There was a time, even in the Triangle, when bands weren't everywhere, lurking in every garage, dive bar, club and coffee shop. But a popular music boom infected the nation many decades back, and the band aesthetic caught on. Young and old have been strapping on instruments ever since, letting loose the sound of true rhythm, blues, rock, soul--so much more. The world's popular culture is changed irreparably for the better.
So it's been for the Triangle, having been musically wealthy for decades, giving birth to scores of true talents. But it's not just major nationwide names like Chapel Hill's James Taylor, or Ben Folds (not to mention John Tesh), stars that everyone knows. The Triangle has a far greater stable of music legends, locally and internationally renowned, than most serious music fans would venture to guess. Sure, their faces haven't landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, but their impact has been immense, their legacy lasting, and you can't measure that in Billboard terms.
The popular assumption is that the area has only given birth to a slew of rock artists, specializing in squalling indie rock if hailing from a Chapel Hill ZIP code and loud, metallic sludge-rock when from Raleigh. The generalization comes quite far from telling the whole truth--the Triangle's history is as deliriously rich in all kinds of rock as it is in glorious bluegrass, burgeoning hip hop and its fair share of country, folk and mixtures therein.
In the late '60s and early '70s, there was an area revival in old-time music, which brought fiddling and bluegrass traditions down from the Appalachian mountains. The Hollow Rock String Band formed at the Hollow Rock store between Durham and Chapel Hill; the Fuzzy Mountain String band followed shortly thereafter. In 1972, banjo master Tommy Thompson and two others formed the Red Clay Ramblers, a legendary string band that mixed traditional and contemporary compositions for heel-stomping, toe-tapping national success (they even took their show to Broadway). Still around in various incarnations, individual members of the "Blurs," (a fan nickname for the Ramblers) have gone on to dozens of side projects and, in the process, have created a fearsome and thriving scene in and of themselves. Popular country singer George Hamilton IV rose to prominence in the area in the early 70s, as well.
Going way back to the '40s and '50s, Durham was one of the country's blues capitals, the tobacco speakeasy home to Piedmont blues legends like the Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller, who gained notoriety with the hit "Trucking My Blues Away." Durham was a hotbed for the folk-laden Piedmont school of blues, with its syncopated fingerpicking (evolved from Appalachian string music and local ragtime pieces) and New South state of mind. One-shot R&B groups took over in the '50s and '60s; and the crown prince of the party lot was Carrboro's long-lasting soul-standard, Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts. The tradition never fully went away, resurging on the back of '90s electric blues master Skeeter Brandon.
Triangle hip hop began to surge in the '90s as well, as Shaw University's Lords of the Underground broke through in 1992 with their socially conscious raps. The trio fielded several rap hits, like "Funky Child" (with its hilarious, afro-and-diapers music video), and won BET's Rap Group of the Year in 1993. Local rappers Yaggfu Front made a national rap-world impact with their jazzy, self-consciously comical 1993 debut (their first underground single was called, appropriately, "Lookin' for a Contract.") But after becoming the talk of the rap world, the trio quickly faded from sight.
But in the last few decades, rock has ruled the Triangle's annals. A number of garage and psychedelic bands proliferated in the '60s, seeing light in an '80s compilation called Tobacco A-Go-Go; among them were the Cosayers (with a young James Taylor) and Durham's almost-famous The Dukes. This aesthetic continued into the '90s with psychedelic rockabilly group Southern Culture on the Skids. But the area's rock roadmap changed in the mid-'70s with Mitch Easter's power pop band The Sneakers, which featured Chris Stamey and producer Don Dixon. Dixon had already formed the influential jangle pop band Arrogance at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1969, a post-Byrds and pre-R.E.M. concoction heavy on hooks and chiming, jangling guitars. With Dixon and Easter producing, R.E.M.'s own jangle folk rock took the nation by storm in the early '80s, and Easter formed the similar Let's Active shortly after (the dB's, with Stamey and Peter Holsapple, followed suit). All were deeply influential, inspiring later '80s bands like Raleigh 's Celtic-flavored Connells (who had a smash hit in Germany) and Johnny Quest (whose member, Peyton Reed, became a Hollywood director). Though the over-exposed jangle pop sound fell out of favor by 1990, the '80s Triangle also saw much more, including quirky new wave rock (Durham's X-Teens) and dance-hall alternative rock courtesy of the Pressure Boys. Raleigh's Corrosion of Conformity, the Black Sabbath of the Deep South, made a career in the mid-'80s out of their Southern metal, and earlier a band called Nantucket made it big with raucous Southern rock. Dexter Romweber's retro rockabilly group Flat Duo Jets landed with the impact of a bomb with their self-titled debut in 1990, and throughout the decade they released searing, crazed masterpieces of garage-blues until their demise at the start of the millennium. Earlier this year, Romweber's latest incarnation, the Dexter Romweber Duo, went on tour with current rock darlings The White Stripes, whose singer Jack White claims that his entire musical career was inspired by Romweber's music.
