In Gimmicky, Crude-Smelling 3rd Album, Swamp Zombies Refine Their Folk-Punk Sound

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SWAMP ZOMBIES

"Scratch and Sniff Car Crash" Dr. Dream

This album literally stinks. Thirty years after Dick Dale, the Beach Boys and their cohorts brought the world the happy sound of Southern California, the Swamp Zombies have decided to share its not-so-felicitous smell. Each copy of "Scratch and Sniff Car Crash" has been impregnated with a horrid scent ostensibly evocative of the aftermath of a car wreck. Actually, it smells like a full snort of smog, straight from the tailpipe source.

Olfactory gimmickry aside, the Swamp Zombies' third album is a nice comeback after "Fink," their erratic second album. "Scratch and Sniff Car Crash" refines and expands the Orange County band's sonic reach while maintaining the enthusiastic folk-punk clatter that highlighted its 1988 debut album, "Chicken Vulture Crow."

The Swamp Zombies began as engaging coffeehouse amateurs using acoustic bass and guitars and bongos to toss satiric brickbats at both straight, middle-class values and the underground, alternative-rock fashions that pass nowadays for a counterculture. "Scratch and Sniff Car Crash" reveals no gain in lyrical depth or insight as the band goes for its usual easy chuckles. But now the Swamp Zombies sound almost professional, without sacrificing their old raucous appeal.

The chief sonic advances are in the vocal harmonies, which are more ambitious and expertly wrought than on past albums, and in the band's ability to get new textures from their acoustic instruments--principally a spacey-sounding slide guitar.

With songs about strange encounters on the low-budget tour circuit, and lyrical references to and musical quotations of such sources as the Pixies and the Velvet Underground, the Swamp Zombies take an alternative rock insider stance. From that position, they can poke fun at such college-rock character types as the self-consciously brooding "Desolation Girl." With more thought and effort, the Swamp Zombies could have given more than a clever, knowing snapshot of a character type and probed sympathetically into the anxiety and confusion of a girl trying to negotiate the contradictions of finding one's individuality while also wanting to fit in.

That tendency to settle for the quick chuckle and the light diversion dominates "Scratch and Sniff Car Crash." But there's a place in this world for a quipster, and the Swamp Zombies play the jester's role without the arch, hipper-than-thou attitude that makes many alternative-rock satiric attempts off-putting.

CD buyers will get a bonus cover of Public Enemy's rap anthem, "Fight the Power." The Swamp Zombies sound unsure of their own intentions as they affect weedy white-boy voices while mouthing the song's call-to-arms rhymes about overturning a social structure hostile to blacks. It makes for confused art but an interesting bit of self-revelation. To their credit, these suburban kids from well-off homes see the need to respond to intense music born of high-stakes racial politics. But, like most well-off whites, they just don't know what to think, and wind up tossing it all off as yet another joke. Perhaps inadvertently, the Swamp Zombies have come up with a number that is genuinely thought-provoking.

The Swamp Zombies, Tim Swenson & the Thieving Kind and Trip the Spring play Friday at 9 p.m. at Bogart's, in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Admission: $5. Information: (213) 594-8975.

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