Art-rock, an ambitious genre that mushroomed uncontrollably in late '67 soon after the release of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper," has given us works as divergent as Love's "Forever Changes" and the Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed." Throughout the '70s, the motivation behind this genre was formulated into classical vacuity (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), experimental silliness (Pink Floyd) and primitive authenticity (Velvet Underground).
Today the desire to weld art with rock is practically de rigueur among rock bands. Gentle Giant, Supertramp and most of the inane groups currently being lumped into the new-wave category flaunt a grandiloquent ability to manufacture pretentious art-rock. Unfurling their bombastic banners, these self-indulgent bands don't seem to know the meaning of the word "excess."
"Computer Games" (Epic NJE 36349), the debut album by Mi-Sex (five New Zealanders out to conquer the world with their clanking machinery), typifies the technological balderdash that so often passes itself off as a secret formula for nouveau arty pop. From the programmed passion of the title cut to the sophomoric sexuality of "Inside You," here is a band truly from beyond Westworld, their identities stamped in stainless steel. Eventually their music begins to sound like the same synthesized tape loop stolen from Kraftwerk's Songbook for Androids. In fact, there are no signs of human beings apparent on the whole album -- just drones tirelessly punching in data.
Because of the overabundance of bands like Mi-Sex, it is indeed a rarity when rock groups do achieve a kind of marriage between art and rock. Such was the case with the Doors, Roxy Music, Television, and Talking Heads, and now, standing in the shadows of these bands, perhaps even Washington's own Urban Verbs. One only has to endure the contrived posturing of Devo or Gary Numan for a split second to realize that, at the very least, the Urban Verbs' artistic aspirations are genuinely wholehearted.
Comparing the band to Talking Heads, of course, is unavoidable. The Verbs' vocalist/lyricist, Roddy Frantz, is the brother of Talking Heads' drummer Chris Frantz, and frequently, Roddy cracks and strains his voice as if he were parroting David Byrne, lead singer for Talking Heads.Yet, whereas the Heads, like a herky-jerky bubblegum band jogging in place, were more concerned with stasis on their first album in '77, the Urban Verbs, in their debut (Warner Bros. BSK 3418), are in constant motion -- riding subways, swimming underwater, spiraling in dizzy circles, sculpturing pieces of pure psychedelia.
In short, the Urban Verbs' album seems to refer to an era when bands like the Electric Prunes, Choclate Watch Band, and Mad River were hypnotically moving toward the mysterious region of the id. On "Subways," by creating the effect of traveling underground simply for the effect's sake, the band subscribes to the psychedelic creed: the illusive recreation of an experience through music, particularly an hallucinatory voyage.
Similarly, "Luca Brasi," its chorus based upon Them's "Gloria" riff, approximates the sensation of snoozing with fish on the ocean floor, a dreamscope that journeys along the current of the inner mind.
Although not nearly as much fun as last year's premier dance band, the B-52's, or as artically challenging as the much-maligned Pere Ubu, the Urban Verbs still can be as intense as a riot on Sunset Strip. "Next Question" is a sublime wave in the direction of Bryan Ferry, while "Frenzy" (a wave in the direction of Hitchcock?) is a giddy whoop on which Frantz sings as if his head were screwed on backwards.
With an eeriness that recalls the shrieking theremin of Lothar and the Hand People, "The Only One of You" provides the heartbeat of the album, and "Ring Ring (My Telephone's Talking)", clearly the record's most resounding cut, may be the crucial, long-awaited answer record to the Music Machine's "Talk Talk."
Overall, the Urban Verbs' debut is a sophisticated attempt to probe the consciousnes of the psychedelic soul. If it sometimes hides behind the mask of art, it at least never retreats, assuming the risks involved and accepting the consequences.