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Alice in ties

Local punks spill their dark secret; plus Push Stars

by Brett Milano

["Crazy If you want to find the members of Crazy Alice in a crowded room, it's easy: just seek out the guys who look as if they wouldn't be caught dead playing in a punk band. Scanning the 1369 Coffeehouse in Central Square for them at lunch hour last week, I was looking for folks who resembled the band when I saw them at the Middle East a month earlier -- the drummer in a nightgown, the lead guitarist in red longjohns. So my eyes went right past the two guys sitting at the window in white shirts and ties, one with a pulled-back ponytail and one with a general lack of hair, guys who looked less like rockers than like lawyers and architects. Turns out that it was Crazy Alice singer/guitarist Jeff Ahearn and bassist Steve Crotty -- who are also, respectively, a lawyer and an architect.

"I keep my work a huge secret, just like I keep the band a huge secret at work," says Crotty. "Everyone in the band has some serious job," counters Ahearn. "I don't think it's a mutually exclusive thing. There aren't any specific references to what we do for jobs in our songs, just the same things everyone else goes through -- dealing with relationships and so on."

". . . And beer," Crotty adds.

So they don't see a discrepancy between writing snotty songs with Crazy Alice by night and living a respectable life by day?

"You mean this kind of music isn't respectable?", Ahearn laughs.

In fact, this kind of punk-with-tunes is quite respectable, even familiar by now, but it's still worth doing well. And Crazy Alice do it damn well on Best Damn Chicken in the Fair (Catapult) -- their third album, first with a new line-up (charter members Ahearn and guitarist John McCarthy joined by newish bassist Crotty and drummer Gino Zanetti), and first with suitable production (by John Wood, save for two live tracks off WMBR's Pipeline show). The songs are concise and catchy, smart and nasty. And though Crazy Alice will probably never shake comparisons to early Replacements and mid-period Hüsker Dü, they're not even sure they want to. A clip in their press kit (from Magnet) favorably and accurately compares them to "college radio back in '88."

"I take that as a huge compliment," says Crotty. "I used to follow the Gavin Report and buy my albums off it. If you look at it now, it's all Smashing Pumpkins and the Breeders -- not very college anymore."

"We are what we are," says Ahearn. "We don't try to make excuses or pretend we're doing something wildly innovative. Music from that era -- more specifically, mid-period Replacements and Hüsker Dü -- made me want to be in a band. We don't intentionally try to mine that music; it's just instinctive -- your own music is bound to have some of those elements in it." But unlike the Replacements and Hüskers, who were always in a hurry to move beyond the punk/pop they started out with, Crazy Alice are happy where they are. "I don't think we do this music well enough to get bored with it," Crotty says. "We're still getting around to writing the songs we've been trying to write."

The main problem with the band's two previous albums -- 1992's Wheel and 1994's Bender, both on Sonic Bubblegum -- was that the sound was thin. They spent more time and money on a proper mix this time; and there are a few surprises buried in the production -- notably a solo that Ahearn plays on kalimba (African thumb piano) during "The Girl Who'll Save the World." "I went out for pizza and came back when it was done," says Crotty, who's apparently still getting used to it. "It was worth it, though, because I got nominated for `Best African Hand-Piano Player' in the Boston Phoenix Best Music Poll," deadpans Ahearn.

How well do Crazy Alice fit in with what's happening in Boston now? "I don't know -- what is happening here now?", Ahearn asks. "I just know that if we play the Middle East, get along with the other bands on the bill, and manage to sell five CDs, then we're psyched. In Boston we've been around for so long [five years] that people say, `Oh yeah, Crazy Alice, whatever.' " Can they see a way to move to the next level, or at least the downstairs room of the Middle East? "It would be nice. But I don't know if there's a way, short of joining Hair Club for Men."



There are two basic things you need to know about the Push Stars, a local band who make their national debut this month with Meet Me at the Fair (on Aimee Mann's favorite label, Imago) First, they sound like Hootie & the Blowfish. Second, they sound a lot like Hootie & the Blowfish. Thank you and good night.

Fact is, a Hootie-type sound is becoming more common than a Grateful Dead-type sound among bands of a HORDE temperament (the difference being that Hootie specialize in long, rambling vocals rather than long, rambling instrumentals). I hear a lot of earnestness in the Push Stars' debut, I hear the requisite laid-back HORDE groove, but I don't hear much that would convert a skeptic like myself. Running more than an hour, Meet Me at the Fair is one of those discs that starts off pleasantly inoffensive but covers so little ground that you wind up checking your watch. For starters their songs have only two tempos, slow and loping, except when they make unconvincing stabs at funk and hip-hop.

