The Boston Phoenix
March 4 - 11, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Beyond pop

The Gravel Pit unleash a gorilla

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

The Gravel Pit Gravel Pit bassist Ed Valauskas is discussing the reaction that some of his friends have had to a song on the new Pit album, Silver Gorilla (out this week on Q Division). "The musos I know seem to have a problem with it," he admits. "And I ask them, 'Is it the sex thing in the lyrics? Is it the weird harmony interval?' And they're like, 'I don't know, man. But something about that song freaks me out.' "

The irony here is that the song in question -- the disc's finale, "Get Tangled!" -- may be the friendliest thing in the whole set, with a giddy chorus and horn section that bring guest saxophonist John Linnell's regular band, They Might Be Giants, to mind. The truly offbeat stuff -- plus some of the usual upbeat pop stuff -- comes earlier. The Gravel Pit have always had an experimental side and a straightforward side, but the latter usually gets the upper hand on disc. Their last proper album, 1995's Manifesto, was a conscious attempt to put their hookiest and most live-sounding numbers up front; the new one goes in the other direction. Making fuller use of the studio (with returning producer Mike Denneen), it shows the depth and complexity that have always been lurking within the Pit's pop.

The opening track, "I Climb Up His Tree" is the one bridge to the organ-driven, Lyres-esque rockers on Manifesto -- though it's doubtful that the Lyres would get anywhere near this lyric's gay overtones (songwriter Jed Parish always prefers a lyric that suggests a lot more than it comes out and says). Then the next track, "Bolt of Light," takes a left turn. It's still pop, but with a slower build, a less obvious hook, and more offbeat touches in the arrangement -- notably a flutelike keyboard and some dissonant vocal parts by a duo brilliantly credited as the Aqua Vulvas (those would be Jen Trynin and Kay Hanley). And the eclectic arrangements continue through the disc, with Lucky Jackson's big guitars engaging in a point/counterpoint with Parish's exotic keyboard touches (drummer Pete Caldes completes the line-up). The band and Denneen sifted through a few dozen of Parish's demos to pick the 13 tracks, and this time they went for the most interesting songs instead of just the catchiest ones.

There's still some outright pop here, mainly on the two songs ("Favorite" and "Millions of Miles") that appeared on a pre-Christmas teaser EP. At the other extreme is a three-song sequence that they bill as "An American Trilogy," the title a joky nod to an Elvis Presley flag waver. Whereas the Elvis number was a jumbling together of hymns and spirituals, the Pit's brand of Americana is a lot more twisted: the first two songs -- "The Ballad of Ezra Messenger" and "The Rise of Abimlech DuMont" -- are, respectively, a fractured folk tune about a millionaire who kills a few people and a grisly rocker about a millionaire who kills a whole lot of people. The sequence closes with a funeral dirge, "The Marchers Wander In," which includes some unsettling, operatic vocals in the fadeout. Not pop by a long stretch, it includes some of Parish's most inventive writing, along with the anti-authority stance that's turned up in his songs before.

"We knew that 'Ezra' wasn't going to be a big radio hit, but that's fine," notes Parish when we all sit down at Allston's Model Café. "The trilogy was something we kicked around in the studio -- the songs weren't written to go together, but we figured we'd make it look more pretentious, a little more like Spinal Tap. And what was that Rick Wakeman album, The Eight Wives of Henry the Sixth? [With that he becomes the first local musician in some time to mention the Yes keyboardist in an interview.] If there's a theme there, it's that classic Citizen Kane American greed thing -- and that's the kind of song we have a lot of. And the last one's just about dying -- not to sound like a geek here, but I like it when a song can work on a few different levels.

"To us the last album was just a set of singles; this one has more things we'd call album tracks. It would probably sound like less of a leap if we could make a record every year. But as we all get better, I think we can spread out more and do it convincingly. We can now do the rock song, the country song, and the quote-unquote weird song and pull it all off. There's even a blues song we've started doing live, and I like to think we can play blues without sounding like a bunch of guys from the Financial District playing their copy Strats."

Besides, a lot of the Gravel Pit's music still comes from the same source -- or the same four sources: John, Paul, George, and Ringo. "So much of what we do goes back to what I like," Parish acknowledges, "though I hope I don't become like Elvis Costello, where every album is 'What I Like, Volume 7.' But as usual, there are 870 Beatles references on this album. One of our conscious things in the studio was to put on a massive avalanche of percussion -- like on Rubber Soul, where every song has seven tambourines. The bass part on 'Bucket' is 'In My Life,' and the backing vocal on 'Stumbling Sideways' is 'Lucy in the Sky.' And I was so proud of myself when I thought I'd written those."

