The small independent rock labels continue to take the kind of risks that would send shivers through the accounting departments of the major labels. The freedom enjoyed by bands at this level produces a lot of vital rock that is simply too eccentric, eclectic or abrasive for radio play.
But thanks to impressive independent releases, three American acts -- Tommy Keene, Guadalcanal Diary and 10,000 Maniacs -- recently signed with major labels. A good bet to follow is Austin's Zeitgeist, whose major problem may be that its folk-rock revisionism is too hip in reference and influence. While the group's debut album on the DB label, "Translate Slowly" (DB75), is full of the elliptical lyricism and lush chordal guitar work characteristic of R.E.M. or Love Tractor, the band has enough imagination to stake out its own sound.
Zeitgeist's music is built on the folksy weave of John Croslin's dry, droning delivery and Kim Longacre's soaring harmonic filigrees, as well as the duo's Byrdsy guitar attack. In fact, the propulsive drumming and stratospheric ringing guitars of "Araby" are cut straight from "Eight Miles High." At worst, some of the material drifts pleasantly by, a veiled mix of obscure lyrics (for example, "I have lost the taste of almonds") and chiming guitars that is more emotionally unfocused than aurally intriguing.
It is when Zeitgeist strays from folk-rock conventions that the band's personality is most forcefully registered. The edgy, chaotic guitar work of "Sound and Fury" and Croslin's insinuating delivery in the creepy "I Know" invigorate the band's somewhat pastoral sound with more purposefully disturbing elements. On the title track, "Translate Slowly," Zeitgeist sets a standard for its future by moving past its influences to something memorable and original. Here, the cool passivity of the band's harmonies, the soft and gorgeous melody and an incisive message result in music that is formally attractive and emotionally arresting.
Another Austin band, the LeRoi Brothers, seems to be evolving in a different way. After starting as a raucous rock 'n' roll band on the small label Amazing, the LeRois moved to Columbia, where they made a hapless and ill-advised stab at slick rockabilly. Now, this band of retro-rockers is on Profile, an independent label with a lineup of successful hip-hop acts like Run-DMC.
"Lucky Lucky Me" (Profile-1209) finds the LeRois rocking wildly in too many directions to create any kind of meaningful celebration of roots. The youngest band member, Joey Doerr, turns in a bunch of '60s garage rockers complete with wailing harp, macho delivery and frenzied guitar work. And one song, "Dangerous Girl," is a great slab of psycho-punk that suffers only from its incongruous presence on a LeRoi album.
The rest of the record features mostly undistinguished numbers drawn from '50s rockabilly and R&B. The exceptions are three Steve Doerr songs that draw on Cajun and norteno accordion styles to create a more openhearted and folksy ambiance, a welcome relief from the simple-minded bashing that dominates here.
Another band with a good shot at major label success is Los Angeles' Legal Weapon. The band's third independent release, "Interior Hearts" (Arsenal LW-5961), suggests that this quartet's problem may be that its sound falls in a gap between the small, private world of punk and the big, dumb world of heavy metal.
In truth, this band's smart punk metal attack, led by the galvanic vocals of Kat Arthur, suggests Joan Jett with greater vocal, lyrical and emotional range. Arthur and her boyfriend, guitarist Brian Hansen, resemble the Pat Benatar-Nick Geraldo team, but the 10 originals here are more streetwise than Benatar's music. Hansen's muscular guitar lines punctuate Arthur's dark, obsessional lyrics and dramatically flexible vocals, which convincingly move from punky snarls of independence to girlish sobs of devotion.
Legal Weapon is a rarity not only because the band has a hard female rocker, but because it infuses a style of ritualized posing and musical excess with a sense of economy, melody and intelligence.