The Boston Phoenix
February 19 - 26, 1998

[Music Reviews]

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Mood swinger

Brother Cleve's cocktail cool

by Brett Milano

Brother Cleve There was a time when Brother Cleve was just a good keyboardist with a weird record collection. His career in local rock now stretches back two decades, to a late-'70s airshift on WMBR (where his stage name originated; the real one's a secret) and a mid-'80s membership in the Del Fuegos. He's also played in bands ranging from the Fabulous Billygoons (rock 'n' wrestling maniacs circa 1980) to the last incarnation of Barrence Whitfield's rootsy Savages. But it's the garage-sale albums he's accumulated over the years, along with his current membership in Combustible Edison, that have made him Boston's unofficial ambassador to Cocktail Nation.

Known as much for his DJing as for his keyboard playing, Cleve currently spins at Bill's Bar and at Bella Luna in Jamaica Plain (he also did the Lizard Lounge until recently), where he puts his collection of film soundtracks and bachelor-pad exotica to good use. "I've been buying records since I was five years old," he explains over lunch near his Porter Square apartment. "I've always been drawn to the left-of-center stuff. When I was a kid it was Burt Bacharach and [Batman theme composer] Neil Hefti -- that's what I listened to until Zappa's Freak Out! came out. The first time I saw Combustible Edison I was practically in tears -- I figured they'd stolen my record collection and were playing it back to me."

But hold on a second before you associate Cleve totally with the retro-chic movement. He got deep into bachelor-pad exotica around the time he got into the local mischievous/subversive collective the Church of the Subgenius, and he approaches the music in the same spirit -- highly serious and highly unserious. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra are fine, but Cleve's true hero is Juan García Esquivel, the space-age visionary who dreamed up some of the most bizarre arrangements ever offered in the name of easy listening. (Esquivel is the guy who explored the majesty of stereo by recording the same tune as played by two orchestras in two different rooms at the same time.) Thanks to his Combustible connection, Cleve was flown to Mexico City a few years ago to write new music with Esquivel, who's now 80 and bedridden. The two struck up a friendship, and Cleve wound up compiling and writing liner notes for the recent Esquivel reissues on Bar/None. He's also produced new music based on the bandleader's ideas for a Christmas album. And now he's consulting for a Fox movie based on Esquivel's life -- actor John Leguizamo bought the rights and will play the lead.

One reason the two became friends is that Cleve was the first person who ever believed Esquivel's story about the flying car. "He used to tell this story about hanging out with ['50s TV actor] Bob Cummings, who supposedly had a car that could fly. They'd get together, drink martinis, and fly this thing over the desert. I said, 'Well, sure, Juan, that could be true' -- and he told me to make sure the film people knew about it, because even his kids didn't believe him. And I thought, 'Great -- we've got to have Esquivel in a flying car. Who cares if it's true or not?' " Sure enough, the machine was traced to a couple in northern California, who've maintained it in working condition, and it's been written into the film. "Esquivel was overjoyed -- he said, 'Yes, I am vindicated!' "

Cleve's own taste is lately running toward European DJ music. That influence may show up on the next Combustible Edison album, which will be his first as a full-time member of the group. Breaking from their usual live-style recordings, Combustible will record with old-school producer John Holbrook (a longtime Todd Rundgren guy), then turn the tracks over to British producer Scanner for remixing. "The third album is usually where you branch out -- now that lounge is mainstream, we're going back to our underground roots." Still, he figures that Combustible have already done the world a service. "When we first went on tour, we were always trying to order martinis, and the bartender would say, 'Can't you guys just drink beer?' Now I can order a negroni and nobody bats an eye." For you non-swingers, that's gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth.

Also cooking is a solo studio project, Brother Cleve & his Lush Orchestra, and his longtime membership with country funsters the Wheelers & Dealers. The best place to find Cleve these days is his weekly "Swank" nights at Bill's Bar, where he's trying to bridge the cocktail and fetish-wear crowd. He's even persuaded the Bill's folks to take the club's old go-go cages out of storage. It still had more of a bluejean crowd when I hit Bill's last Wednesday, but the place was definitely hopping, with lounge-rockers Seks Bomba playing between Cleve's DJ sets. ("This is the first time we've ever been blown off the stage by the recorded music," a bandmember noted.)

I caught Cleve outside his DJ booth, where he'd just been slipped a request on a cocktail napkin: did he have any exotica versions of "Twist & Shout" on hand? Nope, but he did have a Latin version. The club was doing a Smirnoff's promotion tied in with the new James Bond film, so pastel-colored martinis were flowing. Cleve's was Windex-blue -- shaken not stirred, of course.


