HOTEL BALTIMORE (EP) - Cotton Mather (Laughing Outlaw)
THE BIG PICTURE - Cotton Mather (Laughing Outlaw)

"Texas" and "power-pop" are not concepts one tends to associate with each other, but then again, there's Cotton Mather. Named after a furiously intolerant Puritan, this Austin quartet originally formed in 1991 and released three albums (two of them on the Brit Rainbow Quartz label, after garnering the attention of Oasis guy Noel Gallagher) before beginning a relationship with Laughing Outlaw, the Aussie label co-owned by Radio Birdman associate/Phantom Records honcho Jules Normington and inexplicably dedicated to American power-pop and alt-country acts. (Maybe not so inexplicably; after all, longtime Oz rock aficionado and Divine Rites webmaster Didier Georgieff performs a similar function for the culty ex-Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn's e-list.) Built around the nucleus of singer/songwriter Robert Harrison and guitarist Whit Williams, this band plays Beatlesque (make that Lennonesque) pop, hardly my favorite style, but with enough energy and verve to make it always AT LEAST interesting, and often better than that.

From the band shot on the "Big Picture" slick, these guys look like loser mirror-star wannabes, especially Harrison, sitting down to play acoustic guitar while wearing a headset mic as the band performs in what looks like somebody's backyard. But looks can be deceiving. (Best part of the package on that particular shiny silver disc: the painting of the shapely lass on the back of the slick. Shoulda made that the cover; this album is never gonna make it into the Marts anyway.)

From the opening, crashing chords of "Lost My Motto" (reminiscent of something by Tucson's Rich Hopkins & Luminarios), the "Hotel Baltimore" EP demonstrates that these guys remember the "rock" in "pop-rock," avoiding the preciousness that this kind of thing can have. Harrison's flair for melody and harmony is offset by crunching guitars and a crisp, driving rhythm section, while the flanged guitar solo sounds like something off the White Album, albeit with lots more energy. "El Matador" is redolent of those other Brit popsters Squeeze, but again, with more rock-like forward motion than those guys were ever able to muster. Harrison's adenoidal voice is reminiscent of both Lennon and Squeeze-meister Glenn Tilbrook. The brief, lilting "Baby Freeze Queen" (which appears in different versions on both of these discs) could be an outtake from the Beatles' psych period.

Things pick up again with the rockin' "Missing the Boat," which features punky drive from the riddim boyzzz and more Townshend-esque power chords. The atmospheric "John Wayne Jung" is reminiscent of old Brian Eno albums like "Before and After Silence" and "Music for Films" (how embarrassing to admit that I remember those!), especially the Frippertronic-sounding distorto guitar. "Dream Girl" is an Arthur Alexander ("Anna," "You Better Move On") hit from way back in '62, sung the way unrepentant rocker Lennon might have, while "Altar Boy (Jimbo's Theme)" is little more than a fragment in search of resolution (shades of Guided By Voices).

Last year's full-length "The Big Picture" opens strongly with "Last of the Mohicans," featuring the same claustrophobic vocal sound as much of Lennon's late-period ('67-'70) Beatle output (which, uh, ELO sought to emulate) on a tune with a lot more power and drama than anything the Beatles ever attempted (which disappointingly fizzles out in a mess of synth noise and drum clatter). "Marathon Man" is a mid-tempo rocker with more Clapton-on-the-White-Album flanged guitarissimo from Williams and something that could be either Native American chanting or football crowd singalong at the end. "40 Watt Solution" uses electric 12-string, theremin (!), and backward-sounding guitars to create a head-spinning ambience. "Glory Eyes" has great melodic bassplaying from Josh Gravelin underpinning THOSE HARMONIES.

"Monterrey Honey" overlays a melody worthy of Elvis Costello on a "Pet Sounds"-ethereal background of harps and strings. "AMPS of Sugarland" raises the Heartland-rock stakes, all chiming 12-string, agile bass figures and galloping drums. The 12-string remains in full effect on "Panama Slides," a reminder (probably needed) that what made the early Byrds distinctive was not just Jim McGuinn's Rickenbacker but also Gene Clark's melodicism. The guitar intro to "Story of Anna" evokes the memory of the one from the Pretenders' "Kid." (Anyone else remember James Honeyman-Scott?) And when was the last time you heard a decent rock song sung in ITALIAN?

I'll leave you to discover the rest of "The Big Picture"'s pleasures yourself. The most astonishing impression one gets while listening to these recordings is just how far from the mainstream melodic pop-rock has moved. A kinda disturbing thought, but not enough to prevent one from enjoying this tremendously entertaining band. - Ken Shimamoto

Hotel Baltimore



The Big Picture