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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006 01:01 am

Make way for the M word

Longtime St. Louis fixture Joe Thebeau scores first national release

Finn’s MotelEscape Velocity(Scat)

Joe Thebeau, the mastermind of Finn’s Motel, describes himself as a “40-year-old married-with-children rock guy” — an unglamorous profile for an indie-rock aspirant, maybe, but a refreshingly honest one. Let the bloggers slobber over this week’s wunderkind; when you’re trying to pay a mortgage, feed a couple of kids, and keep the lawn mowed, you don’t have the energy to worry about how a receding hairline will hurt your image. One of the main advantages of middle age is that you’re too busy (or exhausted) to focus on anything but the essentials. For Thebeau, that means making music in the context of a real life, with all of its attendant anxieties and responsibilities. A chronicler of suburban ennui and domestic disenchantment, he writes what he knows — dragging the trash cans to the curb in time for the morning pickup, daydreaming through his daily commute, longing for a way out of corporate purgatory and coming to terms with the possibility that there isn’t one — and therein lies his strength. Call him the John Updike of 21st-century power-pop.

Although Escape Velocity marks his first national release, Thebeau has been an active member of the St. Louis music scene for more than a decade. In the early ’90s, his band the Finns self-released three albums and attracted a small but devoted following. They might have been the darlings of the Yellow Pills set, but fanzine fame, sadly, doesn’t pay the bills. After the Finns broke up, Thebeau played guitar occasionally with other local groups while keeping his original material mostly under wraps. For years he toiled away in his basement studio, mad-scientist-like, and the long hours clearly paid off. Escape Velocity is polished but still passionate, a great-sounding album that doesn’t sound fussed over.

A bit like a less anglophilic Robert Pollard or a more straightforward Scott Miller (Game Theory, the Loud Family), Thebeau favors sticky hooks and sing-along choruses bolstered by smart lyrics, memorable melodies, and unconventional arrangements. It’s a tried-and-true template that never gets tired, at least not when it’s done properly, which it seldom is. As he explains in his press bio, “The Beatles made me love pop. Cheap Trick made me want to start a band. Angus Young made me want to play guitar.” You can hear all those influences on Escape Velocity, but they’re filtered through a singular imagination, making Thebeau part of a continuing tradition rather than a derivative offshoot of one. Confident enough to know what he likes and competent enough to execute it, he embodies — and manages to redeem — that most unrocking and underrated of qualities: maturity. In the never-never land of rock & roll, where Peter Pans prevail, that’s no small accomplishment.

It also doesn’t hurt, of course, that he’s assembled an ace band. Prisonshake’s Steve Scariano and Patrick Hawley make up the rhythm section, and Prisonshake guitarist (and Scat proprietor) Robert Griffin supplies piano and additional guitar. As impressive as the guest musicians are, however, their most valuable attribute is a willingness to serve the songs, in all their dazzling variety. Whether it’s the plaintive acoustic lament “Hangover in an Aging Suburb,” the gleaming fragment “Eero Saarinen,” or the irrepressible anthem “Dramamine for Engine 3,” the songs are the fulcrum that sets everything else in motion. They buzz and roar, churn and chime, expanding outward in quivering concentric rings. Vacillating between the low-grade despair of “Accelerate and Brake” and the cautious optimism of “Alright Tonight,” the songs have a narrative momentum, a thematic coherence that reveals a rare intelligence and — make way for the M-word again — maturity. Chalk one up for the grown-ups.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.

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