The Boston Phoenix
November 20 - 27, 1997

[Music Reviews]

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Don't look back

Betwixt offer the thrill of discovery

by Brett Milano

The first few months of a band's existence are often the best ones. There are no rules yet, the musical format can be anything, new ideas can be tried out, and the members are still getting a kick from discovering one another. Bands usually get more focused and technically better once the honeymoon period is over, but sometimes those early tapes have, well, the thrill of discovery.

You can hear that on Betwixt's debut, a five-song tape that's accessibly weird and weirdly accessible. Formed last April, the band bring together former Bulkhead/Jack Frosting guitarist Tom Devaney and former Turkish Delight singer Leah Callahan, both from bands who never played it too straight. Bulkhead were a pop group who messed around with lyric meanings and song structures; Turkish Delight were a brainy art-punk outfit who took a lot of their kick from Callahan's alternately playful and confrontational stage presence.

With Betwixt the elements get shuffled differently, and the two borrow a bit of each other's personality. Callahan tries singing more straightforward melodies, and it's Devaney who explores the outer regions with his guitar sounds. Devaney's sound is the first hook on "Lucky 13," the opening track. In the intro he's twisting and bending high notes in a style that suggests Fred Frith or Marc Ribot. The last thing you'd expect to hear in this context is a giddy bubblegum chorus à la Shonen Knife, but that's exactly what Callahan brings in, singing in an ironically sweet and Japanese-accented style.

"Sea Horse" also starts off abstract and swirly, but then it resolves into a Zeppelinesque heavy riff, with the addition of cello (played by Gordon Withers). Callahan manages to throw in a few left curves by singing pretty on the weird-sounding ones and ghostly on the more rocking "Sea Horse" (which appears to be a drug song, or at least one about having an active imagination -- "Riding on a seahorse, wondering if I'll see more than you"). Elsewhere there are more fractured '60s sounds and a hauntingly pretty number ("Shrine of Iso," which appeared on the recent Nigh compilation). It's all the work of players who've come through pop and punk and are finding endless possibilities ahead.

One thing Betwixt don't have is a bass player, which accounts for Devaney's developing style. "It forces me to play more interesting stuff, so I'm not about to put an ad up for bass players. It creates limitations in what I can do. If I play too much single-note stuff it sounds thin; if Gordon plays higher notes I have to go down and compensate for it. So it creates a seesaw battle of us both having to play the bottom. I get to tinker with a million things I've always tinkered with in my bedroom."

Although he didn't know Callahan well before putting the band together, he says he was always a fan of Turkish Delight. "In some ways I'd compare them to early Bulkhead, but they were more interesting than we were. Their music forced her to sing in a more aggressive way. With this band she's moving to the center, and I'm moving away from it."

"I'm not as angry as I was in Turkish Delight," notes Callahan, whose role models at various stages of her life have included Shirley Temple and Karen Finley. "Now I like the idea of being an entertainer, singing pop songs that people might like, but with something that they might think about later -- something unnerving, though it may be in the words instead of the music. I like things to be a little challenging. Not that I try to make them that way, but it's just the way I am."

She believes in happy accidents, getting lyrics from her subconscious and figuring them out later. Hence a song like "Lucky 13," which sounds like a love song even if it doesn't read exactly like one. "It came from a schoolgirl crush I had on a very unusual, experimental musician."

Like Devaney, she's more enthused about her new band than nostalgic about her old one. "People tell me, `I'm so sorry Turkish Delight broke up,' but I'm not. It's like breaking up a relationship and moving on."


They're not exactly starved for good pop down at the Q Division studio, though most of the star acts (Jen Trynin, Gravel Pit, Talking to Animals, the Gravy) are on the brainy/abrasive side. Striking a blow for classic romantic pop is Señor Happy, a band fronted by Josh Lattanzi (best known as the bassist in Trynin's band, previously in Poundcake). His own stuff is closer to the Beatles/Big Star axis than to the folks he's worked with, though there's a nice dirty guitar sound that keeps things from getting too sweet or too retro. But Lattanzi has one of those breathy, wispy voices that conveys a lot of hope and yearning. Toward the end of "We Will Fall" (not the Iggy tune) he overdubs a falsetto harmony to grab the heart -- a trick that goes back at least as far as the Zombies' "She's Not There," and it works great here.

