When I first saw the Figgs, eight years ago, they were a heavily hyped major-label band playing a showcase gig upstairs at the Middle East. They delivered an hour’s worth of short, catchy, rockin’ songs. When I last saw the Figgs, several weeks ago, they were a veteran indie-label outfit promoting a new album downstairs at the Middle East, with another hour’s worth of short, catchy, rockin’ songs.
In the intervening years, the Figgs have done more than move down a flight of stairs. They’ve slimmed down from a quartet to a trio, left their home of Saratoga and adopted Boston as one of their new home bases (singer/guitarist Mike Gent lives here, bassist Pete Donnelly is in Philadelphia, drummer Pete Hayes in Manhattan). They’ve recorded and toured with one of their heroes (Graham Parker) and repeatedly been compared to the others (Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Paul Weller, the Replacements). And for better or worse, they’ve become something of an institution. If you’re a Figgs fan, you’re probably also a fan of the folks named above. But unlike most of them, the Figgs are still young and hungry enough to keep growing.
The new Slow Charm (on the local Earsmile label, formerly Hearbox) offers another batch of short, catchy, rockin’ tunes, but with a difference: after Y2K’s loud and live-sounding Sucking in Stereo, the new one is their semi-experimental, studio-textured album. They add some extra players (including long-time pal Jed Parish and Candy Butchers leader Mike Viola), borrow one another’s instruments, and vary the tempos more than usual. "One reason people probably think it’s so different is that there’s more than one slow song on it," Gent suggests. The band’s two songwriters move into separate corners, with Gent providing most of the rockers and Donnelly the poppier tunes. It’s comparable to a mid-career album like Costello’s Trust or Squeeze’s East Side Story — not a thorough departure, but a slight slowing down and tweaking of the formula.
"It’s the same old story — you always hear bands say things like ‘We didn’t want to repeat ourselves,’ " Gent continues when we sit down to talk at the Kendall Café, where he has a part-time gig as soundman. "[Producer] Tim O’Heir asked us from the start, ‘Do you want to do another cool indie record, or do you want to be commercial?’ We just wanted it to be different, and I’m not sure how commercial it sounds. The label was worrying that it was getting a little far out."
In fact, the disc went through a number of incarnations. The band wrapped it up in a hurry before hitting the road with Parker last year, then decided they weren’t happy with the result. So they put the best of what they had on last year’s Badger EP. After a few more sessions, they had a bunch of songs that didn’t hang together. So they brought David Minehan in to remix the recordings. In the process a few songs were rewritten, and Gent’s title song became an anthem to their own cult-herodom, with a couple of friends getting namechecked. Parish turns up in the last verse, a payback for Gent’s being in the lyrics of his "Ballad of the Gravel Pit."
Cult status tends to agree with the Figgs, however. Around the time of their Hearbox debut, 1995’s Couldn’t Get High, they began to produce a tougher sound that took them beyond the genre homages on their two major-label (Capitol) albums. "The budget’s smaller, but we’re definitely more comfortable recording than we were then," Gent explains. "On the two major-label albums, we didn’t have anyone breathing down our neck, which was bizarre — someone probably should have been. Nowadays we have a base in three cities, which is great. We rehearse some songs, take three copies away, and then figure what needs to be done to them. In the old days we used to forget them altogether, so we’d be back to square one every time we came in to rehearse."
Anyone who’s met Gent knows that he’s the kind of hardcore music fan who can swap endless trivia about favorite bands. He’s largely the reason that Graham Parker has pulled out so many obscure album tracks on his tours with the Figgs. "Graham can be pretty strange about which of his albums he likes and doesn’t like. He’ll come off stage and say, ‘Oh God, not "Stick to Me" again.’ And he thinks, for some reason, that Heat Treatment wasn’t a very good album. Sometimes you just have to roll with that." References to favorite albums are likewise scattered through Slow Charm. Gent is the first to admit that you can sing Joe Jackson’s "Look Sharp" over the background of "Soon." And that a guitar riff out of "Burning Down the House" occurs toward the end of Donnelly’s ska number "Static," a song that otherwise brings memories of early, hopped-up XTC. "I’m glad we took it in that direction. I was a little worried of hearing people say, ‘Oh God, the Figgs doing a ska song.’ "
Of course, none of the above will discourage some people from thinking of the Figgs as a band who wear their influences on their sleeves. "That’s fine, because when we go on the road I wind up meeting a lot of bands who say they took their sound from us," Gent says. "So I’d say we’re somewhere in the middle."
JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT that the question of gender equality in rock had been settled years ago, along comes Rolling Stone with another "Women in Rock" story — and puts Christina Aguilera naked with a guitar on its cover. The members of local band All the Queen’s Men happened to spot this issue on the way to our interview, and it reminded them why they’d called their new album Curvy Baby (on their own Mad Monarchy label). "Just shows that there’s still a double standard," says singer/keyboardist Christine Zufferey. "Male performers are allowed to be ugly and women are still expected to be thin; they’re all scantily clad and heavily made up. We think that more curvy people shouldn’t be afraid to show their curves."
The three women in All the Queen’s Men are in fact perfectly thin (as is newly added bassist Joe Kowalski) — it’s their sound that’s heavy. AQM are a different kind of electronic band: they generate their sound by doctoring natural instruments instead of programming from scratch. Originally a straight-ahead guitar outfit, they took the plunge when drummer Tamora Gooding got herself an electronic kit. The new disc sports a sleek, metallic sound, with brittle sheets of guitar by Catherine Capozzi, a former student of Reeves Gabrels, a current Boston Rock Opera fixture, and an overall bad-ass player. She says her influences are Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, but the distorted styles of Robert Fripp and Boston’s own Rich Gilbert are also apparent in her playing.
The former frontwoman of January and Sabot, Swiss native Zufferey seems more at home here, with a heavily accented and exotically European style (including a Marlene Dietrich impression at the beginning of "Alive"). What’s new is a lyrical bite that didn’t turn up in her previous bands. When she takes on a sexy tone, you can bet she’s doing it for ironic effect, most explicitly on "Pig in the City," which she wrote with Capozzi. "Should I conform, should I deform, to get a deal silicone, peroxide blonde, Barbie clone . . . " No wonder she didn’t dig the Aguilera cover. "I guess that I’m a little more open to be free with my thoughts," she says. "That song and a few others are about trying to adopt your personality to fit into society." It was also inspired, she says, when a guy at a club once complimented a male guitarist on his playing and then complimented Capozzi on her shirt.
Although the rock elements outweigh the electronic ones on Curvy Baby, the band have also included a remix disc where a number of producers, many recruited by Zufferey’s brother in Switzerland, were invited to go wild. Most of them turn in trancier versions of the material, sometimes filtering out the guitars and vocals. "When we play, we’re still essentially a rock band, but I’d love to be able to take this into the dance clubs," says Capozzi. "The two schools that we’re interested in, rock and electronica, don’t seem to play well together, so we’re looking to bridge the two." All the Queen’s Men celebrate the release of Curvy Baby this Friday, November 15, at Bill’s Bar.