Noise-punks Sonic Youth have created some pretty dense sound collages over the years, so you wouldn’t necessarily peg drummer Steve Shelley as a proponent of the “single-note theory.”
But with his minimalist side project Two Dollar Guitar, Shelley and singer/guitarist Tim Foljahn are always searching for the one note that will say everything. And, according to Shelley, they often relish the spaces between the sounds as much as the sounds themselves.
“When you’re trying something, you ask yourself, ’Does this song really need this part to get across what it’s trying to convey?’ ” (RealAudio excerpt of interview), Shelley, 37, said recently.
That sensibility runs throughout the band’s new fourth album, Weak Beats and Lame-Ass Rhymes, a 10-song disc released on Shelley’s own Smells Like Records. It carries on the lean-guitar traditions of the Velvet Underground, Modern Lovers and Galaxie 500 on quiet songs as well as the rave-up “T-Shirt” (RealAudio excerpt).
“A lot of it comes down to tone, and the actual sound you’re producing,” Foljahn, 38, said. “If you can get that going on, get a good guitar sound, or a good drum sound, then you don’t have to flop around as much. All the flopping around you do isn’t gonna help, if you don’t have a good sound. … It’s generally a more patient approach to music. It takes a little more attention span” (RealAudio excerpt of interview).
Bassist Dave Motamed — who stayed home when the band took off on Thursday for a monthlong U.S. tour — rounds out the group’s primary lineup, although the new album boasts a coterie of guest players, including Scarnella’s Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline, and former Beck and Tom Waits guitarist Smokey Hormel. Janet Wygal (bass, keyboards) and Fuck guitarist Tim Prudhomme are helping to fill the band’s ranks on the road.
Chan Marshall, who records under the name Cat Power, said Shelley and Foljahn have a natural affinity for working with other musicians. The pair backed Marshall on the first three Cat Power albums.
“When you jam with friends, it’s no big deal, it’s normal sometimes if people don’t listen to other people,” she said. “They really just listened. They’re very supportive players. They’re thinking about how it’s sounding.”
Shelley and Foljahn first hooked up almost two decades ago, in a Kalamazoo, Mich., band called the Spastic Rhythm Tarts. Shelley later left the Great Lakes region and joined Sonic Youth, but he and his old bandmate connected again in the early ’90s to back Jad Fair, leader of indie-pop’s Half Japanese. The trio then branded themselves Mosquito, an act in which Fair sang virtually nothing but nonsense syllables.
From there, Two Dollar Guitar got their start as a new outlet for Shelley and Foljahn. They released their debut, Let Me Bring You Down, in 1993, followed by Burned and Buried (1995) and Train Songs (1998).
The outfit is much more grounded in traditional melody and lyrics than the experimental Sonic Youth, allowing Shelley to explore his fascination with country and blues.
“Those kind of things are fun to play with, too, although we never try and do them straight out of the book,” he said. “They’re always sort of askew in Two Dollar Guitar.”
The band’s music is often so supple that Foljahn’s lyrics sink in secondarily, and puns ensure that their meaning is rarely obvious or one dimensional.
The voice of Spanish chanteuse Christina Rosenvinge lends “Green Room” (RealAudio excerpt) a particularly exotic touch. The phrase “Insanity’s your vice/ It will turn your lover’s eyes to clay” could just as well end, “It will turn your lover’s ice to flame.”
“A lot of lyrics, there’s wordplay where you can turn one word into two words,” Foljahn said. “When Christina’s singing it, it gets even more mysterious. And that’s cool, I think.”