There isn't much room for criticism when a band start their tape with a song called "Jesus Christ I'm Awesome." The same band get points for self-awareness when you discover that their publishing company is called Big Dumb Rock. Put your hands together, dudes, for Ass Tractor, whose first studio tape placed in a previous Demo Derby. More recently they've released two different live tapes, both splendid examples of (what else?) big dumb rock. The four-song "Live Stuff" starts off with the above-named tune (whose subject, unlike the band members, is female: "Jesus Christ, I'm awesome/God damn, I'm a hell of a woman") and has a faithful cover of the Nervous Eaters' lost classic "Shit for Brains." More anal references turn up on the album-length Kung Fu Barbeque, which was recorded on air at WTUL and includes another ace cover (their "I Smell a Rat" sounds a lot like Sebadoh's version, which sounds a lot like the Bags' original). But the pick hit is the title track, written for the day-long BBQ at O'Brien's last summer (yep, the one the cops shut down) and name-checking most of the bands who played, as well as the Roadsaw member who booked it: "O'Brien's is where it's at/Goat horns to Tim Catz." Same to these guys.

Few subjects are untouched in rap, but the members of Wordsworth have come up with one. Their "Rap Music" ends with a chant of "Throw your hands in the air and holler homo!" Sure enough, Wordsworth are one of the few outspokenly gay/lesbian rap crews to come along, but it would be a mistake to marginalize them as a political act. They've got a genuinely tough old-school sound built on turntable beats and a touch of Beasties jazz flavor. And there are enough clever, rapid-fire rhymes to keep you rewinding to make sure you heard it right. Points for this one: "I've got enthusiasm like a muscle spasm, and I'm gonna show my magic with some razzamatazzin'." Considering how much homophobia there is in big-time rap, you might be surprised that Wordsworth don't take the gay context farther than they do. But the determination in "Doin' It My Way" speaks for itself ("Do it my way, let me say my thing, and if you want it your way, go to Burger King"). Extra points for "Bong Hits & Grits," which includes instructions for making a working bong out of an ordinary household apple.

I was never a big fan of Paul Janovitz's last band, Cold Water Flat, who tended to sound like a junior-league version of his older brother Bill's band Buffalo Tom. Paul didn't match Bill as a singer or songwriter, but he did have an edge in the lead-guitar department. His solos were brittle and impassioned enough to cover up Cold Water Flat's weaker spots. In his current band, Nana, Janovitz concentrates on what he does best, leaving the singing and writing to bandmate Tom Baker (formerly a member of Pouch, who included Buttercup's Jim Buni). Like Buni, Baker's writing has notable country leanings -- with a different band he could head in the same melodic direction Buttercup have taken. But Janovitz's guitar keeps things good and gritty, and he solos with more freedom than he did in CWF. The most countryish track, "The Runaround," has a Mick & Keith feel to it. The hard-rocking "Dirty Bit" harks back to mid-period Clash. And all three tracks are from a full album that the band hope to release next year. Another plus is Kevin Salem's production: he's an expert at catching a live & dirty guitar-band sound without burying the songs. I'd be lying if I said it still didn't sound a bit like Buffalo Tom, but you can say that about a lot of good straight-ahead rock bands.

The sound of Frigate's tape is that of a band having big fun with their Ramones/Go-Go's roots. Drums pound, guitars do the punk-surf thing, there are call-and-response male/female vocals, song topics are willfully goofy, the whole thing's catchy as hell. This is a side band for Linda Bean, the singer/bassist in PermaFrost. Her brother John is the drummer, and singer/guitarist Tim Gillis completes the line-up. "The Plum" celebrates both a big night out and the hangover afterward; "Kickball" appears to be a jolly little tune about living with a homicidal girlfriend. "I kick with all my might, I'll kick your ass tonight," a wholesome-sounding Bean sings in the chorus. I got a kick out of it.


Eternal jammers Hot Tuna pull into the Somerville Theatre tonight (Thursday), Rustic Overtones have a CD-release party at the Paradise, Creed play Axis, and Jonathan Fire*Eater and Congo Norvell are at the Middle East . . . Tomorrow (Friday) it's Archers of Loaf member Eric Bachmann playing a solo set at the Middle East on a bill with New Wet Kojak, WFNX's Angie C's birthday party at T.T.'s with Weezer's Rivers Cuomo headlining, Lars Vegas at the Lizard Lounge, Scissorfight at the Linwood, Johnny Black and the Deliriants at Mama Kin, the Gravel Pit and Sterlings at Bill's Bar, and Rachel's at the Brattle . . . Ultra Breakfast have their CD-release party on Saturday at Bill's, with guests PermaFrost, Talking to Animals are at T.T.'s with Kevin Salem, Dennis Brennan plays the Lizard Lounge, Michelle Willson is at the Tam, J. Geils sits in with the Gerry Beaudoin Trio at Cool Blue's in Chelsea, and Ric Ocasek brings his all-star band to the Paradise . . . Ex-Timbuk 3 guy Pat McDonald continues his Monday-night residence at the Kendall Café this week . . . And Jam tributeers All Mod Cons play Mama Kin Wednesday.
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