California Tuffy

It's easy to understand why newcomers to the music of Los Angeles-based Geraldine Fibbers would be baffled at hearing the band tagged "alternative country" and seeing them featured in the pages of No Depression magazine, alternative country music's most prominent fanzine. The sullen, jittery music on their latest (and second) album, Butch, released last July on Virgin Records, suggests a more art- and life-damaged younger sister to '80s Los Angeles alternative favorites, Concrete Blonde.Like that band, Geraldine Fibbers feature lyrics full of stormy, apocalyptic poetry, set to a relentlessly tuneful caterwaul with a vaguely rootsy flavor. The use of acoustic bass and violin on many of the Fibbers' tunes and the countrified feel of "Folks Like Me" and "Pet Angel" (which features a sadly jaunty viola) are hardly enough to overcome the band's angular punk vibe and Carla Bozulich's gruff, ragged vocals that seem to be more inspired by Patti Smith or Chrissie Hynde than Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. Though both songs are clearly country songs in their melodies and arrangements, the ominous Southern Gothic lyrics and Bozulich's laconic, masculine-sounding vocal remodel them into something lacking the sympathetic populism of most country music, whether it's Son Volt or Garth Brooks.Actually, Geraldine Fibbers did begin its life about three years ago as a country side project for Bozulich -- then a member of an aggressive underground rock band called Ethyl Meatplow -- and the members of another band called Glue. As often happens with side projects, this one became more important than the members' primary bands. As it evolved into a priority, the members moved away from doing covers of country tunes and became more experimental, developing a sound of their own. A seven-song EP called Get Thee Gone in late 1974, on L.A. indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry, documents their early rough take on country music. But by the time they released their debut CD, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, in July, 1995, they were playing moody, foul-tempered post-punk in which Bozulich raged passionately about the bad results of lives carelessly lived. Songs like the incantatory "Lilybelle" and "A Song About Walls" with its unflinching lyrics about a relationship bonded by drug use had the feel of classics. Butch features 14 songs that are mostly more difficult and less structured than those on the last album, but no less beautiful. Its first song, "California Tuffy," catches the listener off guard, with a light, jangly guitar under Bozulich's terse staccato vocal: "A ball/of light/comes down/to bite me on the ass." Suddenly the song is abuzz like a swarm of wasps, while Bozulich carries on with a slashing finesse that Courtney Love can only dream of. "Toybox" and "I Killed the Cuckoo" are both full of pure punk energy, fueled by the manic guitar of Nels Cline. Bozulich's equally frantic vocals share Chrissie Hynde's ability to break up a haranguing vocal with sardonic asides. "Seven Or In 10" has a ragged punk-like grace, with drummer Kevin Lawrence and bassist William Tutton setting its spirited pace. The band is much more adventurous with arrangements on the new record, reaching further afield for sonic ideas. On the dark drone of the title tune, Bozulich's voice makes abrupt moves from sweet, high, clear angelic parts to harsh eruptions underscored by Cline's exploratory, occasionally even jazzy sounding, guitar. The spacey textured instrumental on "Claudine" seems plucked from the trick bag of Chicago post-rockers bands like Gastr Del Sol or Tortoise. On "Arrow to My Drunken Eye," a cello and viola fume while Bozulich's distorted vocal keens impressionistic lyrics like "Been a good day so I say my prayers. I say my prayers. Don't rescue me. I'm fine right where I am. I'm censor. I'm optic. I'm lake at high noon glittering ripple rip open cocoon." "The Dwarf Song," although soft and slow, creates an aura of unease through fractured, uneven phrases, scribbled upon by a grab-bag of instruments: viola, cello, violin, lap steel !guitar, glockenspiel, celeste, optigan, piano strings. If any further proof is needed that Geraldine Fibbers won't necessarily appeal to every Son Volt and Wilco fan, it's provided by their cover of '70s German electronic band Can's "You Doo Right" that sounds like the Velvet Underground fronted by Chrissie Hynde doing an early Elvis Presley tune. The Fibbers did tour last year with jangly roots rockers, the Jayhawks, who poached their violinist/violist Jesse Green (she's been replaced for touring purposes by Leyne Papach). Currently, however, they're teamed up with garage rockabilly punks, the Chrome Cranks. Though the music is very different, the Cranks' sensibility of noise and risk is closer to the Fibbers' own.

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