Thanks in part to the nationally recognized stage of the Cat's Cradle (which rose to early '80s prominence), Chapel Hill's burgeoning indie rock kingdom (think loud guitars, raw vocals, sarcasm-soaked lyrics) exploded in the early '90s. Local legends Superchunk and Archers of Loaf led the pack, and a large pack it was; as Archers front man Eric Bachmann sang in 1995, "The underground is overcrowded." Following Seattle's fertile grunge field day, Chapel Hill was pegged the "Next Big Thing" by MTV and industry prognosticators; piano-punk popster Ben Folds exploded outward, as did swing-rock experts the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Superchunk resisted the call, however, and stayed local to found label Merge, which added itself to other area labels like Moonlight, the now-defunct Mammoth, and Yep Roc. Later in the decade, alternative country bands commanded local and national attention in a resurgent Raleigh scene, with the George Jones-worshipping Two Dollar Pistols and honey-voiced Tift Merritt following on the heels of the infamous Whiskeytown, the talented and troubled band that birthed rising stars Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary.
There are many more, too many to note--a stunningly vast universe of names, bands, outfits and collectives that have populated the area and fed the soul of the Triangle's music scene. The bands are gone or even forgotten, too often just the fond memory of local long-time disc jockeys and club owners, but their impact is still felt in every local chord progression, bass line, verse and chorus.
It's the legacy of the local music scene to be fragile and nebulous, to never quite know what it is or when it is, and the only constant is its incredible size--an incestuous patchwork quilt and guitarist-swapping spider-web that's kept Triangle music kicking and breathing for over a half-century, big names and unknowns alike. It's that same selfish richness in the Triangle's countless clubs, stages and garages that'll support the scene for generations yet to pound the keys or strap on a guitar, electric and otherwise. And as long as there are instruments to play and places to tote them, it's safe to assume that the history of music in the Triangle is still quite far from written.
The Present: See'em now, before they make it big
The time is now. If you're a music lover new to this here Triangle, consider yourself blessed, for you're now in an area of the country whose bands are some of the most brilliant, most talented, most tasteful groups around today. We get the latest fashions months after they emerge from New York or L.A., so our bands don't bother worrying about how they're supposed to look. They just create something for everyone, and at this moment in the 21st century's musical history, North Carolina legends are being born--if not nationally, then the kind of legends that parents tell their children about, that shatter someone's entire perspective of music, if not life. The time is now because some of these bands will soon be famous, which means the chances to see them in a small club surrounded by their friends, confident in their own greatness without the approval of strangers--will soon be gone.
There's so much rock to be had. From the no-nonsense Cheap Trick hooks of Raleigh's The Weather (whose debut full-length will be released this fall on local label Pidgeon English Records) to the fiercely amplified duo from Durham, Des Ark (who also have a record coming soon on Raleigh's Bifocal Media label), we have so many opportunities to get our ears destroyed. One of the fastest growing local favorites, Chapel Hill's Cold Sides, are an original treasure; their recent self-released Corrugated Sibilants EP takes the mutant disco-punk revival coming from NYC and teaches it a lesson in form--check out their recent review on Pitchforkmedia.com (www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/c/cold-sides/corrugated-sibilants.shtml). Not many bands without record labels get fawned over this way by such a website. Don't miss them. And never miss Raleigh's The Cherry Valence, the only band around to transcend their classic rock influences; they'll make you sweat whether you want to or not. The three beautiful sirens in Roxotica will also make you sweat, both from their downtuned Sabbath riffs and from the brilliant puns in their innuendo-filled lyrics.
