The Boston Phoenix
August 10 - 17, 1998

[Music Reviews]

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Señor Happy get sad

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Senor Happy During a 12-month period some time ago, Señor Happy frontman Derek Skanky smoked dope with Robert Pollard, received a naked photo from Yoko Ono, and got dumped by his girlfriend. Any one of those experiences would likely drive somebody to write good pop songs. Since Skanky went through all three, it's no wonder that he turned out an album as grabbing, and as classically broken-hearted, as Señor Happy (the band's debut, out now on Q Division). There's a mess of pop passion on the album's 12 tracks, which mine the timeless cross of dirty guitar tones and upbeat hooks with yearning, heart-on-sleeve vocals. There's enough grit here to make it alterna-rock friendly, especially with Señor Happy's non-traditional sense of song structure (the song's over when they're out of hooks, so the 12 tracks whiz by in a half-hour). But the album, which was recorded mainly in the band's old Brighton apartment, also harks back to homemade '70s and '80s gems like Shoes' Black Vinyl Shoes and Game Theory's Distortion of Glory, where the stripped-down sonics kept anything from getting between you and the song.

You also have to admire a band who can record a powerhouse drummer like Tom Polce (now in Señor Happy full-time after stints with Letters to Cleo and the Gravy) in a residential neighborhood. "We only got busted once," notes bassist Joe McMahon when we talk at Cambridge's Thirsty Scholar pub. "And we had incredibly cool neighbors. Amazingly enough, you could throw a football from our house to the local police station. But we'd record during the day and always stop by 10 p.m., so nobody ever complained." Then again, they don't live there anymore. It's also true that the band's sound is as gentle as it is noisy -- their labelmate (and now Q Division publicist) Ed Valauskas of Gravel Pit pegged it as "Elliott Smith backed up by Crazy Horse." But if there's a traditional pop flavor to Señor Happy's album, that's partly because the songs were written for the most traditional of reasons.

"I broke up with my girlfriend and then I wrote 12 songs," is how Skanky sums it up. "Some of the songs don't even make sense, it was just me singing syllables over riffs. But you can apply every lyric to a relationship, like when you go through personal turmoil and turn on the radio. And it's a fuckin' nightmare, because every song is about a woman." The ex-girlfriend played such a major part in the album that her picture (as a pre-teen) is on the back cover. After writing the songs, Skanky was able to win her back and rekindle the relationship. Then he dumped her himself. "That's why my songs are getting even more personal, because it made me question all the shit I've done in my life."

Another Q Division connection came into play when Jen Trynin stepped in to produce the three non-homemade tracks on the album; it's her first outside production job (these tracks include extra guitar from Josh Lattanzi, then in Trynin's band and currently holding the bass slot in Orbit). And though she didn't slick up the band's sound, she did bring a good editorial sense -- the Trynin tracks on the album are the ones fleshed out to three-minute length.

"She was adamant about making it more user-friendly -- repeating choruses and simplifying it. Which was a change for us, indie-rock snobs that we are." That last statement is borne out by the band's choice of T-shirts during the interview: Skanky has a Pavement shirt, McMahon a Swervedriver one. And Skanky had one of his personal indie-pop moments when he shared a joint with his heroes in Guided by Voices. "It was backstage at Avalon, after they played that show with Urge Overkill. It was great, I walked into the dressing room and they were sitting there in a circle, just like on the back cover of Alien Lanes."

Yoko's butt figures into this story in a more, uh, roundabout way. One of the early incarnations of Señor Happy was a cover band who formed to play a bunch of no-account gigs around Connecticut, calling themselves Yoko Ono's Ass. The band didn't get much notice, but the name did: the Hartford Advocate singled them out for the area's best band name. Then Yoko's lawyers found out. "They called us and said, `She's not thrilled with the name of the band, but she thinks it's funny,' " Skanky remembers. "Two weeks later we got a letter from her, and it said, `I hope you strive to live up to the standard of the name you have chosen to bare.' " She enclosed a blown-up photo of the body part in question, complete with a "Love, Yoko" signature. Thus the disc's credit, "Recorded at the House of Ass." The photo has graced their practice space ever since.

"We feel a little guilty that we never wrote back, though," Skanky says. "How often does John Lennon's widow send you a photo of her ass?"


