Orange Curtain Keeps On Rising

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The exciting first blush of national recognition for the Orange County music scene has passed.

Now, nearly five years after the Offspring finally smashed the "Orange Curtain" that had shrouded a wealth of underground talent, it's downright routine for several local exports each year to sell bundles of albums or at least get a fair shot in modern-rock radio rotations.

The highest-profile Orange County act of the year was Korn, which has built a large and loyal grass-roots audience with an ominous, head-banging attack and singer Jonathan Davis' baleful cries from the Teenage Wasteland. "Follow the Leader" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart and became the band's third consecutive million-seller--making Korn the first Orange County rock band to notch three platinum albums.

Korn capitalized by organizing and headlining its own multiple-act arena caravan, the Family Values Tour. But artistically, Davis still doesn't have a steady-enough grip on the sometimes inflammatory language he hurls in his lyrics. And Korn's style, though a bit more flexible now, still is pitched to die-hard metal fans rather than to the ear-candy-loving mainstream.

The Offspring, whose 1994 album, "Smash," was the first mega-selling alterna-rock release from Orange County, showed signs of returning to the multiple-platinum circle with "Americana," a November release that quickly settled into the Top 10 on the Billboard albums chart and by year's end had become the band's third million-seller.

The most ironic development of the year was that Sublime, which disbanded with Brad Nowell's fatal heroin overdose in May 1996, was the year's most prolific O.C. recording act. MCA Records raided the vaults for three albums--a studio outtakes album (issued at the end of 1997), a live recording and a Nowell acoustic release. The Skunk label produced a feature-length video biography of the band, and Sublime remained omnipresent on KROQ two years after its demise.

Save Ferris shot into national contention with nearly 300,000 sales of "It Means Everything," a debut album of swing-flavored ska music. Reel Big Fish tried to prove that the ska wave hasn't crashed, following up its 1996 gold album, "Turn the Radio Off," with a lyrically inconsequential but musically zesty new album, "Why Do They Rock So Hard?"

No Doubt, which made Orange County ska famous (although its style leans much more toward mainstream pop-rock), teamed with Elvis Costello for "I Throw My Toys Around," a track on the "The Rugrats Movie" film soundtrack album. Otherwise, the band has lain low and labored on a planned 1999 follow-up to "Tragic Kingdom," its multiple-platinum breakthrough album from 1995.

Sales of Sugar Ray's 1997 album, "Floored," shot to nearly 2 million thanks to a sunny pop-reggae confection, "Fly," that flew counter to the hedonistic hard rock and metal that was the band's core style. Front man Mark McGrath made the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. Hoping to avoid having male modeling be its last peak achievement, Sugar Ray forsook metal and poured on the pop frosting to entice "Fly" fans with its next release, "14:59," which is due Jan. 12.

Social Distortion, the venerable flagship band of the Orange County punk movement, played the tortoise to those younger, more mercurial hares, finally getting a gold record in 1998 thanks to incremental sales of its 1990 album, "Social Distortion."

Together, the above-mentioned bands, the eight most successful acts from the county's alterna-rock scene, have sold more than 28.5 million albums in the United States during the 1990s, according to figures from the SoundScan monitoring service.

Trailing by 28 million-plus in commercial clout, but commensurate to the alterna-rockers in artistic worth, the local roots-music scene kept up a strong presence in 1998.

Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys led the pack in activity and recognition without even having an actual band release. Two side projects, one a tasty solo outing by front man Robert "Big Sandy" Williams singing doo-wop chestnuts, the other an almost all-instrumental, western-swing release by his sizzling bandmates, displayed the range and heat of their talent; while generally meatheaded and ham-handed "swing" bands proliferated as the trend-of-the-moment for '98, Big Sandy and band solidified their position as one of the few revivalist acts of the '90s making a distinctive addition to the traditions of the 1940s and '50s.

The Orange County blues scene generated good-to-excellent albums by three veterans: traditionalist James Harman, and blues-rockers Walter Trout and Mike Reilly.

