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Quiet storms
A new New Year CD, a solo Chris Brokaw, and Dresden Dolls rework their summer plans

For the past four years, singer-songwriter Matt Kadane, a guitarist and drummer and one of the two founding brothers in the now defunct Dallas indie-rock band Bedhead, has done his best to keep his music separate from his academics. No, he’s not a student at any of the fine institutions of higher learning here in the Boston area. He’s a professor in the History and Literature Department at Harvard University. "I’m the early modernist," he says somewhat shyly over coffee at Algiers, above the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. "I deal with literature and history from Columbus to the French Revolution."

Still, the songs Matt has been writing and recording with his older brother, Bubba, since Bedhead’s inception a decade ago and more recently in the New Year (who’ll be at T.T. the Bear’s this Friday) belong to the category that was once called "college rock." It’s the kind of smart, often jangly, guitar-based, Velvet Underground–inspired, vaguely literate, melancholy pop we now call "indie rock," even if that term seems to have outgrown its usefulness. Early on, Bedhead were one of a small number of indie artists who were distinguished by the label "slo-core." As a bemused Kadane puts it, "Slo-core, sad-core — you can ‘core’ anything. I saw a write-up that credited us when we were Bedhead as starting ‘beard-core’ because we all had beards . . . "

Whatever, the Kadane Brothers make music for listeners who have the luxury of taking music seriously. And from the first Bedhead singles that the band sold at their first T.T. the Bear’s Place show in 1994 to the new New Year album, their second full-length, The End Is Near (Touch and Go), the Kadanes have offered much in the way of reward. "I try to keep academia and rock separate," says Matt, who has three years left on his Harvard contract. "It’s been a happy coincidence that both New Year CDs have come out at the end of the school year, in May. But there are always some students who are aware of my music. Naturally, they’re usually the best students." This he says with a knowing laugh.

It works both ways: there’s nothing academic or studied about the rock of The End Is Near. With three guitarists (both Kadanes as well as Peter Schmidt) a keyboardist (Josh McKay) who occasionally adds a fourth guitar, and a rhythm section that includes former Come guitarist Chris Brokaw on drums and bassist Mike Donofrio, New Year songs are studies in slow-building dynamics, in the intricate organic interplay as all those strings and all those guitars gradually join forces. Their power is more visceral than cerebral, and the simply sung lyrics are generally less important then the emotional impact of the music.

With the Boston-based Brokaw in the band and Bubba still in Texas, the New Year have been adopted by Boston, especially since Kadane plays drums in Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley’s other band (Consonant, who feature Brokaw on guitar). Kadane also found himself playing drums in Evan Dando’s band last year when at the last minute a drummer was needed for a couple of big European festivals. (Brokaw was the guitarist in that band as well.) Given the logistical problems and the fact that many New Year members were committed to other projects, you might think it unlikely that the band’s 2001 debut, Newness Ends (Touch and Go), would have been anything more than a one-off. But as Kadane explains, the New Year were actually built to last. "After Bedhead ended, Bubba and I wanted a new band name. Bedhead was our band, but it also signified this friendship with these other people. So it wouldn’t have felt right to keep the name. At the same time, we didn’t want to have to go through the process of changing the name ever again. So we decided that once we’d settled on a new name, we’d play under that name forever, no matter who is in the band other than Bubba and myself."

And the obstacles facing the New Year weren’t anything the brothers hadn’t grown accustomed to. "When Bedhead’s first record came out, in 1994, I had already left Texas for New York. So that band existed for most of its active life with me in NYC and Boston and another guy in New York. It was very difficult, but I think we thought the New Year would work out much better in that regard in that everybody is a leader in some respect, everyone knows a lot about writing songs and about song structure, and everybody’s very responsible. I mean, even with the Dando band, Chris was kind of like the band leader, and he also made solo albums."

Despite all his Boston connections, Kadane points out, "My brother deals with the administrative aspects of everything, and our business-account and mailing address is in Dallas — by virtue of that, we’re still a Texas band. I also like the idea of being a Texas band. Not that Boston doesn’t have an amazing music scene — in fact, I like more Boston bands than Texas bands. Ultimately, though, we’re just spread out all over the place, and we’ve never felt like we were a part of any localized scene."

ALONG WITH PLAYING DRUMS IN THE NEW YEAR, guitar in Consonant, and regularly touring with the likes of Evan Dando and Steve Wynn, Chris Brokaw has continued to keep himself in the running as one of Boston’s hardest-working indie-rockers with the release of a new four-song EP, My Confidante + 3 (12XU). Brokaw first started making solo recordings when he was still a member of Come and was in the process of becoming fast friends with Chicago post-rock guru Doug McCombs. He also recorded with the more experimental, largely Chicago-based group Brokeback. But My Confidante + 3 is a totally different beast that finds him safely back in the guitar rock fold.

The CD had its genesis in a compilation of songs by women covered by men. Brokaw, who gave Liz Phair her first start by sending her Girly Tapes to Matador after the two of them had been in school together at Oberlin, was asked to contribute a track. Instead, he recorded three: "1000 mph," by his former Come partner Thalia Zedek; "Across the Blue," by Holly Anderson and Lisa Burns; and Phair’s playful "In Love with Yourself." So now, in between doing shows with Consonant, the New Year, and whatever other artists draft him to play guitar, Brokaw can be found around town playing solo gigs. Check www.chrisbrokaw.com for periodic updates.

TWO WEEKS AGO, Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer got the bad news that Lollapalooza — on whose third stage the Dolls had been asked to be a regular, and even to collaborate with another third-stage artist named Perry Farrell — had been cancelled. Following a Rumble win, Best Music Poll victories, airplay, and mountains of positive press, the Dolls had laid the foundation for a national breakout by finding a national distributor for their self-released debut CD and then hitching their wagon to one of the best Lollapalooza line-ups in quite some time.

So how did Palmer react when she heard Lollapalooza 2004 was no more? "I actually breathed a big sigh of relief," she admits when I catch her by phone from a video shoot for the song "Coin Operated Boy." "I mean, I’m actually secretly or not so secretly happy that things have happened the way they have. Because Lollapalooza’s being cancelled translates into us having some time off, which we really need. We were also getting a little nervous about whether or not Lollapalooza was the right way to do our first big national tour. It was starting to look like a club tour might be a better way to go.

Although Palmer hasn’t finalized plans for a full national club tour just yet, she and drummer Brian Viglione are getting things started with a big headlining gig this Friday at the Paradise. Since the Dresden Dolls hadn’t booked any shows to coincide with the Lollapalooza tour, they’ve been free to pick and choose how they want to spend their summer. They’ve already signed on to do a leg of the Sonic Youth tour, and for a couple of large festivals in Europe. Beyond that, they’ll be doing some solo touring and gearing up to record a new CD, this one with locally based producers Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie.

The New Year perform this Friday, July 9, at T.T. the Bear’s Place, 10 Brookline Street in Central Square, with Thalia Zedek and Circle in the Round; call (617) 492-BEAR. Also this Friday, the Dresden Dolls perform at the Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, with Reverend Glasseye & His Wooden Legs and Devil in the Kitchen; call (617) 562-8800.

Issue Date: July 9 - 15, 2004
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