Silly love songs sound brilliant in the hands of the Triangle's songsmiths, many of which happen to be real-life couples. Carrboro's Work Clothes spin gentle, breezy ballads best experienced in a small club. After several years of different lineups, Durham's The Sleepies are poised for greatness, as their addictive melodies and vocal harmonies are now propelled by a Zeppelinesque rhythm section. And The Rosebuds, recent transplants to Raleigh from Wilmington, are a stompin' guitar-organ-drums trio whose thunderously catchy songs will soon see a release on local stalwart Merge Records.
The North Carolina hip-hop scene has started to receive a much-needed shot of taste, thanks to a handful of Triangle groups. Sure, Petey Pablo may have made UNC basketball jerseys a national fashion statement, but there's more to Southern hip-hop than glamorizing stupidity. The Justus League, a 12-man crew from whose ranks Raleigh's Little Brother emerged, have put North Carolina on the map again, thanks to MC's like Cesar Comanche and Edgar Allen Floe and the clever production of 9th Wonder, Big Doh, Eccentric, and Yorel. The Listening, Little Brother's debut on respected hip-hop label ABB Records, gained national acclaim in the independent hip-hop scene. In addition, crews like THETHYRDAY and Durty Nation are out to bring their own visions of hip-hop to Triangle listeners. Keep your eyes peeled for their local appearances.
For the experimental minded, there's a new venue in town bringing the most exclusive electronic/improv groups to the Triangle. Located in Chapel Hill's historic Skylight Exchange, Isaac Trogden's Nightlight has quickly become the place to see international music delights. Earlier this spring, Trogden brought France's DAT Politics and an entire troupe of artists from Holland's Bunker/Creme Organization label to their first-ever N.C. appearances. Keep your eyes on dyss.net for news about upcoming shows.
Local acts also play regularly at the Nightlight, spawning a welcome sense of community in the comfortable, book-lined walls of the venue. Once a month, musicians from different area bands gather for Recess, an event that allows participants to improvise with either styles or instruments they might not normally dabble in. It's a great way to see how talented some of our residents really are.
There's way more to see here than has been mentioned, but these suggestions should get you started. Remember, bands are fragile things; these acts won't be at their respective pivotal career points forever, so don't let the opportunity to see them now pass you by.
WAUG, Power 750 AM
St. Augustine's college station was the first N.C. station to operate out of a historically black university. Still up and about, the station is now commercially owned and is all-gospel. WAUG is community-oriented and features such programming as "Teens Against AIDS," a youth-run talk show every third and fourth Saturday morning from 9-9:30, and a Christian talk show, "The Tom Tope Show," Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. In addition, WAUG allows local ministers to have airtime on frequent occasions. For more information: 516-4428.
WKNC, 88.1 FM
In 1999, N.C. State's station switched to a predominantly playlisted format, largely centered on CMJ's top picks--in other words, your classic college indie radio station, from Radiohead to Tori Amos. During the weekday, you'll find a somewhat eclectic mix of straight-up rock, with flashes of nu-metal and electronica, based on the smash hits chart but with considerable leeway depending on the shifting student DJs. But the weekend brings freak specialty shows like Chainsaw Rock from 10 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday, All Things Acapella every Sunday at noon, and the Latin Show Sundays at 4 p.m. AfterHours takes over weekday nights from 8 p.m. to past midnight, a slightly-below-the-radar hip hop showcase for the likes of Spectac and Talib Kweli. A great, dependable station for the big college names, if not as "underground" as it likes to claim. wknc.org
WNCU, 90.7 FM
North Carolina Central's college station is a 24-hour independent organization that plays mostly jazz. If you're looking for something a little different, however, WNCU is willing to comply. Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Monday-Friday, the station plays host to information and talk radio, with such shows as NPR's Tavis Smiley, 5--6 p.m., and Free Speech Radio, 6-6:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday bring about a change in programming with gospel music from 6 a.m. to noon. both days. Saturday has the "8-Track Flashback" show of rare R&B from the '40s through the '70s from noon-4 p.m., followed by hip hop, via DJ Mick Nice. Sunday afternoon features reggae from noon to 6 p.m., "Latino USA," 6-6:30, and the "Cita Dominical," 6:30-9 p.m.. Tuesday evenings check out "Jazz from Lincoln Center" between 8 and 9, and hear the blues every Monday, 9p.m.-midnight. For more information: www.nccu.edu/campus/wncu or 530-7445.
