Good and messy

So here's where we find out if Island Records' explanation last year about "artist development" and "organic growth" was a square deal or an excuse for stalling the inevitable disappointment of commercial failure.

Island is counting on Tripping Daisy to hit big this time around, confident that I Am an Elastic Firecracker will soar where Bill sank and, at first listen, it's a pick-to-click: If the Daisy's debut on Dragon Street Records in 1992 was a thin and familiar near-knockoff of all things popular at the time (from Nirvana to Jane's Addiction and even to other bands on Dragon Street at the time), then its follow-up takes chances and digs deeper and stretches out and does right what Bill did wrong. Even more to the point, it sounds bigger and stronger and more confident, flesh-fat-and-blood where Bill was all bare bones.

But for a band that has risen to local fame on pop-rock band sidetracked into psychedelia, its once-famous slide show a main attraction, Tripping Daisy has evolved into something less tangible and more ineffable, smoke instead of mirrors. Only a handful of songs could be deemed catchy, and then only at their surface, while the bulk are dense and moody and ethereal and even powerful--the difference between crawling and running, between arrogance and confidence. Which means the Daisy's pretensions (if not their hearts) are in the right place--guitar-rock that sounds best when the electric guitars are traded for acoustic ones (the fragile "Motivation"), whispers that build into roars, lyrics easily heard but rarely understood (but sometimes they rhyme!).

Live, Tripping Daisy--singer Tim DeLaughter, guitarist Wes Berggren, bassist Mark Pirro, and drummer Bryan Wakeland-- is an astonishingly good pop band, its music falling down on the adoring crowd like a cold and refreshing rain shower that bounces off flesh. But on album--where the nuances can be heard through the clamor, the rattle of bass strings and the stray notes of an electric guitar evident in all their sonic clarity--the Daisy comes off as something larger than pop, more messy and all the better for it.

It comes as little surprise that Island chose "I Got a Girl" as the first single. It's by far the catchiest thing here, its lyrics easy to remember ("I got a girl who wears cool shoes/I got a girl who wears them in the nude") and its melody hummable even when it falls apart. And on an album that is deceptively accessible, "Girl" is all naivete and sweetness and easy charm--the rare obvious song on an album that declares its intentions with abstract words written and performed by a frontman who whines as much as he sings.

But "Girl" ultimately is the weakest track on Firecracker because it is so simple--small even when it explodes. Where the rest of the record busts loose and manages to burrow deeper into the skin and toward the heart, "Girl" brushes past so quickly--perhaps the mark of a true "hit single" that demands little of its audience but hardly the best representation of a band that seems to want to be more than your one-night stand.

The longer Firecracker plays itself out, the more you discover that this band is willing to sacrifice riffs and hooks for mood and texture. Where Bill started and stopped, as though made by a band determined to score a single or five, Firecracker seethes and burns and mopes and shrugs; it's more a complete entity from start to finish, not so easy to pick apart without toppling the whole house of cards. "Raindrop," for instance, is a terrific companion-counterpart-lead-in to "Step Behind"--the former an unrelenting rocker with a simple chorus of "Insecurity/insecure," the latter a dreamy piece of psychedelic pop that kicks off with the lyric, "I'm too good to be by myself again."

Firecracker is the kind of album that sandwiches "I Got a Girl" between the loping, hypnotic "Bang" and the sneering "Piranha" (an R.E.M. soundalike that is a tirade against rock critics, at least according to the band bio). And then there's a song like "Same Dress New Day," which manages to be creepy and giddy all at once (and, again according to the bio, it's about an aged hooker). But "Prick," the anti-heroin anthem, is both the album's grand accomplishment and biggest disappointment, with Tim DeLaughter both sympathetic ("I know why you need to kill all the pain there") and condemning ("You force me to walk around you") of a friend's heroin addiction.

Like, say, the Velvet Underground's "Heroin," "Prick" seeks that rush of drug and adrenaline and euphoria, the music losing its shape as it becomes louder and more terrifying. But where "Heroin" is like a dream that mutates into a nightmare, "Prick" begins and ends at the same place--shards of loud guitar intertwined with a pounding beat, taking the occasional detour into something resembling "jazz." The result is more like metal and more typical than anything else on Firecracker, most of which doesn't sound like anything else.

The record closes with an anticlimax--the appropriately titled "High," for which DeLaughter improvised the lyrics as the band played on and on and on. Smells like Edie Brickell.


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