Fans could only pine for new releases by Chris Gaffney and Jann Browne, the king and queen of adventurous country music in Orange County. Their output in 1999, along with an expected solo album from Social Distortion's Mike Ness, could figure prominently in settling the sweepstakes for Orange County's "Artist of the Decade." What those three have in common (along with Ward Dotson of Liquor Giants, another leading contender) are memorable vocal styles and exceptional songwriting founded on an indelibly personal point of view.

Those are also the common threads running through my two lists of favorite albums for 1998--one for Orange County, and another for the world at large.

The Top Albums

1. Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (Mercury). Williams' homespun, utterly distinctive voice is saturated with world-weariness, yet unwilling to let go of hope. She applies it to marvelously crafted lyrics in which deceptively simple images and a smattering of narrative detail are enough to evoke entire lives. She also brings to bear a first-rate ear for melody. An indispensable artist for fans of the country-folk-rock-blues continuum that has spawned a large share of the decade's best music.

2. PJ Harvey, "Is This Desire?" (Island). This is a bit more inward than the epic-scale, blues-spiked emoting of Harvey's past work, but she still weaves a mythic aura around her glimpses of characters trying to fill gaps left by physical craving and emotional want. A cohesive, yet stylistically diverse sequence of songs in which each has its own apt soundscape.

3. Liz Phair, "Whitechocolatespaceegg" (Matador/Capitol). No longer striving so hard to be shocking and hip, this darling of 1990s alterna-rock offers a more grown-up, relaxed and expansive view of life and has fun lending her tastily wispy voice to playful garage-rock and pop-baroque song arrangements.

4. Allison Moorer, "Alabama Song" (MCA Nashville). It's ladies first on this year's list. And Moorer's striking debut vaults her to first-lady status in the world of country music, even if the commercial apparatus of mainstream country music won't give her a chance to prove it to the masses. She displays a pure, poised, deeply affecting voice that captures some of the best qualities of Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris, and, collaborating with her husband, she writes almost all of her own material.

5. Marc Cohn, "Burning the Daze" (Atlantic). Cohn gets the most-improved-artist award by digging far deeper into his experience than he had on two previous albums that were pleasant but unconvincing exercises that cast him as a minor-league version of John Hiatt. This is the real stuff, full of beauty as it probes realms of grief and loss and seeks renewal. It culminates in "Ellis Island," a richly imagined reflection on the precarious pilgrimage of the immigrant.

6. R.E.M., "Up" (Warner Bros.). R.E.M.'s fall from commercial grace reflects the fickleness of the hit-driven rock landscape of the '90s. But "Up" is a creative return to form as the now-drummerless threesome of Peter Buck, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills carries on with a muted, yet textured sound that downplays guitars in favor of keyboards--an approach ideally suited for the album's dreamlike meditation on end-of-the-century anxiety.

7. Manu Chao, "Clandestino" (Ark21). You don't need a lot of Spanish to enjoy these notes from the underground from Chao, former leader of the French/Spanish rock en espanol trend-setters, Mano Negra. His reflections on being an outcast subverting an oppressive order are steeped in wit, not sanctimony. Harking back to Bob Marley's "Natty Dread" period, the sonically inventive "Clandestino" brings fresh, diverse variations to familiar reggae rhythms.

8. Elliott Smith, "XO" (DreamWorks). The deeply interior, downcast quality of Nick Drake and Alex Chilton of "Big Star's Third" meets a fondness for Beach Boys-inspired loveliness on this cycle of songs about love-gone-wrong.

9. Cowboy Junkies, "Miles From Our Home" (Geffen). Simpler, pop-leaning song structures, and a sound that expands into lush, Doorsy psychedelia mark this smart effort by the consistent Canadian band. Margo Timmins' singing is a model of unforced, unostentatious grace. She's the experienced, grounded, timeless answer to the flighty, post-adolescent overstatedness of Alanis Morrissette.

10. Mark Cutler, "Skylolo" (Potters Field). This unheralded New Englander, formerly front man of the Raindogs, offers another strong, Tom Petty-like album of highly melodic guitar-rock informed with the rawness and acerbity of the inveterate underdog who can't afford flights of romantic fancy. If the Rolling Stones were smart, they'd buy Cutler's outstanding song catalog of the past 15 years, claim it as their own, and start making albums that matter again.

