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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

JUNE 8, 1998: 

Dolly Varden, The Thrill Of Gravity (Evil Teen)

Here’s a question that needs asking: Who or what is a Dolly Varden and why should you care? Well, first of all, Dolly Varden is the name of a tuneful, country-tinged five-piece band from Chicago. Their press release claims a Dolly Varden is “an iridescent, spotted trout that spawns in the cold water streams of the Northwestern United States.” The Random House Dictionary offers further clarification: “Named after a character in Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge (1841); applied to the fish in allusion to its coloring.”

Dolly Varden the band is definitely a fish of a different color. Led by music (and marriage) partners Diane Christiansen and Steve Dawson, Dolly Varden twangs both solid and ethereal on their second full-length release, The Thrill Of Gravity. Nifty songs like “Lucky 23,” “Sunflower Drag,” and “I Can’t Wait Anymore” end up sounding something like the Velvet Underground meets the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Dolly Varden twangs both solid and ethereal.

At their best, Dolly Varden is most reminiscent of two other similar but lost and lamented bands – the Reivers and the Vulgar Boatmen. Some might complain that Dolly Varden’s songs have a tendency to go on for longer than they probably should, but what’s the hurry? Slow and steady indeed wins the race here, with Dolly Varden way out in front.

Among the toe-tappers are “California Zephyr,” “First Class Blackout,” and “Dangerously Thin”; heel-draggers include “The Old In And Out,” “All I Deserve,” and “The Wheels Have Left The Road.” Dolly Varden’s unique combination of mournful yet yearning vocals, clever but simple wordplay, and languid musical accompaniment works together to make The Thrill Of Gravity the perfect late-night summer soundtrack. – David D. Duncan

Tuatara, Trading With The Enemy (Epic)

Tuatara is what movie moguls would call “high concept.” It’s what happens when members of various alternative bands (including Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees, Peter Buck of R.E.M., Justin Harwood of Luna, and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos), get together on the side and create music according to three basic rules: nobody sings; most musicians forgo their customary instruments in favor of unusual choices such as bouzouki or marimba; and the music avoids formulaic pop, drawing instead on a cornucopia of ethnic influences.

Tuatara’s hypnotic debut CD, Breaking The Ethers, was one of the better albums of 1997, and certainly the best by a brand-new group. But the sophomore release, Trading With The Enemy, leaves that first effort in the dust. Where Ethers was great background music, Enemy is more emotionally involving – it beckons you to get up and dance. More of the tracks are up-tempo, and the texture is smoother but no less exotic. The Tuatara experience is like biting into what you thought was a run-of-the-mill fruit salad consisting of grapes and pears, only to find guavas and papayas instead.

The title Trading With The Enemy seems to imply that the band’s gone mainstream, but there’s no selling out here – merely a fuller, jazzier sound. The ensemble is tighter and more confident, and the CD was recorded live in the studio, with up to 10 musicians playing together at any given time.

The album opens with a burst of kinetic energy and an assertive blare of trumpets on “The Streets of New Delhi.” “Bender” starts out with the mournful howl of Tibetan horns, then jumps into a disco-flavored secret-agent theme, with Berlin’s flute leading the way. “Angel And The Ass” is sweetly melodic, despite its odd juxtaposition of mandolin and steel drum. “P.C.H.,” the only track dominated by electric guitar, faintly recalls Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild.” Slower numbers, such as the easygoing “Smuggler’s Cove,” have their charms as well. And “Afterburner,” the album’s slam-bang closer, whips itself into a frenzy of tribal drumming and white-hot saxophone.

More than anything, Tuatara’s music is like a soundtrack for an incredible movie you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing yet. And filmmakers are taking notice; the band has already been asked to contribute tracks to two upcoming pictures – Best Men and Deceiver. But it’s doubtful any screenwriter could come up with a script that would do justice to music as cool as this. – Debbie Gilbert

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