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Singers to watch 

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So far Detroit's Breech and Chicago's Mint Aundry have put out only demo tapes, so you'll have to check the clubs to hear the music. It's worth the effort. Musically these bands are quite different, but certain essential elements distinguish them from the pack: a simple delivery, dedication to melody, strong lyrics, and lead singers who've crossed the line from "pretty good" to "possibly great."

Like the folk-punk duo Mecca Normal, from Vancouver, Breech is a twosome that packs an emotional wallop. I first caught Breech a few months back at the Avalon, but just barely. Their 20-minute set was bracketed by the music of four other bands, but Thomas Trimble on electric guitar and harmony vocals and lead singer Missy Gibson turned their sliver of time into an exercise in tough, precise minimalism.

Watching Gibson onstage is a lot like watching James Cagney in the last minutes of White Heat. She leans into the crowd. She threatens and pouts. She works her mouth like she's chewing a tobacco wad. Her eyes bug out. She mans her stage the way Cagney manned his burning tower. But this isn't an angry confrontation. It's just a singer in the throes of a song, albeit one who's acutely aware of the moment and the audience. In simpler times it's what used to be called "star quality."

I talked to Breech just before their recent return engagement at the Avalon. Trimble explained that they don't need a sound check--with one guitar and two voices, there's not much to fuss with. Gibson said she was a breech baby, and her threatening to come into the world backward was what gave the band its name. Clad in baggy shorts, sleeveless plaid shirt, and knee socks, and sporting a shock of bleached hair stained with dark roots, Gibson is never really offstage. In conversation she furrows her brow dramatically, slitting and rounding her eyes by turn, a sophisticated mugging that reveals her roots as an actress. She studied theater at Michigan's Wayne State University but decided the theater's fourth wall was too restrictive. "I wanted to look at the audience," she says.

Gibson's been a fixture on the Detroit scene for several years. While in her first band, Strange Bedfellows, she was voted "best songwriter" in the local music awards sponsored by the alternative weekly Detroit Metro Times. When she left that band she hooked up with Trimble, and in April of 1993 they started performing as Breech.

Trimble, a soft-spoken, articulate young man in T-shirt and sneakers, describes their sound as "punk baroque." It's apt. Trimble conjures the same raw guitar sound that marked the Velvet Underground, and Gibson employs some of Iggy Pop's rough posturing. Echoes of Patti Smith's poetic lyricism swirl through the music.

It had been a long week. Trimble and Gibson spent four days laying down tracks for a seven-inch they plan to release in October. They were able to fly in for the Avalon show because they got a two-for-one airplane ticket, a good thing since their Amoco card is maxed out. They borrowed their sole amp from a Chicago friend.

When Breech took the Avalon stage, there was indeed little fuss. The first band hauled off its amps and drums while Trimble pulled his two guitars from their cases and switched his amp on. Gibson took the mike stand in her hand, rounding and churning her shoulders in standard theater warm-ups.

Trimble started strumming hard, tough yet melodious chords accented by sparse half-barred leads. Gibson picked the mike stand up off the floor and hammered the stage with its base, producing a thudding that traveled up the stand and belched out the mike, a jury-rigged, minimalist rhythm machine that keeps the beat for Trimble. And he never loses it, despite an earlier disclaimer that "there's not much glue in Breech. If I break a guitar string, it all falls apart." Between mike-stand thuds, Gibson started stalking.

Gibson has a big, husky voice, a bit operatic in its reaches. She howls and moans, bending notes against Trimble's raw melodies. But hers is a trained instrument that packs real power, and she wisely keeps the vocal tricks to a minimum, for the most part sticking to a gutsy but straightforward delivery. Exceedingly expressive, her voice falters only when she slips into the occasional bluesy affectation. Trimble's voice is rough but his delivery is intelligent and unself-conscious, and there's a real chemistry in their lean, penetrating duets.

Over the stark voice-guitar background, words rise to the fore. Trimble usually writes the music and both write the lyrics, edgy stories about obsessive relationships, sex gone wrong, and abuse from others and oneself. This terrain might be heavy sledding for less skilled musicians, but Breech's songs are so tightly written and they're delivered with such elegant tension that even the darkest sentiments come off. "The bruise on her arm / She sported like some decoration / Where can you find / Colors like that?" Gibson asks in "Hopscotch." Trimble joins in on the chorus, his voice cutting and strained when he sings "A word to the brave / Somewhere bound / On our knees to pray / Instead of looking up / We look down."

Breech is equally adept with quieter, less abrasive pieces. Trimble adds a touch of reverb to his guitar for "Candy Cane" and holds steady to a simple minor-chord progression. It's a haunting song, in which childhood games unfold under the specters of suicide, incest, and drug overdose. Trimble's simple picking lays the groundwork for Gibson's aching, full vocals.

This kind of music demands mental effort on the part of the listener, and that doesn't always translate into a kick-ass Saturday night, at least for some. At Breech's previous Avalon gig the packed crowd pushed to the front, riveted by Gibson. At their recent show, the mood was different: a good portion of the audience drifted off to the Avalon's cabaret lounge, pulled there by a bigger, more rocking band.

On their last tune, Breech called up Tribal Opera's bassist and drummer for a full-tilt rock-and-roll blowout. After all the intimately couched songs that preceded it, this was a jarring about-face. As if on cue, the audience streamed in from the cabaret lounge, seduced back by the big beat. It was a pumped-up, fleshed-out number all right, but suddenly Breech sounded a lot like a lot of other bands, which at their core they're not. Gibson was transformed into a hard-rocking but familiar girl singer, and Trimble faded into the serviceable sideman. It's momentary fun but common. If Breech leaves its mark, it'll be with the raw yet fragile stuff Trimble called punk baroque.

