Rating New Releases of Orange County-Based Musicians : Albums: Walter Trout scores with first solo release while National People's Gang reaction depends on how stagey you like your songs.

For this week's Pop Beat, we'll catch up on some recent releases by Orange County-based performers: The scale is * (poor) to ***** (a classic).

Walter Trout Band

"Life In The Jungle." (Bozz of Electra): ****

Trout, who lives in Huntington Beach, gave up a steady, high-profile gig when he left John Mayall's Bluesbreakers to go on his own earlier this year. Now we can see why--"Life In The Jungle" heralds the arrival of a blues-rock talent of the first order. The album, recorded in Denmark and issued in Europe (it's available as an import at Music Market in Costa Mesa), showcases a performer who is confident, mature and strikingly well rounded. Trout's sizzling guitar work alone makes "Life In The Jungle" a must for six-string aficionados, but there is much more than that here. Among the album's five original songs are two ebullient, good-timey rockers and a couple of lovely, pop-flavored ballads sung with a wistful soulfulness. The stormy title song conjures up the fear brought on by a murder in Trout's own neighborhood.

At various times, Trout's approach can recall the stately blues balladry of Eric Clapton ("The Mountain Song,"), the warmth of Little Feat ("Frederica"), or the animal spirits of Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Good Enough To Eat"). A live version of Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" finds Trout indulging his old tendency to overdo the speed and flash. But elsewhere, he reaches an effective balance between wildness and control with playing that serves his material rather than his ego.

Trout and his versatile backing trio are at their most potent on stage: The album ends with a searing, 15-minute psychodrama built around live renditions of the blues standards "Cold Cold Feeling" and "Serve Me Right to Suffer." The two connected songs become an epiphany of anguish and remorse in a performance that can stand as a textbook example of blues musicians tapping the deepest reaches of their chosen calling's well of emotions.

National People's Gang

"Orange." (Dr. Dream): *** 1/2

One's attitude toward National People's Gang depends largely on one's response to Chad Jasmine's calculatedly theatrical singing. Listeners who like their rock vocals in the offhanded vernacular might not go for Jasmine's stagey act, which can seem archly Anglicized and overdone. But there is nothing wrong with theatricality when it brings a meaty role to life, and NPG's songs come off like one-act monologues in which Jasmine gets inside the skin of obsessed characters placed at emotional extremes. "Love Button," for example, finds him doing a wired, James Woods-type turn as a gambling junkie going bust in Vegas.

Some of these playlets are abstract, but they never lack an intriguing, off-center point: "Breaking Ground," an evocative, thought-provoking song about detachment, seems to look down upon the sweat and heartbreak of humanity from somewhere above the stratosphere. "White Boxes" is an unsettling examination of the disguises that dysfunctional families don in an attempt to appear normal. A feverish version of Simon & Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" becomes a simultaneously mocking and exhilarating demolition derby ride over the song that sounds as if Johnny Rotten is in the driver's seat.

Stylistically, NPG is an art-rock band with a strong command of textures ranging from shimmering pop brightness to furious, focused pounding. The rhythm section is deft and strong, with new bassist Deyo Glines adding some funkiness. Chad Forrello is the do-everything MVP of NPG, a guitarist of commendable selflessness whose playing is exciting without being obtrusive. Perhaps best of all, the band steers clear of fashionable cynicism. Without sacrificing the right to be ironic, National People's Gang shows that you don't have to lose a sense of innocence, idealism and heart to prove that you're smart. After last year's fine debut album, "The Hard Swing," NPG serves notice with "Orange" that its creative reserves run deep.

Exude

"Testosterone Tapdance." (Rah! Rah!): ***

Lust and love is the subject, and while that's nothing novel, Exude's strongly melodic pop craftsmanship keeps the oldest theme of all from getting stale. Hunkering down in its Anaheim garage, this look-ma-no-guitars trio was able to fashion a danceable techno-pop sound that is warm and human instead of coldly mechanized. Frank Rogala's grainy, breathy vocals deserve some credit for that. Rogala's voice is limited, but by borrowing resourcefully from such non-techno sources as Mick Jagger, Tom Petty and Peter Wolf, he pieces together a singing style that makes up in verve and personality what it lacks in purity and strength. That's where Exude's savvy comes in: The band is smart enough to surround the lead vocal parts with catchy ensemble harmonies that offset Rogala's roughness and round out the sound. Younger brother Vince Rogala's saxophone riffing provides another attractive voice to bolster the framework, while Robin Canada's runs on conventional keyboards are a nice antidote to the usual dance pop synths and samples.

On "359 Directions," an otherwise promising ballad that aims to recreate the Stones' "Angie"/"Wild Horses" mode, Frank Rogala falters by trying to reach too far beyond his ability. Exude's other false step (besides the off-putting album cover) is a brooding instrumental finale that has nothing to do with anything that comes before it on the album.

Exude celebrates lust while giving romance its due, and it frequently brings to bear a light and clever lyrical touch ("You got me ga ga from the get go/You did a tap dance right on my testosterone") that is missing from most dance-oriented pop.

Big Drill Car

"Album Type Thing." (Cruz): ** 1/2

The title tells a lot: Big Drill Car's music is direct, plain-spoken and economical, while its lyrics deal with the awkwardness that comes from facing the emotional growing pains of youth.

There is a lot to admire here. For one thing, Big Drill Car hits with a force that fully justifies its name. There is nothing fancy going on: the ensemble delivers a heavy, rhythmic throb and crunch, with occasional brief solo jabs from a metallic lead guitar. Melody never gets steamrollered, though. Big Drill Car's aim is to be a punked-up pop band, hard-edged but catchy, and it usually succeeds. The lyrics, and singer Frank Daly's delivery, are honest and straightforward reflections of what it's like to be living in the aftermath of adolescence, with its intense loves, regrets and frustrations. While the songs deal with facing problems and failures, they also carry an appealing sense of hopefulness and optimism that experience can be the foundation for growth.

The problem is that the four-man band is a little too single-minded and direct. The songs take no unexpected turns--the music is all headlong attack, with the occasional Led Zeppelin-style tromp beat the only minor relief. The lyrics don't move beyond the earnest, unadorned depiction of immediate feeling. And those consistently catchy melodic hooks are a little too consistent: while each song stands well on its own, a sense of sameness sets in over the course of the album.

Word play, humor and a musical approach more conscious of the need for variety and dynamic shifts should be on Big Drill Car's agenda the next time out. But for now, this young band has laid a good foundation. (Big Drill Car plays Saturday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano).

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