The four members of the Atomic Swindlers who gathered on a recent evening to talk about their new album are no strangers to CD releases. Different combinations of them have played in New Math in the early 1980s, Jet Black Berries in the mid 1980s, and the Raw MaGillys in the 1990s.
"If we'd made it years ago we'd be washed up by now," says bassist Gary Trainer. "We'd be on Behind the Music."
"We're way behind the music," adds guitarist Chris Yockel.
Vocalist April Laragy and drummer Roy Stein join in the laughter, but, however unintentionally, Yockel has a point.
Coming Out Electric sounds nothing like the mainstream recordings of today. It's a throwback to a bygone era when the music industry cherished poetic lyrics and albums that were works of art. The buzz was strong even before the release.
The program director of XM Satellite Radio's unsigned band station responded immediately to the group's demo, even though he receives 800 to 1,000 CDs a week. Stein's song "Float" eventually reached the top 20 nationally on the station's chart.
Alternative forms of exposure like XM Radio are crucial in the age of corporate media consolidation.
"There's that big rock world where millions of dollars are pissed away and then there are people like ourselves who do it with whatever we can," says Trainer.
If the Atomic Swindlers' sound is lush, it's because there's no skimping on talent. Laragy, long-time local favorite, has never been more unleashed than on her lead vocals here. In addition to writing four songs, she plays keyboards and guitar and wrote string arrangements.
Stein serves as far more than a drummer, contributing percussion, loops, guitar, and background vocals. But it's his writing skills that stand out. Trainer, the third writer, supplies some of the hardest rocking tunes on the album.
The group is rounded out by Scott Ostrowski (guitars and vocals), Yockel (guitars and sitar), and Brian Eggleston (keyboards and background vocals). Stein and Laragy even persuaded their neighbor, Howard Weiss, former Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster, to record violin parts on a few tunes. "He had a blast," says Stein.
The album is a labor of love, the product of over 1,000 hours of recording and mixing, much of it by Stein. It's a pretty impressive recording, considering the fact that Stein, Laragy, Trainer, and Yockel have day jobs.
Stein is a professor of business and program director of the masters of arts in liberal studies at Nazareth College. Laragy is a part-time receptionist at George Eastman House. Trainer is a buyer for the City of Rochester, and Yockel does planning and technical work at Harris RF Communications.
The group's songs all touch on science-fiction or space themes. And there are several homoerotic undertones, from the album's title to tunes like "Intergalactic Lesbian Love Song."
"Once you're working out adventures in the universe and you come across the strict sexuality of this planet, you can let that go," Trainer says. "You're given the freedom.... I don't even think it's gay."
Laragy gives Yockel much of the credit for the band's sound. "He's as important to the group as George Martin was to the Beatles," she says. "He doesn't write, but he's that special ingredient that locks it all together."
"On a song like 'Drag' you wonder, is it going to be too pretty?" says Stein. "I know Chris will bring an edge to anything I write."
Yockel's magic is also rooted in the past. In the 1970s he worked for MXR, a Rochester-based corporation that made effects pedals. He still uses MXR delays and compressors. His heroes: the 1960s acid-rock group Quicksilver Messenger Service.
"Most of what I do is spontaneous," says Yockel. "Roy puts them together, then I go back and learn what I did. He whittles my redwoods into toothpicks, but it works."
Stein is also quick to point out the contributions of guitarist Ostrowski.
"Scott is a great rockabilly guitar player out of Canandaigua" Stein says. "He's got a huge guitar sound and a great voice."
On one tune, Trainer's "Stars In My Pocket," Ostrowski borrows a mind-boggling trick from Jimi Hendrix, playing his part backwards so when the song is played the right way the guitar has an other-worldly sound.
Stein also credits Christopher Hooker, a 25-year-old engineer at GFI studios. Hooker was so devoted to creating the right sound for the CD, he was given production credit.
Stein recently found himself at the House of Guitars, where Bruce Schaubroeck had helped the band obtain instruments. Schaubroeck said he knew how hard the band had worked, adding "Of course, you're never really satisfied."
"I thought about it and said, 'No, this time I'm satisfied.' For the first time ever, I'm happy with the whole thing."
Atomic Swindlers play on Friday, October 8, at 9 and 11 p.m., at Nasty D's, 140 Alexander Street, for the Opening Night Party of the ImageOut Festival. Admission: Ticket stub from an opening night film.
Space is the place
Local albums are released by the dozens every year; many of them are terrific. But the new album by the Atomic Swindlers is an absolute knockout. Coming Out Electric transports you back to a time when albums took you on a journey.
Pop this disc in the CD player and you'll wonder where it came from. Is it the soundtrack for the latest Barbarella movie? Did David Bowie put his dress back on and re-emerge in a female incarnation?
It's as if the entire group was trapped on a desert island for the last couple of decades. They just got back and lost no time taking up where Bowie left off with Ziggy Stardust.
In fact, Roy Stein's "Float" offers another imaginative take on the "Space Oddity" concept. And April Laragy's "Wonderlove" seems to come from the same unisex planet as the Mott the Hoople's gay classic "All the Young Dudes," (which was written and produced by Bowie). It's a totally over-the-top time-warp.
On this album, space is most definitely the place. Its futuristic setting is such a strange anachronism --- looking backward to a 1960s view of the future and forward to the real future at the same time --- that it works.
The melodies are as beautiful and as catchy as they are off-kilter. Laragy has the perfect ironic sneer built into her vocal chords. She's acting as much as singing on every song in a manner reminiscent of great 1970s singers like Lene Lovich and Kate Bush.
But maybe the best thing about this album is the lack of attention paid to current trends. Forget rap and hip-hop, this is state-of-the-art 1973 --- total, full-throttle self-indulgence --- and there's not a weak link to be found. The songwriting is simply superb.
Some of Stein's tunes --- notably "Drag" --- contain beautiful echoes of John Lennon, with equal shares of the psychedelic and the poetic. And his "Intergalactic Lesbian Love Song" is a wild, gender-bending update of "Hey Joe." Trainer's tunes, like "Diamond Dreamers," continue to explore the cosmos, but they're firmly rooted in earthy rock. Laragy's beautiful ballad, "Underground Love," is perfectly contoured to her emotional vocal gymnastics.
Most of these tunes are greatly enhanced by Chris Yockel's slashing guitars. But on Gary Trainer's "Stars In My Pocket," it's Scott Ostrowski's wonderfully quirky guitar supporting Laragy's Betty Boop swoops.
Each song is lovingly built, texture upon texture, constructing a world of sound with far-off voices and atmospheric effects. Put on some headphones before inserting this CD. This is a soundscape well worth entering.
And don't miss the website www.atomicswindlers.com/missioncontrol.html, where you will find Joel Trussell's animated video of "Float," perfectly executed in a retro kinky moderne style.