Pigeonholing a whale

The vocabulary of phrases shouted out at rock shows is limited: song requests; "Take it off!"; and the ubiquitous "Freebird!" "Bring out the whale!" isn't traditional. Yet that cry rang out clearly during the Crocodile set by His Name Is Alive two weekends ago. The fact that this plea went unanswered underscores what distinguishes this underrated act.

Indoor whale watching isn't without precedent at His Name Is Alive gigs. At the climax of an appearance supporting HNIA's 1996 Beach Boysscented Stars on E.S.P. album, a man in an oversized rubber whale suit careened through the Tractor Tavern, transforming the mood from merriment to mayhem. But an encore performance so many months after the fact would have been extremely unlikely; HNIA mastermind Warren Defever isn't one to repeat himself.

As the pungent odor of clove cigarettes hung in the air, I pitied any displaced goths pining for skeletal selections from HNIA's 1990 debut, Livonia. Instead, the audience enjoyed brightly painted cardboard giraffes and tigers, flaming tiki torches (positioned perilously close to the curtains), and a rollicking set drawn almost exclusively from the just-released Ft. Lake (on 4AD). No rampaging leviathans, no "How Ghosts Affect Relationships."

After reading the current Atlantic Monthly cover story on Jack Kerouac, who spent the bulk of his too-short career shrugging off the Beat brush with which he was tarred by the success of On the Road, I've been pondering the tendency of American audiences to pigeonhole artists. As Garth declares during a pivotal scene in Wayne's World, "We fear change!" In a climate where the calculated makeovers of Madonna and Marilyn Manson are deemed revolutionary, Warren Defever is a welcome anomaly.

The reclusive Michigan native switches stylistic tack as often as ordinary folks change socks. "I think of it more like folk art—arts and crafts," he has remarked of his records. "Sitting around making ceramic ducks." In the past five years he's released projects as Princess Dragonmom (avant Japanese noise rock), ESP Summer (with exPale Saints Ian Masters), the 16-piece Mystic Moog Orchestra, and several more, most via his own Time Stereo cassette label.

Still, I almost blew off the recent HNIA gig because I, too, had reduced Defever to a caricature. The sign I'd hung round his neck read simply "Crackpot." After Defever's neurotic outburst during a 1996 interview, and his subsequent disclosure of a fixation with Amish girls, I shunned his recent Nice Day EP. My advance copy of Ft. Lake immediately landed in the discard pile.

But I dug it back out after the Croc show, and it hasn't left my CD player since. Augmented by the gospel intonations of Lovetta Pippen, new tunes like "Everything Takes For Ever" and "Wish I Had a Wishing Ring" fashion Defever's idiosyncratic songwriting into near-perfect pop; it isn't hard to imagine the Shirelles covering the latter. As a pal keenly observed on first hearing, Ft. Lake covers more stylistic ground than most mix tapes, without compromising quality or consistency. And that trumps a rubber whale costume any day.

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