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Rule Variations 

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "W & lt;/span & e tried to go for a folksy sound," says Danny Lopez, Table Top Joe's lyricist and primary singer, "but we're all really hardcore kids."

That statement, more than anything I'll write, explains Noose in the Meadow, the folkcore hybrid album the band will release next Thursday. From folk music, they've pillaged acoustic sensibilities and a populist, least-of-these-my-brethren mentality, chronicling the plight of neglected groups. The focus is less on the social justice of folk, though, tending toward the emotional and psychological turmoil of hardcore's latter incarnations. "What Makes You Feel Like a Man" adopts the second-person scorn and righteous indignation of hardcore in dealing with a battered spouse. "Wooden Teeth" takes a similar tack, applying a bootstrap approach to drug use.

There are some things, though, Lopez's comments leave unclear -- for example, why they've named themselves after a song from the ingeniously experimental latter half of Tom Waits' career, for example. The album sounds nothing like Waits. The band's instrumentation rarely outstrips straightforward manipulation of acoustic guitar, drums and bass, falling far from Waits' found sounds, vaudevillian proclivities and tin can percussion.

Lopez takes no pains to draw comparisons between himself and Waits, who is easily among America's most unique artistic voices. "He has a diversity that no one else has. I don't know that our sound is anything like his," Lopez says, pausing, "but I'd like our mindset to be. I love the longevity he's had and his sense of experimentation."

The kinship that Lopez feels with Waits, then, has to do with work ethic. That's far more artistically honest than ignoring Waits' singular individuality by mimicking his stylistic choices. The droning hybridization the band has managed on Noose in the Meadow is a karmic tribute to Waits, then, if not a literal one.

"You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places," Waits told Spin in 1994. "You have to break ... habits or you don't explore. You only play what is confident and pleasing."

By the last of Noose in the Meadow's 17 tracks, Lopez and company feel incredibly comfortable with their sound and pleased with what they've accomplished. The next step, then, is to take that base and fan outward, exploring the depth and breadth of the folk and hardcore traditions, plumbing inspiration (and more diverse instrumentation) from both. The extent to which Table Top Joe manages that is the extent to which they'll have lived up to the name they've given themselves.
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