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Keeping it down

The prevailing wisdom is this: that rock music--as played with guitars, bass, and drums--has its charms, but also its limitations; that there's only so much you can do with those instruments without becoming repetitive and/or pedestrian; and that in order to be intelligent, rock-oriented music must look outward, toward new technology, new instrumentation, a new synthesis of old ideas. In response to such notions, it has become downright commonplace to find former punk-rockers fondling marimbas, former indie-rockers assembling string quartets, former new-wavers reborn as British techno heroes. Leave rock to the Luddites and the kids; let's go buy some turntables and a singing saw.

It's a philosophy that has produced its share of interesting music, to be sure. But it's also a cop-out: At a time when most rock is simplistic offal and the easiest solution has become moving away from the medium, the equal and perhaps greater challenge becomes wringing relevance from within the original framework--saying something interesting and sophisticated using guitar and bass and drums and maybe a keyboard. Like the man said, staying the course. And few current bands do so with as much smarts and grace as Bedhead.

Take the band's recently released third album, Transaction de Novo. It uses arrangements that make a bass sound like a guitar ("Exhume") and a guitar sound like a cello ("The Present"); it uses skittering rhythms that sound almost unplayable ("Psychosomatica"). And, as with all of the band's records, it does all that in the service of subtly intricate tunes, songs in which three guitar melodies braid and crescendo toward precise emotional peaks. In its own understated way, this quintet does most everything with conventional instrumentation that its more ostentatiously ambitious peers need technology or shtick to approach. With Bedhead, anything more would simply get in the way.

"It sounds silly to say, but mainstream rock music and even a lot of underground rock is just so fucking bad that you lose sight of the power that it has," says singer-guitarist Matt Kadane, who, along with his singer-guitarist brother, Bubba, formed Bedhead in 1991, writes its songs, and calls its creative shots. "It's really depressing that people don't perceive texture when three guitars play it, but they do when rock musicians play two violins and a viola. Just by virtue of doing something that's so obviously different, you get people to focus on you in a different way."

The Kadanes got most such blind experimentation out of the way long before they made their first record. The two natives of Wichita Falls moved to Dallas in the late '80s to attend Southern Methodist University; both before and after their arrival, the pair had amassed tapefuls of abortive attempts at songwriting, using any instruments they could find. When they first began to perform in Bedhead's precursor, Orange Schubert, they employed a violist--which didn't exactly help to discourage frequent comparisons to the Velvet Underground, even after they ditched the instrument and formed Bedhead in 1991 with guitarist Tench Coxe, bassist Kris Wheat, and drummer Trini Martinez.

"Before Bedhead, we tried multi-instrumentalist things," Bubba says. "We recorded songs with viola and accordion and vibes, you name it. We didn't think it was bad, but we thought it still wasn't there--otherwise we would've put out records. And then when the five of us started playing together and had the bulk of the songs that made up the first record, it felt like it was the most powerful version to date of this stuff. Everything we had tried before helped that; playing with a viola made us translate those parts into the guitar being played more like a viola."

The result--as heard on the band's 1993 debut album, WhatFunLifeWas--is concise and evocative, songs whose meticulous conception sacrifices nothing in the way of visceral power. The stereotypical Bedhead song begins softly, with mid-tempo rhythms and hushed guitar strums. Second and often third guitar parts slowly reveal themselves, the drumming becomes more insistent, until finally--and somehow seamlessly--the song has built to an often frenzied climax. Heady without being stilted, dynamic without being obvious, quiet but best heard loudly, Fun takes the simple and builds it into something deceptively complex. The record's lone fault is its production, which sometimes hides the guitar texture behind muddy walls of sound and, when combined with the Kadanes' vocal style (Matt handles most of the singing, but both sing with a quiet restraint that can skirt mumbling), makes many of the lyrics incomprehensible.

Fun garnered the band its share of accolades, and two subsequent EPs--4SongCDEP ('94) and The Dark Ages ('96)--rectified the debut's production problems but sustained its songwriting skill. For all its acclaim and talent, though, Bedhead adopted a kind of deliberate anti-careerism from the beginning. It submitted to relatively few interviews. Its first publicity photo showed only its instruments. It turned down several offers for major-label deals (all its records, save two early singles, have appeared on the Austin-based Trance Syndicate label, owned by Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey).

 

And its members have doggedly pursued other interests--an ideal that soon found them scattered across the country. Guitarist Coxe moved to Russia to teach English, returned to Dallas, moved to Boston, and finally settled in New York to teach and attend graduate school. Matt Kadane, meanwhile, enrolled in graduate school at Penn before relocating to Boston. He and his brother now write songs by trading tapes recorded on eight-track cassette and getting together several times a year for recording, rehearsal, and touring.