WSHA 88.9 FM
If it's all jazz you like, tune to 88.9 on your dial--the station practically bathes in smoky basso flow, with jazz blocks blanketing the entire work week and most of the weekend, when Sunday gospel and a Saturday evening Latin fest take over. Though a smallish school, Raleigh's Shaw University has a big redwood radio station, born in 1968, and it sure doesn't have that pesky popular chip on its shoulder. It caters to a rather highbrow, cultured taste, and its smooth blends are satisfying. www.wshafm.org
WXDU, 88.7 or 103.5 FM
'XDU, as Duke University's student station is affectionately called by listeners and DJs, provides a variety of different musical leanings to the Triangle. Because it is open to all local DJ's and not just Duke students, the station is able to cater to different tastes for different people. However, with the exception of some genre-specific shows, it is also difficult to predict what a listener is likely to hear on XDU at any given moment. But take a chance. Urban: Sunday nights 11p.m.-2 a.m.; Tuesdays, midnight-3 a.m., Fridays, 10 p.m.-5 a.m. Jazz: Mon-Thurs, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. (Latin jazz on Wednesdays). World: Saturdays 1-3 p.m. Bluegrass/Americana/roots: Sundays noon-3 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Local Music Live: Sundays, 5-7 p.m. For more information/requests: www.wxdu.org or 684-8870
WXYC 89.3 FM
College radio stations don't come much more revered than this UNC stalwart, which very proudly was the world's first station to simulcast online back in the dark ages, 1994. The decade-old, totally free-form format is respected in some sectors and reviled in others for its love-it-or-leave-it dedication to all genres--from country and hip-hop to world beat, Brazilian bassonova, French techno and limitless more. A true sampler, for better or worse. Aside from Sunday afternoon and evening, where you'll find quirky specialty shows like Classic Inside Track (2 p.m.) and Sportsrap (9 p.m.), the programming is entirely up to the many student DJs, who each control a two-hour block. Backyard Barbeque, Sunday nights at 7 p.m., is the station's highly popular local sounds show. www.wxyc.org
The Brewery, 3009 Hillsborough St., 834-7018, www.breweryrocks.com
Twenty years and counting, The Brewery is still up and kicking, and that long in club years is, like, a hundred people years, at least. The Brewery plays some serious rock music, and the cover is totally dependent on the band. Plenty of metal and punk but still enough college rock for the State students.
Kings, 424 S. McDowell St., 831-1005, www.kingsbarcade.com.
Bands run the gamut from rock to bluegrass to folk to jazz, etc. Membership is $5 yearly. Check out "A/V-Geeks Movie Night" the last Tuesday of every month and hip-hop on the first Thursday. Mondays are Trivia Nights and Tuesdays feature $2 imports. Kings often changes specials, offering highly specialized entertainment, i.e., a Bloody Mary Bar, Goth Nights, and "Kingo Bingo," a Karaoke-Bingo combination, for example. Hosts the infamous "Great Cover Up" every December, where local musicians split up into groups and cover their favorite bands for three nights.
Lincoln Theatre, 126 E. Cabarrus St., 821-4111, www.lincolntheatre.com
Two-year-old venue is a movie house-cum-music house and hosts bigger acts than the smaller clubs can handle while remaining loyal to local groups. Lots of tribute bands (ZZ Top, Dave Matthews) and jam bands.
The Pour House, 224 S. Blount St., 821-1120, www.the-pour-house.com Mondays and Tuesdays feature free pool, $1.50 domestic bottles and $2.50 pints. Wednesday is "Mug Night"--buy a 34 oz. mug for $5 and refill for $2.
