BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Rod Bryan keeps the Little Rock faithful alert to his Anthro-Pop record-shop inventory through an online message board. His occasional missives wear his attitude on their e-sleeve.
"Please disregard above adverts," his online "blog" advises at the top of the page, referring to the current strip hawking cell phone minutes.
"Got a bunch of great used '80s vinyl from the Replacements, XTC, Elvis Costello, the Smiths, the dB's," he announced in December. Then he added, "Also good stuff from Arkansas natives Johnny Cash, Jim Dickinson, Ho-Hum, Jason Morphew ... Levon Helm."
Every monthly announcement also mentions the arrival of new records from the Fall. Rod loves the Fall.
There's some self-promotion to this. In fact, Anthro-Pop as a whole exists as an outpost of Rod's personal interests.
Rod and his brother Lenny are foundation members of Little Rock semi-legendary pop band Ho-Hum, the band that's usually playing on the stereo at Anthro-Pop. It's a band that sounds like all of the above listed cornerstone acts playing at once, particularly if some of the records had been warped by the southern Arkansas sun in the back of Lenny's car.
The quartet is comprised of the Bryan brothers — plus relative newcomers Brad Brown and Sam Heard — hulking but otherwise nondescript guys who grew up in Bradley, Ark., a dying town on a forgotten railroad southeast of Texarkana. It's the kind of place where listening to a band like the Minutemen earned frowns from the townsfolk. Selling the same records — and their CD reissues — to a new generation in the capital city is poetic justice. If it trains young ears to like those same sounds that are now muddied and metamorphosized in the aural ambrosia of Ho-Hum, even better.
Ho-Hum, on the other hand, has never gotten a break and probably never will. In the old model of the music business, that would be a cryin' shame. In the classified and categorized, segmented and specialized 21st century, it's just business as usual.
For whatever it's worth, though, Ho-Hum has its core following. They are anxious, underappreciated fans who will lean into your personal space with set jaws and proselytize fiercely about the most exciting, innovative and invigorating band you've never heard. There aren't enough superlatives in their vocabularies, and — for Ho-Hum — there aren't enough such fans.
"We're a word-of-mouth sensation," Rod says. "The place we're playing in Tulsa is, what, 100-capacity?"
Influential despite themselves
Rod hunkers down behind the counter near the door of Anthro-Pop. It's a pretty standard indie record shop — dig the wall covered with 45's — except that most new homes are built with larger walk-in closets.
"It's not quite Championship Vinyl ('High Fidelity')," he says. "There are a bunch of kids that want to hang out here, but there's no room for more than about one or two customers."
He fixes turntables on site for extra cash, and frequently he's so involved in fiddling with his digital sampler that he snarls and discourages incoming foot traffic. Today, his conversation has surly undertones.
"Even moderate success is worse than anonymity," he declares. "That's where I am today. I mean, we're getting good press on the new record, but all that means is that everybody wants a free copy. We never get paid for these records."
The eighth full-length from Ho-Hum, "Near and Dear," was released last fall. Its 11 tracks of typically dense, cleverly arranged, emotive Southern pop have indeed furthered the band's reputation as the best sleeper act south of the Mason-Dixon. This time, review requests came from as far as the New York Press, which touted the music in a rambling review as "extraordinary," "triumphant" and, er, "winsome."
More superlatives, and still the Bryans must work day jobs to pay the bills.
"I make a lot more money playing in a cheesy cover band than I do in Ho-Hum," Rod says, speaking of the Sugar Kings, the pride of central Arkansas wedding receptions and private parties. "Though I'm sick of playing 'Brown-Eyed Girl.' Even Van Morrison hated that song before it was off the charts."
Ho-Hum's street cred, though, is off the charts in Little Rock. At least a half dozen Little Rock bands are currently at work on a Ho-Hum tribute CD. Tulsa favorites the Boondogs are contributing a track, "Funny," from Ho-Hum's 1997 album "Sanduleak."
"I think there's a pretty tight group of artists we've influenced regionally," Rod says. "We've gotten into New York and L.A., too, but kind of what we do tends to speak to people around here. I mean, it might speak to more people around the country if we'd ever have any marketing. Even our major-label record had a very ramshackle marketing effort."
