By Christian Schaeffer
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By Joseph Hess
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By Roy Kasten
Tim Rose's middle name might as well be Danger. While in Kiev, working as the creative director for an ad agency, the songwriter of Sun Sawed in 1/2 was "in my apartment playing the rhythm tracks for a friend of mine at work, and all of a sudden the doorbell rang. Being naive, I opened up the door, and it was militia." He takes a breath, recalling what could have been his last. "Only it wasn't really the militia," he continues. "They were Mafia guys in fake uniforms. They came into the apartment and demanded money, put guns to our heads, big knives to our stomachs. They made us sit on the bed and kept us there for an hour. Then, at the end, they screwed silencers onto the guns, turned off all the lights and cut the phone cord. They acted like they we going to shoot us." Rose pauses at the cliffhanger.
"They didn't, fortunately. My friend told them that I was from Chicago. And people are scared of Chicago over there. So they left." And so did Rose. "I got out of the country with the tracks in my hand, just barely."
After that incident literally threatened the completion of the Sun's new album, Bewilder Beest (a Monty Python reference), there were "a lot of near-death experiences that happened. Ken Kase had very severe pneumonia. I had my tonsils out while we were making this record, and my throat burst open. Blood was squirting everywhere. I had to run across the street to the hospital for emergency cauterization. When my brother and I were finishing the record, we almost got into a head-on collision, which I swerved away from at the last minute." Rose finds a mixed message in all this. "There were forces that didn't want this record to be made," he figures, "and there were forces that did -- not to get too spiritual or ridiculous or anything."
Spirits have always played a part in the Sun's career, though mainly the kind people consume in bars and fraternity houses. After years on the road, performing for beer-lubricated preppies and bewildered punks, Sun Sawed in 1/2 have parked themselves in the studio, where they intend to stay. And the whimsical, dynamic textures of Bewilder Beest (out in January) make their earlier albums sound like Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. Offers Tim's brother Ken: "It sounds deceptively ornate with the instruments, when really there aren't very many instrumental parts; all the parts were worked out beforehand by the individual members. Aside from the Ukrainian contribution, there weren't many new parts that were worked out in the studio. We added some saxophone, little things here and there. But mostly it's the vocal arrangements that make it sound like there's a lot more instruments going on than there really are."
Bewilder Beest puts Sun Sawed in 1/2, at least, on a par with any number of groups that have had pop hits recently -- from Barenaked Ladies to Fastball. The paradigm for the new album, though, is the Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper era, when bands bathed their music in strings and echoes, employing orchestras to both augment and reflect their expanded concepts. But back then it was about making a "statement," turning the LSD experience into a catalyst for uncharted vistas. Bewilder Beest is simply about making the best album possible. And it deserves to chart.
Swathed in dazzling '60s-pop designs, Rose's songs are rockin' and ethereal, literate and catchy. From the clangy Byrds intro of "The Beholder and His Eye" to the sonorous "Eleanor Rigby" strings on "Memyself&eye," Sun Sawed in 1/2 finally sound whole. And their harmonies, filled out by Kase's singing and vocal arrangements, contain no holes whatsoever -- not even a tiny perforation. Just listen to "Denny's Girl Lounge," with its astonishing a cappella harmony passage. It's both redolent and worthy of E.L.O. or the Beach Boys. A touring band would have problems creating such a tour de force. And, as this album shows, the road-weary Sun Sawed in 1/2 had beautiful ideas that were all bottled up. On Bewilder Beest they're finally able to free the genie of their imagination.
The vocals, led as usual by the effusive, Bay City Roller-ready Doug Bobenhouse, have reached the level of choral epiphanies. "We've always admired bands with great harmonies," says Rose. "On the last two albums we tried to do harmonies but didn't have nearly the time -- or the genius of Ken Kase -- to come in and work out a seven-part harmony." Kase's sole composition, "Song No. 11," is haunting bipolar pop. It joins an Association-ish murk of dissolving harmonies with a chugging, high-strung verse. Kase's full deck of talents is a catalytic bridge for the band, lending them a winning hand with the arrangements and production.
Rose, however, would need more than a bridge to revisit the overseas musicians who played a part in Bewilder Beest. As his brother alluded, before Rose's close call in a faraway land, he managed to tape some multi-instrumentalists in Kiev. "I was working over there," explains Rose, "and I went to a restaurant called the Czar Village and heard these musicians playing traditional Ukrainian folk music, and I couldn't even eat, they were so good. They just blew me away. No one in the restaurant was paying any attention to them. So I had one of my friends, who spoke Russian, ask them if they'd be interested in being on the album. And these guys were from the hills; they didn't know pop music. They didn't even know who the Beatles were."