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Songs for the Deaf

How did we miss Helen Stellar?

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I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for big, thick, fuzzy guitars. And echo. Love that stuff. That's why I'm currently kicking myself for not giving Helen Stellar a listen before today. It's just what doctor has prescribed for this harried and jaded music writer.

Helen Stellar is pretty, melodic and oh-so dreamy -- but not without an edge. The band's swirling, reverb-soaked sound may draw heavily from British rock of the late '80s -- thus the valid shoe-gazing allegations, not to mention the parallels here to paths taken more recently by the UK's Coldplay and NYC's Interpol. But it's not all gossamer and deep-space introspection. This L.A.-based trio manages to maintain a welcome sense of urgency in its performances that keeps the drama high and its arrangements from sinking too far into the murky depths. Helen Stellar and their swooshy kindred spirits, the Distortions, will be playing at the B-Side Thursday night. (If you're picking this paper up early, that's tonight.)

All that Helen Stellar sound is generated by just three guys: Jim Evens on vocals and guitar, Dustin Robles on bass, and Clif Clehouse on drums. Originally from Chicago, the trio made the pilgrimage to the City of Angels after catching the ear of KCRW's Nic Harcourt (host of the syndicated radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic) in early 2002. A week after receiving the group's first EP, The Newton EP, Harcourt put it on the air.

"That was a crazy time for us," says Evens. "We started getting all these e-mails from people we didn't know asking who we were and where we came from."

Evens explains that after catching their first L.A. gig at the Knitting Factory, Harcourt invited the band to play live on Morning Becomes Eclectic, a rare honor for an unsigned band.

"Nic called us because his listeners wanted to know about us, and he didn't know what to tell them," he says.

It's actually pretty easy to see how Harcourt could be so smitten. The attraction here is strong. Even a quick listen to any of the band's three EPs -- The Newton EP, Below Radar and I'm Naut What I Seem -- reveals the band's obvious charms. The songs on the five-track I'm Naut What I Seem, for example, routinely reject cynicism and irony, opting instead to tackle personal politics from a head-on stance. Helen Stellar's atmospherics are lush and ocean-deep. The lyrics are unapologetically romantic and direct, even if they sometimes flirt with obfuscation: "There's more to life than death, moonlight in every breath," for example, from "Our Secrets."

How will it all translate from the B-Side stage? Not sure. But I have a feeling that the lovely noise produced by Helen Stellar will likely go down as some of the most engaging live rock you'll hear in Spokane this summer. --Mike Corrigan

Helen Stellar and the Distortions at the B-Side on Thursday, July 21, at 9:30 pm. Cover: $5. Call 624-7638.

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