"Something Special for the Kids"
The potential rewards of playing modern rock are so high that bands must be tempted to put all thoughts and efforts into reaching for the big score. It's refreshing to see records like these three, conceived for fun, or to document a slice of their creators' history.
22 Jacks, a hard-touring band that grew out of a merger of members of Los Angeles' Wax and Orange County's Joyride, certainly has ambitions for bigger things; so does My Superhero, the Anaheim band that has shown more songwriting promise than most of its peers on the local ska-rock scene.
Both bands are probably feeling pressure to come up with new records that will seduce modern-rock radio programmers and earn a ticket to the big time. For now, they've put out interim releases that keep big ambitions on hold while pursuing other agendas.
"Overserved" offers an assortment of approaches from 22 Jacks, which is still trying to sort out how best to meld the talents of two capable singer-songwriters, Joe Sib and Steve Soto. Sib, the Wax alumnus, was the point man on the band's 1996 debut CD, "Uncle Bob." On "Overserved," Soto comes forward more, but he still seems underemployed, given the top quality stuff he wrote and sang for Joyride in the early '90s and the Adolescents in the '80s.
Three songs the two wrote together for "Overserved" seem like woodshedding efforts rather than fully realized outcomes of in-sync teamwork. But "Confusion" shows promise. A too-offhanded Soto vocal holds it back at first, but the track gains warmth and force as it goes on, with chiming and rippling guitars and an energetic drum surge powering a number that recalls Paul Westerberg's elegiac side. Soto, who did a nice "Purple Rain" as an in-concert extra during his Joyride days, gets in over his head trying to croon with Smokey Robinson silkiness on "Tracks of My Tears."
22 Jacks provides good, brawny backing for guest singer Joey Ramone on a cover of a Cheap Trick song, "I'll Be With You Tonight." The most encouraging sign on this grab-bag collection is the confident, invigorated playing on three live tracks, including the catchy "So Sorry," and a revving cover of "Message in a Bottle" by the Police.
If 22 Jacks does harness its vocal and songwriting firepower and come up with a strong record in its upcoming bid for the brass ring, it won't have to worry about being able to impress fans with its live show.
Were there a stock market for O.C. rock bands, My Superhero would probably be a hot commodity, given its ska roots and demonstrated ability to weave a catchy hook. Before putting on a drive for the winner's circle occupied by Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris, it decided to attend to some unfinished business: The band didn't think its 1995 debut album, "Skateboard Music," had come out well, so it has rerecorded it in its entirety and added on some sloppily played live cover material as a bonus.
The highlights are front-loaded into the first three songs, with "Station (Down the Roadway)" a winning bit of sunny ska-rock expressing optimism and enthusiasm for whatever lies ahead. The vocals remain uneven--as they were on last year's sophomore album, "Solid State 14." But singer-songwriter Brian Gilmore seems to be making progress; if he reaches his own personal station down the roadway, My Superhero has a good chance of becoming heroic to a lot of ska kids, with the added attraction of greater lyrical depth and instrumental variety (sharp guitars, accordion and Moog in lieu of formulaic horns) than most of its brethren on the ska-rock scene.
After 17 years fighting the alterna-rock wars in Gun Club, the Pontiac Brothers and Liquor Giants, Ward Dotson has established himself both as the most consistently excellent songwriter the Orange County punk-alternative scene has produced, and as the one least-suited to vault into modern-rock's winner's circle. On four previous Liquor Giants albums, Dotson's mix of sumptuous, '60s-based melodies and harmonies with garagey playing just hasn't found its commercial niche.
With "Something Special for the Kids," he and his mates, including former Pontiac Matt Simon on drums, look back fondly on an era when a catchy tune and a feisty performance were enough to rock the charts.
It's an all-covers collection of nuggets from the '60s and '70s--mostly British, mostly obscure, with the more familiar choices being far from obvious. It's also a showcase for the "oohs" and "la-la-las" that bassist Mark McGroarty and guitarist Mark McNally supply nonstop in resurrecting the lost art of bringing background vocals to the fore.
Liquor Giants' unabashed love of catchy pop comes through in their handling of Tom Jones' silly-fun nugget, "What's New Pussycat?" They start it as a drunken sing-along--just what you'd expect from so-cool modern-rockers looking down their nose at oldies kitsch. But that's just a feint; Liquor Giants quickly shifts to an exuberant, straightforward, harpsichord-festooned performance that shows a full appreciation for the winking cleverness and lusty liveliness of this number by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Elsewhere, Dotson pays faithful homage to the Move, one of his leading icons, with covers of Roy Wood's "Fire Brigade" and "Days of Broken Arrows" from the Idle Race--the Move sound-alike band that Jeff Lynne led before he finally got promoted to the Move itself.
Aching, yearning, pure-pop splendor comes alive in covers of "Led Along" (Del Shannon), "Toast and Marmalade" (Tin Tin) and "Things I'd Like to Say" (New Colony Six). Fast-forwarding from the dominant '60s and early '70s time frame to 1979, Liquor Giants close with a romping take on "Boys Keep Swingin," David Bowie's ode to being cool (and, if you want to read it the way Bowie likely intended, to being gay and cool).
"Something Special for the Kids" is both a companion volume to, and a stylistic cheat-sheet for, the Liquor Giants' excellent current album of originals, "Every Other Day at a Time," in which Dotson runs his influences through the blender of his own distinctive underdog's sensibility. If Dotson's beloved Angels can prosper, maybe there's hope for the Liquor Giants, who keep swinging and connecting with juicy pop-rock that honors both the melodic emphasis of its sources and the rawness of the players' alternative-rock backgrounds.
("Overserved" is available from Side 1, 6201 Sunset Blvd., Suite 211, Hollywood, CA 90028 or  951-9000. E-mail: Side1@aol.com)
("Skateboard Music" is available from Vegas Records, P.O. Box 2175, Newport Beach, CA 92659 or  723-7865. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
("Something Special for the Kids" is available from Blood Red Vinyl & Discs, 2134 NE 25th, Portland, OR 97212. E-mail: email@example.com)
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.