The end is the beginning
OK, there was that one break.
After rising through the Arkansas rock scene in the early '90s, Ho-Hum attracted the attention of Tom Lewis, a scout for John Prine's Oh Boy record label. Shortly after, Lewis wound up at Universal Records. He remembered Ho-Hum and offered them a contract.
The band recorded its national debut, "Local," at the famed Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. At the production helm were no other than Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (the Smiths, David Bowie, Bush). Universal helped the band tour the continent. The recipe for success could not have been seasoned any better.
"But it was a disaster," Lenny says. "I hate that record. I've never liked it."
The problem: Langer and Winstanley's production ideas ran contrary to what the Bryan brothers wanted. Under contract for the label, the Bryans had virtually no say in the matter. "Local" was not promoted and wound up in bargain bins by the end of '96.
That was not, however, the end of the story.
In fact, it was the beginning. The very things that made "Local" difficult to produce and promote remain the things that make Ho-Hum so unique. The frustration they experienced with Universal only strengthened their resolve. They continued making records at home in Arkansas, and their records increasingly sounded like Arkansas.
"That was really why 'Local' failed. It's because we wanted to sound like ourselves — like these guys from Bradley," Rod says. "Once we were done, they just wanted us out of the way so the producers could make it sound like New York."
"We could have made the jump to live somewhere else, you know?" Lenny ponders. "But I always admired a band like R.E.M. because they were from Georgia and they stayed there. You think of R.E.M., you think of Athens, Ga. You think of the Replacements, you think of Minneapolis. We wanted those terms: to be successful but stay here."
It's the same sentiment often expressed by the Flaming Lips, the now famous and respected rock trio that has insisted on basing its operations at home in Oklahoma City. Such stubbornness, usually over time, allows a distinct musical personality to form and grow. Eventually, after cultivating itself in relative isolation, the band sounds like the Next Big Thing.
"I mean, I like being a critic's darling," Lenny says. "Our integrity is pretty much intact."
Magic mystery four
The band's cult breakthrough was, undoubtedly, 1999's "Massacre" on HTS Recordings. The melodies swirl. The emotions heave. The arrangements are so organic they practically make your stereo perspire.
"That was the first record that finally sounded like us," Lenny says. "On 'Local' and 'Sanduleak,' we'd have songs that sounded much different, but we wouldn't record them because we thought, 'That's not how we're perceived.' We finally said, 'Let's just do what we want to do,' and that's what became 'Massacre.' "
"Our lives were falling apart," Rod says. "Everything was crumbling around us. We had that record to make, and we . . . well, we explored a bit."
In 2001, Ho-Hum emerged with "Funny Business," an aptly titled short album that came out of left field and astonished many fans. Gone were the melodies and the organics. In their place: massive synthesized and electronically manipulated sounds. Every note Lenny sings on these five tracks is run through a vocoder. It's "Kid B."
"We had gotten sick of things, and I decided to experiment beyond what we could ever reproduce live," Lenny says. "I'd been listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock. Not 'Rockit' Herbie Hancock but '70s Herbie Hancock. And I like Underworld; they use him a lot.
"Basically, that record is me trying to destroy Ho-Hum. But they all ended up playing on it, and it found its own distinct audience."
Ho-Hum survived to make "Near and Dear," a return to form but replete with electronic flourishes picked up from the "Funny Business" exercise and employed with the band's usual care and subtlety.
"It's a record with some timely themes, I think," Rod says. "But then, what I read into the songs is one thing, then I'll read an interview with my brother and find out the song's not at all what I thought it was about. 'Land Ho!,' for instance, I thought was about the environment and ecology, and it turns out Lenny says it's a break-up song. That tribute CD is really helping me figure out our own songs. I heard somebody's version of 'I Love You Like I Love Me' (from 'Massacre') the other day and finally understood the words. Lenny and I have argued about that before. I say, 'You could be praising Hitler or something, and I wanna know what you're saying.'
"He's all right, though. He's just Michael Stipe-ing the words. The magic's in the mystery, anyway."
with Sarah Wagner & the Pop Adelphics
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Unit D, 1238 W. 41st St.
Admission: $3 suggested donation at the door
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.