Modems for Moderns


There were no hang-up calls when Human Switchboard connected person-to-person in area codes from Ohio to New York City at the cusp of the 1980s, as they were resolutely living out the era’s creed that Doing It Yourself would restore passion to pop music. But just as the buzz about their Who’s Landing in My Hangar? debut album (still a classic, still regrettably unavailable on CD) was cresting in 1982, I.R.S. Records’ Faulty imprint was deleted. Human Switchboard were left stranded on their good-press island without a promo canoe to paddle home, and they eventually imploded.

The frenzied heart of Human Switchboard was always the musical clash between vocalist-guitarist Bob Pfeifer—nervous, aggressive, presumably unblinking behind his constant shades—and vocalist-keyboardist Myrna Marcarian, sarcastic and sensual from her bleating-Farfisa hip. In those flailing-notes confrontations, Bob and Myrna seemed like the Sonny and Cher of new wave, albeit with more Mensa potential. Their songs reflected the tough times they’d seen in college towns like Kent, Ohio, including that perennial thesis topic: varieties of infidelity found in cold-water grad-student flats. Drummer Ron Metz faithfully provided the Switchboard’s fervent pulse as the thrift-store dishes flew and a series of bassists came and went.

After the split, Bob and Myrna released dueling solos of a sort: his After Words LP of 1987 and her Human Touch EP of 1989, intense records without immediate sequels. That once acerbic critic of corporate rock Bob Pfeifer then penetrated the beast himself, first in A&R at Epic, and then as president (!) of Hollywood Records. Today Pfeifer runs his own media-consulting company, Segnana.

The other two Human Switchboard principals are meanwhile featured on albums from ongoing groups. Ron Metz in fact appears on both discs—full-time with the Schramms, for whom he’s punched the beat since guitarist Dave Schramm spun them off from Yo La Tengo in the late ’80s. The faux-family band has made a string of solid albums in a kind of pomo-country mode, drawing their Pynchons in a Jersey bar with an amply endowed jukebox. They have their partisans, many in hip pockets like Germany, where their 2000 Weiss Beers From Home was recorded live. It’s a summing-up set—a collection of all the (metaphysical) hits the band’s enjoyed thus far, presenting their persistent, longvistas-of-yearning style on red (uptempo) and green (dry folk) discs, with the swelling-organ groove of the anthemic “She Says” (red) a highlight.

Myrna Marcarian rules the humanist motherboard of Ruby on the Vine, named after an Omar Khayyam elegy but also suggestive of the darkly faceted sheen of Marcarian’s vocals. Though she plays keyboards less often than she plays her new signature instrument, acoustic guitar, she sometimes attacks the latter with a hard edge recalling Pfeifer’s strum und drang. Ruby on the Vine’s intriguing folkpop songs, most written by Marcarian, some with electric guitarist Geoff Feinberg, project a worldview as desire-driven as Human Switchboard’s, yet with more accommodation at the end of the stark hallway: Love exists, fidelity too, but you have to work at them—thus, the erotic fiats of “You Belong to Me” and “Don’t Be So Sure.” The album rolls from homespun ballads like “Gather Round Your Wishing Wall” to the startling (in this context) garage rock of “Little Demon” and “Why You Wanna Make Me Mad,” the latter two with riffs that tunnel right through the hangar wall. We already knew she could walk alone, and now she’s sounding real sharp again. So maybe next time out, Ms. Marcarian will lyrically address the existential conundrum that continues to bedevil the creative class: Should I have gone to law school?!?