Lloyd: Lament for Little Voice … Bachmann: Darkness on the Edge

Lloyd: Lament for Little Voice

Why do so many musicians turn out to be better off in groups than they are as solo acts? Is it the right combination of drugs, or the right degree of intra-band acrimony?

Guitarist Richard Lloyd is one of those musicians. Back in the late 70′s, Mr. Lloyd found that perfect fit in the proto-punk group Television, the band that other bands like to credit as an influence to confer a degree of seriousness on their own typically inferior music.

Television transformed rock music into a very serious thing. They matched musical chops with tough compositions, complex arrangements and difficult, dreamy lyrics. Their success, musically, was due in no small part to Mr. Lloyd’s searing guitar playing, which beautifully complemented singer and guitarist Tom Verlaine’s own stellar guitar work, economical songs and nasal delivery. Together, Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Verlaine produced one brilliant album, Marquee Moon , and one not-so-brilliant album, Adventure .

Since then, however, Mr. Lloyd’s career has been stuck in third. He released a solo album, Alchemy , only to disappear into a deep heroin addiction. In the late 80′s, he resurfaced with two albums, Field of Fire and Real Time .

Fifteen years have elapsed since Mr. Lloyd’s last solo effort. And after listening to the first few seconds of his new album, The Cover Doesn’t Matter (Upsetter Music), it’s apparent that time has not been kind to Mr. Lloyd’s voice.

Even during Television’s heyday, Mr. Lloyd’s vocals were nothing to write home about, but they seem to have grown limper and weaker over the years. Listening to him on Cover , the phrase “weenie-like” comes to mind, as does the bloodcurdling way REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin articulated the word ” For-e-e-e-ver ” on “Keep on Loving You.”

But once you get beyond the limits of Mr. Lloyd’s voice (it takes about three listens), you get to some truly badass guitar playing. Aggressive but not gratuitously hard-edged, neat without being tight-assed, virtuosic without being overly technical, Mr. Lloyd is the real deal–a guitar wanker with taste. His guitar runs are showcase quality, and fellow guitar players will definitely want to pick out some of the master’s tricks and use them to impress their friends. (I particularly liked the riff he plays to begin his solo on “Torn Shirt.”)

Backed by Peter Stuart on bass and an occasionally lethargic-sounding Chris Butler on drums, Mr. Lloyd plows through 10 unspectacular compositions on Cover , giving himself a healthy solo on each one. It’s a good thing he does. Were it not for Mr. Lloyd’s powerfully direct guitar playing, the lyrics–a sorry parade of meaningless rock clichés–would induce a stupor worthy of a vintage Disney cartoon plot. To go from the bleak lyrical landscape of “The Knockdown”–in which Mr. Lloyd warbles, “Where you going to run to now? / We’re cutting you down way down to size / It’s been a long time, since you headed out in the midnight hour”–to Mr. Lloyd’s soaring guitarsmanship is to travel from the depths to the heights of rock potential in just one song.

The title of Mr. Lloyd’s album could be construed as a dig at Mr. Verlaine’s 1984 solo album, Cover , but that’s probably not the case. More likely, Mr. Lloyd is making a meaningful (for him, not us) statement about pop music’s superficial trappings. Unfortunately for Mr. Lloyd, the surface of things actually does matter, and the quality of the vocals–as well as the lyrical and musical composition of the songs–can be just as important as the notes themselves.

All of this would be easier to write if Mr. Lloyd didn’t seem like such a nice guy. On his Web site, RichardLloyd.com, where you can order the CD, Mr. Lloyd’s taken the trouble to put down a series of free guitar lessons, complete with tablature. There are also essays on music theory. And if you have any questions on subjects ranging from gossip about the 1970′s New York punk scene to chord substitutions, to the proper time and place to use the Phrygian mode, Mr. Lloyd will answer them in great detail.

Mr. Lloyd clearly cares deeply about his music and music in general. He’s also clearly not in this business to be a rock star. And yet a dose of rock-star attitude is exactly what Mr. Lloyd could use. Mr. Lloyd needs to care about his career enough to find a singer with a voice to match his guitar playing. Can anyone out there help him?

–William Berlind

Bachmann: Darkness on the Edge

When former Archers of Loaf front man Eric Bachmann comes to New York, he always goes to a little shop downtown that sells metal gears. He makes “like, robots and stuff” out of them, he said over drinks at Odessa.

It’s not hard to believe. Mr. Bachmann’s old band hit it big–among post-punk types, at least–with a metallic, futuristic sound. The Archers’ guitar lines were like tangled electrical wiring; keyboards bleeped and whirred; drums beat out simple, ominous rhythms. It helped that Mr. Bachmann vaguely resembles and sounds like a cyborg, with his 6-foot-5 frame and square glasses, jaw and shoulders. In a deep, monotonous voice, he sang lyrics that augured doom for us all. Take the first lines of “Strangled by the Stereo Wire,” off 1996′s All the Nation’s Airports : “Strangled by the stereo wire, / Cut and depressed in the victim’s eye, / With the public finger on a false alarm / Pouring down in a rush of irreversible lies.”

