Now Playing: Thin Lizzy--"Rosalie"
The Ultrasounds, The Way Things Were (2008): The Ultrasounds recently won Current's "Most Underrated Band" award, an honor they fully deserved. I'm not being flippant or sarcastic here; in a town whose musical scene has been unusually crowded for a burg its size since the days of the MC5 and the Stooges (it has to be said, however annoying it can be whenever anyone brings up Ann Arbor's "glory days"), to win a "most underrated" award is a definite achievement. Of all the groups in town, they really deserve to be better known, especially with the release of their debut CD (and hopefully the so "Ann Arbor," Frederic Jameson-checking Ann Arbor Observer shoutout in the August issue will help). I first met the Ultrasounds--singer/bassist Chris Smith, drummer/keyboardist Sara Griffin, and guitarist Patrick Betzold--at one of Starling Electric's storied afterparties at the old "White Lodge" on Third Street, and they've unsurprisingly had a fairly close association with the better-known group, right down to Jason DeCamillis producing The Way Things Were. They're a notably charming, unassuming bunch, and it's a bigger relief than usual in these cases that their music doesn't suck. I've probably written this before, but what I like most about the Ultrasounds is that they don't have a particular "shtick" or affiliation to any kind of musical practice or ideology. They just bear down and play straight-up indie pop-rock. That alone makes them rather unique in this town, where the often obvious nature of the influences fly thick and fast (witness the avalanche of folk-inspired or alt-country acts). That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course; Starling Electric's my favorite band in Washtenaw County (sharing "best in Michigan" honors with the Dirtbombs) and they're quite open about their loving affection for the sunny-side pop music of the 60s and 70s--it produces fantastic music. The Ultrasounds' reticence in these matters, though, is quite refreshing and equally fruitful. The tunes on the album all have an unvarnished, romantic quality to them, calling up the deceptively placid, secretly tempestuous nature of post-urban life through a variety of sounds--bluesy ("The Easy Way Back"), frantic ("You Don't Even Know"), chill ("Home"), sunny ("Why Don't We Leave"), and anthemic (the title track). The music's steady and sure, the three tight and professional, with Betzold showing more than enough virtuosity to impress but not so much that he overwhelms the other two (not likely anyway, with Smith's impassioned singing and Griffin's pleasantly relentless beat). My personal favorites are probably "You Don't Even Know," with its desperate urgency, and "Why Don't We Leave," where Griffin takes over singing duties with a sweet, clear voice that underlines the band's multitalented nature. Watching them at the Heidelberg's Club Above Saturday night, running through their own mateiral, covering "Roxanne" (with Griffin on vocals again) and using Edison Lighthouse as a warmup riff, made me feel a little privileged, like I was in on some cool secret. Ruin it for me, and go see them (at, for instance, T.C.'s Speakeasy on the 30th).
Karyna McGlynn, Alabama Steve (2008): The poetic lays recording the adventures of the eponymous, protean rogue strive to answer the question posed in "Stephen Brownblatt"'s sidesplitting introduction: "Which came first? Steve or Steveness?" Itself a masterpiece of parody--in this case, the insufferably pompous, pretentious worldview of a literary elite--the intro even nabs a little context when one looks over the back cover. "Alabama Steve" is a Coyote/Trickster figure for the "orange Trans Am on cinder blocks" set, at once reminiscent of the dude who used to live across the street when I was a kid and fire his shotgun in the backyard every now and again just for the hell of it*, and of the gas station attendant in a Beavis and Butt-head episode when the guys tried to buy gasoline--"sorry, dudes, if you want to buy gas, you've gotta have a container." Steve interacts with a number of other Steves (McGlynn's central conceit being Donal Logue's in 2000's The Tao of Steve, that "Steve" is the prototypical American male) including Steve Perry, Gutenberg, Nicks, Steve Beowulf, and, best of all, the loathsome Brownblatt, narrator of my favorite piece, "My 3rd Appointment with the University's Writer-in-Residence": "Anyway, I went to the cabin and all I brought with me was a notebook, a pen, and a collection of erotic verse by the ancient Chinese Poet, Li Po (...good friend of mine, great poet, great poet)." For someone with a distinct allergy to much modern poetry (and someone not terribly passionate about poetry in general), Alabama Steve is particularly enjoyable because it's not standard poetry in free verse or any kind of meter--the pieces read more like one-sided conversations or surrealist tall tales, all chronicling the relationship between the narrator and her Steves, from the Canadian border to Stevie Nicks' underwear to crappy regional flights in Latin America. Having heard some of these read aloud (at Shaman Drum, a perversely ideal location) only underlines how well Steve gets down the rhythm of deceptively vapid aughties speech. Incorporating visiting poetic "Roberts" like Lowell or Browning feels like a nose-thumb at the stereotypes of what constitutes poetry. Matched with the grimly hilarious world of the Steves, it all feels downright exhilarating. Karyna has sadly decamped now for Austin, but in her honor, and that of her marvelous collection, I'd just like to say "good friend of mine, great poet."
*Or maybe to thin out the UFO flocks.