Sharps & Flats

Sixteen Deluxe got 300 seconds on life's version of "120 Minutes." So why are they still at it?

Published December 23, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Anyone who's been to a university large enough to support a music
scene probably knew a band, or a couple of bands, hacking away at their
mitier, skipping classes by day and boozing it up by night. They were
bad, you'll remember, and they gave you a seven-inch recorded with
misspent student loans. There were always a couple of people who came to
their shows, and they put you on an e-mail list and threw parties
that still beat the hell out of a night spent ducking frat boys at
the local watering hole.

The band I knew had been at it since early high school, gone from
being the best damn R.E.M cover band on the Jersey shore to art
school students gulping down Robitussin while listening to Blur, Ride
and My Bloody Valentine albums. They bought lots of cool vintage
stuff and played a few shows, but in aggregate their musical career
consisted of drinking Old Milwaukee on practice nights. They lost
drummers twice a semester. Their songs, like their career, were
repetitive, probing but ineffectual attempts to write catchy pop
songs. They lacked the prerequisite for pop, an ability to sing. So
finally, after six years they packed it in, having recorded only one
single, the B-side of which had a pretty cool, indie-legit
instrumental with a Hammond organ, a catchy guitar hook and a Moog.
It was the crowning jewel in a disappointing career.

We used to talk a lot about My Bloody Valentine and Ride and how much
we hated all the nose-ring and safety-pin hardcore kids.
Unfortunately, MBV vanished, and shoegaze, dream pop, noise pop or
what-have-you slunk out of sight along with "Loveless" mastermind
Kevin Shields. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my
friends had kept going, where they might have gotten with a little
more practice, delusion and undeserved self-confidence. Racial and
sexual considerations aside, hard work gets you something. Maybe Camry
for BMW and Gap for Armani, but something. More than one band with
delay pedals thought they could break shoegaze in America, if only
they just practiced a little bit harder.

Latter-day fuzz-poppers Sixteen Deluxe are, unfortunately, permanent
Camry drivers and wearers of pocket-Ts, if not something a little
worse: Sad proof that hard work doesnt equal genius, and that some
dreams are best left for analysis. Whats worse, the four-piece is
about eight years too late to make low vocals and shimmery guitars
cool again.

Having caused a buzz with their first album, "Backfeedmagnetbabe"
(1995), a hip if overarchingly mediocre collection of grass-roots,
guitar-heavy fuzz pop, Sixteen Deluxe were subsequently picked up by
Warner Bros., got a bit of acclaim for their major label debut "Emits
Showers of Sparks," and then were dropped, like a dozen other bands
who couldn't make it out of the in-vitro suspension chamber that is
the second half of MTV's "120 Minutes." Their guitars and effects
pedals still cranked to 10, they've re-emerged from the shadows of
humiliation in their native Austin, Texas, with a new six-song EP, a
slightly darker sound and boy-girl vocals miked so low that only
Schnauzers will be able to decipher the lyrics. You can tell from the
way the recordings are produced -- the tightness, the deliberation,
the rigorous song structure -- that Sixteen Deluxe is a hard-working
band, one that just won't give up, ever.

The 15 seconds of the first and title track on their new EP, "The
Moonman Is Blue," gave hope. A three-note bass line and a low-key
organ churning in the background seemed to promise something
different than the glitzed-out, effects-laden
shoegazing-cum-alterna-pop Sixteen Deluxe made in the past. No
such luck. Enter sound effect -- a needle scratch reversed -- and
wonk-bang-boom, it's showtime in Texas, a bunch of loud guitars on
infinite reverb up front, burbling electronic noises somewhere in the
backseat and one driving riff, repeating forever, even through key
changes, glistening with unabashed digital processing.

On "Over and Over," the second track, the shiny lead guitar yields to
a female vocal and a pop-o-matic chord-a-bar chorus with a melody
straight from "Teletubbies." Its pleasing enough, if in a
sing-along-kids kind of way. The real stunner is the lyrics, the
first couplet of which is trenchant to the point of irony given the
bands label situation: "I'll start it over and over again this time,
what have I got to lose?/When I think I'm coming down again, I'm
wearing somebody else's shoes." It's nice to hear that they're not
losing heart, but geez, if theyre gonna go leaving strings with a
sign saying "Pull me to dismantle" attached to every other verse,
tugs will be felt.

Supposedly, Sixteen Deluxe have their own studio and plan to release a
new full-length album soon. The group works hard, obviously, but they
just don't have it. But unlike my friends' band, they arent yet
prepared to shut the garage door and lock themselves out. With any
luck, arguments about paying back studio loans will cause the band to
scatter before the full length is released. But unfortunately for
already overburdened record reviewers and college radio station
programmers, Camrys have a reputation for reliability and pocket-Ts
are still being sold at Gaps everywhere.

By Christopher Binkley

Christopher Binkley is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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