When Magnapop shot out of R.E.M.'s operations base of Athens, Georgia, a few years ago, music critics drooled with near lustful self-satisfaction. In Linda Hopper, they had finally found a post-punk female who vocalized her angst without overcompensating. Clean of overt mannerisms and ear-testing screams, Hopper's singing is bluntly conversational, like someone whispering her troubles politely, but forcefully, in your ear. Magnapop guitarist Ruthie Morris has her finer points, too -- as on-the-money a guitarist as any power-minded, agit-pop band could hope for.
But the salivating critical minions also had their doubts. Certainly, the songs on Magnapop's 1994 debut, Hot Boxing -- well-packed little bundles of hammering hooks, vivid, sexually ambiguous imagery and precocious, blind-sided humor -- were better than excellent; they were transcendent. But you had to wonder how much of the CD's impact had to do with producer Bob Mould, whose recording techniques were so detail-oriented as to include the near sensual sound of Morris' fingers moving across the strings as they negotiated the neck of her guitar between chords. On a small stage with a borrowed PA, could this quartet even hope to come close to approximating such visceral precision? The answer was no, they couldn't -- which didn't seem to matter as much as you'd think. On the Hot Boxing tour, Magnapop had a pleasing Everywoman enthusiasm that more than made up for the fact that Hopper's low-register delivery was drowned out by the boisterous clatter from the rest of the band. And it was quality clatter -- full of spunk and eager to please.
Second among critics' concerns (who, at this point, were joined by a growing number of fans throughout the country) was whether Magnapop could follow up Hot Boxing's perfection with something of equal or greater value. The answer to that question was also no -- which does matter, at least for now. A few months down the road, it might not be a concern. By that time, maybe the sloppy tunes on the new Rubbing Doesn't Help will take on fresher, more distinct personalities as Magnapop (which also includes bassist Shannon Mulvaney and new drummer Mark Posgay) regains its road legs and fleshes the tunes out to what they should have been in the first place.
Mediocre new CD not withstanding, a Magnapop show is always good, fierce fun. In fact, the group is bracing enough live to convince anyone that great bands are entitled to at least one stinker.
-- Hobart Rowland
Magnapop performs Wednesday, July 10, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $1.07, 21 and up; $5, 18 to 20. Local H and tripl3fastaction open. For info, call 225-0500.
Marin Alsop -- When Marin Alsop lifts her baton to lead the Houston Symphony in a program of Barber, Mozart and Tchaikovsky Saturday, the audience at Miller Outdoor Theatre will not, unfortunately, be seeing her do what has made her one of the more intriguing young conductors in America. It's not that Alsop, a native of New York and a product of Yale and Juilliard, hasn't spent her share of hours bringing life to the standard repertoire that these composers represent. It's just that in her decade and a half of beating time in front of various orchestras, she's been better known for branching out into unusual territory.
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Early on, when she was still bumming around New York searching for pickup work as a violinist or, as she sometimes terms herself, a fiddler ("I played for the New York City Ballet Orchestra," Alsop says, "but I also did a lot of commercials and film work. They were looking for someone who could do a little country but still read, you know?"), she started a ten-member group known as String Fever that tried to marry a down-home feel with classical style. String Fever went on to record the "Fiddle Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" by country and western composer Mark O'Connor, and was also featured on the swing-oriented CD Fever Pitch. Meanwhile, Alsop founded another group, the 65-member Concordia Orchestra -- which she describes as a "chamber symphony with a touch of jazz" -- to play the music of American composers that she felt didn't get enough exposure. Eventually, she was asked to be assistant conductor at the Richmond Symphony, where she stayed a year before being offered music directorships in both Eugene, Oregon, and Long Island, New York. That was in 1989, and for six years she flew between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, with the occasional side trip to guest conduct in Atlanta or Louisville or Philadelphia or Cincinnati.
This year she decided to settle down, sort of, and focus on serving as music director of the Colorado Symphony in Denver and creative conductor for the St. Louis Symphony. Alsop admits she's not exactly sure what a "creative conductor" is, but she assumes she's being asked to shake things up a bit by trying out new approaches and new music. Though the new music won't be in evidence at Miller Outdoor Theatre -- "This is marvelous music, but it is pretty standard," Alsop admits -- a little of the new approach might be. "When you're dealing with a group like the Houston Symphony, it's like fine tuning an excellent car," Alsop says. "I just try to get them to turn in a few different directions. Like with the Tchaikovsky, for example. It should have a real contrast in moods, almost a schizophrenic turmoil. I want it to be jarring, not soothing. People shouldn't be going to sleep to it, they should be grabbed by the heart. And then the audience should go, 'Ah!' " At Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 6. Free. (Mitchell J. Shields)
Hamell on Trial -- Sometimes you don't even know it's coming. Some random friend calls with a tip, a previously unknown performer playing a low-key showcase, and if you're free, you might want to check it out. That's what happened last time Ed Hamell, a.k.a. Hamell on Trial, commandeered the stage at the Satellite Lounge. I was free, I did check it out and I was, thoroughly and unexpectedly, blown away.
Ed Hamell is a big bald white guy with a 1937 small-body Gibson acoustic, a Marshall stack and a head full of storytelling words that split the difference between spoken word and rock and roll rants. Not to overstate the case, but you've never seen anything like it. At the time of that first Houston performance, Hamell was living in Austin and had just released his debut, Big as Life, on that city's Doolittle Records. Since then, he's moved back to his original New York stomping grounds, and Mercury Records has picked up Big as Life, repackaged it and distributed it with an efficiency that's collected ravingly positive quotes from the heavyweights of the national music press. They're all deserved. Big as Life's 12 original tracks (plus an unlisted bonus cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues") showcase two of Hamell's distinctive attributes: a jackhammer-precise aggression with his Gibson, which gives his one-man show more energy than any amplified rock quartet, and a nose-to-nose lyrical immediacy that falls somewhere between Dylan and G.G. Allen. When Hamell returns to the Satellite this week, he'll break in the audience for headliner Syd Straw, whose new CD, War and Peace, proves that she's got the singer/songwriter thing down better than most. At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge at 9 p.m., Sunday, July 7. Tickets are $7. 869-COOL. (Brad Tyer)