Don't get too cute when naming your band
There are few events as important in a band's genesis as the Band Name Discussion. Or at least, to anybody in a band, the Band Name Discussion seems important, since after all, the band's eventual fame - which is, of course, assured, right? - shall be tied to that name forever.
Just ask my wife about the Band Name Discussion. No, actually, don't. Believe me, she's tired of hearing about it. My first band here in town spent more than a year belaboring the big Discussion, sifting through hundreds of ideas, before settling on Honey Wagon. That lasted for about 15 minutes, until we discovered that there's another, somewhat successful band by that name. So we settled on Hydrophonic. We went a whole month (and our first gig) before we changed it again, to Tin Can Genie. Before we could change it again, we broke up. Too bad; I was getting hot on the idea of The Nighttime, Itching, Sneezing, Coughing, Fever, So-You-Can-Rest Band.
A quick look around town will confirm that the Band Name Discussion occupies a significant amount of practice time for up-and-coming bands. There's oddAbility, formerly Moksha, formerly the Moksha Quintet. There's Stomping Ground, formerly Cold Mountain, and before that, the Cold Mountain Rhythm Band. There's Mountain Con, a former Missoula act formerly known as the Elementals. The list goes on.
Good band names are hard to come by - and when you find 'em, most likely someone else already has used 'em. Velvet Elvis? Taken. The Anti DeFrancos? Taken. Jif & the Choosy Mothers? Green Apple Quick Step? The Apocalypsticks? The Dead Kennedys? Taken, taken, taken, taken Š
Bad band names, by contrast, are pretty easy to find. Simply take an inside joke or bad pun (preferably one with bad word-rhythm and difficult consonant sequences), add a few extra words so it won't fit on a marquee, make sure you intentionally misspell at least one word, and voila! You've got Joe Nickell and the Artists Formerly Known As the Koinz.
As lame band names go, Ellen Says No is a good one - er, a bad one. It violates the first sin of band naming: It reeks of an inside joke, one that the band doesn't bother to explain in its promo materials or liner notes, or even in song. Are we supposed to know who Ellen is, or why she's so persistently negative? Are we supposed to guess, or, for that matter, care, about such a downer of a person and her peculiar relationship to a band we've never heard before? Is the band so bad that everyone named Ellen will refuse to listen to it? Or do all Ellens inherently have bad taste; meaning that, because they say No to this particular band, everybody else should say Yes? One can only speculate how, at the band meeting to decide the group's name, this one rose to the top of the list.
Guitarist (sloshed): "Hey, howzabout we call ourselves Bob's Bacon Barn?"
Drummer's Wife (from next room): "No."
Drummer: "Ellen Says No."
Fortunately for Ellen Says No, the problems stop with the name. In fact, so polished and pleasing are these guys, it's easy to imagine commercial radio DJs around the country being forced to recite the band's name every few hours. It could be worse, I suppose; the band could be called Limp Bizkit or Eminem.
Listening to their demo made me pine for the Guster CD I lost when some jerk broke into my car a few years back. That's a good thing, since that CD was one of my favorite finds during my days working promo at a small music club in Indiana. Ellen Says No channels the same energy: passionate lead vocals, more often harmonized than not; immediately memorable melodies; and an acoustic-electric instrumental sound that's both refined and energetic.
Ellen Says No appears both Friday and Saturday at Sean Kelly's; cover is a mere two bucks. Joe Says Go.
THE FLAMES OF JUCIFER
Over the past few years in the underground rock scene, two has seemingly been a magic number. The White Stripes managed to take their minimalist-indie-rock duo schtick from the Detroit club scene to international acclaim, while two-person bands such as the Kills, Cash Audio and Idaho continue to knock at fame's door.
Add to that list Jucifer, a girlfriend-boyfriend guitar/drums duo from Athens, Ga. In their five years performing together, these two drippingly hip rockers have earned a stack of glowing press reviews, ranging from feature-profiles in Guitar Player and Modern Drummer, to Q&A banter with Michael Stipe (of fellow Athens band REM) in Interview magazine, to a positive album review in (get this Š) Seventeen.
What Jucifer saves in bunk money on tour, the band more than makes up for in parking fees. Guitarist Amber Valentine is as famed for her massive rack of gear as for her, uh, eyelashes. Her standard stack of amps includes no fewer than 12 speaker cabinets (housing more than twice that many speakers) fed by nine power amps. Needless to say, this is an event that should require earplugs at the door - or anywhere within a two-block radius, for that matter.
