Rock and roll may celebrate the sound of the city, but it springs from traditional rural Amercian music like blues and country. The misconception surrounding new wave music (a convenient label for non-genre that includes everythig from British punk to cocktail jazz) is that it is nontraditional, its local gains invisible.
Yet modern rock bands are still securely rooted to their particular regions.
The pretenders, through vocalist Chrissie Hynde, can be linked to the abortive Akron sound of two years ago. The industrial rhythms of Cleveland captured in Pere Ubu's music are continually appropriated by many current arty bands. And last year's debut of the B-52s, who single-handledly revived the party atmosphere of the Beach/Beat Era, probably helped to put Athens, Ga. back on the map.
Like the B-52s, this year's premiere dance band, the Brains, also hails from the Peach State. After years of knocking around Atlanta (the hometown of many significant rock and rollers, from Chuck Willis to Dennis Yost), the Brains finally pulled the critical cord with their homemade record, "Money Changes Everything." It won as the best independently produced single in the Village Voice Critics Poll of '79.
"Money Changes Everything" can be heard in a more polished and tame version on the Brain's debut album (Mercury SRM 1-3835). A stab at the hypocrisy of capitalism, the song cannot conceal its radical politics, even underneath the sheep's clothing of electronic pop. It could become the anthem of the next depression.
The album abounds with well-crafted tunes, clearly illustrating that the Brains are endowed with an intellect not shared by the average power-pop peons. The lyrics of the band's mastermind, Tom Gray, are straightforward images of America's heartland that, like Bruce Springsteen's vision, seem briefly to glimpse the brooding despair of a society cornered in alleys. "A million people running in the street," sings Gray on "Sweethearts." "A thousand voices screaming on the radio."
Although their music may sound directly influenced by the Cars and Boston, the Brains are more meaningful and more heroic than either band. On "Scared Kid," over a tigerish riff, a tough punk reveals her nightmare ("4:00 AM/She'd snap on the light/Sit straight up/Eyes showing white. /Yes, I got to know the/Scared kid inside"). "Girl in a Magazine" is a sharp kick at an onanistic culture, while "Gold Dust Kids" offers a satirical ode to the teenage tribes who cluster around the local 7-Eleven, creating a bleak vision of a nation completely run by slobs.
The Brains' album is not flawless, but overall, it's the finish debut by an American band in recent memory -- cerebral, hip-shaking rock from the hinterlands.
Authentic grass-roots rock can also be heard on the new album by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, "What's the Word" (Chrysalis CHR 1287), a livelier and louder release than their '79 debut. The Austin band's sound is mainly derived from the spacious blues of Louisiana and Texas (T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins). Unlike George Thorogood and the Destroyers, they are diehard purists -- the band's covers are so obscure that only a qualified historian could recognize them as distinct from originals.
The T-Bird's material is more up-tempo than the music of traditional white blues bands, perhaps more akin to the loping rhythms of Sir Douglas Quintet or Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. In fact, their covers of "The Crawl" and "You Ain't Nothin' But Fine" would have fit perfectly into the oeuvre of the turbaned Domingo Samudio.
Tough as the hide of an armadillo and meaner than J.R. Ewing, "What's the Word" is a low-down dirty showcase for Jimmie Vaughan's jagged guitar lines and singer-harpist Kim Wilson's guttural vocals. On every cut, the band performs with the ragged cool of professionals so pure of their control that they can afford to keep it loose. Consequently, an original instrumental like "Last Call For Alcohol" goes down as smoothly as a shot of rye."
Along with Austin's Joe "King" Carrasco and the Crowns (whose independent single, "Party Weekend," is a brilliant transplant of Question Mark and the Mysterians' "96 Tears"), the Fabulous Thunderbirds are currently Texas' most exciting band. Even though the original songs don't snake along the floor with the lewd intensity of the covers, "What's the Word" nevertheless remains a perfect album for those bleary-eyed souls still roaming the halls at dawn.