Noise Pop '98: Beulah, Creeper Lagoon Rock Fest

The audience was there for the Apples In Stereo, but opening acts stole the show.

Pavement paved the way. They set up the Fall as a framework, looped catchy melodies on leader Mark E. Smith's drunken corpse and set an American collegiate sense of the absurd against his British bones.

Last night's Noise Pop '98 showcase at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill club continued the work that Pavement started.

Launching into an all-too-brief set of ridiculously energetic, beautifully realized pop gems, Beulah set a tough precedent for the Bay Area-based Creeper Lagoon and the lo-fi power-pop combo the Apples In Stereo.

Like a personable version of the Fall, Beulah created a brash, effervescent screech over a bulwark of complex melodies. Three-part harmonies, augmented by keyboards, samplers, horns and even the Apples In Stereo-head Robert Schneider on mouth organ, wove monstrous hooks over pounding white noise.

Creeper Lagoon, the Bay Area band with an album due out on the Dust Brothers' Nicklebag label, stood apart with their vertiginous song structures. Their complex sludge-pop is full of ideas that stumble from one to the next; the songs move like, to be honest, Pavement, but with a rock 'n' roll swagger.

The band's songs have a depth that, early in the show, I mistook for a sort of woozy disconnectedness. But the more I watched, the more I realized that this is a band with the kind of songs that reveal themselves only upon repeated listenings. Even their seemingly overlong "jamming" suggested just rewards for the careful listener. At the same time, certain songs had a sort of Midwestern immediacy, suggesting even Buffalo Tom for a fleeting moment.

The Apples In Stereo, perhaps operating on the law of diminishing returns, seemingly couldn't compete with the openers. They make enchanting albums, but in this live setting, their crisp pop seemed blunted by confused arrangements and bad sound.

Their pretty melodies and loud, guitar-based sound lacked the clarity of their records, but, duh!, this was live rock 'n' roll, and sometimes messy is good. Schneider's voice, so soft and airy on record, was (yeah, you guessed it) Stephen Malkmusesque in the cramped environs of Bottom of the Hill.

They certainly pulled it together for "Seems So," the big crowd-pleaser of the night. Infused by a crashing rock treatment, it was alive and buoyant. At that point I realized that the Apples In Stereo have been working their asses off for the entire set, and a good portion of the crowd certainly seemed to appreciate the effort. But I can't help wondering, what if they put as much effort into planning their live show as they do the near-symphonic pop of their recordings? Would they reduce it to chamber pop, best appreciated by a quiet audience sitting on its hands and genuflecting? Or would they simply figure out how to turn pop into a live setting's gleeful noise? [Fri., Feb. 27, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]