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POP MUSIC REVIEW : NAPOLITANO-- STAYING TRUE IN A CONCRETE WAY

Times Pop Music Critic

Johnette Napolitano may be the first budding rock star since Elvis Costello to begin her career by vowing to remain true.

Just as Costello titled his first album “My Aim Is True,” Napolitano--lead singer for Concrete Blonde--opens the group’s debut LP with a song called simply “True.”

While the number is a general expression of self-affirmation, it was tempting to think Napolitano had the record industry in mind when she sang it Tuesday night at the Bacchanal club here. The tune had the ring of a victory cry:

They talk you up and then they talk you down

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And you begin to doubt . ..

But . .. if I can’t walk proud, I’d rather walk away.

I do all I can and it’s all I can do . ..

True.

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This was the L.A.-based group’s last show before a much-awaited return home for shows tonight and Friday at the Whisky. When Concrete Blonde hit the road in January, its album had just been released by I.R.S. Records and the group was a fairly unknown quantity around town. But the album has been widely acclaimed and the band is now a favorite of college radio.

The LP’s authority and conviction make it one of the most compelling debuts since the Pretenders’, the band that Concrete Blonde’s music most resembles. Like Chrissie Hynde, Napolitano is an intelligent, independent woman who stands up for her rights in both relationships and the workplace.

Yet Napolitano and her longtime cohort, guitarist Jim Mankey, went through nearly seven years of incubation in Los Angeles. They were repeatedly told by record companies that they needed to change their direction and sound if they were going to amount to anything.

After a sound check earlier in the day, Napolitano, 29, spoke about “True” and the band’s struggle to get a record contract:

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“It’s not strictly about the music business because that’s not all that life is about, but it is connected to all the times we had to stand there and say, ‘Look, I don’t know much, but I know what I know . . . I know who and what I am.’

“What happens is that people toy with you, try to project their own trip on you, even play psychological games . . . like tell me that I’d better start worrying about how much time I had left to get started. . . . I’m 29 now, which isn’t real young in this business.

“We got kinda discouraged at times . . . but I’ve seen lots of bands get desperate and confused and let themselves be led anywhere. We saw that it was important to develop a vision and stick to it--even if that meant we lost a lot of deals.”

Concrete Blonde asserts a strong sense of individuality on stage, refusing to be part of any reigning pop trend.

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Napolitano sports a shaggy, recently adopted Mohawk and fishnet stockings that recall Wendy O. Williams during her punk-shock days with the Plasmatics. But there is little sense of Williams’ gimmickry. Napolitano’s vocals suggest Hynde’s cool seductiveness, but she is more open than Hynde on stage--even disarming as she punctuates her asides between songs with hearty giggles not far removed from Pee-wee Herman’s.

Mankey has stringy, shoulder-length hair that makes him look like a hippie, while bare-chested drummer Harry Rushakoff has the good-natured, energetic manner of Dennis Wilson in the early days of the Beach Boys. On stage, they merge these divergent personalities into a show with a natural, winning flavor. The only weakness is that they tend to be too natural. Rather than highlight the songs’ drama, the arrangements were often too informal--as if the group was simply going through a rehearsal.

It may be that Napolitano and Mankey, after all these years of quiet, steady determination, may feel uneasy about pushing themselves too hard. One thing they’ve learned is patience.

The two met in 1980 while working at singer-producer Leon Russell’s Paradise Studio in Burbank. Mankey had been in other bands (including Sparks) long enough to learn the importance of songwriting and was using his time at Paradise to develop his craft. Napolitano, a graduate of Grant High School in Van Nuys, was a rock fan who was eager to get involved in the record business.

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By chance, Mankey heard her sing one day and the two started working together. The band has gone through different names and different drummers. They made an independent mini-album in 1983 that attracted some attention in Europe, and record company scouts started checking them out.

But it wasn’t until meeting Miles Copeland, the head of I.R.S. Records and a key figure in the careers of the Police and the Go-Go’s, that they found an executive who was in love with their music the way it was.

Like the early Pretenders, Concrete Blonde offers an intriguing blend of underground adventurism and mainstream accessibility. There is a brightness and punch to the melodies, and the themes range from the introspection of the Pretenders to a bit of the social realism associated with X.

Napolitano can be wonderfully vulnerable in the acoustic "(You’re the Only One) Can Make Me Cry),” but she makes it clear in songs like “Your Haunted Head” that she’s also nobody’s fool.

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The band is looking forward to returning home tonight, but it realizes that these are going to be largely industry audiences at the Whisky--including some of the people, quite possibly, who passed on the band.

Summarized Napolitano: “The important thing is to take the music seriously, but not the business. Let’s say somebody was No. 1 last year and is No. 5 this year. Is he a success or failure?

“Is everyone going to freak out because you aren’t No. 1 again . . . or should you be happy because you are No. 5 rather than No. 25? Does any of it matter? I just want to keep making records. . . . I like Van Morrison or Todd Rundgren who just seem to go on and on. That’s my goal.”


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