I LOVE RECORD stores, and you'd best believe I mean love, l-u-v. If my keyboard could type out an adorable little heart symbol I'd use that right here. I doubly love in-store shows. Most rock shows, you know, take place in bars, the sorts of locales where socially adept folks tend to gather and perform intricate mating rituals in between sets. Me--my far-from-latent gurlphobia kicks in with full force when the music is over, and I'm left standing alone in a room where it's too dark to read. But at an in-store, I'm on home turf, in an environment that provides perfect camouflage. And when I sneaked into Eclipse Records in St. Paul last week, I needed all the camouflage I could get.
I'd shown up for the first round of the RPM Band Challenge, which I announced a month ago. For those just tuning in, the scenario is simple. Your unheralded/reviled/ utterly ignored/any-day-we'll-be-signing-that-big-label-contract band invites me out to a show. I come, I see, I blather, unleashing as much praise or invective as I can pound out in a few hours. Invitations from the foolhardy throngs started pouring in almost instantly--more acts than I could ever schlep out to see, and ultimately more than I could even respond to. (I tried to issue a mass mailing reminding bands that I was probably going to make fun of them in hopes of weeding out the meek. Apologies to anyone who hasn't received a response: Unless you received one of those MAILER-DAEMON freakout return messages, assume I got your invitation.)
Faced with so many choices, I did the only fair thing--I checked in on the first band to respond. And that was the unfortunately named Grumpy Alice, who sent along a genial e-mail through guitarist and vocalist Keith Pille. Not only did they rock, Pille informed me, but he and I were both Capricorns. (Does that mean we're supposed to get along? I can never remember how this cosmic stuff works.)
From the moment I double-clicked the message, I was primed to rant. First off, I hated the name. Alice is a perfectly fine appellation for a girl, or maybe a female pet, or even a car, if you're one of those weird people who insist on personifying machinery. But for a band? There's just nothing particularly rocking about it, I'm not particularly comfortable anywhere along that Brady-Lewis Carroll axis it suggests, and it's already been used by too many bands I never liked: Alice in Chains and Alice Donut and (anybody out there remember the particularly dreadful L.A. scene band?) Alice Bag.
And so, happily expecting the worst, I stumbled across this totally not horrible at all, suitably rocking quartet, whose T-shirted, casual, semi-anonymity distinguished them from the crowd on the other end of the room by the fact that these guys carried instruments. The Eclipse "stage" is an elongated room at the side of the store, behind two sets of curtains. (But the music is fully audible from the main floor of the product showroom, so if the band you've secretly come to survey is so uncool you'd prefer not to be seen checking them out, you can pretend to be shopping for records.) When Pille joked that their guitar adjustments were actually a new composition called "The Tuning Song," a front row of simpatico spectators laughed. A lot. I'm guessing they were the band's parents.
Fronted alternately by Pille and bassist Mark Kalar, Grumpy Alice stir up a familiar mix of jangle and stomp common among any number of Twin Cities bands of a certain age and taste. As such, their rootsy affectations (and, when you think about it, their Big Star covers, too) are a given. At the same time, their kick-ass drummer Bob Brown (and, when you think about it, their genuine pop hooks) are a bit more of a surprise. "Oh My Soul," the aforementioned Big Star cover, was both funkier and more dissonant than the band's originals. For much of the rest of the evening, Joe Plummer, credited in Pille's e-mail with "tasteful guitar pyrotechnics," was all too tasteful--too much technic, not enough pyro.
I bet I'd recall half of Grumpy Alice's songs on second listen, and I'm almost as sure that I'd be glad to hear half of the songs I remembered. In other words, at least three of these songs are listenable. Hey, take into account my habit of praising with faint damnation, and this description starts to look practically like a rave. Plus I came away from Eclipse with a live Hound Dog Taylor record and an original mono pressing of the Stones' Aftermath. All in all, not a bad night.
If you'd like your band to be considered for next month's RPM Band Challenge, e-mail all pertinent details to [email protected]. But be forewarned. Maybe I was pleased with my vinyl purchases, maybe I'd slept well the night before, maybe I just had an unusually healthy level of seratonin in my brain that night. In any case, it's not always going to be this friendly.