WHEN THE theory that the record industry was inflation-proof exploded a few years back, record executives wore out the carpet escorting promising musicians to the door. The prospects for wider exposure and recognition never looked so dim for local bands performing at Columbia Station and a few other clubs around town. Since then, a number of these groups have undertaken their own recording projects; only one has attracted major-label support.
The Urban Verbs' second release on Warners, "Early Damage" (BSK 3533), is riddled with Roddy Frantz's stark obsessions. When he sings on the title track, "Come out with me, Anna, leave your obsessions behind," the listener can't help but think that Frantz's own emotional baggage is more than any two people would want to lug around.
The parallels between the Verbs' two albums are striking: The modern-day anomie of "Subways" surfaces in no less austere fashion on "Terminal Bar"; the stark yet decidedly sentimental love song, "The Only One of You," is echoed on "For Your Eyes Only"; Frantz' portrait of "The Good Life" in L.A., complete with "health foods, house plants and limitless credit," shares the same sense of aimless ambition described in "Business and the Rational Mind."
Though similarities are numerous, it's the differences that make "Early Damage" a more rewarding album. Frantz's voice has been pulled back into the mix, recessed to the point that it no longer dominates the band's sound. Consequently, bassist Linda France is heard to better advantage and Danny Frankelhs percussion, in particular, gives the Verbs the jagged momentum Frantz's lyrics often require.
Probably the most satisfying album released locally in the R&B vein is Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band's "Is It Over?" (Green Dolphin 7980). The success of this album should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Price perform. He's a polished, powerful vocalist and, while he is perhaps a bit too immersed in the soul tradition for his own good, it's a joy to hear him let loose on the title track without once overextending himself.
The affectations that characterize so many contemporary white R&B singers don't seem so obvious or so distracting in Price's performance. For one thing, his voice is strong enough to compensate for any stylistic lapses. For another he's blessed with the kind of range that comfortably extends from a Percy Mayfield torcher ("Please Send Me Someone to Love") to a couple of engaging shuffles ("Eldorado Cafe" and "She's Tough") to James Brown's "Lickin' Stick." If the record often falls short of the energy level Price and his strong band bring to the stage, it is nonetheless a fine sample of their work.
With a few reservations, the same could be said of Bill Holland and the Rent's Due Band's "Let It Go," (Dutch Treat DTR-1002). Holland has always been somthing of a rarity in Washington, a songwriter surviving in a city full of Top 40 clones and boogie bands. It's doubtful that "Let It Go" will win him hordes of new fans, but it won't have any difficulty pleasing his current following.
The album is weighted down by a couple of dated funk arrangements ("Cheek to Cheek" and "Old Leroy") that doubtless work better in concert than on vinyl. There are, however, some fine songs. "You My Lover" features one of Holland's strong if somewhat unfocused vocals, and "Ernie's Place" provides ample space for the sinuous lines cast by Paul Bell on guitar and Larry Strother on soprano sax.
Side one, in fact, gets better with repeated listenings; it's only when the funk cliches stack up on the flip side that the music grows tired.
Rather than incur the cost of a full-length album, several area musicians, including Evan Johns and the H-Bombs and the Skip Castro Band, are cautiously testing the waters with extended play recordings. In Evan John's case, it's probably the only cautious move he's ever made. Johns is a master at ransacking rockabilly, R&B and Tex-Mex traditions for his own fun-loving purposes.
The Skip Castro Band take a less eccentric and exciting path backward on "Boogie at Midnight" (Midnight Records SCV 1248). What works so well for the Castro Band in concert is compromised in the studio. Despite Dan Beirne's relentless eight-to-the-bar patterns on Roy Brown's "Boogie," the track cries out for a live audience. The Mitch Ryder medly would seem equally tame if it weren't for Bo Randall's searing guitar break.
Apart from James Brown's "It's a Man's World," graced with a surprisingly convincing vocal by Beirne, it's the original songs that hold up best. Beirne's "It You Don't Want Me" and Charlie Pastorfield's "Let Her Go Alone" are both equipped with sharp, melodic hooks, suggesting the band should concentrate on developing more original material in the future. t