The Boston Phoenix
January 20 - 27, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Back to the futures

Astroslut and Seks Bomba

Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry

Astroslut What better way to kick off a brand new millennium than to sink oneself deeply -- perhaps irrevocably -- into a Jetsons cartoon of a chair that feels like the bucket seat of a '75 Pacer and talk tunes with Astroslut, those retro-futurist space-porn stars from the 24th century? On the eve of our scheduled chat at the Milky Way, where Astroslut play tonight (January 20), a decidedly 20th-century ailment (chronic back problem) is afflicting songwriter/keyboardist Quinn Martian (not his real name), requiring that he remain in a standing position indefinitely. So, given Martian's predicament, we (Quinn, singer Jane Fondle, and myself) instead opt to meet at Astroslut's shag-carpeted headquarters in Jamaica Plain.

Once we're inside and surrounded by vintage pulp-fiction paperbacks, a larger-than-lifesize cutout of Mexican cocktail-lounge composer Juan García Esquivel's head peeking out from rows of records, and a display of Russ Meyer B-movie stills (autographed by the man himself!), conversation turns to Astroslut's debut, Love at Zero G (Soundworks). "People have remarked that this sounds like a concept album, like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust," remarks Fondle (not her real name). "Not that our album sounds anything like that, but it has the same sort of idea of transforming yourself. It's certainly more interesting than who we really are."

It's for this reason that Fondle and Martian ask that their real names not be used in print. And you won't find those names on the album either -- all the songs, with the exception of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore-penned "Bedazzled" from the film of the same name, are credited to the Quinn Martian alias, and the bandmembers' real names are listed only under "Time travel coordinators." Besides Fondle and Martian, there's guitarist 2000 (with whom Martian had played in a Small Faces-style mod band in Florida years ago), percussionist J. Natalia, and now new bassist Zakus Zanalian, who bears a striking resemblance to former Boy Wonder bassist Josh Arakelian and who filled the bass slot recently vacated by Jesus Knievel.

"There's so much of an emphasis now in pop music on realism, and that's fine if that's what you want," says Martian. "But I sort of have enough of reality every day, and I like the idea of creating my own world." Or, says Fondle, "when reality is done now, it's done in a really safe way that's not very confrontational or dangerous. It's so fake and so forced. We're extremely calculated, but in a good way -- in the way that chair's made of fiberglass. It's mass-produced but it's fabulous. What's kind of funny is that I think that, in the true spirit of rock and roll, we're a lot more subversive than a lot of mainstream, college-sounding stuff."

Martian remembers his early fascination with the presentation of pop, and the music's thrilling, exotic promise of escape. "Back in the mid '70s, when I was 11, 12, or 13, I used to watch Saturday Night Live after my parents had gone to bed, and I saw groups like Devo and the Talking Heads for the first time. I liked the idea of being drawn in and scared of them at the same time. A lot of those groups had a strong visual thing, and it seems that's almost nonexistent now."

If Astroslut seem as much a concept as a band, it's one that most likely could never have existed during the era from which the idea draws. With almost fetishistic fervor, the group pluck pre-fab artifacts from the detritus of a popular culture that defined post-World War II America -- specifically '50s bomb-shelter and '60s happy-hour suburbia -- and synthesize them into new art with sleek irony, sly humor, and dead-on accuracy. What comes out of Astroslut's postmodern blender is a day-glo cocktail of soft-focus sexploitation flicks and space-age daydreams, lava lamps and fondue parties, moog synthesizers and Barbarella spacesuits. The spacesuits Fondle wears and then sheds during the band's live performances. On occasion, the "burlesque show," as she describes it, has earned her the ire of some feminists in the audience. It's a reaction you might not have seen 40 years ago. "I think I piss off a lot of the sort of `automechanic'-type of feminists who don't want to see a woman dressed like that and certainly not exploiting herself for the benefit of men. But I think that feminism these days has so many different layers -- and I certainly don't think of Ally McBeal or Monica Lewinsky as the new feminists -- but I do think that there can be a certain level of feminist power that isn't necessarily burning a bra. I think you can promote the beauty of a woman's sexuality without necessarily exploiting it. I mean, I'm laughing the whole time I do this."

