Sharps & Flats

Nuzzle's plaintive rock comes on as unexpectedly soft as a full-count change-up.

Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

"Shortstop's the best position they is," sings Nuzzle front man Andrew Dalton, crummy grammar and all, on "Daedalus and Us." It's easy to believe in a band that quotes that line from Tobias Wolff's short story "Bullet in the Brain." And anyone who's played even an inning of Little League baseball knows that short's where the action is, the axis around which all other positions pivot. Shortstops manage the stunt of being hard-working and glamorous at the same time.

"San Lorenzo's Blues," the second record by the California four-piece Nuzzle, comes on as unexpectedly soft as a full-count change-up. The plaintive guitar plucks on the CD-opening "San Lorenzo's Blues Pt. 1" repeat at intervals on Parts 2, 3 and 4 of the song over the rest of the record, working as a kind of narrator on a walking tour of the album. Along the way, singer Dalton and the gang point out spots where some of the best pop music of the last 20 years was made. Call it rock 'n' roll Bloomsday: Here's where the Meat Puppets bounced toward Bethlehem; and there's where the Feelies rumbled stoically; that's the place where R.E.M wrote songs that had fans twitching happily in their corduroy sport coats.

Nuzzle's first full-length was so dense with growling guitars and Dalton's one-shoe-on-one-shoe-off, Angry Young Madman yelps, that it takes a few listens to orient oneself to the prettiness of the new album. Several elegiac songs seem to bloom out of the mix then fade away, one song drifting demurely into another. Nate Dalton's guitar slides gently forward, then doubles back for the drums, which -- half-drunk -- wave the help away, wobbling spiritedly in the musical bar of the urban wilderness. The Dalton brothers' call-and-response harmonies roam between the shadows of the music. Lyrically, Andrew Dalton translates the sweet frustrations of different desires. He often writes restrained, elliptical couplets like "Ember of your memory/Your voice on my machine," from "Allen Says."

At the end of "Bullet in the Brain," Wolff's protagonist, who is just then experiencing the unpleasantness of the story's title, has a vivid reminiscence. The character recalls playing baseball as a boy. There's a Southerner, a stranger, in the pickup game of his memory. When teams are arranged, the new kid says he wants to play shortstop. "Short's the best position they is," he says. Wolff writes that his character, while dying, "is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music." Listeners of Nuzzle's new disc will know just what he means.

By Mac Montandon

Mac Montandon is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

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