duo's less deprecating singer/guitarist Peter Lawton quickly adds: "Oh, I think I could be a lot worse."
It is hard to imagine The Tropicals' Simon and Garfunkelesque all-acoustic prairie-punk pastorals finding much favor among the urbanist, irony-addled rock-critic establishment. Their sweetly simple folk songs about kids, cups of tea, and butterflies have about as much to do with contemporary rock fare as Wallace Stevens does with Marilyn Manson. It's a fact they're well aware of, but which they don't seem to care that much about. "I'm sorry," says Wright, "I'm just much more interested in butterflies than I am in Nine Inch Nails."
The two Trops initially met as actors at the Children's Theater; they started playing local stages in about 1991 when Lawton, then a recent graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, came back to the Midwest to make music with Wright, who was working as a playwright on a Jerome Fellowship from the Playwrights' Center. At first the group bombed in front of a Minneapolis rock community that pegged them as a coffee shop patsies. "They thought we were a comedy group," remembers Lawton, "the guys in leather wanted to kill us."
But after a couple years of performing around town, and with the support of local critic Jim Walsh, they amassed a small but loyal following. By 1993 they were ready to cut a record--but the recording process turned out to be such a drag they stopped playing altogether for over a year, only to return to give it another try.
The result is Live at the Jungle, an album recorded over two nights of shows at the Jungle Theater in the winter of 1995. It's kind of a neat little record. When The Trops are wonderful--which is most of the time--their songs about butterflies ("Sara Orange Tip"), barely averted extra-marital flings ("Emily"), Lawton's departed dog ("Delight"), themselves ("We're The Tropicals," "All Around the World," and "De Trop"), phallocentric l-u-v ("Drillin' Thing"), and requited l-o-v-e ("Sweet New Style") come off like the work of a winsome Midwestern male version of The Roches. When they're less than wonderful, they come off like a Simon and Garfunkel without the strings and with only half the melodrama.
It's a critique to which Wright is quick to respond. "Hey, 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' is in a lot more people's CD collections than the fucking Velvet Underground. Not to say we don't love the Velvet Underground." If people's CD collections win out over small minded alt-rock cynicism, The Tropicals might have a shot at extending their audience outside the nation of hundreds that makes up their local fan base. And the truth is, nothing has made this small minded alt-cynic happier in the Fall of 1996 than the realization I'm not too cynical to fall at least a little (sometimes a lot) for deceptively simple little songs about kids, cups of tea, and butterflies. And as plans brew for a studio record due out next year, it looks like I'll get to keep on falling. (Jon Dolan)
Tropicals play Tuesday at 10 p.m. at the Bryant Lake Bowl; 825-8949.
PLUG IN, TURN ON
INCREDIBLE AS IT still seems, abstract electronic music has managed to sneak its way into the pop world (see Aphex Twin, The Orb, Tortoise, etc., etc.). The three-day "Festival of Electronic Music and Art" called Sonic Circuits IV offers a chance to see and hear what's happening with electronica in its original home: the art world. The sounds I've heard from Paul Higham's Heuristicles Crossing Autolympus, a multimedia installation piece that will be featured throughout the series, show a sensuality that's rare in these circles, with lush, Eno-esque soundscapes percolating with subterranean beats (you could even dance to it, sorta). Among the other artists represented are David Claman, a Boston composer whose '70 (presented Friday) will be appreciated by most Sonic Youth fans; grimly funny local electro-poet Erik Belgum, author of the recent Star Fiction (also Friday); improv innovator Carei Thomas (Saturday); and more than a dozen more. Wednesday's program at the Science Museum is a performance/demonstration by various artists that will teach you the What and How of it all ($5. 8 p.m. 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul), while the Friday and Saturday programs each have different performance lineups, with works that should be by turns beautiful, frightening, hilarious, trance-inducing, and pretentious. In other words, a little something for everyone. $12. 8 p.m. Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.; 871-4444. (Will Hermes)
IT'S A GREAT week for blues in the Twin Cities, with the reverent Koerner, Ray & Glover at the Cedar on Saturday and the irreverent Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at First Avenue on Sunday (see A-List). But that ain't all. In town Friday is West Side Chicago vet Mighty Joe Young. As a vocalist, Mighty Joe can tell a story with humor, passion and economy. As a guitarist, his style owes a lot to Otis Rush and B.B. King (it's no coincidence that he named his axe Josephine, a la B.B.'s Lucille), but as mentors go, that's not too shabby. Health complications have limited his playing for many years now, but his tasty restraint, well-rounded tone, and rhythmic assurance are all still in evidence when he takes his solo turn. It happens at the Blues Saloon, corner of Western and Thomas in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul; call 228-9959 for info.
Like Bonnie Raitt, the distaff trio known as Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women take their inspiration from the feisty, trenchant blues of Roaring Twenties stalwarts like Sippie Wallace and Ida Cox. Led by charismatic vocalist Gaye Adegbalola, a gray-haired, flat-top firebrand, and kinetic barrelhouse pianist Ann Rabson (relative newcomer Andra Faye McIntosh is the third member), Saffire are by turns winking sybarites, wizened matriarchs, and growling, red-hot mamas. Despite a hokey cover, their new Alligator CD, Cleaning House, is a typically energetic and uplifting slab of soulful blues. And as you might expect, they're better live than on disc. They'll be at the Fine Line Music Cafe Saturday (318 First Ave. N., Mpls., 338-8100).
Finally, after slidemaster Ed Williams disbanded his group, The Blues Imperials, "Lil' Ed" reunited with fellow six-string wildman Dave Weld. With their current group, dubbed The Imperial Flames, in tow, they're blazing a bluesy trail across the juke joint circuit in support of their new Earwig CD, Keep on Walkin'. Saturday, 9:30 p.m. Blues Saloon, Western and Thomas Aves., St. Paul; 228-9959. (Britt Robson/Dan Emerson)
HIPPIER THAN THOU
THE MARCH OF baby Dead bands into the Twin Cities this month begins with the dime store mystics known as Rusted Root, who have grown from the lightweight multiculti boogies on Cruel Sun (their recently-reissued '92 debut) to the rather more portentous/pretentious fare on Remember, which has frontman Michael Glabicki replacing his old David Byrne warbles with deeper (though equally directionless) Eddie Vedder-like melismas. The band's semi-acoustic, Arabic-inflected grooves aren't unpleasant, but the new songs work best when courting fun ("Virtual Reality") rather than half-baked spirituality. And how about letting Liz Berlin shift outta her Donna Godchaux role and into the spotlight more? In the end, opener Nil Lara
is probably the best reason to catch this gig. Hailing from Florida, his recent debut grows on me with every listen, its mix of Latin and American melodies producing one of the most accessible and satisfying "world beat"--let's just call that modern pop--records of the past year. Note change of venue. $19.50. Friday, 7 p.m. First Avenue, 701 First Ave. N., Mpls.; 338-8388. (Will Hermes)
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