Urge Overkill were the virtual rock stars of the early '90s, copping press attention beyond their record sales, winning the hearts of Geffen Records and Chrissie Hynde with their retro (but still modernly ironic) take on smooth and gleaming bubble-hard rock. Their smirking style made them redolent of cocktail culture (remember that?) without the vibraphones. (Their most widely heard track is their cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon," featured in Pulp Fiction.) Urge scandalized the grim Chicago indie-rock scene from which it arose with its shameless embrace of the trappings of rock stardom, '70s style.
But neither the imprimatur of Geffen (which released Urge's last two CDs, 1993's Saturation and 1995's Exit the Dragon) nor appearing with the already passé Pretender in the rock-and-roll gossip sheets could make the public care. Now, with Debutante, his first solo album since Urge's collapse, Nash Kato proves he couldn't care less about the public's indifference.
It's curious, since this kind of swaggering, cocky-but-smart hard rock, peppered with the occasional languid, mellow acoustic-picking number or middle eight, is a very public kind of art. No one would write a paean to ripe-fruit supermodel Laetitia Costa ("Octoroon") for any motive as banal as self-expression, would they? Surely that sort of move is inherently social, a call for the kids to rock. But then Kato follows that up with "Cradle Robbers," dripping with noble sadness as it lectures older men bird-dogging the young ladies to a mostly guitarless bass/drum lope so you can really, you know, listen to the words. The old men might know, but the kids probably won't understand.
Despite the occasional peculiarities--a cover of Steely Dan's "Dirty Work," for instance--Kato strikes a straightforward no-retreat, no-surrender, rock-till-he-drops stance here. While none of the songs is as elegantly and irresistibly constructed as Urge standouts like "Sister Havana" or "Bottle of Fur," Kato is still following the same muse, undaunted by the world's lack of concern. He's still singing the praises of strange women (like the titular "Zooey Suicide" and "Queen of the Gangstas") over loose-but-right brawny guitar riffs.
As smartly done as this record is, it's sort of dumb trying to get by these days selling rock as rock as this. It's fitting that Urge ended up virtual rock stars, since this kind of music is a virtual pop music these days, appealing only to a rapidly shrinking gaggle of cultists. Fans of Thin Lizzy and Bad Company and Nazareth--long may they all live--aren't really in the market for a new CD by some shades-wearing smart-ass from Chicago singing in his manly, sly baritone about being "Born in the Eighties." Every song here has parts perfectly suited to humming along or air guitaring, with solid classic-rock construction; rock-and-roll vice is clearly its own reward. Kato should hope rock-and-roll virtue is as well. Although Debutante adds honorably to the tradition, in a world of hybrid pop musics, this kind of skilled traditionalism won't have rock payin' the bills. Nash Kato performs June 15 at the Wreck Room.