Listening Post

GET ON THE BUS:Although he would be the first to downplay it, Aaron Cometbus has become something of a legend to thousands of funny-looking kids across America. The Berkeley, Calif., native has been chronicling the punk-rock lifestyle for some 15 years in his eponymous zine, Cometbus (P.O. Box 4279, Berkeley, CA 94704). While his friends in bands like Green Day and Rancid were scaling the heights of rock stardom, Cometbus remained defiantly independent and downscale, refusing book deals and avoiding the brief "zine revolution" hype wave. Oh yeah, he's also turned into one of the best young writers in America.

Early issues featured a somewhat typical zine format: interviews, brattiness, social ranting. But more and more, Cometbus centered on Cometbus's travel anecdotes, local mythology, Dumpster romances and liquored-up tall tales. There's nobody better at capturing the heartbreak and euphoria of being young, smart and punk. Issue No. 43 was his first attempt at writing a novel and probably the best Cometbus yet. Put simply, it told the story of a year in the life of a punk house, from high hopes to low hate, all of it ringing dead true.

Now he has returned with No. 44, titled "St. Louis Stories." Cometbus' extensive travels have been the basis for much of Cometbus and are a significant reason for his nationwide renown, so it's not too surprising that he would get around to our city eventually. Unfortunately, it's a disappointing entry in the series. For one, it's a little light on the local color and commentary Cometbus is known for, instead focusing on the troubled relationships Cometbus has with his St. Louis friends. He has shown himself to be an incisive observer of friendship and love in the past, but here Cometbus's prose has grown so elliptical and allusive that half the time it's hard to figure out what exactly he's talking about. It's still got a lot of the Cometbus charm, but it never hits the heights of previous issues. (Oh, and this very paper gets a mention, although Cometbus refers to the "Missed Connections" section of the personal ads and not, alas, the excellence of the music coverage.)

That said, regular Cometbus readers will want to devour this issue as soon as it hits their eyeballs. The rest of you might want to flip through it at the newsstand first. Remember this: He's got a reputation for a reason, and even mediocre Cometbus is a mile or two further down the highway than everybody else. (JT)

PONYING UP: Jeff Shaw is new to St. Louis, but he's been working diligently to book and organize the cafegoing singer/songwriters around town. He's aggressive about getting acts into places like Cafe Danielle and Pony Espresso, and the coffeehouse scene is the better because of it.

"My initial thought was," Shaw says, "we don't have a budget to pay people to play, and people who are serious about it generally want some money. But I went at it from how I feel, which is, at least out in public somebody might hear me play. Not a lot of people stop by my house to hear my songs. I was amazed at how receptive people were. That's where the big speed bump is. It can be hard to promote yourself, sit down and say, "I'm a great musician; I'd like to play here.'"

Shaw's a good songwriter himself, with a big, smooth voice and a steady flat-pick guitar style, as well as a genuine appreciation for good songs presented simply and honestly. "The folk community here is so strong," Shaw says. "After coming out of Huntington, W.Va. l; where there were maybe three or four people writing their own stuff, and they were doing mostly covers when they'd play out, and besides, there was absolutely no venue for them l; this is Tokyo in comparison."

Along with Rob Woerther, who runs the open mic on Saturdays at Sally T's, Shaw has begun producing Sweat Equity, a compilation CD featuring eight local singer/songwriters. Saturday, June 26, he's presenting his sixth "Expression Session" songwriter-in-the-round show at Pony Espresso. If the series title sounds touchy-feely, the shows have been surprisingly smart and eclectic, featuring, in the past, popsters like Sarah Cloud, bluesy guys like Luke Warmwater and hot guitarists like Gen Obata. This Saturday's lineup features Andy Conrad, Brian Perry, Jan Marra, Woerther and Louis Saubian. Show starts at 8pm. (RK)

HALF FULL? Brandy Johnson sure does have a purty voice. It's dense and confident, given to melodramatic leaps and gentle whispers, and, true to the first advice any vocal coach will give you, she sings from the diaphragm, digging deep with every note and pulling up just enough dirt to stain her notes with static. She's an earthy tenor, recalling the strengths of Natalie Merchant, Sandy Denny and, sure, Cher.

If only that edge would carry over into the music that accompanies her on her band Drift's debut CD, the copiously titled Suddenly the World's Glass Is Half Full Again. Johnson, whom you may know as the former vocalist for Bella Wolf, stands front-and-center as middle-of-the-road, adult-alternative instrumentation surrounds her, and in this context her voice ends up sounding less impressive than it really is. How to say it? The gestalt is tepid 10,000 Maniacs Lite, if that's not redundant. Occasionally the music convulses and discovers some sort of frayed edge ("The Ceiling Song" dances with danger, but with an overproduced straitjacket on; "Beehive" has some Robert Frippesque pepper, but buried way down in the mix), but more often it coasts conservatively, lacking much excitement or sense of adventure. The slippery, high-gloss production job doesn't help matters much; it only serves to whitewash the entirety. Gentle guitars, both acoustic and electric, frolic and occasionally frown, a Steely Danesque piano melody often cuts through to take the center away from that voice.

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