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No Fooling Around

Success has been anything but a cinch for Atticus Finch

"I had seen the movie ten or 12 times, and it just always stuck out to me."
Chris Laurents, drummer for amiable Houston modern rockers Atticus Finch, is musing over the origins of the band's name over dinner at a local restaurant, where the band has assembled for a sit-down talk. "We could identify with his character; he's just a real honest man who stood for a lot of things we try to stand for."

Those of you who actually read your high school literature assignments should remember that Atticus Finch is the dignified Southern lawyer who defends a black man wrongly accused of rape in Harper Lee's classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Suitably, it was the noble, refined Gregory Peck who played the character in the movie version that made such an impression on Laurents. "After we picked the name, I figured I should actually read the book. It was amazing," he gushes.

Then, just as the conversation's subject matter is turning a wee bit too, umm, literate, lead singer James Dildine offers a more fitting, if somewhat sarcastic, assessment of the band's moniker.

"It sounds very heavy metal," he laughs. "Like, it rocks!"
As it happens, rocking out is exactly what the guys in Atticus Finch do. The quartet's brand-new self-released CD, Vertigo, is a gritty, guitar-heavy tour de force that might well be called classic rock, if that term really meant much anymore. Throughout Vertigo, the band's uncompromisingly earnest, no-frills sound comes through loud and clear, especially on "Something Special," "Shine," "Last Dime" and the track currently in rotation at The Buzz/107.5 FM, "Truly, Madly, Deeply."

Naturally, band members Laurents, Dildine, Schon Alkire (bass) and Mike McNeely (guitar) are excited about their sophomore release -- as they should be. Vertigo's generous, 17-track contents showcase a pronounced departure from the derivative, grunge-tinged sounds of the quartet's locally popular debut, 1995's Bruised. Everything on Vertigo -- from the songwriting to the singing to the playing -- speaks to the band's increased self-confidence. Dildine's deep, sturdy voice deftly plays give and take with McNeely's chunky power chords, and they both compete for the spotlight before a fat rhythm section that has plenty of opportunities to shine on its own. Atticus Finch have grown considerably in the last two years. And they hope they've hit on a sound that this time, with a little work, will lead to a major-label contract.

Alkire, Laurents and McNeely formed Atticus Finch in 1995 out of the ashes of the Houston pop-metal act 20/20 Blind, which counted the trio among its members. After 20/20 dissolved, that core threesome continued writing music as a team, though without the benefit of a lead singer or a chief lyricist. Enter Dildine, who had read about the group in a local newspaper article and called to offer his services. In the end, it was Dildine's persistence as much as his talent that won him the frontman role after a longer-than-usual process of auditions, rehearsals and band meetings.

"We were very jaded about the experience of having people in the band we couldn't get along with, and we didn't want to jump into another situation where there [might be] some conflict," McNeely says regarding the group's initial fickleness toward Dildine. "That was probably hard on James, and not completely fair."

Adds Dildine matter-of-factly, "Yeah, they strung me along for a couple of months. I was writing cool stuff, but my voice ... well, I had no training except for a six-week stint in a garage band. I was really rough around the edges. They said, 'Hey, he sounds like Neil Diamond on cocaine.' "

Vocal stylings aside, the band put out Bruised just a few months after Dildine officially came aboard. The CD's songs and attitude reflected a formula lifted directly from the likes of Soundgarden and (especially) Pearl Jam. In keeping with that serio-grunge theme, the members posed for an angst-ridden photo that was used on the CD's front cover, and Dildine delivered his self-described "hard-core poetry" over music the others had already hashed out. At the time, as he now freely confesses, Dildine "wanted to be Eddie Vedder."

Upon the release of Bruised, Atticus Finch started gigging around town, at first drawing more flies than fans. "We were playing to five people as the opening act for heavy metal bands who were playing for 20," Dildine recalls.

But Atticus Finch's luck began to change when Buzz DJ Brian Blades picked up Bruised at one of the band's shows. Blades was so impressed that on December 25 of 1995, he began spinning the Pearl Jammy track "f.t.m.s." It couldn't have been a better Christmas present for the band. The song caught on with listeners, and Atticus Finch began performing to swelling crowds at home and, soon enough, elsewhere in Texas. Within months, Bruised had found its way onto some 80 radio-station play lists in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The disc was particularly popular with listeners in Amarillo and Beaumont; at one point, a station in Beaumont was said to be playing Bruised's "Love Crime" an average of 52 times a week.

"We went to Beaumont and we felt like rock stars," Dildine says, admitting, though, that most of the crowd knew only the one radio song.

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