Photon Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In the world of "alternative rock," the biggest challenge these days is to actually sound like an alternative to something, rather then just more of the same. There was an eruption of derisive laughter several years back when U2 won the "Best Alternative Album" Grammy, essentially reducing the meaning of "alternative" to "anyone who hasn't been featured on Nickelodeon this month." Today there are hundreds of acts calling themselves "alternative" who play straight-ahead rock or pop, but crave the aura of hipness the "alternative" label still seems to carry.

All of which is to say that it's refreshing to find a band calling itself "alternative" that actually takes a fairly original, offbeat approach to its music.

Revolution, New York-based Southforth's debut album, is built around the somewhat enigmatic musical personas of vocalist AnnMarie Bugler and guitarist Robert Fischer. The opening title cut begins with a layered, insistent acoustic/electric guitar melody that briefly suggests yet another earnest female electrified-folk singer-songwriter is on the loose - but things get interesting pretty quickly. Fischer's chord changes startle; Bugler stretches and twists her words in evocative ways; the "guitar solo" is a dreamy little jazz break; and the whole diverse concoction is anchored by a hook-filled, energetically affirming pop chorus.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

"Progressive" is the word that really seems to apply here. Bugler, by turns languorous and ferocious, wraps her words around the music in a sensual dance that rarely loses the listener's interest. Fischer, meanwhile, coaxes a fascinating array of tones out of his acoustic and electric guitars, rarely content to go for the obvious musical choice. At one point I couldn't help speculating that this is what an album pairing progressive guitar maestro Robert Fripp with new wave goddess Deborah Harry might sound like - at least, before they tried to kill each other.

Still, the band's underlying pop sensibility is evident in the three-to-four-minute run time on every song, and especially on the album's current single, "Perfect Everything." Here Bugler's approach is warmer and throatier while Fischer's is more melodically straightforward, resulting in an infectiously catchy tune that could pass for Fleetwood Mac with Stevie Nicks on lead vocals.

Veering confidently off this path, the band peppers the subsequent "Southforth" with sudden tempo changes, unusual chord progressions, a vigorous chorus and a gently psychedelic guitar break. It's a frothy blend that works surprisingly well and, as you'd expect from the title, effectively characterizes the band's sound. It also features one of several strong turns by bassist Alfonse Ochoa, who anchors the rhythm section with drummer Birt Michaels.

Of the remaining songs on the album, my favorites were the alternately dreamy and furious "Rapture" (on whose early verses Fischer pulls off a dead-on Andy Summers impersonation), and the spacey power-pop of "In My Own World," whose slightly dazed/goofy lyrics lighten things up nicely at the close.

Southforth occasionally seems to take its mission to be different so seriously that it misses musical opportunities. Sometimes, the less obvious choice is that not because no one's thought of it before, but because it's less memorable. It's also a little puzzling that the production team of Steve Amend and engineer Derek Pacuk often chooses to layer Bugler's apparently rich voice with echo and effects. The sensation of distance this creates may fit the band's progressive bent, but it holds listeners like me at arm's length from the music.

Bottom line: Revolution is an intriguing, inventive, highly listenable album from a band that, unlike many of its peers, has earned the right to call itself alternative. We'll hear more from Southforth.

Rating: B

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© 2000 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Photon Records, and is used for informational purposes only.