Rock, country and lots of jam bands. Casual dress, atmosphere. A favorite of those kids who really like Phish/DJ Harry/Moe, etc. Covers between $5-10, some free shows.
Six String Cafe, 107 Edinburgh Dr. South, Ste. 112 (Cary, MacGregor Village Center), 469-3667, www.sixstringcafe.com
Self-described "music listening room," Six String may be a bit too posh for those Chapel Hill kids used to hearing acoustic performances in tiny coffee bars. But for someone interested in a quieter, less social, more music-centered experience, Six String is the place. Tuesdays are Open Mic. Smoke-free.
Cat's Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro, 967-9053, www.catscradle.com
If someone's been to Chapel Hill, chances are they've been to the Cradle. After all, Ben Folds grew up there, Superchunk often returns to pay dues--even Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins have played. Crowd is hard-core local Hillsters, college kids and everything in between, but does depend largely on the band. One old, dilapidated pool table, a mini-arcade and couches that may have seen better days accompany the unassuming bar in the back room... but why go to sit or shoot when clearly there is a lot of rockin' to do? Check schedule and buy tickets online.
The Cave, 452 Franklin St., 968-9308, www.caverntavern.com.
Startling in contrast to its neighbor, the West End Wine Bar, The Cave is a sunken hole on Franklin, replete with a faux-rock texture on the ceiling, adorned with Christmas lights. The crowd is friendly but noticeably coolness-conscious. Go to see local bands, comedians and to mix with the hipper people--post-college drifters, musicians, music authorities and artsy subversives.
Local 506, 506 W. Franklin St., 942-5506, www.local506.com
Roots and rockabilly abound. Cheap pool, drink specials, friendly staff and a damn good place to hear music. Go to brush up on the local rawk scene, check out a steady stream of national touring acts, and make a cool friend or two. Laid-back, hazy with smoke and always happening. "Microphone Mondays" allow local MC's to display their skills at will, and there's an increasing amount of local hip-hop showcases on weekends.
Nightlight, 405 Rosemary St., 933-5550, dyss.net
A recent addition to the Chapel Hill bar scene, the Nightlight has been hosting some of the more experimental/electronic/off-the-beaten path shows in the past few months. Keep your eyes on the website for upcoming show info. Lots of XYC-sponsored DJ events and dance parties in addition to a healthy dose of local rock bands. Most shows are no more than $5, the beer is cheap, and there's usually the coolest golden retriever in town hanging out in the club.
Open Eye Cafe, 100 C East Main St., 968-9410
Coffee and acoustic music. A simpler idea than the Nightlight, but still a cozy place to spot locals checking out their music scene and building caffeine tolerance. Art for sale on the walls, great espresso, and a good place to study, write and read during the days.
Ringside, 308 W. Main St., 680-2100
Four floors of dark, brooding decor. The first floor is a stage flanked on all sides by booths, like a 1950s dinner and dancing club. The stage is occupied from time to time, but as the night wears on, it's generally filled with people moving to House/World Dance, courtesy of the DJ above on the second floor (which is no more than his/her tables and a balcony). The third floor is a conglomerate of the first two, half wrapping balcony, half stage/dance floor. The fourth floor is the destination of most of the more loyal patrons --a dark, eerie lounge that is part bar and part living room. Huge couches, ultra-dim lighting, fancy artwork, draping velvet and monstrous bookshelves create an effect that combines the macabre of Poe with the debauchery of Hemingway. Ringside often hosts theme nights in which the two DJs (1st/2nd and 4th floors) and the bands (on stage on the 3rd floor) collide. Crowd is mid-20's/early 30's grad school/workers/gay and lesbian, but depends mostly on theme of the night, if any. Membership $25; covers for weekend nights are usually $7-$10.
Talk of the Town, 108 E. Main St., 682-7747
This classy and long-standing establishment is iffy for the younger crowd. Technically, house rules are 25 and up, but if you're dressed well, legal, and OK with forking over a good $8-10 for live music nights, you'll probably get in. Talk of the Town features live jazz, blues and R&B emsembles performing everything from Chaka Khan to Patti LaBelle. There is an adjoining dance floor for contemporary R&B. The fair drink prices, killer music and more-than-friendly barstaff and clientele make it worth getting dressed up.
