Washington, D.C., somewhat unfairly remains a backwater in the nation's musical consciousness. Despite well-deserved kudos for D.C.'s energetic hard-core and funk scenes, the perception remains that local rock bands are inferior to their counterparts in Los Angeles and New York, that this is a very hard town to make it out of, and that any town claiming the Nighthawks as its kingpins is down on its rock 'n' roll fortunes.
The relative lack of success on the national front of major label signees Root Boy Slim, the Urban Verbs, the Nighthawks and Four Out of Five Doctors is taken as further proof that the town lacks heavyweights in popular or critical terms. However, there are two new local independent albums, "Egoslavia" (9 1/2 x 16 Records) and Tommy Keene's "Strange Alliance" (Avenue Records 001), that are not only the best releases from D.C. artists in the last few years but, given proper exposure, should garner national attention.
Egoslavia's self-titled debut is a riveting exercise in post-punk, funk-riddled esthetics that has all the clamor and undeniable presence of a downtown construction site. In fact, the seven songs here could be taken as one extended, modernist update of the Lovin' Spoonful's classic paean to inner city rhythms, "Summer in the City." Led by the metallic grate of Gregg Strzempka's guitar and his clipped strangled vocals, the four Egoslavs achieve a compulsive yet unpredictable democratic sound that tolerates jarring rhythmic shifts, tension-filled gaps and nervous forays to the front by the four members.
The album's most irresistible cut is "City Up," a strangled piece of funk that pushes you onto the dance floor with the first pulse of Chris Anderson's fat bass. Snapped into place with a crack of Sally Berg's drum stick, the song falls into a heavy groove of chanted street jive broken up by Strzempka's sinister guitar figure. Strzempka's elliptical lyrics are full of tense poetic interplay that turns a song like "Twist Face" into a threatening, almost claustrophobic experience. In the end, though, it is the band's sheer physical momentum, the clang and boom of its provocative interplay, that make Egoslavia a magnetic musical experience.
Tommy Keene's "Strange Alliance" is full of the conventions of mainstream power pop--the solid hard rock dynamics of bassist Ted Nicely and drummer Doug Tull, and Keene's memorable melodic tricks and shimmering guitar parts. Fortunately, Keene has created an impressive and distinctive musical identity for himself by giving his songs an atmosphere of distressed and soured romanticism that cuts him apart from the legion of power popsters still trading in on Tin Pan Alley sentiments. In fact, the disconsolate air that hangs over these songs, Keene's ringing dulcet guitar tone and his whining nasal vocals are all reminiscent of Alex Chilton's brilliantly forlorn Big Star.
Despite their obtuse lyrics and a mid-tempo rhythmic rut, all of Keene's songs eventually take hold through some compelling choruses in vibrant instrumental passages. "Landscape" is shaken from its dream state by a startling, staccato guitar break; "Don't Get Me Wrong" waxes weird via a sinister synthesizer figure that creeps around the melody; and "Strange Alliance" is as forboding as its title, thanks to Keene's ghostly, echoing vocals in a guitar-synthesizer exchange that marches relentlessly toward climax. Best of all is "It's All Happening Today," in which Keene's majestic, celebratory guitar parts intrude to break the tension of his carping challenge--"Can you visualize this thing we call tomorrow?"--directed perhaps at his friends, or his lover, or maybe even the record companies. Keene will open for David Johansen at the Wax Museum Aug. 4.
A third local release, Tru Fax and the Insaniacs' (at the 9:30 club this Saturday) "Mental Decay" (Wasp LP 13675) is not without virtue, albeit minor. Lead singer Diana Quinn establishes a charming musical persona, sort of a punked-up Emily Dickinson, dryly nailing Washington life on the head, as in the Insaniacs' local satire, "Washingtron." Underneath Quinn's singsong, little-girl delivery are damaging undercurrents of wit and cynicism which, in "The Problem With Me," she effectively turns on herself: "I read labels on drugs I intend to eat/I am conscientiously trying to be complete."