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ANGST CAN BE SUCH FUN : King Missile's Singer and Lyricist John S. Hall Puts a Smile on the Face of Alienation

April 29, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

In alternative rock circles, alienation has been king, is king and may ever be king. After all, most of the people playing the stuff, and even more of the fans buying it, are in that 15-to-30 age group when youthful idealism almost inevitably gives way to disillusionment (those who were of that age back in hippie daze may have taken a little longer to understand this inevitability).

But every king needs a jester--even King Alienation. That's where King Missile comes in.

The New York City band's singer and lyricist, John S. Hall, is as alienated as they come. But rather than simply wallow and roar, the all-too-common reaction to anger and disillusionment among today's popular grunge-rockers, Hall likes to poke a little fun at himself and his genre's excesses of Angst .

Guitarist Dave Rick, bassist Chris Xefos and drummer Roger Murdock support Hall's jibes with some seriously good playing. Their ability, whether with metallic grunge, psychedelic music or jangly melodic-rock, allows King Missile to range widely in its musical satire--and to keep fans entertained if they'd rather groove on the music than follow Hall's wordplay. Some of that wordplay comes in the form of loopy narrations spoken over music, a technique that owes a debt to such absurdist '60s nuggets as "The Gift," a horrific little tale John Cale contributed to the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" album, and "Rhinocratic Oaths" by the Bonzo Dog Band.

King Missile came up through the independent-underground ranks during the late-'80s on the Shimmy-Disc label and graduated to the majors with "The Way to Salvation," a 1991 release on Atlantic. With its current album ("Happy Hour"), the four-man band has broadened its audience, thanks largely to a novelty item called "Detachable Penis" that received plenty of exposure on college radio.

"Detachable," when you come down to it, is just a penis joke (and not a dirty one). King Missile is more interesting when satirizing some of the other stuff that gets played on college stations. "And" is a deliberately inarticulate send-up of funk-metal. The melodic-buzz approach of "VvV (VulvaVoid)" calls to mind the Lemonheads' alternative-rock hit "It's A Shame About Ray." But King Missile's rendition takes playful liberties with the sad-sack attitude often expressed in such songs.

"Anywhere" is the sort of wistful-jangly song that a lot of serious-minded post-R.E.M. bands would love to have written--except that its lyrics spoof the genre's tendency toward solipsism and self-pitying, self-important introspection.

"The Evil Children," a melodic grunge-rocker a la Pearl Jam, simultaneously mocks and defends a twentysomething "slacker" generation whose overgeneralizing elders are ready to write off as terminally alienated and ill-equipped for any sort of future. In a schoolmarmish voice, Hall chastises a group of supposed bad seeds who can't seem to sprout actual flowers of evil:

All their lives, people expected them to do bad.

They almost never delivered.

The song implies that slackers are getting an undeserved bad rep. But it also slyly suggests that, being slackers, they're even bad at being bad.

That sort of ambivalence proves to be an asset for King Missile. The downfall of many satiric rockers is that they can't hide their satisfaction with their own cleverness and the inferiority of their targets. But Hall avoids self-congratulation. There's certainly a wise-guy streak in his whiny delivery, but there also is a sense of genuine bewilderment. Hall may be poking fun at alienation, but that doesn't mean he isn't alienated. You get the sense that, ultimately, the members of King Missile are laughing at tendencies they see in themselves.

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