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Sound Check

The way I see it -- today, anyhow -- is that this modern rock thing I keep hearing about on the radio can be viewed as a three-headed monster.

Now before you point out the obvious and scream that you can't categorize an artist's soul that way, just sit down and collect yourself. I'm talking about trends here, and if those commercial vectors don't apply to pop music, then they don't apply to anything. Anyway, I'm seeing three obvious trends in modern rock right now. The one most people are familiar with, because it's been the most successful, is the radio-friendly version. Pearl Jam is the king of the heap here, leading a pack of Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvanas and Bellys and Breeders and Liz Phairs and so on and so on. Post-punk acts one and all, which means that they're none of them quite like their analogous arena rock bands of the 1970s, but they sound close enough for radio's comfort, at least.

Off to one side of center, there's the lo-fi "movement" spearheaded by Pavement, Lou Barlow, Guided by Voices and Jack Logan (Liz Phair doesn't count; she just thinks lo-fi is a cute phrase). It's trickling all the way down to every Joe with a tape recorder in his bedroom, even our own Jandek. Almost without fail, critics gush over lo-fi, maybe because they can afford to, since regular people hardly ever listen to it.

Sitting in the other corner is ... well, I don't have a name for it, but I'm thinking of the high-density, high-tech, high-volume aesthetic pursued by the Trent Reznors and sometimes the Al Jourgensens of the music world. If lo-fi minimizes equipment and sacrifices sound quality, industrial-oriented stuff maximizes sound quality and then abuses it. If lo-fi emphasizes songwriting, industrial creates a soundscape and relies on a groove strong enough to drag you through it. Reznor's Nine Inch Nails probably does it better than anyone else. Houston's Pain Teens used to do a pretty fine job of it themselves.

There's obviously a lot more to "modern rock" than that -- a new generation of soft rockers and singer-songwriters tagged Adult-Alternative and going straight to hell because of it, for instance -- but the above three suit my purpose, which is to introduce some new records I've been listening to.

The disc that got me to thinking about industrial again is called Prick (Nothing/Interscope), and it's by an aggregation of "songwriter" Kevin McMahon and a host of producers and engineers, most notably the aforementioned Reznor, who's credited with production and engineering on four of its ten tracks. It sounds something like you might expect from the Reznor camp, all overdrive guitars and grating electronics supporting a freshly unconstipated yelper, but unlike other Reznor-supported failures (the thoroughly unrewarding Marilyn Manson disc comes to mind), this puppy does give you a reason to slog through the noise.

Part of that reason comes out in the groove beneath the clang, reaffirming that Jourgensen was onto something when he dragged his disco ass into the industrial age. (His new country fetish will have to be explained elsewhere.) And part of it is in the way Prick absorbs Ziggy Stardust-vintage Bowie into the fold, adding a glimmer of glam to the proceedings that fits perfectly with industrial's theatrical excess. Prick slows on a few occasions, and stumbles when it does, but when the music's in fifth, it's pure adrenaline; the kind of stuff that, when I play it at stupidly high volumes in an attempt to evidence its charms to a friend, that same friend responds with a sidelong glance at the B&O speakers he's been loaning me these past months and says with an unbecoming earnestness: "Dude, don't drive my speakers so hard" (***).

On the lo-fi end of things, the current buzz in my ear is this band billed as the Mountain Goats, though it's really just one guy with a tinny sounding acoustic guitar and sporadic help from some women who sing background vocals. A friend has been pushing the Goats' new Zopilote Machine (Ajax) on me as ultimate godhead for weeks, but I hesitated, because he lives in the backwater of North Carolina, where he likes way more local bands than are actually worth a shit, and because, for all the joy a sorta comparable Jack Logan (Logan plays with a real band) singing "Thirteen Years" can bring into a home, the sensual thrills of full-blown pop just aren't there on the tape-recorded stuff, and I'm sometimes left feeling like I had to work at least as hard as Logan to get to the meat of the experience. But since some of the best barbecue I ever ate came across the counter on a paper plate, I finally bought the thing, and though I don't like to say this too often in reference to this particular friend, he's right.

