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CATERWAUL (Buy CDs by this artist)
The Nature of Things (Lost Arts) 1987
Beholden EP (IRS) 1988
Pin & Web (IRS) 1989
Portent Hue (IRS) 1990

Formed in Phoenix, this talented, hard-to-pin-down band — a versatile rock/folk trio plus singer Betsy Martin (also the band's lyricist and occasional mandolin player) — made its debut on an indie album before relocating to Los Angeles and hooking up a bigger deal. Following a three-song trial run with Camper Van producer Dennis Herring on Beholden, Caterwaul (especially Martin, who can deliver a country croon, a cowgirl yodel and a chilling rock howl, but never does anything quite like the band's name) exorcised some extremist tendencies and continued on to Pin & Web. As self-centeredly enigmatic as early R.E.M. but with in-your-ear vocals and a different regional orientation, Pin & Web lacks top-notch songs, instead relying on clear, carefully crafted music (Mark Schafer is evidently an open-minded student at the Edge school of electric guitar textures) and Martin's exciting excursions. (The CD adds the two Beholden tracks not already included on the LP.)

The dramatic, full-blooded rock (balanced by acoustic mandolin interludes) of Portent Hue matches Martin's inventive vocals strength for strength, cutting an uneven path but scoring points along the way. Kevin Pinnt wallops the skins convincingly as Schafer weaves busy guitar patterns in which Martin can throw her many voices at various odd angles. When the band's songwriting is in full effect (as on "Alex' Aphrodisiac" or "Bulldosage") Martin's theatrics are a neat bonus; elsewhere (as on "Manna and Quail," where she performs amazing Siouxsiesque octave jumps) she's the whole show.

[Ira Robbins]