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The El Orbits

Live in Houston, Texas (Freedom Records)

Rock and roll has always been rife with rivalries: Beatles vs. Stones, Skynyrd vs. Neil, Leif vs. Shaun. But none measure up to the level of animosity and pure hatred between these two bands. And the El Orbits's recent victory as Best Cover Band in the 2002 Houston Press Music Awards has only stoked this flame of loathing.

As its title indicates, the El Orbits effort is a live disc, recorded at (where else?) the Continental Club. The core quartet includes David Beebe (lead vocals, drums), Paul Beebe (bass), Jim Henkel (guitar) and The Dazzling Pete Gray (keyboards). The band gets credit up front for picking mostly obscure or lesser-known standards for their "lounge sounds" format.

Highlights include a loose, jivey take on "The Trouble with Me is You"; a fragile, almost Chet Bakerish "Mamselle"; and the dance-floor clincher "When I Fall in Love." But the band really puts its stamp on upbeat numbers, including a great version of the '70s King Harvest hit "Moonlight Feels Right" and a raw, raucous take on Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans." In fact, it begs the question of why the band didn't El Orbitize more rock numbers rather than focus on jazz and blues standards.

The El Orbits look to play matador to their mortal foes, the hard-charging El Toros.
The El Orbits look to play matador to their mortal foes, the hard-charging El Toros.
The El Orbits look to play matador to their mortal foes, the hard-charging El Toros.
The El Orbits look to play matador to their mortal foes, the hard-charging El Toros.

Overall, the band plays it way too safe. The frequent by-the-book arrangements aren't representative of the El Orbits' more adventurous shows, and the crowd noise is minimal. As per El Orbits band rules, everyone has to sing a little. But as vocalists, several of them make great instrumentalists. Still, the CD is a solid souvenir for fans and good introduction for neophytes. Next time, the Orbits should just loosen those trademark neckties a little bit.

By contrast, the El Toros are all about gleeful abandon on their EP, which features mostly surf instrumentals performed by the ubiquitous, antic surfgali Allen Hill (vocals, guitar), Joe "Teen Idol" Earthman (drums) and Charlie Knight (bass). By its very nature, of course, this genre is pretty limited in terms of musical expression, but the band manages to infuse some variety in energetic riffin' tracks like "Toros Stomp" (with a Guess Who-like middle section) and "Edged Out," which could qualify as a long lost Duane Eddy ditty. "Aladdin's Amp," on the other hand, and the vocal number "Lock" sound generic by comparison.

Ironically, the record's best tracks are those that stay out of the breakers. Hill's warbled "Window of Love" is a Frug-inducing all-American revenge fantasy that takes "Silhouettes" to a more delinquent level. And the instrumental "Candy Shop," driven by Hill's atmospheric Farfisa organ and a simple but memorable core riff, is a joy.So for fear of receiving death threats and hideously juvenile prank phone calls from either of these bands or their rabid fan bases, this reviewer will refrain from calling a clear winner between these arch-enemies on their latest releases. Suffice it to say, both offer good time pills in three-minute doses. And that's El-ementary.

 
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