Drummers have a mostly deserved reputation for being knuckleheads. On the other hand, folks come along every now and then who step out from behind the kit to display broad musical gifts made all the more wonderful by the perspective of a percussionist. Levon Helm, Phil Collins, and even Karen Carpenter come to mind.
Hostage, the remarkably fine disc by Bears drummer Chris Arduser, recalls those artists and more. Arduser was just starting to write when the Bears toured the world in the '80s. His only Bears composition from that era, "Little Blue River," however, was the best cut on the band's second album. Since then, he's gone on to be the singer-mandolin player (shades of Helm) for Cincinnati's Graveblankets. Still, the recently released Hostage is a departure. Arduser played, sang, and wrote everything.
The shock is the assurance in the material and the performances. In "Sugar on My Mind" Arduser sings: "I can't stop listening to / a Todd Rundgren record from 1972 / he sounds so fragile but somehow strong / and I picture you with almost every song." Arduser does not sound fragile, singing a good bit like Graham Parker at his best; spitting out his words and planting final consonants in powerful, definite melodies. There are no amazing licks, but he plays guitar, bass, and keys with the kind of rhythm only a great drummer could muster.
He loves counterpoint, wearing his Beatles/Brian Wilson influences on his sleeve. Some of the best moments come when he lets the Wilson tendencies go, as in the layered climax of "The Girl Who Cried Wolf." I once asked Arduser after a Bears gig if he could see a comparison with Matthew Sweet, and he said he likes him, but isn't influenced by him. Perhaps not, but Sweet and Arduser, roughly the same age, clearly grew up loving the same things and often arrive in similar places. "Inside Out & Backwards," for example, wouldn't be out of place on Sweet's latest.
But Hostage is better than the sum of its influences. Arduser has his own something, part his dark perspective, part the raw power of his musicality. It all comes together on "Demonize Me," where he takes a simple rocker about the price of honesty and turns it into a literary romp by bringing in Dickens: "I want to be Oliver Twist / Forever on the cusp of adolescence / I just want to be Oliver Twist / With a full-blown libido and grown up fists."
Visit www.graveblankets.com for information.
--- Adam Wilcox