Though neither band hails from anywhere near Houston, the labels on which they've released their debuts do. They also have another thing in common: Each quartet wears its influences on its sleeve like a NASCAR driver throwin' props to his corporate sponsors; each takes a "classic" rock sound and updates it for modern ears.
Chicago's New Constitution raises the specters of Badfinger and the Kinks with its good-time blasts of power pop accentuated with punchy guitar work and meaty power chords. Twins Mike (guitar) and Dan (drums) Marsden, singer-guitarist Mike Downey and singer-bassist Dan Brown kick out the jams (and actually sing that line) on tracks such as "No Easy Way," "Lies About It" and "Constitution." Even lighter fare like "Shook Last Night" and the country-tinged "Country Life" have a glow about them, like they'd be the coolest band to ever play a high school dance circa 1974. They also find common ground with recent acts like Sahara Hotnights and the Mooney Suzuki, as in the On 4 closer, "Hot Flashes." Unfortunately, the vocal mix is buried here, which mars an otherwise strong debut from these mod Mods.
Nashville's Stroller, a poppier Raspberries-style treat, shows a keener grasp of songwriting. Singer Jon Nicholson, guitarist Adam Schoenfeld, bassist Dean Tomasek and drummer Tommy Williams fuse psychedelia, bubblegum and country on sunny, lolling tracks like "Love Is Alright," "On To Somethin'" and "Sunshine." But the best track on this debut EP is "Janitor Man," a deceptively upbeat-sounding character study of the seething rage we know exists in the guy who mops up puke and empties trash in the high school halls. "I'm the janitor man / just cleaning the can," Nicholson sings. "I've been through your locker / and I know your name." And though he tells the students, "you're gonna end up just like me," it's unclear whether he means it as a friendly warning or a spiteful threat.
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Both the New Constitution and Stroller enter an already crowded field of like-minded acts for whom the Nuggets and Have A Nice Day compilations are required listening, but neither of these bands is hemmed in by the "retro" tag. How much of an impression they can make, though, even a Magic 8-Ball can't predict.