Ghost of a band
3 Pound Universe
Wes Martin, the last-minute New Bohemian guitarist added shortly after the band got signed to Geffen in 1987, wrote most of this material five years ago, as the Bos were going bust; it was recorded in 1993 in Germany with former New Bos Matt Chamberlain on drums and percussion and Brad Houser on bass, in addition to a cast of musicians including Caf Noir's Gale Hess on violin and clarinet, and it was released last summer on an independent label in Germany that had Europe-only distribution, which makes it obscure any way you cut it. Yet 3 Pound Universe (so named for Martin's post-Bos band, which had a brief existence at places like Club Dada) deserves a better existence, even if Martin now dismisses it as "ancient" and "a reaction to and an attempt at purging New Bohemia."
It's a remarkable piece of work, the sort of "rock" record that transcends such a lowbrow definition; it's art-rock by strict explication, somewhere between XTC (melodic structures hold equal weight with atmospheric textures) and Discipline-era King Crimson (Martin sounds not so different than Adrian Belew, himself a quirky and compelling singer with an ethereal guitar sound) and a small Beatles obsession. But it's also country swing, ambient, sometimes even approaching "jazz" till it backs off into an even more fragile setting--thanks in large part to Hess' ability to fill in the blanks one minute then become the empty spaces the next.
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3 Pound Universe is the sort of record Mildred might have made had the Brothers Rueffer not ditched art-rock for straight-faced pop. The songs soar ("Magpie") and whisper ("Providence & Method"), go for subtle and bizarre beauty ("As the Ostrich Flies") even as the sound gets creepier and creepier. Half the time, you can't tell what's being played--is it violin or guitar? clarinet or trumpet?--but it hardly matters in the end. The best records work when you don't pay any attention to how the music's made.
It succeeds because it doesn't try to be a rock record and because it takes itself seriously as an "art" project but never becomes so self-absorbed you can't get inside the music. Martin, Chamberlain, Houser, Hess, producer-multi-instrumentalist David Torn, and the other musicians create this ambient texture where instruments get piled on top of each other but are never in the way. And if Martin does get tangled up in the language sometimes--he leans toward the abstract instead of the concrete, and when he's not being obscure he's just being incoherent--then at least he justifies the words by propping them up with a special, spectral sound.
3 Pound Universe is available from CMP Records, 530 N. Third St., Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401.