Bush Tetras

There are a lot of second acts in rock and roll. Many are not genuine "second acts," but merely cynical efforts to milk the last cent from devoted fans. Occasionally, however, an artist re-enters the music scene, years after their initial run, with their creativity still intact and gets another shot at making an impact on the public. The delightful and woefully underexposed Bush Tetras are such a case. Thirteen years after their 1983 break-up, the group re-formed in the fall of 1995.The New York-based funk/pop quartet (which included two women from Cleveland, bassist Laura Kennedy and vocalist Cynthia Sley) were together only three years, 1980-83. But they were an influential part of a troop of cutting-edge New York musicians who were experimenting with putting funk and world beat influences in rock/punk contexts. Talking Heads, following the lead of David Bowie and Roxy Music, had made moves in that direction. James Black/Chance and his various ensembles had recently started injecting funk into abrasive punk; Tetras guitarist Pat Place had played in one of those projects. Talking Heads' Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth, along with Weymouth's sisters, formed their side project, Tom Tom Club, which featured funky jungle rhythms. So did the Tetras, although their music was less busy and frothy. Their spare, foreboding beats and Cynthia Sley's deep-throated vocals implied a lot of things about the dislocation of modern urban life, treating the si!nister implications with a sort of post-modern nonchalance. Simultaneously soothing and unsettling, the group said a lot with a little, not embellishing their music or over-directing what emotional reaction the listener should have.Unfortunately, the Bush Tetras' music was never widely available. They never recorded a proper album in their heyday, only singles and EPs. Their first full-length release in the United States was a cassette on ROIR Records in 1989, which collected their scattered work. ROIR later reissued those tracks on CD in 1995 as Boom in the Night, finally giving people a chance to readily acquire the band's work, to re-hear the memorable slink of songs like "Das Ah Riot," "Too Many Creeps" and "Cowboys in Africa."Not the least of the Bush Tetras' significance was that they were part of a growing contingent of women who played rock and roll without fanfare, concentrating on musical ideas rather than exploiting their sexuality. Weymouth, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and bands like the Raincoats, the Slits, the Go Gos and the Bangles began to be heard. It was the first time in rock and roll history that a young girl could easily find heroines beyond pandering male-bait vocalists like Pat Benatar. Cynthia Sley, Laura Kennedy and guitarist Pat Place, along with their lone male, drummer Dee Pop, never treated their sex as a marketing tool.The Bush Tetras went their separate ways in 1983, getting day jobs and playing in lesser known bands. "There was no animosity; we'd all go see each other's bands," recalls Laura Kennedy. But it wasn't until they were asked to do a benefit in the fall of 1995 that the time seemed right to reform permanently. Says Kennedy, "We'd done reunion shows but it never really clicked to start writing new material. This time we got together in a room and the songs just flew out of us."They started to play on a semi-regular basis and then late last year, signed a deal with Portland indie label Tim/Kerr. But, because of a quirk of music industry wheeling and dealing, they've ended up on a major label for the first time in their lives. The newly released disc, Beauty Lies, is on Mercury Records. When the Bush Tetras' album was being readied for release, Tim/Kerr had a distribution deal with Mercury that quickly soured. "It was a short marriage, they got divorced and the kids went to live with Dad on Mercury," Kennedy quips. Beauty Lies was released with the Tim/Kerr logo on it because the artwork was already done when the split occurred.Though Beauty Lies includes two tracks, "Page 18" and "Find a Lie," that were produced by Henry Rollins for a single released on Tim/Kerr last fall, a bulk of the album was produced by former Labelle member Nona Hendryx. "She's got an incredible sense of musicality. She was always there with the right tempo for a song or the right idea for a melody. One of the reasons we were so excited about using her is that she comes from a tradition of singing. Cynthia has some stuff she wanted to try with backup vocals that we'd never done on our old recordings. We wanted to try some new things in terms of textures of sounds."Old Tetras fans will certainly recognize the underlying funky grooves, the snaky guitar and the potent vocals as part of the classic Tetras sound. However, the band has achieved a rougher, thicker sound that's more aggressive than they've ever been on tunes like "Satan Is a Bummer" and "Mental Mishap." The title track and "Color Green" are fevered hard rock that find Sley driving her voice harder than she ever has in the past, into Ann Wilson (Heart) territory. Yet "Mr. Love Song," (which features backing vocals by Hendryx and Darlene Love), has some of the wiry, sidelong pizzazz of early Tetras.Though their day jobs prevent the Tetras from doing the kind of grueling non-stop touring that some people think is necessary to sell a band, Kennedy's not so sure the old get-in-the-van approach is so crucial. "We're going to do some small legs -- the West Coast, a southern trip in the fall. At some point, we'll probably make a video." They'll also be doing some Midwest touring this summer that will probably bring them here to Cleveland.Proof that the Tetras' revival was no momentary fancy, the band has been writing more material and, says Kennedy, "We're nearly ready to start the next album.""At least we have a better handle on our motives now," she says. "We just want to make some interesting music, music that we'd like to hear."

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