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Scene & Heard

Being perceived as rockers is no mean feat

By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - Names, like looks, can be deceiving. Take Mean Creek, for instance. The Boston band, which formed a couple of years ago after singer-guitarists Chris Keene and Aurore Ounjian decided they wanted a rhythm section, has little to do with what that moniker conjures: country or bluegrass, or folk music from Appalachia, perhaps.

Instead, the name comes from the 2004 indie film about troubled teens and dark secrets - not entirely unlike the fretful disposition of the group’s often gorgeously melancholic material. And make no mistake about it: The foursome, rounded out by bassist Erik Wormwood and drummer Mikey Holland, is very much a rock band that favors big guitars and soaring melodies, with songs that speak as boldly as they do plaintively.

“You throw on one little harmonica part and all of a sudden you’re an ‘Americana’ band,’’ says Ounjian with a chuckle that suggests she finds these category distinctions all a bit silly. “I think of us as a rock band.’’

Ounjian, 24, and Keene, 27, believe the misguided perception can be traced to their days as an acoustic folk duo that was borne out of Ounjian’s fondness for the vocal harmonies of Mimi and Richard Fariña, and Keene’s immersion into Bob Dylan’s early works.

“It’s funny how a name can be genre-specific, ’’ says Keene, who grew up in Watertown and went to high school with Ounjian (who had moved to the area from Lebanon when she was 3). “Before I ever heard them, I thought Yo La Tengo was going to be a Spanish band.’’

The members of Mean Creek are seated around a table at a Harvard Square watering hole, talking about their slot opening for the veteran Boston alt-rock combo Buffalo Tom tonight at the Paradise, and their new album, “The Sky (or the Underground),’’ which comes out Sept. 1. ’’ (Mean Creek’s 2007 debut, “Around the Bend,’’ was recorded with a different lineup).

Before its official release, though, Mean Creek will play a dual CD release party Aug. 8 at the Middle East Downstairs with friends Drug Rug, who also have a new album, “Paint the Fence Invisible,’’ coming out next month.

“The Sky (or the Underground)’’ is destined to be one of the best local releases of the year. It’s an album of pathos and heartbreak, of big questions about life and mortality that go largely unanswered and unresolved. The title track, for instance, can be heard as a meditation on the order of things both natural and cosmic; hope and futility bundled into a four-minute format.

“Is there nothing more to be found/ In the sky or the underground/ Has it all been a pointless waste/ Or can we find what’s been misplaced,’’ Keene sings in a tender, questing half-whisper. Like many of the songs on the album, the track is freighted with a pervading sense of fatalism and an anguished elegance.

If the aching vocal harmonies and world-weary wondering do have the folk tradition behind them, the song’s soft/loud, verse-to-chorus dynamic reflects the band’s love of heavier sounds. (Holland put that penchant to the test, though, when he answered Keene’s ad seeking a drummer and told him he had an 18-piece drum kit and was ready to rock - a joke that left an alarmed Keene wondering how he could let the drummer from Lawrence down easy).

“When Chris and Aurore started the band,’’ says Maine-bred bassist Wormwood, 29, “[they] were doing folk music as a duo, which is where I think some people get the ‘Americana’ stuff. But there’s also a lot of contemporary stuff that we’re into: R.E.M., the Pixies, early alternative music.’’

For Keene, people like Dylan, John Lennon, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain were raw, inspirational forces. “When I listen to music, I listen to it to feel something,’’ Keene says. “I relate to strong emotions. When you hear ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or you hear Kurt Cobain scream, you can’t just sit there and not feel anything.’’

Ounjian began playing folk music on acoustic guitar as a way to explore musical textures and modes of expression beyond the angst-fueled roar of grunge. “It was a nice change,’’ she says. “It really was inspiring to pick up a guitar and harmonica and strip everything down and focus on lyrics and actual vocal melodies instead of just screeching guitars.’’ She pauses and smiles. “Although I love screeching guitars.’’

Know about something cool on the local music scene? E-mail Jonathan Perry at roughgems@aol.com.

MEAN CREEK Opens for Buffalo Tom tonight at the Paradise Rock Club at 9. Chris Campion is also on the bill. Tickets are $22. 617-562-8800, www.thedise.com

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