Sound Check

Is it just me, or does it strike you as a bit unnerving that Pearl Jam is held up as modern rock's shining example of perseverance; that, these days, four releases equal a lengthy career -- or perhaps even more distressing, a career in its twilight?

After only three months in circulation, the band's latest CD, No Code, has been branded a commercial failure -- despite having sold almost 700,000 copies, a number that, while far below sales of previous Pearl Jam efforts, is hardly doom incarnate by most artists' standards. So is it realistic -- or responsible -- to be attaching an expiration date to the group, even if No Code does fall short of platinum? While Pearl Jam sees such forecasts as funny, the joke is lost on me.

It's also lost on some up-and-coming bands. You don't have to be a mental health professional to understand why "fear of success" has become rock's catchall phrase. When success arrives, it's all an artist can do to keep the vultures from circling. Backlash is not only inevitable these days, it's expected. Just look to the tepid response to 1995 platinum boys the Gin Blossoms, Weezer and the Presidents of the United States of America, all case studies in too much, too soon, with too little gas left in the tank.

Who will be 1997's Gin Blossoms -- or, if they're particularly lucky, this year's Pearl Jam? That's hard to say, what with grunge and its leftovers well into the final stages of decay and all this talk of rock's inevitable takeover by a newly empowered electronic underground. Sample-happy, hip-hop assimilators, cyber-cocktail doodlers and jungle-house Svengalis may command the boldest headlines this year, but it's a safe bet the old reliable guitar/bass/drums format will be there to reassert itself when the techno-novelty wears off. Rock's not dead, it's just hibernating -- and even sleeping animals show signs of life.

Those looking for reassurance could do worse than checking out some of the following releases, all from artists you might want to keep an eye on this year. Given the glut of competition, significant commercial success for any of these groups is hardly a foregone conclusion. And it's tough enough for new artists these days without some critic jinxing them with wild prognoses. But what the hell; that's my job.

And when it comes to the Richmond, Virginia trio Fulflej, I feel fairly comfortable doling out assurances, if only for the company they keep in the studio and the highly consistent sound the group has fashioned for Wack-Ass Tube Riff. On its debut CD, the group has the blessing -- and more -- of Smashing Pumpkins D'Arcy and James Iha, who lend a hand as co-producers, and even sing and play on a few tracks.

Fulflej is signed to D'Arcy and Iha's new Scratchie imprint, and it's hardly surprising that the two budding label entrepreneurs were taken by the band: Hooked as they are on the high drama of layered loud guitars, Fulflej sounds an awful lot like the Pumpkins -- even, it seems, when they're trying to shake off the connection. The band needn't worry, though. A giddy naivete, kidlike vocals and fat, funky rhythms congeal into a bittersweet paste to propel Wack-Ass toward its own weird niche -- one that manages the feat of being derivative, claymation cute and epically full of itself all at the same time. (***)

Speaking of weird, North Carolina's Jennyanykind has a tendency toward the more extreme boundaries of the term. Somehow, after conducting its twisted, genre-bending experiments in relative obscurity on the tiny No. 6 label for three years, this trio was able to land on Elektra for Revelator. But the label has to realize the group is no unqualified hit machine, lacking even the wink-wink novelty appeal of, say, Flaming Lips.

Indeed, Jennyanykind is about concentration and commitment, an emotional and intellectual devotion that pays off for the patient listener. Apply yourself to Revelator -- to its disjointed stew of seemingly incompatible ingredients -- and you'll be generously rewarded for your efforts, though you might also be somewhat drained. Few, if any, bands have entertained the thought of combining the more refined attributes of Randy Newman and the Kinks with the hippie-redneck orneriness of Meat Puppets and the Allman Brothers, let alone succeeded in doing so. Next R.E.M., anyone? (*** 1/2)

Stone Fox gathers up all the relevant girl-group cliches -- the sensual "do me" postures, the flashy strut, the decadent she-man cockiness -- and throws them all back in our faces with their eponymous Stone Fox. On-stage, the four-fifths-female quintet slams into its audience with an unholy visual union of Hole, the Runaways and Vixen. They're from Los Angeles, after all, a city that knows how to entertain with life-and-death vigor.

