December 19 - 26, 1 9 9 6
[Arts 1996]
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Bests of the Boston music scene

Local music circa 1996, in a nutshell: bands got signed, bands got dropped, break-up shows, reunion shows. New trends are on the way, but nobody knows what the hell they are. Half the bands in town had their drummers quit. Radio's still weird. Evan Dando got drunk. Still no Burma reunion. Nobody's made millions yet. Boston still rocks. Over and out.

Sebadoh, Harmacy (Sub Pop)

Talk about your embarrassments of riches: 19 songs, all over the map stylistically, all under four minutes and all of 'em good. Although Lou Barlow still gets most of the attention, this album puts him and Jason Lowenstein on equal footing -- in fact, Lowenstein gets nine songs to Barlow's eight -- so many of the reviews have pitted one against the other, noting that Barlow contributes most of the ballads while Lowenstein gets most of the rockers. But that's not really the point. Unlike the old Sebadoh, where everyone worked separately, the current incarnation has a band sensibility that carries through their achingly romantic numbers, their big dumb rockers, and everything in between. Beginning with nuanced folk rock and ending with a version of "I Smell a Rat" that out-rowdies the Bags' original, Harmacy takes on a raft of styles and does something resonant with each one.

Fuzzy, Electric Juices (Tag/Atlantic)

On the other hand, this one's as straight-out pop as it gets, and unfashionably cheerful more often than not; but don't let that keep you from noticing all the smarts and heart it's got. Sporting 12 strong originals along with the best Brian Wilson cover ever done by a local band, Electric Juices catches the spirit of the best '60s pop without slavishly emulating the sound. Frontwomen Chris Toppin and Hilken Mancini have developed a guitar/vocal sound that positively shimmers. That doesn't mean there isn't emotional depth here as well. If the lover's plea in "One Request" -- "I have but one request/Please put me to the test" -- doesn't melt your heart, go into therapy. Wish I could say that this album made Fuzzy famous. Instead it got them dropped, and they currently lack a drummer -- but they'll be back.

Kustomized, At the Vanishing Point (Matador)

One of frontman Peter Prescott's three best albums (with Mission of Burma's vs. and the Volcano Suns' All Night Lotus Party), even though I'm pissed off at the band for breaking up. In fact, this line-up's last local show -- a Middle East set on June 1, dedicated to Timothy Leary -- was one of the best local sets I saw all year: fiery, funny, irreverent, and threatening to career out of control at every turn. But Kustomized captured the sound quite handily on their second full-length, absorbing a bunch of good things (surf, hardcore, lounge, pop, Vegas strip, and good old punk) into a confident band sound. In the end everyone quit but Prescott, who played one more local show with a reshuffled but still-damn-good line-up, which bodes well for his next move.

Poundcake, Aloha Via Satellite (Q Division)

"Raise your hand if you're alternative," sings Clayton Scobule on the killer single "Kick the Can," knowing full well that he probably isn't. He also sounds as if he couldn't care less, and neither could I -- not as long as he and drummer Mark Rivers turn out such sharp, cerebral tunes and the band sport such a tight mix of guitars and harmonies.

Peter Wolf, Long Line (Reprise)

Nobody embodies local rock better than this guy, who released his best solo album this year and got better reviews than sales -- probably because most fans were expecting a house-party album in the old J. Geils Band vein. But Wolf made the right creative move by plugging into an acoustic-tinged sound that brings in some folk and blues without shortchanging the soul. Working with various collaborators, including former significant other Aimee Mann, he's written a fine set of tunes that spill some hard-earned life lessons but keep his characteristic swagger intact. And just because it's more serious, that don't mean it ain't fun.

[Merrie Amsterburg]

Merrie Amsterburg, Season of Rain (Q Division)

Lovely, downcast, broken-winged songs delivered in mostly acoustic settings, with just enough of a pop knack to keep things from getting precious. The former Natives frontwoman hits her stride on this melodically rich, beautifully sung album, which has probably hit my player after 2 a.m. more than any other.

Quivvver, Superheroes/Been There Done That (Jook-a-Teena)

Ah, the original line-up of Quivvver -- the costumes and wigs, the tribal rhythms, the melodies popping up from nowhere. Co-produced by Come's Thalia Zedek, this album revealed the musical polish and lyrical poignance behind their live exuberance. Singer/drummer Kristina Kehrer's departure has since turned them into a much different band, but recent gigs indicate that the new Quivvver are no slouch.

The Gravel Pit, The Gravel Pit Manifesto (Q Division)

Gravel Pit have now gone from being "that weird band who moved here from New Haven" to a much-liked local headliner. Part of the reason is this album, which makes the smart move of putting their full-tilt rock side up front while keeping their experimental side between the lines. There are still some surprises, but it's the garagy, organ-powered rockers like "New Haven," "Thought Powered Cloud," and "Officer Dwight Boyd" (sort of a "Cop Killer" for fictional cops) that really make this one click.

Come, Near Life Experience (Matador)

Not quite Come's best, this half-hour disc sounds about two songs shy of a complete statement. It's still a remarkably strong effort when you consider the state of the band at the time (the rhythm section had just quit, leaving singer-guitarists Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw as the only full-time members). The swampy and shadowy Come sound remains intact, and the two take advantage of the opportunity to work in some new elements: Brokaw sings a lead, Zedek shows a softer side, and strings and keyboards are woven into the mix. The ideal Come album would combine the sound of their recent acoustic gigs with the edgier one here.

Butterscott, St. Jon's Woody (cassette)

Trust me: 20 years from now, some obsessive collectors in Europe are going to declare Jonathan Scott a cult hero, reissue all his cassette albums on CD, and wake up his mom while beating a path to his door and begging for a reunion tour. Meanwhile, Scott's band of psychedelic pranksters release at least two albums per year (this year they also did Live at Lunch, taken from a WMBR gig) crammed full of in-jokes, pop-cultural references, distorted '60s reflections, crafty cynicism, and ridiculously catchy tunes. Summer song of the year: "Blow Pop Sun," local references ("Hanging out at the Au Bon Pain/Listening to bad alt-rock bands") and all.

-- Brett Milano

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