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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Dada Shows Who Rules the (Coach) House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is no special subtext of drama, intrigue, or confession about Dada--just good songs, expert singing and playing, and a fine rock ‘n’ roll spirit that manifests its delight in blending those musical virtues.

In a way, the band from Los Angeles’ show Saturday night at the Coach House was about as surprising as your average Super Bowl, with Dada playing the part of the inevitable conquerors from the National Conference. The band hit hard and scored quickly from its opening number, “Dim,” which was played with the kind of heat and celebration that many other rock acts reach only when peaking for an encore. After that, the issue was not in doubt: The packed house knew it was in the good hands of a band that clearly was on, and able to cherry pick tasty nuggets from two solid pop-rock albums.

The only question to be settled was how Dada would respond to its forced expansion from the trio it officially is, into the foursome it has been on a tour that ended with the Coach House gig--a move born not from musical design but to give guitar ace Michael Gurley more chances to rest hands aching from repetitive stress injury. The condition, common to typists and blue collar workers, evidently also is a potential hazard for guitar players who play as much as it takes to become as good as Gurley has gotten.

Robbie Allen, a veteran of the Orange County rock scene and now a member of the L.A. band Rob Rule, was the fourth player, augmenting Gurley, bassist Joie Calio and drummer Phil Leavitt. He mainly played rhythm parts, adding helpful extra heft to such moments as the Neil Young and Crazy Horse-inspired finale to “All I Am.”

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With Allen there to carry the rhythm parts, Gurley often was freed to display a natural showman’s instincts between solos. With lots of body English and a mobile, expressive face, he gave added charm and character to bits like the hipster-shtick verses of “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.” When it came time to solo, he didn’t seem slowed in the least by his hand woes, and it was a treat to watch his face freeze in a zoned-out, trance-like gaze of concentration and bliss as his fingers flew.

Calio was solid and steady with his bass playing, and served as the firm, chesty-voiced counterpart to Gurley’s more reedy and idiosyncratic voice in Dada’s splendid tandem-vocal blend. Leavitt is an explosive player held in check by a Ringo Starr-like recognition that the song must supersede the beat--although there were a few instances when Dada’s instrumental heft intruded on its vocal appeal.

Not a band to disguise its influences, Dada went out of its way to have fun with them. “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” was framed at both ends by the chorus of a Kinks’ oldie, “Tired of Waiting for You.” And the extended instrumental probe into mysterious moods during “Ask the Dust” veered into a helping of the Chantays’ darkly dramatic surf-rock classic “Pipeline.” A brooding, Doors-like intro was tagged onto “Dizz Knee Land,” the song that gave Dada a boost on alternative rock radio in 1992 when the band first emerged.

While Dada’s songs are intelligent and substantive--the set featured a middle segment of downbeat character sketches including the wistful “Scum” and the tense “Feel Me Don’t You"--it wasn’t so much what was being said that carried the 80-minute performance, as the high level of skill and exuberant musicality with which the band said it.

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The opener, Factory, seems to be running at ever-increasing capacity. The band from Costa Mesa’s new songs show a growing grasp of melody and pop structure and its half-hour set offered good variety, ranging from the airy, off-kilter irony of “Conversation” to the liquid pop-rock jangle of “After All” (a song that cried out for a good, flavorful backing vocal arrangement to complement Jeff Wright’s plaintive lead). The catchy anthem-rock of “Radio Killers” and “Chelsea” was another strong suit from a band that plays mainstream rock with a few alternative wrinkles thrown in.

Factory has come a long way from where it was four or five years ago when Wright and co-founder Gordon McGrath teamed in the talented but derivative and overeager band the Edge. Now they’re confident and less forced, and showing savvy about such extracurricular matters as looks. The chiseled Wright has grown his hair, making him a potential Evan Dando-dreamboat type, with suburban niceness substituting for stoner haze. McGrath, the bassist, has a short-haired, bespectacled Adam Clayton image; drummer Brad Wilson is the shaven-headed, stripped-down rhythm technician, and guitarist Matthew Von Doran the scraggly, bearded Bohemian of the band.

The instrumentalists all are expert players, so Factory has its music-first priorities in order. There may be no getting around the fact that Wright’s reedy tenor is always going to sound like Sting’s. That was a real problem when Factory was all about sound and chops and less about songs; interesting material will help any singer sound more individualistic. The advantages of having a rangy, tuneful voice reminiscent of Sting’s became obvious in a strong, aggressively played arrangement of the Moody Blues’ ode to the Romantic sensibility, “Tuesday Afternoon.”

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Sandwiched between superb headliner and tasty opener was a rancid slice of liverwurst known as Sybil Vane. Named after a character from Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the band from Seattle starts and ends with an impressive lead voice, April Devereaux. With an expansive style that alternately echoed the theatricality of Kate Bush, the strangled intonations of Bjork and the husky rasps of Johnette Napolitano, Devereaux sang with force and ardor.

Unfortunately, little of what she sang had much to do with coherent song-craft, although we can hope that the band’s debut album, due next month on Island Records, will order and arrange things better than Sybil Vane did live.

Between songs, Devereaux, a Natalie Merchant look-alike in a bobbed glamour-cut and long, floral dress, served up street-diva attitude that was unearned and unattractive. She wants to be in-your-face, but came off as somebody you just want out-of-your-face.

Her three male band mates often played at cross-purposes to her and to each other, with guitarist Dave Hillis spewing mindless, shapeless wah-wah pedal noise over every song. The drummer, Joey Veneziani, would be a good addition to some punk band, which Sybil Vane, unfortunately, is not.

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It seems as if every rock band in Seattle has had a big-label shot. If Sybil Vane is the best grungetown can offer now, the vein is about tapped out.


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