RECORD REVIEWS : From Cerebral to Sublime : Local offerings range from Volkwood Ghost's intelligent sketches of lives falling into desperation to the fun, genre-jumping antics of a rock 'n' reggae trio.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today's sampling of local records turns up a diverse and solid batch of new releases. There's blues from Sydney Ellis, bluegrass from the Andy Rau Band, alternative rock done with cerebral care by Volkwood Ghost and with grungy loudness by Ragabash, plus the genre-jumping pastiche of Sublime. Ratings range from * (tedious) to **** (transcendent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.

Volkwood Ghost***

"Wagon Train" (15-track CD)

"Wagon Train" (seven-song cassette)

Kismet Ghreen

There's just a one-song overlap in this Garden Grove band's two concurrent releases. Both the CD and the cassette are worth having for Volkwood Ghost's intelligent and tuneful sketches of lives falling into isolation, alienation and disaffection.

The edgy, concisely riffing guitars of Mike Schnee and Doug McGuire frame the band's psychedelic garage-rock style. Janette Neumann's violin provides European-folk shadings that seek to unsettle rather than provide sweet comforts. These elements place Volkwood Ghost in line with such worthy '80s college-rock forebears as the Dream Syndicate, Green on Red and Camper Van Beethoven.

The CD risks settling into sameness as Volkwood Ghost goes for a pervasively brooding mood, but the band burrows deeply enough into that mood to turn the collection into a good, slowly incremental evocation of the mounting desperation that can make people snap. The cassette offers a more pithy and varied take on similar themes.

Schnee's nasal, sharp-toned sneer takes some getting used to. At first, it suggests a dyspeptic wise guy, a la Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes. But a dimension of anguish lends resonance and keeps his stuff listenable. McGuire's voice is similar but not as abrasive. Neumann takes the lead on one song on the cassette, "Myths," and makes a strong case for a heavier workload with airy singing that conveys both strangeness and an off-handed intimacy.

Volkwood Ghost's theme of the desperation underlying seemingly normal, everyday surfaces has parallels in the movies of David Lynch. People do ordinary things in Volkwood Ghost songs--they go off to work at dawn ("6 a.m."), drive around in the dark ("Lost in Hollywood"), and try to decide whether to hold on to a beleaguered independence or look to dad to bail them out of a tight spot ("Help Is on Its Way"). They try to seize a spark by playing rock 'n' roll, but gig night brings more of the niggling disappointments they had hoped to leave behind ("All at the Scream"). Cornered by their immediate surroundings, they seek solace in motion--even if that means rolling on to uncertain destinations in "Wagon Train" or driving for the heart of nowhere in "Desert Convertible." Of course, one can always visit the "City of Beer" for a more conventional form of escape.

It's a dark vision of the human lot, but it's a lot the band prefers to explore and feel deeply rather than dismiss with easy cynicism.

(Available from Kismet Ghreen Records, P.O. Box 3065-403, Garden Grove, Calif., 92642-3065.)

* Volkwood Ghost plays March 23 at Club Mesa in Costa Mesa, (714) 642-8448).

Sydney Ellis***

"Goin Home"

Black Wallet

To say that this Huntington Beach-based blues singer projects a strong personality is to put it far too mildly. Growling, shouting, rasping and snapping, Ellis is out to make sure her listeners--and the errant men she addresses in several songs--get it through their heads that she is a force to be reckoned with. While these intensifying gestures may be partly intended to compensate for a somewhat limited vocal range, Ellis uses them in a natural, conversational way that adds bite and humor and never seems merely histrionic. And her voice isn't at all bad: It's a deep, sturdy and full-bodied platform from which she can jump to a wide range of blues-based styles, including trad-jazz-inflected New Orleans romps, straight Chicago shuffles and gospel-tinged laments.

A self-effacing band could undermine the vibrant impression Ellis means to make, but she surrounds herself with local players who carve their own mark. Pianist Luther Tucker, guitarist Michael Parisi and the nimble clarinet-and-sax player, Steve Hooks, provide a lively backdrop. The eight original songs on the album were co-written by Ellis and members of her band.

It's the sassy, salty numbers, like "Bitch With an Attitude" and "Piece of Crap" that jump out and define her style. But Ellis takes care to include more somber material. Her cover of the Nina Simone song "Nobody's Fault but Mine" shows that she has the gravitas and dramatic savvy to register deeper meanings. Here, she musters a fine blend of defiance and anguish.

If Ellis comes on strong enough to put one in mind of the blues-R&B; firebrand Etta James, that comparison also points to what's missing from her debut album: the sense of loss and vulnerability that James can capture amid declarations of self-hood. In songs such as "Cryin' the Blues," Ellis does sing of sadness and emotional blows endured, but she emphasizes the strength that will allow her to weather them, without giving wretchedness its full due. "Graveyard Blues," a sparse, darkly meditative number in the John Lee Hooker tradition, is well sung, but Ellis doesn't cut to the stark core of terror that the lyric implies.

That leaves her something to shoot for. For now, Ellis and her band have provided plenty to savor, with hot sauce included.

(Available through Black Wallet Records, 19744 Beach Blvd., No. 243, Huntington Beach, Calif., 92648, and at Lamar Records, Long Beach and Gator Music, San Clemente.)

