The Boston Phoenix
August 12 - 19, 1998

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |


Derby, Fuzzy, and Skeggie

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Over the next week, local audiences will be running into figures from the pop circuit in a couple of unlikely places. The well-liked band Fuzzy and the ex-Dambuilders singer/bassist Dave Derby are both making their soundtrack debuts, with projects that debut in town this week: Derby wrote and performed the score for Who's the Caboose?, a comedy that hits the Coolidge Corner Theatre this Saturday as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival. And Fuzzy are going even farther out of the mainstream: they've scored a play, Marvin's Room, which opens tomorrow (Friday) night at the Peabody House Theatre in Somerville.

Neither project represents a major career change for the folks involved; and they'll be both doing live shows in town over the next week (Fuzzy are at the Lizard Lounge this Saturday; Derby brings his current band Brilliantine to the Middle East next Friday). But after years of slogging through club gigs, both are welcoming a shot at a different venue. "People don't go out to see rock that much anymore, do they?" asks Fuzzy singer/guitarist Chris Toppin. "Maybe that's just me, but it's nice to have another way to get our music out." Adds Derby over the phone from his current New York home, "I guess I feel a little frazzled by the whole post-Dambuilders experience, and the industry is getting worse as far as I can tell. So it's a good thing to have another outlet."

Who's the Caboose? has a number of Boston connections; writer/director Sam Seder worked with the local group Cross Comedy and was a Dambuilders fan. (Also in the cast is Lauren Dombrowski, who had some in-town success as a stand-up). And getting into soundtracks provided Derby with a different way of working. "It was pretty challenging at times. There was one moment when we were working on one of the songs and Sam was telling me what he wanted the keyboard to sound like -- he was holding up a plastic bottle and said, `I want it to wound the way this bottle is blue.' And at first I was thinking, `God, I could kill him for saying something so stupid.' But then I realized, there's something really cool and surreal about that -- cooler than someone just saying, 'Take out some of the 10K on it.' "

One expects a film soundtrack to be an outlet for an artist's less commercial, instrumental ideas. But what's surprising about Derby's songs for Who's the Caboose? is that a few of them, notably "Brite Light" and "You're My Plus One," have a big, catchy, mainstream-rock sound -- something the Dambuilders always hinted at but never quite embraced. "I'm not averse to that -- I have an interest in writing that kind of music, sort of a morbid fascination," Derby acknowledges. "But there's also music I hold dear to myself that I don't want to make the same way. I'm into doing soundtracks and collaborations, but don't want to compromise anything I do with Brilliantine."

The first Brilliantine album was one of last year's overlooked gems; a four-track solo effort that was all loopy tunes and no instrumental frills. The previous Brilliantine shows in town have either been solo or very loose band efforts (usually involving Fuzzy members), but next week Derby will bring a full line-up, including former Small Factory drummer Phoebe Summersquash and guest keyboardist Lloyd Cole (Derby's also a member of Cole's band). And the same approach will prevail on the second Brilliantine record (due for release early next year), which also will have singers Dominique Durand (of Ivy) and Colleen Fitzpatrick (ex-Eve's Plum). "It's a little more fleshed out but not by any means hi-fi," Derby says. "The first album was all four-track and the songs were two minutes long, so everybody said it sounded like Guided by Voices -- nothing really wrong with that, but I'd hate to be stuck in that pigeonhole."

Most of all, Derby wants to avoid another year like his final one with the Dambuilders, who have quietly and unofficially broken up. The group's last album, Against the Stars (Elektra), was considered their best -- at least by the few people, mostly in Boston, who heard it. But the band were so busy with label-suggested tours that they played Boston only once behind it -- at the Middle East on a Wednesday. "And the problem is that it was one of the best Dambuilders shows of all time, so if we ever do another show in Boston, it probably can't be as good. One of the most frustrating things about being on a major label is that you get led into the all-or-nothing approach, and you usually get nothing. That's the way they promote records -- that a radio show in Buffalo, or a show supporting Third Eye Blind, should take precedence over going where you actually have fans. As a result of the decisions we made, we quite literally lost touch with our audience. The people who liked us didn't know we were putting out records, so we lost what we had. And we got deprived of the fun of playing for people who care."

Marvin's Room doesn't have the sort of plot that would seem to lend itself to songs by upbeat pop-rockers Fuzzy. The lead character in Scott McPherson's award-winning Off Broadway play is a dying senior citizen who stays in bed for the duration; during the play he copes with his four-year-old daughter's leukemia. "But it's a comedy, even though the premise is depressing," singer/guitarist Chris Toppin says. "In fact, reading the play made me think a lot of the movie Harold and Maude -- if you listen real carefully, one of the songs we did for the play sounds a lot like something Cat Stevens wrote for that film."

