The Waxwings' second album, "Shadows of the Waxwings," isn't due out till June on Aurora-based Bobsled Records, but the Detroit quartet will be previewing songs from it this weekend. Burning Brides' debut, "Fall of the Plastic Empire," came out on the File 13 label last year, and it has put a variety of major-label talent scouts on the Philadelphia trio's trail. Scott Lucas and Brian St. Clair of Local H, themselves keepers of the rock 'n' roll flame, have been championing the Brides for months, and the opening slot on Local H's current national tour is the first of what should be many higher-profile gigs for the Philly rockers.
What makes these bands worth hearing?
The Waxwings' heads are stuck in 1966, and that's not a bad thing. That may be the single most impressive year in rock history, an explosion of self-expression without the self-consciousness that would creep into later, more celebrated experiments. Here was the year when the Beatles released their best album, "Revolver," the Rolling Stones countered with "Aftermath," Bob Dylan gilded "Blonde on Blonde," the Byrds climbed "Eight Miles High" and Brian Wilson gathered his "Pet Sounds" with the Beach Boys. These were albums that melded ambition, innovation, melody and surrealism -- standards that any new band should find inspiring.
The Waxwings build on those innovations in intricately constructed, lushly appointed pop-rock songs. But whereas the quartet's 2000 debut, "Low to the Ground," honored those influences with the religious ardor of pilgrims visiting Mecca, "Shadows of the Waxwings" isn't quite so pristine. The Waxwings are still believers, but they're no longer innocents, and the dirtier sound suits the new mood.
"I don't want to get any closer, all my illusions are gonna shatter," Dean Fertita sings on "Fractured." But the Waxwings do move closer, and the reality check gives the music a buzzing momentum that the prettier "Low to the Ground" lacked. That's particularly true of "Clouded Over," with its distorted vocals and a guitar solo that sounds like it was hijacked from an Electric Prunes single. The new attitude is also audible on "Crystalized," with trashy drums rumbling beneath its crack-the-sky psychedelia, and the garage-blues wooziness of "Blue to Me."
Not that the band has abandoned its dreamier side. If anything, the psychedelic haze has only deepened, the orchestral colors darkening as the quartet explores the land beyond guitars and drums with touches of cello, violin and brass. "Look Down Darkly" is the disc's centerpiece, a suite-like composition that slides between amber ambiguity and rainbow bursts of harmony, before concluding with an extended symphonic coda that still rocks, thanks to Jim Edmunds' drumming.
The Burning Brides take a less refined but no less ambitious approach on "Fall of the Plastic Empire." "Plank of Fire" instantly sets the mood, revved up garage-rock chords downshifting into gloomy psychedelia, and a vision from the front lines of disorientation: "I thought the ambulance would come/To take us from the things we've done."
"Glass Slipper" fires like Iggy Stooge, a shot of undiluted Detroit proto-punk. "I've learned the ways of the whip," wails Dimitri Coats. A scream ups the ante, and a fuzzed-out guitar solo raises welts.In an album without any letdowns -- in part because the Brides get in and out of songs quicker than you can say "Ramones!" -- the trio lets rip on an impressively wide range of influences: "If I'm a Man" is a surreal ode to the macho blues posturing of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley as filtered through the Yardbirds and Sonics; "Arctic Snow" is wall-of-sound power pop that Cheap Trick would've been proud to include on one of its first four albums.
Yet Coats' songs are rarely what they first seem to be: "Elevator" passes through the blue flame of early '80s hardcore before shifting into a moody instrumental section that suggests Kyuss' stoner-rock expansiveness. "Stabbed in the Back of the Heart" packs a garage-rock wallop while nodding toward the Beatles' Eastern-influenced experiments. At five minutes, "Plastic Empire" is by far the 33-minute disc's longest track, but it's meticulously arranged, a tour through some of doom-rock's darkest corners rather than a haphazardly conceived jam. If the band is this thrilling on stage, watch out.
Kot is the Tribune's rock critic. Hear him on "Sound Opinions" at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on WXRT-FM 93.1.
Originally published May 1, 2002.