by Dave Segal


w/Trans Atlantic Icefloe, Nervewheel, Yam

Tues Jan 14, Crocodile, $6.

According to some folks who've seen them perform live, Portland quintet Rollerball sound like the Who and Blood, Sweat & Tears. But anyone who's heard their discs would call these comparisons absurd. It's that inability to pinpoint what Rollerball are about that gets to the gist of their appeal. Rollerball--Shane DeLeon (trumpet/clarinet/vocals), Mae Starr (vocals, accordion, violin), Mini Wagonwheel (bass, keyboards, percussion), Gilles (drums), and Amanda Mason Wiles (sax)--are so all over the map, no term can encompass everything they do.

"We're just too weird for people," states DeLeon. "I think we're unsettling to people when they watch us. They can't figure us out, so they can't like us."

Well, at least a few thousand people like Rollerball, if sales of their last album proper, 2001's Trail of the Butter Yeti (on Road Cone Records), are any indication. Curious newcomers should begin with that disc or 2000's Bathing Music (also on Road Cone). Both CDs encapsulate the group's promiscuous genre-hopping, which never comes off as mere dabbling. With all five members proficient with multiple instruments, the band covers more terrain than most artists who make sure to include the word "eclectic" in their press kits.

Much of Rollerball's material is as overcast as a Pacific Northwest winter, with menacing undertones that conjure horror-film soundtracks, but without triggering Hollywood's knee-jerk emotions. A strain of arch art rock à la Slapp Happy and early His Name Is Alive also informs Rollerball's music. Elsewhere, free-jazz reveries, Krautrock jams, brooding ballads, musique-concrete drones, European Gypsy motifs, and psychedelia appear as if Dada impresario Tristan Tzara were stocking a jukebox at the Cabaret Voltaire.

"I never put any limits on what Rollerball is or what we'll do next," says Wagonwheel, known also as the man who sweats the details of Rollerball's recordings. "If we want to play pure improv next year, maybe we'll do a tour of that. But right now we have these really good songs, so we've been recording those. We're trying to present these songs in a way people can enjoy them. They're not too noisy or extreme."

Those "really good songs" of which Wagonwheel speaks were recorded in Randall Dunn's West Seattle-based Aleph Studio in October. The band returned there in December to do some remixing and tweaking. Their enthusiasm for this material radiates strongly.

Unfortunately, Road Cone owner Mike Hinds is closing operations, so Rollerball are back to square one, shopping around a demo to a few indie labels that have the wherewithal to distribute their music properly and to support their wanderlust (Rollerball love touring in Europe, where they play festivals to several hundred people).

This new (as yet untitled) album marks the first time Rollerball have used an outside producer, in a career that dates back to 1994. Dunn--who's worked with many of this area's top experimental musicians, including Critters Buggin, Zony Mash, Bill Horist, Eyvind Kang, and Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop--met Rollerball at Amy Denio's house during 2001's Kitchen Caboodle event. It's clear from the two tracks I heard Dunn produce that he's had a salubrious effect on Rollerball.

"I consider Randall part of the band," Wagonwheel enthuses. "It's hard to work with someone when you've been a band for 10 years and you've only recorded on your own. A lot of our past recordings aren't really of a band playing live, and these recordings are. I'm really happy with the new album."

So how does the new work differ from past Rollerball outings?

"It sounds like a more focused version of the last two Road Cone records," Wagon-wheel opines.

"It's pretty funky and upbeat," adds Shane. "It's more joyous. We've been listening to more Sun Ra and Fela Kuti."

"We're realizing how much more powerful positivity is," Starr summarizes.

As they approach 2003 without a label and facing the prospect of their entire remarkable back catalog going out of print, Rollerball will need all the power that such positivity can bring them. Perhaps because four of the group's five members live in the same house, Rollerball possess the rare ability to create spontaneously without communicating to one another--much like Can, one of the best bands ever, did in the '70s. Some would call it telepathy, and I say it's a hell of a lot more interesting than Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Who combined.