Jucifer's most recent release, "I Name You Destroyer," combines growling, detuned, distorted guitars, with slamming, detuned, distorted drums that sound like they were found in a Dumpster. This wall of sound provides a surreal contrast to Valentine's wispy vocals - although watch out, because at any moment she may start screeching at the top of her lungs. The result is a sound that resembles a more ambient version of Marilyn Manson; or, to flip it around, a metal/industrial version of Low.
It may start to sound like I'm suggesting a less-pleasant alternative to a root canal. But there's something about Jucifer that really works; their roughshod dirges stick in the mind's ear, without leaving that annoying ringing sound.
The next White Stripes? Maybe. Catch 'em while they're simply the Next Band At Jay's Upstairs, on Wednesday, May 28, around 10ish. Cover TBD.
GETIUS INTO THE GROOVIUS
Those who have frequented Missoula's live music scene for a few years may have caught Bumpus MT a few years back; those who did, probably remember. Combining deliciously tight, keyboard-driven funk grooves with the clever rhymeslinging of Sean Parson and the 10-fingered bass fireworks of Corey Haider, Bumpus tended to pack dance floors everywhere the band appeared. And then, without notice, Bumpus disappeared.
Those who remember Bumpus should getus their bunus to the Top Hat on Friday (cover TBA), as Groovius Maximus (featuring former Bumpus keytickler Meese McCarter and drummer Raleigh Sharbono) takes the stage. Like the name implies, the band has added a heavy dose of Latin style to its virtuoso funk-jam format, resulting in a show that is guaranteed to get you sweatin'. In the words of Sharbono, "You can dance your ass off to our sh*t."
But don't get too attached to this band, either. This is the last show with the current lineup, as the band's sax player, Chris Stetler, is moving away.
HOW TO MAKE A THEREMIN SOUND GOOD
Anyone interested in the roots of electronic music will eventually wind their way back to the Theremin, arguably the world's first electronic music synthesizer. Invented in 1919 by a Russian physicist, this instrument sounds as odd as it looks. It's essentially a box with two antennae, one controlling volume and the other controlling pitch. The performer moves her hands in a radius around the antennae, causing the instrument to warble and whistle in vaguely predictable ways. Mastering the theremin is a peculiar exercise, akin to learning the bagpipes or the alphorn: few of your best friends would be willing to listen to much of it, and that's assuming your roommates don't kill you first.
The theremin's sound is more familiar to moviegoers than music fans. The instrument was used in numerous Hollywood and B-movie scores during the '40s, '50s, and '60s, such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "It Came from Outer Space" and Hitchcock's "Spellbound." Perhaps the theremin's main claim to fame is its appearance as the lead melodic voice in the theme to the original "Star Trek" series.
Granted, artists from Led Zeppelin to Massive Attack have used the theremin for effect in occasional songs; but rare is the group that forces listeners to endure the creepy sounds of the instrument for more than a few minutes.
Rare, that is, until Barbez came along.
Here we have a band that features a full-time theremin player. Not only that, but the six-piece ensemble also features a marimba/ vibraphonist, as well as one dude who "plays" the Palm Pilot.
Not only that, but they're as good as they are weird - and they're plenty weird. Think, if you can, of early Kurt Weill (the band even covers two tunes from "The Threepenny Opera" on its latest CD), crossed with The Residents, dabbed with the sweat from Ozzy Osbourne's brow circa 1980.
Yeah, uh-huh. It's that strange. At any given moment, this New York-based ensemble can sound like a 20th century classical chamber ensemble; a metal band playing rock-opera; or a calliope played by the town drunk on a bender.
What's oddest about this band is that, the above-mentioned theremin notwithstanding, the most unpleasant part of their sound is the singer - a warbling Russian contralto named Ksenia Vidyaykina, whose singing compares poorly to that of the old churchlady who sits behind you and is too deaf to notice that she's singing too loudly. The band's Web site notes that Vidyaykina is "a dancer by trade"; perhaps she should have stuck to her day job.
The miracle of this group, then, is that, despite Vidyaykina's voice competing for attention with a theremin, the band is fascinating to listen to - in large part due to the rich, utterly unique and well-balanced blend of instruments. I'm apparently not the only one to think so; they've been hailed by reviewers at numerous respected publications, including The New Yorker, The Chicago Reader, and the Boston Globe.
Catch 'em at Jay's Upstairs, Tuesday, May 27, around 10ish. Cover charge TBD.