But now Mr. Bachmann says, “What we need today is a new Bruce Springsteen.” And though he also says “I’m not the one to do it,” he seems to be trying. His latest project–a trio called Crooked Fingers–is no less gloomy than the Archers, but their sound is friendlier, almost folky.

When Mr. Bachmann’s new band’s album, Bring on the Snakes (Warm Records), hits stores on Feb. 20, you’ll get jangly little acoustic guitar figures, sweet tunes and, of course, Mr. Bachmann’s mopey, droning voice. The CD mostly has Mr. Bachmann backed by a banjo and an upright bass; the drumming’s minimal, when it’s there at all.

Snakes also features an instrument of Mr. Bachmann’s own invention and construction called the electrochime. “Being from Asheville, N.C., I love the dulcimer,” he said. “I thought, ‘Jeez, it would be cool to make one that’s electric, so that you run it through effects or an amp.’” The instrument makes a lovely distinctive sound–a soft, wet ping–and Mr. Bachmann said that other musicians have already started asking him to build them one.

Despite this advancement in rock technology, Crooked Fingers’ arrangements are so transparent that they’re vulnerable to the slightest miscue. Luckily, Mr. Bachmann’s backup guys are better technicians than the Archers were. Their parts are crisp, clean and finger-pickin’ good.

That said, the album’s curiously inaccessible. Whereas Mr. Bachmann’s earlier melodies zipped by too fast, now they plod along too slowly to take in on first listen. But if you let yourself get accustomed to them, they’re sad and pleasant enough to fill a niche in any music library; the kind of songs you’d throw on after getting dumped on a beautiful summer day.

Ever since his Archers days, Mr. Bachmann has been a scholar of the Robert Smith school of purple prose, and Snakes is no exception. On “Sad Love,” he sings, in harmony with Maria Taylor: “Sad love is calling you / What’s meant to be has fallen through / Is running through your veins / An evil kind of bloodless pain …” O.K., so the lyrics don’t make that much sense, but delivered from Mr. Bachmann’s deep, raggedy pipes, you get the idea.

The best song on the album–maybe the best song Mr. Bachmann ever wrote–is the first track, “The Rotting Strip.” It’s more like an Archers song than any of the others, dystopic and harsh. Still, it’s understated (at least instrumentally), which you could never say of his old band. It’s depressing and uplifting at the same time, opium and cocaine in one sublime cocktail. “Glory came and went the night we both slipped underneath / The row of oil slicks and ancient ugly lovers,” Mr. Bachmann wails. The electrochime behind him bleeds into a rich pipe organ. He goes on, “We … crossed our hearts half hoping / That we could both quit smoking / And kick the booze and blow / And one day go make something of ourselves.” At that moment, Mr. Bachmann sounds like he’s trying to give the world what he thinks it needs: a post-apocalyptic Bruce Springsteen song.

–Ian Blecher

Mojave 3: Surfin’ N.Y.C.

When British sad-core band Mojave 3 come to town to play two dates at the Bowery Ballroom (Feb. 16) and Maxwell’s in Hoboken (Feb. 17), front man Neil Halstead won’t be traveling with his surfboard. An avid wave rider, Mr. Halstead usually visits the green room off the coastal town of Cornwall, England, where he lives.

Mr. Halstead has never surfed the metropolitan area, and don’t expect him to this time around. “The last time I took my surfboard anywhere [on tour], we were playing Portugal. We were playing a festival, which I assumed was on the coast line because that was where we were flying to,” Mr. Halstead said by phone from Los Angeles. He took his gear, “but the gig ended up being three hours into the mountains. So I felt kind of silly pissing around backstage with my surfboard.” He noted that the “guys that were unloading the band at the festival site” also found it “amusing.”

As he recounted his story, Mr. Halstead seemed to be dredging up some of the old mortification he felt in the mountains of Portugal. This was probably a good thing. As the band’s primary songwriter, Mr. Halstead has shown he is quite in touch with subjects like humiliation and rejection. And musically, Mojave 3 are Jedi masters of seductive, country-tinged guitar-centric melancholia that would appeal to Nick Drake and Low fans. Mr. Halstead said that those who attend the group’s New York and New Jersey shows can expect a “greatest hits, if you will” of the band’s three albums, with a good portion of the show devoted to its fine current release, Excuses for Travellers (4AD-The Beggars Group).

Meanwhile, Mr. Halstead is working on a solo album that, he said, no one “would mistake for a country record.” And what might they mistake it for? “A psychedelic surf-folk record,” Mr. Halstead said, adding with a laugh: “It’s what the kids wanna hear.”

–Frank DiGiacomo