ANTENNA (Buy CDs by this artist)
Sway (Mammoth) 1991
Sleep EP (Mammoth) 1992
(For Now) EP (Mammoth) 1993
Hideout (Mammoth) 1993
Superelastic (Mammoth) 1994
JOHN P. STROHM AND THE HELLO STRANGERS
Caledonia (Flat Earth) 1996
JOHN P. STROHM
Vestavia (Flat Earth) 1999
MYSTERIES OF LIFE
Keep a Secret (Citizen X/RCA) 1996
Anonymous Tip EP (Flat Earth) 1997
Come Clean (RCA) 1997
Focus on the Background EP (Flat Earth) 1997
Distant Earth (No Nostalgia) 2001
The silver-lined (and, as it proved, impermanent) divorce that terminated the Blake Babies and freed Juliana Hatfield to begin a solo career sent the other two guitarist John Strohm and drummer Freda Love back to Indiana, from whence they had come and where they erected their next musical endeavor, Antenna. With bassist Jake Smith and guitarist Vess Ruhtenberg (ex-Datura Seeds) completing the lineup, Antenna made Sway, an album that released all the pent-up rock energy implicit in the Babies' restrained pop. Strohm's tuneful verse-chorus songs betray a country influence, begin with bits of film dialogue and have the nerve to quote Donna Summer and Jimmy Webb (in the intricate "All I Need" and the stormy "Blood Red," respectively). Many of them receive brash, invigorated guitar crunch treatment but have the fortitude to keep their twinky sparkle. Sway's biggest problem is its facelessness: Strohm's artless voice, although effective for the unpretentious arrangements (local violinist Lisa Germano plays a small guest role), isn't distinctive or memorable. A good first step, but not a conclusive tune-in.
Sleep combines two of Sway's best tracks with a pair of subsequent demos (of Smith's "Wall Paper" and Wire's "Outdoor Miner"), recorded with Ruhtenberg out and drummer Patrick Spurgeon replacing Love. The same trio, aided by guitarist Ed Ackerson (then of Minneapolis' 27 Various, later of Polara), cut Hideout. If Sway was spiked pop, the seething distortion of Hideout builds a loud, confident bridge to shoegazing sensuality, the span of which can be measured between the simple, diffident "Wall Paper" demo and the album's roaring noise monster version. With producer Paul Mahern helping shape the Strohm/Smith songs into burly but alluring volume assaults, Antenna radiates its tuneful shock waves, painting pretty pictures and peeling the canvas back at the same time. The band's essential paradox is nicely mirrored in the enigma of "Easy Listening," the chorus of which observes, "It's easy listening to someone else, but it's hard to make up your mind." After all the careful consideration, sometimes blind rage is all we have.
Antenna then ended, leaving the poignantly titled four-song (For Now) EP, which extracts "Wallpaper" from Hideout and surrounds it with three tunes recorded by Strohm, Love and Smith. "Swoon" and "Given Way" are fine, but the roaring, funhouse-mirror pop of "For Now" is one of those devastating parting glances that makes you instantly sorry for what you're losing.
Strohm formed Velo-Deluxe with bassist Kenny Childers and drummer Mitch Harris, continuing his ascent into the joyous buzz of evanescent noise pop on the powerful Superelastic. Getting outside help on various instruments (saxophone, trumpet, organ and, on the country exception "Saturday," pedal steel) and borrowing some of the vibrant sonic designs (like sickly bent chords) from My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Strohm propels Superelastic with strong melodies that are perfect for chewing through the thick pile of the band's briskly moving carpet. The chorus of "Dirtass" "I feel sick and I feel dirty / Might be dead before I'm 30" sets the dark tone for these adventures in discordance, which channel various forms of articulate anguish into majestic storms of craggy distortion and top them with seductively sweet melodies, occasionally dissolving into fun-with-sounds indulgence (see "Miracle") or taking a Jesus and Mary Chain-styled acoustic time-out ("Eleven"). Superelastic is kickass cool.
Strohm's next undertaking, his first solo-billed album, has many of the same players Harris is a member of the Hello Strangers; Childers, Love, and Ackerson are among the guests but heads down a much different path than Velo-Deluxe. Caledonia is restrained steel-guitar singer-songwriter rock, sort of a drug-free visit to the crossroads where Gram Parsons met the Rolling Stones. Alternately delicate and energized, Strohm's songs are intelligent and solidly constructed (check especially the ominous "Kill the Lights"), but the unfailingly pleasant collection lacks impact.
