Short Cuts

Various Artists
Yoyo a Go Go, July 15-20, 1997
(Yoyo Recordings)

While mainstream rock critics salivate over their keyboards and pat themselves on the backs for the unabashed praise they've heaped on Northwest indie-rock icons Sleater-Kinney and Built to Spill's new records (The Hot Rock and Keep It Like a Secret respectively), they're collectively failing to recognize that these bands' talents are not inexplicable anomalies. The uncommon brilliance exuded by both bands was nurtured and developed within an international community of bands that would rather remain faceless than see their photos in every weekly rag and music mag in America.

Twice in the last five years, a large portion of this indie-microcosm has come together in Olympia, Washington (home of indie-stalwart labels K Records and Kill Rock Stars), for the Yoyo a Go Go festival. Yoyo Recordings has released a double LP of live tracks from the 1997 fest, with 22 tracks from as many bands -- some who've seen their faces in Spin, most who never will.

The compilation opens with pop troubadour Jason Traeger's "Good Thing," a Sesame Street-esque, feel-good song ("Don't give up on a good thing/Because a good thing has not given up on you"). The electricity in the air that weekend at Olympia's Capitol Theater is palpable from the audience's ebullient screams, but the men-behind-the-board's mixing talents keep the aural enthusiasm from overwhelming the music.

Sleater-Kinney is joined by Olympia duo the Need (Rachel Cairns and Radio Tragedy) and Team Dresch frontwoman Donna Dresch for an adrenalin-drenched rendition of "Dance Song '97" from S-K's Dig Me Out -- one of the few times you'll hear Sleater-Kinney with a bassist and keyboardist. The Need later contributes its own drum-and-guitar, new-wave lesbionics on the stuttering "Crown." Also flying the queercore flag, Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live offers up the blistering, chaotic, one-minute "Obscene Tank Driver," the band's "dance song for all the queer kids," according to frontman Joshua Plague.

The precocious torch-carriers of indie-rock ingenuity, Modest Mouse, stumbled on stage in typical drunken form that Saturday afternoon and busted out a messy, extemporaneously rearranged version of "Dirty Fingernail." Vocalist-guitarist Isaac Brock throws out the droning lines of the song ("Out of the shower/Onto the bathroom floor/Out in the kitchen/Underneath the casserole") wherever he sees fit, lending a glimpse into a facet of the band seen only in live performances. Later on the record, similarly sophomoric death-metal purveyor Karp (that's Kill All Redneck People, kids) shreds through its pummeling "Bacon Industry" to screams of "Metal!" from the boiling mass of kids pressed against the stage, then ends the song by berating the shirtless, sweaty crowd-surfers.

The record closes with Built to Spill's "Stop the Show" and reluctant superstar Elliott Smith's "Rose Parade." The two songs are an exercise in contrast -- BTS's track showcasing Doug Martsch's electric-guitar virtuosity and Smith's demonstrating his acoustic subtleties. Though this record is a brilliant document of a startlingly magical five days of indie-rock heaven, there are holes. If the Mirah or Mecca Normal tracks had been swapped for Tullycraft's cuddly "Pop Songs Your Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About," or one of Unwound's math-emo instrumentals, no live indie-rock record would ever be able to touch this one.

-- Brendan Kelley

David Wilcox
Underneath
(Vanguard)

"Rather than the mainstream, this type of close, person-to-person music doesn't fit the format." These are the words spoken before the final cut on Underneath, David Wilcox's seventh album. The source is never identified, but it could very well be the voice of an executive from A&M, the now-defunct label that dumped the majestically talented Wilcox last year after he'd put together three well-crafted albums, none of which made him a household name.

Though the publicist at Vanguard, Wilcox's new label, says Vanguard is hoping for a radio hit from Underneath, the label shouldn't hold its breath. Folk and AOR stations will continue to support Wilcox, but this effort has no crossover potential. It's more of what Wilcox has done so well since his debut album in 1987, which is reach inside himself (and his Olson acoustic guitar, as he likes to say) to find songs that are true -- songs about soul-searching, nature, growing old, loneliness and togetherness, hope and despair.

On the title track, which begins the disk, Wilcox holds back his glistening guitar to showcase his buttery James Taylor voice and poetic lyrics: "I know that compassion is all out of fashion/And anger is all the rage," he sings. In the chorus he goes on to emote a familiar theme of introspection: "What is it, really, that's keeping me/From living a life that's true?/When the worries speak louder than wisdom,/It drowns out all the answers I knew."

When he isn't emoting from the heart is when Wilcox falters. "Never Enough," the album's attempt at pop, is a syrupy blues-lite tune with hackneyed lyrics; Wilcox's poke at the music industry, "Sex and Music," sung in a rap style, ends up cheesier than Boris Yeltsin's arteries.

But most of Underneath is vintage Wilcox, featuring his bright, uniquely tuned guitar and expert fingerpicking patiently backing up smart metaphors and musings. On the sleepy "Prisoner of War," in which a lover's heart is what's held captive, Wilcox sings, "I respect what you can do/But I'd say the same about a gun." There are few better poet-guitarists in the business.

-- Jonathan Lesser

 
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