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Ready to Ride

Alice's Tin Pony breaks from the gate with Hate Book

The Fabulous Satellite Lounge can be a decidedly unfabulous forum for any opening act, let alone a local upstart with an embryonic fan base. The Washington Avenue club's cavernous interior has a way of making a decent-sized crowd look minuscule, which happened to be the case when the Houston band Alice's Tin Pony took the stage on a recent balmy Friday night.

If lead singer Alana Waters had engaged in a little stage diving from her perch, she would, no doubt, have met the Satellite's cement floor with a resounding splat. A crowd of 150 or so hugged the curves of the Satellite's vast bar as if clinging to the edges of a life raft, leaving a sea of dead space between the band and its audience. You could hardly have blamed Waters for contemplating something as drastic as a forward plunge. It might at least have engendered some response. And a reaction, any reaction, would have livened the stagnant atmosphere. But instead of leaping, she took another route to jolt the crowd.

"This song is for my daughter, who is four today," said Waters as her band eased into a rather subdued original called "Look Down on the Sky." "Which means my cesarean scar is also four years old."

Badum bum. A nice effort, but the payoff was little more than a tiny window of silence immediately after the dedication. Shaking off the indifference, Alice's Tin Pony decided to do what a lot of bands do when the crowd would rather drink than listen: They started playing for themselves. Twirling off into their own unique orbits, Waters and her bandmates fell out of sync frequently while still managing to stay at least partially on course. Bassist Patrick Higgins and drummer Chris Doss established a steady pulse with mildly funky overtones, an elastic yet dead-on groove that allowed the rest of the group the freedom to drift ever so slightly. Perhaps most adrift was violinist Chenoa Farrell-Sovinsky. An orphaned image standing to the left of Doss, she seemed at one with unexplained forces, her eyes half-open, her lanky body bobbing and weaving in place as she brandished her bow and ran it across her instrument's strings in curious fits of inspiration.

By contrast, Tin Pony co-founder Matt Schulte appeared firmly grounded, his attention rarely straying from his guitar. Equally focused but a little less intense was Sunjay Arya, who made his speedy transition from acoustic guitar to keyboards look effortless. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Waters struggled with her dual role of group mediator and band diva. Dressed in a tight brown tank top and loose-fitting drawstring pants, Waters appeared to be an intriguing, if somewhat uncomfortable, union of a thinner Ricki Lake and a less mysterious Natalie Merchant. She negotiated her on-stage turf with the tentative gait of a person unsure of the space she's been allotted. She seemed most comfortable playing the doting mother figure, seeing to her associates' every need, making sure they were playing together nicely, her voice soothing them and keeping them in line. Everywhere around her were signs of a young, somewhat tentative outfit that hadn't yet found its equilibrium. And there she stood in the middle, figuratively if not literally, trying to mold their various parts into something approximating a musical whole. And reminding them if they worked hard, and worked well, they wouldn't always be an opening act. And that the next time around, the crowd might even listen.

Actually, in the last few months people have been listening to Alice's Tin Pony, and more than a few of them have been delighted at what they've heard. Most eloquent among Tin Pony's high-profile admirers is KTBZ DJ David Sadof, who's been known to babble "absolutely incredible" and other choice superlatives in close proximity to the band's name on and off the air. Of course, some of the harder-nosed around town have been happy to dismiss Alice's Tin Pony as dorky and spineless. And yes, with its dreamy, unobtrusive style, poetic sentiments and mildly pretentious undertones, Alice's Tin Pony might be a hint too cuddly and refined for its own good. Tracks on the group's sole CD to date, Hate Book, are listed as "chapters," and the band's flowery press bio is an embarrassment best left undiscussed. Scrape together $100,000 or so for a slick video, and the group might even have a shot at airplay on VH-1. Not that they wouldn't jump at the chance.

"I have no problem with being an adult-contemporary band," says Waters. "As long as we get to do our art the way we want to."

After all, Natalie Merchant is an adult-contemporary sort, and Waters's similarity to the former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs is more than just visual. Her silky-sensitive rendering of Tin Pony's finest song, "The Day After," can't help but recall Merchant's work; it's the sort of lush folk/pop merger that was taken to its most commercial extreme nearly a decade ago by 10,000 Maniacs on the multiplatinum In My Tribe.

While Waters's debt to Merchant is as plain as day, the singer is cagey enough to mock the influence without actually denying it. She admits to being "concerned about the long-term ramifications of the comparison." Indeed, though there are times -- not just on "The Day After," but also on Tin Pony originals such as "Mary Lou" and "Godplay" -- that the uncanny kinship between the two feels natural and unconscious, there are others when it verges, ever so politely, on what could easily be construed as shallow imitation.

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