Pop Rocks

The World of Miss Universe

by Margaret Moser

Michelle Rule is standing in her kitchen, one hand on the stove and the other wrapped around a microphone. Her bare feet spring off the black- and-white checked linoleum floor in time to "Where Are My Shoes?" as the boys in Miss Universe spray punky chords that bounce off the walls of the L-shaped hall and back into her face. Guitarist and songwriter-in-chief Chris Braun leans against a doorway and throws the song's insistent rhythm to drummer Josh Power who gives a kinetic response while bassist Tom Balentine lays out the song's rubbery bottom. Rule tilts her head a bit to one side, the feathered layers of her short dark hair shift slightly, and she begins to plaintively sing/chant:

It's not love I'm searching for, that's old news

...Maybe soon I might stand up on my shoulders,

Catch a glimpse and taste the air

And hope that this time might be different, maybe even real...

The quartet finishes the song and dissolves into rehearsal patter. "What next?" Rule asks.

"How about a Go-Gos song?" Power teases about the band's hyper version of "Our Lips Are Sealed" on the Eighties tribute compilation Deja Phooey.

"No! " she states emphatically as Balentine and Braun laugh. "I mean, I want to do our music. What about `When the Well Runs Dry?'" Muffled voices filter through the hall as Braun knocks off the unmistakable opening of "Walk This Way," then fades it out into more laughter. Balentine runs a few bass notes and the countdown begins.

In a town where too many bands wonder why - after being together a few months, a little gigging around town, and a four-song cassette - they aren't Sixteen Deluxe, Miss Universe has simply bided its time. They've honed a tough, well-crafted brand of powerful punk-pop, much in evidence on their new Rise Records CD Duh!. But even though calling a band "pop" can be the kiss of death, especially in Austin, Miss Universe is pop like Blondie or the Ramones: pop with a bite and without being retro.

"I think everybody has a certain appreciation for pop, whether they admit it or not," Rule says, agreeable with the Blondie comparison but noting "the guys would probably rather acknowledge the Descendants as influence." The person willing to acknowledge Miss Universe, however, was Rise Records' Craig Koon, whose discerning ear was tuned to their pop-with-punk-edge through a mutual friend. "Craig started to come to see us play - a bunch," remembers Rule. "Then he said, `Do you want to work with me and put some stuff out?' Of course we said yes." That led to the 1993 Rise single Miss Universe with "When the Well Runs Dry" b/w "Blanky," both of which were re-recorded last August for inclusion on Duh!. Rule doesn't think much of the first single, happier with the second effort on the album. And though it would take a year for Duh! to hit the streets, the band valued its relationship with Koon enough to trust him through the album's release delays. That's just the kind of attitude that marks the perfect marriage of musical talent and business acumen.

Which is exactly what Braun, Power, and Rule - names that evoke strength and energy - hoped for when they moved down here from Iowa. Rule and Braun had gone to high school together in Iowa City; Rule and Power met in college. The three formed the first incarnation of Miss Universe there before moving to Austin in 1992, where they established themselves playing venues such as Emo's, Blue Flamingo, Electric Lounge, Liberty Lunch, and Hole in the Wall (for which Rule expresses a particular fondness, saying "We play our best shows there. The people who go there are truly interested in the bands."). When Tom Balentine, most recently with Hurtbox, replaced the departed Paul East on bass not long ago, a new dynamic emerged in the band - nevermind that the Port Neches native has now given Miss Universe an authentic Texas edge.

Of course, being Miss Universe hasn't been without its drawbacks. In fact, they are about to be "The Band Formerly Known As Miss Universe," due to a legal agreement with The International Beauty Pageant of the Same Name. It seems that while playing in their home state of Iowa, a disgruntled pageant fan informed officials of the infringement. "We've been in touch with them," Rule offers diplomatically. "And we're not allowed to talk about it," though she admits that the band may soon be billed "Formerly Miss Universe."

But for right now, Miss Universe reigns supreme in a galaxy where many have gone before but few have been able to hold their heads up afterward. Miss Universe doesn't care - they wear the crown with style and panache. n

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