By Sander Wolf
Moody vocalist/guitarist Duke Roth shies away from admitting that he plays the cello. After all, he was in one of Boston's hardest rocking bands, Bullet Lavolta, and his current band, Smackmelon, has been known to cause some serious ear damage in its own right. With that kind of lineage it just wouldn't be cool to admit something so straight. Punks don't do strings. When pressed, he'll 'fess-up and mention with a bit of suppressed pride that he, "Uh, I used to be quite good at it, but that was a long time ago." He's even in a legitimate orchestra as sort of a personal side project.
Of course, all you have to do is pop Smackmelon's new CD, Blue Hour, into your CD player and skip to track number two, "I'm Not Cool," to figure out the truth. With guitars and drums ablaze Roth repeatedly shouts out the title in his mellowed monotone. It's cathartic and possibly a bit tongue in cheek, but it's true.
Fortunately, it never was Roth's intention to start a "cool" band. When given the choice between opening for a "pop candy" band and a band with a surreal "dark stew" he'll choose the dark, peripheral sound every time. The irony of the whole situation is that he writes songs that are, for the most part, completely accessible. "Songs like 'Liar' are just so 'put-together,'" he explains, "I used to call that song our 'button-pusher.' It's a manipulative song in a way physically and mentally because it's got all these big hooks and riffs and stuff. It's got the whole build-up thing and it's cool, but there's other material on the record that is far superior."
Yep, true to form, Roth prefers the "really slow, ominous ones." Take the title track, for instance, the one Roth considers the album's masterpiece. A warbling, wayward guitar perfectly stretches out a mood which Roth has termed the "Blue Hour," the time "in-between dusk and twilight when the room you're sitting in is blue. The light's almost all gone, but it's not quite night yet." It's definitely not your typical three chord rocker and nowhere near instantly hum-able songs like the current single, "Drum Solo Song."
The group's energy comes primarily from drummer Robert Brazier who, in typical drummer fashion, has enough to compensate for his bandmates. No stranger to Boston's music scene himself, Brazier has at times been in the bands Orangutang and Atlas Shrugged among others. In fact, it was at an Atlas Shrugged rehearsal that Brazier, literally, opened the first door for Smackmelon. "I missed a call saying that Atlas Shrugged was rehearsing an hour later and showed up a the practice room early. I could hear Roth playing in the room across the hall and I was just so excited by what I heard that I had to find out who he was and introduce myself," gushes Brazier, "So, in effect, I'm the first Smackmelon fan."
Only three weeks later, after recruiting bassist Eric Jarmon from the Voodoo Dolls, the trio was in Boston's Ft. Apache Studio recording what would become the band's first release. "At that point, when we were in the studio, we were psyched if we could get through a whole song without messing up," recalls Brazier, "I think that's why it came out so well, it just had that immediacy to it." Six of the songs recorded in that session eventually found their way onto a self-titled CD put out by Boston indie-label Cherrydisc and the track "Space Shot" was put into regular rotation on local alternative radio. Blue Hour, originally slated for Cherrydisc, was recorded shortly after and woundup on majorlabel Relativity after the band's manager became an A&R rep. for the label.
With such a difference in personalities within Smackmelon it's a wonder the band has survived such a whirlwind of activity. "We actually get along musically the best," jokes Brazier, "it's when we're in the van fighting over the map at 4:00 a.m. trying to figure out how to get to the hotel that the breakdowns occur."
Punching and counter punching, supporting then stepping out, the music of Smackmelon is in a constant, welcome flux. An excessive drum fill here, an over-spoken guitar riff there. It's different, catching a listener off-guard and demanding attention and while Roth refuses to go over the line and add his cello, every bit of angst and melody you could want in an anthemic song is on Blue Hour. Smackmelon does all that and more, but please, whatever happens, don't call the band "cool."