Ask the average listener to name the most important musical development of the last decade, and he or she is likely to think in terms of style, be it rap, thrash, house, techno, or any of a dozen other sub-genres.
Ask the average musician, on the other hand, and you're as likely to hear about technology as music -- particularly if the players you speak with have gotten to the recording stage of their careers. Because on a practical level, nothing has changed the way musicians work today quite as much as the wide availability of cheap, professional-quality recording equipment.
Where once a group would have to spend thousands merely to buy a couple of days of studio time, now they can spend the same money on equipment and cut tracks at home. As a result, acts that previously would have been priced out of the music market can now afford to record and release whole albums of their material.
And nowhere has that change been more evident than on the local level. Baltimore is hardly the music center cities like Austin, Atlanta, Miami or Minneapolis are -- far from being nationally known, the scene here is sometimes invisible even to locals -- but that hasn't kept area musicians off the record.
Quite the contrary. With several local labels and dozens of album-making acts in place, the Baltimore-Washington scene is ambitious and populous enough at this point to support an annual convention, the Music Business Forum (which concludes today in Washington). So perhaps this is an appropriate time to survey some of the albums Baltimore-based recording artists have released recently.
But first, a note on availability. Although many of the titles reviewed here can be found in locally owned record stores (including Recordmasters, Record and Tape Traders and An Die Musik, to name a few), it isn't always easy to find them. Thus, mail-order information has been included where possible.
disappear fear. "Live at the Bottom Line." (Disappear DR 1005.)
It's not hard to understand why disappear fear is so often compared to the Indigo Girls. Both, after all, are female folk duos whose material depends heavily on close harmonies and naked emotions to make its point.
But the similarities end there. Unlike the Indigo Girls, whose music plays off the folk-pop approach perfected by Simon & Garfunkel a quarter century ago, disappear fear's sound is neither as openly derivative nor as commercially polished. Although some songs draw directly from the folk tradition (who can hear the harmonica part in "16 Roses," for instance, and not think of Bob Dylan?), others owe more to the singer-songwriter boom of the '70s, or the more recent women's music movement.
More to the point, the Indigo Girls are every bit as at home with stripped-down acoustic duets as with full-band studio sessions, whereas disappear fear -- as this album makes all too evident -- is better served by dressing its songs up.
"Sink the Censorship," for example, comes across angry and assured in the studio recording included here, while seeming strident and shrill in concert; likewise, the combination of romantic drama and harmonic invention in "Box of Tissues" works far better in the controlled environment of the recording studio than it does in the club atmosphere of the Bottom Line. As a result, this album ends up a mixed bag, offering more promise than actual achievement. (778 Waugh Lane, Ukiah, Calif. 95482.)
Monkeyspank. "Blue Mud." (Merkin MM323.)
Given the growing interest in thrash-funk fusion acts like Primus, 24-7 Spyz and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Monkeyspank's mix of metallic guitar and bass-heavy beats ought to make the group eminently marketable. Even better, "Blue Mud" is well enough engineered that the album is easily able to convey all the kinetic power of the band's sound.
All of which would make this album a winner, were it not for one thing: The songs stink.
As is too often the case with rhythm-driven bands, what Monkeyspank offers in the way of material is simply a loose collection of riffs with lyrics attached; most are little more than elaborate, two-bar chants. That's not to say the album is without a few ear-catching moments -- "Nasty Scratch," for instance, positively begs to be blasted -- just that those moments aren't enough to sustain an entire album. (301 E. Biddle St., Baltimore 21202.)
Karen Goldberg. "Slipping Thru the Cracks." (Corbett COR-004.)
Let Goldberg slip into her whimsical-folkie mode -- as she does on tunes like "Hotel from Hell" or "Princess Blues" -- and this album is only mildly entertaining. But when she turns her attention to more serious subjects, as on eco-conscious numbers like "In the Name of Progress" or "Earth Day Song," her music seems much more gripping.