In certain countries they cut off people's hands for theft like this. But fans who want to enjoy pop-rock bands of the late '90s have to be forgiving. The debut albums by Bon Voyage and Fold Zandura both fall under the frequently invoked "It sounds familiar, but so what?" exception to the common critics' bias against rehash.
The two bands, which share a bill Wednesday at the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa, have ties to the Orange County alternative-Christian rock scene, but are bidding to appeal to general audiences with music that treads softly when it comes to selling the faith--if it treads that way at all.
Bon Voyage invokes its Christian belief only in a notation inside the CD package; the songs explore romance and melancholia. Among the highlights is "Kiss My Lips," a dreamily sultry, kind of spooky lounge-vamp's seduction song that sounds like Garbage and Portishead teaming up for a gig at the lodge in "Twin Peaks."
The band features singer Julie Martin and her songwriter-guitarist husband, Jason. They may be downplaying Christian messages, but they obviously have gone to church on the Sundays. Julie's wispy, sugared singing owes an obvious debt to that British band's vocalist, Harriet Wheeler.
One expects an album of such ultra-sweetened, highly stylized singing to become cloying, but Bon Voyage makes it consistently engaging. Julie's voice remains girlish and feathery almost without exception, but the band's musical settings shift the perspective. There's distortion-buzzing garage rock colored by synthesizer lines (an approach also taken by Bon Voyage's fellow O.C. pop-rock contenders, Teen Heroes), but there's also that visit to the red-light district on "Kiss My Lips," and, in "You're Wonderful," a nod to cooing '50s balladry, albeit fortified with modern-rock guitar distortion.
Several songs thrum or jangle like any number of heirs to the Velvet Underground. In "Together," a mellotron meanders over from "Strawberry Fields Forever" and plays a progression that echoes another Beatles song, "Here, There and Everywhere."
Everything is scrumptiously catchy and well-played. Martin mainly sounds sincere, sensitive and fragile, although there's some irony embedded in the swoon of "You're Wonderful," in which she sounds so girlishly love-smitten that it becomes suspicious. "You Got It, I Want It" finds her showing a smidgen of swagger--inspired, perhaps, by her bandmates' spirited bashing in the tradition of Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
Fold Zandura's singer-guitarist, Jyro Xhan, could have the Liam Gallagher impersonator's role locked up if the British remain so besotted as to demand Oasismania. Actually, Xhan is an improvement on Gallagher, replacing the Oasis singer's memorable but off-putting nasal sneer with a nice, warm vocal hug full of vulnerability and hopefulness.
Behind its familiar-sounding vocals and Beatlesque melodies, Fold Zandura mounts a muscular but craftily layered modern-rock instrumental attack. There are surging, engulfing, tidal-sounding guitars, culled from late-'80s British distortion mongers such as Ride and My Bloody Valentine; some of Smashing Pumpkins' grandiosity and massiveness also comes through.
For contrast and flavor, Fold Zandura also works in some light, airily coursing bits of electronic sound a la Stereolab. Xhan especially favors a sheet of smooth, sleek yet sonically biting high-register guitar distortion, harking back to '70s innovations by Brian Eno on "Another Green World" and Steve Hackett on early Genesis albums.
He uses the same siren-like, but siren-lovely, texture on song after song, but it doesn't grow tiresome. Other sonic elements get repeated almost as much, but "Ultraforever" never becomes dreary, even over an excessive 16 songs in just less than an hour.
The lyrics alternate between reflections on romantic troubles and aspirations, and musings about matters philosophical, spiritual and mystical that contain some nice imagery. Even the darker songs have the shine of hopefulness thanks to the material's tunefulness and the surging, rising tide of Fold Zandura's borrowed but well-deployed arsenal.
* Fold Zandura, Bon Voyage, Lassie Foundation, the Killingtons and Lower Than Angels play Wednesday at the Tiki Bar, 1700 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $5. (714) 548-3533.
* Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.