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Breaking Out of the Big Apple

September 01, 1996|Elysa Gardner

NEW YORK — Back in the mid-to-late '70s, downtown Manhattan was the country's most celebrated hotbed of fresh, iconoclastic musical talent.

At clubs such as Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, local acts like Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie spread the gospel of punk and new wave, helping to launch a revolution in pop music and pop culture that still reverberates two decades later.

In recent years, the New York-based bands that have garnered the most national attention have tended to be more classic-rock revivalists, such as Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors, than cutting-edge mavericks.

But observers of the scene say that the musical diversity in the Big Apple, and the opportunities available to fledgling musicians here, may be at an all-time high.

"I'd say that we've had more bands signed out of [CBGB's] in the past four years than in all the years before that," says Hilly Kristal, the man who founded and continues to run CBGB's. "In the '70s, when we started the club, very few record labels cared about the newest thing. Now music is so diverse; I think the labels are confused, and yet they see that people want newer music. Now you have combinations of acoustic and electric sounds, and sounds that are less straight-ahead rock. I think more and more the field is wide open for musicians to do their own thing."

So who's hot?

Among the genre-bending or just plain crowd-pleasing acts that are generating the most excitement at the moment: Mr. Henry, Magnetic Fields, Skeleton Key, the Knockout Drops, China Forbes and A Don Piper Situation.

Theresa Chambers, who as vice president for the club division of Delsener-Slater Enterprises books a number of the city's top nightspots--the Mercury Lounge, Town Hall, Webster Hall and Symphony Space, among others--attests to the different types of enthusiasm and devotion that these very different artists inspire.

"I think the Knockout Drops are an incredibly great live band, and I think they're gonna get signed up big," says Chambers. "Magnetic Fields are different. This is one of those cult bands, that no matter what time of night they play, and no matter where they play, people are gonna come see them. . . . Different music appeals to different ears."

Dave Ayers, vice president of A&R for Capitol Records, signed Skeleton Key to his label last December because, he says, "they don't sound like anybody else." The executive adds that the competition among these disparate acts is fierce.

"I think there are a lot of people out there struggling to make an impression," says Ayers. "There are just so many records and so many bands out there, and people have to work harder and harder to make themselves noticed."

Says Dave Slomin, Mr. Henry's singer and principal songwriter, "Basically, we'll go [play] anyplace within eight or 10 hours for 50 bucks and beer."

Here's Pop Eye's look at the bands making the most noise in New York:

Mr. Henry: Slomin likes to define his band's sound as "drunken Hemingway read through a black-face Vibrolux with one speaker ready to blow." However esoteric that may seem, the songs on Mr. Henry's two self-released albums, 1995's "As Good as the Ground" and 1996's "Tremolux," are basically straightforward, accessible, post-R.E.M. roots-pop--think Gin Blossoms, Counting Crows, Toad the Wet Sprocket, etc.

The 18-month-old group--whose lineup also includes guitarist Steve Conte, bassist Tom Spagnardi and drummer Neil Nunziato--is cited by many club bookers as one of their biggest draws. Mr. Henry was also recently listed among New York's five best unsigned bands by the recording academy's Grammy Showcase Committee.

Magnetic Fields: The brainchild of Stephin Merritt, a singer-songwriter-producer whose delightfully warm, quirky arrangements blend organic-sounding instrumentation with inventive postmodern gimmickry. Merritt actually juggles Magnetic Fields with three other band projects, including the 6ths, whose 1995 debut album was released on London Records. Though Merritt has done the lion's share of playing and programming on the five albums that Fields has put out since 1991, supporting musicians John Woo (guitar), Sam Davol (cello) and Claudia Gonson (drums) assume more prominent roles in live performance. The group records on Merge Records, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based label that's also home to indie-rock heroes Superchunk.

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