Whoever's behind this project ("we are Rosanne, Rachel, John, Amy and Saaarah," says the notes, suggesting a small cult) knows how to bang an old guitar and make it sound like rock and roll. Which isn't all that big a deal now that we've had 30 years for stoned record collectors everywhere to practice -- but he (John, I suppose) can weave a narrative, turn a phrase and drop a throw-down line that's actually funny with a consistency not many folks care to attempt anymore.

There's a bunch of pseudo-intellectual crap on the sleeve, references to Apuleius' Metamorphoses and a Mountain Goat Mandala, for instance, but start listening and pretension gives way to the kind of drop-dead gorgeous lyric postcards that Freedy Johnston, for instance, specializes in. "The Black Ice Cream Song," "Standard Bitter Love Song #7" and my favorite, "Bad Priestess," give hints at the Mountain Goats' personal pantheon of obsessions, but not a clue to the quirked-out force behind a line like "The morning glories climb the wall / and you speak in a slow crawl / I'm trying to piece together what you're saying / but the birds are screeching and the hounds are baying / I don't remember there being any hounds around here." Worth the effort (****).

Coming back to center, which is to say coming back to that place in the musical spectrum where easy listenability is a prime virtue, there are too many nationally notable discs on the shelf this month to sort through, and the Kristen Hersch v. Tanya Donnelly hook that's emerged with the simultaneous release of Throwing Muses' University and Belly's King has already been beaten into the ground (they're both great, if you've got some sort of Boston College Rock Fetish).

So I'll come closer to home and take a look at Austin's Loose Diamonds, whose Burning Daylight debut was named 1993 Rock Album of the Year in the NAIRD Indie Awards, whose panelists must not have listened to much else. Loose Diamonds is a four-piece playing well-crafted, rootsy rock and roll, and the band tours one hell of a lot, with the result that the new New Location is a tighter, punchier record than the first.

Tighter and punchier though it may be, New Location offers the type of tuneage critics like to burden with the tag "American Music" -- largely because it's easy enough to avoid being wrong, and even more so because of its total lack of any personality more specific than that. It may seem like a noble achievement to meld country, blues, folk, rock and R&B into one package, but what you're really getting, in this case anyhow, is committee-decision rock. It's the kind of music that directors of beer commercials cream over, because it makes nods to all your major demographic groups without offending any of them. And if you direct beer commercials (or think the music contained therein is primo material), I recommend this highly. Otherwise I'd yawn and walk away (*).

Geographically and stylistically 180 degrees from Loose Diamonds, the 5.6.7.8's lies twitching. I don't know what it is about Japan that produces such a gloriously twisted take on American popular music, but I'm thankful for it.

We've been told for years that the Japanese are great admirers and supporters of American jazz, and to find reciprocation you need only look to pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, but most of the stuff I'm hearing is much more difficult to explain. Shonen Knife sha-la-la-la-la-ing their way through their Beach Boys/Shirelles/Ramones hybrid was sweetly unexpected, and the Boredoms' Butthole Surfers/Captain Beefheart mindmeld is absolutely necessary, whether you take those influences seriously or not. Even Pizzicato 5 did a decent job of lounging swankily. So I guess it shouldn't surprise me that there's someone over there doing The Cramps, just a little bit farther out. The new disc is The 5.6.7.8's, though I wonder if they really meant that possessive apostrophe, and it comes via Australia's Au-Go-Go label, an Aussie peer of Chicago's Touch and Go, and home, by the way, to Houston's Sugar Shack.

It's 14 songs, divided on the CD as Side A and Side B, packaged heavy on the retro/vintage side. Three women on bass, drums and guitar, and they're not being precious with their influences. The last track, "Scream," is just precisely that, and "I Walk Like Jane Mansfield" is an almost-instrumental hallucinatory surf-stroll through David Lynch-land, where the soundtracks are always better than the films they support. In my experience, perfect accompaniment to party and nap equally, which means definite keeper (*****).

-- Brad Tyer

***** Chimay
**** Celis White
*** Shiner Bock
** Bud
* Keystone Light

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