Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published February 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Bedhead's world moves slowly. Filled with whispered, sleepy-eyed vocals and patiently ringing guitars, the Austin, Texas, quintet's music is a serene, almost prayerful thing. But, like a delayed traveler who curses the clock impatiently, there's an anxious and frustrated edge to the snail-paced songs that guitarists, brothers and songwriters Matt and Bubba Kadane create. Every lonely snare crack and lethargic minor chord is an attempt to strip pop music to its essence, to do with a solitary note what punk bands do with distortion-laden sprays of rage. And Bedhead are indeed punks, just as much as the Velvet Underground were when they bravely launched the less-is-more approach with "Sweet Jane." It's a tactic many a rock band have tried -- and failed -- to emulate, but "Transaction de Novo" emerges as a rare success. It's a strikingly quiet record, but one whose quietude is forceful, immediate and disarming; it comes on like a nervous dream, hovering somewhere between fantasy and nightmare.

The deepened hush is somewhat new for the band. Bedhead's first two full-length albums, 1993's "What Fun Life Was" and 1996's "Beheaded" were measured and articulate but louder, the brilliance of many of their songs built on the slow, glorious rise of guitar noise, five-minute trips from silence to feedback-drenched cacophony. While "Transaction" does feature a pair of louder tunes -- the speedy strum-pop of "Extramundane" and the abrasive, metallic chording of "Psychosomatica" -- it's easily their most restrained offering. "Exhume" opens the record at an almost painfully slow pace, grounded solely in Kris Wheat's loping bass and the occasional guitar chime. But what might, in lesser hands, sound merely mopey is transcendent here. Songs like the waltzing "Parade" and the country-tinged "Forgetting" gain their strength from the clarity of the musicianship. Drummer Trini Martinez is a master of not just pacing, but of making every beat count. Around those poky -- but never lazy -- rhythms, Matt Kadane can give his tales of fear and frustration added clarity.

Steve Albini's crisp, up-front production job is nearly as crucial to the album as the songs themselves. The sound of each discrete instrument, clear and direct, compellingly articulates the tension and beauty in even the most sluggish songs, like "Lepidoptera" or the closing seven-minute "The Present." For the latter song, little more than a repeated riff, it's the little things that count. The rising hum of light feedback in the background; a crucial chord change; halfway through, the sound of a human voice. Small matters in almost every other rock song, but in Bedhead's claustrophobic, uncomfortably patient landscape, they're the only things that matter. Slowed down, Bedhead are able to capture the beauty of their surroundings. In a rock world that's built for speed, Bedhead are -- surprisingly, elegantly -- the ones who are moving faster and seeing farther.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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