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One mid-October evening, three musicians ushered about 30 friends and co-workers into a studio at National Public Radio’s D.C. headquarters. After a few remarks from guitarist-composer Robert Goldstein, bassist Linda France, and synth player Robin Rosewho introduced their band as “a cinematic music experience”an engineer hit Play, and the room resounded with songs from the band’s new CD.
Not “new album”: Urban Verbs, the debut disc from the D.C. quintet of the same name, was released on vinyl by Warner Bros. in 1980. But Goldstein’s attempts to get the band’s two records reissued on CD had been unsuccessful. Only one track”Acceleration,” from the band’s second album, Early Damagemade it to CD, on a Razor & Tie sampler. Then, one of the guitarist’s friends happened upon the Web site for a small reissue label and found that the company was touting the imminent release of Urban Verbs. Warner Bros. had licensed the album to Wounded Bird Records without informing the band members.
Of course, the connection between the 50-ish group members and their former label was severed long ago. Warner Bros. dropped Urban Verbs after 1981’s Early Damage, and the band soon split. Of the five members, only L.A.-based drummer Danny Frankel is still a full-time musician. (He’s currently touring in k.d. lang’s band.) Goldstein, an NPR music librarian and sometime film/exhibition composer, essentially retired from rock in 1986, after Elektra commissioned a demo that didn’t lead to a deal. Goldstein recalls one executive’s response: “This is beautiful, but what the fuck is it?”
The Verbs’ music was richly textured art-rock, cocky and visceral but not exactly punk. The band was a D.C. sensation, popular enough to play its record-release gig at the cavernous Pension Building (now the National Building Museum). Elsewhere, however, the Verbs attracted few fans. One problem was that Urban Verbs, supervised by British producer Mike Thorne, sounded thinner than the group’s live performances. It hasn’t been remixed or remastered, but the CD has more presence and depth than the LP.
Wounded Bird owner Terry Wachsmuth is no die-hard Verbs fan. “We go after anything we can get,” he says of his upstate New York company. Wounded Bird, he notes, “puts out stuff that’s low-end but that’s still sold thousands of units.” So far, he says, sales of Urban Verbs are “about average.” The first time he called Wachsmuth, Goldstein notes, he got “a very guarded reaction. I had the sense that he thought I was some crazy loon artist going to threaten him with a lawsuit.”
In fact, Goldstein is happy that Wounded Bird rereleased the group’s debut. He’s still hoping, however, that a bigger concern will put Early Damage on CD. Thorne has approached Rhino about issuing the band’s second long-player with bonus tracks, perhaps including a Thorne-produced outtake from the first album and the two Brian Eno-produced songs that attracted Warner Bros.’ attention in the first place.
The Verbs were hated by some D.C. punks for distancing themselves from the local scene, and they were reviled as pretentious by New York critics who, Rose thinks, had “an attitude about Washington.” Heard today, Urban Verbs sounds very much ofor a little bit ahead ofits time. The album’s swirling textures and theatrical vocals are akin to the work of Roxy Music, Pere Ubu, and the Psychedelic Furs. As Rose told the group assembled at NPR to hear the album, “Now I can really see where it fits.” Mark Jenkins