Taking stock of rock

March 15, 2002



When Cameron Crowe chronicled the adventures of the fictional rockers Stillwater in the film "Almost Famous," he recruited his wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart, and his pal, Peter Frampton (veteran of Humble Pie and "Frampton Comes Alive"), to write the appropriate-sounding, hook-filled, '70s arena-rock anthems.

If he'd heard the music of the New York City trio the Brought Low, he could have saved himself the trouble.

The sustained roar of a Les Paul, the rumbling rhythms of a hard-rocking drummer, and soulful crooning about the joys of sin never go out of style, especially when they're employed on killer anthems like "Goddamn God Bless" and "What I Found" from the Brought Low's self-titled debut on Tee Pee Records. Call it "stoner rock" and the boys in the band won't object; they're nice fellas. But that's not exactly how they categorize their music.

"We write songs; we don't jam out for 40 minutes," says guitarist-vocalist Ben Smith. "Most of my guitar solos are written out, because I've always thought that the really great guitar solos are as memorable as the vocals. We have instrumental breaks, but we're not really jammy or psychedelic. We're pretty much against the stoner-rock tag, but then so are most of those bands.

"Stoner rock is really just the latest term for underground hard-rock," Smith continues. "Even though everyone is running from the word 'grunge'--and we would never call ourselves a grunge band--that's what grunge was: underground rock. And before that, in the mid-'80s, it was like 'SST- or college-rock.' But it's basically all just underground rock that's come out in the wake of hardcore-punk."

The Brought Low came together a few years ago from the ashes of Sweet Diesel, a group that included both Smith and drummer Nick Heller. Their friend, bassist Dean Rispler, produced two of that earlier group's three albums.

"After that band broke up, I had sort of been through the mill with punk rock, hardcore, post-hardcore--all that sort of stuff," Smith says. "I'm 31 now, and I sort of just came around to, 'I wanna play something with some soul!' Well, what do I listen to? Old blues, classic rock, old country and old soul. In the beginning, I didn't exactly feel the most confident that this was a good idea. Certainly in the last couple of years, there have been a lot of things that have come out that are sort of similarly mining an old-school rock approach. But I wasn't necessarily sure I was doing the right thing when we started.

"I had been used to screaming in punk bands, and then all the sudden I was singing, and I was like, 'Is this good? I don't know.' I spent years learning how to play guitar, and for years it was always about figuring out ways to make it not obvious that I was a good guitar player! So it started being like, 'If I can sing, why don't I sing? If I can write a good song, why don't I? And why don't I write music that's like the music I listen to, rather than chasing some idea of what's cool or hip or current?' At the same time, I think that what we're doing, rather than being old-timey, it's almost timeless."

It is indeed, but then I'm a firm believer that if there's one thing in rock that never goes out of style, it's a group that's playing together, rocking hard, sweating and feeling the groove, but still delivering massive hum-along hooks. Witness Black Sabbath.

"What makes that band great? They're good songs!" Smith says. "We can name the great hard-rock bands of the early '70s, and the ones that we take some inspiration from all have great songs. That's something that I find that a lot of stoner-rock bands lack--songwriting. But the Rolling Stones? Great songwriting! Black Sabbath--songwriting! AC/DC--songwriting! There's lots of other bands that are kind of fun, like Humble Pie, and we listen to that stuff. But they don't compare."

What makes a great rock song in the eyes of the Brought Low?

"Good, concise songwriting. Hooks. Classic song structure. Nirvana had that, and I think it's something we've been trying. I like songs that people can relate to. I come from a middle-class background, and I have a real appreciation for writing songs for the common man. I think that's a noble pursuit, writing songs about guys who watch baseball games or people from Queens. We wind up playing the hip indie-rock clubs when we're touring, but we're looking into playing biker rallies. I'd love to take it to the people at county fairs and stuff like that, and in that way, I think we have as much in common with the North Mississippi Allstars as we do with Nebula."

So let's hear it for the common man, and let's hear it for the Brought Low. As Smith sings, "Kings and queens wear crown?/Kids from Queens crowns!"

The Brought Low performs at the newly very happening Prodigal Son Bar, 2626 N. Halsted, at 9 p.m. Tuesday as part of a bill that also includes former members of the Unsane in Paradise Players Club. Call (773) 248-3093, or visit www.mpshows.com.

Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesday on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at jimdero@jimdero.com or on the Web at www.jimdero.com.