The Top Orange County Albums

1. Social Distortion, "Live at the Roxy" (Time Bomb). An almost ideal one-album overview or introduction to O.C.'s most legendary and enduring alterna-rock band, this career-spanning live set captures Mike Ness and company at full blast and affirms how consistently strong, cohesive and true to Ness' own sensibility their 18-year recorded body of work has been.

2. Liquor Giants, "Every Other Day at a Time" (Matador). Every other year at a time, Ward Dotson guides Liquor Giants to another irresistible, if messily rendered, preserves his colorful, knobby perspective as a habitual loser in love and career. And every single time it goes all but ignored.

3. Sonichrome, "Breathe the Daylight" (Capitol). As catchy as pure-pop needs to be, with the added attraction of Chris Karn's twisted guitar outbreaks and impassioned vocals.

4. James Harman, "Takin' Chances" (Cannonball). Harman enlists old friends and former band members for a superbly varied, inventively arranged and typically well-played outing, the best in a decade from this ever-reliable blues songwriter and bandleader. Harman brings along his customary homespun wit and playful play-acting ability in a sequence of songs about risk-taking in its various manifestations, from foolish gambles to necessary gambits.

5. Film Star, "Tranquil Eyes" (Super Cottonmouth). Strong song craft and a knack for getting vibrant and varied tones out of guitars, organs and synthesizers enable this Costa Mesa pyschedelic-rock band to explore realms of expanded consciousness without lapsing into commonplace psychedelic self-indulgence.

6. John Easdale, "Bright Side" (Harvey */eggBERT). This solo debut is no great departure from Easdale's previous gig as singer-songwriter and co-producer of Dramarama, which means you get masterful pop-rock craftsmanship, '70s underground-rock raucousness, and a willingness to bleed emotionally yet grin through the pain thanks to a leavening knack for playful lyric-writing. If Easdale were more of a glam-type guy, he'd probably be a big star now. Instead, he's a part-time semipro who still hits the long ball on a low budget.

7. Frank Rogala, "Crimes Against Nature" (IEM). One of the more adventurous covers albums you'll encounter. The NC-17 front man makes his solo debut singing famous songs of romantic woe, spanning the pop spectrum from Louis Jordan and Billie Holiday to Liz Phair and Nine Inch Nails, tweaking everything with savvy studio doctoring, adding incisively theatrical vocals, and re-orienting the pronouns to apply a daring homoerotic spin.

8. The Offspring, "Americana" (Columbia). It's funny that the Offspring get slagged for not being punk enough, since they carry out punk's fundamental mission of providing reality training for the young. As usual, the curriculum ranges between funny sarcasm and embattled desperation; it's now a given that the band's first-rate hard-rock craftsmanship will keep the music catchy, crunchy, varied and vibrant.

9. Smile, "Girl Crushes Boy" (Cargo/Headhunter). A fine balance of garage-rock brawn, pop-band catchiness and sentiments earnest and barbed alike. The trio's strong, episodic song architecture and attention to tonal variation allows several tracks to stretch out beyond six or seven minutes without growing dull.

10. A tie. Dial-7, "Never Enough Time" (Warner Bros.). Along with Hed(pe) and Zebrahead, Dial-7 forms a worthy troika of emerging Orange County bands that intertwine rock and rap. Dial-7's approach is the most distinctive, thanks to strong, melodic vocals, hook-strewn songwriting, and trenchant lyrics that tackle weighty subjects such as racism, economic injustice and moral corrosion without heavy-handedness.

10. D/Railed, "Tortise," (no label). It's apparent from the title of its sophomore album that spelling is not D/Railed's forte. But the band ranks near the head of the local class when it comes to projecting a spirit of friendly, good-hearted fun that's never saccharine or escapist. The accessible, familiar, yet never slavishly derivative sound borrows from garage-rock, country-rock, psychedelic music and Irish drinking songs, to name a few sources.

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