WASHINGTON rock: Is there such an animal? If you listen to complaints from local bands, you'd think this was Liverpool in the '60s--except that radio won't play, clubs won't pay and the media won't say that's so.
It isn't, and the bands that are complaining the loudest refuse to accept one basic fact: The original, post-punk-New-Wave rock that they champion is a minority taste that attracts a small audience. It's a situation that has less to do with the quality of the music than the natural conservatism of programmers, club owners and critics who seek to serve and profit from majority interests.
"Connected" (Limp 1005) is the third sampler produced by Rockville's Yesterday and Today Records (1327-J Rockville Pike, Rockville, MD 20852). It features seven bands "involved in the Washington, D.C., original rock scene" but is in no way meant to define that scene. As with most low-budget samplers, the standards and styles vary widely. The music is a bit rough around the edges, and often in the center as well. At its worst, "Connected" collects such regurgitated stylistic traps as deliberate unprofessionalism (particularly evident in overly fallible rhythm sections), desperate lyrics, Anglophile accents and quirky rhythms, and dumps them through the same old hoop.
The Slickee Boys, one of the most sampler-ed garage bands in America, are not well served here; most of their singles and EPs over the years hold greater interest than the album's title tune and "Can't Believe." Just as singer Mark Noone's voice is getting stronger, the material is getting weaker, though the band still plays with feckless abandon. The Nurses' "Running Around" is stiff and derivative, though "Tina's Smile" is a langorous love song that highlights Howard Wuelfing's intelligent word-crafting and the late Marc Halpern's shimmery guitar lines. The Velvet Monkey's "Drive In" is catchy-weird, a quirky song of weekend celebration, while "Shadowbox" doesn't connect at all. In fact, one of the major problems on "Connected" is that too many of the numbers are busy, clusters of familiar riffs and formulaic excursions into rock's recent archives.
The best moments on "Connected" come from Nightman and Tommy Keene. Of all the acts on this sampler, Keene offers the most promise. He has an attractive power-pop sensibility and a fondness for jangly and compelling guitar lines. It makes for a lean, driving, passionate sound that's an effective assimilation of the '60s rock tradition that runs from the Byrds through Tom Petty. "Strange Alliance" and "The Heart (Is a Lonely Place to Hide)" stand out on an album that suffers from a slim diet of inspiration. The former features a restlessly inventive melodic structure while the latter has some wonderfully wide-open chords and a tense ambience that grabs a listener and refuses to let go.
Nightman, with a harder, more aggressive edge, has also released its own album, "No Escape" (Limp 1006); it shares "Remember You" with "Connected." It's not as good as "It's the Kink," the group's alternate sampler selection, which kicks off with a perilously close-to-heavy-metal riff and then proceeds to rock out in very traditional fashion. The group's album is similarly uneven. The weaknesses come from the de rigueur choppy rhythms, which sometimes dominate uninteresting songs like the blue-eyed reggae of "Skanky" or much of the direct tension on the album's first side. The material is not helped by drummer Doug Tull's heavy-handed agitation or songwriter-guitarist-singer Michael Colburn's stiff vocals.
Confronted with good songs, those problems almost disappear. "Critical Line" kicks off with a Cars-like bottom and evolves into a stimulating rocker. "Working" has a jumpy and compelling structure, while "Secrets" sounds like a great lost Pete Townshend song. Unlike most of the sampled bands, Keene and Nightman wear their influences subtly. We'll be hearing more from Keene and Nightman, but everyone's effort is commendable, even when it's not wholly successful. Nightman, Tommy Keene, the Velvet Monkeys, Black Market Baby and the Slickee Boys will all be performing Wednesday at the 9:30 club in a special Limp-sponsored concert.