The Big Bang

Entering Comets on Fire's blazing parallel universes

An unveiling of Miller's lyrical imagination shows a writer as obsessed with strife between people as he is with it occurring between his musical projects. Written toward the start of the "war on terror" — and with Miller's childhood friend stationed in Iraq — the songs are littered with literary images of dying breaths and bloodshot eyes. He uses such evocative lines as: "You brother once had love in hand/now you show only teeth and eyes/you walk the desert half-wolf, half-god/kicking at the skulls of husbands and daughters." "Show Business" is another Howlin' Rain standout, switching battlefields from the political to the personal as the polish wears off a weary heart: "Maybe I mistook you for a diamond ring/Maybe there ain't no such thing/We shared a bed laughing and a pint or two of gin/that don't mean we're starring in the movies."

Comets' producer mainstay Tim Green (who has worked with everyone from the Melvins to Sleater-Kinney) was behind the controls for Howlin' Rain's record, and he says it may be "the most organic-sounding and -feeling record I've ever recorded. It just has this super easygoing feeling to it." Green was especially moved by the unveiling of Miller as a true frontman, though, sharing that "there's a vocal part in ["The Firing of the Midnight Rain"] that brought me to tears on several occasions." In many ways, then, Miller has met his goal of purposeful juxtapositions — shooting you into the lysergically fried cosmos with Comets, only to pick you up for a brew and a dusty ride through the past for the next round of rock. — J.M.

Giving Heartfelt Pop a Colossal Yes


Howlin' Rain performs Thursday, June 1, at Amoeba at 6 p.m. (free) and on Saturday, June 3, at the Hemlock Tavern at 10 p.m. Admission is $8; call 923-0923 or visit for more info.

Colossal Yes performs Sunday, June 11, at Fernwood Resort in Big Sur as part of the "Three Days of Summer" festival. Admission is $50 for all three days; call (831) 667-2422 or visit for more info.

Six Organs of Admittance's new album, The Sun Awakens, is out June 13.

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As the drummer for Comets on Fire, Utrillo Kushner's bonkers percussion assault is infamous, with British musician Julian Cope once saying that Kushner plays like two drummers who both think they're Keith Moon. Witnessing this energetic spectacle, one wouldn't think the kit-bashing maniac has a mellow side, but he does: namely, a piano-centric operation called Colossal Yes.

After a decade of living room composition and four-track recordings handed out to friends, his Colossal Yes combo released its first proper album in February. Acapulco Roughs, an eight-song suite on New Jersey label Ba Da Bing!, is euphonious piano pop with a definite '70s vibe. Think Harry Nilsson, Carole King, and Procol Harum, all of whom make Kushner's long list of loves, along with more recent artists like Epic Soundtracks and New Zealander Peter Jefferies. The songs on Acapulco are fleshed out by a gaggle of Kushner compatriots, including drummer Garett Goddard of the Cuts and guitarist Eli Eckert of Drunk Horse.

Topped off with Kushner's airy, borderline-falsetto vocals, album tracks like "The Honeycreeper Smiles" and "There's Red Dirt in Wine" have a blissful, ethereal quality. Hanging out at this writer's Mission District flat, Kushner says this blithe atmosphere is no accident, but a byproduct of the tunes being an escape valve for life's day-to-day pressures. "I constantly want to have some sort of outlet," explains the affable 31-year-old with tousled hair and an unassuming checkered shirt. "Luckily, having a keyboard at home, if I have some alone time late at night or before work — or anytime I get a chance — I'm always working on this stuff for my own personal gain."

Kushner, who currently lives in Oakland's Temescal District with wife Tracy Sawyer (who's played in such bands as the Lies and Heavens to Betsy), grew up in the upstate town of Eureka along with fellow Comets Ben Chasny, Ben Flashman, and Ethan Miller. Smitten by the punk-rock Valhalla of Gilman Street, an 18-year-old Kushner fled Humboldt County for the East Bay in 1993, and began playing drums with various bands. He also started experimenting with home recording, which led to his buying a cheap thrift store keyboard. He took to it immediately.

As Kushner's compositional and keyboard skills developed, he started giving tapes to friends. This personal project was eventually christened Colossal Yes, a moniker inspired by a work of art by Yoko Ono that involved looking at the word "yes" through a magnifying glass. The circulating tapes and CD-Rs gained an increasing buzz, and eventually Ben Goldberg of Ba Da Bing! — a label that released Comets' Field Recordings — asked Kushner for a demo.

In an e-mail, Goldberg says that despite his hatred of most piano rock, he immediately offered to do a record with Kushner upon hearing his songs. "Utrillo's music turned all my notions on their ear," writes Goldberg. "His music is earnest, thoughtful, and really stripped down. Also, he's got some highly intelligent and poetic lyrics. I loved the challenge his songs presented to me — having to reevaluate my prejudice against an entire musical form."

Lyrically, Colossal Yes songs are fantastical and open to interpretation. For example, on "Just Like a Mademoiselle," Kushner sings: "Witchery in chastity, scorched but cavalier/Diamond's roost and crystals cast, the lighted chandelier/Leper bells of infidels, a wife she's not to be/A change of mind and bargained time, a child unborn to thee."

Inspired by the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, "Mademoiselle" is a song Kushner says he takes particular pride in: "I watched that movie, and it had such effect on me, that I went straight to the keyboard and made this song up in like 10 minutes. I'm really proud of that. I definitely felt like I took something and transformed it into something of my own."

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