Making another surprising move, Strohm found a much more potent approach on Vestavia which weirdly settles into a previously unexplored zone between Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and Jakob Dylan and explores it with the unforced zip and screw-it élan of indie rock. The thick, richly layered guitar-and-keyboards arrangements (played entirely by Strohm, Ackerson and his Polara bandmate, drummer Peter Anderson) surge with confidence and joy; Strohm unleashes a strong, clear voice as commercial-sounding as anything he's ever done. The fact that more than half the songs are outstanding inventive, wry, smart, memorable doesn't hurt the album, which is an embarrassment of riches and easily one of the most egregiously-overlooked-by-the-mainstream goofs of the '90s. The immediately winning "Wouldn't Want to Be Me" gets things underway with a snide line asking "Do you hate the song / Cause if you do I'll sing it all day long" but quickly makes it clear that the singer hates himself a lot more than anyone else could. From there, the album keeps going from one winner to the next: the drowsy and downbeat "Home," "Better Than Nothing" (an ironic endorsement of nihilism with a ferocious life-affirming guitar solo), "Drive-Thru" (a non-love song which points an amusing accusing finger at the anti-proletarian aspect of self-serve gas stations), the self-conscious '70s lumbering fuzz of "Jesus Let Me In" and "Edison Medicine," the poignant surge of "Ballad of Lobster Boy," the roaring "For Awhile," the sprightly "In Your Dreams" and others—all of them familiar in tone but original in content. Vestavia is both credible and incredible.
After Antenna, Smith took over the bass job in the Indianapolis wing of the Vulgar Boatmen; the elemental intensity of that group's frugal folk-pop strongly informs the Mysteries of Life, the delightful Bloomington group he and cymbal-shy wife Freda Love unveiled in 1995. But, to a lesser degree, so does the unbound electrification of Hideout-era Antenna, and those two poles furnish Keep a Secret with stylistic tension and dynamic variety. "Hesitate" keeps extraneous sounds out, letting Geraldine Haas' cello, bass and Love's snare balance Smith's sweet voice (with backing vocals by Boatmen leader Dale Lawrence) and plucky guitar figures; "Alibi," a deliciously pretty song of guilt and honesty he loaned Velo-Deluxe for Superelastic, begins with a similar skeletal arrangement and then erupts in feedback squeals and surging guitar strums. "Feel My Way" accents the swinging Stealers Wheel honeysnap with angry fuzz chords; "I Guess I'm in Luck" adopts a jaunty calypso bounce and rides it with the merriment of a Jonathan Richman confection. Whether the Mysteries of Life is tamping down the ferocity or amping up the gentleness, Keep a Secret is neither obvious nor dull and frequently wonderful. (In a bit of post-LP circle completion, ex-Antenna guitarist Vess Ruhtenberg became the Mysteries of Life bassist, replacing the album's Tina Barbieri.)
While holding to their major-label deal and adjusting the lineup this way and that, Mysteries of Life sketched out their next album's worth of music on two EPs released six months apart by the leading Indianapolis indie. From the nifty guitar figure that opens the disarmingly jaunty farewell of "Wish You Well," Focus on the Background a six-song EP made by a core group of Smith, Love and Velo-Deluxe vet Kenny Childers on bass with Haas, Lawrence, Ruhtenberg, Barbieri and percussionist LonPaul Ellrich is an unassuming charmer. That a slow, skeletal cover of "I'm Into Something Good" (the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that was a hit for Herman's Hermits) and a brisk acoustic swing through Talking Heads' "Naïve Melody" easily blend in with the originals (one of them, "Shiver," by Childers) here indicates how clear and strong the band's quiet voice is.
A couple of the songs on the informal and acoustic Anonymous Tip (another six tunes, including a cover of Paul Weller's "But I'm Different Now," made by the same core trio with most of the same guests and a spot of Lisa Germano violin) are slight or plain, which only underscores the pungency of "Let It Slip" and "I Need to Know Where I Stand." Both hit their emotional marks, but beg more determined accompaniment to fully convey the lyrics' beseeching urgency.
Returning to RCA, working with longtime producer Paul Mahern and Brad Wood, Mysteries of Life made Come Clean, an economical, precise, understated and eloquent masterwork of unadorned American beauty. From the haunted title track and a wonderful remake of "Let It Slip" with all the colors filled in to a lonely, solemn cover of O.V. Wright's "That's How Strong My Love Is" that channels stirring soul power through the delicate folk-pop voice of a white Midwesterner, the album is a marvel. "Tell Me," "Fingerprints," "Kiss Me Goodnight," "Your Face Betrays You," "I Forgot to Say Goodbye" one melodic song after another deftly outlines an emotional moment of regret, desire or disappointment and leaves an echo to ponder once it's done. Extraordinary.
Safely returned to the real world of Indiana indie rock, the Mysteries by now counting Smith's former employer Lawrence as a full member came through with another gorgeous testament to truth, honesty, purity and clarity in the guise of briskly played guitar pop. Distant Relative upholds all of the band's values, perhaps with a bit less self-consciousness (or was that major-label intervention?) but with a renewed sense of purpose. Smith's songs continue in the intimately reflective vein ("When I Let My Guard Down," "3 Things at Once," "Back and Forth"), but the centerpiece is "Boy-Girl-Boy-Girl," a rhythmically choppy dissection of, well, the mysteries of life. (There's also a discombobulating bonus track consisting of found voices and odd sounds.) As they've done on previous records, the group connects itself to some distant heritage by quoting "Rock and Roll Will Stand," Jonathan Richman-style, in "Native Tongue." Ultimately, it's the sound of the records as much as their content that conveys what Smith and company are getting at, and therein lies the fineness of art.[Ira Robbins]
See also Blake Babies, Juliana Hatfield, 27 Various
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