The Boston Phoenix
December 24 - 31, 1998

[Local music - Year in review]

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Local music - The year in review

by Brett Milano

You couldn't ask for a better metaphor for the year in local rock than the Central Square blaze that nearly leveled the Middle East and T.T. the Bear's Place last month: under fire but still standing. Commercial radio gave up on indie acts long ago, and many of Boston's best and brightest are in limbo after major-label flings. So as the increasingly consolidated rock business moves further away from the grassroots level, the prospect of another 1977 or another Seattle gets more unlikely by the day.

the year in review

art - classical - dance - dining - fiction
film - jazz - local music - news - non-fiction - 1 in 10
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Which makes it more of a blessing that Boston still has a scene that turns out good indie records by the trunkload and puts worthy bands in the clubs on a nightly basis. This year's Top 10 list has less major-label presence than it's had in the past several years -- unless you count the two bands here that were bounced before their albums came out. But that's where we've found the best of Boston's rock and pop in 1998: thriving in the underground.

1. The Shods, Bamboozled, Jilted, Hoodwinked & Hornswoggled (Poorhouse). They open the album with a friggin' rock-and-roll anthem; they proclaim "I'm the alternative to your alternative"; and they play with the spirit that's driven the great punk and garage bands since year one. In short, the Shods have what it takes to bring new- and old-school rockers to the same club and send them home buzzing. On stage they may be the only local band who can pull off Jam, Clash, and Pistols covers on a regular basis. But this disc shows off the Shods' songwriting chops and their occasional rockabilly and Bowie-esque leanings. And it shows how well a band can rebound: after losing a fully produced album when the Fort Apache/MCA imprint went under, they went home and made a killer disc with minimal production values -- proof that when you can play this hard, the rest is gravy.

2. Come, Gently, Down the Stream (Matador). This one explores the cathartic possibilities of guitar rock as few have this year. With a new rhythm section in tow, Come have shaken off their blues-drone origins and embraced some of the classic-rock trappings they once avoided -- or maybe it's just that lead guitarist Chris Brokaw has realized how good he is. The recent addition of major chords and chorus hooks doesn't detract from the brutal beauty of Thalia Zedek's voice, which embodies all the danger and intrigue that drew one to rock in the first place. This 68-minute epic could have been trimmed by a song or two, but the breathing space generally suits them well: the triple-peaking "Saints Around My Neck" doesn't waste any of its nine minutes.

3. Betwixt, Moustache (Archenemy). Equal parts pop combo and art-rock band, Betwixt are warm and cuddly one minute and messing with your head the next. Former Turkish Delight chanteuse Leah Callahan finds her perfect counterpart in inventive ex-Bulkhead guitarist Tom Devaney, and the band's flexible line-up (with cello replacing bass) encourages left-field melodic turns. This debut has most of Betwixt's early demos (including the terrific Zeppelin homage "Seahorse"); the newer tracks add polish while maintaining the old thrill of discovery.

4. The Racketeers (Scollay Square). It's pretty ironic that a band as retro-minded as the Racketeers should make the freshest-sounding Boston rockabilly disc to date. Fronted by cool-cat drummer Dana Stewart, these guys are proudly true to their school: they look '50s, they think '50s, and they flat-out get that Sun Records sound in the studio, complete with slap bass and chugging acoustic guitar behind the hot leads. The songs are all theirs and all good, and they get the spirit so right that the throwback aspect hardly matters. This is a party, not a history lesson, and the band members' punk roots are still in there somewhere. Makes bank robbery and '50s delinquency sound like more fun than they probably were.

5. The Moors (CVB). Having as much to do with paganism as rock and roll, this is music to visit a spiritual netherworld by. The Moors employ some ancient musical spells to get you there, but they also call on the power of a ripping guitar solo. The sound incorporates techno, rock, and Celtic elements, with an electronic pulse wrapping around Sharynne NicMhacha's haunting vocals. When partner Scott Dakota joins in on guitar, they invoke the moon goddess and Jimmy Page at once.

6. Trona, Red River (CherryDisc). Trona's first couple of years of gigs promised they'd eventually come through with a knockout album, and here it is -- the writing's strong, the pop/punk/country elements are blended seamlessly, and the mix of male and female lead vocals (by Chris Dyas and Mary Ellen Leahy) gives the band great harmonies and a winning personality. In short, this disc should have been the beginning of big things for Trona. Instead, it's the end of an era: Leahy jumped ship shortly after its release, and the band are continuing as a trio. This means they'll be drastically different when they reappear next year. But since the remaining members also pack houses as the Ray Corvair Trio, they just might pull it off.

7. Jack Drag, Dopebox (A&M). Now this is the way to make a major-label debut: go full-speed ahead with the quirky eclecticism of your indie releases. Frontman John Dragonetti can write pop hooks with the best of them, but he doesn't stop there. He's also enamored of the Beck/Beasties cut-and-paste approach to production, and he likes to explore funky and avant modes. He goes wilder here than he did on Jack Drag's two indie albums, but he's disciplined enough to let the sonic exotica enhance the songwriting instead of overwhelming it. And it doesn't hurt that he has one of the tightest rhythm sections around, so even the most studio-driven moments maintain a solid groove.

8. Peter Wolf, Fool's Parade (Mercury). The work of a washed-up rock star? Not on your life. On his best solo album -- and hell, maybe the best of his career -- Peter Wolf becomes the full-fledged soul man he's always aspired to be. Temporarily leaving the Woofa-Goofa persona behind, he's made an unflinchingly personal album that doesn't get lost in self-pity. The song titles ("Long Way Back Again," "Turnin' Pages") show what's on his mind these days, and he finds a deep-down resonance that grabs hold whether or not you grew up with the J. Geils Band. This is also a more hopeful set than his last one, the similarly reflective Long Line, and his new band's soul/country/rock hybrid allows him to kick back without losing his R&B roots.

9. Velvet Crush, Heavy Changes (Action Muzik). Velvet Crush's last album (1994's Teenage Symphonies to God) was an overlooked gem, a classic-model pop album full of indelible tunes. Although nearly as good, this one's far different. Made during a long period of personal and career upheaval, it's got the Crush's nastiest songs and dirtiest guitar sounds, plus the rawest production Mitch Easter could come up with. For all that, it's nearly as catchy as its predecessor, and the band have never rocked so hard. The result? Epic dropped them, whereupon the Crush bought the rights back, released it on their own label (, and moved to LA.

10. Anal Cunt, Picnic of Love (Off the Records). It may be a cheap-shot, one-joke album, but it's a hell of a joke. Anal Cunt, notorious for obnoxious punk dirges with offensive titles (my favorite: "No, We Don't Want To Do a Split Seven-Inch with Your Stupid Fucking Band"), go acoustic and take a sudden turn to the achingly sensitive. With vocals halfway between Neil Young and Mr. Bill, and lyrics that take the courtly-love/chastity angle to extremes (best title: "I Respect Your Feelings As a Woman and a Human"), this is pricelessly wise-assed and more than a little subversive. You'll never hear anyone else's twee ballads quite the same way. It's safe to say there's never been a local album quite like this.

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