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[Cellars]

Been there and gone
Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw; Todd Spahr and the Gravy

BY BRETT MILANO

Ten of the most intense minutes Iíve heard from a Boston band this year came at the recent memorial benefit for the late local promoter Trey Helliwell when Come performed " Saint Around My Neck, " an existentially anguished epic that builds from spooky calm to screaming peak, twice. The occasion was partly responsible for the impact, but between Chris Brokawís fearsome guitar leads and Thalia Zedekís throat tearing, the songís always sounded that way. It bore out what I always admired about this band: they could take familiar two-guitar big-chord rock and build something fresh and daring out of it.

As it turns out, that show is likely to be Comeís last. After keeping the band on hiatus for most of the past two years, Zedek and Brokaw both said last week that they wonít be reconvening (drummer Daniel Coughlin will continue playing with Zedek; recent Come bassist Winston Braman plays in both Fuzzy and the Hilken Mancini/Chris Colbourn band). But the spirit of Come, and a good deal of their sound, endures with new albums by the founders: Zedek makes her solo debut with Been Here and Gone (Matador); and Brokaw releases Viewfinder (on Thrill Jockey), by his acoustic instrumental band Pullman, the first in at least a half-dozen projects that heíll be involved with over the next year.

" We went through a long time of not really knowing what to do next, " says Brokaw. " As far as Thalia and I playing together, itís easier not doing it under the auspices of it being Come. I think I would have been happy just letting it hang indefinitely, but I can understand wanting to put some closure on it. " Explains Zedek during a separate conversation, " It has nothing to do with the people I was playing with, but Come had a life of its own. And things were in limbo for so long that it started to get uncomfortable. It was time to shit or get off the pot, so I got off. "

If Come had stayed together, it would have been a logical move to step away from the full-throttle sound of their last album, Gently Down the Stream, and make a subtler, acoustic-based album. Zedekís Been Here and Gone is that kind of album, and with Brokaw and Coughlin both aboard (along with Victory at Sea keyboardist Mel Lederman and Willard Grant Conspiracy guitarist David Michael Curry), the sound is still fairly Come-like; dark beauty remains Zedekís stock in trade. But it feels like a solo album, thanks to a greater focus on the vocals and a more personal touch in the words: Zedekís new songs are less oblique and more clearly concerned with lost love. She visits cabaret territory on a Leonard Cohen cover, " Dance Me to the End of Love, " a song and a style that prove perfect for the mix of whiskey and world-weariness in her voice. If she goes farther in this direction, thereís every chance sheíll make the album that Marianne Faithfull has been trying to do for the past decade.

There was another batch of love songs that she did in her first non-Come gigs that didnít make it to the studio, among them Bob Dylanís " Youíre a Big Girl Now " and the Ramonesí " Questioningly. " " Maybe doing other peopleís songs made me more comfortable with what I could say on my own, " she notes when we sit down at Somervilleís Abbey Lounge. " Youíre not the first person to say that the songs I wrote sound more personal. The mood of the songs . . . well, that was definitely the headspace I was in when I was writing them. So a lot of it is sad, maybe kind of bittersweet. But I still tend to be more creative when my life is stable, otherwise Iím just too upset. When Iím depressed, I spend too much time watching TV. "

As someone whoís been an underground-rock figure for a good two decades (first with local popsters Dangerous Birds, later with Uzi and Live Skull), Zedek has as much right as anyone to get jaded. But she says that hasnít happened yet. " Iíve definitely taken a lot of breaks over the years; there are times when you get discouraged and feel empty. But Iíve been doing it long enough to know that it passes eventually. Then something will happen and you start getting excited again. I still really love rock and roll. I love garage rock, but I donít know if Iíd want to do a whole tour playing that kind of stuff. "

For her, the beauty of going solo is that she doesnít have to stick with one format. " The songs on this album would have sounded different if Come was playing them, but I realized that one of my favorite things about music is playing with other people. So itís weird, because the solo album isnít even that solo. "

As for Chris Brokaw, itís impressive enough to perform with a half-dozen different bands, but the real feat here is the variety of music heís been doing. On Zedekís album, he plays some of the lowdown slide guitar he used to play with Come. With Pullman, he plays in a folkish and lyrical style. He does more-experimental music with Brokeback (whose members also include Tortoiseís Douglas McCombs and Yo La Tengoís James McNew; theyíll hit the Middle East this Sunday, August 12); and with the New Year (a collaboration with former Bedhead members) he plays drums. Oh and he does big, loud rock as the lead-guitarist on Steve Wynnís recent double CD, Here Come the Miracles (on Blue Rose). More recently, he played some pure pop on a handful of European dates with Evan Dando. And he does a mix of the above on the solo album that heís just wrapped up and is now shopping to labels.

