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Echo Down Below

Echobelly
Intestinal Fortitude: Echobelly gets its kicks from the UK's sexy tabloids and scandal sheets.

Echobelly suffers the slings and arrows of love

By Nicky Baxter

Echobelly's petite but not necessarily sweet frontwoman, Sonya Aurora Madan, seems fascinated by the perverse--at least on record. Like many of us, she prefers to get her kicks vicariously, using her fertile imagination to sketch in bits judiciously excised from London's scandal sheets.

Take "Pantyhose and Roses," 3 minutes and 22 seconds of deliciously naughty reportage from the UK quintet's recent buzz bin of hard pop, On (550/Epic). Against an implacable crush of guitars seesawing between Beatle George Harrison's shimmering guitar on "Dear Prudence" and propulsive chordal work, Madan recounts the headline-grabbing news about a member of the British Parliament whose death was caused by an autoerotic act. On the song's chorus, Madan inhabits Morrissey's tragically romantic moaning better than Morrissey himself. And the best is saved for last: Glenn Johansson's tremolo-choked coda.

Web Echos:

Sony's Echobelly web page

Echobelly fan web page

Despite its obvious charms, On failed to make many pop Top Ten lists. Lacking sufficient promotional support, the band's fortunes dipped further in the wake of pitched competition stirred up by the latest British invasion, particularly the war between Blur and Oasis. When On dropped last fall, it hardly made a sound stateside.

As it turns out, Echobelly has its own flag to wave. The band boasts not merely a bi-gender lineup--old news in new rock--but a multiracial roster as well, a rarity for rock. Born in Delhi, India, and raised in the UK, the Anglo-Indian Madan formed the band three years ago along with ex-porn zine editor-turned-musician Johansson, who had emigrated to London from his native Sweden.

The pair recruited bassist Alex Keyser (since replaced by James Harris) and drummer Andy Henderson, formerly of PJ Harvey's band. Ex-Curve guitarist Debbie Smith, a Briton of African descent, joined two years ago. The band hasn't rung up New Musical Express, the UK's pop journal of record, fishing for PC points, nor is it shy about its uniqueness. It's simply not an obsession.

Perhaps speaking for the rest of band, Madan told a reporter last year, "I'm very happy to talk about my background, but when it comes to talking about the album, I don't want [my heritage] to be combined. "I'm aware of my background. But it's not my raison d'etre."

It could be that Madan, the group's sole lyricist, got all of that out of her system on Echobelly's initial forays into the studio. Their 1993 debut EP, "Bellyache," was a combustible grab-bag of barbed wires to the world at large--songs like "Give Her a Gun" and "Sleeping Hitler" flung down the gauntlet and dared anyone to pick up on it.

Everyone's Got One, the group's first full-length effort, extended the polemics assayed on the EP. On the album, Madan confronts issues of gender, racial discrimination and social estrangement with unflinching forthrightness. Despite its sometimes prickly lyrical content, the album wafted to the top of British charts. A large portion of the album's allure can be explained by its blithe pop veneer. And then there's Everyone's cheeky hit single, "I Can't Imagine the World Without Me," a sparkler showered with a very British kind of mock-serious self-centeredness.

Thematically, On eschews the conundrums of gender and color for the more insulated politics of sex. On "Dark Therapy," for example, the rituals of mating are played out using nomadic metaphors: "Cruising on a missile, wading through a minefield, wading through the monsoon rain." The final frontier of the increasingly alienated and alienating ritual of romance is broadcast into the privacy of our bedrooms--"porn upon the airwaves."

Not that there aren't faint glimmers of hope reflecting off the piss- and puke-stained walls of our secret tunnels of love. "Go Away" is simultaneously a directive and an invitation; thrashy and insouciant, the tune also sports a jagged reggae riff bridge. "Four Letter Word" is another sublimely Smithsian take on the whiplash rush of love and loathing.

In spite of its mood swings, On nonetheless is an instant charmer. Like Morrissey's Smiths at their peak, Echobelly's head-bobbing compound of melancholy and exhilaration is oddly alluring, illustrating once again that the thrill of despair can be addictive as any infatuation.


Echobelly and the Guests perform Monday (March 25) at 9pm at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets are $8 adv. (415/324-EDGE)

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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