Come conquers instability to release another album of darkly shaded guitar-rock.
By Richard Martin
Willamette Week, March 4, 1998
The title of Come’s fourth album may allude to a blissed-out nursery rhyme, but nowhere will you find Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw strumming placidly while singing “Life is but a dream.” On Gently, Down the Stream (Matador), the longtime musical partners continue rowing through a torrential downpour of muddy riffs and pained expressions of discontent; at one emotional crescendo in the song “Saints Around My Neck,” Zedek crows, “I can’t even breathe, something is choking me.”
“There are some gentle moments to the record,” Brokaw says from a tour stop in Ontario, “but overall, the title is a little ironic.”
That’s an understatement. Come’s songs occasionally float subdued segments, but almost always as a prelude to a dual-guitar maelstrom, which Zedek and Brokaw preside over like crazed meteorologists; the forecast is always dark.
The two Bostonians founded Come with now-departed bassist Sean O’Brien and drummer Arthur Johnson in 1991. That lineup recorded a tone-setting debut, the stormy blues-rock opus Eleven:Eleven, and a more refined follow-up, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Then the rhythm section suddenly quit. Though shocked by the departures, Zedek and Brokaw decided that they weren’t finished yet.
“Just because two people stop playing doesn’t mean the other two stop,” Brokaw says. “We were working on a bunch of new songs right as those guys left and we deliberated about whether we should change the name of the band, but we figured that the stuff we were coming up with wasn’t really different. We didn’t want to disconnect ourselves.”
He and Zedek completed the 1996 album, Near Life Experience, with 11 musicians on loan from bands such as Rachels, Sonora Pine, the Jesus Lizard and Gastr del Sol. To tour off the record, the pair reworked its material to fit a two-guitar, piano and percussion lineup, toning down the previous incendiary nature of Come’s performances. (They played with this configuration at Satyricon last year.) According to Brokaw, the shows refocused the band as it went into the famed Boston-area recording studio Fort Apache to work on its fourth record.
“When we did that tour, we were making a lot of the songs piano-based,” he says. “On some songs, we were hardly playing guitar at all. It was really cool to cast the songs in a different light, but it also gave us a chance to reflect and decide that the guitar playing is what we do best.”
On Gently, Down the Stream, Zedek and Brokaw return to the enraged interplay that established Come as the pre-eminent guitar band of the ’90s indie-rock crop. At times, as on the eight-minute finale “March,” they sound like the result of an early ’70s Pete Townshend cloning experiment, strumming up jagged layers of sound. The pair’s niftiest trick involves twisting their guitar parts, then slowly untangling them, providing a stutter effect that delivers a ghostly echo on songs such as “New Coat.” With her throaty delivery and somber lyrics–often about relationships that turn one-sided and fizzle out–Zedek matches the passion that she and Brokaw attain with their instruments.
Along with bassist Winston Bramen (of the Boston punk-pop band Fuzzy) and drummer Daniel Coughlin, Come sonically explores angst’s less noisy sidekick, melancholy, on a few tracks as well. “Middle of Nowhere” unfolds around a chiming guitar figure and soft percussion, with Zedek adopting a fragile voice that barely reaches above a whisper. A horn and string section adorns the instrumental “The Former Model,” which could serve as the incidental music to a funeral scene in an Eastern European film.
In the end, Gently is an album of great musical and emotional depth, a solid batch of uncatchy, intricate songs teeming with thoughtful guitar work. Zedek’s voice and delivery place her in an exclusive club of female blues-rock belters along with Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and the Geraldine Fibbers’ Carla Bozulich, and she’s developed a writing style rooted equally in dark imagery and hopeful reverie.
Brokaw says that Come’s musical style owes itself to the bandmates’ unhurried lifestyle. Where many of their peers produce an album, a 7-inch and perhaps an EP each year, he and Zedek have issued about 20 songs–12 of them on Gently–since early 1996.
“We’re slower in our construction of songs,” he says. “We record and then wait some months for it to come out and then we’re like, ‘Whew! We did a whole album. We can kick back.'”
Brokaw and Zedek have apparently adapted this attitude toward establishing a rhythm section as well. Coughlin stayed on to play drums on the current tour, but Bramen returned to his band Fuzzy; a German friend of Brokaw’s, Sasha Steinfurth, will fill the bass slot.
No matter who rounds out their lineup, Brokaw and Zedek have managed Come through some rough rapids, and their ability to cope translates to the surging, cohesive sound on their new album.
“It was definitely an easier record to make than the last two,” Brokaw says. “With Near Life, we were in a state of being at least a little uncertain because Arthur and Sean had left. But on this one, we’ve been through playing with different lineups. Overall, it was much more relaxed and much more confident.”