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Scarlet Theory

The Bay Area's Scarlet Theory tosses some Circus-Sized Peanuts to the musical masses on its debut album

By Nicky Baxter

These days, it's hip to be pop. But while the vast majority of bands are churning out hooky three-minute songs by the numbers, the Bay Area's Scarlet Theory is delivering infectious grooves that are authentically pleasing. After collecting positive reviews for its seven-song EP, ru*barb (1995), Scarlet Theory has just released Circus-Sized Peanuts (Capsize), one of the year's most likable indie albums.

The album is loaded with frothy tunes that hopscotch from one era to another without skipping a beat. True, not all of the 17 tracks hit the mark, but there's enough shiny songcraft to satisfy the most jaded rock fan.

On the Donovan-flavored "Jennifer," singer/guitarist Dave Vogeler claims that he "has no use" for his troublesome object of affection, but you're not convinced he's really ready to just say no. Cut from similar cloth, "I Can't Read Your Mind" is all twinkly guitars and longing. Nothing fancy, but the song sticks inside your head, thanks in no small part to some marvelous stutter-step backing vocals. The album is refreshingly free of pretense--no world-weary ennui, no embarrassing attempts at profundity. This is what rock is or ought to be all about.

Best Unsigned Band

"We fashion ourselves a guitar band," Vogeler says. Although he is nominally the band's frontman, Vogeler emphasizes Scarlet Theory's collective spirit. Everyone--guitarist Eirik O'Neal, bassist Wise and drummer George Lambert--is encouraged to contribute ideas.

"There are no big heads in this band," Vogeler insists. "Everybody has a right to speak up. In fact, we just formed a [formal] partnership, so the majority rules."

Does having to share stage and studio space with another guitarist bother him? "Nope, Eirik and I are quite equal when it comes to sharing leads," he explains. The Chicagoan does admit to being the group's workhorse, however.

The current lineup has been together for just under three years, enough time to position itself as BAM's "Best Unsigned Band" and to sell out the Warfield. Despite snaring airspace on radio stations as distant as Portland, Ore., the band has no immediate plans for releasing Circus-Sized Peanuts outside of the Bay Area.

It comes as no surprise that when asked about influences, Vogeler mentions an impressive list of slightly off-kilter acts, from alternative-rock pioneers the Pixies to David Bowie's weirder works. "When I heard the lead guitar Adrian Belew did on Lodger, I said, 'I gotta play guitar.' "

There's lots of guitar-playing on the new album; however, given Scarlet Theory's predilection for the off-the-wall pop, it's more Frank Black than Black Sabbath. With its terse, choppy chords, "Pop Song" illustrates that point nicely. And that sliver of psychedelia just before the bridge accentuates Scarlet Theory's unofficial motto: "Rock is a sideshow, believe it or not."

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