Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Too Smart

Pop genuises are a dime a dozen these days, but a few are making good music

By Noel Murray

JUNE 5, 2000:  In this age of technological wonders, one-man-band wunderkinder no longer impress us much. The likes of Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren, and Prince--men who play every instrument, produce themselves, and generate extraordinary pop music from their personal vision--are now more weed than flower. Samplers and home studios have made precocious talent so commonplace that even the brightest in the class quickly grow bored with their own effortless skills. Just last year, for example, the brainchild behind New Radicals, Gregg Alexander, announced that he was retiring from music-making after only one entertaining (but merely promising) album.

No matter. There's plenty of new blood for the bank. For one, there's the New Jersey duo of David Tobias and Brian Jacobs, who are fresh out of high school with a debut album in the can, recorded under the unwieldy moniker of Call Florence Pow. (By the way, that may be the worst name for a band in many a moon--try saying it out loud to the person next to you and see how many times you have to repeat it.) These Are the Plans... was produced by Matt Mahaffey, a wunderkind in his own right with the Murfreesboro-based Self. In fact, Call Florence Pow has a very Self-ish sound--a blend of clanging hip-hop rhythm, busy pop arrangements, and mind-bending sound effects.

The core of CFP's music is guitar, beatbox, and the deadpan vocals of the two teen bandmates. Given the duo's innate sense of groove and their wiggy lyrics (about Steve Vai-worshipping adolescents, high-school outcasts, house parties, and their own musical techniques), that might be enough. But the pleasure of These Are the Plans... comes from the wild stylistic journey that each of the duo's songs undergoes. Nearly every line and every bar has been carefully considered by Tobias, Jacobs, and Mahaffey, then enhanced for maximum impact with a sample of voices, instruments, wildlife, or what-have-you.

The result is exemplified by the song "3 & 4 Part Tones," which careens from Teutonic electronica to lush pop to hard-rock screech to roadhouse blues and back around again--all in an otherwise standard verse-chorus-bridge format. By the end of most of Call Florence Pow's tracks, the listener has practically forgotten where the song began. The band's mad method is in the tradition of techno-rock nerds like Buggles, Thomas Dolby, Beck, and even Tom Scholz (guitar god of Boston and inventor of the Rockman). Lousy name aside, Call Florence Pow is a blast.

But what might they grow into? For a model, look no further than Mark Oliver Everett, the California studio rat who released two whizzy solo albums as A Man Called E before founding the group known as Eels. The band's first album, Beautiful Freak, was a hook-laden piece of adult alternative rock, reminiscent of the early work of The The, and the record spawned the minor hits "Novocain for the Soul" and "Your Lucky Day in Hell." E followed that up with Electro-Shock Blues, inspired by the deaths of several loved ones. The album was brutal, spare, cynical, and a commercial disaster (and despite being admirably iconoclastic, it wasn't exactly an artistic triumph either).

Now back to being essentially a one-man show (aided by regular drummer Butch Norton and talented friends like Peter Buck and Grant Lee Phillips), E has lightened up considerably on the lovely Daisies of the Galaxy. Using acoustic guitar as the foundation for most of the tracks, he explores the tradition of West Coast folk-rock, updated with post-grunge crunch and post-electronica impulses. His facility for chorus writing makes a few too many songs--e.g., "I Like Birds," "Wooden Nickels," and "Tiger in My Tank"--sound like especially clever, especially grating advertising jingles. But elsewhere, the blend of old-school troubadour style and jaded postmodernism makes for riveting listening.

The bouncy woodwind sound and Latin rhythms on "A Daisy Through Concrete" reinforce the "walking down the street on a pretty day" lyrics, while E's rasped-up vocals serve as a reminder of the song title's "half-empty or half-full" image. Similarly, the hidden track "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues" belies its catchy pop framework with a string of lyrics about our common inhumanity, summed up in the gruff, ironic chorus, "Goddamn right, it's a beautiful day." But the record's best songs are two amusingly downbeat ballads in the vein of Randy Newman. In "Jeannie's Diary," E pines to be important enough in a famous girl's life to merit a mention in her private journal; in "It's a Motherfucker," he pours his misery out to a background of dreamy strings and plaintive piano.

E is still fighting himself, trying to make his music challenging and meaningful rather than merely relying on his gift for memorable melodies and effective arrangements. Sometimes he loses that battle--he's occasionally too sweet and regularly too sour. But his development is exciting, and proof that there's more to being a know-it-all wunderkind than just twiddling knobs. Making your own music may be cheap, but giving it personality, wit, and a sense of adventure...that's still priceless.

Fun with synthesizers

In his review of Europop sensation Eiffel 65, Entertainment Weekly music critic David Browne wrote that the group's hit debut LP "may be the first album to treat old-school synthesizer pop as revered roots music." It may be the first that the EW critic has heard of, but American indie rock--the genre that Browne ignores as a general rule--has turned up more than one band in the last five years that builds on '80s technopop. There are the gleefully retro Pulsars, the dilettantish Dambuilders, arch experimentalists Trans Am, and now Oregon goof-offs Knodel.

Knodel's debut album The White Hole combines the band's self-titled seven-song EP with a 11 new tracks, which range from straightforward dance pop to quick, hit-and-run snippets. Like Trans Am, Knodel occasionally lapse into noise for its own sake, but more often than not, they generate something catchy from their two keyboards, drums, and crateful of vocoders.

"Catchy" in this case doesn't necessarily mean "melodic." The band's approach is more about assembling familiar or weird-sounding effects, adding a funny lyric (usually with the word "Knodel" liberally sprinkled throughout), and getting out in two minutes or under, before the joke wears thin. The 18 tracks on The White Hole clock in at a grand total of 35 minutes, and they vary so much in approach that it's all but impossible to get fed up with Knodel--unless synthesizers just inherently turn you off.

There's not much to Knodel at the moment beyond a fun novelty appeal, but they have that appeal in spades, and they have the seed of something better. A few spins through The White Hole leaves one impressed with the trio's enthusiasm and with their genuine wonder at being able to reproduce the sounds they heard on Heaven 17 and Gary Numan records 15 or 20 years ago. In so doing, they've tapped into the original, populist appeal of technopop--that the genre might free up rock 'n' roll again to anyone with a dollar and a dream. Now that Knodel have shown that they can ape their predecessors, maybe next time out they'll put their skills to better use than light comedy.

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