In local rock clubs, Friday and Saturday nights are generally reserved for the proven draws -- midweek is the time for experimentalists, cult artists and would-be next-big-things. For an example of this booking hierarchy one need look no further than this week's lineups. Tonight, Washington clubs are hosting four interesting new acts: the Neighborhoods, the Bears, Tirez Tirez and Urban Blight.
Neighborhoods: 'Reptile Men'
The description of the Neighborhoods as a "new act" requires a little elucidation. In their first incarnation a decade ago the 'Hoods, who'll perform tonight at the Roxy, conquered the Boston club scene but produced only one single before splitting. Since re-forming early in this decade, the restless trio has released three records for three different labels, none of which has fulfilled the band's potential.
The latest of these, "Reptile Men" (Emergo, EM 9626), is the best sounding yet, kicking off with a hard-pop rouser. "Pure and Easy" soars, simultaneously rocking and rapturous; supported by a gossamer guitar figure, its refrain hangs breathtakingly in midair. Unfortunately, there isn't another song on the record that's its equal.
Singer/songwriter David Minehan has an engaging earnestness that serves him well when he writes about his favorite subjects: himself and his search for rock 'n' roll epiphanies. At his best, Minehan can make this sound like the most important of all possible crusades. When the Neighborhoods covered "If I Had a Hammer" on their first album, "Fire Is Coming," it seemed entirely appropriate.
Without the intensely personal lyrics that animated that debut, though, the subsequent discs have lacked its spark. If the use of a Peter Townshend title like "Pure and Easy" recalls those premier rock-anthem-makers the Who, too many songs on "Reptile Men" -- "Peeping Tom," for example, or another Who-ish title, "Tommy" -- evoke the trivial change-of-pace numbers contributed to that band by John Entwistle. With their undeniably rousing sound, the Neighborhoods come on like U2 without an agenda -- they have the sound, but not the vision.
The Bears: 'The Bears'
The Bears also first met in the mid-'70s, when guitarist Adrian Belew became friends with an outfit called the Raisins. They made plans to work together, but other musicians with more clout soon had designs on the guitarist. Roughly a decade later, stints with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads and Paul Simon behind him, Belew finally made good on his promise.
After working with arty rockers Laurie Anderson and Robert Fripp, Belew may think of the Bears as just a good old rock 'n' roll band, but their debut, "The Bears" (Primitive Man Recording Co., IRS-42011), is no collection of silly love songs. The quartet writes melodic pop material such as "Trust" and "Superboy," but both the lyrics and the arrangements tend toward the quirky and arch.
Such an approach is not unusual for Belew -- what's unusual is how well it works. The "Twang Bar King" has been known to grandstand, but here his playing, as in the sitarlike intro to "Man Behind the Curtain," supports the songs. Even his own compositions submit to the discipline of ensemble playing. The guitar drones played in reverse on his insinuating "Meet Me in the Dark," for example, anchor rather than sink the refrain.
As produced by Belew, the album is a little too precious and labored ever to attain the unforced grace of good old rock 'n' roll. But the Bears have been playing live for more than a year now (they'll be at the 9:30 club tonight and tomorrow), which should help take the edginess off future work.
Tirez Tirez: 'Social Responsibility'
Joining the Bears' tour are PMRC label-mates Tirez Tirez, who turn out to be guitarist, singer, songwriter, synthesist and producer Mikel Rouse and bassist James Bergman. It's New York's answer to Timbuk 3, the guitar-and-drum-machine twosome that was a surprise success for PMRC's parent label, IRS.
Like Timbuk 3's debut disc, Tirez Tirez's "Social Responsibility" (Primitive Man Recording Co., IRS-42016) doesn't employ electronic percussion for its insistent disco pulse. Much of the record has a lilting, almost Caribbean rhythm, and on Side 2 an African influence surfaces -- "See My Problem" is structured like a tribal chant, and "Uptight" recalls the Talking Heads' Afropop period.
Rouse's skeletal lyrics lend themselves to such circular rhythmic structures, and when coupled with a pretty melody, as on "Wake Up" or "Spin Your Wheels," Tirez Tirez's tunes have a gentle, unexpected charm.
Urban Blight: 'From the Westside ...'
Another white New York band that borrows Third World rhythms is Urban Blight. From a name like that, one might expect the septet's e.p., "From the Westside to the Eastside" (Stickman, ST-UB-01), to emulate the angry sounds of rap or reggae. Instead, the band chiefly plays ska, the reggae predecessor that was a postpunk sensation in Britain.
The "two-tone" movement that revived the ska sound there had a social conscience as big as its back beat, but it managed to keep its ebullience through even the most bitter indictments of Thatcherism. Urban Blight doesn't address political topics very specifically, but it's true to two-tone's spirit, notably on "House of Gold," which counsels building such a house ("in my mind it can never be sold") as a hedge against real estate speculation.
Such utopianism, though, may not define Urban Blight as well as "Go Bouncin'," a hymn to the band's rhythmic ease. The band's pleas for brotherhood wouldn't mean a thing without its seemingly effortless swing.