The Edge, 108 Morris St., 667-1012
Pool, sports downstairs, dancing to the latest hip hop and techno up top. No-cover karaoke on Fridays, '70s and '80s music on Saturday, Open Mic Poetry on Tuesday and Thursdays feature live jazz. Crowd is largely Duke students on weekends during the school year. Cover can be pricey on Saturdays.
PS211, 211 E. 3rd St., Winston-Salem, 336-724-0005, www.ps211.org
Large, great-sounding wooden room in a collective-owned building in Winston-Salem. This non-profit, collectively-run space has been hosting some great shows with local and national acts in the past year. Many touring acts that don't hit the Triangle stop at PS211; Oneida, Devendra Banhart, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Bonnie Prince Billy, and England's Giddy Motors have all rocked this great-sounding, very comfortable space. Well worth the 90-minute drive.
Essential local albums
Archers of Loaf, Icky Mettle -- A raw, pure hunk of indie rock gold. Boasting the ridiculously propulsive anthem "Web in Front," the firecracker album charges through a set of fractured gems, stuffed equally with gruff, bizarre lyrics and addictive hit-and-run hooks.
Arrogance, 5'11" Record -- Grossly under-appreciated during its '70s lifespan, Arrogance gets its due with this 2002 release of its long-lost final album, recorded 20 years ago--and wouldn't you know it, it's the group's best. The '60s-inspired songs are catchier than ever, and Don Dixon's vocals never sounded so good. What a heinous crime that this never saw the light of day.
Ben Folds Five, Ben Folds Five -- Sure, he hit the big-time with his next album (and the song "Brick"), but it's Folds' quirky and handcrafted eponymous debut that really sells the trio as worthy, sardonic '90s successors to Todd Rundgren and Billy Joel. The album spawned fan favorite apathetic anthem "Best Imitation of Myself."
Flat Duo Jets, Go Go Harlem Baby -- The rolling rockabilly of singer/guitarist Dexter Romweber and drummer Crow never sounded better or more immediate than on this 1991 album, forever establishing the group as time-traveling pranksters. It's gritty, raunchy, dizzying stuff, at once a roots revival and a rules reversal, leaving over a dozen tossed off tunes in its wake.
Red Clay Ramblers, Chuckin' the Frizz -- Any true Ramblers fan knows that this all-too-rare release marks the band's finest hour on record, a well-produced live recording of the rollicking 1979 lineup performing at the old, tinier Cat's Cradle. This is a superior string band at the height of its powers, spinning out traditionals and originals with inspired, infectious fervor.
Superchunk, No Pocky for Kitty -- The band's second album is a crackling, energized guitar blast, full of exuberant passion and solid songwriting. Mac McCaughan's singular, sweet singing whine spills out over great songs like "Seed Toss" and "Throwing Things." It's the sound of the Chapel Hill group solidifying its pantheon position.
Whiskeytown, Pneumonia -- The now-classic Raleigh band had already broken apart and long moved on by the time this, its third and final album, saw its 2001 release. More accomplished, somber and subtle than the band's previous (and brilliant) Strangers'Almanac, the album features moments of pop bliss like "Mirror Mirror" and seductive, shimmering balladry like "Ballad of Carol Lynn."
Yaggfu Front, Action Packed Adventure -- The talented rap group immediately made a name for itself with this 1993 release, their sole album. They're one of many such early '90s rap outfits, never known by a large audience, but mightily influential for later figures. Combining funky breakbeats and an unusual delivery, Yaggfu produced twisting, witty lyrics with jazzy flourishes.
Ten great local albums of the last two years
The following 10 albums have been rated in accordance with their respective abilities to make you dance, make you sing, and, most importantly, to make you look cool in your car. Pick 'em up at your local independent music store and give 'em a spin. We promise you won't be disappointed.
