Michael Ubaldini of Mystery Train and Mike Stand of Clash of Symbols have been part of the Orange County rock scene since the 1980s, and both have shown a persistence to develop, adjust and improve through various bands and lineups. The results show on their latest releases.
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.
*** Mystery Train, "Mystery Train", Blackwater Records
Talk about persistence in the face of delayed gratification: Since 1984, Michael Ubaldini has been playing in rootsy, assuredly rocking Orange County bands like the Earwigs and King Rockers and only now--with Mystery Train, his most assured and rocking band yet--has he issued his first album here (most of it culled from a 1994 CD released only in Japan).
A tall, lean, dark-and-handsome, denim-and-leather type, Ubaldini fits the old-fashioned mold of the classic rock 'n' roll rebel as well as anybody on the O.C. scene. "Mystery Train" is built on sturdy old models, full of cranking, Stones-Creedence guitar riffs and rockabilly licks. It also is largely concerned with that oldest of rock 'n' roll subjects: unbridled, gleeful, exuberant sexual lust.
In these anxious, complicated times for sexuality and most everything else, Ubaldini may sound like a throwback as he sings, repeatedly and without neurosis or second thought, about making a conquest of the most alluring woman at the dance. But his animal spirits are infectious, and it is impossible not to be caught up by the pure rocking thrust of numbers like the taut, bluesy "Scratch My Back" and "Shake & Shimmy," with its Hamburg-Beatles mixture of nastiness and wild-boy charm.
The more thoughtful, even poetic, side of Ubaldini's writing definitely places second on "Mystery Train" to all that lusty revving, but it is there in the margins. The two strands come together in "Shake It One Time," which recalls the grit and swagger of Graham Parker circa "Heat Treatment." "Don't Say Goodbye" is a lover's plea with Springsteenian imagery, and the bacchanalian intentions of "Mardi Gras" are tinged with a wistful, elegiac air: It hints that there is some deeper meaning we hope to find, even as we jump into the ultimate party. For Mystery Train, part of rock's promise, and a big part of its mystery, is the belief that the party, rescuing us from daily dullness, somehow can point the way to the meaning.
Ubaldini is a sharp guitarist whose well-etched solos are models of conciseness and form; he gets excellent support from drummer Rob Klonel and bassist Tom Slik, and from producer Lee Rocker, the ex-Stray Cat who captures it all cleanly (another former Cat, Brian Setzer, turns up for a guest-guitar turn on "Don't Say Goodbye"). Ubaldini's flexible, reedy voice may not have the special presence of his hall-of-fame models, but he remains a completely solid rock 'n' roll singer.
The album's wild card is the bitter, melancholy solo-acoustic ballad "Only Passin' Through," in which Ubaldini declares that he is after more than a casual fling. A few more deeper-probing songs like it would have lent needed ballast to the album, but there's room for that in Mystery Train's future. For now, "Mystery Train" offers a fresh, new shot of rock 'n' roll's oldest, most primal pleasures.
(Available from Blackwater Records, 35 Linden Ave., Suite 509, Long Beach, 90802. (310) 436-1713.)
* Mystery Train plays tonight at 10 at the Viper Room, 8852 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 358-1882; and Friday at Linda's Doll Hut, 107 S. Adams St., Anaheim, (714) 533-1286.
*** Clash of Symbols, "Sunday Is an Altogether Different Proposition"
IceHouse Records Clash of Symbols is not an altogether different proposition for Mike Stand, who has been part of the Orange County alternative-Christian rock scene for more than a decade, recording both with the Altar Boys and on his own. But Stand's new band (with guitarist Robert Goraieb, bassist Matthew Chapman and drummer Steve Latanation) does explore some updated sounds while it hews to his familiar subject of striving for connection with the divine.
In the past, Stand's lyrics could get too abstract and entangled as he tried to capture ineffable moments of spiritual searching and illumination. While the concerns of "Sunday Is" are similarly lofty, he finds simpler language for expressing them. Images such as the divine presence falling like a rain of color on a gray world (in "Paint This Place") may not represent the height of religious imagination, but they serve Stand well as he tries to give lyrical flesh to the spiritual word.
Musically, this half-hour EP includes a good deal of invigorating stuff--anthems that will be pure tonic for Christian believers but that also can find favor with general rock audiences looking for music that applies the heft of distortion-laced modern rock in an affirmative, rousing way.
Secular listeners may not buy Stand's argument on "I Don't Hear the Question," in which he complains, vehemently, that the Gospel has been edged out of a marketplace of ideas in which the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin and Freud occupy permanent stalls. But one has to admire the combative stance he takes, which is pure rock 'n' roll.
(Available from Clash of Symbols, 777 South Main St., Suite 57-332, Orange, 92669. (714) 771-4291).
* Clash of Symbols plays April 8 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Irenaeus Catholic Church, 5201 Evergreen Ave., Cypress. (714) 826-0760.