That's the gambit Tim Locke uses to open Coma Rally, the self-titled debut by his "metalicious" new band, featuring a couple of familiar faces and one that's relatively new to Tim's musical orbit. Start with Calhoun, Tim's alt-countryish "other" band (comparisons, of course, suck, and never do the music justice, blah blah blah, but if you held a gun to my head, I suppose I'd have to say the proximate model for Calhoun would be Elliott Smith fronting Being There-era Wilco). Subtract Benroi Herring's keys and pedal steel, because this is a Rawk band, but keep the engine room of Byron Gordon and Max Lintner, only slightly retooled. (Byron traded his Washburn bass for a Fender Precision for this project; basic tasks require basic tools. And Max is a lot more driving and aggressive here than we've come to expect him to be. Then again, it's all down to what the songs require with him, and Coma Rally's material calls for a harder attack than Calhoun's does.) In place of utility muso extraordinaire Casey Diiorio, substitute Daniel Harville, one of Fort Worth's musical, chrome-domed Harville brothers, who had his brush with mass-ass success in Sugarbomb of "Hello" fame. (Myself, I still think Tastes Like Sugar, which sounded more like Queen, or at least Jellyfish, than any North Texas boys have a right to, was a better record overall than their major label release. But whatthehell do I know? Besides, I digress.)
The sound that pulls you into Coma Rally is a muffled blast of Trent Reznor-esque factory-noise percussion, interrupted by the sound of a guitar pick scraping against strings (a precursor of what's to follow), and the one that hits you over the head just after you've nailed the volume is the bandmembers joining in one by one for "Thanks, Alcohol" ("...You smashed it all"), a taut, tense slice of raw-nerved pop-rock worthy of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead or one of those bands. Tim's a walking compendium of every rock sound he's heard ever since he was a sprout growing up in the sticks, listening to his sister's Beatles and Led Zeppelin records, and it shows. Coma Rally (band and record) manages to contain flashes of everything from '80s pop to '90s grunge while sounding like nothing so much as itself.
On the title track, f'rinstance, Locke evokes the spirit of a less-fey Marc Bolan fronting a mutated glam-rock band, early Roxy Music minus the saxophone and blorp-bleep synths or an industrial-strength version of Ziggy Stardust's Spiders from Mars, his keening falsetto riding a subway train of Velvet Underground-derived pulsating drone. Tim says that "Coma Rally" is the album's centerpiece, but to my more distanced ears, that distinction belongs to "Failure in the Small Things," which slows things down after the opening onslaught and washes over the listener like a tide of stately, damned, majestic melody, the weight of the full band, led by Harville's zooming octave runs and Hendrixian hammer-ons (the role of guitar god being discredited, he uses his arsenal of effects, both musical and electronic, mainly for punctuation and melodic contrast, and raises an invigorating racket that's always spot-on, never superfluous, while his most valuable contributions might be compositional), pushing against the delicate, celeste-like sound of the Chromachord as Tim's voice soars on the line "I watched you let go." (The song's blasted beauty is almost matched by the disc's penultimate track, the valedictory "Ray.")
Speaking of band boys, let me go on record saying Byron Gordon plays the fool better than anyone I know. An acquaintance remembers being at Byron's house one night when Byron came running in the door and urged him to come outside and "Look up there;" after five minutes of staring at the sky, the fella asked Byron what they were waiting to see and Byron replied, "I dunno, but it's gonna be good." Away from Tim, Byron also plays jazz -- the old, good kind -- with Johnny Case. A strong kid; once, on the road with Blue Sky Black, Tim could tell you, "There was a guy from another band, a little fireplug kind of guy, and Byron had him on the floor -- he couldn't get up." Byron plays bass like that, too. He's excited about going to see the Motley Crue reunion, but I told him he should save his money and just go hang out with his running bud Shane Faw-Faw, who looks like Tommy Lee, instead. In another universe, the two of them could constitute a riddim team with the inebriated comedic potential of the Who's Entwistle and Moon, fo' shoah. In this one, Byron intertwines his sound with Max Lintner's to produce a rumble and thump with the heaviosity of Soundgarden's (before their little-guy-with-big-voice Chris Cornell hooked up with those revolooshunary Rage Against the Machine boys to make, uh, money).
"So, what's it about?" Kat wanted to know. "The name, I mean." Before she knew who he was, she used to see Tim working out on the Stairmaster at the downtown YMCA and speculate that he was a mad scientist or a monomaniacal engineer, which in a sense he is, I suppose, only one that tinkers in a laboratory where the elements are his own emotions and the building blocks of sound: a Beatlesque hook here, a keening snatch of melody there. Myself, I'm the kind of philistine who never notices lyrics until I have a recording I can listen to and dissect at home. At shows, I'm more likely to attend to timbre, the onstage interaction of the musicians, the sound mix, all the boring minutiae of MusicianShit. Which means I'm frequently surprised by what I hear once I get the record home.
