BEYOND THE JAVA SEA
Metal Flake Mother (Moist Records)

By Bob Bahr

Maybe it's deplorable, but if someone out there emerged with a completely original batch of music, it would most likely never make it on a record label and almost assuredly would never catch fire with the public.

I'm not talking about music from out in left field. We hear plenty of that. I'm talking about music from several miles outside of the ballpark. If it's too alien, it won't fly. Even among adventurous music fans, the most successful music will be music with some reference points.

That is the disclaimer for the following gushes of praise and the defenseless accolades of originality that I wish to give left-fielders Metal Flake Mother, a North Carolina band that is a sturdy raft in a rather unsavory sea of musical mediocrity.

Comparisons to XTC, the Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven and who knows who else are easily made, but they serve more to peak the interest of the uninitiated than to accurately sketch the sound and spirit of this quartet.

Metal Flake Mother, composed of guitarist and vocalist Benjamin Clarke, drummer and vocalist Jim Mathis, bassist Quince Marcum and guitarist Randy Ward, boldly crank out pop music that skates an alternative edge, served with a twang. The foursome's new album, "Beyond the Java Sea," is alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) hip and backwoods, equal parts Ventures and Camper Van Beethoven.

Mathis' smart-aleck college kid vocal delivery invites the CVB comparisons, although again, Metal Flake Mother are their own masters. Mathis' turns at the lead vocal microphone render the lyrics the most intelligible, offsetting Clarke's obfuscating extravagances.

"Mean to Me," a hysterical complaint against a love, is one of four showcase tunes for Mathis. The listener need go no further to discover what makes Metal Flake Mother so potent: floating around and in and out of the vocals is beautiful, catchy, urgent guitar work. "Mean to Me" can be listened to solely for the melodic electric guitar figures and feedback bridges. Elsewhere in the mix, Marcum and Mathis are fully up to the task in the rhythm section.

This ideal wedding of urgency and beauty eludes the four dudes in Metal Flake Mother for the rest of "Beyond the Java Sea," perhaps because the agenda changes for each song. MFM seems to want you to dance, reflect, listen intently, laugh and tap your foot and they'll come at you with 17 songs to accomplish it.

The band is served well with the two distinctly different vocalists, providing amiable contrast between Mathis' and Clarke's vocal approaches. Clarke's voice attacks with several weapons, dramatically crooning then gutturally growling through hard-edged material (thus the Pixies comparison). On "Mr. Flavor," Clarke swings from his XTC/ Andy Partridge pop warble in the verses to a lighthearted falsetto during the choruses. The band sparsely adorns the odd lyrical proceedings of "Mr. Flavor" with light, tight play and a linear chiming line presumably supplied by a xylophone.

For "Fine Lady," Clarke thrashes his voice through cryptic verses, then affects a countryish accent for the ironic chorus. Coming near the end of Side One, "fine Lady" puts the final brushstrokes on the creation; the Metal Flake Mother sound is established and the listener blessedly has better than another side of music to enjoy and explore further.

The two vocalists team up on "Matador," a meditation on the gentle man who kills bulls for a living. Here, Mathis' drumming shines, sounding like bloody dynamite under the bull ring.

If their lyrical pursuits seem mysterious, well, they are. Song titles such as "Tongue Long," "Wingtip Lizards," "Dance for Nails" and "Our Love for the Bone" should tell you that one listen won't divulge everything this band is trying to reveal or trying to conceal.

At the end of Side One is "Sutpen," a rare thing on "Beyond the Java Sea": a song whose lyrics can be followed. The message? Perhaps the folly of materialism. Perhaps the folly of age. Perhaps nothing. "Sutpen" waltzes around via a sinister Eastern European folk groove, while Mathis sings "all of his money's just made out of gold." The waltz time has been explored before with Camper Van Beethoven and more fully with Monks of Doom's 1991 release "Meridian." Aha! A thread emerges Monks of Doom has three Camper alumni in its ranks and they record on Metal Flake Mother's label, Moist] Baited Breath. Someone in the ranks of Moist records is on to something.

Metal Flake Mother also engages in a trio of odd instrumental numbers, fleshing out another dimension of their musical personality.

On "The Inquisition," the Pixies comparison is most relevant, yet with a twist. Hard driving, guitar-dominated, "The Inquisition" sounds like a '90s update of the Ventures surf guitar music. Opening Side Two is "Squash Beetle," a carnival ride that introduces itself with a whirlwind flourish, then gets down to guitar business. This short excursion is pure fun, spiraling up, abetted by early '60s-style guitar pyrotechnics.

The final vocal-free song, "Moss Howl," Peter-Gunns through an unspoken story, with howling guitars and belligerent twanginess sketching the plot. The wildly freewheeling cut veers here and there, bringing to mind a murder in the cypresses and a manhunt through the swampy coast.

Emerging from all this music is a youthful tone channeled through fine musicianship. The lyrics, while as cryptic as CIA code, are irrefutably original and intriguing.

Much of the mystery comes from the two vocalists. While Clarke comes across as a bizarre troubadour, Mathis sounds like a man who thinks he knows all the answers. His omniscience may be debatable, but he most likely knows what he's singing about, which is more than the listener can figure out. Clarke's raging cries and croons shed even less light.

But its the music than scores for Metal Flake Mother. Above the lyrics, the guitars soar like protective eagles. The four Tar Heels construct architectural triumphs of chords and arpeggios, founded on rock-solid rhythms.

Without influences? Doubtful. But the Metal Flake Mother synthesis of pop's past is as original as anything you'll find in the record stores.