Just listen, they ask

Times Staff Writer

IT was 2004, and the members of Dios seemed to be on the fast track.

The British music magazine NME tabbed them with the likes of Franz Ferdinand on a list of emerging rock bands. They released an album, played an afternoon slot at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and, thanks to their Hawthorne roots and guileless tunes, frequently heard themselves linked to the Beach Boys.

Almost two years and another album later, they are Dios (Malos) -- the parenthetical was added after veteran rocker Ronnie James Dio threatened to sue for infringement. And although admittedly not on a fast track, the quartet feels as if it is on the right track, plying its laid-back, throwback pop even as it worries about having been pigeonholed by that early buzz.

"It's hard to look at the qualities that make a band successful -- I don't know what our gimmick was," bassist J.P. Caballero says via cellphone. He is running errands in the South Bay on a recent afternoon, listening to ZZ Top and cracking wise about "why so many 30-year-old men and 16-year-old girls like our band."

Dios (Malos) is not the pop you hear on the radio, but its sound is broader than the California surf-pop it has been labeled.

"We have problems with people saying we have this identity ... with people saying, 'They are from Hawthorne and they are Mexican, so they are the Mexican Beach Boys,' " Caballero says. "If anybody listens to us, they'll get an idea from our music."

The idea you might get is that Dios itself might not yet have a clear idea. Its sophomore effort, "Dios (Malos)," released Oct. 11, roots itself in the '60s pop classics, forgoing the gauzy production of the band's first eponymous album, "Dios." In flashes, you hear a twinkle reminiscent of the Flaming Lips, the wistfulness of a Grandaddy, the contemplativeness of a Neil Young and the hazy world-weariness of the Eels. You hear germs of imitation, but drowning in the elixir of originality.

The draw is the band's knack for a tune.

"It's what I call their effortless melodies. I've worked with a lot of bands, and a lot seem to struggle with writing memorable songs," says Isaac Green, founder of New York independent label StarTime International, who signed the band in early 2004. "There's an X factor that's hard to pinpoint.... I definitely like the weirdness of it, the Pink Floyd-meets-Buddy Holly amalgam."

If the second album turned out a bit less Floydian than the first, Caballero says it's because he and band mates Joel Morales (singer-guitarist), Jimmy Cabeza DeVaca (keyboards) and Jackie Monzon (drums) were adjusting to being on a recording schedule last year in Seattle with producer Phil Ek (Modest Mouse, the Shins, Built to Spill). And it was also missing the contributions of guitarist Kevin Morales, Joel's brother, who left the band after the first album.

"It's a little more immediate, a little more direct," Caballero says. "We didn't have time to make it as stoney or hyper-atmospheric as the first one. A lot of the songs were figured out in a matter of a couple days."

Some of the "stoney" flavor lingers in the drug references in Morales' lyrics. "We've had some laughs about that, because this is not a real big drug band," Caballero says, adding in a deadpan: "I can't say this is a message album."

What it might be is a steppingstone album, another row of bricks in the slow build of Dios (Malos). The quartet in November completed its first headlining tour, and next week it plays a couple of West Coast dates as a warmup for a trip to England for shows with the Shins and the Stills. Summer will bring more touring before the band sets out to make a third album -- which, it's likely, won't sound anything like the flavors of the month.

"We like all that music that doesn't sound anything like us," Caballero says, adding, tongue in cheek, "Maybe next time we'll make blues rock with drum machines and synth lines."

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Dios (Malos)

Where: Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $10

Info: (714) 635-6067; www.allages.com

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