POP MUSIC REVIEW : Self-Styled Poet Mike Peters Needs a Muse : For All the Ex-Alarm Singer's Ambitions, His Coach House Set Goes Off Predictably

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Alarm was a band of great aspiration and no more than modest inspiration.

Mike Peters, the Alarm's former singer, closed his show at the Coach House on Thursday night with a song that vowed to "walk on in a different direction" and to write "a new chapter in the book of my life, a new song in a different key." Still, his concert seemed like the same old stuff in a new package, with the same limitations.

The Welsh singer started the show with two strikes against him:

First, Mike Peters & the Poets of Justice, as Peters and his new band were billed, may be the most pretentious band name ever. Second, Peters started his show with one of the most pretentious taped intros ever--a long, sonorous roll-call of the birth and death dates of great artists from Marley and Lennon to Orwell and Shakespeare.

Peters strode on stage, smiled, and struck up an Alarm-like anthem called "Poetic Justice." It spoke in a not-very-inspired way about Alarm-like aspirations: the struggle to remake a fallen world, and suchlike.

Peters' problem is that, whatever he might call his band, he hasn't a poetic synapse in his nervous system. "Declare yourself," Peters declared over and over, in "Unsafe Building," the lone Alarm oldie served up in a 12-song, 65-minute performance. (The singer is in the United States to showcase his new band and new songs in hopes of landing a record deal.) True to his word, Peters' lyrics came across as declarations, overt statements tending toward cliche. Poetry is a hard term to define, but it has something to do with expression containing an element of surprise, with unexpected combinations of words that have the capacity to illuminate or delight.

Poetic ends seem beyond Peters' means when you consider his use of astonishing, never-heard-it-put-quite-that-way-before turns of phrase such as "promises that turn to dust in my hand," "another lonely rider on the road to hell and back" and "it's hard to be a saint in the city," all derived from a single new song, "Levi's and Bibles." The same song found Peters imagining himself holding scarecrows in his hand before they, like the aforementioned promises, turned to dust. Even the Wicked Witch of the West couldn't hold a scarecrow in one hand. Toto, maybe; scarecrow, doubtful.

But let's not be too hard on Peters. If he is pretentious, he at least seems sincere about the ideals expressed in his ever-earnest songs. And, to go with good intentions, he is a respectable performing talent and a reasonably competent crafter of rock anthems. Also, he has put together a strong new band, never mind the name.

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During the Alarm's 10-year run (which ended last year), its detractors dismissed it as "U2 too," with good reason. Peters still sounds like Bono II, and many of his new songs still have that old U2 anthemic quality (in contrast to Dave Sharp, the former Alarm lead guitarist whose 1991 solo album took a far different son-of-Dylan-and-Woody Guthrie folk-balladeer tack, albeit with his Alarmist earnest idealism intact). To mix things up, Peters threw in some tougher, Rolling Stones-inspired stuff--no great sign of originality, but at least a change of pace.

One of those, "Unstoppable," got the best response of the night from an audience of 200 or so fans who voiced no objections to Peters' decision to focus on his new, unrecorded material. The song seemed to be about sex ("If you want someone to rock all night, I'm unstoppable"), but given Peters' lack of raunch, it came off as yet another ode to live with determination and, yes, aspiration.

"I Want What the World Can't Give Me" (reference: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") addressed the fundamental question of the spirit longing for what the material sphere can't yield. But Peters, typically, merely stated and restated the premise without embodying the longing behind it (a job for a true poet).

The song did cast the spotlight on lead guitarist Ethan Johns, who during the course of the show displayed a mastery of styles associated with some classic players. You could hear plenty of the Edge (a sartorial as well as instrumental influence, as Johns wore a blue bandanna on his head), Keith Richards and, in a howling flurry on "What the World Can't Give Me," the often-emulated dramatics of Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." It's no surprise that Johns would know his rock guitar history--his father, Glyn Johns, produced or engineered records for the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Beatles, among others.

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With a strong rhythm section anchored by Shriekback drummer Martyn Barker and good backing vocals from bassist David Watkins Clark and keyboard player Jules Jones, Peters had capable help. But it will take the help of a muse that hasn't yet called him to lift Peters into contention for the poetic honor roll.

Orange County band Standing Hawthorn opened with songs as earnest as Peters'. Paul Schulte, another Bono-influenced singer, was so urgent he seemed to be disgorging words from his stomach and chest. Most of the songs could have benefited from a more varied vocal approach, putting greater stress on melody, even at the sacrifice of some of that urgency.

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