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Wednesday, Aug 7 1996
Various Artists
Working Man
(Magna Carta)

Over a holiday family dinner, my older brother -- a computer engineer specializing in a field that eludes my comprehension -- sought to be my pal. "I saw the worst band open for Rush!" he bubbled. "They were called" -- a pause for effect -- "the Melvins!" He reiterated the various lame yanked-underpants jokes in which he and his pocket-protector pack, impatient for their prog rock, indulged in at the time. The Melvins don't need me to defend them, even from 10,000 slavering Rush fanatics, but the outburst gave me pause. Frankly, ardent prog-rock appreciation makes my scalp itch. Doubly dandruff-inducing is the guileless worship of Rush, perhaps the corniest prog band of all. Being entertained by an outfit that has somehow parodied itself since inception is one thing, but buying into its art? Call me when you've formed a spinal column.

Never mind -- what causes flesh to shear away from my skull in bloody rags is the alternative-era release of Working Man, an album of completely faithful Rush covers as performed by '80s pop-metal washouts like Sebastian Bach (Skid Row), Fates Warning, George Lynch (Dokken), Mark Slaughter (Slaughter), and Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big). I'm stunned. What's the rationale -- tax shelter? (For a tiny label?) A fanboy CEO? An asthmatic reaction to profit?

I'll list the various things that make Rush's songs, and the very idea of faithful covers thereof, the jokes that they are: 1) Wide-eyed titles like "By-Tor and the Snow Dog." 2) Laser-accurate and med-experiment-frigid technical mastery; mixolydian and Phrygian scales drip from the performers' fingertips like molten Crisco. 3) The lowbrow thematic coalition of ersatz macho (how wonderful it is to drive a sports car) with sci-fi kool (while being chased by flying robots) in songs like "Red Barchetta." All of which could be forgiven -- even entertaining -- if not for the cardinal sin of so much early prog: 4) It doesn't rock. The desire to convey the experience of being in that car pursued by those robots, using various leitmotifs, melodic signatures, and structure changes, is appreciable -- hell, it was even novel, once -- but the execution kills rock dead. Of course, I probably just provided a shopping list of elements making Rush a worthy commodity to smart people like my older brother, and which may make Working Man the high-flying standard of a new prog retro. Good fucking luck.

-- Michael Batty

Francis Bacon in Conversation With Melvyn Bragg
"Writers. Everything has to be like something else." So wrote novelist Raymond Chandler, but his crack could extend to other arts and letters. Bubbling under this interview with the late Irish-born English painter Francis Bacon is a vehement argument against metaphor. Whether celebrating the veristic presence of photography's split seconds or the "sensations" he sought to depict in his ravishingly morbid canvases, Bacon revels in the notion of thing-in-itself. When asked by British TV interviewer Melvyn Bragg about his resistance to narrative, Bacon replies, "I don't want to tell a story; I've no story to tell. I would like the starkness of the image. I want it to give me a shock." He's known for paintings that are somehow gruesome and heroic at the same time -- sides of beef and screaming popes brushed in a palette of bruise hues. Shocking pictures, yes, but still grippingly beautiful, severe things, made by this forthright old man who calls carcasses "marvelous" and shuns pre-drawing because, "It's so much better to immediately attack the canvas with the paint." Even his figures are in shock, facing the world with mouths agape. "I don't think I'm creative," he points out. "I'm one of those people who has received a lot of luck and a lot of chance." "Why is chance more important than conscious intellect?" Bragg asks. "Because I've made images the intellect would never make." Bacon seems well aware that many find his work gloomy, and he heartily admits surprise at his work's success. But he scoffs at the notion that some viewers find his paintings full of horror: "The thing is, what horror, what could I make, to compete with what goes on every single day?" Later on, after background noise of glasses tinkling and a forthright "Cheerio" from Bacon to indicate they've been drinking, he returns to this notion, condemning the fact that, "If anything is strong, people think it's painful."

Sooj Records can be contacted at PO Box 848, New York, NY 10024-0848.
-- Sarah Vowell

(Trance Syndicate)

In Dallas, that shiny, gaudy city bankrolled by the nouveau riche, everyone, from used-car salesman Crazy Eddie to Dallas Cowboy Deion Sanders, barks for attention. Such is the case with modern rock, on the heels of grunge and a punk resurgence. Bands bludgeon listeners with stomp boxes and power chords, Marshall Stack-ing to outnoise one another. To date, only a handful have realized it's tougher to pull off quiet chord progressions than screaming solos. Like slow-droners Low and Codeine, Bedhead fills its second full-length with subdued, intricate notes announced by three guitars, a melodic bass, and drums that brush cymbals more often than snares.

Texas' endless topography nurtures wackos and reactionaries, inbreeds and isolates. Bedhead songwriters Matt and Bubba Kadane, who hail from Wichita Falls, fall in with the last group. The same way children who grow up reading alone in their bedrooms write because they never had anyone to talk with, the brothers probably started playing music because there was no one worth listening to in their hometown. The insularity remains: The band rejects contemporary comparisons. In a recent Raygun interview, Matt said a magazine asked for a list of Bedhead's favorite 1995 releases, but the band couldn't tout even one album. So far the only musical comparison they'll tolerate is the one that rock scribes throw around like confetti: the Velvet Underground. But because the Velvets inform much of the better groups today, Bedhead also resonates like the slow parts on Slint records, or the best work of Chicago's Seam. On "What's Missing," little guitar licks ring like Lou Reed notes, while another guitar complements like the other half of a zipper, cymbals tapping behind. As the cadence rises and falls, Matt intones self-disparaging lyrics worthy of Joy Division's Ian Curtis' baritone: "I had no worries when I had no doubts/ Courage was something I could live without." In Texas, those words could get a man in trouble or, worse, ignored.

-- Jeff Stark

Edith Frost
(Drag City)
This four-song EP provides a voyeuristic glimpse into the innermost sanctum of songwriter Edith Frost, a silvery-voiced Austinite-turned-Brooklynite with a few insecurities to work out. Though Frost has earned her keep in a variety of country and rockabilly bands, her spare, compelling songs don't need the kind of help a melodramatic pedal steel guitar or upright bass would provide. Indeed, her striking demo tape -- with one exception, it's nothing more than a rudimentary, buzzing guitar and her eerie doubled-up vocals -- was enough to convince the folks at Drag City to press the recording as it was.

Through three songs -- "Evangeline," "Blame You," and "My God Insane" -- Frost plinks and sighs like she'd just as soon go back to bed, though she's probably already been there for days. Rather than obscuring her ideas, the murky, no-budget production values of "My God Insane" vividly illuminate the song's hollow core. "I'm tired of thinking so hard," Frost sings, disarmingly, on "Blame You." "I'm tired of fighting for air."

On the EP's final track, "Waiting Room," Frost expands on such weary minimalism by composing with the help of a chintzy portable keyboard -- following the latest tangent of her new labelmate, Palace's Will Oldham. The soulless, Fisher-Price quality the instrument gives her simplistic melody strongly suggests the nightmares of childhood -- and the record's cover art seconds that notion, featuring a black-and-white photo of the artist as a young girl. In it, her despair seems too much for a child to shoulder; hopefully, it was just a mood she was in.

-- James Sullivan


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