Houston Music

Ashbury Keys

Ashbury Keys' drive to become a full-fledged pop-rock force has taken a significant step forward with the release of Dancers, the Houston band's second CD and the first recorded by the complete live lineup. Whereas part of the appeal of Ashbury's self-titled debut lay in the '50s-style simplicity of much of the material, Dancers keeps the structures stripped down but boasts a distinctly modern feel; a buried punk-pop replaces the subliminal doo-wop ambience.

Excellent songwriting and singing, however, remain the mainstays of the Ashbury Keys sound. Front man David Keys is possessed by a most generous pop muse. On songs like "Better Than Nothing" and "Someday," the combination of instant hooks, a simple melody and lovelorn lyrics has rarely worn better. Each track stands exactly where it needs to be to get the girls (and the boys chasing them) listening with rapt attention.

The title track has a more visceral appeal. With its fluffy '80s vibe, the tale of drugs, rock and roll, and jailbait in G-strings is rendered into a pretty harmless romp. "Wanna Be Down" is the disc's most driving rocker, pairing a heads-down groove with the closed-circle lyric "sometimes I don't wanna be like you / but I know I want to ask you why." "Vietnam," on the other hand, features one of the album's strongest melodies but combines it with an overly obscure metaphor about extending yourself only to get your legs chopped out from under you. Then again, maybe it's literal…

Regardless of the lyrics, though, Keys's vocals are strong and poppy. Alex Tittel's lead guitar work is flashy enough to catch the ear, yet always sensitive to the music. His tone could be bottled and marketed to any number of bands attempting to make sincere, commercially viable rock. Much the same can be said of the rhythm section of drummer Darwin Keys and bassist Bill Walter.

When the harmonies of the Keys brothers and Walter are thrown into the mix, the final piece of the puzzle snaps neatly into place. For many bands, background vocals seem either obligatory or overly stylized. Not these guys. The blend of voices in Ashbury Keys is a vital component of their sound. Moreover, Will Hoffman's full, clean production allows such a natural phenomenon to occur easily, accurately projecting the material rather than squelching or distorting it.

Even the songs that don't grab your attention immediately do so after a few spins. It's tough to find a guitar-pop CD as consistently good as Dancers. If you want to be ahead of your radio, buy it now.

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Chris Smith