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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

An eclectic survey of recent recordings.

MAY 10, 1999: 

Spock's Beard, Day For Night (Metal Blade)

Prog(ressive) rock has survived shifting trends, music-industry weasels, vindictive music critics, and prog's seemingly inherent tendency to undermine its own potentially/occasionally wonderful agenda.

These days, prog is a peripheral phenomenon (I balk at using the term "underground" here, though many do). There exists a rather healthy-yet-stealthy neo-prog scene, and the Los Angeles-based Spock's Beard are rocking in the thick of it. Day For Night is their fourth album and makes quite an impression as such. That's not to say that there aren't flaws here and there. God, are there ever. But the good news is this: The intermittent flaws are excruciatingly noticeable because the cool stuff is so delightfully solid.

Flaws first: I suppose neo-prog can, to a certain extent, be forgiven for licking its wounds in public, but I'll be damned if I can overlook the hideously maudlin stylings of cuts like "Can't Get It Wrong." Featuring such instantly loathsome lyrical trespasses as "I can't get it wrong, and I can't get it right/And I can't seem to get it at all tonight," this tune exemplifies the absolute worst of neo-progressive rock's appalling/acquired need to appeal to what neo-progressive rock mistakenly identifies as some kind of lucrative middle-ground demographic. This wrongheadedness rears its ugly wrong head now and again throughout Spock's Beard's otherwise worthy offering.

So what's left? A trunkful of great musical ideas, courtesy of Neal Morse, the band's guiding force and principal songwriter (though I'm sure each obviously gifted group member contributed mightily to this project).

What's prog itself about, finally? Prog is about celebration of cosmic and (even) earthly exploration, corny heroics, pre-historic and post-historic comings and goings (whoa!), awesome musicianship, and some other collateral goodies.

Spock's Beard fits that bill with much style and grace, though the aforementioned issues of consistency are not easy to ignore. Where are hard-assed prog-meisters like Jon Anderson and Robert Fripp when you need them?

-- Stephen Grimstead

Sebadoh, The Sebadoh (Sire/Sub Pop)

Sebadoh's Lou Barlow is that increasingly common figure in late-'90s rock, an influential musician whose cultural status outweighs his (relatively modest) album sales. A sensitive, self-absorbed seducer, Barlow is the post-Kurt decade's premier icon of male sensitivity -- what Robert Smith was to '80s gloom-pop and James Taylor was to '70s proto-yuppie folk, sweet Lou is to '90s indie-rock. And if that lineage sounds like progress to you, well, it does to me too.

While Taylor embodied a post-hippie narcissism that reveled in the new openness of the sexual revolution without abandoning a distinctly pre-feminism form of masculinity, and Smith's overt femininity always seemed to have sexually manipulative undertones, Barlow assays a more honest, post-feminist comfort with gender equality. He doesn't just detail his private agonies, he explores -- even invents -- a sense of his own complicity in the torments that beset him. Like any good liberated '90s boy, he acknowledges his own motives and machinations, and comes clean long before his Other has even begun to suspect trouble.

"Paranoia's contagious, I'm coming down with it too," Barlow warns a lover on "Weird," from the band's new album, The Sebadoh. "You'd better throw your trust on the fire first, before I do." Indie rock's best bard of relationship songs, Barlow seems driven not so much by the need for love and sex as the drive for meaningful communication, and his agonies usually stem from the gap between his desires and their near-unattainable fulfillment. On "Sorry," Barlow sings, "I want you to know it/but the more I say it the less it means in the end."

Yet it's songs -- not sentiments -- that help retain icon status, and The Sebadoh finds Barlow and partner Jason Loewenstein coming up a bit short. Compared to the indie-rock sugar rush of their last three records -- particularly 1994's career-best Bakesale -- The Sebadoh has a dearth of memorable tunes. This lack of hooks does not couple well with Lou's saccharine sentiments. Who would've thought a lo-fi dystopian like Barlow would resort to using a tree as a relationship metaphor ("We watered that tree and watched it grow together")? Who does he think he is, Dan Fogelberg? Even James Taylor edited himself better than that. Equally cloying is the Tommy-era Who soundalike "Colorblind," whose key lines "black and white and beautiful/I wish we were colorblind/we could heal ourselves" offer an unbecoming, awkward stab at social commentary, to say the least.

As for the younger, punkier Loewenstein, his usually tougher, shaggier songs dissolve into the mix in a way they haven't since he established himself as Barlow's near-equal on 1993's Bubble And Scrape. Loewenstein wrote seven of The Sebadoh's 15 songs -- with new drummer Russ Pollard contributing the passable "Break Free" -- and Loewenstein's contributions seem peculiarly tossed off here, especially when compared to Bakesale, on which a quasi-epic like "Not Too Amused" established him as a first-rate songwriter. With his noise-filled song nuggets and barely tuneful yelp, Loewenstein seems married to the rule of Indieland, which isn't necessarily such a bad thing. But, at his best, Barlow's warm, smooth voice and expansive love songs seem to light out for the pop landscape he traveled with "Natural One," the Folk Implosion's fluke hit from the Kids soundtrack. Let's just hope he doesn't have to sacrifice the soul and fire he values so much for the simplified lyric-craft that slightly mars The Sebadoh in order to get there.

-- Chris Herrington

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