For better and worse, Providence, Rhode Island’s Small Factory may have been the quintessential ’90s indie-pop band, a textbook example of how and why it all works — and sometimes doesn’t. The tuneful and talented trio of drummer Phoebe Summersquash, guitarist David Auchenbach and bassist Alex Kemp (all of whom sing and write) displayed a firm grasp of song structures as well as the ability to express a range of youth-oriented emotions, from anxiety to pleasure and back again. The group played with well-arranged skill that never seemed fussed-over or even conscientious, generating as much or as little instrumental energy — from restrained subtlety to breezy rich harmony pop to distortion-shredded feedback blowouts — as songs demanded. After a number of catchy 7-inch singles that established club-level fanzine credibility, the band came out into album society on the right sort of label — hip, connected, just big enough. Wrapping I Do Not Love You in bland, enigmatic illustrations of fruit, the group survived its limitations (no wholly competent singers, no clearly distinctive sound) by maintaining an easygoing, casual style varying the sonic ingredients enough to make the record seem three-dimensional. Displaying personality (“I’m Not Giving Up”), sensitivity (“All Your Reasons”) and worldliness (“Junky on a Good Day”) in the lyrics — and covering “Valentine” by indie icon (and scene pal) Lois Maffeo — Small Factory took its best shot at art in the form of intimate, populist bopalong communication.
The trio was subsequently wooed and signed by the cool indiesque division of a full-scale record company leviathan. Recorded without a name-brand producer (though the solidly major-label-credentialed Jim Rondinelli did mix it), the second album was carefully formed in the image and sound of its predecessor, making no visible or audible concessions to the change of corporate venue. Despite an incrementally better studio effort, the band’s basic attributes remain unchanged: Kemp’s high, adenoidal singing (ably embedded in the others’ pretty backing) still misses notes; arrangements keep to the straight and narrow; the shapely but rarely memorable originals are joined by another hip cover: New Radiant Storm King’s “Everyone’s Happy for the First Time in Weeks.”
Having essentially made the same album for a second time and seen it released through a sympathetic powerhouse to no substantially different effect, Small Factory chose oblivion over futility and broke up in 1995. (The Industrial Evolution footnotes its career in a posthumous anthology of singles and compilation tracks.) Auchenbach launched a band called Flora Street. Kemp and Summersquash formed the Godrays and moved to New York; their debut EP is a homey and neat double 7-inch of pop-plus-guitar-noise tunes that wouldn’t have been outside the realm of Small Factory’s possibilities. Songs for TV Stars advances the duo’s plans with added flair and more intriguingly structured songs.
After that chapter, Phoebe partnered with former Dambuilder Dave Derby in Brilliantine.