It used to make me laugh when the high school clique that hung around the Moon, back when the floating crapgame known as the Acoustic Mafia (including Tim and some other people) used to play there, would speak in hushed tones of how "Tim's great, but jeez, I mean, he's almost 35." Tell it to Picasso. Or Dylan. Peaking at 17 is passe, or at least overrated. As is dying in your 20s. Or knocking yourself off. A cursory glance at the song titles will give the interested listener a clue to what Coma Rally's about: "Fake Funeral," "Ted Nugent Chastises the Ghost of Kurt Cobain (The Asshole)" ("Is he calling Kurt Cobain an asshole?" a friend wondered. Myself, I doubt it; Tim grew up in the era of the Nuge and Texxas Jam but was too young to participate; he came of age around "the year punk broke," when Nevermind kicked down the doors of MTV-stultified complacency and made it seem, briefly, that rock'n'roll still had some fire left in its belly, before Kurt ate the shotgun and made way for, um, Bush -- the band, not the president), "Down, Down, Down," "You Can Self-Destruct Now," "Guitars Are Good Firewood." A long way from doddering senility, but far enough along to grasp the concept that his time here is finite, what Tim's singing about here is nothing less than the Big D, the Uninvited Guest, the Final Surprise -- the one Ralph Stanley (or his on-screen surrogate) looked in the face and called by its name in that O Brother Where Art Thou? film.
The song that follows it on the CD might openly invoke his ghost, but "Fake Funeral" seems to be a conspiracy-theorist/fan's prayer to grunge's patron saint: "You faked your funeral / Cradling a baby girl / Hiding down in Europe somewhere." Once the song gets underway, the band churns up welters of sound as Tim sings, "Something's got to die before it lives." Too true, mate, especially in the music biz. On the aforementioned "Ted Nugent Chastises the Ghost of Kurt Cobain," Tim has the Nuge asking Kurt, "Did you think twice / Before you took the devil's advice?" I must confess: I've heard Tim play this song dozens of times, and I never once twigged what it was about. I was too busy singing along with that chorus: "Oh no it's over, rolled up in clover / Oh no it's over, I didn't even know you." Same thing's true of "Down Down Down," which dates back to Blue Sky Black days; Tim's old Grand Street/Blue Sky compadre Steve Duncan used to perform it occasionally in his solo sets and even with the Chemistry Set. Perhaps it was Duncan's irrepressible positivity -- like a more substantive Tim Delaughter with Sideshow Bob hair -- that caused me to focus more on each verse's bright, upbeat opening lines, rather than the underlying message, which is that the singer isn't really that way (although he wishes he could be).
What Coma Rally isn't: another of the the too-many Rawk records I've auditioned over the last seven or eight years that sound like they were mixed by somebody who's fried their ears playing live and wants a record that sounds like a monitor mix. Vocals are clear and prominent -- hardly the fashion in this Age of the Non-Singer, but befitting the quality of Mr. Locke's vocal stylings and lyrics. (When Yeti made their concept album about death, the vocals were deliberately obscured in the mix, even when the singer was screaming, but that was almost the point.) Produced by the band and the Pipes brothers at Bass Propulsion Labs in Dallas, mastered by George Guerin at Digital Mastering Services in New York, the disc is a primer in how to make a Big Rock record that doesn't make the listener scratch his head and wonder, "What in the hell is this guy singing about?" Even better, they managed to do so without losing the sense of "musicians playing hard" that's essential to real rock (unlike another Metromess band who shall remain nameless, whose record sounded like a vocal demo in spite of the fact that they're relatively ballsy onstage). When I heard rough mixes of this last fall, the rhythm tracks were so wet and live that I knew there was no way they'd survive the mixing/mastering process. And they haven't exactly, but what's there in the final version has just the aura of hyper-reality that you want from a rock record, the same way you want it from a movie: like real life, only more so.
In the end, I finally broke down and asked Tim what the name meant. "Well, it's a real phenomenon, but I kind of named it, I guess," he said. He went on to explain: "Many times, a person's vital signs will jump up when they're in a coma, just before they die. I thought it fit us perfectly: The musical graveyard awaits."
I beg to differ. Listening to Coma Rally makes me think of the first time I ever saw Tim Locke perform, when Grand Street Cryers were near the apex of their trajectory and it seemed, for a moment, at least, that they were going to be the "next" band after the Toadies to explode out of sleepy Cowtown to serve notice that Seattle (remember when that town meant more than coffee and software?) had no monopoly on splenetic angst with loud electric guitars. He stalked the stage like a coiled spring, eyes blazing, and his band looked like iconic Big Rockers, but they didn't quite sound the part -- not like this band does. Remembering that moment and contemplating everything he's accomplished in the, what, eight years since then, is enough to give a person, well, hope or something. And if that isn't as good as it gets, it'll do for now.