Funny, then, how the best moments on Stone Fox are its least explicit: the light strumming of an acoustic guitar, the high-pitched plucking of a bass, a bow running across violin strings with all the finesse of fingernails on a blackboard. All said and done, though, Stone Fox values restraint and melody as much as it does musical experimentation and the importance of playing both sides of the gender equation. Oh, and the band can play, too. (***)

On the more fresh-faced end of the scale, Cub are convincing avatars of cuddle-core, a warm and fuzzy sub-genre of all-girl guitar pop bands that includes ... umm, Cub, and maybe Sissy Bar. On their touchy-feely tuneful Box of Hair, the Canadian threesome aren't always as polite as they let on, but mostly they are. Sometimes they attempt a bit more naughtiness than suits their nature, cranking up the amps, singing about sex and porno stars and letting a four-letter word slip.

But such digressions seem like dress-up, the errant obscene digression so unconvincing that it makes the listener want to wave a disapproving finger at the group. Cub are most endearing when they stay focused on recasting the Go-Go's with some North Country grit, or, perhaps, Shonen Knife without the funny accents. (** 1/2)

There aren't any funny accents to be found in Love Nut either, though their music almost suggests there should be a slightly British lilt to the vocals. In a more just world, Love Nut would be trading Beatles references atop the charts with Oasis. But alas, this Baltimore quartet has placed itself in the slippery mitts of Interscope, a label seemingly incapable of breaking pop bands outside their respected regions of influence. And that's a shame -- in fact, it's more than a shame, it's criminal, seeing as how Bastards of Melody is a near flawless debut deserving of a wider audience (it's been available in stores since last summer). Nearly every track could be a single, and that's the intention: for each tune to stand on its own, chorus after indelible chorus.

Nitpickers might cite Love Nut's sleeve-worn debt to the Fab Four, which shows up most clearly in the Lennony vocal ticks of guitarists Andy Bopp and Max Mueller. Rarely, though, has a group waxed so nostalgic and sounded so timeless in spite of itself. Fast, furious and efficient (ten songs in just under 25 minutes), these thirtysomethings play as if they had been part of the British Invasion while in the womb.

Help a band that was built for bigger, better things; buy Bastards of Melody. And when you do, don't be alarmed by the liner notes. That gibberish posing as song lyrics is exactly what it appears to be: gibberish. (**** 1/2)

Presumably, the New York duo that calls itself Fountains of Wayne can tap the essence of the Beach Boys's unaffected charm at will. Other times, they come off like a less shrill They Might Be Giants, another smart-ass pop duo to which Fountains of Wayne owe a debt of gratitude.

Perky, well-scrubbed melodies notwithstanding, a frayed thread of tainted innocence runs through Fountains of Wayne. But the pair appears unable -- or unwilling -- to treat it with the seriousness it deserves. These guys take a song about suicide and self-destructive behavior ("She's Got a Problem") and make it all seem as harmless as a sunny day at the pool.

Then again, great pop songwriters have been trivializing human suffering since the dawn of the form, and, without a doubt, Fountains of Wayne is a songwriter's band. (Need references? Wayne's Adam Schlesinger penned the theme song for the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do! and founded the equally hook-literate band Ivy.) And while Fountains of Wayne is really only a half-fine debut, I've added a star for the simple reason that its first single, "Radiation Vibe," is actually receiving the airplay it deserves in Houston. (*** 1/2)

What sort of rock god grants Fountains of Wayne its shot at national success while largely brushing aside a Love Nut? Evidently the same god who assured Bush's sophomore release a spot in last week's Billboard Top Ten. Alas, in an imperfect world, justice is not an easy thing to come by. But thankfully, a simple, catchy chorus still is.

-- Hobart Rowland

***** Going somewhere fast
**** Going somewhere soon
*** Going somewhere eventually
** Going somewhere
* Just going

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Hobart Rowland