As we all know, Ron Miles is finally receiving national attention thanks to his recently consummated album pact with Grammavision and the appearance of his latest recording, the first-rate My Cruel Heart. But only a handful of locals recall that Miles's debut recording (Distance for Safety) was issued way back in 1987 on a Denver-based imprint, Prolific. The company has been anything but prolific over the past several years, but in recent months the man behind it--Arnie Swenson, formerly with the late, lamented Big Foot Torso--has once again put it into play via a pair of releases: Gamelan Tunas Mekar's vivid Music of Bali, Indonesia and Songs From the Hamster Theatre, an impressive disc from David Willey, a former member of Baldo Rex and Thinking Plague who's presently an accordionist and guitarist with the Denver Gentlemen.
According to Swenson, Prolific came about as a result of his friendship with Mark Fuller, the extraordinary drummer who engineered and produced My Cruel Heart, and Bob Drake, a musician now living in France and working with Chris Cutler of the cult band Art Bears. Drake had a label of his own--Endemic--that Prolific distributed during the late Eighties; together the two operations provided homes for worthy groups that operated outside predictable pigeonholes. Among Swenson's favorites were Thinking Plague, which he describes as "like Yes if they hadn't gone commercial," and Legacy of Sorrow, starring Miles, Fuller, Drake and onetime Jill Sobule keyboardist Eric Moon. "It was an improvisational band that basically mocked musical genre," Swenson notes. "It was like nonstop cliches for an hour and a half, and nobody was safe. They were hilarious."
Unfortunately, Prolific hit an insurmountable roadblock in 1989; Swenson, the self-described "responsible one" of the creative threesome behind the business, says, "I personally just kind of dropped out of everything. There was a divorce, bankruptcy..." A couple of years of lingering later, Swenson joined Big Foot Torso along with Fuller and Willey. That band, though idiosyncratic, quickly scared up a sizable local following but was unable to take the next step. The rough mixes of an uncompleted album still exist, and Swenson suggests that Fuller may someday finish them. But right now, he's more interested in a new career as a professional mountain biker. "He's been doing well," Swenson reports. "I think he's taking out his aggressions about the music industry on the rocks."
As for Swenson, he poured himself into a corporate job that by last October had taken its toll. He subsequently quit that gig and took a part-time position that allowed him time to revitalize Prolific. The discs that resulted from this decision demonstrate that he made the right choice. Music of Bali, Indonesia is a great way to immerse yourself in all things Balinese. Gamelan Tunas Mekar doesn't try to reconsider the traditional sound or place it in a modern context. Instead, the players knock themselves out to reproduce authentic Balinese music with as much feeling as they can muster, and their obsessiveness pays dividends. The CD is relaxing, yet it never becomes new-age numbing.
Hamster Theatre, meanwhile, is a fascinating collage of peculiar snippets ("Pookypoo" suggests carnival music as performed by the Residents) and adventurous soundscapes (the cryptic "Litost"). It's a challenging mix, and listeners who like their music in easily digestible nuggets may see the long-player as an exercise in tenacious obscurity. But more patient music fans will be rewarded by a disc that's unique and fully realized. Willey's achievement is even more impressive when you consider the lo-fi recording techniques he employed. "On a couple of songs, you can even hear cars driving past," he says. "At first I thought it was a little audacious to put out something that might not sound pristine, but Arnie liked it as it was." The intricacies of the pieces may make performing them live difficult, but Willey intends to try. He's rehearsing a new band, Hamster Theatre; among the impressive roster of players is ex-Big Footer John Stubbs. Expect the combo to begin performing in public within the next month or so.
Neither of the new Prolific CDs have torn up the marketplace yet, but Swenson believes that a slow and steady approach to marketing and the sheer quality of the music will eventually change that scenario. (Both are available at Wax Trax, or by writing Prolific at P.O. Box 482113, Denver 80248.) "It's a much bigger risk than it used to be," he concedes, "so I'm thinking about keeping it really simple and small. But I've learned tons since Prolific first started, and I'm going to keep on learning."
The Denver Rock n' Rhythm-Billy Festival, July 12 and 13, was both a fabulous fashion show--it looked like a throwback to 1957, except with more tattoos--and a musical blast featuring rockabilly revivalists from across the planet. Kurt Ohlen, who planned and executed the bash, pledges that it will become an annual event--and based on its success this year, that's one promise we're holding him to.
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Attention, Christians: These announcements are for you. On Monday, July 15, at Church in the City, 1530 Josephine, Five Iron Frenzy and three other alterna-Christian acts play at a show intended to raise funds for Church in the City's new roof. The following week, Saturday and Sunday, July 26 and 27, Vision '96, a two-day fest dubbed "Lollapalooza for Jesus" takes place at Crossroads Christian Church, 9725 West 50th Avenue; on the schedule are Deitiphobia, Bloomsday and many others. (Call 802-8287 to learn more about each of these events.) Finally, there's "Praise in the Rockies," a six-night concert series running July 28 through August 2 in Estes Park. Everyone who's anyone in big-time Christian music will be there, including Jars of Clay. (Get more information by dialing 428-5995.) I feel holier just telling you about it.
Good news--there's stuff for you sinners to do, too. On Thursday, July 18, the Girls congregate at the 6th Avenue Rock Cafe, and Five52Fern decorates the Bluebird Theater. On Friday, July 19, Sympathy F goes acoustic at the Acoma City Center, 1080 Acoma, with Satellite; Hell Camino fires up Cricket on the Hill, with Spiteboy; Wryeteous Pybayk Jammbory, Mime and Trio Fungus grow on you at the Bug Theater; and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra presents "Opera on the Rocks," a free concert at Red Rocks. On Saturday, July 20, Acoustic Junction headlines the Boulder Art Fest Concert at the Boulder Theater; the Jinns lather up at Soapy Smith's; Jimmy Eat World brings an appetite to the Mercury Cafe; and Brethren Fast speeds up at Herman's Hideaway. On Sunday, July 21, the Pan Jumbies visit Wheat Ridge's Panorama Park, 35th Avenue and Fenton, and Smif N Wessun will keep the hipsters hopping at the Fox Theatre. And on Monday, July 22, Three Fish (Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament's side project) take the bait at the Bug, with Kristen Barry. Don't let them off the hook.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@