Following the breakup of the Suicide Commandos (in which he played bass), Minneapolis’ Steve Almaas turned to guitar and formed the Crackers (not the New Mexico band with the same name). Unfortunately, the trio’s EP is of little consequence except to vaguely indicate the rough-hewn melodic rock direction he’d pursue: Sir Crackers! threatens to take off, but just fizzles.
After working with the Bongos, Almaas and boss Bongo Richard Barone headed down to North Carolina to visit Mitch Easter at his Drive-In Studio. The three of them whipped up the Beat Rodeo EP, finally showing Almaas off to great advantage. If Marshall Crenshaw’s early treatment of the Buddy Holly legacy irks you for being wrapped in candy floss, this charming, rocking disc should be right up your alley — swell tunes, Almaas’ straight-as-an-arrow vocals and Easter’s clear production that lets the natural sweetness shine through.
Almaas almost immediately formed a quartet named for the EP but not including any of its other participants. Staying Out Late (originally issued in Germany in 1984) shows a country bent implicit in its name (but absent from the EP) and integrates it (countryish guitar sound, even a dash of fiddle) rather well into the already established pop-rock context. But there’s little memorable content and insufficient élan: “Without You” almost rocks out, but shortcircuit the power with an overloaded arrangement. Also, lyrical tension is never conveyed by Almaas’ vocals, which run the emotional gamut from A (miable) to B(oringly benign).
Staying Out Late was produced by Don Dixon (with two tracks by Richard Gottehrer). Whether resulting from the switch to Scott Litt or simply the educational benefit of past mistakes, Home in the Heart of the Beat is a definite improvement. The band tends to play more to its strengths and avoid (or compensate for) its weaknesses. The countryness is now a feel rather than a form, and as such suits them far better; the songs are more mature and less awkward. The record’s title may be a tad pretentious, but in several ways Beat Rodeo really is more at home — with themselves, at any rate. Solidly enjoyable fare.