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Manic Truths

[whitespace] dEUS
Crashing Ideals: dEUS' new album is full of a pent-up energy and tension lacking in most modern rock.

Euro-pop thrives in the hands of the Manic Street Preachers, Shack and dEUS

By Gina Arnold

THE SUMMER rock-concert season is now in full swing, and the choices are limited, to say the least. One can go see the ladies of Lilith Fair being all sensitive or, if one's a punk, attend the VANS-Warped tour--but the latter was overshadowed by the similarly themed X Games, which included a daily rock concert and were free to boot. Meanwhile, metal-heads can go to Ozzie Osbourne's Ozzfest and teenie-boppers have the Nickelodeon Tour with N Sync and 98 Degrees. For those slightly older fans, there are always concerts by stalwart touring monsters like Jewel and Dylan.

In short: hohum. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, only a whole lot duller. Rock is, if not exactly dead, stuck in an endless loop: psychedelia gives way to folk gives way to disco gives way to metal gives way to punk, over and over again. It all sounds and definitely looks pretty much the same, and with ticket prices in the $30-$70 range rock concerts are no longer the place where teenagers go to be wild and crazy. Why bother, when they can meet one another online?

Here in America, the whole genre is definitely old hat, but in Europe, where far fewer people have computers and there are fewer vert ramps for the kids to play on, rock music is still a cultural indicator of sorts, a well from which British youth draw courage and inspiration.

It's true that "cool Britannia"--the Britpop movement led by Blur and Oasis--is a thing of the past, but in England rock still thrives and pulses with variety and excitement. Numerous English and European acts that can sell out stadiums would be lucky to fill a nightclub here. Tops among them are the Manic Street Preachers, whose latest album is titled This Is Your Truth, Tell Me Yours (Virgin). The Manics are the "bomb" in England, despite the weird loss of a key member, Richey Edwards, who literally disappeared four years ago and has yet to be found.

The Manics combine the smooth English music of bands like Texas and Level 42 with soaring sad ballads about the loss of innocence. Their work has long seemed haunted by the disappearance of Edwards and never more so than on This Is Your Truth, their fifth album and the first that doesn't use lyrics written by him. It is an extremely intimate record about Welsh independence, loneliness and the poignancy of the past.

"If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next," a plea for political tolerance, is a typically forceful number, while "The Everlasting" looks back nostalgically at the band's recent past with Richey: "In the beginning, when we were winning, our smiles were genuine."

The Manics are capable of producing songs that have virtues beyond mere lovelorn tunefulness. "Born a Girl," for instance, comments on male emotional insufficiency, while "Black Dog on My Shoulder" chillingly describes clinical depression. Throughout the record, singer Nicky Wire's voice soars and aches above solemnly orchestrated rock tunefulness.

The Manic Street Preachers are already as big as you can be in England, but my own favorite English act is called Shack. Shack is an offshoot of the Pale Fountains, which in turn became the Strands. Shack's leader, Mick Head, is sort of legendary in England, the Alex Chilton figure of the '80s. That is to say, he's a genius whose career has gone nowhere because his music is somehow always getting lost, stolen or mangled by fate. Indeed, the only DAT copy of the lost master tape of Shack's last album, Waterpistol, was left in the deck of a rental car in America. It was recovered eventually and released, but by that time the buzz on the band had faded.

HMS Fable is Shack's second record. Although less plagued by bad luck than previous records, it may still have a hard time being heard in between the buzz and howl of younger rock bands. Almost mind-numbingly pretty and hummable, the music takes place on a higher plane of melody than that heard on most LPs.

From the opening track, "Natalie's Party," with its unstoppable "la-la-la" chorus, HMS Fable floats angelically from one high, keening pop melody to another. The whole thing is buoyed on puffy beds of violins, but this symphonic aspect is only skin deep: this is a rock album, pure and simple.

Americans will liken it to that one great record by fellow Liverpudlian Lee Mavers of the Las, but Shack's album is really much deeper. After all, the Las' one great shining moment, "There She Goes," was really just a Velvets update. Shack's similarly textured "Lend Some Dough" is a total original, and there's more where that came from, tune after tune of it.

Shack is a sonic dirigible, utterly uplifting to the spirits. Unfortunately, emotional uplift isn't really the main thrust of rock right now. Despite the band's uncommercial mien, Shack's album is being released in America on London Records, and one can only hope that it will find a place here in the nooks and crannies left between the Barenaked Ladies and R.E.M., or something.

THE EQUALLY wonderful Belgian band dEUS was certainly unable to do so. Unable to win over America with its quirky, intellectual, jazzy pop, dEUS has been dropped domestically since its last U.S. release, In a Bar, Under the Sea, but the band's newest record, The Ideal Crash, can still easily be purchased online--and should be.

This arty quintet embraces the sensibility of Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, the Grifters and the Chills. And if those names mean anything to you, then dEUS is a must-own item. Like many other European fine artists (Wim Wenders pops to mind), dEUS does have a tendency to romanticize America, and thus its music is suffused with indie-rock reference points.

The Ideal Crash, however, drips with a pent-up energy and tension that American indie-rock music lacks today. And although the dread word "Beefheartian" inevitably comes to mind slightly more often than does "Plastique Bertrand" (Belgium's only other pop star), dEUS has a far firmer sense of melody than Mr. B.

It is also far less emotionally remote. The record opens with "Put the Freaks Up Front," a bent little reverie on suffering that involves layers and layers of sounds and melodies, as well as dueling lyrics like "These blows mark a new deal/The truth is the threat's real." "Sister Dew" is a more straight-forward ballad, as is the very beautiful "The Magic Hour." The title cut takes place in a sinister whisper, while the tiny little folk song "Instant Street" beats most such songs hollow.

dEUS' music always involves an incredible number of twists and turns. The band certainly takes its inspiration from American genres, but its natural complexity of thought--which may have something to do with the multilingual nature of its singer Tom Barman, who writes better in English than most native English speakers--is utterly un-American.

But the really un-American thing about dEUS--and Shack and the Manic Street Preachers--is that its music is not aimed at a 15-year-old mindset but addresses a more mature intellect. "I'm done with being dumb--I'm happy being sad," Wire sings on "My Little Empire," while Barman sings, "And the liquor that you had is playing twister with your mind/You've been artificially sad but never naturally high." Those aren't ideas that lend themselves to teenage anthems, but they sure ring true to me.

Another thing these records have in common is that they use a lot of strings. I think this turning toward more traditional instruments to make a point is in reaction to technology: somehow, a good violin fill makes an even more pointed remark about music than a good guitar lead.

Besides, judging by the paucity of interest within American rock right now, all the good guitar solos have already been played. So if you're sick of the same three guitar chords and the same two emotions, you might check out one or more of these three bands.

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From the July 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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