Exactly one year ago, Todd Park Mohr and his old high school chums Rob Squires and Brian Nevin were holed up in the Boulder Theater in their hometown of Boulder, Colorado, in the midst of recording what they today call their reason for being. "I've been thinking about this album for years," Mohr says of Strategem. "This album is why we became a band."
Heady remarks for a trio of twentysomethings touring on the release of their second major-label CD. But Big Head Todd and the Monsters exhibit a self-awareness and inner-strength that goes against the current angst-riddled grain of alternative. And they and their fans had every right to hold high expectations for Strategem, which was recorded on the heels of Mohr and crew's 1993 gold album Sister Sweetly.
That disc, which earned mainstream radio attention for the solid rock tunes "Broken Hearted Stranger" and "Circle" and for the ageless, heartbreaking lament "Bittersweet," revealed Mohr to be a mature songwriter, and his forceful voice to be a natural instrument with which to relay the passion and nuance of his lyrics. Though the Monsters' frontman is often described as shy and soft-spoken, Mohr's vocals bear out his confidence. You have to wonder how this young talent from the Colorado mountains could know the emotional depth of lost love and dying dreams about which he sings.
The Monsters' talents were well-realized on Sister Sweetly by producer David Z (who learned funk under the tutelage of the artist formerly known as Prince). And though the straight-forward rock songs earned the greatest attention, it's the funk-inspired romps such as the title track, "It's Alright" and "Groove Thing" that make Sister Sweetly such a listenable album.
Mohr and band followed up with the self-produced Strategem, a release that, by purpose, lacks some of the polish of its predecessor. Kicking off with the roar of a Harley, Strategem heads on a roadhouse/blues-rock jaunt led by well-crafted songs of promise and regret, hope and contemplation. Though Strategem comes across as little more than a lateral move for the Monsters -- after having absorbed the funk, they headed down a country-influenced path -- they deserve credit not standing pat and trying to milk the success of Sister Sweetly.
And while the Monsters' albums are the sort you want to put on and listen to from start to finish -- which is just how Mohr plans it -- the songs they contain want to be heard live. The Monsters enjoy a reputation as a grass-roots, fan-friendly band, and when they play Thursday night with the Dave Matthews Band you can expect a night filled with thoughtful lyrics exposed by songs that are sure to work you into a groove. This isn't greasy kid's stuff.
-- Betsy Froehlich
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Big Head Todd and the Monsters play with the Dave Matthews Band Thursday, April 27 at the International Ballroom. Doors open at 6 p.m. Boxing Ghandis open. Tickets are $17.50. For info call 629-3700.
The New Gretchen Phillips Experience -- Before there were riot grrls, there were 2 Nice Girls. Hailing from Austin, the 2 Nice Girls parlayed their blend of folkish harmonies, rock guitars and lesbian polemics into critical accolades, and they seemed on the verge of commercial success (or what counts as commercial success for lesbian bands from Texas) before splintering a couple of years ago. Now, original Nice Girl Gretchen Phillips and her band, The New Gretchen Phillips Experience (the "New" celebrates the addition to the lineup of guitartist Jo Walston) are in town to make their Houston debut. Promising "songs about lesbianism, pleasure and pain, leavened by harmony, melody and cacophonic guitars," Gretchen says the show will be "a little bit nihilist and a little bit hippie." At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue, Friday, April 28. 869-COOL. (Peter Kelly)
The Blind Boys of Alabama -- The Blind Boys, a.k.a. The Five Blind Boys, may not qualify as the greatest gospel group of all time (that honor would likely go to the Soul Stirrers), but they have a distinct advantage over the tiny handful that might compete with them for the gospel crown: the Blind Boys are still performing. And still letting folks who are dumb enough to be unaware of it just how energetic, engaging and downright entertaining gospel done right can be. The quintet was through town in January for a dressed up do at the Wortham Center, and if you were sinful enough to miss them then, well, you now have a chance to mend your ways. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, Saturday, April 29. 869-8427. (Mitchell J. Shields)
Slash's Snakepit -- What's Guns 'N' Roses' guitar guru like when separated from Axl Rose? Well, not playing stadiums, for one thing. And being the support of a group dubbed G'N'R lite and featuring an Axl sound-alike in singer Eric Dover. But Slash is Slash -- one of the best guitarists of recent memory -- and so is likely to come up with something memorable, even if his cohorts can't quite keep pace. At The Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue, Wednesday, May 3. 863-7173. (