At one time, it was quite an achievement for a local band to record and release an album's or EP's worth of material. Even if it didn't quite represent a full step up to the big time, the semipermanence of vinyl added a certain legitimacy to a band's existence, suggesting that the long, underpaid nights spent toiling in local bars were just pit stops on the road to success.
That, of course, was before the do-it-yourself esthetic of the new wave sank in. Since then, almost any band capable of buying studio time and pressing up a few thousand discs has rushed into the independent record business. While this has led to the rock 'n' roll equivalent of the vanity press, it has also given an impressive number of bands the stepping stone needed to make the transition from local to regional, even national, renown.
Certainly, that has been the case with Washington's Slickee Boys. This quintet has, in its various incarnations, been turning out singles and EPs on the local level for almost a decade, but it wasn't until the Minneapolis-based Twin Tone Records picked up "When I Go to the Beach," a full-tilt burlesque of summer-fun songs, that the Slickees earned a real shot at a national audience.
"Uh oh . . . No Breaks!" (Twin Tone TTR 8544), the band's second album, isn't likely to earn the Slickees a place in the hit parade, but it does much to solidify the group's reputation as one of America's most imaginative garage bands. Yet calling the Slickee Boys a garage band does them something of a disservice, for as much as the band draws upon the low-rent psychedelia that fueled such American originals as the Seeds or the Electric Prunes, its sound is anything but a simple recapitulation of that prepunk grunge.
For one thing, the Slickees owe much to punk, particularly the cartoonish minimalism of the Ramones. Even given the band's fondness for flashy lead guitar figures and dramatic sound effects, the no-frills drive of the rhythm section is what ultimately gives the music its character. Sometimes this is carried to cartoonish extremes, as with the screech-filled "Danger Drive," but more often it provides an emotional perspective, whether the anxious desire described in "Dream Lovers" or the manic lust depicted in "Jailbait Janet."
The Slickees, who will perform at the 9:30 club Friday and Saturday, are at their best -- mostly thanks to singer Mark Noone's delivery -- when they channel their energies into giddy, junk-culture jokes that have the droll deadpan of "Teenage Romance" or the schlock-horror of "The Brain That Refused to Die." Sadly, Noone seems incapable of maintaining his intensity on the less novel numbers that make up the bulk of "Uh Oh . . . No Breaks!" and as a result, much of the album seems monotonous.
One way for a group to play up its strengths is to consider turning less into more by shifting the format. If there aren't enough strong songs for an album, why not try an EP?
Consider the case of the Acrylix, an Alexandria-based group whose debut EP went deservedly unnoticed, but that has turned in an entertaining dance single with "Good Times" (Pressure PR-006). "Good Times" starts off by voicing the same sentiments as the Chic hit (though to a completely different beat) that these are the best times of our lives, but soon begins piling on the irony. Its dual strains of hope and cynicism ought to set off deep resonances within almost every listener.
Like most new-wave dance records, "Good Times" is more insistent than artful in conveying the music's pulse; the drums thump, the bass pumps and the listener is pulled in almost by the sheer momentum of it all. Where the record falters, though, is with the three extra mixes of "Good Times" that have been tacked on to the single. It isn't that the added tracks are unwanted, just that they're far less imaginative than the song itself. "News Mix," for instance, is simply that, a sonic collage of the Acrylix and the evening news. It's a clever idea, but dragging it out to 4:49 without any further twists is tiresome. The Acrylix perform at the 9:30 club tonight.
Still, one of the advantages of making the leap from the minors to the majors is the chance to go back and improve an album. That's what DC Star had done with "Rockin' in the Classroom" (Mirage 90251-1), the nationally released version of their self-produced "Living in a Rock & Roll Whirl."
Essentially, all the group did was resequence the first side of "Rock & Roll Whirl," and add the title song, an updated version of the Brownsville Station chestnut, "Smokin' in the Boys' Room." Nonetheless, those revisions have greatly strengthened the album, emphasizing the muscular, metallic roar of the band's sound, while at the same time maintaining a high melodic interest. Whether or not that's enough to elevate DC Star to the ranks of Ratt, Motley Crue or Twisted Sister remains to be seen, especially given the rising backlash against heavy rockers on MTV and radio. But it ought to open at least a few ears outside the local club scene.