PRINT March 1999


Stephen Prina

WHY AREN’T THERE MORE debut records like Stephen Prina’s genteel Push Comes To Love (Drag City)? Backing the LA-based artist and sometime Red Krayola keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist are those Chicago don’t-call-them-postrock guys—Jim O’Rourke, Sam Prekop, John McEntire, David Grubbs, Rob Masurek—making subtly envelope-pushing, saw-assed, laid-back grooves. It’s totally the band you want to book when you go make your first record: Intuitive players, they can handle backing and lead roles without too much ego fuss (it doesn’t hurt that there are geeks the world over who will buy any record they fart on). And the lyrics accompanying Prina’s pop productions are hilarious and dropdead smart, adapted from the writings of some killer American wordsmiths—Lynne Tillman, Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, and Benjamin Weisman. Can this guy pick friends?

“Writing my own pop songs was a frightening proposition,” Prina exclaims over the phone. The record wasn’t his idea, he says; O’Rourke and Grubbs talked him into it two years ago while finishing work on Red Krayola’s patently accessible Hazel. Push was recorded in three weeks, then sat on the shelf partly because Prina had to obsess over the artwork (courtesy of Barbara Bloom). You only get one chance to have a debut record, after all, so you might as well make sure it’s perfect, or at least worry about it a lot.

Prina’s voice creeps into your life like a strong mustard—you’re not sure you like it at first but soon you’re sticking it on everything. He croons in an affected style—imagine Christopher Cross as an artsy lounge singer way obsessed with music but in a bizarro manner (covering Steely Dan and Sonic Youth in the same performance, for example, with the help of a Rhodes piano and an occasional sampling of a Webern CD). That idiosyncrasy works well on Push; the songs sound good (if a bit samey), and the Grubbs/O’Rourke arrangements display a spare, avant-cocktail sheen. Prina’s tunes are constructed in a minimalist-pop way. The verse chorus-verse gift is not here; instead, repeated phrases crescendo toward a resolution that often consists of added layers of sound. Shards of ’em get stuck in your head, so you walk around remembering an off-kilter mdody with an almost-funky keyboard bit augmenthg a spiraled, snaky guitar line while Prina warps his mouth around the words “What’s wrong, open the door/l was scared, what happened” (the lyrics ate taken from the subtitles to a Bresson film). If you looked at Push through the prism of his visual work, you could see it as a critique of rock msic or even as metarock, which it sort of is (but Wese days, what isn’t?). However you choose to listen, don’t miss out on the abject, dry humor or myriad recombinant-pop subtleties.

Mike McGonigal writes frequently on music.