One reason the latest British pop trends tend to get more media attention than new American bands is the English need to reinvent rock 'n' roll regularly. Of course, none of these acts is ever able to create its sound out of whole cloth; the strategy instead has been to amplify a single stylistic quirk into an all-encompassing esthetic. Thus, there have been whole schools of British bands built around arcane revivalism (the ska and rockabilly movements), instrumental mannerisms (the synthpop movement) and even modes of dress (the new romantics), with each heralded in turn as the Next Big Thing.
American bands, by contrast, are rarely so easily pigeonholed. While that may be something of a strength in the long run -- nothing can kill a band faster than to have been identified with what is suddenly yesterday's trend -- it does them little good on the public relations front. After all, if the media don't notice a trend, what have they to trumpet?
Worse, the top American bands tend to be not only musically individualistic, but culturally eclectic to boot. It would be much easier, for example, if a band like the Rave-Ups were just cartoon cow punks peddling an easy fusion of new-wave aggression and old-timey twang. But this Los Angeles quartet doesn't play things so simply, and as a result, the sound it presents on "Town + Country" (Fun Stuff, RU-103) is as difficult to categorize as what the Byrds began churning out two decades ago.
Granted, that's a comparison the Rave-Ups invite through their cover of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (a hit for the Byrds in 1968), but that doesn't mean the Rave-Ups are merely Byrds of a different feather. For one thing, this band wholly eschews its predecessor's folk-rock roots. Here, the musical antecedents are far more earthy. "Positively Lost Me," for example, breaks the Who-like tension of the verse's pedal-point progression with a gritty guitar solo that owes more to Lynyrd Skynyrd than to Leonard Cohen.
Nor do the Rave-Ups stop there. "In My Gremlin" roams the same territory as the muscle-car songs the Beach Boys trafficked in, but Rave-Up Jimmer Podrasky takes the exact opposite tack, lauding his secondhand wheels with a sarcastic chorus of "She's so fine, my 109" -- a significant drop in horsepower from Brian Wilson's beloved 409, but altogether more indicative of contemporary realities. Likewise, though the music alludes to the Beach Boys' surf beat, the band muddies the waters by drawing equally from Chuck Berry and the New York Dolls. This is no mere revivalist act.
In fact, the greatest strength "Town + Country" displays is Podrasky's writing. It's one thing to serve up a credible cover of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," quite another to equal it with original output. Yet Podrasky's songs, from the wry, worldly "Remember" to the dry, knowing "By the Way," seem almost instant classics. Part of that has to do with the way the rest of the band fleshes out his ideas, for few groups are as adept at translating a set of individual voices into a singular musical vision. But the fact that Podrasky can generate material so easily communicated as these songs speaks worlds for the band's potential.
The Rave-Ups channel their sound through an essentially traditional approach, so the resonance of their influences only reinforces the band's strengths. That's one reason why bands as determinedly modern as Alabama's Primitons have a much tougher road to hoe. That's not to say that this trio is somehow lacking in charm, for the song "Seeing Is Believing" from the group's EP "Primitons" (Throbbing Lobster, Bisque-8LP) is as catchy a song as you're likely to hear in 1985.
But there is an element of experimentalism that occasionally gets in the way of the Primitons' music. Consider, for example, the way "Five Lines" is interrupted with a burst of studio-savvy dissonance; as much as that bit of special effects enlivens an overlong track, it does less to justify the song's development than to distract the listener from encroaching boredom.
That's a shame, because as "Seeing Is Believing" demonstrates the Primitons are eminently capable of turning the hook-obsessive Beatle-isms of bands like the dB's into practical, persuasive pop rock. Even such secondary efforts as "You'll Never Know" and "She Sleeps" show that much.
Nonetheless, few independent American bands are able to manage the transition from inspired visionaries to mainstream success stories. While it's not inconceivable that either the Rave-Ups or the Primitons could follow REM or the Hooters into the realm of respectable sales, it seems altogether too likely that Atlanta's Arms Akimbo will end up like that city's Brains, a good band unable to better a great single.
In the case of "Arms Akimbo" (Blue Rat), that single is "Dominique," a moody declaration of obsessive love that nothing else on the EP quite equals. Sure, both "The Voice" and "Sister Down" have their charms, but "Dominique" delivers such a delicious kick that it's hard to imagine anything short of a multiplatinum smash matching its appeal, cut for cut. Which is to say that Arms Akimbo has made a tremendous start; it only remains to see if they are able to follow up on it.
(Mail-order address: Fun Stuff, P.O. Box 1814, Beverly Hills, Calif. 90213; Throbbing Lobster, P.O. Box 205, Brookline, Mass. 02146; Blue Rat, 9400 Roberts Dr., Suite 1-J, Atlanta, Ga. 30338.)