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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Love and Rockets in Santa Barbara

The uncompromising English trio Love and Rockets has one of the year’s most sexy, sinewy hit singles with the song “So Alive.”

To the more fit-and-tanned homeowners of Santa Barbara, whose east-side residential streets were overrun on Saturday by young concert-goers, the band’s fans looked so . . . well, dead.

Surely there couldn’t be that many pale teens hiding out in their sun-baked city. Perhaps a few blocks’ worth of L.A.'s black-clad denizens had been airlifted en masse up north.

Perhaps. Love and Rockets is not doing any L.A. County concert dates on this leg of its tour, forcing Southland fans to choose between Saturday’s show at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, a Wednesday performance at San Diego’s Open Air Theatre or Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

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Though Love and Rockets’ biggest fan contingent still comes from that Gothic pocket, which worships such maniacally depressive groups as Bauhaus (to which all three L&R; members once belonged), its audience is hardly limited to the doom-and-death set. For one thing, the trio has a certain lightheartedness that occasionally breaks through its continuous parade of dry ice and wall of noise; for another, a Top 10 single is guaranteed to bring a certain number of yahoos aboard any ship.

“We’re gonna do our pop song for you now,” said Daniel Ash, sarcastically underscoring the difference between “So Alive” and the less accessible bulk of the set. It marked the one time the trio was joined on stage by a fourth player; an unidentified black woman appeared to play synthesizer and add the “doo- do -doo” backing vocals that help make the single so appealing.

That fluke hit is uncharacteristically upbeat for the band, but not altogether straightforward in its celebration-of-life spirit. The narrator never does get close enough to the woman the song is about to learn her name or the color of her eyes, but her very appearance is enough to change his mood from “on the cross” to “on top again” over the course of the tune. It’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek paean to the rejuvenating power of lust.

For any unsuspecting newcomers who expected to hear similarly accessible “pop songs,” L&R; offered slim, difficult pickings, but there was plenty to interest those with more adventuresome palates.

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The opening number, “Bound for Hell,” was as close as the trio comes to roots music, with fair-haired bassist David J blowing harmonica as well as singing lead on its fast, cranky, devil-train blues. The real tone was set with the next tune, “No Big Deal,” a loud, lackadaisical, mid-tempo rant that had David Ash singing monochromatically over a deep fuzz-tone guitar that no doubt had books falling off the shelves of the public library in downtown Santa Barbara.

As with the Jesus and Mary Chain, there are pop melodies--cheerful, bubble-gum melodies even--buried under all that feedback and hyper-distorted guitar. Also a la the Jesus and Mary Chain, the melodies are not so well-crafted that they’re necessarily always worth digging through the distortion for, unless you love the thrill of mining for its own sake, which many fans evidently do.

Though style seems king, L&R; is not without its share of interesting content. The acoustic guitar-centered ballad “Rock and Roll Babylon,” for one, offered some fairly cogent statements on star worship; one wonders how many fans realize that the sentiment “Tightrope walker/take all our chances for us” is a parody of their own eagerness to follow pop leaders.

To its credit, L&R; still seems more interested in walking that tightrope than in ingratiating itself with a mass audience. Never was this more evident than in the final encore, “Wake Up,” a torchy ballad that had Ash playing sax in a mini-skirt, hose and lipstick. This was most likely a preview of the already recorded but unreleased “Swing” project, purportedly a “Glenn Miller meets the Andrews Sisters” affair. (Meets them on that train bound for hell, presumably.)

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Opening the show were the Godfathers, a far more aggressive rock outfit that, in the great English tradition, brings a political consciousness to its feisty love songs. It’s a fun approach, but one that can’t camouflage the band’s repetitive songwriting.

Love and Rockets and the Godfathers will play at 8 p.m. Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Information: (714) 855-6111.


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