Frontrunner for best of the year

My Sweet Amputee (self-produced)
Hula Hoop

By Mark Clark

It's one of those conversations I seem to wind up having quite frequently, especially at parties and especially when people find out I'm a part-time music critic.

"Have you heard the new single by (fill-in-the-artist)? What a piece of crap! How do bands like that get record deals, anyway? My pat answer is that what amazes me are some of the bands who DON'T have big label recording contracts. Louisville's own Hula Hoop is one such band.

The group's self-produced debut cassette, My Sweet Amputee, is one of the most satisfying albums I've heard so far this year.

Not one of the most satisfying local albums, mind you, one of the most satisfying albums period.

Yes, the folks in Hula Hoop can play.

Guitarists/vocalists Chukka Geisler and Eric Stoess have an amazing rapport,.each managing to be brilliant without tripping over the other. Bassist Rachel Grimes is a first-rate timekeeper and drummer Stephen Jones provides the spark plug. But Hula Hoop is something more than the sum of its parts.

As a unit, Hula Hoop has an uncanny nose for groove and impeccable taste in hooks. The tunes on Amputee are often built around guitar riffs, but seldom follow the standard verse-verse-chorus-solo-chorus-coda path; they are sometimes melodic, but never saccharine.

More than anything else, the band's debut (which features a hearty 19 cuts) is an impressive display of songwriting. A simple testament: The weakest three cuts included here are covers Felt's "Don't Die on My Doorstep," Pavement's "Summer Babe," and Boyracer's "Patric Walker." Not that any of those selections are poor. But my knee-jerk reaction to their inclusion is, "Screw this. I want more Hula Hoop tunes."

Amputee opens with two of the band's strongest cuts, in succession. "Leave Time to Go" rides in on a wave of feedback and calls to mind Jane's Addiction. "She Comes Alone" follows, flavored with a note of early R.E.M. A few songs later comes "Stairway to Elizabeth," a tongue-in-cheek nod to Led Zeppelin that's as close as this band comes to a ballad. Having planted flags all over the musical map, the band then sets out to conquer in all directions and succeeds.

There isn't a song on Amputee which doesn't inspire me to grab a friend and say, "Hey man, check this out." But, of course, l have my favorites. "Ventriloquist Understood" and "Emma Peel, Formula One" are sound tracks to an adrenaline rush. Midtempo numbers like "Superstar Girl" and "French Kiss '66" are beautiful sonic sculptures.

And "Discoh Toby," built around sound bites from the film "Five Easy Pieces," is simply hilarious. (Note to whoever in the band thought this up: Let's talk movies sometime.) The reason why I'm amazed this group doesn't have a big-time contract yet isn't because Hula Hoop is a great band. It's because Hula Hoop, in addition to being a great band, is a marketable band. Along with at least one other Louisville band, lovesauce & soulbones, Hula Hoop is hot news waiting to break, big bucks waiting to be raked in. (Hear me, oh swami of A&R.) If you haven't caught Hula Hoop live yet, the cassette is a terrific introduction to the band. If you're already a fan, Amputee is a means to survive between gigs, when songs like "Stairway to Elizabeth" and "Venlriloquist Understood" are bouncing around in your head and just gotta come out. Either way, you can't lose.