Sound Bites RUBY SLIPPERS: Turnabout is fair play, or so they say. In the music industry, it's a matter of course. Example: Some years ago, a fledgling band from Seattle called Pearl Jam opened for a Tucson band on the verge of national acclaim and recognition--the Sand Rubies. It's been a few years since then, and much has changed for both bands.

Pearl Jam, as we all know, is currently touring the country's stadiums and the list of opening acts reads thusly: Cheap Trick, X, Frank Black, Iggy Pop and Mudhoney, along with Spacehog, Goodness and the Murder City Devils. If the thought of Iggy Pop or Cheap Trick or X opening for Pearl Jam strikes you as intrinsically wrong, then you're in good company here. What can you say--these things happen.

The music industry is constantly redefining itself, twisting inside-out and upside-down in its quest for our almighty dollars...and destroying (and creating, I suppose) many aspiring talents in the process. This is sort of what happened to the Sand Rubies. They got caught in the money machine and it nearly destroyed them. But not quite.

Although it's been three years since Rich Hopkins and Dave Slutes mended fences, the Sand Rubies still hadn't released any new material since their 1993 fracture following a multi-major label disaster. But the June release of The Return of the Living Dead offers hope for longtime fans that there's life in these weathered gems yet.

Even after a five-year hiatus from the studio, rife with legal troubles, label troubles, a bitter break-up and tentative reformation, Return sounds as though they never went away: Its immediately warm, pop-rock familiarity greets you like an old friend. Part of the reason for this could be the fact that the Sand Rubies have been performing several of the songs live--"Primevil Love" has been something of a regular bet at Sand Rubies shows for the past few years. More likely, though, Return takes you inside of this record so quickly because it's unmistakably the Sand Rubies. They still sound the same. Musically more mature, but essentially the same.

I asked Slutes about that in a recent interview, and he rightly offered no apologies.

"We're that quintessential, desert rock old-fart band," he said with the same good-natured, self-deprecating humor that titled the new record.

The album's lyrics, written primarily by Slutes, reflect the bitterness and disappointment of the Sand Rubies' troubles of the not-so recent past, casting some angry backward glances. The angst is pretty thinly veiled in songs like "Misery," "Turn Off Your Stereo" and "Cut You Out"; but that's not to say that Return is a sour grapes offering. Edgy and mindful, yes, but definitely not sour.

The album contains eight originals and two covers. The Rubies give a right fine treatment to Del Shannon's "Stranger in this Town," one the album's most light-hearted offerings, and "Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory," the Johnny Thunders cover that closes out the disc--which, by the way, could not be a more appropriate song or message.

Slutes, Hopkins and original drummer Bruce Halper completed the recordings with new Rubies bassist Mark Perrodin, who stepped in after Robin Johnson once again gave way to his ongoing struggle with heroin addiction. The album was recorded in the midst of his widely publicized legal troubles, and his efforts are noted on four tracks. The situation between the Sand Rubies and Johnson is, according to Slutes, completely irreconcilable. Yet another personally devastating situation for the members to come to terms with.

In addition to Return of the Living Dead, Contingency Records in conjunction with Hopkins' San Jacinto label has also just released Sand Rubies: The Sidewinders Sessions, a compilation from the shelved RCA/Mammoth releases Witch Doctor and Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall.

Contingency turned the project over to Slutes and Hopkins, allowing them to choose the tracks and set it up. According to Slutes, Contingency (based out of Minneapolis) is essentially the pet project of a very devoted Sidewinders fan. The two releases are separate deals; the fact that their release dates coincide is accidental, he says.

Return of the Living Dead was assembled song by song, in various studios in Tucson, Hollywood and London. Hopkins and Slutes utilized the producers and engineers they thought best able to capture the feel and the groove they were after. On the inside of the sleeve is the lengthy story of the recording as it was assembled, kind of a narrative of the process as well as an acknowledgment of the efforts of those involved. It's plainly apparent that Slutes and Hopkins maintained careful control over every aspect of the process of recording Return, and feel very good about the product.

"You have to understand," said Slutes, "It's our first record in five years. It's after we broke up, after our last record was done with all of these big league producers--they spent $250,000 on the record alone--with all of these management people, intermediaries, lawyers, booking agents, accountants.... Don't get me wrong, it was great working with all of these neat people in these incredible studios, but there was all of this money pressure and no one was happy--everyone was fighting and our control over it was nil. That whole experience was made worse by the lawsuits and legal troubles.

"Now it's a whole different thing. Rich and I got back together just because it's really a blast. We were having fun writing songs together, and putting on fun shows."

Hopkins and Slutes didn't even consider trying to hawk a new deal for this record, although interest is already rumored to be percolating.

Older and wiser, the Sand Rubies have slowly reawakened to their initial inspiration. Despite the image of re-animated corpses conjured by the album's title, Return of the Living Dead is less a resurrection and more a homecoming.

Ever the wry optimist, Slutes retorts, "Now we can have all the fun without the crap, and we get to cash in on the equity of the crap we've already been through."

Future plans include a hard push in the fall, with national and European tours in the works. The Sand Rubies' major U.S. fan base is still most solid in, of all places, Tornado Alley--the strip of heartland that runs from Texas to Chicago, and east to Ohio. They anticipate good radio rotations there. Return is already scheduled for a fall European release on Blue Rose Records (also home to Steve Wynn). And there's always SXSW, where the Sand Rubies are a perennial draw.

In spite of their lack of recordings in recent years, Slutes shrugs and says of the Austin industry dance, "They keep having us back. This year we'll (hopefully) get to go back and say, 'ah ha...' " He smiles a winking smile and waves an imaginary CD in the air. The Sand Rubies are, indeed, back. They celebrate the release of Return of the Living Dead with special guests Conception Romero from Paraguay and Satellite from Tempe Friday, June 12, at the Club Congress, 311 E. Congerss Street. Tickets are $5. Call 622-8848 for information.

HOT PICK: Hosted by professional wrestling manager, lead singer for Rancid Vat, and international tattoo celebrity the Cosmic Commander, the rockabilly riot dubbed HOT-ROD-O-RAMA! comes to Tucson all the way from the inner reaches of outer space. Show includes a tattoo contest emceed by the Commander himself, a Custom Hot Rod & Bike Show, and a Pin-Up Girl calendar contest, sideshows all to nine nitro-burning bands: Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs, Rockin' Lloyd Tripp and the Zipguns (with members from England and Holland), Frank Sprague and his rockabilly Ripsnorts (a new roots rock big band featuring Al Foul on rhythm guitar), James Dead, Helldriver, Creosote, The Mark Downs, Exit 56 and Phono Royale. HOT ROD O--RAMA! peels off the line at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 13, at The Rialto Theater, 318 E. Congress St. Tickets are only $5 at the door. Call 740-0126 for information.

ROYAL DISAPPOINTMENT: Unfortunately, Royal Crown Revue has canceled its Tucson show on June 11. A tentative fall show is in the works to coincide with a new release. For refund information, contact Dillard's at (800) 638-4253. Also, the band is rumored to make an appearance in Phoenix next month, on a triple bill with The Pretenders and the B-52's. For details on that show, try Desert Sky Pavilion. TW

--Lisa Weeks

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