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Pleading the Fifth

The Fifth Utility discovers the importance of not being so earnest.

I just want to share my sadness with the world," sighs Shane Montgomery Ewegen, singer and guitarist of Denver's Fifth Utility.

There's a problem with talking to the guys in the Fifth Utility: They're dead fucking serious. Even more serious, in fact, than their music might lead you to believe. The group's latest release, Ultra Nylon Life of Ease, is anything but a breeze to listen to. It's a challenging disc, dense and oppressive, thick with a murky ennui that belies its soaring majesty and lofty atmospherics. You'd get a killer view from the top of Ultra Nylon -- that is, if you could somehow cut through all the gray clouds and existential smog.

Of course, it takes only a few minutes to realize that Ewegen's stiff-upper-lipped facade is a little less impenetrable than it might appear. "Why are we so serious? Hmm, it's funny..." he deadpans. "I don't know what to say. I'm a very serious man. I hardly ever laugh. I hardly ever have any fun in any situation. And it is true that our music has a very poor sense of humor. It's not very eager to talk or make fun of itself."

The Fifth dimension: Shane Montgomery Ewegen 
(from left), Pete Moses, Nick Moses and Nick 
Smalkowski are the Fifth Utility.
Mark Manger
The Fifth dimension: Shane Montgomery Ewegen (from left), Pete Moses, Nick Moses and Nick Smalkowski are the Fifth Utility.

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Like most rock bands, the Fifth Utility comprises four lily-white dudes in their twenties who could almost pass for some kind of unassuming gang. They even have a clubhouse of sorts, a two-story rental in the City Park West neighborhood where they rehearse and where three of the bandmembers reside. Walk in the front door and you'll hit the living room, a barely navigable labyrinth of boxes, cables, amps, microphones, computers, uncased CDs, stuffed monkeys, a Naugahyde-upholstered piano and, for furniture, two back seats taken from an extended-cab van. Dubbed the Utility Closet, the room is the nerve center of the group's in-house studio, where Ultra Nylonwas painstakingly recorded over the course of four months. Tacked to the walls are a guide to film noir cinema and an instructional poster titled "How to Do the 2-Step," complete with dotted-line footprints.

"We have an amazing collection of calendars," says Ewegen as he pushes a path through the detritus. He stops at a table cluttered with a Flannery O'Connor book and copies of Rolling Stoneand Enlightened Womanmagazine and digs out a rather disturbing George W. Bush 2004 Commemorative Calendar. "We also have one with pictures of all the prominent Republican families, like Madeleine Albright's," he adds. "And they're all naked."

Wait, was that a joke?

Ewegen continues through the kitchen (where he hospitably offers a glass of soy milk or some vegetarian sausage) before making his way down a precipitous flight of stairs and into the basement -- the Fifth Utility's sanctum sanctorum. The ceiling is low, and the whole room is cocooned in blankets, fragments of carpet and a tacky tapestry of a peacock. Littered throughout the cramped space are laptops, keyboards and battered effects pedals. As the rest of the band files down for practice, Ewegen straps on his guitar, adjusts his mike and apologizes for what he predicts will be a rough rehearsal. They haven't played together for three weeks, he warns, ever since they got back from their last tour, a week-long trek down the West Coast.

The instant the four of them hit a note, though, all caveats are forgotten. The small room can scarcely contain the sound pouring out of them, a storm front of melody and emotion that engulfs their house (and probably a couple of the neighbors') in a dismal, monolithic din. True to form, it's somber listening. Drummer Nick Smalkowski spins tangled rhythms and off-kilter signatures that seethe in and out of the bass lines of Nick Moses, who casually bruises bowels with the barest brush of his fingertips against the strings. Beneath all this, Nick's brother Pete and fellow singer/guitarist Ewegen strum and strangle their guitars into the contorted shapes of suspended chords, dissonant harmonics and circuit-sculpted feedback. Their voices are punctured lungs; their words are last gasps. The players stand there, stoic and self-conscious, grimacing occasionally at a hardly audible dropped beat or missed note.

Christ, these guys need to lighten up.

"Personally, I think we should play a song that's not so fucking dour," says Pete Moses after four back-to-back dirges that make "Don't Fear the Reaper" sound like a Barney song. Moses then glances around the basement at his bandmates, all of them stiff and visibly nervous with someone sitting in their practice space, documenting their every word and action. "You guys ever notice," he asks wryly, "how much less funny we are when someone's watching?"

After practice, upstairs in Ewegen's tiny, bookshelf-crammed bedroom, the Fifth Utility tries to throw light upon its apparent lack of mirth. "I take this music very seriously. There's always a model -- the song in heaven -- which we're trying to make something in reality sound like," Ewegen explains as if reading straight from one of the fat books on Plato stacked behind him. "Quite a few people have objected to me in the past about our music, saying that it's not very fun to listen to. It doesn't give one an opportunity to dance or hop around or sing along. But that's not what music is for me, and that's not what I want my music to be for other people. I want people to patiently endure what I have done." At this he cracks a sphinx-like smile before summoning his best Mr. Spock face. "Entertainment," he concludes, "is peripheral."

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