Like Breech, Mint Aundry excel when they stick to basics and let the singer shine. Though, to borrow a phrase from Grand Ole Opry emcee George Hay, if Missy Gibson is grand opera, Mint Aundry's lead singer, Walter Andersons, is Grand Ole Opry. These days lots of bands, from metal to grunge, cite Hank Williams as an influence, though usually this feels more like lip service than genuine appreciation for country music's greatest poet. Andersons is one guy who actually seems to have listened.

The influence isn't in the music exactly--there's really no country in Mint Aundry's simple folk-pop tunes. But it's there in the feeling. Andersons is tall and lean, and his shoulders stoop slightly when he cranes his head over the mike. His delivery is direct, unadorned. His is an untrained voice, limited in range, but it communicates true yearning and, at times, uncommon beauty. It also recalls various influences, from the high keening of the Everly Brothers to the piercing clarity of Phil Ochs in his early social-protest songs to Bob Dylan's nasal raggedness.

I first saw Mint Aundry at Phyllis' Musical Inn on the Fourth of July. After the set, Andersons spoke softly about how he listens to Hank Senior's early recordings, how the name "Mint Aundry" was chosen because, among other things, it sounds like "Miss Audrey," Williams's wife. Like Missy Gibson, Andersons has an offstage manner that mirrors his stage persona, though his is quite different: low-key, and marked by an offhanded eccentricity--he's like a dreamy, thoughtful kid in love with language and colors.

Mint Aundry's music is surprisingly artless considering that the band's composed mostly of former School of the Art Institute students. Andersons didn't start singing, and guitarist Jim Pogozelski and drummer Julio Sims didn't actually start playing instruments, until a couple of years ago. After several bass players split, Julie Liu, a formally trained violinist, fibbed her way into the band by claiming she could play bass.

The band is green, and it shows: Pogozelski and Liu still look down at their fingers on the fretboard a lot, and it's clear they're not that far removed from earnest sessions with the Mel Bay catalog of "learn to play" chord books. This amateurish quality may make the band sound weak, but it lends an unpretentious, simple, music-for-its-own-sake air to Mint Aundry's shimmery pop music--a refreshing alternative to the dense, riff-filled noise that's become so common in today's musical marketplace. Even if they knew how to do it, they say, they have no interest in power chops or complicated noodling.

When Mint Aundry took the stage for a recent three-set gig at Phyllis', they were fresh-faced and plainly dressed. Andersons wore a button-down shirt and slacks and occasionally donned a blazer, creating a look somewhere between Buddy Holly's charming gawkiness and the Lettermen's preppiness. Sometimes he holds a guitar in his hands, but even then he only occasionally strums it.

Bathed in blue and green lights, the band started without fanfare. There were just a few amps and a couple guitars. Sims sat low to the ground behind a small drum kit, keeping a terse, straightforward beat punctuated now and then by a trill. Pogozelski seldom strayed from an insistent, pop-dominated strum. Liu, petite and unobtrusive, stood to the side on a small riser and picked out steady, uncomplicated bass lines.

Everything was simple that night except the emotions that Andersons stirred up with his voice. His story-songs are plainspoken, but the tremulous phrasing hints at larger emotions. "When I'm on the stage / I am all the rage / Even in this midwestern town," he sings in "Freaky Situations," an evocation of a musician's sometimes glamorous, sometimes awful life on the road. His bravado is tempered by reality--"Everybody loves it / When it's bright / But you know it hardly / Works so well"--but not by self-pity.

When the band launches into the bluesy "Pennsylvania Turnpike," there's nervous tension in Andersons's delivery. "My life is as twisted / As this godforsaken road," he sings, plaintively grappling with the white-line fever that overtakes him on the highway. This trip is about confusion, paranoia, life pressing in at the corners. Wailing at the end of a line, his voice is accented by the vestige of Jimmie Rodgers's blue yodel.

Mint Aundry's skill is their ability to communicate their worldliness despite their ingenuous delivery. Their looks may be unpretentious, but they aren't innocents, nor are they unaware of the affectation that surrounds them. In "My Haunted Past" they acknowledge the trendiness that abounds and how easy it is to succumb to it. "I remember setting aside / Time for some pain / How does my hair look? / Am I dressed in black?" All this is set to a driving backdrop of hard, slightly surfy, surprisingly powerful strumming.

At one point Andersons wandered offstage, making hesitant moves possibly toward the bathroom or the cigarette machine, then turned slowly and stood watching his own band. There was something akin here, both musically and visually, to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Like the Modern Lovers, Mint Aundry favors straightforward melody over pyrotechnics. And like Richman, Andersons achieves the nearly impossible--a compelling manner filled with childlike wonder that is never childish.

Mint Aundry's mistakes are those of most neophyte bands. They rarely aim for a fancy change, but when they do, the rhythm stutters and the song momentarily threatens to derail. Their jangly tunes provide a simple backdrop for Andersons's lyrics, but when he stops singing, the stripped arrangements sometimes circle in meaningless rounds. Pogozelski's guitar leads are spartan, so there's not much going on to warrant these rhythmic repetitions. This meandering could easily be remedied by some judicious editing, however. Overall these are perceptive, catchy songs, and like Gibson, Andersons is pushing toward great things in his singing.

Sometime during Mint Aundry's second set I leaned over the bar to order a drink. Suddenly I realized I wasn't shouting at the bartender: here was a poppy, electric, danceable band, playing in a bar on a Friday night, that you could actually hear yourself talking over. But if you find yourself at a Mint Aundry show, you probably won't be talking much. And if you are, you'll more than likely be talking about Andersons.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin-Photo Reserve.

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