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(Epigene Music 5540 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/28/2004)
We seem to be in a period where the word "clever" is not one that comes to mind in describing contemporary pop music. By that I mean music that sounds familiar but throws in unexpected good-natured twists, and shows some real originality along with wit. Such qualities in pop music are shunned by the commercial media these days, but they do live on in groups like the one whose CD we have at hand, Epigene, whose new second release is called Popular Dissent.
Like so much in contemporary music this kind of style goes back to the Beatles, who were always experimenting, with a goal of having some different ingredient in every record. Thanks to the classical experience of their producer George Martin and the general good-natured curiosity of the band members, the Beatles' recordings were rife with creative little twists and turns. The tradition continued with the Kinks and a series of mostly British bands and even some of the art rock bands of the 1970s. Probably the epitome of the clever art-pop band is XTC, who were formed in the mid 1970s and raised to a new level the idea of infectious rock music brimming with good natured and highly creative quirks. The style seems essentially British, given the limeys' natural aptitude for eccentricity, but there have been a few such American bands in the past.
But now, Epigene prove themselves to be in that grand tradition with a collection of upbeat, energetic tunes brimming with lots of unexpected twists and turns, appealing high-pop vocals and lyrics that harken back to the 1960s, with their roundabout references to the state of the world.
Seattle-based Epigene was founded by Sean Bigler, whose musical background was classical piano, but who soon branched out into other styles. He learned the guitar after joining the Peace Corps and being posted in the Middle East, where the guitar's portability was an asset. After returning to Seattle in 1996, Bigler worked mainly as a solo artist, doing acoustic shows. In 1999, Bigler met a couple of former Oakland musicians who were in a group called Salamander, described as a Klezmer, funk and fusion band. They worked on a recording and added keyboardist Bonnie Lykes, formerly of a San Francisco punk band called The Proper Shoes and who would go to marry Bigler. After playing a couple of gigs, Epigene went into recess for a some months, though they did record some basic tracks for a CD, which Bigler worked to complete. That was finally released in early 2002 under the title One Bright Sign. It soon attracted the attention of critics who noted the band's combination of punkish energy and musical sophistication.
Now they are out with a second CD Popular Dissent, with revised personnel, including bassist James Burkman and drummer Steven Harris. And it represents a quantum leap over their already laudable debut release. Like their last CD, Bigler and company recorded Popular Dissent over a period of months in the band's home studio. The result is a gem of an album full of bright energetic pop, laced with lots of quirky musical convolutions, sometimes at breakneck tempos, and appealingly melodic vocals. The parallels to XTC are strong, but one could also conjure the Beach Boys after too many cups of coffee, or the Clash if they got very literate.
Bigler's lyrics are also draw on a similar set of influences, with words that often consider the larger world with songs on the media, the consequences of war, the pressures of society and the workaday world. Some of the lyrics seem straight out of the Woodstock era, and serve as a reminder of how shallow most contemporary pop is.
The CD leads off with The New Voltaire which epitomizes the clever, energetic sound of Epigene. One can definitely hear the influence of the band XTC, but Epigene has a decidedly American flavor. Lyrically, this is not typical commercial pop, either. <<>>
A favorite topic among hippy musicians of the Woodstock era was consumerism and corporate culture. Given the state of consolidation in the media, it's not surprising that this is a viewpoint not often heard on the pop scene. But Epigene goes after it with gusto on the track called Generica, and comes up with a song that proves to be a highlight of this appealing album. <<>>
Channel Zero also takes up popular culture and the media. But here the musical setting is a bit too frenetic and rather scattered, with the group straying from their hummable melodies. <<>>
On the other hand, another highlight of the CD is New Betheny which tells the story of a boy sent off to a strict religious school. <<>>
With some current relevance is Power & Glory about soldiers at war, some presumably mercenaries. Here the musical setting gets a bit too frenetic for my taste. <<>>
About as laid-back as this album gets is Inner Figure described as being about "spiritual/psychological angst." It's rather multi-faceted musically with shifts in mood appropriate for the lyrics. <<>>
The band brings in a couple of additional horns for some of the tracks, such as Pretty Little Noose, another song considering life's possibilities and limitations. One can hear echoes of the Beatles and their evocation of the old English music hall style. <<>>
The CD ends with Twilight 21st Century another song taking up the state of the world, though with a musical setting that lacks the imagination of some of the band's other songs. <<>>
I suppose that some would be tempted to call Epigene and their new CD Popular Dissent "retro," since this kind of clever, intelligent, and complex, arty pop is not heard much anymore. And they do draw their influences from some previous generation bands like XTC and going back to the Beatles. But the sound they create is an interesting and enjoyable hybrid that includes a few more contemporary ingredients, and the fact that this music is so rare makes it a kind of refreshing change from the generally dumbed-down contemporary pop of the day. Sean Bigler, who wrote all the music and is the principal creative force behind Epigene, is a skillful and creative artist whose music has definitely earned the right to be called "clever."
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The home-made recording competes with anything anywhere, and the use of studio effects, some evoking the psychedelic era, deserves kudos. But as usual these days, the dynamic range was sacrificed in the mindless and pointless pursuit of loudness on the CD. Less ham-handed audio compression would have helped bring out more of the music's shifting moods and sonic layers.
The dictionary definition of "epigene" is "formed or originating on or just below the surface of the earth." I suppose one could say that this band's sophisticated pop is almost underground in a world of homogeneous simple-minded commercial "product." If you like fun music that is also full of interesting twists, then Epigene is definitely worth digging up.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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