Having stuck themselves in the Northeast for the last few years, the Gravel Pit are going national with the new album. They're playing South by Southwest this month, then heading on a five-week tour that will take them to California for the first time. Pop enthusiasts will likely recognize their roadie as Mike Gent of the Figgs. And at a few national dates they'll back him up and use the band's name -- though the real Figgs will likely open when the band do a release show at T.T.'s next month. "It will be fine," notes Parish. "We'll be the first band whose roadie is half the size of everyone in the band."


A couple of interesting tidbits from the Q Division circuit. The fine songwriter Merrie Amsterburg has been signed to Zoe/Rounder, though long-time fans may be disappointed to hear that her debut will be a re-release of the 1996 album Season of Rain (with two new songs, one of them, gasp, the Police's "Walking on the Moon"). And congrats to bassist Josh Lattanzi, a former member of Jen Trynin, Poundcake, Señor Happy, and Orbit who's landed the bass slot in the well-funded, teen-fronted band Radish.


Given the high status of XTC among local pop folks, it's no surprise that there were more than a few familiar faces in line when frontman Andy Partridge did a record signing at Tower last week. Among those queuing up with XTC memorabilia were Boston Rock Opera directors Mick Maldonado and Eleanor Ramsay, Six Finger Satellite bassist James Apt, half of the Pills, and all of Baby Ray. The latter band made a play to lure Partridge into the studio: "I gave him our CD and suggested that we could use a producer, even though I know how hard he is to work with," admits Baby Ray's Erich Groat. But the first one on line was the Pills' Corin Ashley, who showed up an hour before the signing. "I told him we covered 'My Love Explodes' [an XTC/Dukes of Stratosphear song with an exaggerated crash-and-burn finale], and he said, 'I hope you have fun with the ending.' I said no problem, all our songs end that way."

Although Boston traffic caused Partridge to miss a scheduled interview, I got to join him for a late lunch at the Back Bay Hilton before the signing. "I'm amazed at the people who've been coming to these," he noted over orange juice and chicken fingers. "Last night in New York there were a lot of young kids and one very teary Russian. And one gentleman had me autograph a guitar, a guy with short hair and round, wire-rim glasses. He told me he was in the XTC tribute band the Nigels, and I realized that he was supposed to be me. He looked a little different than I'd imagined."

Although XTC are definitely not touring -- this year or ever -- they'll be recording more frequently. The next album, Apple Venus Volume 2, a sequel to the current Volume 1 -- will be recorded next month, with Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding now officially a two-piece. "Although we prefer to call it a toupeé. That way there's a certain hirsute connotation, which we don't have otherwise," he noted with a quick removal of his cap.


Unless you're very familiar with underground Boston pop bands, you caught a song on WB's nighttime soap Dawson's Creek last week you'd never heard before: "Attic," which the local group the Kickbacks released last year on their CD Longitude. The Kickbacks aren't the first Boston group to sneak onto that show; the Sterlings were on the soundtrack last year. According to Kickbacks singer/guitarist Tad Overbaugh, the connection is locally based lawyer Scott Lazey, who has contacts in Hollywood and a soft spot for Boston bands. "We're not sure where they'll be using our song -- it's kind of a mid-tempo rocker, but it's got some sensitive content, so they could go either way with it. At least they contacted us to let us know it was going to be on -- the Sterlings hadn't even heard before it was on the air." For those who liked the song and want to hear more, the Kickbacks are at T.T. the Bear's Place tonight (Thursday).


The new incarnation of the Bad Brains -- restored to their original line-up, but renamed Soul Brains -- hits Avalon tonight (Thursday). The Pills are at Bill's Bar, Karate and the Wicked Farleys share a strong double bill at the Middle East, alternative a cappella band Ball in the House are at Lansdowne Street, songwriter Christin Baze is at the Lizard Lounge, and the Middle East goes Deadhead with Deep Banana Blackout . . . Now on what's being billed as his last tour, reggae/dub legend Lee Scratch Perry is at the Middle East tomorrow (Friday). Chandler Travis and Ramona Silver share a bill at Johnny D's, and Señor Happy and Quick Fix are at Bill's. And reunited punkers Last Stand are playing at the Linwood with Buddhist Priest (with ex-Dogmatic Jerry Lehane) and the Deniros . . . The Sterlings, Cheerleader, and Half-Cocked do loud pop at the Middle East upstairs on Saturday while downstairs goes Deadhead again with Slipknot. Missing Joe are at T.T.'s, former Hall & Oates/SNL guitar guy G.E. Smith is at the House of Blues, and Patty Giurleo opens for Eden White at the Lansdowne Street Playhouse . . . John Medeski and Bob Moses jam at the Middle East Sunday . . . Alterna-teen idol Eagle Eye Cherry is at the Paradise Monday . . . Popsters the Buckners are at Toad on Wednesday.
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