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Echobelly

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ECHOBELLY

Double Door, March 13

By David Futrelle

It's no wonder the band has a lower-case name: the music of echobelly is about small pleasures and small rebellions. When the band took the stage at the Double Door last week, they produced a set of near-perfect replicas of their studio creations, tuneful pop songs served up with a self-depreciating attitude and a distinctively British charm. Singer Sonya Aurora Madan's voice was crisp and clear; the band was tight, doing its job with little fuss or flash; the guitar solos (such as they were) were note for note the same as on the band's two CDs. They delivered what they promised--no more, no less. With her unabashedly pretty, slightly overenunciated singing voice, Madan will never be mistaken for Polly Harvey. And the band's music--propelled by a standard lineup of guitars and bass--won't win any awards for innovation; it's less an attempt to create something new than an effort to recapture some the poppy energy of early punk--to kick music forward by kicking it back to 1977.

But echobelly--responsible for two albums so far, the 1994 debut Everyone's Got One and last fall's On--is far more spunky than punky. Though the band often draws comparisons to the latter-day Britpop of bands like Elastica and Blur (and to earlier New Wave acts like Blondie), echobelly's best songs--"Insomniac" from the first album, "King of the Kerb" from the latest--recall some of the sheer fun of early bubblegum punksters like the Undertones, who sang songs about "chocolate and girls" (as they put it) as if their lives depended on it.

Well, the Undertones mixed together with X-Ray Spex: when Madan's voice heads into a high screech it sounds more than a little bit like Spex singer Poly-Styrene delivering her famous cry: "Oh bondage, up yours!" Madan, like Styrene, does sometimes sends her lyrics in the direction of the political--in, say, "Give Her a Gun," her oddly tentative paean to "the female aggressor" on the first album. And because of her heritage--she's Asian--she tends to get asked a lot of questions about British racism.

But Madan isn't really interested in making agitprop pop. Most of her songs are more personal creations, songs about love and sex and the complexities of human emotion, written with an oddly endearing enthusiasm and an astonishing lack of self-consciousness. As I listen to echobelly, I'm reminded of a slender 1981 volume of essays called Feminism for Girls: An Adventure Story. The book, like the music of echobelly, is about the small triumphs of everyday life. It's not a book written primarily for young feminists, but rather, as co-editor Angela McRobbie puts it, to reach out to those "who resist the seemingly natural outcome of their sex in small but obstinate gestures, who are stubbornly opposed to the assumption that there are a great number of things girls can't do."

Feminism For Girls is a typically sprightly example of cultural studies as it was practiced in the days before its migration to America, inspired as much by the energy of punk music as by the innovations of the University of Birmingham sociologists who invented the genre in the first place. The book refuses to stuff young girls into standard sociological categories, to project upon them the hopes and fantasies of older and perhaps overly wistful academic radicals. It's a book that attempts to understand resistance where it finds it--not in this or that organization or cause but in "pop culture, language [and] gesture," uncovering the innumerable little rebellions of girls who don't take the "direct escape route into feminism, [but] more a meandering path through things like poetry, social issues, even school drama"--and, of course, pop music.

On this side of the ocean, of course, "pop" is a term of derision. Our best

pop musicians--from the boys in Green Day to the girls in Luscious Jackson--steadfastly avoid the label "pop," which seems to have been degraded forever by its association with "pop" stars like Michael Bolton and Mariah Carey. In the American lexicon (and to the designers of radio playlists), music such as echobelly's still qualifies as "alternative" or "college" rock, but its makers don't really think of it as rock at all.

They're making pop, and are not ashamed to admit it.

Madan writes songs that are, by contemporary gloom-rock standards, almost embarrassingly optimistic. At times, she begins to sound a bit like a self-help book. "Feed the fire, fan the flame/Till the world remembers your name," she sings in "Something Hot in a Cold Country," a kind of homage to positive thinking. It sounds almost silly expressed so plainly; in this country, we are used to musicians given to dramatizing their neuroses, transforming self-doubt into pathology and unwilling to admit to anything so base as simple ambition.

Especially if they are male. For adolescent boys (and for the perpetually adolescent twentysomething male), "success" often seems synonymous with "sell-out" or surrender, and so it's perhaps no wonder that so many of the male alternarockers now in vogue sound so much like Peter Pan, insistent on staying stuck in self-indulgent adolescent pathos, defiantly refusing to grow up. But for women, despite all the gains of feminism, unabashed ambition is still faintly taboo; success is still a kind of rebellion.

Americans would do well to learn something from echobelly, lest we drown in the sorrows of young Vedder.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Crump--RSP.

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