Nobody ever accused the Catherine Wheel of being about fun. After all, it's hard to misread the intentions of an English quartet that chooses to name itself after a gruesomely inventive tool used for torture in the fourth century.
Given that, you can take any optimism hinted at in the title of the band's latest CD, Happy Days, as brutal irony. If the Catherine Wheel saddles its grim nature with hummable melodies and lush accouterments, rest assured they'll make you pay for it later. But with age comes more measured doses of desperation. Rather than continuing to drag themselves down with cynicism, the Wheel has learned to balance negativity with tight song structure for a savvier stab at crossover respectability -- which is to say, feed the kids what they want, just be a bit more proper about it.
The Catherine Wheel -- guitarist/vocalist Rob Dickinson, drummer Neil Sims, bassist David Hawes and guitarist Brian Futter -- began in 1990 in Yardmouth, England, as an afterthought to the late-'80s Goth-rock trendiness already done to death by such limey doomsters as Bauhaus and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The band's first recordings were a pair of bedroom-studio EPs distributed by a local indie label. As is often the case in the UK, hype over the Wheel flared quickly, then dulled to a flicker just bright enough to guide the group to a major-label deal with Mercury/Fontana. The signing evened things out for the label after the recent acquisition of the Wheel's more pop-oriented countrymen, House of Love. Much to the label's surprise, House of Love never outlived its own critical honeymoon; the Wheel, though, found a strong following stateside, thanks in large part to constant touring and the success of a few well-distributed imports.
Though admirable for their sincerity, the Mercury/Fontana efforts largely erred on the side of drone. College radio success aside, tortured little ditties like "I Want to Touch You" and "Black Metallic" were way too thick with wall-of-guitar overkill and brash fatalism to attract anyone outside the arty gloom-and-doom set.
It's likely that Happy Days could turn out to be the closest the band gets to mainstream without compromising its own sullen notions of cool. And while the outright prettiness of a track such as "Heal" may put off fans who preferred their Wheel black, without sugar, Wheel loyalists should have plenty to frown about today when the band headlines at Party on the Plaza, venturing out into the heat with a set that favors the defined edges of live performance over the thicker textures of the studio.
The Catherine Wheel is a consistently intense presence on-stage, where powerful idiosyncrasies tend to surface from a band often devoid of personality on record. Dickinson claims the whole intention of Happy Days was to recreate the immediacy of the Wheel on-stage. Still, you're probably better off seeing these gents live to sort out the whole bloody mess. Just be sure to bring your Prozac.
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The Catherine Wheel plays at Party on the Plaza with Wax and Gwen Mars at 5 p.m. Thursday, August 17 at Jones Plaza. Free.
Space Needle -- Just what the world was waiting for: Brian Eno style noodling comes to lo-fi. Actually, as off-putting as that may sound, Long Island's Jeff Gatland and Jud Ehrbar have managed to take the notion and craft an engaging CD with it, Voyager. The pair have figured out a way to take Eno's patented trance inducing groove and graft some surprisingly hummable melodies to it. Though ambient bands don't always translate well live, when Space Needle debuted in New York the Village Voice remarked that they "do hypnotic better than most." It also noted that the band has been known to "perform only three songs per long, stretchy set." Hmm. Will that be enough to keep a Texas crowd tranquilized? At the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam, Saturday, August 19. 225-0500. (Mitchell J. Shields)
Del Amitri, Caulfields -- Until a few months ago, Scotland's Del Amitri was in serious danger of succumbing to five years of inflated expectations: those of its record company, its dwindling U.S. fan base and its own members. All that's changed with "Roll to Me," a giddy, disposable two-minute burst of hyperactive pop rapidly finding its way onto radio play lists. Too locked into what was uncool about the '70s (Steve Miller Band, Bread, even a sprinkle of America-ish homeyness) for what passes as alternative, and too left-of-center for the mainstream, Del Amitri held out patiently on the promise of its sharp songwriting and tidy folk-rock charm. The band's stubbornness paid off with Twisted, its best example of nerdy heartfelt sincerity yet -- safe as duel airbags but catchy enough to hold the ears. Also worth a look, Delaware's Caulfields craft the kind of smart, angular hooks that made XTC such a smart alternative to much of the New Wave poseurs of the late '70s and early '80s. Frankly, Atlanta's Uncle Green did this sort of thing much better, but we'll have to settle for the Caulfields, who take similar pains to be quirky, while retaining a certain sense of self-effacing humor about it. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, Wednesday, August 23. 869-5483. (