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The Boston Phoenix Pop Mart

Boston bands don't fit in pigeonholes any more.

By Brett Milano

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  It used to be easier to put local bands into pigeonholes: pop bands wrote pop songs, grunge bands played distorted guitars, hippie bands jammed, and nobody used synthesizers except techno bands and Stephin Merritt. But those boundaries are getting blurrier all the time, and albums like Syrup USA's All Over the Land (out this Tuesday on Flydaddy) are part of the reason.

Syrup were after an individual sound from the start -- though their early gigs didn't always promise they'd find it. A three-year gestation has served them well, however; and All Over the Land makes an impressive debut. They do all of the above -- write pop songs, play distorted guitars, jam, and use synthesizers, favoring a new-wavish sound for the latter (lots of Moogy blurps and whooshes). But the pop elements are strong enough to hold the abstract ones together. Their closest local cousins would be latter-day Helium, but Syrup have a more spacious sound, born from band jams instead of studio experiments. And Syrup singer/guitarist Seana Carmody is more inclined to write about down-to-earth subjects like failed romance and sexual politics than Helium's Mary Timony is nowadays. (Syrup's "Parfait" is the second plastic-surgery song to emerge from a local female songwriter this year -- the first was Jen Trynin's "Under the Knife." But Syrup's is the first to include French lyrics.)

"We're both at the core of the Boston fantasy-rock movement," Syrup keyboardist Matt Fein notes, half-jokingly, over beer and felafel at the Middle East. (Drummer Orrin Anderson and bassist Sam Mallery complete the line-up.) "We're in the pursuit of otherness -- the sense of being taken somewhere else. If we were a straight-up pop band, it would be too cliché'd. I feel it would be easy to throw together that kind of song, but I'm glad we don't."

So far the comparisons they've gotten range from Stereolab (inevitable) to the B-52's (way off-base) to the Velvet Underground (also inaccurate, but they're flattered). I'd call them a mix of Young Marble Giants vocals with early Psychedelic Furs backing tracks -- an unlikely but grabbing blend of innocence and dirt. Carmody's voice, which was underused in her last band, the Swirlies, has the sort of angelic quality you'd expect to hear in a softer context. The contrast is put to good use on "Vaporized," which is about chasing an ex-boyfriend's trail of used records through Lexington. The hook doesn't appear until halfway through the song's six minutes, after an atmospheric build-up.

Carmody put the band together around the time she exited the Swirlies, who left behind two Taang! albums (the last in 1993) and a mixed reputation. The Swirlies' sound had no middle ground: their pop/noise blend could be brilliant or awful. (The co-producer of Syrup's album, Christina Files, was Carmody's replacement in the Swirlies.) What Syrup USA do has confused a few club audiences; but for the band that's part of the attraction.

"We've played in front of virgin audiences who get a little miffed at what we're doing," Fein notes, "and there've been shows when I've heard people say, 'Uh-oh, they've got keyboards.' " "I like to see that hypnotized look on their faces," Carmody counters. "Sometimes when I sing and look straight at them, I don't get a reaction. But when we start drifting a little, you can see them thinking."

Syrup USA celebrate the release of their debut CD with an all-ages show next Saturday, October 25, at the Greek-American Political Hall, 288 Green Street, in Central Square, Cambridge, with Fan Modine, The Elevator Drops, Victory at Sea, Juneau, and Lockgroove, beginning at 8 p.m. The band also perform this Tuesday, October 21, at the Harvard Square Newbury Comics (call 491-0337).


CATAPULT

Whatever it takes to start a successful record label, Tom Hammond and Chuck Bartlett didn't have much of it when they launched Catapult three years ago. At the time they were two Bostonians living in Los Angeles with low-level music-biz jobs, no money, no contacts, and no bands to sign. "We didn't know what we were getting into, but we knew it would be a long haul," Hammond allows. "I had an internship at Atlantic, which was pretty disillusioning," Bartlett adds. "We weren't expecting to make money, but we wanted to work with bands that we found exciting. And we weren't getting that from the jobs we had."

Three years and a return trip to Boston later, Catapult has yet to become a big moneymaker. But the label's come a way from the days when Hammond and Bartlett would have to approach bands at clubs and swear they were legit. They have five CDs and seven singles in the catalogue, and this week Catapult drops its largest-ever release: Crazy Alice's Hey Jimmy, Have a Great Summer and Ultrabreakfast's Ice Cream Tricycle, plus a seven-inch by Cherry 2000. Crazy Alice have been with the label since their move to Boston (they have three previous albums, including two on Sonic Bubblegum), but the label's acquisition of the latter two bands -- both buzzed about for more than a year -- shows that Catapult has acquired some cachet.

Crazy Alice's album departs a bit from the punk & pop approach they're known for. They've discovered acoustic guitar, harmonies, and slower tempos; and the dirgy "Loss and Retention" is a real stretch -- though the punkish stuff, which fills half the album, still works best. The Cherry 2000 single includes three tracks from their eclectic first demo tape, including their 20-second hardcore number "Ghost." But the pick of this batch is Ultrabreakfast's album, a rough-pop charmer with dizzy energy, local in-jokes ("I want a time machine and a lump of coal/I want Billy Ruane to save my soul"), surf guitar, love songs to hairdryers, a couple of indelible hooks, male/female vocals, and an overall friendliness that brings Let's Active to mind. The band had a shake-up just as the CD was released, with the departure of drummer/co-singer/charismatic figure Kristen Day. A replacement is being sought; the band's CD-release show has been bumped back to next month. "The timing was not perfect," Bartlett acknowledges. "We knew one of our acts would have band troubles; we couldn't be that charmed."

Still, the times are working in Catapult's favor. The number of Boston bands burned by major labels has made the indie route more attractive -- even to a potential big-time band like Cherry 2000 (whose leader, Dave Steele, has already gone through the major wringer with Orangutang). "We thought we'd have a staff of 10 people by now," admits Hammond (in fact, they're the only staffers, and their office is furnished with dumpster acquisitions). "But you can't quit," Bartlett adds. "It's been the most exciting three years of my life, and it's not getting any less so. It would definitely suck to be working for 'the man' now and saying, 'Yeah, we should have stuck with that Catapult thing.' I'm glad that didn't happen."

Crazy Alice celebrate the release of their new Catapult release with a show upstairs at the Middle East, 472 Mass Ave, in Central Square, Cambridge, next Saturday, October 25. Call 864-EAST.


CLEOS DOWNTOWN

It wasn't the Beatles on the roof at Abbey Road, but Letters to Cleo stopped some traffic when they played a free concert at Downtown Crossing last Tuesday -- the show being tied to that day's release of their new Go! (Revolution). The stage was placed around the corner, with the Cleos setting up their little pop mart right between Filene's and Macy's. And the block was crammed full of people by the time the band started their six-song set. At one point singer Kay Hanley (whose new upper-arm tattoo was visible a block away) invited everyone to catch their show tonight (Thursday) at the Paradise -- before guitarist Michael Eisenstein pointed out that they wouldn't all be able to fit.

Save for a secret show at T.T.'s last month, it was the band's first local appearance behind the new album, with new drummer Tom Polce in tow. But the Cleos sounded thoroughly revved-up, geared to the massive-but-tuneful sound of the new album. Ex-Gravy member Polce drives the band as hard as Stacy Jones did, but he adds the first real harmony voice they've had, so they were able to re-create the parts that Hanley sang with herself in the studio. Playing five songs from the new album plus the '95 hit "Awake," they sent a lot of people back to work with infectious tunes in their heads.


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