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Front-row reviews

What: Smog w/Pacific Ocean and Wayne Robbins & The Hellsayers
Where: Stella Blue
When: Tuesday, July 29

Few people really get into Smog, one of the legends of the American lo-fi movement (along with groups like Pavement and Palace). As a cornerstone of the Drag City label, they’re legends at mixing the urban angst of a Lou Reed with the heartbroken western-ballad style of a Willie Nelson. The instrumental side of Smog’s music, however, never really goes anywhere you don’t expect. They make great music to brood to.

I got about all I was going to from them about three songs into their set at Stella Blue. Vocalist Bill Callahan’s morose, self-effacing cynicism fits perfectly on a mix tape or compilation CD (like the band’s “Cold Blooded Old Times” appearing on the snobbishly definitive indie-rock soundtrack to High Fidelity). Their sound is easy to take when you aren’t listening to a full concert of it — where, after three or four songs, it becomes a drag.

Smog is a horribly disappointing concert experience.

The problem is simple: Callahan — legend though he may be — isn’t much of a showman. He just stands there, as does his band; they don’t bring much emotion to the stage.

Callahan was at his most visually exciting toward show’s end, when he dropped to his knees occasionally in a sort of shrunken, lost gesture. Even that seemed a little forced.

My three-dozen or so fellow audience members actually coaxed Smog into a two-song encore. At this point, they trucked out some of their most upbeat material of the night, with Callahan moving around much more freely. What might have seemed for another band like the lethargic end to a bad case of mono was for Smog a genuine explosion of action.

Listening-room reviews

Auditory Condiments, Bro-9 (Celibate Records, 2003)

Listen to Bro-9‘s debut album cold, and you’ll probably walk away thinking them a slightly better-than-average high-school pop-punk band with a good producer. And you’ll be right, of course.

But you’ll also be missing out on their most obvious, and yet most obscure, influence.

Just a few years ago, this town’s dominant pop-punkers were Junior Varsity, an unrelentingly whiny, angsty, spastic — and uncommonly promising — group. While personal conflicts eventually caused the band to splinter into A Kiss Before Dying and the now defunct Holiday Rd., the precedent they set hasn’t been truly met by any local high-school pop-punk band since. A few groups have tried (most notably 5-Finger Discount), but none have really captured the same momentum.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Bro-9, making fairly strong nods toward Junior Varsity’s style (as well as to obvious influences Green Day and Blink 182).

Bro-9’s debut release, Auditory Condiments, sounds a lot like Junior Varsity’s three-song demo. It’s not too surprising — both albums share producer Doug Mitchell, the face of Celibate Records who led his charges into trickier territory than most local pop-punk has dared to venture.

The acoustic intro to Bro-9’s moody “Save a Chair,” for instance, borrows directly from the opening of Junior Varsity’s “Low Point” before becoming more downbeat and noisy (most of Bro-9’s stuff is upbeat).

Most songs (“One Way,” for example) are driven by hyped-up, garage-powered guitar, decent basslines and reasonably loose punk harmonies. You’ve heard it all before from Green Day on Dookie, but with Bro-9 it again shows promise. Plus vocalist Caleb Hanks has a good sense of his own voice, understanding that point where too much whining and a flat vocal affect become merely annoying.

Of particular note is the album’s hidden track, a cover of “Snowman” from Cannibal! The Musical, but featuring reworked lyrics: “We’re Bro-9/ We suck and nobody argues/ We like to pretend that we’re Blink 182.” Such poppy introspection makes for very fun songs.

For a collection of upbeat tunes about boys fighting for girls’ affections mixed with a handful of slower songs about the exact same stuff, Auditory Condiments is worthwhile. But as a follow-up to the music of those that came before — and as a nod to the almost forgotten Junior Varsity — it’s a complete success.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


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