Despite all its blues-crying, the beleaguered record industry has done little to overcome one of its most persistent problems--a lack of exciting new acts cut from unfamiliar cloth. In a move that has the effect of turning them into unofficial farm teams, a few of the more feisty independents have managed to latch onto major label distribution deals. San Francisco's 415 has come up with two winners, its first big-time outing.
Translator, at the 9:30 club tonight, manages to refract the hypnotic melodicism of '60s psychedelia through the self-taught energies of '80s New Wave on its promising debut, "Heartbeats and Triggers" (Columbia ARC38162). They do this with a convincingly dense sound built upon layers of jangling, acoustic guitars, a swirling, hypnotic background akin to the best of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield (and Beatles, of course), but tempered with a dark Doors-like vision and a tuneful pop sensibility akin to the Beau Brummels and the Dave Clark Five. Thematically, the anger, paranoia and frustration evident in recent music come through often enough to prevent Translator from being simplistic, retrograde rock.
Songs like "Everywhere That I'm Not," "Everything You See," "Everywhere" and "My Heart, Your Heart" stand out with their captivating thrust and folk-rockish grandeur, but what makes them memorable is a persistent romanticism that asserts itself in the face of everyday tensions. "Everybody's wounded, everybody's bleeding, everybody's searching for protection," sings Steven Barton, "but when I'm with you, I feel like smiling." In the near-gothic gallop of "My Heart, Your Heart" he confesses that "although I know the world's on fire, we feel the flames again and again, there's also tender feelings, we won't ignore them . . . it's you that's on my mind, it's not money, not revolution, not this time, not this time."
It's not all roses, even when the heart overrules the mind: The single is a catchy yet tense progression of loss imagery, with words sometimes breaking out of line, as separated and anguished as the lovelorn protagonist who sees his girl everywhere that he's not: "I thought I felt your touch/In my car but no such/luck." Translator enforces its sentiments with rough but compelling harmonies and melancholy but insinuating melodies.
Moving to less personal confrontations, the band has trouble: Despite undulating instrumental introduction, "Nothing Is Saving Me" degenerates into an externalized resignation not far removed from Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction." And while "Sleeping Snakes" is at least direct with its cry of "Stop this missile building!" it reflects a nai ve moral stance that creeps into several of Translator's edgier songs.
Romeo Void made a strong impression with last year's debut, "It's a Condition." The "condition" was implicit in the group's name--the dearth, or death, of romance in an age of liberation. Lead singer and songwriter Debora Iyall grafted contentiously succint lyrics onto punchy dance floor polemics, imbued them with exposed-nerve vocalese and hid out in a band capable of making her anxious themes even edgier. With Benjamin Rossi's jazz-tinged saxophone floating in and out of Iyall's terse poetry, Romeo Void drew listeners in even as it pushed them away; were it a peach, it would be bruised but tantalizingly tasty.
As a follow-up to "It's a Condition" and the "Never Say Never" extended-play release, "Benefactor" (Columbia ARC38182) is not quite as powerful a statement about the ongoing battles between sex and salvation, image and reality, giving and taking, the general polarity of the sexes, the curious ties between being a product and a victim of the times. Iyall wields an incautious pen, casting off vivid images of alienation, not only personal ("Why don't you give up on me?" she demands in "Undercover Kept") but also generational ("In 24 hours, in 24 blocks I couldn't count more faces understand less talk" she admits in "Chinatown").
An obviously vulnerable Iyall dispenses cold, calculated advice on "Shake the Hands of Time" ("It just makes me want to spit, to think/of you, you and him./Don't be the shadow that falls behind./Shake him"), yet she understands her own desperation well enough: "Old couple walks by as ugly as sin/but he's got her, she's got him," she mutters in "Never Say Never," a big dance-floor hit (truncated here) in which Iyall mixes the aggressive bitchiness of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, the coy confrontational tactics of Patti Donahue of the Waitresses and the slack sensuality of Debbie Harry of the earliest Blondie. "I might like you better if we slept together,/but there's something in your eyes that says 'Maybe.'/That's never," Iyall sings in a dry, knowing voice above a savagely desperate melody, adjusting at the last minute to a sudden warning just this side of a promise -- "never say never."
Iyall, who was greatly influenced by Patti Smith, sees love as a balancing act, herself as the one most likely to crash down; it leaves her anxious, her music unresolved. But she has a poet's way with words, creating distinctive fleeting images that find traction in the band's pulsing music. "S.O.S," with its vaguely Eastern melody, reminds one of early Airplane, but its twisted observations and unpulled emotional punches turn it into a personal blues for modern times. Billie Holiday would probably have liked it; she would certainly have understood it.