Go-go may be the music most people identify with Washington, but it is far from the only sound found here. In fact, a sampling of recent local recordings turns up everything from conventional synth-pop to dissonant experimental rock, performed with an equally wide range of success.
Of course, these bands aren't all Washingtonians in the strictest sense. Growing Up Different, for example, hails from Baltimore, but this synth-pop trio has nonetheless developed a strong following in the District. Listening to "A+B=C" (CES 1716), their debut recording, it's easy to understand why.
"Watching in the Moonlight," for instance, spices its minor key dance groove with all sorts of synthesizer effects, while "Stare Back in Silence" orchestrates its electronics on a near-symphonic scale. Trouble is, the songs themselves are so slight that the instrumental dazzle often overwhelms them. Given a stronger melodic foundation, Growing Up Different's technical proficiency could take it far; right now, though, its sonic showmanship is little more than camouflage.
The Crippled Pilgrims, by contrast, take an approach so unadorned that the group's sound seems almost naked. "Under Water" (Fountain of Youth FOY 014) finds this guitar-based quartet pursuing many of the same strategies deployed by such psychedelic revivalists as the Jet Black Berries or the Dream Syndicate. Unlike those bands, however, the Pilgrims seem more enamored of the tension their dark drones create than with the release rock usually provides, and that adds a telling edge to their material, especially such exoticisms as "Not Good." But singer Jay Moglia's utter inability to carry a tune is a major impediment, curdling melodic material like "Pretend Not to Care" and blunting the effectiveness of rockers like "Down Here."
Vocal ineptitude is maddeningly common on the new music scene, but some of the savvier bands have managed to work around it. Neither Carl Cephas or Peter Muise of the Psychotics are likely to be mistaken for Daryl Hall when they open their mouths, but somehow that never poses a problem on "Mass Insanity Destroying Civilizations" (Olive Tree OTR LP 102). Part of that is simply because most of the songs here are chanted, not sung. On the whole, though, the Psychotics are more interested in getting their ideas across than in dealing with minor details like melody.
As the name and album suggest, the Psychotics take a rather warped view of the world. The chorus to "CUBU," for instance, is the demented chant: "Meat Hooks, Razors, Guns and Knives." Not exactly MTV material, but the band's delivery is so intentionally cartoonish it's hard not to laugh along. Better still, their music, an adventurish fusion of funk and punk suggesting Pere Ubu as impersonated by Funkadelic, is polished enough to make Los Angeles' Fishbone seem rank amateurs by comparison.
Hardcore is another type of rock that isn't exactly famous for its song stylists, but HR, former "throat" of the Bad Brains, is a notable exception. On "It's About Luv" (Olive Tree OTR LP 101), an eight-song mini-LP, HR manages to combine the powerful melodic sense of a heavy-metal singer like Rob Halford, while maintaining the sweet sonority expected of such reggae crooners as Gregory Isaacs. As such, he's always in complete command, whether working through the hyper-adrenal thrash of "We're Gonna Get You" or the razor-edged reggae of the title track. The Bad Brains perform at the 9:30 club on Wednesday and Thursday.
Washington rock isn't all about edges though. Kit & Coco's "In Time" (Azimuth AZ 1004) is as soothing as it is sophisticated. The approach flirts with both jazz and art rock (no surprise, given Kit Watkins' history with Happy the Man), but the duo doesn't overplay either influence, concentrating instead on lean, straightforward melodic development. It isn't exactly pop, but "In Time" is tremendously listenable. "Calling" (Cuneiform Rune 2), the second album by the Northern Virginian studio aggregate However, isn't pop either, nor will most pop fans find it particularly listenable. Recalling bands ranging from Weather Report to Art Bears to King Crimson, However makes no secret of either its intelligence or technical ability. But the band's lyrics are generally jejune, and its fondness for oblique structures is self-indulgent, making "Calling" more trouble than it's worth.