The Presidents of the United States of America
Columbia Records

Waiting for the arrival of the Presidents's sophomore effort, after the pleasant Top 40 experience that was the Seattle band's eponymous 1995 debut, was a little like anticipating Men at Work's second release, Cargo. The first one was great, no question, but it never seemed the kind of great to sustain a career, and if the next one never showed up, well, really, who would miss it?

As it turns out, Cargo hit the Top Ten in a matter of weeks, and even if II doesn't duplicate the success of the Presidents's debut (it may well), it's at least as good an outing as its predecessor -- or Cargo, for that matter. Anyone with even a small music collection will recognize a chunk of the stadium rock references the Presidents quote in their meta-frat-boy assault. But you'd have to have hidden your head in that old LP crate for years not to enjoy this band's ... I don't know, call it "gleeful appropriation."

If the Presidents were at all worried about escaping typecast as a borderline novelty band, they don't let it show here. "Puffy Little Shoes" is at least as goofy as "Lump," the hit that introduced the trio to the public last year (and with a neat little dig at Urge Overkill -- where are they now? -- in the bargain). Instead of "Peaches," we've got "Froggie," "Twig" and "Bug City" levitating atop their own lightheartedness.

Throughout II, the Presidents come off totally unimportant, clever and unassuming -- except, that is, when they proclaim, on "Ladies and Gentlemen Part I," "Hello ladies and gentlemen ... let's rok." There's no exclamation point in the printed lyrics, but it's there in the speakers. And it works, since they do ... rok. (**** 1/2)

-- Brad Tyer

Social Distortion
White Light, White Heat, White Trash

It's bound to happen sometime, somewhere: A neo-punk brat sporting blue hair and an Offspring T-shirt comes home from the mall, plops his butt down on the sofa and switches on his MTV. There, he finds the latest Social Distortion video, "I Was Wrong," emanating from his dad's 35-inch Sony Trinitron. "What is this shit?" the kid mutters to himself. "This stuff is a rip-off."

Hardly. Social D has been spitting out seething punk vignettes since the early 1980s, when the West Coast punk scene was still swaddled in diapers. Now, the band returns with White Light, White Heat, White Trash, its first disc in more than four years, largely putting aside the outlaw country twang that predominated its last few releases in favor of its hard-core roots.

But unlike past efforts, the new Social D finds frontman Mike Ness crooning about God. Wonder how the blue-haired kid likes them apples? As if Ness could care less. Whether the youngsters understand or not, Social D has come roaring back with a raw and rocking tribute to its maker -- a little thanks to the big guy, perhaps, for pulling it through the early years of booze, drugs and prison cells.

But don't go assuming that Social Distortion has gone soft. Bravado still prevails on White Light; it's just a little deeper, a little kinder, even a little gentler. And while it might not be particularly hip to be humble in punk circles these days, Social D has more excuses than most to count its blessings in public. (****)

-- Sam Weller
Social Distortion performs Friday, November 22, at the Abyss.

The V-Roys
Just Add Ice

E-Squared is Steve Earle's fledgling label, and Knoxville, Tennessee's V-Roys are Earle's first signing, which wouldn't be worth mentioning if the V-Roys didn't sound so much like a Tennessee band weaned on the Earle teat. But they do, and for those of us who think there are too few Steve Earles (and it's not just heroin dealers who think that way anymore), Just Add Ice eases a significant part of our pain.

The V-Roys keep a certain distance from the Wilco/Son Volt axis of neo-country with their Vanderbilt Mod suit-and-club-tie image. But like mentor/producer Earle, the band has one ear fine-tuned to the crossroads roadhouse where country and rock mix it up. While any group can turn down the amps and slog through a set of country "inspired" rockers, the V-Roys have a secret weapon in their lyrics. "Goodnight Loser," to choose one blistering example, concerns someone sitting on a hard barstool watching a beloved twirl with another, presumably less suitable, beau: "When you dance with him, I see losers win / And the losers aren't who they're supposed to be / When you dance with him, I see you blend / Into who you are supposed to be/ When you dance with him, the time you spend / Begins to turn you into something cheap." Ever been there? (****)

-- Brad Tyer

Matchbox 20
Yourself or Someone Like You

Last time I checked, Counting Crows was moving tons of product, but the group hadn't, as yet, left the sort of indelible crater on the modern-rock landscape that would warrant a living tribute, especially one this flat.

Apparently Matchbox 20 sees it differently -- unless, of course, this young southeastern quintet actually believes it's discovered boundless creative wealth within the worn-out crannies of Yourself or Someone Like You's crusty folk rock melodies, blubbering introspection and turgid AOR grooves. Or maybe I'm just getting old and cynical. (* 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

K's Choice
Paradise in Me
Sony 550

Belgium has given us something special in alt-pop rookies K's Choice. On Paradise in Me, the Antwerp quartet threads stinging guitars through wordy verses, then falls almost silent in service to a moment of reckoning or a single voice, shifting shapes without seams or circumstance. It all may seem a bit too smart for American radio, but band leaders Gert and Sarah Bettens have taken care to sprinkle in plenty of hooks, just in case.

K's Choice is a band R.E.M. might want to be watching in its rear-view mirror, as both groups find inspiration in the dank, dark basement of the soul, and give it back in brash and whimsical ways. But despite the close, wistful harmonies, the mix of electric and acoustic instruments and the spiraling lyrical candor, K's Choice isn't, by any means, a copy of America's Fab Four. The Bettens siblings have forged a distinctive sound built like a fortress around Sarah's husky voice and intricate lyrics.

Paradise in Me begins darkly and potently with "Not an Addict," the group delving into the language of drug-induced euphoria: "The deeper you stick it in your vein / The deeper the thoughts, there's no more pain / I'm in heaven, I'm a god / I'm everywhere, I feel so hot." When she's not exploring the intangibles of desire, Bettens diverts her attention to more cautionary tales such as "My Record Company," with its deadpan dismissal of music-biz types as smelling "like food that has gone bad."

You'd suspect that the group's label doesn't really mind the jab, what with Paradise in Me chugging toward platinum in the band's home country, its following growing in Europe and a recent opening slot on Alanis Morrisette's stateside tour. We hope we'll soon be hearing a lot of more of K's Choice on this side of the pond. (****)

-- Robin Myrick
K's Choice performs Friday, November 22, at Fitzgerald's.

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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Robin Myrick
Hobart Rowland
Brad Tyer
Sam Weller