Smartrock: Music to think by

Marzaks with Stephen Barling
at the Mudhouse
Friday, March 14


"Smartrock," that genre defined by catchy songs with erudite lyrics, was alive and kicking Friday night at the Mudhouse on the Downtown Mall. Typified by such groups as They Might Be Giants, and to some extent the first Weezer album (the blue one), Charlottesville's own version of Smartrock is usually acoustic guitar-based, with lyrics that run the gamut from amusing to perverse storytelling, with enough pop-culture references to choke a snake.

Stephen Barling opened the night, the guitar/vocal half of the great local cello-pop duo B.C., and quickly the limitations of a set in a coffeeshop with no mic became painfully obvious. I was sitting at a table about half way back in the place and that fact, combined with the undeniable truth that coffeeshop audiences aren't known for their attention skills, made for an interesting listening experience, to say the least.

I've seen Barling perform many times, and I know his songs to be sweet (in a manly sense of the word) little pop nuggets that easily get stuck in you head, with lyrics that on more than one occasion have been known to make this reviewer laugh outloud. This time out, though, I could grab only snippets of what the performer was singing, so that my listening experience amounted to something like this:

Barling talking: "This is almost a love song I wrote a couple of weeks ago. It's called..."

Random girl: "Muahaha, boy shorts!"

The Marzaks, a local Smartrock group of a most singular concoction, were the main act of the night. The group was kind enough to send me a copy of their latest CD, Superhuman, a while back, so I was prepared for anything– on the CD the group takes stage names like, "Mark Rock" and "Mando Moon," and their album cover has cartoons of all the members in superhuman costumes.

Only cellist Mark Rock (Peter Markush in daily life) and guitarist Ben (Joey Vigour) made it out of their Hall of Justice and down to the show, but as the two belted out lyrics, often in unison, their quirky presence soon captured the rapt attention of the audience.

With songs ranging from the outstanding "Superhuman," a tale of new-found superpowers still not being enough to win the love of another, to "She Likes to Bite"– with a chorus of "We went back to my place/ The lights went out/ That's when I found out/ She likes to bite"– Rock and Ben combined a great set with great performances.

The group's CD is fairly rootsy, with mandolin and fiddle making frequent appearances, and some of this sound came out in the abbreviated Marzaks of Friday night-­ especially when fiddler Pete Vigor joined the group on stage.

For those of us who have grown tired of the same old "New/You" and "Miss/Kiss" meaningless rhyming couplets that typify so much of modern pop/rock, Smartrock could be the answer ­ask around, find out who's doing it, and go to a show. It'll at least make you think.