The influences and turns of two rock innovators

by Matt Ashare

The Boston Phoenix, May 3, 1996

phoenixDanger and beauty, hope and sadness, fear and transcendence — that’s just some of the terrain that Come have covered in the course of an album, a song, or even just a riff. Because of that complexity and richness, the music of band leaders and guitarists Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw has never been easy to pin down. You may catch a hint of the Beatles is a song like “Hurricane,” a respect for the Stones in their cover of “I Got the Blues,” or an echo of Patti Smith in Zedek’s husky rasp. But that’s only part of the picture. There’s also something to be garnered from looking back on some of Zedek’s and Brokaw’s formative musical experiences, if only to find a context for the story of one of the most challenging and rewarding bands to come out of Boston this decade.

Zedek got her start locally, with the legendary Dangerous Birds, who cut one single for the now-defunct Propeller label, and the band Uzi, whose EP Sleep Asylum was reissued by Homestead on CD in 1994. You can hear traces of Come’s moody, aggressive approach in both. But it wasn’t until Zedek moved to NYC and joined Live Skull, a group entrenched in the avant-noise underground that nurtured Sonic Youth, the Swans, and Pussy Galore, that her alluring androgynous presence as a frontwoman really coalesced. She stands at the center of an anarchic storm on two Live Skull discs, 1987’s Dusted (Homestead) and 1989’s Positraction (Caroline), ranting often incoherently against the lacerating assault of guitarists Mark C. and Tom Paine.

Brokaw was also in New York in the late ’80s. But musically he was still miles away from Zedek. He played not guitar but drums in Codeine, a minimalist trio that eschewed the abrasive overdrive of the NYC post-punk underground for stark, subdued simplicity. Brokaw drums an Codeine’s full-length Frigid Stars and the EP Barely Real (both Sub Pop), discs that offer studies in restraint and alienation and their emotional fallout.

Brokaw’s Sub Pop connections offered Come their first outlet when Brokaw and Zedek hooked up with the Georgia-bred rhythm section of Sean O’Brien and Arthur Johnson in Boston in 1990. (O’Brien had played bass in the Athens band Kilkenny Cats; Johnson drummed in the Bar-B-Q Killers.) The band released its first single on Sub Pop in 1991, signed on with Matador, and headed into Fort Apache in July of 1992 with producers Tim O’Heir and Carl Plaster.

Come’s debut, 1992’s Eleven: Eleven, earned the band their reputation for narcotic blues-rock, an aspect of their approach that’s sometimes been overemphasized. It’s there, in the grungy “Jailhouse Rock”-style intro to the disc’s second track, the junkie overtones and ominous “hospital bed” undercurrent of “Brand New Vein,” the fractured slide-guitar of “Off to One Side,” and, of course, the gripping cover of the Jagger/Richards “I Got the Blues.” But the swirling heaviness of “Power Failure” and sharp, cutting dynamics of “Fast Piss Blues” are blues in mood only, fusing the metal of noise-rock to blunt pop melodies and the simplicity of Codeine’s focused aesthetic to intricate, intertwining guitars. Without jettisoning any of those influences, Come followed up by broadening their palette to include the Eastern-inflected drones of “German Song,” the gentle, lulling tones of “Mercury Falls,” and the climactic kick of “In/Out” on 1994’s Dont Ask Dont Tell (Matador).

Brokaw and Zedek, who are now the only remaining members of Come, aren’t prone to side projects. But each has done a recent cameo. Brokaw plays guitar on a cool cover of the Gun Club’s “Fire of Love” on Cobra Verde’s Vintage Crime EP (Scat). And Zedek produced the debut release for the Boston band Quivvver. The disc, Been There, Done That: Superheroes, also features Zedek playing guitar on one track.

Come’s third release, which is due on May 21, features Zedek and Brokaw backed by two distinct rhythm sections: Kevin Coultas (drums) and Tara Jane O’Neil (bass) play on “Weak as the Moon,” “Shoot Me First,” “Walk Ons,” and “Slow Eyed.” Ex-Tortoise/Gastr del Sol bassist Bundy Brown and Jesus Lizard drummer Mac McNeeley handle the disc’s other four tracks. But you’ll be able to hear O’Brien and Johnson playing with Zedek and Brokaw it their final studio collaboration when Steve Wynn’s Melting is the Dark is released next month on Zero Hour. The original Come line-up also has a track (“Cimarron”) on last year’s Ain’t Nothing But a She Thing (London), where they serve as de facto ambassadors from the underground alongside mainstream acts like Salt-N-Peppa, Melissa Etheridge, Annie Lennox, and one of the artists Zedek often cites as an influence — Patti Smith. But the great thing about Come is that no matter how far back you dig, somehow the band always seems to be moving forward.