Given a repertoire of songs that includes a conspicuous number of direct references to local landmarks ó "Digging in Allston," "Boys from Brighton," and "Memorial Drive," to name three ó youíd think that Tim Howard was born and bred somewhere within the bounds of Route 128. But Howard, whoís just celebrated his 25th birthday when we meet up at the Middle East to talk about his band Soltero, actually grew up in Poughkeepsie. And like many other musicians whoíve been drawn into the Boston music scene, heís found a compelling Muse in his adopted home town. Indeed, his "Fight Song for True Love" may be one of the most ardent, if elliptical, Hub anthems ever written. "She shows no fear at all when we face Bostonís finest," he sings. "Tonight I will love you, ítil they trample us like roses/We may die but we wonít mind, because weíll be right/We are always right."
Howard is pondering lifeís vagaries when we sit down over camomile tea and IPAs. Besides the birthday, heís just moved from Lower Allston to Inman Square and gone through a significant break-up. "Iím figuring out that life is an increasingly ambiguous thing," he reflects. "A process of blacks and whites going gray and everything just becoming more difficult, complicated, and just like harder to get a grasp on. What I really wanna do is to . . . take things head-on with ambiguities. Some of the happiest moments are also the saddest ones."
Solteroís two albums so far, Science Will Figure You Out (self-released under the Kentuckyland label in 2001) and Defrocked and Kicking the Habit (put out last year by Providence indie Handsome Records), have found Howard giving voice (by turns a Stephin Merritt baritone and a keening Gordon Gano yowl) to that ambivalence ó especially when it comes to what we talk about when we talk about love. The music of his meticulously crafted songs is full of surprises, with glints of melancholy French horn, garbled voices swathed in white noise, and tipsy accordion filling in the spaces around his spare acoustic guitar and banjo. His lyrics explore the intricacies and entanglements of romantic relationships with an affecting candor. On Defrocked, the burnished accompaniment comes courtesy of a dozen or so dexterous friends; on stage, Solteroís more rock-friendly line-up includes Alexander McGregor on guitar, keyboards, and trumpet; bassist Ben Macri; and drummer Casey Keenan.
But Soltero is Tim Howardís vision. "Sometimes a song spills out all at once," he says, quoting from "Bottomfeeder," one of Scienceís quavering manifestos of the heart. " ĎI miss her badly, but only when Iím positive she misses me.í That whole song wrote itself, just like that . . . Itís about a girl. Of course."
Half-joking, I ask what percentage of his songs are about women. In the same vein, he puts it somewhere around 85 percent. That may not be an unusual figure, but Howardís vignettes are distinctively brutal in their honesty, marked both by searing moments of self-laceration and by disarmingly calm respites. For all the torturous romantic purgatory of the naked confessional "The Moment You Said Yes" (where he realizes that "We each have our ways of playing it safe . . . For example, you donít call/For example, I act like I donít notice when you donít call" and that "I am missing you more than is possibly healthy and I donít sleep"), heís just as capable of calling up an entrancing instrumental like "Paradise City," all wafts of rhythmic, gossamer guitar.
Although Howard performs solo almost as often as he does with McGregor, Macri, and Keenan (heíll be at the Lizard Lounge this Friday), thereís no substitute for the visceral thrill of seeing Soltero play in full-band mode, which they do once or twice every month. But when heís off working on songs or appearing on his own, the other members keep themselves busy. McGregor will be playing the Coolidge Corner Theatre this Saturday in celebration of the release of his solo album Part One: Aguirre Returns (Eskimo Laboratories). He was born in Colombia and didnít arrive in Lexington until he was nine. His dad was something of a folkie songwriter manqué. His paternal grandfather was a trombonist in Tommy Dorseyís band. And his maternal great-grandfather was a wandering troubadour who one day plodded into the Colombian coffee fields, guitar in hand, and was never seen again.
But itís another member of McGregorís family who may have had the most significant impact on his music. It was one night after "a particularly ferocious noise bandís 20th minute of electro-feedback barrage," McGregor writes on his Web site, that he decided, "I want to make music my grandmother would have liked." He tells me, "I used to really be into free jazz and stuff that was always on the verge of falling apart. My old band [NYCís the Ghost Exits] was like that. But that gets a little limiting. You have to deal with being Ďcoolí or being Ďdarkí or being Ďof the moment.í But thereís something about being old-fashioned, in my way of thinking."
