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Wednesday, Jun 4 1997
Souls for Sale

Here's some advice for a record exec working at an entertainment conglomerate (and worrying a bit, in the face of all this Britronica, about the state of American Rawk, and how that trickles down to the lease he took on his taupe Lexus coupe): Eschew Radish (and spit 'em out) and put your kajillion-dollar bid on Verbena. "This band has it!" you should be shouting as you storm around the boardroom in your suit and Nikes. "It, damn it, it." And what you mean by "it" is: that irksome bemused scoff directed at fatheads like yourself; that what-kind-of-drugs-you-got? attitude; that look -- anemic arty trash-boy scrappers, a babe in a fur coat on guitar; and the Birmingham, Ala., authenticity points (though I guess that's a "those"). Not to mention the endless supply of pop hooks, the monster guitars, the boy/girl harmonies. If they won't sign, I'd suggest offering them the use of your boss' mansion up in the canyon, a shoebox full of unspecified white powder, and some prostitutes, if needed. If they still won't sign, get out there and buy out li'l ol' Merge Records in Chapel Hill, N.C. Whip those ponies into some sort of fiscal shape. They currently house profit-disincentives (i.e., cool groups) like Portastatic, Superchunk, and Neutral Milk Hotel.

At the heaviest extreme of Souls for Sale -- and I do mean a thick Superfuzz Bigmuff-era Mudhoney heaviness -- there's "The Desert": an all-engulfing Stooges-style drone that transforms at the chorus. Chords miraculously appear and begin to change in the distorto-wash as the vocals double up, lovely, in the aforementioned boy/girl harmony. The hell if you don't start to hum until things downshift into some sort of grizzled, old-style ZZ Top bridge. (Aah. Memories of warm beer and cigarette ash.) In "Hey, Come On," the same sonic formula holds, except that it is a little less massive and even more catchy and melodic -- both the verses and the chorus working those harmonies. "Shaped Like a Gun," with its jerky (and kinda hokey) Deep Purple guitar intro, soon gets coated with a drizzling of pop syrup. And "The Song That Ended Your Career" never bothers with the distortion pedal at all, but instead backs up the hooks and harmonies with clean chord changes and an organ, and is, well, outright beautiful in an Exile on Main Street kind of way. (I mean the Rolling Stones, not Pussy Galore.) "Maybe we could sing together," Scott Bondy and Anne Marie Griffin croon/swoon. "Just one song until it's better." Shucks.

Indeed, Verbena have everything that should give you, the record exec, a chubby, all right here in one indie-label package. Here's hoping Verbena have secured Caller ID, a manager with a weed connection in every town, and a ball-buster for a lawyer.

-- Curtis Bonney

Rahsaan Patterson

The Loverman -- one of the oldest and sturdiest staples of black pop personas -- has received a makeover. No longer does he have to play solely to the classic poles of good-boy eternal devotion or bad-boy wanton lust; now, he must be fluent in the musical archetypes of sensuality. Maxwell and D'Angelo proved this mightily with their savvy updatings of mid-'70s Marvin Gaye and Al Green, respectively. The upgrade is long overdue, and it reflects changes in the target audience. Sistahs with gold cards are less apt to swoon over promises of expensive trinkets. They are playing for the short, medium, and long term, and they're willing to go out and get a white boy if the brothas can't get with the program.

For the first two-thirds of his promising, self-titled debut, Rahsaan Patterson makes music deeply cognizant of these realities. Although only 23, Patterson (named after the legendary jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk) is a show-biz veteran. At 9, he was a child actor (on some long-gone kiddie variety show), and he penned "Baby" for Brandy and "Back in the World" for Tevin Campbell. In addition, he's written and sung for several recent jazz-funk projects. His debut builds on a foundation of early '70s Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Rufus. Unlike all the uptempo Rick James stuff in vogue among the samplers, Patterson's funky numbers are slow and seethe with carnal implications. His laid-back songs have an artful flow that is reminiscent of Wonder's "Golden Lady." One of the nicest tracks is "Joy," an a cappella duet with Take 6. The group's willowy harmonies are a good match for Patterson's delicate yet not really aching falsetto.

But just after that, everything goes wrong. It's as if some MCA honcho marched into the studio and demanded more marketable music (this disc was recorded well before Maxwell's debut received its platinum certification). The subtle flavors and careful nuances that highlight the first 10 tracks on the recording give way to the bombast of standard-fare Quiet Storm ballads. Clunky synthesizer fills and gratuitous gospelly trills run amok during the album's final four tracks. This dour ending diminishes the force of Patterson's statement, but the album is still a vital reminder of the rippling insurgency in contemporary R&B. Eighteen months ago, this kind of record would have been a welcome exception; now it's further evidence of a trend.

-- Martin Johnson

Beth Orton
Trailer Park

For my money, the finest moment of the Chemical Brothers' much-hyped Dig Your Own Hole is the conventional pop transition three minutes and 13 seconds into "Where Do I Begin." It's a piece lifted straight out of the stadium rock textbook. It goes like this: Beth Orton -- a guest vocalist who also sang on the Chemicals' Exit Planet Dust and on a few of ambient guru William Orbit's projects -- murmurs, "Where do I start, where do I begin," with this beautiful, disaffected-sounding lilt. Her vocals then double back over a verse about waking up in a hangover fug, and some accompanying electric wah-wah loops get faster and faster and faster until they're a pulse that goes off for three seconds. Then, these huge bass drums crash in, and the whole sound is so thick and big that -- for just a second -- it's the greatest thing you've ever heard.


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