Cantwell Gomez & Jordan, Cantwell Gomez & Jordan (2003)
This is more than organized noise. The jarring, often discordant rhythms of CG&J land somewhere between the power of their dizzying live show and the cerebral stylings of the NASA channel. The hard-edged drum and bass is softened just enough by the space-exploration-tuned guitar. To boot, Gomez's vocals are ragged and full of heart. A must have. (www.cantwellgomezandjordan.com)
North Elementary, Out of Phase (2003)
North Elementary is a six-member collaborative effort out of Chapel Hill. This LP is determinedly low-key, but a perfect choice for a rainy day or a streak of depression. They manage to even keep a tune called "Medical Transfer" interesting and fluid, despite its overarching darkness. On WXDU's top 88.7 album list for months, North Elementary is just waiting to assist your wallowing.
Dynamite Brothers, Clap Along With (2003)
This is what happens when rootsy, Badfinger-esque riffs meet the meandering, sharp bass lines of Les Claypool and get topped with a dollop of '70's psychedelia. The clean and measured guitar line is exaggeratedly smooth until it is broken up nicely by just enough distortion and gasping vocals. The album is at once bluesy, rollicking and jam-filled. (www.dynamitebrothers.com).
Portastatic, The Summer of the Shark (2003)
An album so cheerful, you'll want to tuck it under your pillow at night. Mac McCaughan, the band's frontman (and only member) may have a voice that sounds somewhat familiar. This is understandable, as he sings for Superchunk, maybe Chapel Hill's most well-known "indie" band. That said, this solo LP is a lot more laid back than most of Superchunk's releases, and McCaughan has taken an opportunity here to showcase his distinct vocals. Produced at home, the songs range from synthesized vox to heavy bass to melodic guitar with a bit of twang. (www.portastatic.com)
The Sames, The Sames (2002)
The Sames may have gained a national following, but their roots are still firmly here. It's all in place on their debut EP, which is guaranteed to reel you in, hook, line, and sinker. Despite the music's catchiness and occasional meanderings, this release can range from heavy, guitar-driven rock to head-bobbing melodic pop. Lyrically sparse at times, this EP still triumphs because the music is so damn good.
Sorry About Dresden, Let it Rest (2003)
Slow to start, the last 2/3 of this release (the third full-length for the Chapel Hill/Durham/Raleigh band) are extraordinary. The slower songs are more representative of SAD's great range of impassioned pop and steady rock that sometimes feels like Pavement, at others more akin to the anthemic selections of Pedro the Lion. It would be futile to make further comparisons, as this band sounds familiarly like an innumerable assortment of bands yet surprisingly original. (www.sorryaboutdresden.com).
Jett Rink, Jett Rink (2003)
This is the debut EP for these Durhamites. Perfect for a drive to the shore, a bright Saturday afternoon or an outing amongst friends. It's like Frank Black, the Deal sisters, Kim Gordon and the Dead Milkmen crashed the set of Psycho Beach Party. Could anything be more rockin' or more fun? (www.jett-rink.com).
LUD, He Who Sits on the Ice Hears Me Singing (2003)
The members of LUD have tried on multiple musical outfits, but this release, their fourth together, fits them like a vintage corduroy suit. The album flits back and forth beautifully between dreamy trance and driving rock. (www.smithlevelrecords.com/ludland)
Gerty, Sweets from the Minibar... (2003)
Images of Legos stacking, flower pot hats, bad blue eye shadow and robotic dancing... Gerty may seem to be in the wrong decade, but a few more listens and it's clear that they have brought the fun of ''80's new wave to the forefront and coated it with invention and credibility. (www.gerty.org)
Work Clothes, 5 songs + 3 (2002)
Great bare ballads and a lonesome-sounding guitar come together to grab you and shake things up. Dark and endlessly inviting, Work Clothes can range from sounding a bit like Crowded House (on "Turn Your AC on High") to something that must have come off Sonic Youth's classic Daydream Nation. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To really know what the locals know, visit Google group alt.music.chapel-hill and discuss the intricacies of local music.
Turntable doesn't work
A Night at The Cave with Des Ark & Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan
All of these people seem to know each other. Lest a few tipsy ne'er-do-wells, sloppy and slouching, belly-up to the bar, The Cave is no place to go alone, unless you're ensconced in your coolness already. In a review of Chapel Hill as a fertile music scene in a Rolling Stone piece some months back, one native/critic described the fans at many shows as "stoic." It's not that the people are unfriendly; after all, this is still the South, and hospitality and politeness are essentials. Rather, it is that the fans who are here have been here before, and will return, and while they are generally not fanatics in relation to any particular band, they are nearly obsessive about keeping up with the scene--and this entails many an appearance at The Cave, Local 506, Go!, etc.