Call him the Richard Lloyd or the Thurston Moore of Boston ó an experimentally minded guitarist who keeps things fresh by seeking out new collaborations. But unlike those two guitarists (who respectively have the occasional Television reunion and Sonic Youth as bases), Brokaw doesnít maintain a single high-profile band at the center. " Right now Iím enjoying playing in a variety of contexts, " he tells me at a coffee shop around the corner from where he works, at Other Music in Harvard Square. " Different people have asked me to do things, and thatís fun. It was like that for me in high school and college. "

The biggest surprise of the lot is likely his collaboration with Dando, which was arranged through Dandoís manager (and formerly Comeís), Tom Johnston. " It came about very quickly: I had to learn 25 songs in an afternoon. His songs have a folk and country feel, so it was easy to sit around and strum. I wound up playing half acoustic, but on the electric songs I was able to do some of what I usually do. " Dando is now forming a full band, but Brokaw isnít sure heíll be involved. " I donít know if Iím the most appropriate guitarist for him, but weíll see how it goes. "

So where would he say his style falls? " It falls all over the place. I donít see any great dissonance between doing experimental music and doing more traditional music, so Iím not differentiating that much between the two. At home I listen to noisy stuff and I listen to experimental music, so I still havenít figured out which way Iím going. But itís been pretty exciting. "

TODD SPAHR. Since his early days with the Cavedogs, singer/guitarist Todd Spahr has always had a slightly twisted take on classic pop. When he writes something especially bubbly or catchy, heís bound to throw a dark twist or a left-field turn into the lyrics. That much was clear on his first album with the Gravy, the fab Hangmanís Pop (Q Division), whose macabre slant and art-rock touches didnít stop it from having tons of hooks. The Gravyís second album, Lollipolyp, takes that ball and runs with it. The tunes are even more grabbing ó less art-rock, more Beatles and Cavedogs. And what are the songs about? Sex and death, for starters. The opening " Howling Wood " pulls a soaring, angelic chorus on a tune about waking up with a boner. The closing " Indiscreetly " is a full-blown Phil Spector/Brian Wilson arrangement (in mono, of course) framing a sad tale of one guyís final gesture.

" The songs are all kind of warped to one degree or another, " Spahr notes. " And thatís something Iíve always done. Those are the things that I want to write about. It certainly isnít intentional, just that phrases will come to you subconsciously. ĎHowling Wood,í thatís about what it sounds like itís about ó itís a different kind of love song, baby. "

Itís a safe bet that Lollipolyp will fall into the overlooked/underrated category, since itís not even being released here. The Australian Pure Pop label commissioned it, though Q Division is making a few copies available in town. And the Gravy donít get to play out that often. Spahr is probably better known as the bassist/coĖlead singer of the í70s cover band Rock Bottom (heís the one who gets to sing " Big Balls " and " Radar Love " ). " Weíd love to play around here more often, but letís see if thereís any room for something like us on the local airwaves. "

He did have revenge on Boston recently, however: the Cavedogs had their long-awaited reunion show two weeks ago. After denying theyíd ever do it, the trio of Spahr, bassist Brian Stevens, and drummer Mark Rivers played a gig in Los Angeles, as part of the International Pop Overthrow festival. " It was much better than any of us hoped, " Spahr says. " We were afraid weíd really suck, but everybody got it together, opening the pathways after nine years. We probably made fewer mistakes than we did in the old days. "

So why not do it here? " There was never an offer to do it here. Boston is a very different place now. Most of my friends from the old days are out in Los Angeles, and theyíre the ones that would really dig it. It was better to do it away from where the baggage was. But if somebody made us an offer we couldnít refuse, weíd probably do it here. " Thatís a hint.

Issue Date: August 9 - 16, 2001