The Boston Phoenix
February 11 - 18, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Lone ranger

John P. Strohm goes solo

by Jonathan Perry

John P. Strohm Even after 12 years, membership in four bands (including a founding stake in three of them), and a recording résumé any indie rocker would trade his or her Blake Babies vintage T's for, John P. Strohm says he still had something to prove when he set out to make Vestavia (Flat Earth). Because, even though he's fronted bands in the past, he considers the just-released Vestavia to be his first proper solo album.

"This is the first one that I can say is really all mine," explains the former Blake Babies/Lemonheads guitarist by phone from his home in Birmingham, Alabama. "It was the first time I wasn't going to be able to blame anyone else for how it turned out. I wanted to take a step forward and make the best record I've ever made because I'd gotten tired of being obscure."

Vestavia, which Strohm named after a numbing strip of malls and subdivisions in a suburb of Birmingham, pulls together the various styles the guitarist began exploring during his post-Blake Babies years guiding Antenna (which he formed with then-girlfriend and ex-Blake Babies drummer Freda Love, now of Mysteries of Life) and Velo-Deluxe. It also finds Strohm settling comfortably into the sort of roots pop he began exploring last year with a bunch of friends who billed themselves as the Hello Strangers on Caledonia (Flat Earth). Strohm's "Wouldn't Want To Be Me" and "Drive Thru," for instance, wouldn't sound at all out of place on a Tom Petty or Wilco album. He hasn't completely jettisoned his fondness for Jesus and Mary Chain-style fuzzbombs -- "Jesus Let Me In," in particular, is one Vestavia track that recalls the noise-pop delirium of Velo-Deluxe. Overall, though, the album comes across as a clear-eyed bid for a wider audience, the result of a decade's worth of work buffed and spit-polished to a sparkle.

"That was kind of the agenda going into it -- to bring everything together," says Strohm, who, prior to writing the material for Vestavia, toured as guitarist for old friend Evan Dando's band, the Lemonheads. "I wanted to make a record that was accessible and easier to get your head around than maybe some of my others. I think the lyrics will be easy for people to pick up on. But at the same time, I also think that anyone who's halfway into my music will be able to listen to this album and not think it's a lame compromise."

The warped wit and charm that Strohm brought to the Blake Babies repertoire is still in evidence on Vestavia. In fact, the creepy guy with the box under his bed from Strohm's Blake Babies tune "Girl in a Box" could very well be the same dude whose ass is parked in front of the tube in the new "Drive Thru": "Someday you say that you'll be gone/And I believe I might be sad/But as long as they keep the cable on/You know, things won't get too bad." Elsewhere, bizarre juxtapositions abound. "Eva Braun" is a distastefully funny number that takes football great-turned-needlepoint-icon Rosey Grier's school-assembly message of perseverance through faith and applies it to Hitler's mistress. And "Ballad of Lobster Boy" is a tender homage to a murdered real-life circus performer ripped straight from the tabloid headlines.

That Strohm played the bulk of the instruments himself on Vestavia is a new wrinkle. It's the first time he hasn't worked with a band since, well, since never. "It was really, really hard," he confesses with a laugh. "To get the right feel for the song you're working on is tough. It's much different from when you're generating ideas and energy with other people in the room. All I could do was sit around my apartment and play the songs on guitar and imagine what kind of production I could give them. There was a lot of mystery involved."

Does he miss those days, tearing through "Out There" and "Cesspool" with Juliana and Freda at the Rat?

"Oh yeah, totally. But it's not like some pathetic high-school football star longing for his glory days. That was really a special time and there were some incredible bands around back then. At first it was intimidating to me. I used to go to the barbecues that T.T. the Bear's Place had and I'd check out all these great bands like the Volcano Suns and Christmas. But eventually I felt like, 'Yeah, we can do this too.' "

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