March 28 - April 4, 1 9 9 6

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Opening doors

Gravel Pit get their sound out of the garage

by Brett Milano

["Gravel I've been waiting to say this for about five years: garage rock is back. And it's back in the unlikely hands of Gravel Pit, an eclectic combo who moved here from New Haven two years ago. There was promise in the band's earlier releases -- the CD Crash Land (on the Nashville label Feralette) and a scattering of singles and tapes -- but they were somewhat unsatisfying. It seemed that the angels of thoughtful pop and the demons of garage trash were fighting for the band's soul. With the new Gravel Pit Manifesto (on Q Division), the demons win -- and so do the band.

Gravel Pit's thoughtful side hasn't been restrained altogether, but they've mastered an equation that usually works: rock now, think later. The heart of Manifesto is a sound built on guitar/organ jousting and big, fat chorus hooks -- all in quick bursts (eight of the 13 tracks clock in under three minutes). Producer Mike Denneen gets the dynamic live sound that the better-known Jim Dickinson failed to achieve last time; the album again shows Denneen's knack for careful productions that don't sound like careful productions -- detailed without being fussy or slick.

The economy extends to the disc's diversions, an odd country song and an eerie ballad or two. And the only bad track, "Judas Lament" (recorded live at an apparently excessive night at the Kendall Café), is thoughtfully placed at the end and preceded by a gap. Otherwise, Gravel Pit's moody side acts as a monkey wrench to keep things from getting too predictable or straightforward. And when a track echoes another band -- the Stranglers on "New Haven," Todd Rundgren on "Time To Leave the Cradle" -- it's not a standard-issue role model. Another plus is the "smart guy gets even" tone of singer/organist Jed Parish's lyrics, whether he's making fun of cops ("Officer Dwight Boyd"), dissing his former hometown ("New Haven,") or accepting an ex-girlfriend as his "Favorite Scar."

"I always get upset when people call us a garage band, and then I get upset when they call us a pop band," admits guitarist Jeff Juhase, who's given himself a different silly alias on each release; on Manifesto he's credited as Lucky Jackson. (Drummer Pete Caldes and bassist Ed Valauskas, also of Jules Verdone's group, complete the band.) "We've certainly never tried to please anybody or fit in anywhere. We did all right in New Haven, but our sound seems to fit better in Boston." That much was evident at Gravel Pit's CD-release party three weekends ago, where T.T. the Bear's Place was a sweatbox during a snowstorm and they played a sweaty set to match; they return to the club on April 11.

The band are generally agreed that producer Dickinson (a Memphis music-scene legend best known around indie-pop circles for doing Big Star's fabled Third) didn't get the best from them on the last album. "It would have been better if it had been our third or fourth album, but we showed people the weird version of Gravel Pit before we showed them the straightforward version," Parish says. "You always play better if there's people coming to see you and you get to play a lot, and we've had that since we moved here."

As the main songwriter, Parish tends to make the words less straightforward than the tunes. "There are songs that I don't have any idea what they're about, just flight-of-fancy type things. I defy anybody to figure out what `Drink You Up' is about." (In fact, his lyrics' imagery -- "Down the hill and curving around to the right/See her change from blue to white" -- sounds about right for the swirly psychedelic feel of the tune.) As for "Officer Dwight Boyd," he's a fictional character who was inspired as much by TV cops as by live ones.

"I'm not completely positive that it's healthy to put cops up as heroes," Parish says carefully. "I mean the guys who go around beating people when they have a gun and the power of authority. Dumb meathead rednecks are kind of a drag already, but I get a little scared when they have guns. Sure, somebody like Nixon would be scarier than a cop. But at least he's dead and they didn't make a TV show out of him."


HIGHLAND'S 40TH. When trash-rockin' pooh-bah Kenne Highland throws himself a birthday party, you can rest assured that it won't be one of those quiet, reflective occasions. A self-described "supreme ruler and court jester" of the local scene, Highland is also a proud member of local rock's lunatic fringe -- all of whom should be present for his 40th-birthday show this Tuesday at the Kirkland, which is set to begin at 6 p.m. and stretch way into the night. For guests, he promises "everyone I knew 19 years ago and everyone I've known since then, plus everyone I saw play at the Kirkland in the '90s." (A more specific list would include Willie Alexander, John Felice, Jeff Conolly, Butterscott, Slide, Ramona Silver, the Varmints, and reunions of at least two of Highland's old bands, the Gizmos and Johnny & the Jumper Cables.) In addition, he promises that attempts will be made to contact the late GG Allin via crystal ball.