The title of Mitchell Rasor's Waterloo in Reverse (Big Deal) has a handful of connotations, but it made me think of what you might get if you played Abba's greatest hit, "Waterloo," backward. It would still be pop, but turned into something stranger and more haunting. That's what Waterloo in Reverse gives you, in more enjoyable form. I'd call it an undertow album -- a mostly slow, orchestrated set where the singer wrings sad beauty out of unspecified loss/heartbreak. Mark Eitzel and the Tindersticks are old hands at this sort of thing, but Rasor's more of a tunesmith at heart than either of them. His songs are grabbing enough to draw you in but not so catchy that they break the mood. The first half seesaws between unpolished rockers and introspective ballads, suggesting a frustration/regret tangle before the latter mood takes over in the second half. And it ends with a reading from Les misérables (Hugo's novel, not the Broadway adaptation).

Although his local profile verges on nonexistent, Rasor has been making smart music for a decade -- first as part of the upstate New York band Absolute Grey (who sounded at times like a more pastoral Dream Syndicate), for the last few years as a soloist. But the current album was a conscious departure. "I wanted to do something selfish, a long record that was a challenge to the listener; and I realize how stuck-up that sounds. If there's a theme, it's about dealing with layers of memory, coming to terms and documenting them."

If personal shake-ups were on Rasor's mind when he began writing the album three years ago, so was the then-recent death of Kurt Cobain. The opening "Down" was inspired by a Vanity Fair cover photo of Courtney Love. "It was that weird photo with the angel wings -- an odd way of documenting death. I thought, here she is doing that, and here I am on a farmhouse in Maine, dealing with it in a totally different way."

Rasor also took a baroque approach with "I Say a Little Prayer," which he recorded for Big Deal's new Burt Bacharach tribute, What the World Needs Now. To these ears, it's the only track on that album that takes any real liberties with the material ("I was trying to make it more like 'Eleanor Rigby' "). But his own music is getting more upbeat. He's started writing for a new album, with the punning title The Heart Before the Course, and he reports that it has a Cars-like new-wave feel. Also in the can are a few promising garagy demos with Come guitarist Chris Brokaw, under the name Steeple Jacks.


One indie-rock institution bit the dust last week; another has been revived. The bad news is that the DC-based Simple Machines label, run by Tsunami members Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson, announced plans to shut down after a hometown mini-festival next month. With a roster including Scrawl, Danielle Howle, and (for one single) Boston's Secret Stars, Simple Machines was devoted to thoughtful pop and a personal approach to business. Instead of sending a press release, Toomey announced the closing by calling everyone on the Rolodex herself. The founders plan to "pursue other projects," which include keeping Tsunami together and signing with another, as yet unnamed label.

Meanwhile Sub Pop is reviving its now-legendary singles club, which operated for five years starting in 1988. Subscribers got a seven-inch every month, often with a track by two different bands, and many of the original batch are now worth piles of money -- especially the first one, from November '88, Nirvana's "Love Buzz"/"Big Cheese," of which only 1000 copies were pressed. The club gets back underway this April, and subscriptions are, like your income tax, due the 15th of that month. As ever, the singles aren't cheap: $70 for 12 months or $40 for six. But they look to be worth it: names mentioned as possible (though not definite) by Sub Pop's press release include Radiohead, Luna, and Cornershop. Call 1-800-SUBPOP1 for details.


Tonight (Thursday), the Heretix reunite at the Middle East downstairs, the Secret Stars play upstairs, Popgun are at Harpers Ferry, and former Face to Face-er Stu Kimball brings his new band to the Linwood . . . Tomorrow (Friday), it's Slide's annual Mardi Gras show at Club Bohemia, the Gravel Pit, Figgs, and Candy Butchers at T.T.'s, Dennis Brennan at the Lizard Lounge, Luna, Jack Drag, and the Lothars at the Middle East downstairs, Railroad Jerk upstairs, and Nashville rocker Jamie Hartford at Johnny D's. . . . Saturday brings a diverse all-female bill to the Middle East, including Helium's Mary Timony, songwriters Blake Hazard and Merrie Amsterburg, and New York rockers Cake Like. Also that night, Space Hog are at Bill's Bar, El Camino are at Mama Kin, the Red Telephone and Blue Mountain are at T.T.'s, and rock/soul veteran Buddy Miles hits Harper's Ferry . . . Monday night is the eighth anniversary of live music at Green Street; the Wheelers & Dealers will host the party . . . Mardi Gras options for Tuesday include the Gravy at Mama Kin, Gil Scott-Heron at the Middle East, and Babaloo at the House of Blues.
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