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Music Review: Scuba

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Midriff Records has a really nice thing going. Founded in 2001 by the New England band The Beatings for the purposes of releasing their own music, they have built a stable of high quality indie-pop bands who mostly trend toward (from what I've heard) the bittersweet and hooky side of the spectrum. In some respects (notably in that their bands seem to all be friends and in some cases brothers), Midriff is becoming a power-pop version of Elephant 6 or K Records, two labels who took a friends-and-family approach to artist development and who are now legendary in some circles. Indeed, the last year or so has seen at least three high-quality releases that should cement Midriff's reputation as a label to rely on: a stellar release from The Beatings themselves; an excellent solo album from Beatings guitarist Eldridge Rodriguez; and now Scuba with a self-titled debut.

Like The Beatings, Scuba exist to invoke (and improve on) some of the most revered sounds of the past thirty years or so. But where The Beatings draw on The Pixies, Mission of Burma and Sonic Youth, Scuba are best described as – get this – shoegazer revivalists.

Shoegazer! When's the last time you thought about that word? For me it must have been back in college in Ohio in the mid-1990s, hepped up on Mickey's Big Mouths, listening to My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr., and leaving the room every time anyone put on anything by the execrable Sebadoh. Remember when The Jesus and Mary Chain were on Lollapalooza? When The Cure were having hits? When Bob Mould was releasing records as Sugar and even got on the radio? I sure do! And I loved it!

But it's both condescending and limiting to describe a band as solely the sum of their influences. On their website, Scuba themselves acknowledge their fuzzy and moody pop roots, saying "We're not a shoe-gazer band. Though we look at a lot of things apparently our shoes are not one of them. Or rather they're not looked at for long enough to become a quote-unquote 'gaze' unquote."

Okay, so fair enough. "Shoegazer" implies that Scuba are a tribute band, which isn't correct. So what's the deal with Scuba? Well, the fuzzy guitars and washes of noise aside, they play sumptuous and hypnotic power pop that delivers on what Neil Young said about Crazy Horse, his backing band: "It's all one big, growing, smoldering sound, and I'm part of it. It's like gliding, or some sort of natural surfing." Although you can name check great bands of the past one after another as the songs pass by (right now I'm listening to the leadoff single "Gary Powers' Spy Plane" and dreaming of Boston's late lamented The Sheila Divine), the truth is the songwriting is strong and original and more than the sum of its (My Bloody Valentine, Joy Division, New Order, Sugar, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure) worthy influences.

The big trick with playing noisy pop-inflected rock is to have it not all sound the same. I've heard literally dozens of boring bands who play boring music that sounds great for three point five minutes until they start their next song and you realize that one song is really all they have. Luckily, Scuba duck the "samey" tag with aplomb by using studio and songwriting tricks to good effect, sometimes washing the sound-field with enormous distortion, other times pulling back to a tunneling bassline and a few chimed guitar notes, sometimes compressing everything into angular chords and a great melody.

Scuba manage to duck the other great pitfall of modern power-pop as well, which is the "softLOUDsoft" formula that The Pixies invented and Nirvana made famous. Instead, in the great tradition of their shoegazer forebears, Scuba manage the flow of each song beautifully, creating new textures and moods through smart production and layering of sounds, rather than the crass expedient of stomping the distortion pedal and blasting out the windows every time the chorus comes around.

Highlights include the album opener "You Break My Heart in 1000 Different Ways," the echoey suspended overdrive of "Freight," the gorgeous Joy-Division wail of "Maybe It's Different With Johnny" and the gigantic suspended-chord riff of "Into The Water, Down To The Bottom." In a just world, or a different time, any one of these songs should be, or should have been, a monster underground hit, part of the lingua franca of cool youth to be passed down by word of mouth.

About John Owen