Fuzzy's love of un-trendy pop -- whether that's Cat Stevens or the Mamas & the Papas -- is well known around town. And there'll be more of that later in the winter when the band release their third album, now titled Hurray for Everybody. ("We really wanted to have the British spelling of `hurray' [hooray]," Toppin points out.) They were pulled into the play by a sound designer who works with Toppin, and the band wound up recording an album's worth of music for the project -- they don't perform it on stage but had Fort Apache press up a custom CD of their soundtrack. And the songs they wrote aren't the usual Fuzzy items -- mainly because there are no lyrics, but there are a lot of "la-la"-type vocals.

"Most of it's new, though we re-recorded a couple of old songs, like `Almond,' from the first album," Toppin says. "The two directions they gave us was that they didn't want lyrics and they didn't want any downer-type songs. So I think we wrote some nice, happy-sounding things. There's one song that Hilken wrote [co-singer/guitarist Hilken Mancini], which I think is especially beautiful. We did it all in a week, and it was good for us to find that we could do so much under pressure. We do this thing called `Living Room Rock' -- that's us getting together and writing songs -- and we're starting to talk about writing another record, maybe showing our diversity instead of doing the usual Fuzzy rock thing." Since it's not quite album-promoting time yet, Fuzzy have been pulling some surprises at live shows -- including some unusual covers, like the three Titanics songs they played at the last one I saw. This weekend's Lizard set should be no exception, as Toppin says it will likely be a country show. Expect to hear a bit of Neil Young, and maybe even a Cowboy number -- that is, a song by the obscure Allman Brothers-associated band Cowboy.


Local rocker and sometime Middle East booker Greg "Skeggie" Kendall is in the soundtrack world again, having scored the less-than-memorable (but the songs were pretty good) rock comedy Bandwagon two years ago. That film's director, John Schultz, has signed with Twentieth Century Fox for his next project (another Gen X comedy, Next to You), and Kendall will again be aboard. Due next year, the film stars Melissa Joan Hart of Sabrina the Teenage Witch fame. In addition to writing songs for the film, Kendall's acting as its rock consultant. "That means I have to make sure that the rock scenes look authentic, so my 20 years of hanging around in clubs has finally amounted to something. I have to make sure that the bass player isn't playing through a guitar amp, and I get to suggest to the director that they move the beer to the other side of the table."

Kendall's also produced a track for the film's prom band -- namely teen-rock sensations the Donnas, who do a semi-straight cover of REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You." Two of his own songs will also be featured -- one a pop number sung by Gigolo Aunt Dave Gibbs (and mimed by an actor), the other the basketball team's fight song. "It's called `Go, Fight, Win,' and I've been out to Utah a couple of times to shoot the basketball scenes. So they pumped out this song on massive speakers with 600 extras, and I got to stand in front of them shouting, `Go, Fight, Win.' It's something a person should be able to do every week." Kendall also goes into the studio this month to make an album with his own band, the Toughskins.


The Jad Fair/Yo La Tengo collaboration hits the Middle East tonight (Thursday), with strong support from the Binary System and the Wicked Farleys . . . Buffalo Tom are at Avalon with Mercury Rev, the Grits are at the Plough & Stars, and the rockin' Johnny Black Trio are at the Linwood . . . Mistle Thrush and Boy Wonder play T.T. the Bear's Place tomorrow (Friday), Retsin and Victory at Sea are upstairs at the Middle East while Money Mark is downstairs; the Shods are at Bill's Bar, Deb Pasternak is at the Lizard Lounge, and PermaFrost play the Linwood. And the still-funky Little Feat are at Avalon with roots supergroup Tiny Town opening . . . Memphis funk wildmen Big Ass Truck are at Johnny D's Saturday, the eternal Gang Green and the reunited Last Stand are at T.T.'s, Ramona Silver headlines a Noise party at the Linwood, Debbie Davies is at Cool Blue's, and Bella Luna in Jamaica Plain has a benefit show for the new music spot JP Bowl, with Señor Happy and Pat (Sterlings) Emsweil . . . Crimson King Robert Fripp, doing solo electronic soundscapes, hits Mama Kin Sunday . . . Lydia Lunch is at the Middle East Monday . . . The long-awaited (by someone, probably) Men at Work reunion hits the Paradise Tuesday . . . And alterna-country hero Billy Joe Shaver is at Johnny D's Wednesday.
[Music Footer]