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Railroad Jerk on Track to Move Beyond Indie Circles

March 07, 1995|LORRAINE ALI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On Railroad Jerk's new album, "One Track Mind," singer Marcellus Hall calls out his lyrics as if he were a conductor announcing a train's destinations. His sing-speak style is appropriate--the singer last worked as a subway conductor on Brooklyn's F train.

But there's more behind his awkward delivery than just Transit Authority training. The 29-year-old's words ricochet off one another like marbles.

"I made up the band's name 'cause I liked the clack and clang of the two words together," Hall says. "They made sense to me. Since, people have said the name reflects the sound of the band. I guess it's 'cause we have a herky-jerky sound too."

"One Track Mind," the New York quartet's fourth album, mixes the cold dissonance and twitchy tick of the Fall with tight, syncopated rhythms, then tops it off with Hall's wiry voice.

His oddball sense of humor manifests itself in warped wordplay:

It's a roller coaster and it's bringing us closer / Many of us are becoming older / Your words are warm but your tone is colder / And I'm not worried / It takes a worried man to sing a worried song, and I'm not one of them!

Bassist Tony Lee, guitarist Alec Stephen and drummer Dave Varenka occasionally contribute a woozy sing-along for the drunken, after-bar party effect.

The band is well-known on New York's underground club scene, but the just-released "One Track Mind" promises to bring it beyond tight indie-rock circles. Compared with its past efforts, the album features a more accessible warmth beneath the stark music.

"We did let pop melodies seep in more," Hall says. "I was always hesitant to put them in there, even though it tastes good when you do. I wanted something more cold. I was always hesitant to be soulful and wanted to shy away from melody. It seemed too obvious. It always made me cringe when I saw people trying to be soulful."

Railroad Jerk started in 1989, and the following year it put out its first full album on the independent Matador Records. The band went on to release singles on other labels, go through several lineup changes (Hall and Lee are the only two originals) and do three U.S. tours in a rundown van.

Inspiration may not have come from wads of cash, but it did seep in from both modern-day and older sources.

"I was into a lot of punk, like the Fall, Soft Boys, Einsturzende Neubauten and the Birthday Party," Hall says. "But at the same time, I was getting records from the library by Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. To me there was a correlation between the two camps. It was raw and had humor. I wanted to blend the two."

Another ingredient in Railroad Jerk's sound is spontaneity.

"We sort of planned on being spontaneous this time around," Hall says. "We went into this album knowing spontaneity is real important. Some of the best stuff comes out when you just set up a mike at home. So we didn't rehearse a lot, just knowing when we went into the studio we'd just let it come out--wing it."

That off-the-cuff approach completes the philosophy.

"I like freedom in music," Hall says. "A piece of art or music should give you a sense of liberation. When an artist gives off the idea of possibilities, when you convey possibilities to listeners or the viewer, when they realize, 'Wow, look at all the possibilities of that medium or just the possibilities in life itself, of new things happening,' it opens up your mind. If you can do it with a comic sense, that's even better."

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