McGregorís milieu is the four-track, and itís astonishing what this self-professed "weird loner guy recording songs in my room" is able to do with such limited means. On "No Nine," a chorus of multi-hued munchkins sings "la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la" (itís actually McGregor harmonizing with himself six times over) under a trumpetís clarion call before slinking away to the beat of an underwater tango. The short segue track "Henreid" overlays bursts of jazzy trumpet, evoking the aural equivalent of a Jackson Pollock spatter painting. The discís sublime coda, "Making Movies," is a bilingual descent down misty Andean paths.
Constantly shifting, Part One: Aguirre Returns subverts expectations at every turn. Colombian bambuco music, Weimar cabaret, psychedelic Baroque, antiquated futurism, and lo-fi folk all play a part in its mélange of styles. Weird synth washes, Spanish guitars, pre-programmed beats, and piano minuets also find their way into McGregorís compositions. As for the lyrics, he reveals his wry sense of humor in lines like "Love is not the answer/Itís just a joke from France/They made that shit up/And then they sold it to the world."
McGregor released the CD himself more than a year ago, but the Coolidge show will herald its re-release by the Cambridge label Eskimo Laboratories with the sharp-looking packaging it deserves. Last year, the Eskimo Labs released This Is Christmas, a nifty little compilation featuring songs by Soltero, McGregor, and 17 other local acts. One of these, California Stadium, a/k/a Andrew Basile, merrily recast the Pretendersí "Brass in Pocket" as "Glass of Eggnog," and Basile too will be at the Coolidge this Saturday to celebrate the self-release of an EP recorded in 2001 called Allstate. Although bassist Jeff OíNeil and former Wicked Farleys drummer Ken Bernard do contribute their services to the EP, at the Coolidge, Basileís only company will be tape loops. "On some of those recordings," he explains, "we had a great chemistry, and the music became less Ďsinger-songwriter with a backing bandí and more band interplay. But itís worked out pretty well for me this year, playing alone. I feel like Iíve always just been a songwriter and less of a Ďband person.í And now I think the vocals and the melodies come across a lot better."
Basileís songwriting can indeed bring to mind a singer-songwriter fronting a band, as in "While Weíre Young," which with its breezy guitars and three-beer swagger recalls late-era Replacements. Heís the first to admit that Paul Westerberg has at various times in his life been a musical idol. But he also says heís been listening to a lot of what gets called post-rock lately, a tendency thatís reflected in slightly skewed songs like "Raze Your Dance Hall," where surging, dark-hued arpeggios coupled with Bernardís tricky drumming suggest something along the lines of a Fugazi song. And Allstateís title track is a propulsive rumbler buoyed by bright choruses and pretty, chiming guitar harmonies.
Rounding out the Coolidge bill is Star Star Quarterback, a/k/a Andy Brooks. Brooks, who also plays guitar and bass in the local band Mittens, is celebrating the release of his new Spacious Phrasing (on the JP indie Metric American), a disc that finds him wresting compelling sounds from a dinky keyboard and a beat-up guitar. Many of his songs ó "Love Games in the Kitchen" and "Road Houses," to name two ó are electronically adorned acoustic numbers that recall Frank Black at his most twistedly inspired. But on the discís opener, "Singing Is a Suckerís Game," he goes Har Mar Superstar one better, wrapping his best loverman croon around a white-boy slow jam sprinkled with synthesized stardust showers.
Star Star Quarterback is another "band" that found its way onto the Eskimo Labs Christmas compilation. And in the past, as SSQ or with Mittens, Brooks has shared bills with Soltero, McGregor, and California Stadium. "Weíre all friends," says McGregor of this nascent, loose-knit collective. "Some people are in bands, some people want to put out records, and everybody goes to everybodyís shows. We all use the same practice space. We all play each otherís equipment. Itís rather incestuous.
"Bostonís a very rock-and-roll town. All the people youíre talking to in this article are much more impressed with a certain craftiness in putting together a song than rocking people out at the Middle East or wearing leather pants."
Tim Howard plays solo this Friday, June 27, at the Lizard Lounge, 1667 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge; call (617) 547-0759. Alexander McGregor, California Stadium, and Star Star Quarterback celebrate their respective CD releases this Saturday, June 28, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard Street in Brookline; call (617) 734-2500.