Imagine KISS without Gene Simmons. Led Zeppelin without Jimmy Page. The Doors without Jim (OK, bad example). But the point is that there are elements of the rock-band equation that cannot be taken lightly, key members whose input will forever define those bands in listeners' minds and whose absence will color every sound the remaining members put to tape.
Damon Che understands this Diamond Dave-era Van Halen, after all, is one of his favorite band lineups ever. And yet in 2003, three years after his band Don Caballero dissolved arguably its strongest lineup ever, Che re-launched the Pittsburgh group as himself and three able-bodied youngsters who'd clearly grown up emulating the wiry, polyrhythmic, instrumental "math rock" Che's band defined.
In May of this year, Don Cab returned with a new, fifth album, World Class Listening Problem, and a sound that doesn't so much improve on a form as summarize its high points. Not exactly the Doors of the 21st Century, thankfully, but also not yet enough to convince cynics Che isn't concocting math-rock's answer to the Velvet Underground's Squeeze.
"It comes down to a cosmetic simplicity," the 40-something drummer says from his home in rural Smicksburg, Pennsylvania. "Ian [Williams, former guitarist] was a real iconic player. He got a lot of attention and so did I and so it's like, 'Well, wait a minute Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley can't split up! You can get rid of Ace and Peter, but you can't split up Gene and Paul!' Not to compare ourselves to KISS or anything, but I think that's a good example."
Though he joined Don Cab in 1992, a year into the band's existence, Williams didn't just define the group's classic sound i.e., a contrapuntal, finger-tapped, call-and-response among him, the seemingly octopus-armed Che and whomever the bassist happened to be at the time. Through albums such as 1998's serpentine What Burns Never Returns and 2000's minimalist masterpiece American Don, he also helped a new generation of players rethink the instrument. Baltimore's Oxes, Chicago's Russian Circles, Sacramento's Hella and even France's Chevreuil it's hard to find an underground-rock scene anywhere right now that doesn't have at least one pointy-headed, hammer-on-obsessed Williams acolyte in it.
Unfortunately, tied as it was to two formidable egos, the Che-Williams partnership was doomed from the start: Fittingly, during a 2000 tour already wracked by in-fighting, the group broke up after totaling its van in a collision along US I-75. (How's that for a metaphor?) Williams founded the cubist-funk unit Battles, while Che returned to his long-running guitar-god combo Thee Speaking Canaries between gigs in friends' bands, among them Pittsburgh angular-rock crew Creta Bourzia. Eventually, Che set about reforming Don Cab with Creta Bourzia's core (guitarists Eugene Doyle and Jeff Ellsworth, and bassist Jason Jouver) and started working out the material that would eventually comprise World Class Listening Problem.
"I think the new cats make it something that nobody else could've made it," Che says of his current bandmates. "They're all cut from different cloths; they're not, like, a glee club, if you will. There's just as much controversy from member to member now as there was before, but it's never a negative thing. As astounding as people think it is that I'm doing this with new people, well, for me to replace these guys, now that would be something."
Regardless of how critics are interpreting the new lineup, Che & Co. have little to prove musically. Yes, it's short on innovation there are nods throughout to both Williams' style and the dense, angular kerchung of original guitarist Mike Banfield but Problem has energy and muscle to spare. And if the too-brief moments of impressionistic beauty (the dreamlike "Railroad Cancellation") and oddball funk ("Palm Trees in the Fecking Bahamas" actually quotes Earth, Wind & Fire) are any indication, Don Cab 2006 may eventually prove that bands can thrive outside of their classic lineup's shadow. Whatever the case, you get the sense that after fifteen years, Che is finally just happy to be playing in this band.
"We respect each other; we like each other; we care about each other," he says of the current lineup, "and I still say it's a miracle this band made the records we did when that wasn't the case. And now, if we're all happy and everyone thinks we suck, then we'll have to go away. But we're just gonna do what works for now." Aaron Burgess
9:30 p.m. Saturday, August 12. Creepy Crawl, 3524 Washington Boulevard. $8 to $10. 314-531-3888.
From the Desk of the Department of Similes, Metaphors and Clichés.
We here at the Department of Similes, Metaphors and Clichés would like to congratulate you and your lead singer Jennifer Nettles on pairing with Bon Jovi for the song "Who Says You Can't Go Home," which enjoyed phenomenal, chart-topping success. Regrettably, however, we are forced to fine you for the abuse of our namesake literary devices. We here at the Department of Similes, Metaphors and Clichés (DSMC) know how important these literary elements can be. They're a pinprick of light in the abyss of literary darkness, but we fear that your latest hit has elevated similes, metaphors and clichés to unacceptable proportions, matched only by OutKast's "shaking it like a Polaroid picture." To wit:
Like a blind dog without a bone
I was a gypsy lost in the twilight zone
I hijacked a rainbow and crashed into a pot of gold
I've been there, done that, and I ain't lookin' back on the seeds I've sown
Saving dimes, spending too much time on the telephone
Who says you can't go home
Who says you can't go home
There's only one place they call you one of their own
Just a hometown boy, born a rolling stone
Who says you can't go home
Who says you can't go back, been all around the world and as a matter of fact
There's only one place left I want to go, who says you can't go home
And this is but one verse and refrain. Therefore, we must move forward in this claim against your party in the sum of $25,000* per simile, metaphor and overused cliché, which comes to an even $5 million dollars, according to our accounting department.
May you continue to soar like eagles on wings of stardom.
Metaphors and Clichés
*This is twice our usual amount, owing to the presence of this song on both the adult contemporary and country charts. "Paybacks are hell" is our favorite cliché. Kristie McClanahan
7 p.m. Friday, August 11. UMB Bank Pavilion, 14141 Riverport Drive, Maryland Heights. $28 to $52.75. 314-298-9944.
Cover songs can be a gamble. But after their brilliant tribute to Kate Bush, we're willing to give the Futureheads the benefit of the doubt. The U.K. quartet recently released a non-album reinterpretation of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" on a Q magazine compilation. To be futuristic, the group replaced the post-disco guitar and campy saxophone of the original with its signature barbershop-quartet backing vocals (appropriately, frontman Barry Hyde is beginning to sound like an early version of Robert Smith). Sure, it's not another "Hounds of Love," but it's a triumph compared to Bowie and Mick Jagger's shaming of Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancin' in the Streets." To listen, go to www.pitchforkmedia.com (search news: Futureheads) or www.youaintnopicasso.com (search: Futureheads). Andy Vihstadt