THE SEEDIER SIDE of Southern California decadence is a subject that has been the foundation of significant rock 'n' roll both good (the Flying Burrito Brothers, X, Guns N' Roses) and bad (the Eagles, Jane's Addiction, Guns N' Roses). With two scorching albums, 1995's Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home and last year's Butch, the Geraldine Fibbers have emerged as the latest great band to explore this turf. Arty country-punks whose guitars and violins make a beautiful mess while vocalist Carla Bozulich rants and purrs like the scarred spawn of Patti Smith and Axl Rose, the Fibbers assay the dark side of Cali's sex-and-sun culture like no one since John and Exene did "Soul Kitchen."
Bozulich owns one of rock's great androgynous voices, but you won't hear it much in Scarnella, a side project between her and guitarist Nels Cline, a master technician who joined the Fibbers with Butch and who has collaborated with Mike Watt, Henry Kaiser, and Thurston Moore.
Indie-rock side projects typically provide avenues upon which to run down noncommercial interests, and Fibbers fans might wonder whether the sonic experiments of Scarnella will filter into the band's sound or function as a means for rooting out tendencies that might disturb the band's chemistry. Possibly finding its genesis on the multitextured title track from Butch, one of two songs on the album that Bozulich and Cline co-wrote, Scarnella (an anagram of Carla and Nels) is a moody record of sparse, quiet songs and meditative instrumental improvisations. The difference between Scarnella and the Geraldine Fibbers is the difference between tension and release. On "Underdog," the same guitar pattern repeats for two minutes before Bozulich makes an appearance, then gradually accelerates for another six minutes, building a tension that it refuses to resolve.
That kind of buildup on Fibbers records usually climaxes with a cathartic chorus that Bozulich nails into the back of your skull. Elsewhere, guitar improvisations run over 15 minutes, and Bozulich's few straight-up songs find her in a more subdued mode than fans are used to. Still, the world-weary edge of "The Most Useless Thing" and "A Millennium Fever Ballad," and the garage-punk energy of "Dandelions," balance Cline's more atmospheric interests rather nicely.
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