Reviews

When We Break

Author: Michael D. Clark
01/25/2006 | Houston Chronicle | www.chron.com | Feature
Sitting almost dead in the middle of North America, Omaha, Neb., used to be the last place anyone would go to find "It" players in the music business. But Stephen Pedersen, frontman for Criteria, points out that the artistry of rock 'n' roll is rapidly gaining momentum in the heartland. His business model goes something like this: The farther away you are from the moneymen, the more actual music you can make.

"Omaha's great and ... the music industry is too far away to reach us," says Pedersen, who brings Criteria to Houston Saturday at Walter's on Washington. "The central location allows us to split up the country for touring, the cost of living is reasonable, and all our friends are here."

Pedersen's "friends" include creative peers in bands like Bright Eyes, his former bandmates in Cursive and others who have helped make Omaha's Saddle Creek Records one of the most talked about record labels in the country.

Saddle Creek now boasts a lineup of 15 bands coveted by college radio and modern rock festivals. The label is a hot music brand the way Sub Pop was with bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Nirvana in the late '80s and early '90s.

Last year, Bright Eyes raised the Saddle Creek banner to a national level with the release of two critically hailed and commercially successful albums Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and a national tour.

This year, it's Criteria's turn. The Houston gig is in support of the band's latest album, When We Break.

"What's the difference between headlining and being a support band? We have larger amps and can play louder," Pedersen says. "I want to be rockin' every night, and I will be curious to see if anyone shows up."

He adds a bit more seriously, "Touring does make you a better band, and we're definitely a better live band."

It's a big change for Pedersen, who in 2003 was living the anti-rock star life. He'd spent much of the '90s playing in Cursive, but after two albums, some regional indie buzz and little else, Pedersen left the band to pursue a law degree at Duke University.

Of course, once he was gone, Cursive finally broke out with its 2000 release Domestica.

"I left Cursive at just the right time ... right when they got popular," Pedersen says. "It took my departure for them to be a great band. Hindsight's always 20/20, but I knew that if I moved back to Omaha everything would work out."

Pedersen did just that and started Criteria in 2001. Originally it was little more than a solo pursuit, since he churned out songs that would become Criteria's debut album En Garde (2003). His chunky power chords and disjointed rhythm patterns were rawer than the emo sounds that were a Saddle Creek trademark. The music reflected his time in North Carolina, which produced similarly strange, guitar-heavy bands like Superchunk and Archers of Loaf.

By the time When We Break was recorded, Criteria was an actual band. Pedersen was joined by guitarist Aaron Druery, bassist A.J. Mogis and drummer Mike Sweeney. Break maintains Pedersen's herky-jerky chord progressions (he is still the songwriter), but songs such as Draped in Blood and Ride the Snake also lean more toward club-ready rock 'n' roll.

Having been in and out of the music biz, Pedersen seems comfortable with the path he chose and where his new band is taking him. And he has more options than your average rocker.

"Getting a law degree was a great Plan B," he says. "If (Criteria) doesn't work out, I can always go back to practicing law. Now, if I have kids, I can afford to feed them."
When We Break

When We Break

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