Sound Check

The idea of love in rock and roll isn't particularly novel -- it's been addressed to death by everyone from Buddy Holly to Kurt Cobain. Writing a good love song is cake, right? Tom Petty has worked a trillion variations on the theme and still managed to maintain his respectability. But be forewarned: try to sound heartfelt, and you may find yourself choking on your own sincerity. Try to sound too direct, and you could come off forced and pushy. Come off too blunt, and you end up joining Liz Phair and Lords of Acid in the out-to-offend category. So where's the happy medium? Green Day's strategy of hiding the weepy stuff under a mountain of guitars is one option. But then again, how many songs about masturbation can be conjured up before that form of self-expression turns cold?

Romance has always had its bristling and banal sides. For the latter, sample the one-dimensional world of the ultra-sincere Rembrandts, playing off a McCartney-soaked vibe already done to death by Squeeze, Crowded House and more recent bands such as the Grays. But where Crowded House's Neil Finn counters his tasteful arrangements with unexpected lyrical turns, the Rembrandts lack the ingenuity to steer away from the typical on their third release, L.P. (hasn't the simulated sound of needle on vinyl that opens this CD been done to death?). The Rembrandts -- songwriters Phil Solem and Danny Wilde -- have an eye for the obvious, and they've parlayed this marketable trait into a few hits, the latest being the forgettable perk-fest, "I'll Be There for You" (the theme from Friends), tacked conveniently on the end of the new CD.

Not surprisingly, most of L.P. aspires to be a good deal more substantial than fodder for a hip ensemble comedy, which is admirable, though it hardly makes up for the album's mediocrity. L.P.'s tales of shacking up and breaking up are pretty much run of the mill. Lines such as "I'm drowning in your tears / they roll down your face like falling rain," and "Baby don't you know I'll be your man as long as I am breathing" simply slide off the preciously familiar acoustic-based melodies. It would help if Solem and Wilde had something to run on about. Scan the titles, and you'll see the point: "Don't Hide Your Love," "This House Is Not a Home," "The Other Side of Night." Frankly, they're just too sun-tanned and industry-minded to have anything compelling to say.

Hard to believe, but Cracker producer Don Smith was behind the boards on this one -- guess that's a testament to the chameleon-like quality of the profession. Granted, Cracker and the Rembrandts have little in common, but still, Smith could have worked with these guys to bring to L.P. some of the rich organic qualities that made Kerosene Hat such a playful stab at white-boy blues. Instead, this album's polite production is a whole other animal, and a tame one at that.

Like Lowen and Navarro, a songwriting team that also specializes in this sort of mock-confessional style, the Rembrandts might be best advised to stay behind the scenes and rely on more compelling performers to convey their white-bread muse. After Pat Benatar turned the meek "We Belong" into a hit, Lowen and Navarro ventured out from behind their publishing deal. Two albums and a measly few thousand units later, it turned out to be a mistake. But then again, they never had a shot at the Friends theme. (*)

On the coarser side, impending breakups and spent emotions ("It's cold and I'm old and you're giving me more than I need") litter Fig Dish's first long-player, That's What Love Songs Often Do. Rumor has it that chief songwriters Rick Ness and Blake Smith met in a mosh pit at a show by a Cheap Trick cover band, which shows that even indie rockers (Ness) and death metal kids (Smith) can find some common ground.

Pulled from the same Chicago scene as Veruca Salt, the quartet counters its bummer factor with piles of feedback, well-crafted hooks and a coy sense of nonsense -- the latter evident in the CD's clever minimalist packaging, which on the back has an illustration that shows, in childlike fashion, the step-by-step folding of an origami disaster. (You have to see it to appreciate it.) Raging anthems of co-dependency such as "Bury Me" and "Nimble" carry this CD through murkier moments that threaten to drag the emotional energy down to a self-pitying whimper. That's What Love Songs ...'s thematic ringer is "Quiet Storm King," which boasts the reassuring line, "I believe that we will last a long time," countered with the obtuse cool-guy response, "There is no place I'd rather be than nowhere." Remember, mushy is okay in the '90s. Just counter it with a little cynicism. (***)

Though released at the tail end of 1994 with but the teeniest shred of recognition, Mother May I's Splitsville is worth a crush or two. An opening slot with Soul Asylum earlier this year helped get the word out on the Washington, D.C.-based trio, but this fine debut on Columbia has been sorely overlooked in favor of their label's bigger names. Like Fig Dish, the guys from Mother May I are nursing a serious Cheap Trick fixation. They manage, in most cases, to work that to their advantage, filtering enough fizzy mosh-pit aggression through the formula to keep it fresh.

