The band quietly broke up a year ago; never having quite cracked Boston, they didn't play a farewell gig here. And now their story officially wraps up at the same time a new chapter starts. Next week sees the release of The Industrial Evolution (Pop Narcotic), a singles compilation that sums up the band better than their two official albums. Meanwhile, the Godrays, a new band built around two-thirds of small factory (singer/bassist-turned-guitarist Alex Kemp and drummer/singer Phoebe Summersquash), make their debut with Songs for TV Stars (Vernon Yard).
Despite the familiar faces, the Godrays album is emphatically not a small factory album. The old band's trademark pop innocence has given way to a sound that's darker and heavier, but closer to alterna-rock standards nowadays -- especially since co-producer Adam "Red" Lasus adds that fuzzy, razorbacked guitar sound one often hears on four-track productions (Kemp and Vitapup member Greg Griffith do the guitar work). In another marked change, Kemp's latest songs wear neither their hooks nor their lyrical meanings on their sleeves. Vocals are purposely buried and not every song gets a hummable tune. If that sounds like less fun than a small factory disc . . . well, it is. And not every song achieves the sought-after balance of heaviness and lift (the best track may well be Versus's "Crazy," the one cover tune). But the other strong moments -- "Vampire's Suck" and the folk/grunge mix on "Darling"-- have a dramatic foreboding that wouldn't have fit into the old band.
The new sound reflects Kemp's frustration with what small factory had become. "The idea of small factory had taken over what any of us as individuals really wanted from the band," he says. "It had a flavor, a certain shtick to it. There was a certain cleverness in the writing, a way of talking about love that was both specific and non-specific." Meanwhile, his tastes were running toward bands who took a less literal approach to writing. "I'd hear bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices and they were talking about shit, basically. And I'd be thinking, `Well, the crafting that we do is cool, but maybe the enigmatic approach that these bands have is what's in -- and God, I don't want that to sound like I'm copying those bands. But the idea was that we'd replace the old cleverness with something more visceral, so the lyrics would coalesce in a way without telling any specific story." The title track, for example, is "about having a crush on a TV character, and all the levels of abstraction that implies. To me that's as existential as anything small factory wrote about."
One advantage of the new direction is that Summersquash, whose harmonies were always a key to the small factory sound, finally gets a couple of leads. Otherwise, the band has no permanent line-up. Griffith was aboard only for the album; on the current tour Frank Mullen (of Purple Ivy Shadows) is playing bass and Kristy Knight (from an Austin band, the Horsies) is doubling on drums.
Although they lasted long enough to tour behind it, small factory began breaking up during their last album, the deceptively upbeat For If You Cannot Fly. That break-up (a subject Kemp does not seem eager to talk about) apparently resulted from a power struggle within the band -- by this time Kemp had taken over from guitarist Dave Auerbach as lead singer and main writer. "It was our least collaborative album, and I was wondering if what was right for my personal ego was still right for the band. Dave was writing less, I was writing more, and it didn't seem natural to call it small factory, after five years of its being this collaborative love-fest. It wound up being a difficult album; we'd record for half a day then spend a day and a half talking. I basically disavowed myself from it by the time of mixing; I just shut up and smoked pot."
Reached at home in Providence, Auerbach confirms that the last album was no fun. "I wasn't quite as unhappy with it as Alex was. We were probably doing our best work toward the end, but it seemed time to move on, before we became one of those bands that stayed together too long and started hating each other." As for his decreased involvement at the time, "The dynamic basically changed when Alex and Phoebe got involved in a relationship; that changed how my input was taken in the band. It was less a matter of three individuals and the things that would happen when the three of us got together . . . What surprises me about the Godrays album is that I don't hear a lot of the newfound joy that Alex has in that situation, I was hoping there'd be more of it."
The new Industrial Evolution may be small factory's version of the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady -- a patched-together album that still serves as the best wrap-up of the band. Although some of their early singles may push the level of earnestness a bit far, they had some stellar moments when they got craftier with their writing while keeping the raw emotions on hand. "If You Break My Heart," originally written for a 1993 singles series on the Tsunami-run Simple Machines label, starts off as a darker shade of the usual romantic brooding, with singer Kemp bracing for a break-up he knows is coming. "If you break my heart . . . " he ponders, as the guitars rev up to ominous Crazy Horse level, ". . . I'll smash your car! I'll smash your fucking car!" It's an effective scary/funny songwriting turn, in part because it's so out of character. At the other extreme, "Yeah," which first appeared on the compilation album Why Do You Think They Call It Pop? (Pop Narcotic), is three minutes of unallayed teen-pop joy. Many bands have built careers out of less.
In recent days Auerbach has formed Flora Street, with a stripped-down Spinanes-type line-up of him on drums and girlfriend Patti Rebello on guitar and vocals; they plan to work further on material before seeking a record deal. And the Godrays are still working to escape their old band's shadow. "A lot of people are going to say, `Oh no, it's this other band after they were good,' " Kemp says. "But they'll see us and say, `Good, I don't have to be scared anymore.' There are always going to be people who will like small factory better than Godrays. I say, bless them and their closed little minds."