I can tell you that Arson Garden may be the only North American art-rock band that matters, and I can tell you that they come from Bloomington, Indiana, but after that I can't tell you much. Sometimes they sound like a punk band--like a tightly controlled Mission of Burma, for example, when they cover Burma's "Trem Two." Sometimes they sound like an art-school band: you might think of the Sugarcubes (for a couple seconds anyway) when you first hear vocalist April Combs, or when you notice the frequent tempo changes in their first LP, Under Towers. Most of the time, however, Arson Garden sounds like nothing you've heard, an audacious new minor-key mixture of hard-rock sonic power, punk-rock energy, and art-rock ambitiousness and literacy.
Listen to "Lash" as presented in a sparsely attended show at the Avalon a few months back. The verses' loping rhythm guitar built slowly, teasing with submerged menace, the volume briefly increasing twice, the cymbals crashing on key phrases then lowering to a soft minor-key arpeggio. At the refrain, the chords cascaded and April Combs sang venomously the bitter promise of violence: "I may lash out." The song paused to repeat this line and the instruments crescendoed with April, then retreated into the initial arpeggio.
Following a bridge, the singer broke into a punctiliously enunciated interlude in which she distantly observed a rival's movements (at a party, in her mind, in a dream?)--"see that brown-eyed Tina" she sang, every syllable pinched and quivering. She rolled her eyes, mocking the civility required of the situation, but twisted the microphone in her hands as though she was ready to pull the other woman's hair out. Quietly she sang a description of this Tina with a strange mix of adjectives that implied someone holy, something untouchable: "She walks / Within / Her love / Honest / Baptized / Realized." Symbolically there was more at stake than the affection of an old lover, who had completely disappeared from the song.
The two guitars crescendoed furiously; James Combs began bouncing off invisible walls and Michael Mann swayed out and back, while Clark Starr wove a typically swift bass line in and out between them. Drummer Joby Barnett held it together with tumbling, almost unrocklike beats. As April sang the final line, her voice intensified and deepened into a guttural shout, lips pulled back over her teeth, vocals still perfectly pitched but revealing anger underneath--"It's not my place to stare / It's impolite!" Her voice collapsed, as if drained by the outburst. It was hair-raising and absolutely convincing.
During a recent European tour, British radio mogul John Peel, who had already been playing tracks off Under Towers, was so impressed with the sound of Arson Garden that he offered them a prestigious Peel recording session for the BBC. Their new, as yet unreleased recording, Wisteria, features four terrific tracks from that session (including the shimmering distress of "Cold," the edgy anthem "Impossible Space") as well as new songs that are longer, more dour, and denser in textures than anything they've done before. The alternating tempos are still there, but the complex musical settings obscure them. The result is less immediately accessible than Under Towers, though at least two members of the band think the new recording is more poplike.
In any case, this is a band that has yet to be truly captured on record, and in concert it can create bristling aural monsters out of these new songs, squeezing out gleefully a variety of licks, squeals, and crackles, raising up a buzzing monolith of sound and then pulling it down quickly. During the encores things can get a little weird. You're liable to hear anything from a funked-up version of Heart's "Barracuda," whose power chords might goad April into demonstrating her air guitar, to a surprising, near-rockabilly take on "I May Be the Kind of Guy You Like," a recent leaden dance hit in which she coyly raps the verses and refuses to change the lyric's gender address. "We all pretty much agree on where we want to go, what we want to do with our own music," says guitarist James Combs. "It's the covers that we always argue about."
Arson Garden is included on Uncharted, a new compilation CD from March Records showcasing the work of 18 midwestern bands. They'll perform tonight, Friday, at a record release party along with Big Hat, Crossed Wire, Walt Mink, Busker Soundcheck, and the Hannibals. Music starts at 10 at Cabaret Metro, 3730 N. Clark; call 549-0203.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Corrigan.