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.