The Boston Phoenix
January 14 - 21, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Baby Ray: Pop Gone Right

"We're going to lip-synch to our first CD, Monkeypuzzle," lead singer/guitarist Erich Groat told the audience as Baby Ray took the stage upstairs at the Middle East Upstairs a week ago Thursday. "So if you know it, you can sing along."

A joke, maybe, but one not without a kernel of truth. Baby Ray, one of the more intriguingly skewed (or, perhaps, skewering) pop outfits to come out of Boston in a while, delivered picture-perfect renditions of 10 of 14 songs from their Thirsty Ear debut, serving them up more or less in the same order that they appear on Monkeypuzzle. And given that it had taken the band two months from the disc's release back in November to get around to throwing this CD-release party, most of the near-capacity crowd did indeed seem well enough acquainted with the songs to sing along.

Baby Ray's clever kind of contortionist pop, with its pretzel-shaped melodies and impishly bratty wordplay, is not the easiest of styles to pull off. Cleverness can get annoying in a hurry when it's done solely in the name of cleverness. And it's the rare band or artist who can deploy deranged time changes and dementia-addled narratives with humor and (most important) hooks. Robyn Hitchcock, whom Baby Ray evoke on their "MFG," is one such citizen of the surreal. XTC, whom Baby Ray brought to mind on just about everything else, is another. But the moment the foursome -- Groat, guitarist and second vocalist Ken Lafler, drummer Nathan Logus, and bassist Paul Simonoff -- lit out for the loopy orange-and-lemon territories of their current single, "Never Know My Name," then bounded merrily into "Buster Pig Man," you just knew their sonic sleight-of-hand could have left Andy Partridge adjusting his spectacles in delight and disbelief.

On "The Ballad of Baby Ray," the band were like a Rubik's Cube that had discovered the solution to its own enigmatic puzzles, leaving listeners to ponder the riddle of lyrics like "Outslur the slang bums with infant vocabulary/Stuttering silver miracles atmospherical so moronic and partially demonic." Lafler, supplying strong counterpoint harmonies and sinewy yet restrained runs on lead guitar, was a perfect foil for the magnetic Groat's more hyperbolic leanings. Meanwhile, Simonoff and Logus made for a whip-smart rhythm section of impeccable timing and punch, highlighting the already vivid colors of the bouncing "Buster Pig Man" and the new-wave stutter of "Sorry." It was delirious and focused and very tight -- not so much "pop gone wrong," as Baby Ray have wryly described their sound, but rather pop gone very, very right.

The show reached its apex on the circling, swirling sunrise of "Big Sun's a-Comin'." With the band flying inside a flamingo-pink melody that climbed higher and higher like a beautiful balloon, Groat hugged the lyric "I will never grow up" like a child making a wish, repeating the line as if it were a mantra. It was guilelessly innocent and knowing at the same time, and it seemed as good a code to live by as any.

Rounding out the bill were three Boston bands whose styles were as varied as the guests of honor's song structures. The mostly acoustic duo Chronic Pleasure set the table with a goofy, They Might Be Giants-ish take on various and sundry subjects, among them the true measure of rock stardom (namely, being offed by "an irate fan"). Next up, Ross Phasor -- a band, not a guy -- delivered an anachronistic though striking set of glam-dusted arena rock (but without all the make-up or costumes). And while we're on the subject of arena rock: the Ray Corvair Trio, fresh from their New Year's Eve gig opening for Aerosmith at the FleetCenter, closed the show with a set unfortunately sabotaged by technical problems. No matter. They got it right when it counted.

-- Jonathan Perry
[Music Footer]

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