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Ardent Idea

Can a Spot from Dallas do better than a Big Star from Memphis?

The guys in Spot consider themselves a pretty lucky group, and well they should: the Dallas band has found itself plopped smack dab in the middle of a minor recording renaissance. This wondrous celebration of renewal is happening not in Texas but in Tennessee -- Memphis, to be exact, the city that's home to Ardent Studios.

Perhaps taking a hint from MCA's recent linkup with the hallowed Boston-based Fort Apache studios, Ardent has revived its namesake label with big-dollar help from Cema Distribution. For anyone in need of a refresher course on underground rock history, Ardent Records enjoyed a nice run in the 1970s funding vinyl for Big Star, a band now considered among New Wave's most illustrious ancestors. (Lodge any disputes to that claim with R.E.M. and Paul Westerberg.) By commercial standards, Big Star's timing was horrible. Sporting a Kinks-like irony and quaint, Beatlesque harmonies, Big Star's modest charms were hardly in line with the bloated art-rock statements of the time. The band's three classic Ardent releases were largely ignored, and Big Star, along with its label, folded. The studio side of Ardent, though, continued to flourish, boasting an impressive array of recording artists, among them Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Allman Brothers, R.E.M., the Replacements and, most recently, Gin Blossoms and Cracker.

At the very least, then, Spot is in some good company. An aggressively cerebral power trio with -- ironically enough -- '70s-ish prog-rock undertones, the band was one of a handful of young acts, and the only Texas outfit, signed to the resurgent Ardent label. Former Big Star frontman Alex Chilton, North Carolina's Jolene and the Philadelphia-based Idle Wilds are among the other praiseworthy acquisitions on a roster that's refreshingly free of pretension.

Oddly enough, Spot's first brush with Ardent came not in Dallas or Memphis, but a few years back in Houston, when singer/guitarist Chad Rueffer's former band, Ten Hands, was in town for a show at the Abyss. Longtime Ardent producer John Hampton happened to be in the audience that night and was so taken by the group that he offered them a deal. Rueffer wasn't pleased when the rest of Ten Hands nixed the contract, and he left the group soon after.

"Ten Hands are, for the most part, a fun party band," Rueffer says now, giggling a bit as he tries to downplay his role in the group. "The two main guys had their songwriting thing happening. I had a great time, but I wanted to write songs and they weren't into [me doing] that."

It seems that Rueffer is used to laughing off the frustration that comes with watching golden opportunities evaporate. In 1992, his first real band, Mildred, folded at the peak of its potential following five years of hard work. The group -- which included Rueffer's older brother, Reginald, on bass -- had a sound that was subversively tuneful and wildly varied in texture and mood. "We were very eclectic," Rueffer says. "We tried to put classical music in a pop package and sell it."

About a year after Mildred's only release, Whippersnapper, won best album honors in the Dallas Observer Music Awards, the group dissolved and the Rueffer siblings separated. Chad went off to do musical battle in Deep Ellum, while Reginald, on a music scholarship at Southern Methodist University, retreated into his violin playing.

But it wasn't more than a year before the Rueffers, inspired by the increasing amount of exciting new music they'd been hearing, decided to have another go at it. Bands that a few years earlier wouldn't have had a chance in hell of making it onto mainstream radio -- groups such as the Breeders and Belly -- were selling millions in a phenomenon Chad Rueffer likes to call "success without slop." So with Spot ... let's just say Rueffer didn't want to stand by and watch another golden opportunity evaporate.

In the spring of 1994, Spot recorded a five-song cassette that found its way to Ardent. An offer was made, and this time Rueffer's group said yes. The two brothers and then-drummer Earl Darling (Mildred's Davis Bickston has since taken over behind the set) quickly went to work with producer Hampton in Memphis. The sum of their efforts, Spot, is an uneven ten-song affair that, nevertheless, announces the band's intentions with an impressive first half. From the AOR-friendly lick that drives the CD opening "Drop Dead" to the grand scale psychedelia of "One of Hazy Days," Spot takes the trendy and untrendy alike to task, stirring in measured amounts of post-grunge anguish to keep its art school cleverness from coming off as dated.

Much like the Rueffers' original band, Mildred, Spot is indie rock for the emotionally challenged and intellectually superior -- a warm aural bubble bath for Gen Xers who think way too much. But just when you think that a song that's profound simply can't swing, the band is liable to hit an unsuspecting live audience with a good dose of its Lone Star roots, punctuating a set -- if the mood is right -- with a little impromptu Bob Wills tribute featuring Reginald on fiddle.

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