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January 29, 2002

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ROCK REVIEW; POST-PUNK PIONEERS, NO ILLUSIONS

Most musicians chase the illusion of alchemy, the idea that the music they make can be more than the sum of its parts. Girls Against Boys, who played the Bowery Ballroom on Saturday night, seem too jaded to be taken in by this myth of transcendence. They make music that sounds exactly like the sum of its parts, adhering to a formula they helped invent more than a decade ago.

Central to that formula is an emphasis on rhythm over melody. Scott McCloud treats his guitar as a noise machine, flicking it on and off for texture and emphasis. For much of Saturday's performance, the group used two bass players, which gave the music an added density. Mr. McCloud is also the group's singer, and he often alternated sung phrases with instrumental stabs. That approach underscored the similarity between the words and the notes; his voice, halfway between a whine and a whisper, mimics his raspy guitar playing.

The show began with ''Park Avenue'' from the 1998 album ''Freakonica.'' The song hinted at dissolution and disillusionment, the group's two favorite themes: Mr. McCloud asked, ''My idea of fun -- can I burn with you?'' Other lyrics were delivered with a thick layer of irony. When Mr. McCloud exclaimed, ''It's great to be a rock 'n' roll star,'' the audience was supposed to understand that it's not, and he isn't. Fans of the band might also hear a more specific resonance in those words: ''Freakonica'' was released on the major record label Geffen in a failed bid for pop stardom; the group's new album, its seventh, is due out this May on the independent label Jade Tree.

It is no surprise that the mannerisms of 1990's post-punk quickly hardened into formula; that's what happens when a musical movement becomes a genre. But Girls Against Boys have been at it so long that it's hard to remember a time when their dense rhythms and jagged guitars and hoarse vocals and acerbic lyrics were something other than a set of generic conventions. The band isn't to blame for any of this, of course, but does suffer because of it. In pop music, mortality and immortality are more or less the same thing: the only genres that live forever are those that have already died.

The opening bands had slightly different variations on similar styles. Enon sullied tuneful pop songs with deliberate dissonances that added tension to their steady rhythms. The group was at its best when the lead singer, John Schmersal, put down his guitar to wander the stage like a post-punk cabaret singer, microphone in hand. (More than once, he emphatically denied that his band had any connection to a certain disgraced corporation with a similar name.) Before Enon came Udet, playing noisy, complicated songs in which vocals seemed like an afterthought.

Published: 01 - 29 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 5

PUBLICATION
The New York Times

AUTHOR
Kelefa Sanneh

DIRECT LINK TO ARTICLE
http://www.nytmes.com