Songwriters Damon Hennessey and Rob LeBourdais have mustered up fresh symbolism for love's up and downs, colored with smatterings of social commentary. "Teenage Jesus" and "Painted On" address rock-star idolatry -- projected love, one could argue -- in varying forms. Kids, it seems, can worship a T-shirt logo just as passionately as they do performers on-stage. Further into Splitsville, things get more personal. On "In a Box," a perfect ballad-turned-epic, a love-sick sap obsesses over the preservation of an ex-girlfriend's sun-damaged picture, wishing he'd sealed the thing in a "box with heavy wood and heavy locks," the "perfect hiding place to preserve your perfect face." It's this attention to detail that makes Splitsville such a revelation. And while Hennessey's Robin Zander-esque whine is so one-dimensional at times that it grates on the nerves, it's hard not to empathize with a guy who places so much stock in the more trivial aspects of loss. (****)

The Inbreds are the latest addition to lo-fi's manic-depressive set, preferring, like Sebadoh and the Grifters, to spill their quivering guts among plenty of basement clatter. But unlike Sebadoh, the Inbreds convey a boy-next-door sweetness that makes their obsessiveness easier to bear. On the title track of Kombinator, an Inbred laments the state of a relationship gone sour over a jagged melody, "pretending you weren't sleeping and never getting tired of me." He continues to revel in misery on "Round 12": "He's so tired / And she works so hard / They don't talk / They grow apart." The 12 tunes on Kombinator, the Inbred's debut CD, have a sort of sing-song quality to them, a bit like adult nursery rhymes for the clinically depressed.

The Ontario-bred Mike O'Neill and Dave Ullrich do the minimalist thing with enough technical proficiency to qualify for a transfer out of that department. Granted, they've got their aimless tendencies, but the pair is often rescued by a strong sense of melody and dynamics -- lyrically and musically -- that carries most of their tunes beyond any structural setbacks. Like such incessant twiddlers as Ween and They Might Be Giants, the Inbreds are adept at manipulating a roomful of home recording equipment, generating some way-out clatter that stays surprisingly ingrained to the spirit of the material. Unlike They Might Be Giants, who are often too inventive for their own good, the Inbreds rarely tinker for the sake of quirkiness. Their writing is economical and only occasionally self-indulgent. (***)

With Sleepy Eyed, Buffalo Tom has uncovered its most emotionally exposed batch of tunes yet. The Boston-based band's last two efforts worked to cleanse the group of the self-conscious artiness that dragged down its indie releases; here, they've gone raw in more than one respect, choosing to record Sleepy Eyed almost entirely live, which amplifies the exposed nature of leader Bill Janovitz's tales of alienation and emotional distress and adds balls to bassist Chris Colbourn's contributions, which have a habit of being slight and nonsensical at best. Earlier, Buffalo Tom paid tribute to the band's more contemporary influences -- the Replacements, R.E.M., Pixies. Sleepy Eyed sounds decidedly more retro, with nods to Neil Young and the Stones.

Sleepy Eyed's hormones are all over the place. The L.A.-bashing "Tangerine" and the wistful "Summer" convey waves of disgust and longing. "Sunday Night" has more to do with hating one's self than any significant other, and Colbourn's "Kitchen Door" is a fun toss-off ("I'm the number on your kitchen door / I'm the baseball team from Baltimore") riding out a fairly basic folk-rock groove that benefits from the dynamics of the CD's live feel.

Most of Sleepy Eyed tends to fall back on some sort of love-related ill -- whether it's lost opportunity ("When You Discover") or outright rejection ("Clobbered"). You'd think that Janovitz, supposedly happily married to his college sweetheart for years, would have a hard time throwing together this sort of despair. Perhaps he's digging around in his past for ideas, but whatever the source, it works well. Interestingly, the most curious song of the batch is Coulborn's "20 Points," which in almost textbook fashion takes a brutal look at couples steered to the brink by New York City's fast-paced, morally corrupt lifestyle: "I see that bandage lying on your sheets / I see that blood, it's running down your cheek / Twenty points for me."

It's a much needed yank back to reality after being lulled to indifference by the Rembrandts' hollow truths. Everything, contrary to what some would lead you to believe, is not always okay in the morning. (***1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

***** Storybook romance
**** Match made to last
*** Fun roll in the hay
** Chance meeting
* Hardly a handshake


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