Descendents Ascendant

Some timing. Just when Green Day's lesser ilk have drained nearly every liter of urgency from punk's once-proud legacy, along comes a group of its more durable practitioners to apply defibrillator paddles to its lukewarm carcass. Those potential lifesavers are the Descendents, whose latest CD, Everything Sucks, has all the earmarks of comeback. Indeed, everything about punk's recent malaise sucks a little less when this Southern California four-piece is in the thick of it, spinning its caffeine-fueled circles around the younger, duller competition.

Punk's most discerning label these days, Epitaph, couldn't have made a wiser move than snatching up these snarling, hook-friendly misfits, who have always managed to bring a certain amount of dignity -- and velocity -- to their circumstances, no matter how unpleasant those circumstances might have been. The Descendents' tough-luck journey commenced in 1978, when Karl Alvarez (bass), Bill Stevenson (drums) and Stephen Egerton (guitar) got together for a short time as a power trio. One seven-inch single later, the band found its mouthpiece in Milo Aukerman, a bundle of edgy vibes whose snotty on-stage manner has never been a direct reflection of his considerable intelligence.

A rather churlish dissing of women and gays was all that tarnished what's still considered by many to be the Descendents' most radiant hard-core moment, 1982's Milo Goes to College. With melody, rage and breakneck speed in its favor, the disc was an instant classic. No matter what came next, the Descendents had their masterpiece. What did come next was Aukerman's decision to, well, go to college, which led to the Descendents' temporary disbanding and a crippling loss of momentum.

After a two-year break -- during which Stevenson joined fellow Left Coast punk icons Black Flag -- the Descendents reunited. But the energy had waned considerably. Even so, the Descendents kept humming along, making a handful of mediocre CDs and carving out a meager living playing clubs on the underground all-ages tour circuit. In 1987, Aukerman again left the band to feed his educational jones. But this time the remaining members decided to press on with a new name, All. That group's Descendents-minus-Milo routine, though, was redundant in the extreme, and a procession of sub-par lead vocalists did nothing to help its credibility.

Then, last year, Aukerman was back again, wielding a Ph.D. in plant biology and plenty of sorry-assed attitude. All of which brings us back to Everything Sucks, a bracing return to form for the Descendents and their best outing since Aukerman made his first exit. Think of the Descendents as punk's tardy messiahs. Pray for them, and maybe they'll offer up a little hard-core deliverance.

-- Hobart Rowland

The Descendents perform Thursday, March 13, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. With Suicide Machines and Shades Apart. 863-7173.

Cake -- Cake has become the unexpected source of a minor radio hit, thanks to the band's acerbic rendition of the Gloria Gaynor disco chestnut, "I Will Survive." With its reasonably straightforward arrangement, "I Will Survive" is the trendiest track on Fashion Nugget, the Sacramento, California quintet's new release, and the closest to pure novelty the group is likely to get -- on purpose, at least. Cake gives off the slightly musty odor of early Camper Van Beethoven, a keen awareness of life's ludicrous details helping to mask the reek of its studied musical eccentricities. Like Camper, Cake is often guilty of pushing its tongue-in-cheek agenda to unnecessary heights. Also like Camper, they know how to play, arriving at a signature timelessness by tossing Vincent di Fiore's trumpet into the strangest of instrumental scenarios. Cake's genre-mutation strategy involves country, funk, rap, rock, mariachi and a burlesquey cabaret camp. But lists mean little when attempting to describe the indescribable. For a better perspective, dip into Cake's exotic batter for yourself. At Numbers, 300 Westheimer, Thursday, March 13. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Dieselhed opens. 629-3700. (H.R.)

Irish Harp Celebration -- On the eve of St. Patrick's Day, the Mucky Duck celebrates a thousand-year Celtic heritage with a showcase of Houston's best Irish harpists. In recent years, Houston has become a hotbed for traditional Celtic music; while some performers and ensembles have leveraged a certain amount of commercial viability from that, most of the local Celtic musicians continue to play far more for love than for money. This is especially true of the harp players; traditional Irish harp is not a genre noted for lucrative record deals. But what matter commerce? Irish harp is beautiful and haunting music that swings from ethereal abstraction to raw, naked emotion. Bonnie Goodrich, Becky Baxter, Jane Hamman, Louise Trotter, Terese Weber, Diedre Hanson and Mary Radspinner may not be household names, but they are the best Irish harpists in town, and having them together under one roof offers a rare opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of St. Patrick's Day -- a true meaning that, it should be noted, has nothing to do with green beer. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, from noon to closing Sunday, March 16. No cover. 528-5999. (Jim Sherman


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Hobart Rowland
Jim Sherman