The Donnas
For a band that's barely old enough to drive its own van to gigs, the Donnas certainly have their punk history down cold. A brash all-female teen-age quartet hailing from the Peninsula, their love for the Runaways and the Ramones extends all the way to their stage names: singer Donna A., drummer Donna C., bassist Donna F., and guitarist Donna R. Their imagemongering would sound like just another great rock 'n' roll swindle coming from most other groups, but the Donnas have the musical goods to back it up. On American Teenage Rock 'N' Roll Machine, their widely acclaimed second album for Berkeley's Lookout! Records, they tear through three-chord sonic assaults that range from the glammy crunch of "You Make Me Hot" to the bluesy sludge-rock of "Looking for Blood." A world tour has given them a measure of fame -- like all real glam-rock bands, they're big in Japan -- forcing Lookout! to reissue their first album, recorded for local label Superteem. Live, they summon up all the adolescent energy that made punk rock great; most of today's punk bands would kill to be so blissfully unjaded. And when Donna A. growls, "I'll grow up when I'm ready," she sounds like she won't be ready for a long time.

One Man Army
The Bay Area is a bastion of punk rock, yet for the last 10 years the city's been largely passed over for its neighbor across the bay. One Man Army rejuvenates the tradition of San Francisco punk with a no-filler pub-rock style that manages to avoid the "we live for beer" trappings of most of their contemporaries. Lyrically, the band -- vocalist/guitarist Jack Dalrymple, bassist James Kotter, and drummer Brandon Pollack -- keeps things close to home with a hard look at growing up in S.F. Their debut record, Dead End Stories, reads like a street-wise survival manual, with tales that jump from struggles with girlfriends in the Avenues to losing friends to jail and drugs. The song "Three Strikes" rails against the California penal system with the story of a guy trying to make it on the streets only to find that three mistakes means his life. And in "Another Time" the band pays homage to a friend's mother who recently died. Even though the subjects are serious, OMA manages to temper the tougher lyrics by layering sing-along choruses over a swirl of melodic guitar work. There are plenty of good, beer-swilling pub tunes, but One Man Army's finest songs work best with dark bars, bourbon, and reminiscing about old friends.


The Blue Beat Stompers
After six years and more than a couple of lineup changes, the Blue Beat Stompers have solidified into one of the most gifted traditional ska groups the Bay Area has ever had to offer. They've performed in most of the top venues on the West Coast and shared stages with big-name third-wave ska groups like No Doubt, Hepcat, and Let's Go Bowling. But unlike their "contemporaries" who run blue-beat flavors through a '90s filter, the six traditional skins who make up the BBS are so firmly rooted in the historical legacy of ska that a person would be hard-pressed to separate their songs from those of first-wave acts like the Skatalites or Laurel Aitken. The Blue Beat Stompers' latest offering, Sit Tight and Listen Keenly, is a soulful blend of R&B, jazz, calypso, and rocksteady that reaches a level of sophistication deserted by most young white-boy bands from this era. Multilevel harmonies and lush backup vocals complement Will "Bones" Miller's infectious keyboard talents, while "Big Al" Stock's smoky trumpet mingles with the seductive tones of lead singer Steve "Papa" Figueroa. As in live shows, the Stompers give qualified nods to longtime favorites like the Blues Busters and the Melodians on disc. The beats are slower and more intricate than those with which new-sprung 2-tone fans might be familiar, but in the end ska is ska. Musical prowess aside, the Blue Beat Stompers have as much fun as any of their fans and, in case you are in need of proof, they thank Guinness and Jack Daniel's in their liner notes -- a detail of which Fatty Buster might be proud.

Critical Mass
With only four members, Critical Mass is considered a tiny band by traditional ska standards, but what they lack in heads they more than make up for in energy, ebullience, and skill. After five years, the group's amalgamation of ska, rock, reggae, and hip hop has earned them a spotlight alongside such notables as the Skatalites, the Toasters, Bow Wow Wow, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Dave Wakeling, as well as the attention of maverick label Moon Ska Records. Their last album, Give It Up, Let It Go!, which was distributed by Moon Ska, captures the level of intensity that fans of these Bay Area favorites have come to expect from Critical Mass' live shows. Unexpected loops and hip-hop-style shout-outs to fellow West Coast ska bands like Filibuster, Missing Link, and Monkey offer a unique, ear-tantalizing juxtaposition to traditional 2-tone beats, rock-guitar licks, and jazzy brass refrains, while well-chosen samples bear witness to the group's highly developed sense of humor. For example, Willie Brown wages war on Critical Mass, claiming that the small outfit cannot shape public policy. Then, cutting to the chase, the mayor of San Francisco says in a moment of exasperation, "Why can't they just go home? Go back to Berkeley." Thankfully, Critical Mass has no intention of doing any such thing. They go in the studio next month to record a new album for Moon Ska.

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