Sound Check

In a decade that's quickly becoming the era of the signing frenzy, a year hasn't gone by without its lion's share of overlooked releases -- and 1995 is no exception. For those inquiring ears that care to listen, plenty of swell music exists that simply got swept under the rug this year. Frequently, a brilliant debut is buried in the hail of hype surrounding the success of another release -- often on the same label -- or one of the ever-increasing number of indies just can't scrape together a decent marketing campaign and adequate distribution for a CD deserving of that and more. For every Alanis Morissette or Silverchair, you can be sure that five to ten Sal's Birdlands or Smackmelons -- two of the acts you should have heard of in '95 but probably didn't -- will slip through the cracks.

It took the Goo Goo Dolls eight years to find a hit, and even then, they had to muster up a wimpy sentimental ballad ("Name") to pull it off. Though it's been more than a decade since their first release, the less informed still believe the Meat Puppets' career began in 1993 with "Backwater." The same time-will-tell fate awaits the ten acts addressed below. None of them are so obscure that they're invisible; some even have lucrative deals with the industry giants. Yet they remain the year's great little-knowns, which doesn't say a lot for the PR firepower of the big boys, or else suggests that the vast listening audience out there hasn't been very vast in its listening selection. So listen up to these.

Blue Mountain, Dog Days: An indie label perhaps more notable for its mind-numbing metal acts, Roadrunner is also behind one of the more satisfying roots-rock debuts of the year. This Mississippi trio -- two guys and a girl -- may not offer much in the way of originality, but it more than makes up for its hand-me-down ideas with its homey spirit and humble tunefulness. On Dog Days, old-fashioned Southern rock goodness coddles lovingly told stories of friendships and home (the only overt political views come in a song praising Jimmy Carter). Memories of good times and bad times surface amidst a familiar cache of Skynyrd-fried riffs and warm, worked-in melodies reminiscent of Neil Young's Harvest. Lost in the herd of efforts from fellow Middle Americans Wilco, Son Volt and the Bottlerockets, Blue Mountain's Dog Days could turn out to be the prized calf that got away. (****)

Jennyanykind, Mythic: Neatly packaging semi-indulgent rock-opera dramatics for the Pearl Jam nation, Jennyanykind takes art-rock experimentalism to unseen vistas of hip. A song cycle of sorts, Mythic justifies its Sonic Youth-ish dawdling and occasional atonal sloth with some memorable choruses, tight playing and proper respect for its elders (note the spiraling lick copped from the Who's Tommy on the title track). You'll be hard-pressed to figure out what Mythic's all about. Is it a reflection on mortality? Philosophical tips for befuddled Generation Xers? The muddled musings of a hung-over post-grad? A heaping pile of nonsense? Likely a little bit of each. Screw the myths; listen and be illuminated. (***)

Drivin' N' Cryin', Wrapped in Sky: You'd think DGC, Nirvana's former and Drivin' N' Cryin's current label, could get behind these guys with a little more purpose. Of course, Island, the band's label for nine years, didn't have a clue as to how to market the band's often puzzling eclecticism -- that is, until the group made its ill-advised side trip into heavy rock. That nonsense out of its system, Drivin' N' Cryin' -- now a trio after the exit of guitarist Buren Fowler -- is back to wandering comfortably all over the map, and it seems that band leader Kevn Kinney has reconciled his troubadour folkie tendencies with an acoustic-electric sound that's as organic as it is epic. Much like 1989's Mystery Road, Wrapped in Sky is loaded with plainspoken rural drama and intriguing, multidimensional characters. Kinney's lyrical sweep is equaled by a web of styles on a recording that moves gracefully from heartache-style balladry to bruising bar-band rock to assertive mid-tempo shuffles. (***1/2)

Dead Hot Workshop, 1001: Coming of age in the considerable shadow of their million-selling pals, the Gin Blossoms, this Tempe, Arizona, band is dispensing some of the most uniquely Southwestern sounds to come out of the desert state since the Sidewinders. 1001, Dead Hot Workshop's major-label debut, sports the gritty, sandblasted edge the Blossoms lack, not to mention a blazing bounty of hooks. Dead Hot's reluctant leader Brent Babb carries the soul of a seasoned storyteller and the attitude of a street punk; his lyrics and whoop-and-whine delivery are at times graceful, at times blunt. As for the music, it smacks of the proper mixed bag of country, folk and rock influences -- Neil Young, Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings -- while keeping its '90s garage-band relevance in check with nods to the Replacements and HYsker DY. Incidentally, "A," 1001's lead track and a rapturous, grungy three minutes of letter-perfect folk-pop, is the great lost modern-rock single of 1995. (****)

