Engine 88
Clean Your Room

It must be written in some Music 101 textbook that good rock and roll should devote at least one-third of its content to cars. The genre's canon is virtually gridlocked with big, flashy cruising machines, from the tailfinned gas guzzlers of rock's nascent period to the hot rod that Jesus built for Al Jourgenson. It's not surprising, though: Cars function as the perfect metaphor for the spirit of speed, rebellion and youthful freedom that the music embodies. The Beach Boys definitely read said tome -- hell, they practically built a career on it. So, no doubt, did the locals of Engine 88, though I suspect they didn't finish it. Judging from Clean Your Room, the band's Caroline debut, Engine leader Tom Barnes gave it a few quick thumb-throughs right before he crammed for his Existential Poetry final.

Not that this disc isn't good. The music is appropriately, well, driving: Drummer David Hawkins and bassist Eric Knight establish a palpitating pulse while Damon Wood wrings some light guitarorrism out of his fuzzy axe -- but Barnes isn't out joy riding. There's an urgency that borders on desperation running through his songs, and one can't be sure if he's racing to -- or from -- the fragmented images that litter his lyrical vista. The frenetic "Mangos" opens with Barnes declaring that he's "washing off the back seat of my car ... washing off the stains with Turtle Wax/ Goodbye, old memories," while the next verse offers up a chunk of Kafkaesque psychosexual imagery: "My stepdad takes me fishing on the weekends/ I don't remember sleeping/ His rod comes apart in pieces/ I don't like my stepdad, really." On "GTO," he's speeding, "So fast, out of gas," and fretting that "it's gonna take me down." Talk about yer white-knuckle rides. On "Twenty," the dolorous closer, Barnes lays down a few final skid marks on the Highway to Hades: "Hell is a place where we've all spent time/ I've been known to stay there all night." I hope he's enjoying the scenery, at least.

-- Tim Kenneally
Engine 88 plays an SF02 showcase Sat, May 20, at Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 621-4455.

The Mermen
A Glorious Lethal Euphoria
(Toadophile Records)

Being in a surf band must be rough in this town, the cult of Ocean Beach notwithstanding. There you stand with your punk rock friends, an angry guitar-playing misfit declaring that you feel at one with the archetypal sea, like every pensive beach bum and his bandanna-wearing dog. Oh, the temptation to save face with satire -- say some tongue-in-cheek tribute to Dick Dale. Thank Neptune for the Mermen, who aren't too self-conscious to keep their surf rock straight-up and rolling. Sure, you can plunk A Glorious Lethal Euphoria on the stereo, close your eyes and picture one too many dudes riding an easy and reverb-laden whoosh to the shore, but the Mermen twist the genre around with a mean and gripping psychedelic punk edge. Transitions from bubbly bliss to frothing tsunami elicit the kind of shock value you get from horror flicks about monstrous amphibians stalking the beach. With the exception of some conspicuously indiscriminate guitar indulgence -- we're talking string-bending classic rock jams here -- the Mermen successfully navigate every upswell with a sound that's jagged, hypnotic and fierce.

-- Merrill Feitell
The Mermen play an SF02 showcase Fri, May 19, at the Transmission Theatre in S.F.; call 861-6906.

Heavy Into Jeff
(UBL Recordings)

As many a San Franciscan can attest, Heavy Into Jeff can make even the most jaded clubber bob and bounce like a goon. Tight musicianship and ultra-enthusiastic performances have earned the quartet a rabid local following. Hey, Weekly readers even voted HIJ the Best Alternative Rock Band in the WAMMIES last year. Hopefully, the release of Fu, HIJ's first full-length CD, will finally enable these guys to quit their day jobs. Coffee jockeying can wear down the best of 'em, not that it isn't an honorable trade, mind you. If, a>t first listen, Fu seems to lack the energy of the band's live shows, it's still got that essential Heavy Into Jeff flavor -- as in the you-can't-eat-just-one variety. "Mi Amigo," the first song and premier single, is also the strongest cut on the album, while "Deja Vuey" is the surprise at the bottom of the bag. Kicking off exactly like "Mi Amigo," it's actually an entire album unto itself, a full and subtle landscape that gives Heavy Into Jeff new dimension -- and proves that it's more than just a club band.

-- Silke Tudor
Heavy Into Jeff play an SF02 showcase Friday, May 19, at the Paradise Lounge in S.F.; call 861-6906.

Bored Stiff
(Hella Records)

Some hip-hop albums kick a mere five minutes of flava in your ear before fatigue sets in, but Bored Stiff's Explainin' is an eargasmic 30-minute testimony to the power of blood, sweat and beats. While many groups limit themselves to one emotional feel, Bored Stiff plumbs a bottomless crate: "Thoughts on Music," a three-part vignette, sketches the divergent microphone perspectives of this 12-deep Frisco crew (though only six members actually perform), complemented by a dazzling array of rhythms. "Peaceful Rotation" -- a fly cut about keepin' your head up -- revolves around a jangly guitar riff and a chirping flute, oddly enough. Although some of the lyrical content is nothing new (fake A&R reps, the commercialism of the biz), Explainin' will sway you because it feels like it was pressed out of pure love of hip hop. As one rapper remarks, "The best thing in the world is takin' your shit home and bumpin' it -- sayin', 'Yeah, we socked it, that's our shit.' "

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