Beheaded, the band's second full-lengther ('96), suffers little from the distance. The record's most palpable difference from its predecessor is its more pervasive somberness; with the exception of the jaunty "Felo de Se" and a soaring coda to "Rest of the Day," it is almost entirely filled with hushed melancholia, the kind that has often gotten the band lumped in with lesser talents under such superficial misnomers as "slow-core" and "minimalist."

"To me, if minimalism means doing only what is essential, then why even have a word for it?" Bubba says. "To me, that's just good. You don't have any extraneous elements. But people don't really define minimalism that way. They confuse subtlety and concision with minimalism."

"Beheaded was such a quiet record out of necessity," Matt adds. "I was living in a small apartment. Some of the songs I did are really quiet with no drums because I couldn't think of anything to do, we couldn't practice, and I didn't want to wake up the neighbors. Being apart got us both into a different mind-set. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's a definite case of environment affecting the creative process."

Transaction de Novo, by contrast, represents the band at its most expansive. There's "Extramundane," a quick, catchy pop number driven by its jaunty rhythm guitar and maraca beats. There's the album-opening "Exhume," a slothful lullaby that crawls along on intertwining bass lines. There's the atypically rocking "Psychosomatica," its jagged guitars grating against a disorienting beat. There's the quiet finger-picking of "Half-thought." And there are "More than Ever" and the wonderful "Lepidoptera," two typical slow-builds that emote with the softest of gestures. With its clear, sparse production, Transaction also finds the lyrics more intelligible than ever. Given the Kadanes' attention to even the smallest musical detail, it's tempting to assume that their words are a subordinate to what goes behind them--especially given their penchant for mixing the vocals no higher than the instruments.

"It's not that Matt is uncomfortable with the words or that I am," Bubba says. "It's that sometimes it's just hard to do the radio-ready mix with the vocals way out in front. There are different techniques, and music listeners with no technical knowledge should realize that some soul record has a shitload of high end and reverb and the vocals and bass and the beat are out in front. It's done to somebody's taste, but it's also done to try to stand out on radio or in a store, and things are compressed so they can be as loud as possible.

"It's like advertising: People don't realize the kind of bullshit that people try to pull to sell something. Sometimes it's just hard not to put everything on an equal field, including the vocals. I admit that that could be a fault. But we put time into everything, so we want to hear it. The words and the vocal performance shouldn't be considered secondary."

As with earlier albums, Transaction's lyrics are all about inertia, be it physical or emotional. Most concern the latter: "If in every act, there's something good/I haven't done all the good things I could." Or, "I can't believe what kind of things I made myself believe." Or, "I can't force myself to say something/Any more than I can think of a thing to do." Articulate, self-effacing ruminations on passivity. It's the type of thing that, in the wrong hands, becomes trite or dull; Bedhead manages to turn its boredom into personal conviction. Or lack thereof.

"Bubba and I aren't really extroverted people, but for some reason I don't fully understand, I do feel like laying myself bare in the songs," Matt says. "That's why I don't like talking about this stuff. If we were in a band that played party rock, I'd have really good things to say. I'd say, 'On this record, we really wanted your balls to shake.' And it would make sense, because the music is so base, the words you use to describe it are never pretentious. On the other hand, I don't think our music...I think it's more sophisticated than that, and that's not even necessarily a compliment, so anything you say about it just falls into the realm of pretentiousness.

 

"But yeah, every song we've ever done has a title and has a theme and is about something, but it's usually about ambivalent feelings toward that something. And I think that's the most honest thing you can express. In any other aspect of my life, I really wouldn't want to admit to these things. You don't want to come across as a feckless, spineless milquetoast."

It's exactly that kind of honest pathos, though, that makes these songs ring true. By relying on smart understatement instead of overbearing cleverness, Bedhead reveals itself to be a rarity among rock bands: one with something to say and an ability to say it well. That the Kadanes do so with guitars scarcely makes the band regressive or obsolete. It simply makes them good.

"For one of the new songs, 'Lepidoptera,' we had to write down the music because the parts are complicated," Matt says. "There have been ideas like that that I think would be better if they could just be put into the hands of other musicians and played on different instruments. But as appealing as that is at times, doing something like that is never as gratifying as writing the music yourself, putting lyrics to it, playing it with your best friends, and having it mean something on a thousand different levels instead of just one.


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