Velocity Girl
Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts
Sub Pop

Female-fronted alt rock bands may be a dime a dozen on MTV these days, but they've hardly been a common commodity at Sub Pop, the Seattle-based record label largely responsible for birthing grunge. Back in 1992, Sub Pop was busy nurturing Mudhoney, the Supersuckers and other guy bands when along came Velocity Girl, a nerdy fivesome from the other Washington (D.C., that is) led by a self-absorbed cutie with a fragile voice. Velocity Girl's boatload of hooks, amateurish command of their instruments and overall puppy-dog appeal struck the right Sub Pop people the right way, and the band was signed, becoming the label's first foray into more delicate musical realms.

Make no mistake about it: Velocity Girl is a pop band -- and a fantastic one, at that. The group did its best to combat that image at first, trying an artsy grunge approach on its 1993 debut, Copacetic, but they simply couldn't keep away from the catchy choruses and glistening melodies. The second time around, on 1994's Simpatico, Velocity Girl opted to surrender to its strong points, and the results were miles more convincing.

Now, on Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts, Velocity Girl offers 14 songs of slightly lesser merit than those on Simpatico, but delivers them with an energy and confidence mostly missing on that release. On Simpatico, Velocity Girl gave in to its pop instincts somewhat blindly; here, the group exhibits more mastery over those innate gifts, rattling off one graceful bundle of self-realization after another.

Gilded Stars isn't perfect (though it comes close about half the time), but it'll likely grab the attention of more listeners than its predecessor. It's hard not to picture a single or two from Gilded Stars on the airwaves by summer. In the meantime, buy the CD -- just so you can say that you saw it coming. -- Hobart Rowland

The Mermen
Songs of the Cows
Mesa/Blue Moon

Sure, surf music is cool -- but this is not surf, and it's also not cool. The second CD from the Mermen, California's hippest instrumental "alterna-surf" band, seeks to combine the grit and urgency of the best '60s wave-riding instrumentals with the raw emotion of modern-day grunge. The opening track, "Curve," is melodic and fiery, suggesting the band is indeed capable of exploring the narrow intersection of their chosen genres. Unfortunately, that track is where the fun ends. The rest of Songs of the Cows stumbles headlong into the dreary self-indulgence and technical shortcomings that mar much of what's dubbed alternative these days. This move is made even more tedious by a drift away from melodies and into long-winded, pointless musical noodlings. The CD's most vividly painful moment comes with "A Heart with Paper Walls," the musical equivalent of a migraine.

A vital part of the success of luminaries such as Link Wray and the Ventures was their sense of humor. Intentional or not, kitsch has always been a staple of surf music, which has worked best when aiming at the lower levels of listener response -- such as laughing, dancing and humming along. Instead, with Songs of the Cows, we get an excruciating ten-and-a-half-minute, four-part guitar suite called "Brain Wash." Not even a bad case of surfer's dementia is enough to make such overkill interesting. -- Gerard Choucroun

The Mermen perform Thursday, March 14, at the Urban Art Bar.

Bessie Smith
The Complete Recordings, Vol. 5 -- The Final Chapter

Legacy has tried its best to create five double-CD box sets featuring every known recording of Bessie Smith. Unfortunately, Smith's catalog only contains enough tracks for nine worthwhile discs. That ninth CD starts The Final Chapter with such ribald classics as "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" and "Do Your Duty" alongside unissued takes of arguably the greatest blues singer of all time belting out W.C. Handy tunes such as "Yellow Dog Blues" and "Careless Love Blues." It's incredible. It's Bessie.

However, listening to the tenth and final CD of this alleged tribute is enough to send goodhearted music critics searching through their stores of taped interviews to find and destroy any that contain those deep, dirty secrets that were none of their business in the first place -- especially the ones that could cause pain to the performer's loved ones. Instituted earlier, such a policy might have saved us from having to suffer through such travesties as Legacy's tenth Bessie Smith CD, which offers 70 minutes of "highlights" from interviews with Smith's niece Ruby Smith. A transcript of this interview may or may not be of anecdotal historical value; it's never been much of a secret that this great singer was a woman of great appetites. But exactly how much detail about those appetites is a historical necessity is debatable; at some point, the historic becomes prurient. This CD goes past that point, and its only perceivable function is to titillate mouth-breathing adolescents of all ages. This "interview" is pornographic in the most exploitative sense of the word. I don't know how much interviewer Chris Albertson was paid to allow this filth to be issued alongside Smith's immortal voice, but his check was short three dollars in dimes. -- Jim Sherman

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Gerard Choucroun
Hobart Rowland
Jim Sherman