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
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