My main gripe, with this genre and especially this album, is that there's not a lot of songwriting involved -- rather, the singer writes a bunch of lyrics and the band hang a groove on them. And singer/guitarist Chris Trapper's lyrics aren't the strongest hook for a band. What sinks them is Trapper's attempts to come off as darker and more dangerous than he is. He uses the circus as a metaphor in three separate songs and tells us what a problem drinker he is in three others; one thinks there'd be more dynamics in his singing if that really were the case. A few of the lines are borderline-silly (referring to his girlfriend as "all soft and strong and sensual and crazy," for instance); others are borderline-dumb ("I'm an angry taxi driver's target/But that's okay, it's just the way he shakes his pain"). And one can't resist pointing out that you shouldn't write lines like "If it's not okay to dream, why don't you take that gun and shoot me in the heart?" unless you truly want someone to take you up on it. The Push Stars play the free Harvard Square May Fair event on May 5 at 3 o'clock in front of HMV.


Want to know what the next Throwing Muses album sounds like? Production on Limbo was recently wrapped up in Los Angeles, and the album won't be released (on the new Throwing Muses/Rykodisc imprint) until July. However, the band have taken the unusual step of making the entire album available for preview on their Throwing Muses Web site, where one can download minute-long excerpts from all 12 songs. To judge from a perfunctory listen last week, the album continues the stripped-down and straightforward trend of last year's University; notable tracks include "Mr. Bones" (whose title refers to the late street musician -- call it Boston's answer to Soundgarden's "Spoonman") and the likely single "Buzz." The site's address is http://www.mmaweb.com/throwingmusic/. But be ready to spend some time, since it takes longer to download the samples than it would to play the whole album.

In other Muse news, leader Kristin Hersh will also be appearing (with R.E.M., Nanci Griffith, Golden Smog, and other notables) on a tribute/benefit album for Athens (Georgia) songwriter Vic Chesnutt. The set was put together by Sweet Relief, the organization behind the popular Victoria Williams tribute from 1993. This one is Sweet Relief II, on Columbia, in stores June 25.


Is there time for one more good album in the surf/lounge vein before the trend passes? Four Piece Suit, who make their CD debut with Ready to Where? (Ocean Music), have some familiar names in the line-up -- they're mostly past and present members of Barrence Whitfield's Savages -- and some familiar songs in their repertoire. But their CD emanates from a universe where the true godfather of alternative rock is Henry Mancini. And Four Piece Suit are inhabited by Mancini's spirit just as surely as Bush are inhabited by Kurt Cobain's. Along with a couple of straight covers, there's a version of Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My" as Mancini might have done it. What sets this band apart from the pack is their jazz chops and their knowledge of non-rock covers -- among them a piece each by jazz drummer Max Roach and James Bond soundtracker John Barry. The result is a perfect disc to put through the quadrophonic system in your bohemian bachelor pad.


On the subject of surf music, hitch your woody to the Rat tonight (Thursday) and catch a CherryDisc showcase with the Ray Corvair Trio, Surficide, Derangers, and others. Papas Fritas are at T.T. the Bear's Place, and Northampton popster Ray Mason hits Mama Kin while Kustomized rock the Music Hall next door . . . Tomorrow (Friday) Mikey Dee presents Huck, the Pills, and others at Club Bohemia; WZBC has an upstairs/downstairs show with Mistle Thrush, Urban Ambience, and others at the Middle East, Laurie Geltman's at the Phoenix Landing, and Vision Thing and Chelsea on Fire are at the Rat.

Former Del Fuego Dan Zanes hits Johnny D's on Saturday, Barrence Whitfield heats up the Tam, Retsin are at the Middle East upstairs while the Dambuilders are downstairs, and Bleed and Binge play the Rat. Ex-Dogmatic Jerry Lehane's current outfit, the Hornets, are at the Linwood . . . It's a "Dark Music Festival" with Opium Den and others at Mama Kin Sunday . . . Lush bring their pop textures to the Paradise Monday . . . And cult hero Dredd Foole makes a rare appearance at T.T.'s on Wednesday.

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