New Times Los Angeles
4/9/98

The Gerbils

Yet another batch of Elephant Six inbreds; main Gerbils Scott Spillane, John D'Azzo, and Will Westbrook--Ruston/Athens products to a man--also make up a fraction of Neutral Milk Hotel's current touring lineup, and Spillane was responsible for writing "The Fool," one of the finest turns on NMH's great recent album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. (The two bands also share this bill.) Despite those ties, the Gerbils' closest musical relative among E6's big three is probably the Apples in Stereo; the band plays childlike pop songs surrounded by touches of fuzzy psychedelia, songs in which the musicianship stops just shy of slop and the vocals are delivered with quivering sincerity. Such well-intentioned earnestness cuts both ways: In the right hands, it can be affecting, charming, fun; in the wrong ones, it can be cloying, trite, ridiculous.

Consider the Gerbils ambidextrous, then. The best bits of Are You Sleepy?, the group's debut record (mostly comprised of songs previously released on a procession of seven-inches), make amateurism sound like an asset: "Sunshine Soul," "Is She Fiona," "Grin"--these are songs that carve crafty moments out of the struggle to, you know, sing in tune and keep a beat and play a few chords and stuff. But a good number of the other tunes suggest that there's more than a bit of affectation at work here--to the point that you'll occasionally start cursing the schoolmarm who let these novitiates out of the sandbox. The worst offender is "Crayon Box"; it's about a jilted lover (though "jilted steady" seems somehow more appropriate) who, having been left at home during a Portastatic show, goes on to leave her love interest at home during a Sebadoh show. Where Pavement fits into the whole equation is left unspoken, but it's exactly this sort of indie cross-referencing (or was that pandering?) that makes most idiot-savant pop bands so trying; it's especially frustrating when, as on Are You Sleepy?, the group is so obviously capable of much more. Fri., April 10, at Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake. With Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power. (Keven McAlester)


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