The Reverend Howard Finster is a patron saint of the so-called outsider art movement. A simple preacher from Georgia, one day Finster looked at his thumbnail and discovered the face of God telling him that, from that day forward, he was to devote his life to painting. Finster took God up on the challenge and created thousands of colorful and amateurish but compelling works; one wound up on the cover of the Talking Heads' Little Creatures album, and his entire oeuvre is now coveted by collectors. There's a parallel going on in music: As corporate mega-labels have stepped up their efforts to pump out assembly-line music, interest in homemade recordings has increased as well. There's just something about the notion of a nerdy little guy recording songs in his basement, committing to tape the kinds of songs we all occasionally compose in the shower. And though the artists reviewed here haven't -- to our knowledge -- been directly commanded by God to create, they do represent some of our area's more off-kilter offerings, from folks you're not likely to see at the Cricket or the Fox anytime soon. Which, presumably, is just fine with them.
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Rollinsville, the teeny mountain town known for its microbrews, may seem an unlikely breeding ground for quirky intellectual pop. But that's precisely what we encountered from the very first moments of In Eldora, an out-of-the blue, eight-song CD from singer/songwriter Dan Carrigan. There's a definite homemade charm to this collection -- which seems to have been recorded on a four-track -- and Carrigan's delivery is subdued and modest, a quality that should endear him to indie purists and those who favor K Records offerings like the Halo Benders. Carrigan's songs rely heavily on multilayered vocal tracks, muted guitars -- even ukuleles and the occasional found sound; thematically, he's tapped the same absurdist well as artists like Daniel Johnston. "Lose My This" finds Carrigan wishing he could be like a mushroom, like a big balloon that stays still, like anything other than the people around him. "I'd rather drop out, or even take a nap," he sings. "Everyone gets so wacky when they wander in the aftermath." He deadpans through "Whisk," where a list of household chores serves as both chorus and verse (accompanied by what sounds like someone banging a screwdriver on a skillet and a background chorus of swirling Makita drills). "Kangaroo" is a childlike lyrical gem in which Carrigan views subjects like love, Alfalfa's-shopping hipsters and paying the rent through a dadaist kaleidoscope, and "Today" finds him celebrating the simple pleasures of not going to work: "Today is the day that I say is my day off/I'm not restless, I'll just make some breakfast, since this is my day off, yeah." He is whistling throughout, and, come to think of it, In Eldora is likely to inspire that same glee in listeners who share his left-of-center sensibilities. (OK-7 Documents, P.O. Box 311, Rollinsville, CO 80474-0311).
Peter Tonks's lyrical attack is much more biting. Reality Ranch, Tonks's latest nine-song cassette recording, is the 24th offering from Cowtown Productions, a project he started with friends from bands like the Fluid and '57 Lesbian back in 1985. Ranch finds Tonks again aiming his caustic -- and often hilarious -- poetry at familiar topics like consumerism, selling out, corporate spirituality and, of course, young urban professionals. His lyrics are delivered with a non-singerly drawl that at times sounds like the combination of a disembodied David Byrne, a cheesed-off Jonathan Richman and Lou Reed ranting in iambic pentameter. Tonks may have drawn inspiration from his days as a host of "Over the Edge," a long-gone postmodern radio show on KGNU: Ever present in this muddy mix is the crunch of guitars, and a wall of fuzz permeates each tune. Occasionally, Tonks's harmonica solos add to the general sense of discordant abandon; it's the sound of a subversive poet skronking through middle age, refusing to give in and join "the smart button-down six-foot sellouts in a three-piece suit/Staring at the dead pig's belly" (from "Summer 1967 High Over the Sheep Meadow"). All in all, Reality Ranch contains more social indictments than the Starr Report. "Not Every Bullet Comes From a Gun," for example, is a slam on Los Angeles culture in its entirety. "In the country of SoCal they do not bury their dead/They stack 'em high in sterile condos/And bow at the automobile altar/While the police helicopters scream overhead," he sings. "No one stops/They just...drive." Yet there are also more quiet, personal moments, such as "Ghost Story," in which Tonks approaches something that resembles singing, and the sweet "Lucy Dances," a song that initially appears to be about a lover but is actually inspired by his dog: "She's always there/Head shakin', tail waggin'." Guess when you're aiming to produce more than 2,000 cassettes' worth of material, as Tonks claims he is, almost any topic is fair game. Reality Ranch makes it clear that Tonks is a unique and astute social observer. Just don't try to purchase his tapes with your gold card. (Cowtown, P.O. Box 102313, Denver, CO 80250).
