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She Sang, He Sang

Nick Knight

Staying the Course: With their first new album in more than five years, the Sundays (David Gavurin and Harriet Wheeler) pick up where they left off musically.

Harriet Wheeler's quiet Sundays and Brian Henneman's raucous Bottle Rockets come down on opposite sides of a musical gender gap

By Gina Arnold

THE SUNDAYS CALL to mind every cliché known to rock criticism, from "evocative layers of jangly guitar rock" to "sunny pop confection." But to utter such banalities is to do this shy and unprolific band a disservice; the Sundays are better than the rote blurbs imply.

After all, it's harder than it sounds to put quiet and gentle sentiments into an accessible rock context. Like their cohorts the Cranberries (whom they predate), and 10,000 Maniacs and the Cocteau Twins (whom they don't), the Sundays have the knack down cold.

Static & Silence (Geffen) is the Sundays' third album and the first in more than five years, a rate of nonproductivity rivaled only by Boston, Guns n' Roses and (possibly) Hole. Indeed, the Sundays are put to shame by a band like the Smashing Pumpkins, which released a 140-minute double-record opus only 18 months after its smash hit Siamese Dream, but the Sundays' excuse--child-rearing--is as unemphatically right as their songs are sweet.

Unfortunately, motive notwithstanding, waiting so long between LPs is a risky move for anybody. What if music has moved on to such an extent that your sound has become old hat? Should a band in such a situation try to move with the times, add a soupçon of grungy guitars à la Bon Jovi or an ambient atmosphere like David Bowie, the Stones and Yo La Tengo? Or should it molder though eternity playing the same old thing?

It's a good question, albeit one with no right or wrong answer. The Sundays' choice is clear, however, since Static & Silence, amazingly enough, was produced by neither Moby nor the Dust Brothers. It is remarkably similar in sound and texture to the band's previous LPs, 1992's Blind and 1990's even more successful Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

Perhaps that's not such a bad call on their part. The world can always use another female lead singer with a beautiful voice, and in Harriet Wheeler, it has one well worth listening to. Wheeler's peaceful but melancholy soprano soars and dips across jangly folk-pop songs such as the remarkably pretty "She" and "Summertime." Both numbers recall the Sundays' one big hit, "Here's Where the Story Ends," but the time lag--seven years--is long enough to mitigate the resemblance considerably. And the sound itself--an R.E.M.-like wash of textural guitar sounds--has proved surprisingly durable.

Where the Sundays fit in the scheme of things is another matter. This type of rock--once so cutting-edge--now provides EZ-listening cuts for KLOK's playlist, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Static & Silence will no doubt prove a staple in exercise classes across the nation, but hey, leisured ladies need good music too, and it's better than listening to John Tesh.

Bottle Rockets
Brad Miller

Storm & Twang: The Bottle Rockets (from left, Tom Parr, Tom Ray, Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann) take off '24 Hours a Day' on their latest release.

Bottle Up and Go

IF THE SUNDAYS are an almost exclusively female listening pleasure, then the Bottle Rockets--a band from Festus, Mo., that plays straight-ahead three-chord rock with thoughtful, funny lyrics--are the opposite.

Women may find many of their songs appealing, especially because songwriter Brian Henneman has a surprisingly sensitive outlook on life, but physically and mentally speaking, the Bottle Rockets are a beery, bar-based boy band, unashamed of their collective potbelly and collection of Molly Hatchet records.

The Bottle Rockets' last release, The Brooklyn Side, was one of the most acclaimed records of 1994 and 1995--thanks to the fact that it was released twice, once on East Side Digital and then again a year later on Atlantic, a strategy that unduly impressed some critics.

The band's sensibility falls loosely into the category of Alternative Country, also known as Y'Alternative, Storm & Twang and No Depression Rock. Among the bands that could be classified thus are Wilco, Son Volt and the Jayhawks. All of them exude a kind of intellectualized take on the white American blue-collar experience, but none so much as the Bottle Rockets, who really do come from the heart of the heartland. Rockwise, that means John Mellencamp territory. Think "Little Pink Houses" as played by a band that references Dinosaur Junior while paying musical homage to Hank Williams.

The Brooklyn Side contains a number of simple but literate songs about welfare mothers, trailer parks and Sunday sports. Although it is critical of society as a whole, it is never condescending--quite a relief in the age of Beck. As is the case with the Sundays, however, the Bottle Rockets' new album, 24 Hours a Day (Atlantic), continues with more of the same--sonically, at least, it's stuck in 4/4 time.

Lyrically, the record is less socially conscious and more love-struck than Brooklyn Side. It is also, alas!, thanks to songwriter Henneman's penchant for clever word play--"I don't think I'll soon forget the way she first said 'howdy' to my brain" is a good example--sometimes too humorous to be really touching.

The title cut, for example, is a honky-tonk Lynryd Skynyrd rip, complete with boring wah-wah guitar, and it's a little too close for comfort to what it purports to mock. "Smokin' 100s Alone" is a ballad in which a woman kicks a guy out--and then takes him back, no twist there.

"When I Was Dumb" serves as a love song of sorts: "When I was dumb I didn't know / how soon I would regret letting you go." "Perfect Far Away" is the highlight of the album. The song blends Henneman's way with words with a plain but effective rock & roll riff.

At his best, Henneman crafts songs that are tales of everyday life: going to a bar and watching a bad band ("Slo Toms"), and getting a tow from a convicted sex offender ("Indianapolis"). There's even a song based on one of those kitchen clocks with a cat's tail for a second hand ("Kit Kat Clock").

At his worst, Henneman has a tendency to fall into country-rock clichés, and 24 Hours a Day has a few too many ballads. Those lapses are mitigated by the band's undeniably pleasant twangy guitar sound. The album is produced by former Del Lord Eric Ambel; and fans of that band, of River-era Springsteen or any Uncle Tupelo spin-off should definitely check it out.

Static & Silence and 24 Hours a Day are both good records of their type, but it's hard to picture them sitting side by side in someone's CD collection, such is the contrast between their styles. That doesn't mean they shouldn't, however. In a perfect world, everyone would be broadminded enough to listen to fey English girly pop and rough American roots rock.

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From the Sept. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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