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The King loses his touch... It's time to celebrate a certain nightclub's newfound freedom from corporate bullying. December 30, Houston's Velvet Elvis and its sister bar in Dallas notched a victory for drinking establishments everywhere when a federal court issued a judgment forcing Elvis Presley Enterprises to take the nightclub off Graceland's hit list. That means the VE can keep the "Elvis" in its name and the black velvet painting of the singer on its wall without fear of more legal action from the Presley estate.

The loss is one of the few blemishes on EPE's track record of using litigation to take down unlicensed prey. "They've been pretty successful at shutting people down," says Velvet Elvis attorney Terry Fitzgerald. "Because of the kind of income they've got, they just keep on with unrelenting pressure. And it's tough to fight them."

Quiet in defeat, Mack Webner, the EPE attorney who handled the case, never returned my calls.

It took U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore a month to hand down a ruling that might have been decided after a good night's rest. But then, of course, there was a lot of writing to do: The judgment is a whopping 38 pages long. What it all boils down to is that EPE was unable to prove the Velvet Elvis guilty of trademark infringement, unfair competition or violation of the King's publicity rights. "They had to show that consumers were confused or that somehow we could tarnish Elvis's good name with our activities if they were unsavory or immoral," Fitzgerald says. "In reality, there really isn't any confusion between a bar with a '60s and '70s motif and the estate of Elvis Presley."

In defending VE's topless velvet paintings and liquor license, which EPE claimed soiled the spirit of the King, Fitzgerald replies simply, "Maybe Elvis wasn't an altar boy." Gilmore must have agreed.

Perhaps the plaintiff's most entertaining witnesses were three members of an Elvis Presley fan club in Austin, whom EPE maintained had been confused by the bar's ads into thinking that the Velvet Elvis was associated with EPE.

"We asked one lady during the trial how old she was, and she said, 'I'm 67 ... well, come to think of it, I'm 77,' " chuckles Fitzgerald. "She was confused, but I'm not sure Elvis and the Velvet Elvis weren't one of many things she was confused about. It got to be a circus."

Next up for the Velvet Elvis owner Barry Capece: reattaching the "lvis" to the moniker of his Dallas nightclub, which had been called the Velvet E. After that, look for Capece to take his cheesy enterprise outside Texas.

Raves and wave-offs... Houston boy Chris Hungate must have had his heart ripped out and minced by an entire squad of high school cheerleaders. Only that could explain the icy attitude toward members of the female persuasion that chills Secret Sunday's self-titled debut CD. Hungate, the band's chief songwriter, keyboardist and lead singer, wastes no time lashing out at those who never for a minute believed he'd be worshiped by anyone other than that chubby nerdette in physics class. On the lead-off "Superstar Sex Scandal," Hungate boasts, "I won't lie, I'm ambitious / I got looks to melt the kiddies / Your daughters will all love me / And get wet thinking of me." Yikes!

At first, I figured I'd give Secret Sunday the benefit of the doubt, considering what sounded like catchy and smart performances on their demo last year. Maybe this Hungate kid is just pulling my salami, I thought. Maybe he's simply making a statement -- a knock, perhaps, on the blase Oasises of this world. But alas, Secret Sunday wears out the notion of parody as Hungate (with help from guitarist Paul Lapuyade) continues a relentless bimbo-bashing tirade: "You're just another lover, with bruises on your knees / I wipe the lipstick off, there's no apologies," he snarls between farfisa-style organ breaks on "Smashed." On "Cool," he wishes he "could find a girl like me, so I could fuck her every now and then." Just three songs into the disc, and it's apparent Secret Sunday could use some coaching in subtlety, not to mention a little sit-down with an analyst.

Then there's the music, a cross section of familiar references to late-'80s/ early-'90s bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, the Stone Roses and the Charlatans that's duller here than I remembered it being on the demo -- though Hungate's goofy keyboards create something of a carnival atmosphere. But any resulting good times aren't nearly exciting enough to negate the disc's loathsome lyrics. The Urban Art Bar will host Secret Sunday's CD release party Saturday.

Houston singer/songwriter Linda Lowe has essentially been mining the same middling emotional territory for the last 14 years. After taking some time off to raise a family, it's back to business as usual on her latest CD, Little by Little. Lowe's lyrics have their lucid moments, but the opaque musical wrapping -- not really pop, not really country, not really folk, not really interesting -- snuffs their emotional impact, and her stiff delivery and limited range continue to induce eyelids to droop. In the more capable hands of, say, Wynona Judd, the catchy title track might have a shot at taking on Nashville. But as it is now: zzzzzz.

Etc.... The Sperlings mark the release of their debut CD, Glidepath to Normalcy, on the local Bronze Beagle label with a show Friday at Instant Karma. The CD boasts competent, if unmemorable, power-pop melodies, with intentions less self-absorbed than the band's primary influence, Big Star, but a bit more coherent and well-executed than those on Butterscotch and Chocolate, the recent solo effort by Sperlings bassist Carl Sandin.

-- Hobart Rowland

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