Moonpools and Caterpillars, Lucky Dumpling: It's unlikely Moonpools and Caterpillars will go unnoticed for long. Not that this Los Angeles quartet is throwing any unexpected punches with its half-skewed, mildly impressionistic power-pop. And they have hardly got a corner on the artsy, female-fronted college-band market. But the group does have a few undeniable strikes in its favor: breezy hooks to spare, a giddy, irrepressible female vocalist with a heart of gold and a playful outlook on life. All of it spills over like an endearing, infectious goo onto Lucky Dumpling's peppy, well-structured songs. Granted, the group's Blake Babies-on-speed sound can provoke the occasional longing for a guest appearance by Juliana Hatfield, but chalk that up to inexperience. A band could do a lot worse. (***)

Naked Prey, And Then I Shot Everyone: There must be something about the blistering Arizona sun that does weird things to enterprising young musicians, many of whom converge in Tucson, where Giant Sand and other freewheeling nut cases work through their testy C&W improvisation and backward prose undisturbed by commercial reality. Now it appears heat stroke has taken its toll on Naked Prey's Van Christian; it's the only way to explain how he can spit out troubled little couplets such as "I was walking around in a real by way / I had my head in the oven and my hands in the cake" like so much after-dinner conversation. Unfazed by their leader's dwindling sanity and disturbing mutant drawl, the rest of the band proceeds through And Then I Shot Everyone's 11-song litany of hard luck and bone-dry New West anecdotes with the jacked-up glee of an addle-brained Rolling Stones deep in the throes of substance abuse. This is the perfect musical companion piece for Sunday picnics at the nuclear test site. (***)

True Infidels, Waiting on Angels: While critics looked elsewhere for a savior to pick up the torch of the earnest heartland rocker, San Antonio's True Infidels quietly went about recording some of the best music the BoDeans never wrote. Waiting on Angels is a gorgeous half-hour tease, a modest marvel of roots-conscious ingenuity that works even better once you get past the thin production and singer/songwriter Mikael Martin's pronounced obsession with all things Bob Dylan. Through much of the CD, Martin's pinched whine and muttered phrasing are a dead ringer for Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan. In fact, these powerful, economical vignettes, which wax movingly poetic in their noble suffering, could be outtakes from that mid-'70s work. Consider that a compliment of the highest order. (***1/2)

Wakeland, Magnetic: Only rarely does a band wear its power-pop heart on its sleeve to such thrilling effect as Wakeland does on this major-label debut. Think Gin Blossoms without the Byrdsy twang, or Big Star with a light coating of grunge, and you've pretty much nailed where this Okie quartet is coming from. Give it a few listens; once Wakeland's hooks sink in, the relentlessly catchy Magnetic will cling to your brain. (***)

The Beat Farmers, Manifold: This isn't the best Beat Farmers release (that honor goes to their 1983 Tales of the New West debut), but Manifold is a sturdy ride most of the way. More important, it's the last Beat Farmers release to feature the brazen, backwoods flair of drummer/vocalist/ songwriter Country Dick Montana, who died of a heart attack on-stage in Canada two months ago. A minor move forward in a more accessible direction, Manifold is the San Diego band's fifth studio album in 12 years, and it burns fresh punk-o-billy rubber while maintaining a rock-solid steadiness. In many ways, Manifold is the Beat Farmers' most mature release to date -- if you can call anything this irreverent bunch does "mature" -- and it deserves more than a cult-fave's showing. (**1/2)

Spookey Ruben, Modes of Transportation Vol. 1: To a certain degree, Spookey Ruben is to the '90s what Thomas Dolby was to the '80s: a technologically endowed loner blessed with an intelligence and breadth of imagination a mite too expansive for his own good. But Ruben is already more successful than Dolby ever was at translating the alien sounds and visions in his head into remarkably listenable product for consumption by we average humans. And his outright mastery of the pop idiom makes this homemade work hum with the vitality of a minor masterpiece. Spookey is about as out there and off-beat as nerdy bedroom geniuses come, bless his mutant little heart. (****) -- Hobart Rowland

***** Precious and unmined
**** A nugget left in the pan
*** Not 24 karat, but worthy
** Shined up, it makes a nice paperweight
* Fool's gold

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