Most bands are lucky if they can come up with one or two clever hooks to make an album memorable — on Stop, 34 Satellite litter gem-like ideas like gum wrappers. If American guitar-pop chart hogs from Tom Petty to Avril Lavigne had half as much richness of imagination or élan, their platinum albums might actually be worth the metal they’re stamped on.
An increasingly exceptional vehicle for Marc Benning — an auteur who knows how to dress up a strong melody and an incisive lyric so that they won’t be soon forgotten — the difficultly named group has had an unstable and peripatetic lineup, no doubt due to the unstable and peripatetic life of its leader. The singer, songwriter and guitarist was born in Pittsburgh, attended high school in San Francisco, did time around the movie biz in Los Angeles, unveiled the group in Boston and has lived most of the ’90s in Colorado. Small wonder that American geography is a frequent lyrical touchstone: his oeuvre already includes songs titled “Charleston,” “California” and “Pennysylvania.”
Behind Benning’s beseeching tenor, Stars is earnest and well-crafted — acoustic/electric singer-songwriter rock-pop lightly inflected with a country lilt — that reaches anxiously for sensitivity and passion. (The title track, a concerted rocker, misses both.) At times like a self-consciously serious Vulgar Boatmen (though lacking that band’s clockwork intensity), Stars is a pleasant beginning and not much more.
Recorded in Colorado, New York, Memphis and Austin (this is indie rock?), Radar is much better, a solid, confident pop-rock record that moves along a Neil Young dynamic spectrum from tentative twang to titanic noise. The group’s musical ideas aren’t quite sorted out — the gawky country rock pales in comparison to the chunkier and less mannered rock creations, and the quality level is by no means consistent. But Benning’s dry voice is deeper and rougher, thankfully erasing a prior John Prine resemblance, and his songs are much better developed. He sounds like someone who knows something, but isn’t completely telling what it is. Walter Salas-Humara (who previously released his own album titled Radar) of the Silos co-produced with Benning, and their evidently simpatico sensibilities — not to mention a stack of smartly deployed session men, including onetime Psychedelic Furs pianist Joe McGinty and Salas-Humara (on drums!) — bring out the best in numbers like “Riverside,” “Vertigo,” “Wishing Well” and the drawly “Molasses,” which gets away with an extremely off-kilter guitar solo). On the other hand, the dozy “You,” the cliché-sotted “Fly Now” and the piano ballad called “Pretty Song” mostly just lie there, inert. If Paul Westerberg-style chord patterns are the most identifiable influence audible here, they in no way mute the distinctive voice of a gifted original.
Stop is really the place to start. Continuing along an impressively ascending developmental arc, it rights all the residual wrongs of Radar and soars with ingenuity. On this brilliant, substantial and moody record of smart melodies and sizzling old-box fuzz guitars, every song has some outstanding attribute — a pungent lyric (“What’s the capital of West Virginia? / What’s that movie with that guy and the girl we adore?”), a pointed hook (the choruses of “Get Out Alive,” “There Is Gonna Be a Problem” and “Nineteen”; “Getting High With a Stranger”), an instrumental fillip (the nagging riff of “Caroline”), an arrangement (on “Longest Day,” Benning somehow crosses John Sebastian with the Goo Goo Dolls and then steps aside for a handsome string quartet bridge) or an unexpected dynamic discontinuity (the gentle prelude to the roaring fuzzwall of “Elijah St. Marie”; the acoustic minor key title track twice erupts into a Crazy Horse thunderstomp) — that nails it, making this a compelling grabber of an album. The hard-edged but seductive “You’re Coming in Clearer” is an early highlight of the album, but “Smoke From a Funeral” puts all the pieces together, with a gorgeous, echoed melody, lyrics about “breathing smoke from a funeral” and giving away a “thousand-dollar Gaultier bracelet” and a throttling, syncopated massed-guitar hook that arrives like an anvil falling from the sky. Except for spelling mistakes (cellist Jane Scarpantoni is listed as Scarpantini; Joe McGinty’s mellotron credit is short an “l”), this is perfection.