When cult-hero songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill last hit this area, about a year ago, she got a boost from a pop star she'd never met. Turned out that a pair of albums she made for Rhino 10 years ago got discovered by some rabid Jewel fans, who heard a bit of similarity in their approaches (on those albums, Berryhill could have been Jewel's older, more cynical and bohemian sister). Berryhill linked up with the Everyday Angels, an Internet cadre of Jewel fans, who sponsored a tour of informal living-room shows. She wound up playing three gigs in people's houses -- one in Boston, one in Taunton, and one in Brewster on the Cape.

"The last one was like a mini Woodstock," she says from her San Diego home. "We got a hundred people and had to move it onto the porch; people brought their chairs and sprawled out on the lawn. Then they'd go in the water, come back, and we'd play some more. There was so much scuttlebutt on the Net about how successful the first show was that we got treated like queens." She did similar shows in the Midwest, encouraging fans to make DAT and video recordings, which are now being swapped around the Net. And the irony of getting embraced by fans of a next-generation songwriter? "Pretty funny. Guess I just wasn't made for these times."

The Brian Wilson line she's just quoted suggests where Berryhill's heading these days: beginning with the Garage Orchestra album (released three years ago on Cargo), she's gone for a textured pop sound that brings out the songwriting quirks that were hinted at on her acoustic albums. "The things I'm writing now have even more harmonies. I discovered this revolutionary new instrument to write on; it's called the piano." After a show at Johnny D's last week, she'll be back at Green Street Grill on the 20th, a week from Sunday.


The best thing you can expect from a local compilation is that you'll be blown away by a band you'd never heard of before. The just-released Twisted Rico Class of 1998 -- a 14-song collection of bands in the Twisted Rico management stable -- accomplished that with the opening track, Static's "California." The lyrics bespeak an anthem that needed to be written, with a chorus of "I'll never move to California" and a long list of reasons why ("I don't wanna meet Madonna!"). And the track has a great British Invasion sound to it (sounds a lot like the Move, in fact), complete with faintly accented vocal and a guitar riff making the best use of "Louie Louie" I've heard in a while.

Good stuff continues with a few new numbers by established bands. Boy Wonder's "Break the Spell" pulls in Paula Kelley's now-trademark mix of exuberant hook and vocal vulnerability. Ape Hangers' "She Comes Again" is an uncharacteristic mid-tempo number that brings the Neighborhoods to mind. Other highlights include Caged Heat's garage blues (or maybe it's punk with harmonica) and the Pills' hyperspeed power pop ("All That Way" crams in three verses, two choruses, and a bridge in 1:22). A fast-and-basic old-school sound prevails throughout; the exception is Denise Hradecky's Liz Phair-sounding "Old 45" -- an acoustic number that pulls the Phair-ish trick of dealing with a mundane experience (spinning a scratchy vinyl disc) in sexual-sounding terms. All of the above-named bands, and a couple of unnamed surprise guests, will be playing at the disc's release party, this Saturday (the 12th) at the Linwood Grille.


Slide continue a weekly residence at the Plough & Stars tonight (Thursday) with Laurie Geltman guesting . . . Silkwork are at the Middle East, Lars Vegas play the Lizard Lounge, and Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Cha's stomp down at Johnny D's . . . Reunion of the week: the Classic Ruins do it one more time at Club Bohemia tomorrow (Friday). WGBH's resident blues authority, Mai Cramer, celebrates the 20th anniversary of "Blues After Hours" at the House of Blues that night, with Byther Smith and Luther Johnson playing. Tuscadero headline the Middle East, and the Push Kings play their last show before a move to San Francisco at T.T. the Bear's Place . . . Big pop at Bill's Bar Saturday with the Gravel Pit and the Sterlings. The infamous Punch Drunk Monkeys play the Midway Café with the Johnny Black Trio. Alterna-country hero and former Bostonian Gillian Welch is at the Somerville Theatre, Bim Skala Bim and Beat Soup are at the Middle East, Creeper Lagoon and Spoon are at T.T. the Bear's Place, Cheerleader, Flexie, and January are at Mama Kin, and songwriter Jenifer Jackson is at the Lizard Lounge.

Promoting a new live EP, Tom Leach plays for free at Charlie's Tap on Monday; the Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek is at the Middle East . . . Tuesday begins the anniversary festivities at T.T. the Bear's Place, with pop 'n' ska from Bim Skala Bim, the Pills, Popgun, and Tidal Wave . . . Roots-rock ace Dennis Brennan is now playing alternate Wednesdays at the Tir na n-Óg pub on Somerville's Union Square; he'll be there this week. And it's old-school night at T.T.'s with the Allstonians, Eric Martin & the Illyrians, the Bristols, Shods, Charlie Chesterman, and a reunion of political punks Last Stand.

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