Prodigy's number one debut notwithstanding, music industry watchers remain leery of electronica's potential for success -- as they should. So far, the craze is hardly shaping up as a commercial windfall to rival that of the early-'90s grunge explosion. When you get right down to it, electronic music -- with its hypnotic spray of throbbing drum loops, technologically enhanced hemming and hawing and well-positioned bleeps and squawks -- is really about the visceral nature of sound, not the character traits of the performers behind it. The genre's futuristic appeal lies in its synthetic obliqueness, its impersonal innovation, its utter diversion from the pop-rock norm and, in extreme cases, its distance from humanity in general.
Such an all-consuming diversion goes over famously amidst the semi-anonymous bustle, pulsing lights and industrial sound systems of a nightclub. But it doesn't always translate effectively to the privacy of one's living room. Therein lies the rub. And yet, Spin magazine and BF Goodrich Tires, the oddball dual-sponsorship pairing behind this summer's Electric Highway Tour, will have none of such pessimism. They see a burgeoning movement in need of a push, so you can be assured the acts they've assembled for their promotional blitz are among the most user-friendly of electronica's up-and-comers. One, fresh-faced Londoners Arkarna, could well be the genre's most photogenic and radio-savvy.
Electric Highway makes its Houston pit stop Thursday at Westpark Entertainment Center, where the sound surges of main-stage artists Arkarna, Überzone and The Crystal Method will compete with -- and complement -- slick digital lighting effects and a barrage of multimedia images on huge screens. A pair of tents will feature mixing antics from Doc Martin, Bizz, AK1200, DJ Icey, Skylab SoundSystem, DJ Keoki and Herb Legowitz of the Icelandic outfit Gus Gus. Adding to the event-like feel will be various vendors, a "tire art" sculpture exhibit (evidence of the Goodrich connection) and assorted interactive attractions.
Think of Britain's Arkarna as the Fountains of Wayne of the electronica movement: a simple pop band donning an effective ambient disguise. While their brains may be locked into techno-thud mode, they're really pretty-boy rock slaves at heart. Quite often, it's guitar-driven melody, rather than loop-generated rhythm, that dictates the feel of the quartet's upcoming debut, Fresh Meat, on which Top 40 radio references run amuck. Arkarna has already had two UK hits with "The Future's Overrated" and "House on Fire" (the latter of which was included on the Batman and Robin soundtrack). And for good reason -- peeking out from beneath the group's dense grooves are hints of everyone from Pavement to the Beach Boys to the Bangles.
As for the others on the bill, Überzone's approach, which incorporates influences as diverse as Kraftwerk and Public Enemy, is as digitally uncompromising as Arkarna's is digitally compromised; the Crystal Method is a Las Vegas-based twosome whose molar-rattling low-end, grainy grooves, trip-hoppy vibe and mix-and-match use of traditional instruments have invited comparisons to the almighty Chemical Brothers; and DJs Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland are on the road to drum up support for their upcoming Geffen/Outpost debut Vegas.
All this touting of the electronica craze begs the question: What happens when the novelty wears thin? In the worst-case scenario, a swift nosedive could drive electronica's die-hard purveyors back underground, leaving behind little more than the scattered remains of a fad. But then again, that shouldn't be any real tragedy for the artists; they've always felt more comfortable there anyhow.
-- Hobart Rowland
The Electric Highway Tour begins at 9 p.m. Thursday, August 21, at Westpark Entertainment Center, 5000 Westpark. Tickets are $15. For info, call 629-3700.
W.C. Clark -- Jimmie Vaughan (a guy who should know) once called Clark "a true cornerstone of Austin's music scene." For certain, he's been a leading exponent of blues, soul and R&B in the capital city since the 1950s, a singing and guitar-playing godfather to the Vaughan brothers, Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton and the other upstarts raised on African-American music. This decade, thanks to a recording contract with Black Top and regular road work, Clark has extended his sphere of influence all over the country. Clark's latest release, Texas Soul, even captured a W.C. Handy award for Best Soul/Blues Album. But the upturn in Clark's career hardly compensates for the personal tragedy of losing his fiancee and drummer in a car accident near Sherman last year. If anything, the recent highs and lows have made the mingled pain and joy always present in Clark's music all the more eloquent. At 9 p.m. Saturday, August 23, at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond. Cover is $8. 266-9294. (Frank-John Hadley)
Michael Rose -- As the lead singer for Black Uhuru during the band's 1980s heyday, Michael Rose developed one of the most distinctive presences in reggae. Writing and fronting an unbroken string of hits, Rose was among the vanguard of artists who helped turn reggae music from an island phenomenon into a global sensation. After Black Uhuru splintered, Rose headed for the hills -- literally. In 1995, he emerged from his coffee plantation and revamped his career, releasing three superb discs in as many years, including the recent Dance Wicked. Juicing Uhuru's laid-back rhythms with a poppier percussion and bass section, Rose combines the power and political clarity of roots reggae with dance-hall modernism for a stirring synthesis of old and new. Wednesday, August 27, at Jamaica Jamaica, 2631 Richmond. Doors open at 8 p.m. Cover is $10. 529-8800. (Bob Burtman)
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