"Everybody in the band has different tastes," confides Tim Cloherty, singer and chief songwriter for SoHo pop group the Rake's Progress. "So when we write songs, we just sort of throw all the ingredients together into a big Rake's Progress casserole and hope for the best."
The final concoction produced by Cloherty and his fellow cooks--guitarists Gregg Lapkin and Stuart Klinger, bassist Bob Donlon and drummer Pete Klinger--could best be described as "modern-rock surprise." Jubilant guitar jangle, addlepated balladry and boozy, bohemian wit are all ingredients in the quintet's musical souffle.

These qualities and more can be found in abundance on Altitude, the band's full-length debut for the Geffen-affiliated ALMO Sounds imprint. Produced by alterna-guru Nick Sansano (Sonic Youth, the Bats), Altitude begins with "El Camino," an uncut, Iggy-like slammer about life on the road, and from there scatters into a variety of musical directions: polished white-boy funk ("When I Kiss Her"), airborne power pop ("Salvation," "Whatever"), even glittery bar-band fodder ("Heart Full of Stuff"). These descriptions may make the tunes seem derivative, but for the most part, Altitude is radio-friendly college rock served up smart and catchy.

Adding to the act's appeal are Cloherty's kooky lyrics, which bring to mind the surreal, wise-guy sarcasm of Cracker and Tripping Daisy. In particular, "I'll Talk My Way Out of This One," Cloherty's ode to mental illness and alien abduction, sounds as if it could have been penned by his West Coast alter ego, David Lowery. "My telephone is bugged/And all my food is drugged/I think they hide under the rug," he croons, sounding like a man trying desperately to maintain his composure. By song's end, though, Cloherty has clearly lost the battle with sanity: Bellowing the song's title over and over, he comes across like the punk-pop equivalent of Captain Queeg.

Despite this convincing performance, Cloherty insists that the character he portrays in "Talk" is purely fictional. "I wrote that song in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way," he recalls. "It's supposed to be coming from the viewpoint of a paranoid schizophrenic, so I can't really say that any of it really meant anything.

"I mean, I'm not really visited by spacemen or anything like that," he adds, laughing. "Although I did see a UFO once--and it scared the shit out of me."

Dig deeper and you'll find that the Rake's history is filled with similarly idiosyncratic tidbits. Rake guitarist Lapkin, for example, used to play David Letterman's troubled son, Hank, on Late Night With David Letterman. Bassist Donlon is a classically trained pianist who once gigged with Sven Bertil-Taube, known as "the Swedish Frank Sinatra." At age seven, Pete Klinger played Carnegie Hall as part of the Future Performers series, while his cousin Stuart found work as a classical guitarist and lute player in opera productions.

Even the band's name has an intriguing twist to it. Cloherty took the appellation from a series of William Hogarth etchings that depict the story of a wealthy youth who squanders his inheritance at an early age. For Cloherty, a former sculptor, the title holds particular significance. At age eighteen he received $30,000 in a court settlement involving a car accident; he managed to blow the whole wad in less than a year. When asked what he did with the money, Cloherty is direct and to the point. "I had a good time," he confides.

Cloherty has similar goals as regards the Rake's Progress. But this time around, he says he's willing to sacrifice immediate gratification for musical success over the long haul. "We've been doing this for so long, we don't want to give up now," he claims. "So we're all just itching to make things happen, rather than have to fall back on something else.

"I mean, sculpture isn't the best career in the world to fall back on," he continues. "At least this way I have four other guys in it with me."

The Rake's Progress, with Dead City Radio. 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 3, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 S. Broadway, $3, 778-9916; 9 p.m. Friday, January 5, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $1, 447-0095.


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