By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
"We didn't want to get into the conflicts," adds guitarist/vocalist Whit Schonbein. "People have different ideas about songs should be, wanting to do different things with multitrack. We're such a collective band in that none of us does all the principle songwriting and what-have-you. It just seemed easier. Plus, we wanted to capture the way we sound live."
You know you're dealing with a few music heads from the get-go on The Neem: The first two songs steal titles from Sun Ra and the Meters, respectively; any notion that such co-opting is mere coincidence is put to rest when you check out their site at MP3.com; under the "Influences" section, the band which is rounded out by drummer Bryan Fickel (a.k.a. Dr. Cubic) rambles on: "Miles Davis, John Zorn, Talking Heads, Pixies, Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Dave Douglas, John Coltrane, AMM, the Kinks, the Who, Phish, the Soft Boys, Joni Mitchell, Squarepusher, Tim Berne, Dave Holland, Steely Dan, Robyn Hitchcock, Duke Ellington, Fred Frith, Pierre Boulez, the Meat Puppets, James Brown, etc."
It's a broad list, to be sure, and one that's not fully represented in the Neem's music there's absolutely no Squarepusher, Ellington, James Brown, Miles Davis or Dave Douglas in their sound. There is, however, a load of Minutemen and early Meat Puppets in there: The band excels at discovering tiny melodies, examining them quickly and then releasing them into the wild.
"My problem is, I always get bored if I hear something more than once," says Schonbein. "I'll sacrifice continuity of song for experimentation, just thinking, "If this goes on two times, it's just going to be boring.'" The band must work, the members say, to carry songs longer than a couple minutes. Says Schonbein, "We've actually made conscious decisions to do that sometimes. One time we felt I can't remember what song it was, but we felt like we wanted to have the song shorter, so we said, "No! Let's make it longer, instead of making it shorter.' So instead, we just added another verse instead of taking it off."
The main strength of The Neem is its full frontal assault on typical rock structures. Rarely does a song lapse into the tired verse-chorus-verse formula; rather, songs range from the 44-second glory of "We Want Action," with the righteous refrain "Rock & roll in my brain!" to the proud declaratory joy of "I Saw You Drunk" ("You caught a little buzz/and then you caught a bigger bigger bigger buzz"). Also, they uncover some great melodies, unique creations that are uniquely Neem-ish in their construct. Says Schonbein of the song's origins there's no principle songwriter in the group: "Someone will teach us a song that they come up with, and it will go through, and then we make a verb out of it we Neem it. We learn it first, and then we Neem it later, which basically means that everyone will screw around with it. And so the songs get little bits and pieces added into them, flipped around."
At their worst, the Neem noodle too much: They'll lapse into a jam that, though perhaps only enduring for a few minutes, seems to last an eternity a line separates D. Boon of the Minutemen's wailing solos and Jerry Garcia's lackadaisical tedium, and they occasionally breach it. Their vocals are also paper-thin maybe they need to take up smoking or something, because, though they do scream and do some freaky scat-singing, there's no backbone there. Finally there's the matter of the production (a constant struggle, unfortunately, in this city), which sounds as if it was carried out in a cardboard box an omnipresent concern, it seems, with Smith-Lee projects; engineer John Katsafanas is the best live-sound man in St. Louis, but he isn't able to rescue the band from dead room. This wouldn't be so obvious if you've never seen the band live. There's a beef in their sound in the live setting, though, that's absent here.
But the gestalt of the Neem is pure inspiration. Case in point: the state suite at the heart of The Neem seven songs in the middle, each devoted to an American state. There's "Rhode Island," "Arizona" ("Arizona/is the rightful owna/of the Grand Canyon"), "New Hampshire," "Montana Militia," "Utah," "Wyoming" and "Iowa Hat/Superball."
"We had this idea to do 50 little songs," explains drummer Fickel. "We've added a few more, and there are a couple that came but we forgot. We used to have one for New Jersey. Basically, if we have a riff that's small and quick and goofy, then that just becomes a state."