AMID THE RECENT rash of indie-rock equipment thefts, (Sonic Youth, Cibo Matto, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion all had their gear lifted last month), it's odd that the actual instruments aren't nearly as lamented as the toys. No article I read on the subject mentioned the make of Jon Spencer's guitar (although I'm sure it was a classic model he'll be hard-pressed to replace), but his vintage 1960s Moog theremin was always listed as a heavy casualty.

Never mind that the theremin is used in two or three songs nightly, whereas Russell Simins' drums anchor the whole set. Our equipment fetish has moved on from the days of the Guitar God, when Hendrix's burned-up guitar, McCartney's Beatle bass, and Keith Moon's drum set took on the airs of holy relics. Nowadays, we could care less about the instruments. It's all about the toys.

Which is why Cibo Matto came out the best of the three gear-pilfered bands. Most of their equipment is electronic, and keyboards have little sentimental value or Guitar God cred. And their only secret weapon is cuteness, which can't be stolen (at least not until the world realizes that Yuka Honda is pushing 40. You're a whole lot less cute when you're old enough to be your boyfriend's mom).

Sonic Youth, on the other hand, was hard-hit by the loss of their gear, because it's all toys. The band claims that half of their back catalog can never be played again, because so many of the songs rely on some electronic doodad or custom-built instrument that's both vital and irreplaceable.

While Thurston and Kim lament that they'll never have that recipe again, reflect on the fact that Charlie Parker once showed up for a show playing alongside Diz, Monk, and Max Roach, and forgot to bring his horn. He borrowed a plastic alto and one reed, and still upstaged a room full of legends. Now ask yourself who's more punk rock.

Back to toys: Scarnella's got lots of them. Both members of the duo are also in the Geraldine Fibbers; Carla Bozulich is the singer and Nels Cline is the sometime-guitarist. Even before Cline joined up, the Fibbers were hardly straightforward, melding blaring guitar noise to a small string section, with Bozulich going from sultry to screechy in the blink of an eye. Cline was fresh from playing on a Thurston Moore solo record, if that gives you any idea of his mindset. When I saw them play live last year, he went through instruments, effects, and literal toys (he played one solo by holding a plastic laser gun against his guitar pickup) faster than most guitarists go through picks.

Scarnella seems to exist as a side project so that these two can abandon the last few confines of song structure and devote all their energies to playtime. More than half of their debut album was improvised between shows during a brief West Coast tour. A lot of it is slow, meandering, and completely self-indulgent. They do it well, but it's certainly not everyone's bag.

So with that fair warning given, Scarnella can also be immensely entertaining. Once in a while they jolt the crowd awake with a fast and furious tune like "Dandelions," and anyone who was bored with the obsessive noodling suddenly finds the show worth the price of admission. Bozulich gives the impression that she can write this kind of fun, energetic, ultra-catchy punk song at will, but happens to be more interested in navel-gazing.

Because she and Cline are good at both types of songs, the show usually stays interesting. It gets really quiet, and then really loud. One song's a lost love's lament, the next a sinister cabaret number, and the next a James Brown tune. (The band's first release was a cover of "Hot Pants" for a tribute record.)

For those of you who need a metaphysical reason to see the show, this is a classic case of art for art's sake. With the main band's future in question (the Fibbers were dropped from their major label after their last album, and may not record another), the side project has allowed Bozulich and Cline to ignore their problems, dump out the toy box, and make playtime last as long as they can.

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