Playing Favorites at Midyear
Thanks to cheap studio time, high-quality home-recording gear and inexpensive CD manufacturing, not to mention the spur of seeing fellow locals rise from the grass roots to fame, Orange County can claim its own glutted corner in the ludicrously overcrowded world of pop music.
As someone who’s supposed to keep track of this ever-burgeoning output, I find myself feeling like the heavenly powers in playwright Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America” trilogy who want to freeze all human activity because the fuss, clamor and disorder down below is giving them a headache.
In the end, Kushner rightly celebrates the ongoing mess and buzz of the human enterprise with the benediction “More life!” So, though it makes my head spin, I’ll give my blessing to the impulse that drives people to record and hawk more music than the world has time and ears to hear.
Meanwhile, the search goes on for the relative minority who have fire in their bellies, talent in their nerves and bones, and something worth saying in their heads.
In the face of glut, I’ve found most of my midyear favorites among old reliables of the O.C. scene. Six of these top 10 albums come from artists who have placed previous releases on my year-end or midyear local faves lists. Teen Heroes and Doom Kounty Electric Chair are the only new bands to make the ’98 midyear cut.
That’s not to say there aren’t other fresh O.C. acts worth noting. But when you feel you’re about to be lost in the flood, it’s always comforting to jump on a sturdy, proven horse to ford the stream.
1. Social Distortion, “Live at the Roxy” (Time Bomb). A career-spanning trove of top-notch songs, delivered with the full blast of pride, swagger, ferocity and authentic, lived experience that defines Orange County’s greatest and most durable rock band.
2. Liquor Giants, “Every Other Day at a Time” (Matador). If Ward Dotson has ever written a bad song (and this is his ninth album of original material with the Pontiac Brothers and Liquor Giants), his supreme pop savvy has saved him from committing it to plastic. When Dotson dies, he should lend his gifted ears to medical science, to aid in researching the sources of melodic genius. For now, anyone who likes ‘60s-inspired rock served up catchy and garagey should lend their ears to Ward and his mates.
3. Film Star, “Tranquil Eyes” (Super Cottonmouth). Most psychedelic bands don’t know when to shut up. Film Star’s now-hefty, now-wispy trips along the astral plane don’t go on long enough. Fine song-craft and emotional acuity (with Neil Young a key icon) and a knack for creating a varied sound palette with guitars, drums and keyboards make this an exceptional effort.
4. John Easdale, “Bright Side” (Harvey */eggBERT). Easdale’s ears should end up in the same lab as Dotson’s. On his debut solo effort, the former Dramarama front man comes up with another helping of catchy, hard-charging, wittily expressed anguish. If you turn up the radio for “Anything Anything” when KROQ gives it its semi-daily spin, you won’t be disappointed by the rest of Easdale’s oeuvre. “Bright Side” finds him at his best.
5. Frank Rogala, “Crimes Against Nature” (IEM). This veteran O.C. modern-rocker has turned into a studio rat since his band, NC-17, went on an extended vacation four years ago. He emerged from his Anaheim garage for a single show this year--enough to draw some deserved attention to this overlooked, homemade gem originally issued in 1996. With savvy studio doctoring and theatrical but emotive vocals, Rogala turns a mostly covers selection of abject love songs ranging from Louis Jordan to Liz Phair into something all his own. Gender-bending the material for a homoerotic slant made the concept all the more unusual, intriguing and brave.
6. D/Railed, “Tortise,” (no label). Here’s what you can accomplish with a bunch of fuzz guitars and nice harmonies, a couple of trombones and ‘60s and ‘70s influences that sound familiar but not slavishly imitative. Solidly following up its splendid debut CD, D/Railed offers more of a friendly, fun spirit that’s uncommonly good-hearted but never airheaded. “Inside the Park,” a beautiful, abstract, philosophical ode to the soul-salving powers of baseball, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
7. Teen Heroes, “Audio Satellite” (Glue Factory). Take some modern-rock massive-guitar onslaught borrowed from the Pixies, some squiggly synth hooks culled from the Cars, and apply them to catchy love songs delivered with youthful, unironic ardor and you’ve got a fetching debut.
8. Big Sandy Presents the Fly-Rite Boys (Hightone). Singer-songwriter extraordinaire Robert “Big Sandy” Williams steps aside and lets his Boys fly without him on this mostly instrumental showcase for one of roots music’s most jumping and accomplished backing units. By the end of this enlivening set, it’s clear that there are no sidemen in this band, only stars. If a time warp swallowed up the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Fly-Rite Boys and transported all three retro acts to the 1940s, when a swinging band was judged by its chops, not its retro cool, guess which two would be jokes--and which one would be in the history books?
9. Crystal Lewis, “Gold” (Myrrh). A fixture on the contemporary Christian music scene for more than a decade, Lewis has reached creative maturity. “Gold” features superb production that draws in Beatlesque and trip-hop touches to go with her R&B-steeped; voice. There’s a newfound grain of maturity in the singing and songwriting, culminating in the beautifully aching title ballad.
10. Doom Kounty Electric Chair, “Stealing Defeat From the Jaws of Victory,” (Persuasion). There’s attitude to burn on this nothing-fancy, nice-and-rough collection of cranking, catchy riff-rockers recalling the likes of the Cult, Dramarama and MC5.
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