Release activity... "People who've known us for years have associated us with salsa and merengue, [and] we wanted to be able to expand our market beyond this city" says Walter Suhr, referring to Pop/Rock, his new CD with Mango Punch!. "We wanted people to know that we're taking an entirely new direction that is a little bit more middle of the road."

But to tell the truth, little about this immaculately produced ten-tune outing (the follow-up to 1994's Mango Punch!) actually rocks -- unless you consider a droll spackling of edgeless electric guitar on a few cuts tantamount to kicking out the jams. Even then, the mechanized rhythm tracks sap what little raw impulse might have been implied by those tougher elements in the first place. Suhr's version of a sweaty rock and roll epiphany likely comes bathed in Fahrenheit cologne.

Which is just as well, really, because Pop/Rock is, more than anything else, a triumph of style over substance. Sung completely in Spanish, Suhr's compositions tackle a host of sounds -- sweeping balladry, lite hip-hop, and reggae, salsa and other exotic strains -- while never straying far from friendly, conventional hooks. That easily ingested formula has worked well for the Guatemala-born Suhr and Mango Punch!, the live version of which includes Bolivia native Julio Cespedes on bass, Venezuelan singer Mele Avellan and a varying lineup of local sidemen. By and large, it's allowed them to hurdle racial and cultural barriers with relative ease, earning them a healthy, tight-knit Houston fan base.

"Pop/Rock helps us bring out that variety we've always been known for," explains Suhr, a winsome vocalist and competent multi-instrumentalist trained in piano, guitar, percussion and computer sequencing.

A 1989 graduate of the University of St. Thomas, Suhr assembled Mango Punch! in the early '90s; the band made its live debut at Salsa on the Plaza in the summer of 1991. Since then, the group has moved forward at a steady clip, varying in size over the years as it made a name for itself performing at countless festivals, nightclubs (Elvia's, Rockefeller's, Q Cafe) and high-profile private parties. Last year, Punch! flew to Guatemala, Suhr's homeland, where they made TV and radio appearances and performed at the Fiestas de Octubre. As for what comes next, Suhr has a few ideas: "We think [Pop/Rock] has the potential to be the first pop album in Spanish to come out of Houston and make it internationally -- much like La Mafia was the first Tejano act."

Immodest goals, indeed. Suhr and Punch! celebrate the release of Pop/Rock Thursday at Sempers.

Also ringing in the new this week is Ceili's Muse offshoot SixMileBridge. The Celtic folk/rock outfit performs two shows Saturday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck to welcome the release of its debut CD, Across the Water, which focuses on both the ancient and recent music of Ireland and Scotland.

-- Hobart Rowland

Have a comment, tip, compliment or beef? E-mail Hobart Rowland at [email protected].