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).

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Keven Mcalester