Jumping into their world can be slightly disarming at first, especially if you're as unfamiliar with the regular local acts as I was, but you're sure to pick up its rhythms quickly once you see a band that arrests you (which you will) and begin to pay attention to the details of the haute couture. And if you're observant enough, you are likely to overhear two guys swapping stories over something as dire and noteworthy as 'paint-huffing'... and suddenly, if only by blunt comparison, you realize you're a little cooler than you may have thought. One thing is for sure: The Cave is not stuffy, not in a figurative sense anyhow, and it's not somewhere the other kids look at you funny for scribbling antisocial notes on torn squares of paper towels.
The Cave is nestled, ironically perhaps, beside the West End Wine Bar on Franklin. Down one flight and to the left, you enter a very small space lit only by strands of Christmas lights reflected on the walls, obscured by the heavy smoke. While the first band sets up (there are generally two bands on music nights), there is mingling and drinking--and by mingling, I mean shouting, a bit of all-in-good-fun rough-housing, and the girl in the corner chain-smoking, not talking to anybody. And by drinking, I mean beer and cash only. But the rowdiness and the lack of liquor seem oddly fitting in the smoke and the pallor. When the band begins, most everyone shuts up, and the walkway between the back door and the front crowds with heads of unkempt hair. Des Ark (Aimee Argote, formerly of Rubeo, and Tim Herzog) has set up shop on the stage, and they are not the sort of band that can be ignored.
Aimee's words fall over one another like gravel on moss--sexy, crass, brassy, bitch-ragged and pain-filled. It's difficult to make out exactly what she's saying, but you can get the idea that she's been wronged and has wronged others. Her body is blocked by a landmine of plaid checkers and Chuck Taylors, but her voice echoes across the faux rock texture of the ceiling. Her screaming is as gutsy, honest and daggard-like as that of Johnette Napolitano, as throat-filled and sultry as Polly Jane Harvey, and the band ain't fucking bad either. Relentless in its driving and its force, the guitar is ever-ascending, until the drums pull the tempo down, and the effect is like leather stretched and ripping as the two rub against one another. The sound ranges from loud, heavy and chaotic to slow, low and full of bluesy desperation. Abrasive and jaunting to painstakingly soft and drawn-out, yet always rich and darkly beautiful, Des Ark is beyond the label "up-and-coming." They have sucker-punched the stragglers and are mounting the top of the ladder.
Des Ark clears the way for Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan (Dave Cantwell, Anne Gomez and David Jordan), a self-described "mock-supergroup," as all members have played in other local bands before (Analogue I, Special Agents of Her Majesty's Secret Cervix, BeatlesS and the original Cantwell trio), and all play in multiple current acts (Cantwell drums for the Cold Sides and plays bass in not-so-tongue-in-cheek cock rockers Razzle; Gomez plays bass in newish trio Hotel Motel; Jordan wreaks havoc in chaosmongers Defenestrator). Gomez has been noted for the power of her vocals in many a review, and the energy of the band in live performance is something no one should miss. The sound is often fast-paced, raucous, and ripe with punk's influence, but often drops quickly and without warning to a wandering bass line, trance-like and almost silent, rift with an occasional bass ping and sonic distortion. Gomez's vocals are indeed manic and in-your-face, and somewhat surprising in contrast to her small, pale frame, neat red hair and tendency to wear nice-girl dresses.
Overall, the ensemble works. The sound is layered, inventive and constantly morphing into something you weren't expecting. The songs are mostly short, fast and back-breaking loud, some of them less than two minutes, while others alternate cleverly between determination and ambivalence. It's like the hard-nosed punk force of The Locust mixed with the distorted meanderings of Sonic Youth and the ever-changing jam style of Greyboy. A high-energy and almost spasmodic live show, Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan is a band to see if you wanna bang that head shamelessly and do your best spasm-filled Mr. Roboto on the dance floor.