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[whitespace] Tito & Tarantula

Tito & Tarantula conjure up some new places on 'Hungry Sally & Other Killer Lullabies'

By Nicky Baxter

Some bands make noises that are strictly for the ears; listeners hear what the musicians direct them to hear and that's that. Tito & Tarantula's music occupies the ears as well, but it also encourages listeners to use their mind's eye, to revel in the images summoned forth by the group. Like an organic hallucenegenic, the group's music is sublimely visual, causing one to see things, beautiful things, ugly things. The band's second release is Hungry Sally & Other Killer Lullabies (Cockroach), and even the title invites a visual interpretation.

On paper, Tito & Tarantula don't add up. A one-time unrepentant punk, guitarist/singer Tito Larriva warbled and thrashed for seminal Chicano rock outfits the Plugz and Cruzados. Drummer Johnny "Vatos" Hernandez hit the skins for Danny Elfman's hyper-artsy prog-punk outfit Oingo Boingo. At the other end of the spectrum is guitarist Peter Atanasoff's and bassist Jennifer Condo's work history. Between them, they've performed with a veritable roll-call of safe, sound rock aggregates: Stevie Nicks, Boz Skaggs and Paul Butterfield. Somehow, this strange brew of hardcore extremism and mainstream conservatism produces an alchemy that embraces both, while sounding like neither.

Larriva's songwriting is speckled with impressionistically disjunctive images that flutter unsteadily like a sun-warped desert mirage. "Slow Dream," for instance, commences with a whisper ("Sun rose in Africa/Through a window in Spain/Air Smelled Like Violets, Slow Dream, Dreamed Again") and concludes with a wishful whimper ("Woke up in India/Wished it was Iceland/Wanted to go there/To meet a Siren").

Larriva's vocal is a scratchy-larynxed conjunction of dread, desire, passion and pain. On "Slow Dream's" chorus ("Fly like an angel/Kick like a Crazy Horse/Soul like a dream gone wild/She never did what u do"), the singer repeats the last line twice--exultantly the first time, spitefully accusatory the second.

Tarantula's rhythm team ticks away with Swiss watch-like precision, eventually touching off violently pulsating explosions. A masterful sonic sculptor, Atanasoff coaxes weird wobbly noises from his instrument, as if he were playing guitar while submerged underwater. Eschewing proper solos for the periodic launching of oddly configured projectiles Atanasoff is much more concerned with guitarchitecture than he is with playing regulation-rock licks.

Elsewhere, Tito & Tarantula find themselves ensconced in a dreamstate, somnolent passengers on planes or trains traversing the world. "Bleeding Roses" finds the foursome flying over Amsterdam, where they discover "dogs/Talking amongst themselves/As the fountain sprayed beautifully." Against a backdrop of insistently thumping tom-toms, spidery guitar and whale-song feedback squalls, Larriva sounds as if he's sleepwalking, murmuring enigmatic lines like "Porcelain dream suicide/Single solid sleep 2 nite/I wanted somebody/but I bit too soft."

On "My German Fraulein," Tito and company cruise Hamburg's Reeperbahn; on "Devil's In Love" they dream of conquering Hollywood. Both tracks are fetchingly surreal, but it is the title track that supplies the album's most riveting dreamscape. An epic narrative along the lines of Neil Young's "Last Trip to Tulsa," "Hungry Sally" is "a Saint, she's an angel of peace," a mythic figure, a miracle maker doomed by her insatiable appetite. Larriva begins the tale in a hushed, sing-songy voice full of wonder.

As the girl grows, so does his narrative voice, gathering momentum and volume until the words hit with explosive force just as "Sally" is about to hurl her insides out. The band accentuates the singer's story; initially muted, Tarantula's music grows increasingly agitated, building tension until the tumultuous crescendo, crashing before Larriva's final denouement: "The moral of the story is that even Saints have to eat." A slushy wash of a voices and instruments played backward finishes "Sally" off.

For those who missed Tito & Tarantula's recent show in Palo Alto (and, for that matter, the fortunate ones who did catch the act) Hungry Sally & Other Killer Lullabies is the next best thing: think of it as a soundtrack to one of the most fascinating films never released.

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Web extra to the April 29-May 5, 1999 issue of Metro.

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