Highland made his recording debut 20 years ago, with the notorious Gizmos single "Muff Divin' in Wilkie South" (whose title refers to an Indiana University dorm, among other things). He moved to Boston soon afterward, following time in the Marines. "My first Boston gig? That would be my own wedding reception on Sunday April 21, 1977," he notes. "I played my last Bloomington show on April 9, 1977; I was introduced by John Cougar. Then I met Willie Alexander at a Dead Boys show at the Rat -- Saturday April 16, 1977." Highland, you see, has a thing about dates; during our chat he also reminds me that "you've got 13 years of Kenne Highland now, since April 9, 1983." (Sure enough, his band the Hopelessly Obscure played the Rat that night with Planet Street and Blotto, a gig I'd long since forgotten.) "I still have the respect of the guys from the Rat era," he says. "And I should be jaded at my age, but I like a lot of the new bands, too."

My own favorite Highland gig was the night he got banned from Bunratty's, thanks to a kilt he wore that refused to stay put. A similar incident barred him from the Kirkland for a time, but he promises that nothing of the sort will happen Tuesday.


Any album that includes a song rhyming "libido" with "neat-o" automatically earns a place of honor in this column. Pulling that rhyme is Pete Weiss, best known as the guy who runs Zippah Studios in Brookline. Weiss is also a singer, a writer, a multi-instrumentalist, and a man with a weird sense of humor. His solo album, The Astounding World of Tomorrow's Modern Hi-Fi Audio (on Noisy Revolution), is the sort of thing They Might Be Giants used to do before they ran out of steam.

The songs are take-offs and put-ons in various genres, and the lyrics are winningly wiseass. Arena rock gets a dig on "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll," which includes this verse: "Axl Rose can suck my Wang Chung/And the Beatles can suck my Flipper/Cause all the songs have already been sung/And that goes double for Big Dipper" (yes, it would be funnier if the latter band still existed, but I like it anyway).

Best track, however, isn't even a song: it's "Vox Wah-Wah Pedal," an actual cover version of a '60s commercial for said device with the names of modern bands substituted (the original ad, with the Electric Prunes pumping the pedal, appears on one of the Pebbles compilations). Weiss plays a bunch of instruments with a large supporting cast. Most everyone who's recorded at Zippah (including local notables Charlie Chesterman, Rich Gilbert, and Nat "Lord Bendover" Freedberg) apparently appears somewhere.


It was morbid curiosity that first brought me to see Beatle Juice, the tribute band fronted by Boston's Brad Delp. Surprise: they're really good, faithful without overdoing it, and Delp has his John and Paul voices down pat. See them at Johnny D's tonight (Thursday) and find out whether they've learned "Real Love" yet.

Meanwhile, New Orleans bluesman and taxi driver Mem Shannon makes his local debut at the House of Blues, Tracy Bonham does a CD-release show at the Middle East, and Jad Fair comes to T.T. the Bear's Place . . . Tomorrow (Friday) is a good night for blues, with Ronnie Earl beginning two nights at Johnny D's and Johnny Copeland coming to the House of Blues. The Castle von Buhler label trots out many of its faves (including secret guest Lisa Germano) at T.T. the Bear's Place and Mistle Thrush play the Middle East. The world's best, and possibly only, Jam tribute band, All Mod Cons, play the Linwood.

Saturday night's best post-Lou Reed (Orpheum) options include Eric Martin & the Illyrians at the Phoenix Landing, Combustible Edison at the Middle East, Susan Tedeschi at the Middle East, Spent at T.T.'s, and Royal Crowns at the Linwood . . . Weird bill of the week: the two Aston brothers who fronted Gene Loves Jezebel are at Mama Kin Sunday, but not together. Michael headlines, Jay precedes; openers Curious Ritual likely outclass both . . . Jonathan Richman begins another three-night Middle East stand on Monday . . . and the Tenderloins can now be heard every Wednesday at the Phoenix Landing.

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