HE ALBUMS INSECT SURFER: "Wavelength," Wasp 14EP.; TINY DESK UNIT: Live album, 9 1/2 x 16 Records 001.; THE SHOW TINY DESK UNIT: Saturday at 9:30 Club.
No dynamics, no technique, no melody. No sex, no soul and -- puh-leez, folks -- no future. These are but a few of the requirements that must be met by a band coveting the label of "punk," that most stylized and formulaic of genres.
Not many groups still seek seats on this self-immolating supersonic to nowhere; maybe being a washout at 22 is even more melancholy an experience than it's cracked down to be. But two local bands, Insect Surfers and Tiny Desk Unit, have new albums to prove that straddling the wavy pink line between punk and the more demanding new wave is a fine, fragile art.
While you mustn't expect a digitalized, pogo-powered Van Morrison cover from the Insect Surfers' "Wavelength," you can anticipate a humorous, unholy union between Sixties surf music and Seventies snotrock -- a marriage made in Encino, no doubt. Not only do these fellows have the brass to change chords on every track; they also use (gasp!) backing vocals (on "I'm in Gear" and "VoA") and boast one member (Michael Strider) who unashamedly displays a talent for synthesizer and keyboards.
And do the Insect Surfers ever have roots! Not just the usual 1910 Fruitgum Company influence, but the venerable Ventures, seminal minimalists who gave us "Pipeline" and "Wipeout," both of which are echoed in the Surfers' "Up Periscope."
The best cut on "Wavelength" is "Fascination with the Neon," a slowly-I-turned number that rivals Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Full Moon Risin" both lyrically and musically. But "I'm in Gear" and "VoA" (for Voice of America) are indications that it's possible to wave on without pacing every track at 135 on a metronome.
Malcolm Peplow did a creditable job of producing, and the overall effect of the LP is an uplifting one. This is not the kind of stuff one can hum whole verses of in the shower, but you could catch yourself shouting the Surfers' chorus of "Here comes the depth charge!" at odd moments.
Singing along with Tiny Desk Unit's live set may be a bit trickier, since it's a feat that often evades their own lead vocalist. Like the Surfers, TDU aims for a compromise between angst-rock and sheer punk, but doesn't quite sustain the balance.
Bob Boilen makes more good use of the synthesizer (or synth, as it's called on the credits), and considering the rather base production values, the tracks come together in a kind of raggedy whole. The group has a tendency to stick to the 135-on-the-metro-nome theory, but the monotony is relieved by an occasional use of dynamics. Most interesting of the seven songs are "The Train" and "Shall We Dance," to which the answer is presumably "not without a little electro-shock priming."
Unfortunately, TDU's most serious drawback is given the most visibility. One gets the feeling that Susan Mumford fancies herself a Chrissie-Hynde-cum -David-Byrne vocalist, but she comes off as more of an urban yodeler, especially on "Don't Tell Me," where her jerky singing nearly obliterates the lyrics. Her heart may belong to dada, but her voice is unquestionably the property of Mixmaster.
Still, those who have heard the precorporate albums of Blondie would be hardpressed to discourage this group. They share with the Insect Surfers a perky penchant for flirtation with nothingness; with practice, both groups might just make something of it.