Led by bespectacled University of California philosophy student-turned-professor Franklin Bruno, the prolific Nothing Painted Blue purveys fine, nervous aggro-pop which earned the band a reputation as logorrheic eggheads (for one thing, the obviously self-aware trio named one of its limited-edition cassettes Logorrhea). But though ØPB — the preferred abbreviation, natch — are certainly brainy sorts, the music they make is decidedly intra-disciplinary, boasting the verbosity and imagistic flair of an English major, the hyperactive drive of a physics prodigy, the formulaic precision of a math wiz and the big-picture skepticism of a Marx-loving epistemologist. (Yep, they also have a song called “Epistemophilia.”)
Singer/guitarist Bruno and drummer Kyle Brodie were high-school classmates who formally began the group in 1989, when Bruno and bassist Michael Neelon were attending Pomona College. Los Angeles was just a freeway drive away, but the band has always stuck to its suburban roots (the so-called Inland Empire), a commitment that eventually bore fruit in the form of other bands (Refrigerator, Diskothi-Q, Mountain Goats) and labels (most notably Shrimper). ØPB’s own imprint, Jupa, was responsible for A Baby, a Blanket, a Packet of Seeds, a promising sixteen-track medium-fi album that nods in the direction of Flying Nun for its perky melodicism and bands like Slovenly, or maybe even the Pop Group, for its skewed, skeletal energy.
Power Trips Down Lover’s Lane pays off on the debut’s promise. Though the band has said Shimmy boss Kramer’s shiny production doesn’t quite capture their murkier side, the album is a thoroughly infectious rollercoaster of herky-jerky riffs and memorable melodies, helped along by snaky violin parts and the supple touch of new bassist Joey Burns (also of Giant Sand). Songs like “Peace Dividend,” “Block Colors,” “Campaign Song” and “Storefronts” all burst with perfect pacing, pointed emotion and lazy beauty, as does a Go-Betweens cover, “Rock and Roll Friend.” Bruno is at his best lyrically here, offering a dense, brain-tickling batch of clever couplets and finely wrought scenarios that manage to be linguistically punch-drunk, substantively pointed and overwhelmingly evocative all at once. “She’s cherubic/She’s seraphic/She’s omniscient when it comes to traffic,” he sings of “Officer Angel,” a tribute to a real-life cop-turned-traffic reporter. “Register,” a witty critique of love and consumption, plays with every definition of the title word.
The self-produced Placeholders brings out that elusive murky side. It accents the music over the lyrics, then puts a further emphasis on distorted guitar crud and a harder (though sometimes slower) rhythmic attack. It’s a good-not-great effort — the lack of sprightliness makes the hooks less endearing and the words less affecting, although “Weak,” “Rightful Heir” and “Spread Your Poison” do deliver in both of those departments. There’s simply too much rock-damage and too much art-damage. And compared to Bruno’s best, the lyrics of the otherwise lively “Career Day” and the plodding “Houseguest” are mundane and unrealized. Personnel notes: on this record Peter Hughes (of Diskothi-Q) took over from Burns (who left to concentrate on Giant Sand), while subsequent live shows saw Neelon returning, this time on violin and second guitar.
If the followup EP, The Future of Communications, is a step up in pop quality, that’s probably because it’s a step back chronologically: it leads off with an old single — the great, giddy “Sorely Tempted” — and tacks on one radio track and three other recordings, plus the titular “song,” a fifteen-minute spoken treatise on life, school, work and, yeah, the future of communications, as conceived by the band’s pal Scott Banks. Anyone who listens to it more than once is either a terminal grad student or one of the people featured on it — which happens to be the same thing.
The group splintered — not fatally, it turned out — while on tour in 1993 and Bruno took the opportunity to record A Bedroom Community, which arrived between Placeholders and The Future of Communications and finds him playing nearly all the instruments on thirteen ornate, highly personal tracks that are more folk-rock than one-man indie weirdness. The songs, supported mostly by piano and acoustic guitar leads, have a certain hushed momentum, but the thin vocals and robust lyrics seem a little out of place without the punch of a full band.
Nothing Painted Blue and Bruno solo have also spewed out a healthy number of cassettes, EPs and 7-inches for the Jupa, Shrimper, Scat, Simple Machines, Anyway and Car in Car labels. Emotional Discipline is a compilation CD.