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Jackets optional... Just by looking at All Mod Cons in their casual, everyday attire, you'd never think them capable of the sort of cocktail jazz-pop fusion to which they aspire -- and often achieve -- on their local debut CD, Romp! Three-fourths of the band are graduates of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, so you know their chops are in the right place. But personality and feel are not things typically learned in a classroom or recital hall. So you have to wonder where All Mod Cons found enough of both to pull off such a varied and mature first effort. Could it have been the matching stage apparel that inspired them?

"They're about a thousand degrees," says guitarist Jean-Paul Vest of the paisley-patterned jackets the band members wear live, making them look as if they just came from a wedding gig. "We could show up in blue jeans and T-shirts like everyone else, but that would be boring. The jackets are good for a laugh or two, then after the first couple of songs, people get into the music."

The duds may imply otherwise, but All Mod Cons don't play dinner music. Their semi-hip mix of quirky prose, tight playing and chipper, mildly exotic melodies provokes comparisons to everyone from Joe Jackson to relative newcomers such as the Ben Folds Five and Barenaked Ladies. Like those acts, All Mod Cons are eclectic and schooled in their tastes, and they have the subtle ability to swing on the occasions when rocking would be inappropriate.

"I played jazz for years and years; I didn't start playing rock until about five years ago," says drummer James Edwards, whose punchy, involved playing steers Romp! in all sorts of cool and unexpected directions. "We like to call ourselves pop; that's really what we are."

Edwards' assessment seems accurate. The overly critical could argue that Romp! highlights such as "Optional Fanfare," "Darien," "Subtle Precision" and "Engine with No Fuel" imply more good ideas than they actually pull off. They could also argue that Romp! is only half interesting, with the best tunes and performances coming in the first portion of the CD, leaving the rest of it bogged down in less snappy material. There's also the production, which doesn't lend itself well to the song's subtle arrangements. With all the mixing for Romp! done on computer, the overall effect is flat and unnatural, and the vocal tracks are pushed forward in the mix with an uncomfortable intimacy, while the music is left to langish unjustly in the background. Adding to the problem is Kevin Bessington's singing, which is mannered and dull, virtually the polar opposite of his lively and accomplished work on keyboards.

Still, the innate catchiness of the tunes manages to shine through, a minor triumph given the time that went into making the CD. With a tiny budget and only a few days to work, All Mod Cons recorded most of the songs in just one or two takes in the living room of producer/friend Doug Robertson. "If it sounded okay and the levels were good, we kept it," says Vest. "We didn't have time to mess around."

Vest is the newest member of All Mod Cons, who, as you might think, borrowed their name from the Jam songbook. Edwards, lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Bessington (whose mom made the band jackets) and bassist Chris McFarland started the band in 1995 from the remnants of the reasonably popular Houston group Elevator Up. Formed right out of high school, Elevator Up lasted seven years and recorded a cassette, Dream Come True. But as time went by, says Edwards, the band's core audience moved on.

"When we were Elevator Up, we played a lot of faster songs, and we played just about everywhere in Houston," he says. "But we're older and much more focused now. Kevin is playing more keyboards, where before he was just playing guitar."

All Mod Cons show signs of their age in other ways. All nearing 30 and with jobs and careers outside of music, they perform sparingly (by choice, they claim, not for lack of gigs), and their sound lends itself to a mellow, slightly older crowd. Lately, a favorite venue for the group has been Mary Jane's, where they perform this Saturday.

"We're not your typical bar band," says Edwards. "We've always been slackers -- never really pursuing an audience and trying to market ourselves. I think there's a big audience out there for us. It's just a matter of finding them."

Release activity... Dune, TX has reserved this Friday evening at the Urban Art Bar for a show in honor of its new six-song CD, Where Everything's Groovy, a nice little neo-psychedelic surprise that deserves a plug. Through chemical means unknown, this Houston trio has found itself a special place where merely average rock songs are transmogrified with the aid of dated guitar effects and tonally indifferent vocals into something less indulgent -- and more inventive and interesting -- than you'd ever imagine possible from a band named after a large pile of sand. One tune, "Sunlight" (my favorite), even sounds like a cross between America and Smashing Pumpkins -- if you can fathom that sort of stylistic hybrid. I'm still trying to figure out if these guys are serious, or if this is just some kind of well-executed anti-hippie joke. Either way, partake in its stoned-silly beauty.

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