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The Boston Phoenix Both Sides Now

Come rock and roll "Gently, Down the Stream."

By Matt Ashare

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Come's new Gently, Down the Stream (Matador, out this Tuesday) begins with what sounds like the rock equivalent of a symphony tuning up before a big concert: fractured guitar arpeggios ring out tentatively like the plucked strings of violins and cellos against the squealing hum of feedback, each player seeming to search for the right chord until a dominant key finally comes into focus. The drums rumble impatiently underneath. Tension and expectations build. You sense an impending implosion, a sudden and absolute tightening of form, just a fraction of a second before it actually happens. Or maybe you don't notice till the moment after the gentle airiness is sucked out of the mix, replaced, almost instantaneously, by the resolution of a martial snare-drum beat and a spiraling staccato guitar figure that brings to mind what the string section is doing at the beginning of Ravel's Boléro. It may even remind you of that damn TV commercial for the Classical Thunder CD compilation, but only until the singer's haggard voice interrupts: "Sorry that you're sick/The smoke is full of tricks/Hits you in your head/Do you dread the spring." At least, I think that's what she sings on "One Piece." But more important than the words is the attitude, the tone and texture of the voice and the guitars, which is pure rock-and-roll defiance, at once ugly and beautiful, primal and complex, snarling and inviting.

Singer/guitarist Thalia Zedek and guitarist/singer Chris Brokaw have been catalyzing moments like this since the dawn of the decade. The other day I was trying to remember the first time I saw them play live here in Boston. I couldn't pinpoint the date or the venue, though I'm reasonably sure it was T.T. the Bear's Place in early 1992. It might have been cold out. The temporal details were, as I recall, overwhelmed by the immediacy of the songs from their first album, Eleven: Eleven (Matador; 1991) -- by the shattering bluesy depth of "Brand New Vein," by the jarring rush of "Fast Piss Blues," by the dead-on cover of the Stones' "I Go the Blues" -- and by the riveting visage of Zedek, who appeared to be standing in the center of a storm of her own creation. At least, that's how I've always imagined it. I was left feeling that that's exactly what great rock and roll should do. Period. What else is there to say?

I can't think of another band in the '90s who have so consistently pushed the boundaries of what rock can do, both emotionally and instrumentally, while at the same time keeping their feet planted in the dirty soil of blues-derived music. It's one reason Come have never fit neatly into any alterna-rock categories. The band's lineage is easy enough to trace. Zedek did time in the downtown New York noise brigade Live Skull in the '80s, but her earliest Boston recordings -- particularly the Dangerous Birds seven-incher "Alpha Romeo" -- were buoyed by what can only be described as an instinctive sense of pop melody. Brokaw played drums in Codeine, an austere trio who dealt in measured emotional turmoil and excruciatingly measured beats; he clearly has more to offer as a tasteful yet aggressive guitar antihero. But when they came together in 1990 -- joined at the time by bassist Sean O'Brien and drummer Arthur Johnson -- their pasts melded into something with much deeper roots and a more vivid presence.

Which is not to say that Come don't have relatives, or fellow travelers, in the American underground. There's Chicago's Jesus Lizard, whose former and greatest drummer, Mac McNeilly, was one of the rhythm sectionists recruited for 1996's Near Life Experience (Matador), the disc Come recorded following the departure of O'Brien and Johnson. There's also Rodan, the defunct Louisville outfit that specialized in angular, abrasive, yet reflective art-damaged guitar rock, and whose Tara Jane O' Neil (bass) and Kevin Coultas (drums) played on and toured behind Near Life Experience. But those bands and their offspring have offered either all-out brutal aggression or tense moments of calm. Come, since the very beginning, have always managed to offer both at once -- fragile attacks of serenity, belligerent storms of tranquillity.

Gently, Down the Stream introduces the newest Come line-up -- Zedek and Brokaw with Fuzzy bassist Winston Bramen and hard-hitting drummer Daniel Coughlin. It will be hailed by some as the band's return to rock, since there were some quieter than usual interludes on Near Life Experience and the short "cabaret-style" tour that followed, featuring a bass- and drum-less Zedek and Brokaw with a pianist. And almost without exception it does rock, till it hits "Saints Around My Neck" midway through and explodes with the rawest emotions Zedek has ever put into a song.

"Saints Around My Neck" may also be the most fully realized song Come have written. Propelled by its own compositional logic, it twists, winds, and otherwise forges ahead through barbed guitars and thorny images of troubled friends till at last it breaks free in a rush of fear and Zedek rasps, chillingly, "Something is choking me . . . " Gently, Down the Stream is probably the best Come disc since Eleven: Eleven -- not just in the way that every new disc by a favorite band is initially their best by sheer virtue of its newness, but in the sense that Zedek and Brokaw (who sings two tunes himself) are making music that seems to dig deeper and reach out farther.

It was music critic Ellen Willis who first pointed out what may have been the most stunningly obvious yet strangely overlooked consequence of the Velvet Underground's existence. "The Velvets," she wrote in a 1978 essay, "were the first important rock-and-roll artists who had no real chance of attracting a mass audience." Which is precisely what later made them a model for the generation of American underground bands Come came out of. The Velvets proved that important music can happen in something very near a commercial vacuum, that even in the populist realm of rock and roll, popularity isn't the only measure of success, that moving units remains different from moving hearts.

All of which seems a tad elementary these days. If anything, the pendulum has over the course of the past decade swung in the other direction, to where the absence of mass appeal is viewed as a prerequisite for making important music -- i.e., obscurity both equals and is required for musical greatness. Thus we have successful artists like Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who once took Come on the road with him, apologizing for his popularity, and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder striving to reduce the size of his audience by painting his arena anthems with a veneer of dissonance.

Meanwhile, the underground is populated by bands who cloak their every gesture in irony, just in case one of their tunes proves catchy enough to appeal to a broader audience. Which is a shame, because even the Velvet Underground were guilty of reaching out with their music, of never accepting that sentence Ellen Willis imposed on them 10 years after the fact, of flying in the face of reasonable expectations. That's what makes great rock and roll. And that, in a very messy nutshell, is what Come do.

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