Martian finds it ironic that even after Fondle's striptease is complete, "she's still wearing more than a lot of the girls who go out dancing on Lansdowne Street."

Fondle's brassy voice and brassier personae, meanwhile, suggest Shirleys Bassey and Manson -- a perfect complement to cool, frolicsome romps like "The Dame from Planet Eros" and "Galaxy Girl." But it's not all false eyelashes and feather boas. Underneath the showmanship there's a batch of cannily perceptive, skillfully arranged songs about making a human connection amid all the gadgetry of a modern age. Ultimately, the songs say more about human failing than about robotic perfection. And any band whose lyrics can rhyme "fancy nomenclature" with "apelike stature" deserve a closer look.

"Somebody might write it off as a joke," Martian allows. "But to write something that makes some real observations, that's done in a humorous way, that's appropriate for everybody in the band, and that fits the concept -- keeping all of these things together is a difficult thing sometimes."


Seks Bomba Another band who cast a keen eye toward the past as a way to chart their future are the spy-soundtrack merchants Seks Bomba, a quintet comprising players you might recognize from other outfits past and present (former Dogzilla dude/Sugar Twins guitarist George Hall; Upper Crust bassist Count Bassey, a/k/a Chris Cote; Laurie Geltman sideman Matt Silbert). The group, who play the Lizard Lounge February 12, recently released their Bond-meets-Bacharach debut album Operation B.O.M.B.A. (YaYa Records), a swinging tour de force of imagined secret-agent-movie scores ("Theme from `To Kill 89' "), tight-slacked Tom Jones-y come-ons ("Bright Lights and You, Girl"), and instrumental interludes ("Do You Know the Way to San Jose?") that works as an excellent martini-sipping soundtrack. Not bad for an outfit that happened by accident back in 1995.

"We didn't really start out with a plan or anything," Hall recalls over beers at the Lizard Lounge with Seks Bomba singer/guitarist Chris Cote and bassist Silbert (the line-up also includes keyboardist Lori Perkins and drummer Brett Campbell). "Boston Rock Opera was doing a benefit and Matt and I were looking at putting something together for it. And there was an album that I was obsessed with for a while by composer/arranger Dick Hyman called The Man from O.R.G.A.N. One thing led to another, various neighbors (Perkins lived across the street from Hall) and musical acquaintances were tapped, and Seks Bomba was born. "We thought it was going to be a one-time deal," says Silbert. "But people were so enthusiastic, we thought, `Hell, let's do it again.' "

Hall, a rock-schooled guitarist, began composing material that took its primary cues not from rock but from, well, just about everything else. "It's a learning experience for me," he says. "As far as writing goes, it's a blast to try to arrange parts and see how things work together. It's completely different from rock, but my listening thing has been pretty much a bunch of other places too." Meanwhile, Cote's role as Seks Bomba's singer affords him the chance to move away from the crunching AC/DC-style rock of his other band, the Upper Crust, and explore his inner Jones -- Tom Jones, that is.

"I try to sing those songs as well as I can sing them, even though there's a funny component inherent in the song," he explains. "But those are great songs, just as music. They've retained their integrity, and that's why they still sound good now. Tom Jones, if you listen to him, was trying to ape soul music, and that's part of the appeal of those records. It's a cheery, Wales-based lunatic with a London string and horn orchestra trying to play R&B. And there's some charm to it."

Yes, it's tough to embrace the respective charms of Jones, Bacharach, and Mancini (the band cover Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer's "It Had Better Be Tonight") without falling prey to the "novelty act" tag. But Hall says he's learned from his Dogzilla days not to pay too much attention to people's perceptions. "With this band, some people do perceive us as a novelty lounge act, but what I've learned from past experience is, `Fuck 'em.' Because if you start trying to react to them and do things differently, you're going to fail anyway. To my way of thinking, it's not a novelty act. It's good music. We're pretty cynical about achieving fame, so what the hell? I see a lot of bands being written about as the next best thing, and they come and go, and we're still here."

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