The former leader of one of Los Angeles' prominent "paisley underground" bands and his new femme fatale have made the L.A. record that has drawing the most attention in the alternative/college rock world at large. But Mazzy Star isn't the only Southern California band that's been busy in the studio. Pop Beat's alternative-rock edition focuses today on independent releases by Southern California performers, rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic).
*** 1/2 Mazzy Star, "She Hangs Brightly," Rough Trade. Through the early '80s, David Roback led the Rain Parade on a quixotic quest to restore some of the values of psychedelia to contemporary rock. Leaving that to others, he then teamed with the Dream Syndicate's Kendra Smith in Opal, establishing an aesthetic centered on moody atmospheres and haunting female vocals.
Mazzy Star is more in the Opal tradition: austere country blues with Velvet Underground bloodlines (one guitar solo practically quotes the Velvets' "I'll Be Your Mirror"). Singer Hope Sandoval isn't quite Nico: Her cool detachment rarely translates as aloofness. Electric or acoustic, the settings are stripped down to basics--often just a guitar strum, bass cushion and tambourine timekeeping. A juiced-up Cowboy Junkies for the Bohemian set, Mazzy Star sustains a dark beauty.
*** Swamp Zombies, "Scratch and Sniff Car Crash," Doctor Dream. These Orange County cutups' beatnik-folk-punk is sometimes abrasive, but it ultimately yields an authentic and affecting depiction of the uncertain emotional geography between the stages of schoolboy and young man. Setting its context in the Southern California youth/rock world, it has the real flavor of living this life in this specific place (not to mention the literally real aroma of burned rubber promised by the title).
** 3D Picnic, "Dirt," Earth Music/Cargo. Someone must have told this L.A. band that it should stay unpredictable by emphasizing variety. That's true to a point, but it's self-defeating when it leaves you with no identity. This unfocused collection is a long march through punk, folk, country and pop terrain with little in the way of memorable words or sounds, and the thin lead vocals often adopt that warbling, smarty inflection that afflicted so much "new wave" music back in the late '70s. When they don't try so hard, the group shows some possibilities. But they're usually trying too hard.
* 1/2 Christine in the Attic, "Christine in the Attic," Christine in the Attic. Beware of fledgling bands in the hands of "superstar" producers. Englishman Ken Scott's career encompasses greatness (David Bowie's "Hunky Dory") and infamy (Missing Persons), and his heavy hand on this five-song, 23-minute collection is more reminiscent of the latter's crassness than the former's artistry. With huge, throbbing, crashing, orchestral arrangements framing Christine Russell's theatrical, aggressive rock vocals, it's so preoccupied with being right that it lacks all personality and spirit.
** 1/2 Clay Idols, "Falling Down Backwards," Genius. Chamber folk-rock for the Bruce Hornsby crowd? The L.A. band makes it sound like a good idea through much of this album, which is marked by a sparkling sound and an ornate weave of guitars, strings and voices. Steven Schayer's gruff voice--a bit Bruce Springsteen and a lot Richie Havens--is convincing in small doses as he delivers lyrics obliquely evocative of emotional distress. But over the course of a whole album it becomes overly dominant and self-absorbed.
** Nick Pyzow Band, "Adobe & Diamonds," AsFab. The singer-songwriter is painfully earnest, some of his folk/country/rock is agreeable enough, and he displays some decent songwriting craft. But Pyzow's dry voice is way too expressionless to do anything memorable with his lyrics, and the whole undertaking bespeaks journeyman competence.