Desperate Measures

Compact discs' victory over vinyl wasn't merely a revolution of format. The change in sound quality, which at first furrowed brows, has altered the way musicians write, record and market themselves and has changed listeners' opinions about what sounds "right." Today wax recordings are more likely to disconcert: The way one can actually sense the contours of the space in which the band recorded seems strange to some, and the crackle of dust under a needle strikes many as quaint. As a result, practically the only people yet to champion the digital era are die-hard fans of ragged rock like that made by Starlite Desperation, a garage-glam outfit from Salinas, California. And Desperation vocalist/guitarist Dante White-Aliano is with them all the way. "I think vinyl actually sounds better," he declares. "I think it's a more tactile, sensual medium. I associate music more with vinyl than I do with CDs. I like the big picture, the smell--everything about it."

Given these sentiments, it's no surprise that Starlite Desperation's first album--Show You What a Baby Won't, on former Boulderite Sonny Kay's GSL Records imprint--has not yet been issued on CD. But White-Aliano and his cohorts (guitarist/ vocalist Dana Miller and drummer Jeff Moon) also have financial reasons for their decision. "On the level where we're at, CDs are actually pretty easy to make," he concedes. "But unless you have the kind of media saturation that, like, a major-label band gets, they can have the tendency to look like demos. For that reason, Sonny has found that for his main clientele, vinyl actually sells faster until a band is more well-known."

Fortunately, vinyl and Starlite Desperation make a perfect fit, in part because the group recorded and mixed its frenetic, minimalist tunes with the format in mind. "We did go for very specific results, and we feel pretty successful, especially for our first record, with achieving them," White-Aliano contends. "If it sounds raw, it's because it's supposed to." Still, he goes on, capturing the organic sound heard on band favorites such as old blues platters, the Stones' Let It Bleed and the Joy Division oeuvre was not an easy task. "All of us, especially Jeff, study recording and live sound technology quite a bit. But they had different techniques then, so we always wondered why it was so hard to achieve that these days."

The reason for this state of affairs, White-Aliano discovered, had as much to do with recording philosophies as it did with updated equipment. "We did use analog, but we didn't really use older technicians," White-Aliano relates. "There was a lot of tension in the studio at times. We had to really push for what we wanted.

"They automatically start doing something that they think is just neutral, but it's not neutral," he continues. "It's a specific sound, but since that's the norm now, they don't see it that way. They're so immersed in it that they think of it as just the way to do it, but it's an aesthetic decision. Oftentimes, they think that what we're going for is just crappy, but we don't think it's crappy. We find it ideal."

The vocalist recounts one instance where the band's notions clashed with the engineers' approach. "Once you lay down the basic tracks and something doesn't sound full, these days what people will do is just mess around with equalization and add more mid-range or high end or low end, and that will make everything sound fuller," he explains. "But it sounds more artificial, because what you're listening to after that is EQ and not tone. An older way--and the way we like to do it--is to add an instrument that actually has more of the frequency that's lacking, whether it's some percussion instrument or piano or triangle or whatever. Then it's fuller, but in a different way--and then you have two pure tones instead of one that's doctored up."

Despite these comments, Show You isn't loaded with instrumentation. Occasional keyboard touches contributed by Mazzy Star's Will Glenn turn up on the album, but in general, Starlite Desperation rattles by on little more than two guitars and a drum kit. White-Aliano claims that the players settled on the stripped-down lineup by default: "We just could not find a good bass player. But then we actually started finding ways to make it sound at least as full as many bands with bass players and started to get a lot more fascinated by the possibilities of how we could experiment with doing new things with that kind of setup that hadn't been done before, in our opinion."

Indeed, the lack of bass on the platter is not immediately noticeable. The credit for this achievement belongs to Miller, who maps a low, propellant groove that interfaces closely with the riffing of the other ax, creating a lean, wiry tangle. "It has a lot to do with frequencies," White-Aliano maintains. "With a bass and guitar, you're going to have a real high end and a real low end and not much in the middle. But we have a lot in the middle, and due to the kind of amps and guitars we use, we actually get a good low end, too. It's fragile and thick at the same time; it sounds pretty unique to my ears."

The casual listener may choose other adjectives. For all the combo's deliberation, the act's style smacks of late-Seventies/early-Eighties garage fodder. An example is "New Year's Bathroom Magic," which intentionally lends itself to multiple interpretations. "That's about both sex and drugs, but it's also about magic, ritual and sacrifice," White-Aliano discloses. "I just played with the concept of wanting something really badly and the various things that happen in a bathroom taking on an almost cult significance."

Observers unsympathetic to such tried-and-tried lava-lamp themes may dismiss White-Aliano and company as mere snots who crank their drag-strip rock through shitty components. Early in their careers, the Starlite three all but confirmed this impression by wrapping their skinny frames in velvet and the other type of vinyl. But as they've grown more confident in their songwriting, they've disposed of such blatant dandification.

"We wanted to project a certain vibe," White-Aliano admits. "But we wanted to do it through music, and now that the music does it, that's enough for us. A lot of other bands have been popping up that do what we were doing, and that kind of turned us off to it. It started to seem like some kind of revival movement, and we're not about that. We're not a retro band, and we didn't want to be pinned as such."

At the same time, White-Aliano recognizes that the only sure way of dodging this label would be to "make music with a calculator." In his view, "Playing a guitar is retro these days." But don't dismiss the performers as Luddites who would rather live in a cabin in Montana and write manifestos than utilize modern conveniences. After all, a jewel-boxed version of Show You, supplemented by a few of the group's early singles, is in the talking stages. "We do prefer vinyl," White-Aliano emphasizes. "But CDs are a necessary thing in this day and age."

Starlite Desperation, with Register. 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 20, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $4, 572-0822.


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