Random acts

Senatobia, Senatobia (Arc Entertainment, 2003) Last week, I found a copy of Senatobia’s new, self-titled, four-song demo among a pile of press kits in Xpress’ arts-and-entertainment office.

It had been a slow day, and I thought this would be good for a laugh, if nothing else.

But for the better part of the afternoon, as I played — and replayed — the CD, I found myself in a mild state of shock.

The first time I saw Senatobia, I seriously considered leaving the show — going out to look for coffee or something — and coming back well after they were done. Something masochistic in me, however, made me stay. I remember how flat their music sounded — muddled, college-radio-rock hooks; badly arranged instrumental passages; and restrained, almost toneless vocals.

I concluded that Senatobia’s music simply sucked.

And I cherished that belief for well over two years — confirmed, as it was, by the release of their first album, Surprise (Arc Entertainment, 2001). Whatever it was Senatobia was going for — a third-generation copy of the worst parts of the Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprocket mixed with all the musical elasticity of a worn-out rubber band? — was simply not destined to move me.

But don’t get me wrong — I’ve since come to respect the group. They’ve toured relentlessly, and haven’t let critics prevent them from pursuing their dream of being working musicians.

In their own way, they’ve become one of the Asheville music scene’s unknown success stories, playing dates all down the East Coast and getting airplay across the country — as well as on 102.9 FM in the far-flung Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod (which is about the size of Atlanta).

Senatobia is also a trio of really, really nice guys — and I’ve often found myself prefacing critiques of the group’s music with the disclaimer, “Well, they’re really, really nice guys … “

I know it seems like I’m giving the band a hard time here, but this diatribe is needed to give weight to what I’m about to say: For the first time since I saw Senatobia more than two years ago, I’m having to rethink my opinion of their music.

Their basic sound hasn’t changed. It still has a hint of that underwhelming, mid-’90s, college-radio feel, and there’s not a lot of innovative instrumentation. But, unlike Surprise, this demo is a surprise, packing something I never expected to find in a Senatobia disc: spirit.

Front man Phil Lomac seems to have grown into his voice; his early listlessness has given way to something more involved. And while his singing is hardly impassioned, it now has just enough zeal to carry a song. The rhythm section — bassist Christian Justus and drummer Andy Balla — has become tighter, trading jam-band-esque roaming for finite pop hooks, making for a more immediate sound.

The mellow bass line that opens “45,” for instance, swells powerfully into a mid-tempo, post-grunge song. Other tracks, like the reflective “Landmine” and the Western-rock inspired “Coldwater Blues,” while not quite as catchy, are still considerably listenable. Even “Erase,” which is very much a throwback to Senatobia’s earlier sound, unfolds with more verve than their entire first album.

It’s hard to believe this is the same band. Senatobia’s new demo … well, it actually rocks.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Senatobia will play the Grey Eagle on Thursday, Aug. 14 with special guests The Cogburns, from Atlanta. For show details, call 232-5800.

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