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RECORD REVIEW : Zombies’ Spark Gets Swamped by Disc’s Mannered Production

Times Staff Writer

SWAMP ZOMBIES

“Fink.” Dr. Dream.

** 1/2.

As a live act, the Swamp Zombies are always a hoot. The Orange County band’s infectious sense of fun powers an all-acoustic approach that lets punk rowdyism clash with a sense of folkie traditionalism.

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Those qualities are present on “Fink,” the Swamp Zombies’ second album, but unfortunately some of the band’s live spark has been toned down. While their debut album, “Chicken Vulture Crow,” was recorded live in the studio, “Fink” finds the Swamp Zombies drifting a bit from their strong suit and trying to make a more polished record.

“We wanted more than just a live presentation for the songs,” singer-bassist Steve Jacobs said this week. “We wanted more of the depth of the writing showcased. Live, we’ll play the songs at a faster tempo. (On the album) we let the songs have room to breathe and let them work on a different level.”

While that sounds reasonable and hints at an ambition not to fall into the same old ways of doing things, the Swamp Zombies may have to face the fact that their let-it-rip live style suits them better than the sometimes-mannered production on “Fink.”

The record’s more circumspect, craftsmanlike approach allows for good moments, such as the nicely executed, cascading harmonies on the chorus of “Big Black Shoes.” But sometimes it leaves the Swamp Zombies sounding like a conventional, none-too-original folk-pop band (“Now It’s Gone,” in which incongruous audience hooting and hollering in the background only underscores how little there really is to hoot about in the song, is a pleasant but too-mild bit of wistful folkishness).

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While most of the songs on “Fink” aren’t as winningly idiosyncratic as the best of “Chicken Vulture Crow,” the Swamp Zombies still go about their business with a decidedly comic, off-kilter step. “We Just Don’t Belong” and “Dig a Hole in the Love Patch” offer strong, immediately insinuating melodic hooks that bode well for air play on college radio, where the Swamp Zombies already have the beginnings of a following because of a good reception for their first album. But the songs have even more impact played live, and it couldn’t have hurt to capture that on record too.

On the weakest numbers, “Victor” and “Denny’s Incident,” the Swamp Zombies try to satirize young conformists of two different stripes, but come off sounding vague and hazy on the first number and self-righteous and obvious on the second. Satire is a hard genre for young bands to master, but on other songs the Swamp Zombies continue to show a gift for the well-timed wisecrack.

Percussionist Gary McNeice left the band before “Fink” was recorded; the two substitute players used on the album don’t muster the homespun, not-quite-under-control clatter that is part of the Swamp Zombies’ appeal.

David Warren, the new percussionist who joined after “Fink” was finished, seems strong on clatter, judging from his live debut with the Swamp Zombies last month. He also brings an appealing Buster Brown look to the band.

The Swamp Zombies will begin a 2-month national tour next week, but before they leave they will make a round of local appearances. In what’s being billed as the Anti-Mall Tour, the band will play free shows in local record shops, including sets today at 6 p.m. at Music Market, 2701 Harbor Blvd. in Costa Mesa; Saturday at 2 p.m. at Digital Ear, 13011 Newport Blvd. in Tustin, and Sunday at 4 p.m. at Moby Disc, 15255 Beach Blvd., Westminster.

They also will headline Sunday night at Bogart’s in Long Beach.


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