Murfreesboro Rocks

Murfreesboro, an easygoing semi-city, is home to Middle Tennessee State University, which in turn houses something called the Recording Industry Management program. In this college town, rock and roll is no longer a lifestyle. It's a career.

RIM attracts the young creative types who are remaking this part of Tennessee into something like Seattle circa 1989: a hotbed of rock and roll, a "cool" place full of young bands on the verge of the big time.

This week, Houston gets a chance to sample the Murfreesboro vibe via two adventurous, highly marketable bands, Self and The Katies -- both of which have already landed Record Deals.

Self, the brainchild of former one-man band Matt Mahaffey, is full of energy, and the band obviously loves the kind of highly produced pop that could draw a major following (no doubt a consideration to its label, DreamWorks). The band's image is Southern-sophisticated, New York-by-Nashville.

And the songwriting is almost good. On Breakfast with Girls, Self's latest album, the tempos are upbeat but repetitive; the catchy vocal melodies are only drawn-out reiterations of the main melody line.

"I write music first," Mahaffey says of his songs. "I let it stand on its own. I don't write on the guitarŠ.[What I write] depends on the sample."

"Callgirls" is the result of Mahaffey's after-hours TV consumption. ("You see these girls saying, 'Call me,' and they're not even pretty.") "Meg Ryan" is the result of Mahaffey's recent vacation. ("My girlfriend and I at the Cayman Islands Š wondering, 'What if you were Polynesian? What if your only source of income was ... papayas? What would you do?' ")

It helps that Mahaffey is an amazing producer; the recent RIM dropout can operate a 24-track soundboard the way Glen Gould played a piano. The ragtimey horn sample spliced between the short verses of "What Are You Thinking?" makes the song. Lesser producers would have overused a sound bite this appealing. Not Mahaffey.

Judging from The Katies' lyrics, 24-year-old songwriter Jason Moore has a place on God's speed dial. He explains in the band's publicity notes that the song "Jesus Pick" is "a conversation between me and God."

"We write lyrics and melodies lots of different ways," says Moore. "Music, 99 percent of the time, comes first. And the music tells me what the song's about. It's there, and I just try and capture in words what the music's saying." Sample: If The Katies, during rehearsals, land on a sexy riff, sexy lyrics will follow. If the boys land on a moody riff, moody lyrics will follow. If the boys land on a... religious riffŠ well, you know.

The Katies, on its Elektra debut, The Katies, sounds like a band that's much better live than in the studio. Moore admits this. "We're essentially a live band," he says. On the CD, the material's too clean, too tight. There's none of the rawness of a live Katies song or a Better Than Ezra or Journey track.

Yeah, that's right: Journey. The Katies call to mind '70s guitar rock, the lovin'-touchin'-squeezin'-more-than-a-feelin'-double-vision kind.

"It's honest," he says of his band's dinosaur-rock sound. "That classic rock thing's so blown out. And I know [bassist] Gary [Welch] exudes that kind of attitude," what with a tattoo of AC/DC's Angus Young on his arm. "But to me, that's just honest music."

Sure, "She's My Marijuana," "Miss Melodrama" and "Noggin' Poundin'" don't sound like song titles you'd find on a Boston's greatest hits compilation; they sound more like Georgia Satellites B-sides. Which brings up another point: The Katies' Southern-ness.

It's there. It's there on the CD cover, in which the threesome, dressed in country-boy Harley gear, hang on each other as if they've just finished a bottle of Beam; they're standing in front of immense yellow sparks, and for a second it seems that their hallucinations have become our hallucinations. It's there in the band's press package. ("There's certainly no mistaking the band members' southern origins," reads the press notice, "once you hear them speakŠ.") And most obviously, it's in the music.

So when record label folk, out-of-state-down-on-their-luck musicians and -- as usual, always late -- the media descend on Murfreesboro over the next couple years to sort out the phenomenon that became known as the "Murfreesboro sound," and they walk away with a couple phone numbers or pointers or sound bites from, say, Matt Mahaffey or Jason Moore, what'll be happening is Seattle all over again. Good music. Big bang. Bad music. Little whimper.

Just try to catch these two acts now, while they're still around.

Self, The Katies and The Marvelous 3 perform Saturday, October 2, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington. Call (713)629-3700.

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