- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Guster has been putting out quirky pop albums since its Tufts University days 10 years ago, but the band’s following stems mainly from its live shows. The trio plays Tuesday at Wolf Trap with Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds.

Guster’s new album, its first live one, is “Guster on Ice” (Reprise), recorded in December in Portland, Maine. It comes with a DVD so people can see what all the fuss is about. It also includes some of the band’s offstage antics.

As that DVD track suggests, the band keeps a sense of humor and informality, always a plus when you have made your career playing to college students. Though not a true jam band like Phish, Guster follows Phish’s model of allowing tape-trading among fans.

Onstage, Guster will cover artists as disparate as the Violent Femmes and Neil Diamond. In Guster’s own songs, the humor typically takes a back seat to darker themes.

Many of the songs deal with the crushed dreams of young adulthood, one possible explanation for the band’s appeal to the twentysomething crowd. Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller create nice singalong harmonies on guitar and vocals, though it’s still weird to see a crowd eagerly chant, “Wave goodbye, lose your friends, make them go” during “Happier.”

Songs such as “Careful” are pleasant but repetitive, but “Happier” opens with melancholy indie-pop strumming, then breaks into a lush electric rhythm, like a Fountains of Wayne song. As throughout the album, Mr. Miller’s voice alternates with Mr. Gardner’s, though Mr. Miller’s nasal stylings tend to fit the navel-gazing lyrics better.

“Red Oyster Cult” asks you to admit “there’s not a chance you’re ever going to change the world.” As the title suggests, though, there’s some humor to lighten the mood: The eternal-youth-through-suicide idea sounds as goofy here as it did in Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘70s hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”

More dark humor pops up in “Demons” via the lyric “Honest is easy/Fiction is where genius lies.” The cover of Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers” lacks the quirkiness of the original but is a good chance for Brian Rosenworcel to show off his bongo skills.

The big highlight here is “Come Downstairs and Say Hello,” an initially lethargic tale of a depressed slacker who’s “living underground” (his parents’ basement?) and watching “The Wizard of Oz” while listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

The pace (and optimism) picks up in the singalong chorus: “Tomorrow I start in a new direction/I know I’ve been half-asleep/I’m never doing that again.” By the end, it has morphed into a vintage new-wave rave-up: The guys in Guster, bless their hearts, have clearly been listening to New Order’s “Age of Consent.” Judging by the crowd’s reaction, the optimism is infectious.

• •

“None of our songs stay in any genre,” says Full Minute of Mercury bassist and vocalist Michele Maurer. Watch the genre shifts at the Black Cat Saturday, when the group opens for the Pietasters.

Although guitarist Chris Dixon started the Washington-area group just 1½ years ago, it has gone through heavy changes: He, Dan Cord (drums) and Tom Benca (guitar) are the only original members left. Lead singer Kelly Landers replaced Theresa MacDonald just weeks ago.

As a result, the songs on the band’s 2003 self-titled debut will sound a bit different. The EP (just seven songs in 20 minutes), is gleefully retro, veering from new wave to ‘80s cheese metal to Joan Jett hard rock, frequently within one song. It’s hard to take the results seriously, but at least here it’s intentional.

Miss MacDonald has a high, girlish voice, so it’s amusing to hear her turn tough on “Next to Me,” especially when she gushes to her boyfriend: “You make me rhyme/You make me spew forth dumb cliches.”

“Dream in Drop D” is a mix of ‘80s rock and crunchy guitars. With lyrics such as “I just hate myself in every way” delivered in a singsong style, it’s an enjoyable parody of an emo song.

Onstage, they do a lot of guitar tricks, Mr. Dixon says, “throwing our guitars around our back, a lot of jumping up and down.”

“A lot of bands out there sound really good on CD, and then you see them live and it’s a letdown,” he adds. “If you’re going to see a band live, you want to see a show.”

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