Originally known as Slovenly Peter, San Francisco sextet Slovenly — whose drummer, Rob Holzman, was a 1981 member of Saccharine Trust — was actually quite fastidious in its work, disregarding conservative musical convention to play down-to-earth semi-avant art-rock. That said, After the Original Style is crude and cheap-sounding; while Steve Anderson’s grad-student singing suit the pointy instrumental excursions (slide and regular guitars and keyboards, plus bits of violin, sax and clarinet), it doesn’t make for an especially enticing sonic package.
Better produced and less prone to scurrying too far out on dangerous limbs, Thinking of Empire reveals a stronger and more accessible Slovenly, proffering weirdly highbrow lyrics that sound like fragments overheard in a pretentious restaurant: “My sly deluded optimism / The oversight of treachery and all its entailments.” Or “I feel and find realness amid dysfunctions / And the poverty of reverting to the norm.” What would Little Richard say?
A five-man Slovenly took a wisely tempered path to easy appeal on Riposte, subtitled (A Little Resolve). An involving and invigorating dose of offbeat words and (mostly) melodious guitar music that fully serve each other, the band’s easiest-to-like record offers stimulating coffee-house rock that doesn’t dare you to hate it.
By We Shoot for the Moon (the CD of which adds an unnecessary 20-minute tape-splice song cycle-cum– free-form improvisation, “Things Fall Apart”), the quintet is cruising on potent creative juice, smoothly spewing out adventurous and energetic jazz-rock, making ambitious art-noise/found-sound experiments and nicely covering Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears” and the Blue Orchids’ “A Year With No Head.” The lyrics are still distracting, but Slovenly’s music — even at its fringiest — is as enjoyable as ever.
Right before mutating into Overpass, Slovenly (which also included guitarists Tom Watson and Tim Plowman, whose collaboratively pretentious lyrics were always the band’s albatross) concluded a four-year album hiatus on Highway to Hanno’s. With guest horns and violin upping the textural variety and the band playing at the peak of its cohesive abilities, the music (other than the free-jazz blowing of “Hamster Wheel,” the chaos of “Benny’s Jam” and the collage weirdness of “Thank You Purple Jesus”) is an easily met challenge, both intricate and accessible. But Anderson’s self-important singing is another matter, especially in light of the more likable Watson’s subsequent demonstration of skill in that department. While ushering Slovenly out in style, Highway to Hanno’s also explains why it had to end.
After Slovenly ended in 1992, three of the band’s mainstays headed back to Southern California and regrouped. As Overpass, guitarist/singer Tom Watson (also a member of Red Krayola), bassist Scott Ziegler (whose other band, Dingle, issued Red Dog on New Alliance in 1994) and drummer Rob Holzman took the freewheeling tradition-busting of their past and applied it to crafty songs whose clear-eyed focus benefits from the trio’s ability to take the scenic route and still not get lost.
Overpass has its jazzy side, especially when the band hits the accelerator in tight formation displays of wiggly whatsit, or when guest Lynn Johnson of Cruel Frederick blows a little bass clarinet into the improvisations. But it’s steadfastly a smart and humorous rock album, one with a lot more to offer than, say, Primus. When they present themselves, the clearly delineated songs balance helpful verse/chorus attributes with bizarre lyrics, hairpin melodic turns, craggy (and sometimes Neil Young-y) guitar interjections and don’t-try-these-at-home obstacle course rhythms. Free advice: start with “R.C Kola,” “Craze,” “Boniak Harvest” or the Zappaesque “Rubber Nipple” to avoid the sense of cerebral dryness conveyed by the album’s first few numbers.
Manhattan (Beach) pulls in the experimental reins for a tighter, more disciplined version of the first album’s complicated songhood. Diminished risk-taking doesn’t make Overpass a safer bet, however. Having played together for so many years, the three seem able to think as one; whatever spark — and rhythmic depth — seems absent here may be attributable to a lack of tension in the creative process. Even with Watson’s plain voice (which resembles Lou Reed when he still sang) helping calm the sometimes turbulent, sometimes showy instrumental waters, the songs don’t flow as easily, and stylistic ingredients that aided the effort the first time out are more like distractions here.