On the first listen to his latest EP Kissing Rock Stars, singer/songwriter Breck Alan sounds an awful lot like the Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, singing gloomily about love and lamenting lost relationships with a voice that's made all the more sensitive by the occasional bit of choked-up vibrato. Yet repeated listenings reveal that Alan has more in common with songwriters who don't forsake a sense of humor for the serious-young-man bit, folks like Dan Bern (whose topics include the enormity of his testicles and his desire to be Tiger Woods). Alan's "One More Day" (which has enjoyed some airplay on the country's KBCO-esque stations) comes off like an easy acoustic ditty before he indulges his inner goofball with an Oscar the Grouch voice that sneaks in and out of a chorus of soulful backing vocalists and Alan himself, who continues crooning as if he weren't even aware of the disturbance. "Don't Mess Around" is another track that borders on the silly while preserving musical integrity; the sound is respectably funky with lyrics that would make Beck proud ("She always had cash, she was a day tripper/Said she was a lawyer, but she was a stripper"). But Alan never gives the impression that he's hoping to find a niche as some sort of quirky comedic songwriter, and his experiments with character voices and oddball lyrics only make his more straightfaced moments -- like the lovely daydream of "A Man and His Beautiful Wife" -- resonate all the more. Alan, who plays guitar, bass and occasionally drums on Kissing Rock Stars, is reportedly drawing interest from major labels, including Capitol -- no surprise, considering his music is accessible and feel-good enough to garner even drive-time radio play. Fortunately, he's talented, and fun, which should reduce the saccharine levels at the stations he seems destined for. (Available through Joe's Grille, 1-800-563-7474.)
Morning Gut Tree is the title of the debut ten-song disc from eleven2go, an arty, Denver-based five-piece that employs three songwriters: guitarists/vocalists Josh Schachterle and João Cowperthwaite and bassist/vocalist Josh Rains. The result of all this creative democracy is an album that has the consistency of powdered potatoes. The only thematic thread here lies in the solid and lovely violin work of Jessie Vanden Hogen, whose playing remains unwavering and expressive throughout, whether she's clipping along with the more rocking numbers favored by Schachterle ("Background Noise," "Let it Down"), shadowing the slow-moving, sometimes rootsy fare offered by Rains ("Think," "Heavy Rain") or bouncing artfully around Cowperthwaite's impressionistic, largely instrumental compositions ("Archives," "Drifting"). Though not always successful, eleven2go is clearly ambitious. The bandmembers mate strings and spindly acoustic guitars with aggressive electric power chords, and they play with time signatures in a way that suggests they've been influenced by such bands as Luna and the Afghan Wigs. But there's not always a clear method to their sonic madness: At times the style collisions feel heavy-handed, and the often-flat offerings of the rotating vocalists only further our suspicion that eleven2go is unsure of where a particular song is going. Too bad Cowperthwaite didn't take more of a leadership position -- his two contributions offer some of the disc's most cohesive and promising moments. As it is, Morning Gut Tree feels like the product of a three-headed monster that hasn't quite figured out which entity has the clearest vision. (Available via www.cagefreerecords.com, www.eleven2go.com, or by calling 303-595-1066; eleven2go performs May 27 at Herman's Hideaway.)