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Wake-up call
NiN vet Chris Vrenna sounds the alarm with Tweaker

Tweaker is a loaded name for a band. Granted, less so than the Archbishop’s Enema Fetish or Smegma and the Nuns, but this story isn’t about long-gone Boston outfits that had the balls to give themselves outrageous tags. It’s about Nine Inch Nails refugee Chris Vrenna’s latest album, the beautiful and ambitious 2 a.m. Wakeup Call (imusic), and the evolution of his one-man band Tweaker into something more than its irritant tag implies.

For 2 a.m. Wakeup Call, the studio version of Tweaker became a two-man collaborative that sounds like a full orchestra with the help of machines and a coterie of guest singers including a who’s who of melancholy art pop, from the Cure’s Robert Smith to David Sylvian to Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields. And since drummer and electronics maven Vrenna and his new creative partner, Clint Walsh, recorded the disc in the appropriately wee hours between a slew of other projects, the group have grown into a touring five-piece who’ll begin their first trek this month, making a stop at Avalon with headliners Skinny Puppy next Saturday.

But Tweaker’s artistic leap is what’s really notable. After Vrenna debuted the name as a solo project built from drums, synths, and samples with 2001’s The Attraction to All Things Uncertain (Six Degrees), he met guitarist Walsh, who like Vrenna spends much of his time working on soundtracks and remixes for various clients. In Vrenna’s case, those include U2 and P.O.D. Walsh played guitar in punk outfit the Dwarves and is now guitarist for actress Juliette Lewis’s band and guitarist/producer of the Motels.

"We bonded immediately, and soon we were getting together to write songs," says Vrenna. "We’ve found that we have wildly different reference points, like he’s Mr. Classic Rock and I can tell you about every band from the ’80s, which makes for an interesting mix of influences." The result is something like Dido with chutzpah and imagination: tuneful and often catchy, but with a sonic depth and sense of scope that’s all widescreen cinema. Maybe it’s the kind of sound Ennio Morricone would have dabbled with if he’d been born in the ’70s.

2 a.m. Wakeup Call is a definite departure from The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, which Vrenna now describes as "rooted in layers of really irritating noise." The new CD is at once soothing, though the lulling quality is bait. The opening "Ruby" gently unrolls a hushed textural arrangement that yields to a sweet vocal turn from indie cult singer-songwriter Will Oldham of Palace, blending acoustic guitar and a bed of synthesizers to recall the glory days of the Mellotron and the ARP. That is, until the instruments explode into a blood clot of roaring, hyper-amplified chords that bray out aggression before growing peaceful again.

That sea of tranquility, with its occasional volcanic eruptions, washes over much of the CD, and Tweaker’s viewpoint sometimes extends to the edge of madness and obsession. It’s an MO Vrenna takes from British singer and sonic architect David Sylvian, whose early efforts with the group Japan and solo albums like the 1986 ambient pop opus Gone from Earth were inspirations. Sylvian, who like Oldham also appeared on Tweaker’s debut, contributes his melodramatic croon and the story line for the lunatic’s tale "Pure Genius" here.

2 a.m. Wakeup Call is a concept album, a window to the night world that the sleep-deprived, troubled, and scheming inhabit. The duo’s nocturnal working hours and a long bout of insomnia Vrenna’s wife suffered as they composed suggested that direction. Waking at 2 a.m. night after night after night, she listened in on their recording sessions. The guest singers, who also wrote their own lyrics, seized on the theme thanks to the pair’s suggestions and the heady music they’d made.

"It’s important to me to make albums that have continuity," Vrenna says. "We really pay attention to songs, which is something lacking in pop music right now, where there’s a line that just gets repeated over and over and there’s no emotional connection. Tweaker’s first record lacked somewhat in direct emotional attachment. The juxtaposition of the raw, organic nature of the grand piano and acoustic guitars and the singers along with the electronic otherworldly stuff helps increase that. It’s kind of a retro sound, but the loops and crunchy noise make it very future, and the lyrics have a timeless quality."

On stage, Vrenna and Walsh will be joined by Nick Young, who sings 2 a.m. Wakeup Call’s "Sleepwalking Away," and two bassists. "Nobody thinks I can even do this band live," says Vrenna, "but that’s made me and Clint all the more determined that there won’t be a ‘Play’ button anywhere on stage."

Tweaker open for Skinny Puppy next Saturday, June 19, at 7 p.m. at Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston; call 617-423-NEXT.

Issue Date: June 11 - 17, 2004
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