* Sydney Ellis plays tonight at Midnite Expresso, 201 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 960-5858, and Wednesday at Cafe Lido, 501 30th St., Newport Beach (714) 673-5056) .

Sublime** 1/2

"Robbin' the Hood"

Skunk

Life's too short to waste time, and this Long Beach rock 'n' reggae trio spends too much of it padding its second album with dull spoken-word snippets and noodling digressions aimed at establishing its hip underground credentials (it also wants to establish hip-hop credentials: note the cover's opportunistic bannering of the address, "Long Beach, CA," now rap's coolest place to be, given the success of Snoop Doggy Dogg and Domino).

Especially grating are three sessions with a profanely raving geezer who stops the album's momentum whenever he appears. It's almost beyond belief that a band would wait until its album's fifth track to provide something substantial--in this case a good, spacey, synth-based cover of Peter Tosh's "Steppin' Razor" that is as much a plaintive plea for nonviolence as it is a threat to use force ("I'm a steppin' razor, watch my sides, I'm dangerous, so dangerous").

But once Sublime gets untracked, the results are varied and interesting. Singer Brad Nowell writes from a street's-eye point of view in which drugs, booze and the shadow of violence are givens, but not objects for glorification. Music itself is held out as a beacon in "Boss D.J.," which Nowell renders as a solo-acoustic number. It's a fine song that could have considerable commercial appeal given a fleshed-out pop-rock arrangement. "Pool Shark" and "Mary" are also solo-acoustic highlights, both frankly sexual laments of relationships in jeopardy. "Freeway Time in the LA County Jail" displays good blues instincts as Nowell, again by himself, lays down a laid-back, Canned Heat-style boogie. With his huskily emotional voice, Nowell's real calling might be as a solo folkie.

But that would take away the genre-jumping fun Sublime gets into on full-band numbers that slide through quirky changes that can send a song oscillating between skipping ska, hammering punk rock and spacey, slowly skanking reggae with toaster-style rapping. It creates an elastic, anything-can-happen sense of possibility and tension appropriate to the urban precincts the band explores. Among the best full-band numbers are the collage-like "STP" and "Saw Red," a duet with Gwen Stefani of No Doubt in which time shifts and racing ska beats capture the exuberant if risky ride of a burgeoning romance.

(Available from Skunk Records, 996 Redondo Ave., No. 160, Long Beach, Calif., 90804.)

* Sublime plays a free concert Sunday at 2 p.m. at Tower Records at the Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 241-8160).

Andy Rau Band** 1/2

"On the Horizon"

Turquoise

The Andy Rau Band is nominally a bluegrass band, but it doesn't play in the flashy, high-octane style of traditional bluegrass. "On the Horizon," the band's debut CD, is actually folk-pop that abides by the all-acoustic rules of bluegrass. It's a companionable, ever-wistful collection of songs that lack bite and suffer from a degree of sameness but nevertheless make for consistently pleasant listening. Call it pastel bluegrass.

The personality that comes across in Rau's singing simply isn't suited to a high-octane approach. His voice is small and mild, with a bit of Paul Simon (a very laid-back Paul Simon) in it. Many of Rau's songs have attractive melodies, but the performances are a bit callow. One suspects that a craggier voice of experience, a Guy Clark type, perhaps, could find more depth of feeling in them.

Toss on the CD and you'd think the singer's name was Andy Rue. The album opens with a long string of gently lovelorn numbers in which the melancholy Rau succumbs to quiet self-reproach, but never hints at bitterness or betrays an arresting flare-up of harsh feeling. The emotional climate improves on the album's second half, as Rau moves toward gently celebratory songs about love-gone-right. It's left to Dennis Roger Reed, the band's bassist and himself a well-established local songwriter, to serve up a song that portrays the lacerated feelings that linger when love goes wrong. The reproach in his "Just Look in the Mirror" isn't mild, and it isn't directed at himself.

The band is solid instrumentally, although it falls too readily into lightly glistening, rippling patterns. Again, some perturbation would help. Within the band's limited scope, though, appealing things happen. Rau's banjo work is light and dexterous, never falling into the clunky kerplunking that is the instrument's stereotype. And Les Johnson is a gem of a guitarist whose leads flow and swirl as naturally as a stream on a temperate day. Johnson occasionally plays slide guitar, generating rounder tones that bring some needed presence and definition to these pastel sounds.

(Available at Tower Records, or from Turquoise Records, P.O. Box 947, Highway 931, Whitesburg, Ky., 41858.)

Ragabash ** 1/2

"Stoned"

Lethal

The A side of this vinyl single is "Stoned," about a guy who becomes antisocial when inebriated, and the flip-side is "Hammered," wherein the stinking-drunk narrator looks at his overindulgent habits with a sardonic sense of self-disgust. "Everything's here and anything goes, God knows," goes the refrain of "Hammered," as pithy an expression as you could wish of the sources of youthful aimlessness and excess.

Ragabash plays it heavy and grungy. "Stoned" could be a Soundgarden outtake, complete with the darkly glowering, Jim Morrison-influenced singing that is a staple of Seattle grunge. One good, surprising element is the lead guitar line that cuts through "Stoned" with a tightly wired acuity.

Ragabash isn't pushing the envelope, but it delivers hard stuff the masses crave. The humorous shrug of "Hammered" is a welcome touch.

(Available from Lethal Records, P.O. Box 14868, Long Beach, Calif., 90803-1414.)

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