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Milo Binder: Outsider Looking In : The Los Angeles singer-songwriter, who performs Saturday at the Coach House, pursues an individualistic style that could leave him lost in radio's wilderness. : Milo Binder swiped his stage name from a character in Joseph Heller's most famous novel.

January 10, 1991|MIKE BOEHM

Now the Los Angeles singer-songwriter is wondering whether he will be caught in the pop music world's own version of "Catch-22."

Binder, who opens for Donovan Saturday night at the Coach House, recently released a debut album that shows him to be a pop individualist. "Milo Binder" is the work of someone who, unlike the great majority of people who pick up guitar and pen, has his own way of seeing things, and the kind of personal voice that can address universal issues without falling back on cliches.

It is also the sort of album that could fail to find the audience it deserves. Binder's songs may be too demanding for the adult-pop radio format that is the main outlet these days for acoustic-oriented performers. At the same time, he worries that alternative- and college-radio programmers will find it too soft, too reflective.

Binder (the alias rhymes with "kinder," and is a shortened take on the Heller character, Milo Minderbinder), found himself wondering about his chances to fit in when he attended a conference in New York last October, sponsored by the College Music Journal, the leading chronicler of the alternative- and college-radio scene.

"The seminars were dealing with how college radio has lost its edge and has to get harder," Binder said in a recent phone interview. "I like things that have teeth, but I think the attitude has to be in service of something. It's a whole underground thing right now that says 'anger equals greatness,' and I'm not a big fan of that.

"It makes me feel out of place," he continued. "It lumps me in with the more sensitive people, and I don't feel I belong there, either. I feel a tremendous sense of being lumped in with Suzanne Vega and Michelle Shocked and Tracy Chapman, and all those people who were new two years ago, as if we all had a club somewhere and had meetings."

Binder's album on Alias Records, a San Francisco-based alternative-rock label, is engaging precisely because its perceptions are his own, rather than a "me-too" attempt to join some stylistic club. Binder, 25, has a knack for weaving in comic details and wry turns of phrase as he spins stories that ultimately turn out to be rueful or unsettling.

Not every songwriting mind is apt to churn out a tune like "Donald Thorn," a merger of sheer whimsy and deep pathos that starts off with a proposition that sounds comically absurd--"Donald Thorn slept late one morn, and missed his shot at being born." But Binder's nasal, homespun voice rises in anguish on a refrain that suggests something deeper: If we don't watch it, our lives can be as flat, meaningless and absurd as that of poor, unborn Donald.

Elsewhere, Binder engages such common experiences as fractured relationships, unemployment, greed and aging with a fresh perspective. Like a good short-story writer, he creates a mood and provides narrative details. Instead of moralizing, or inserting a red-flag verse that tells a beholder what to think, Binder lets us make our own connections.

"What you really want to do is bring up implications for people, to create a situation and have people walk away asking themselves the questions," Binder said. It's a trait he says he developed as a movie buff who applied the lessons of film storytelling to his songwriting. "Songs talk about feelings, and the idea (in film) is, 'What can you show people to inspire these feelings?" The airwaves and MTV are full of songs that serve up rote, ready-made, blatantly presented feelings. The subtler, more creative approach, the one Binder takes, is to present a slice of life that has emotion-provoking resonance.

Binder didn't get all of his songwriting ideas at the movies. He clearly has done some profitable listening to some of the best models around. Ray Davies, Randy Newman, John Prine, the Beatles and Paul Simon are among the sources he cited during the interview. His common device of putting humorous details in sad songs comes from them.

"A lot of my favorite writers do that. I stole that from everybody," he confessed cheerfully. "A big thing is getting past your influences." For Binder that means scrapping songs "all the time" because he detects too much similarity to something that has already been done. "A lot of times I don't even finish the song if it sounds too much like (something else). So much terrain has been covered. There have been so many great songwriters."

He figures it is less draining to make the effort to sound fresh than to lapse into by-the-numbers songwriting. "People are still writing lines like, 'Girl, you know it's true.' What does that mean in our life anymore? It kind of saps my energy away to hear that."

Over the past few years, Binder built a buzz for himself on the Los Angeles acoustic-music scene on the strength of his songwriting and his ability to win audiences over with humorous patter between songs.

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