Worcester Rock City (Phoenix, 4.13.10)

Posted on April 22, 2010

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When I first saw the gooey-inked hand-screened sleeve of the Golden Girls’ recent Ultimate Freedom EP, not only did I get that stirring, satisfying feeling that it had come straight from unsound minds confined to some DIY basement workshop, I also sort of got the creeps. But I think that’s only because they’re from Worcester.

Boston has always opened its arms to weirdo rock from the sleepy west — Amherst and Northampton have been home to fertile out-rock scenes for decades — but Worcester tends to get stuck in the middle. It’s that rusty old town on the Pike you’re never quite sure whether you’ve already passed on your way to greener pastures. Maybe you’ve considered heading to its Palladium for a metal fest. Or noticed how frequently it pops up when you’re surfing for Juggalo clips on YouTube.

The young men of Golden Girls, along with the Wormtown psych-deluge trio Dom (whose chief songwriter, Dominic, has yet to reveal his last name), are working to change that perception — for both insiders and outsiders — with big swipes of neon ink and some urgent recordings that go well beyond lockstep trend tweaking. Both bands ride into town to play Great Scott this Sunday, but they’ve been making regular eastbound trips for months. I caught up with Golden Girls last weekend at MassArt during their show with High Places and Truman Peyote.

“The scene is poppin’,” says Andy Cary. “People are figuring out that you can do it there.”

Cary and Ben Wheeler — who share vocal and guitar duties — grew up on the same street in nearby Holden; they added drummer Greg Prendergast and bassist “Bones” when it came time to start venturing into the real world. They practice in a big, empty old mill and live with Dominic in the top floor of a triple-decker on an unpaved road (where Wheeler uses the pantry for a bedroom). Both bands release records through Worcester native and current Boston resident Vinny Milburn’s Burning Mill Records, a year-old operation formed expressly for cranking out their work. Before long, write-ups started to pop up in Pitchfork and Fader, and that turned Milburn’s cottage-industry operation (Ultimate Freedom had an initial run of 100 copies) into something of an overnight success.

“The strength is in how no one’s too cool in Worcester,” says Wheeler. “Everyone is friendly, almost too welcoming. It’s like a 24/7 party, no rules, where everyone has a blast, and no one has to pay for any shows.” The two bands have been doing tag-team shows all over New England, and they just wrapped up a weekend stand together at Piano’s and the Cake Shop in NYC.

Camaraderie aside, Dom and Golden Girls have distinct personalities. Dom sweep through kaleidoscope synth-pop with frayed nerve endings, breathy Roxy Music vocals, and Sputnik tambourines drifting in past warbly, disco-lounge-lava-lamp guitars. Sound lo-fi? A lot of Dom’s latest, Sun Bronzed Greek Gods (the 10-inch vinyl edition of which lands on May 1), was recorded on a Windows 98 version of Fruity Loops.

The Girls, on the other hand, rock it out nervous schizo style, with blazing twin guitar solos and rumbling punk beats grafted onto Led Zeppelin riffage. At the MassArt show, they turned the Room 181 classroom into an impatient tour through about a dozen schools of wood-paneled basement rock, bouncing among moody Uncle Tupelo shuffles, Ponytail goofing, and Frank Zappa noodling, with a thrilling touch of ADD.

It’s not every day that bands from Worcester make a run at the kind of Day-Glo rock you’d associate with Brooklyn and Baltimore, but why not? Worcester offers everything you need to deal with bandhood: cheap-ass rent, plenty of space, yearly harvests of college kids, and gads of inspiring post-industrial ruin.

“Worcester’s biggest enemy is itself,” says Milburn, bringing us back to the inferiority complex so many cities share. It’s a tune familiar to long-time local-scene stalwarts. But he adds, “People always seem to end up moving to Brooklyn or Boston. That’s changing, though.”

Originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix here.

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