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A Shot of Tasty, Streetwise Sounds : Aunt Bettys "Aunt Bettys"; EastWest (***)

November 06, 1996|MIKE BOEHM

The bad news for Aunt Bettys is that, according to leader Mike Knott, the band's record company decided not to lift a finger to promote this witty, decadent, catchy, assuredly rocking record. So within weeks of its August release, Knott says, Aunt Bettys negotiated their own release from a deal that had guaranteed a second album.

The good news is that the CD is out at all, giving the public a shot at something streetwise and tasty--and giving the four band members unassailable documentation should they choose to write off their bar tabs as business expenses.

Most of these 16 songs are drawn from acquaintances made and observations gleaned while Knott, the singer-songwriter, frequented some of Orange County's lower-down dives. From the well-lubricated sound of the playing and singing, he and his mates weren't just taking notes.

Knott is a black sheep strayed from his original flock in the Orange County alternative-Christian rock scene of the early '80s. As the album opens, all he is praying for is the chance to lap up a taste of oblivion:

Jesus, will you let me drink one more?

It helps me to ignore how much I've failed.

Soon, Knott is introducing us to some of the scurvy lot and sordid scenes that were imprinted in his memory while he sat sipping by the rail of forgetfulness. There's "Star Baby," the girl who claims her "mother was impregnated by some cute martian"; "Little Fighter," whose pimp-proffered services Knott declines; and the misanthropic Vietnam vet who claims that an inflatable "Suicide Sex Doll" is all the close company he needs.

"Kitty Courtesy" is a neighbor who Knott suspects is following the premise of "Sweeney Todd" in her kitchen, cooking up foul-smelling dishes that might be bits of her presumed-missing husband.

If the album were only a freak show, it might be worth no more than a single spin. But there is something very human in Aunt Bettys' gallery of the wounded and the harmfully obsessed, and Knott brings that out in the last few songs, in which strange encounters are replaced by warmer meditations on the nagging hurts that come with dead-end living.

At the end, the tightly drawn ballad "Double" literally brings it all back home as our bleary Ulysses, singing like a murmuring acoustic Bruce Springsteen or Paul Westerberg, returns from a soul-numbing late Saturday night of boozing to face wife, kid and, later in church, a preacher whose medicine doesn't strike our narrator as much better for the soul than the stuff he swigged the night before.

Aunt Bettys helpfully supply an antidote to these pervasive downers by playing raunchy, celebratory rock that takes most of its cues from the Rolling Stones, Mott the Hoople and glam-period David Bowie.

"Addict" surges like the Jim Carroll Band classic "People Who Died." No sooner have Aunt Bettys finished a catty dissection of the Stones' refusal to retire gracefully now that they're creatively all but kaput ("Skinny Bones Jones") than it's off on a decadent, jiving rocker, "Lush," that revels in the glory of the Stones' prime.

Andrew Carter's lead guitar provides a Mick Ronson-like sobbing warmth to go with its slicing bite. That sonic duality helps bring out the songs' thematic subtext, as Aunt Bettys find the common humanity in people whose failings polite society would deem unspeakable.

*

Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with *** denoting a solid recommendation.

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