ON ANY GIVEN night on Harmon Place in the summer of '97, it was hard to miss the sight of Michael Severens from the band Own. Like a boyish Cosmo Kramer he'd comically saunter down the steps of the Loring Bar, smooch a girlfriend, and ask around for a place to sleep. He'd smell of whiskey, look unkempt, and display all the telltale signs of the stereotypical homeless musician--the mythical "out of work" bass player. But Severens wields a much classier kind of four-string, and the guy's got a conservatory/orchestra/session-player résumé that would shame most 30-year-old players.
"I've got a $100-a-week cello habit," he's fond of quipping, in reference to his tendency to furiously abuse his Tucker Barrett electric cello. In context, of course: Severens plays in Own, the Cities' best (and only) violin-cello-drums rock trio. And on the band's new sophomore set, The Others' Parts, his unkempt persona is made clear from the get-go. During the bridge of "Lips, Obsessed" all three instruments lock into a Morse-code staccato that builds from a terse pianisimo into a jarring torpor. The rest of the song is a cathartic series of ascensions and releases. Throughout, singer/violinist Jane Anfinson rhapsodizes about a schoolgirl crush, inflecting her voice and her pining lyrics just enough to imply that the song could be about something much more earthshaking.
Own's music is a relatively unpretentious art rock that could only happen in a late-'90s music world where conservatory-bred neoclassicists can also own secret histories as early-'80s new-wavers. It may be the most important difference between Own and the '70s prog-rock lineage their sound can't help but imply. Both Anfinson and Severens started studying their instruments at age 8 and learned improvisation by junior high. She took her love of Bartok, Stravinsky, and AM radio to college, only to drop out and head for the Minneapolis arts underground. He divided time between classical gigs at Bennington College in Vermont and his brother's Boston punk band, Boneyard. His musical wanderlust even took him through a two-year stint with the Mexico City Orchestra. Both musicians' journeyman backgrounds suggested that they'd end up in something like Own, which they formed in 1993 with fluid drummer Dave Lewis. The artsy, yet grimy Loring seemed like an obvious site for their initial stomping ground.
Live and on record, Anfinson--also a classically trained soprano--sings with more rawness than one would expect from someone with her music-school upbringing, and her lyrics feature increasingly personal sexual explorations. Yet she reports that she's still trying to shake off the weight of her work with the obstreperous '80s prog-rock nuisance Exploding Head Trick, and Own is by far her most listenable, if still challenging, creation. Their 1996 debut, Agenda Item 1, had all the raw materials, but was plagued by bewildering song structures, academic lyrics, and dry production. On The Others' Parts they're beginning to pull it together. A song like "Leave Me Alone" finds Anfinson's strings screaming like few electric guitars can. Severens takes vocals on the Boneyard cover "Reasons," which salutes Boston hardcore and ultimately sounds inadvertently Celtic by default. The newly tangible compositions balance welcome new touches--overdubbed strings, multitracked vocals, and complex (yet never unruly) melodic progressions.
This might sound like an all too unlikely, if not unknowable, meld of the classical and the profane. But then again, in the unending quest for musical novelty, there's a growing fetish for all sounds symphonic, both in our new pop (see Björk and the Aphex Twin) and our tennis-shoe commercials (see Nike's use of the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony"). And as Own's ambitions take them beyond Minneapolis, their developing music-biz connections may do them some good. Severens has done session work with Fiona Apple and Hootie and the Blowfish, among others, and he's a favorite cellist of Rick Rubin. The band has even recorded a demo with Donovan.
Now if success does come it'll be on their own terms: It's the high-art way or the highway, so to speak. "All I know is, a violin-cello-drums band needs to happen," Severens says. "It's going to happen, and I would rather be there to have a say in it."
Own performs at their CD-release party Thursday at 6 p.m. at First Avenue, with guests Happy Apple, Static Grey, dancers Laurie Van Wieren and the B-Specifics, and modern-opera singer Sara Sawyer; call 338-8388.
MUSIC IN BRIEF
Best Buy, the area's biggest local-music retailer, made good on old rumors last week by closing its outlet in Uptown. On a vaguely related note, Saturday will be the last day of programming for the underrated AAHS World Radio (AM 1280), a children's station that's suffered due to competition from its monolithic rival Disney.
Bringing It All Back Home is a regular column about local music.
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