While not hard-line traditionalists, Monkey is one of the few bands mining the ska vein that has the intention of playing a version of ska that isn't hyphenated. They're not ska-punk, ska-funk, or ska-Gregorian chant: They are simply ska, in a way that owes more to original acts like the Skatalites than to any of the products of ska's more recent waves of popularity. That means Monkey relies more on jazz, calypso, and Latin elements than most of what today's ska audiences have come to expect, a novel difference that has helped the band's popularity surge. Monkey's last several recordings, on Deluxe Records, are tasty samples of the group's horn-driven Jamaican jamboree, but live is still the best way to appreciate them. Monkey is seven members strong, and when the band starts to crank up its energetic live show it doesn't take long for the party to spread across the dance floor. Organist/vocalist Curtis Meacham can lead the group through hours of intense material. Dancing is mandatory, although the white socks/black suit combination is still, thankfully, strictly optional.


There are moments in the best of pop where the voice and words of the singer seem to come from your own head. Those flashes of connection are Beulah's targets, and the group hits the center on song after song. From their origins as a home-recording project to their current status as beloved -- if rare -- local performers, Miles Kurosky, William Swan, Steve Lafollette, Pat Noel, and Steve St. Cin have continued to build a name for themselves as San Francisco's contribution to the musical aesthetic that finds its clearest manifestation in the Elephant 6 collective. (Elephant 6 released Beulah's debut, Handsome Western States, last year.) More so than cousin acts the Apples in Stereo or the Olivia Tremor Control, Beulah isn't afraid to emphasize the guitar in their variation on Beach Boys-cum-Beatles-influenced pop, a sonic choice that makes the S.F. band more accessible to those who still cling to the notion that rock just ain't rock without guitars. But sonic styling can't pay the bills unless there are some real songs in there somewhere, and Beulah's songs shine. Through frank arrangements and the fearlessly vulnerable lyrics of vocalist/guitar player Kurosky, who sings in a sometimes quavering but refreshingly irony-free voice, Beulah shows that the song is the true king of pop, and we are the subjects.

Charming Hostess
Charming Hostess understandably has broad appeal with Bay Area audiences. Not only does bandleader Jewlia Eisenberg play the gender-bender game better than a mack politician in drag, the group's live shows rarely fail to drop the tightest, quirkiest, most digable power grooves on the planet. Drawing from the hippest world-music movements of recent years and then some, Charming Hostess slinks between ethereal Balkan choir song and exuberant klezmer hoedown as if Old World Europe were sleeping with altrock East Bay. With a frontline trio of siren singers -- Eisenberg, Carla Kihlstedt, Nina Rolle -- and a funky, rocking core of former Idiot Flesh instrumentalists -- guitarist/saxophonist/flutist/percussionist Nils Frykdahl, bassist Dan Rathbun, drummer Wesley Anderson -- the septet punches up melodies and lyrics from the outcast folk tunes of Bulgaria, Hungary, Spain, Turkey, and the States. In a kind of one-world union for misfits of every persuasion, Charming Hostess pushes beyond the dead ends of musicmaking convention: The Idiots sometimes sing along for surprisingly stunning a cappella harmony; Kihlstedt and Rolle often double on violin and accordion, respectively; the boys in the band don evening gowns, the ladies suits and ties; tunes from both the Ozarks and the Delta yield an improbable white-girl soul worthy of a Southern Baptist revival. It's kind of like they're rewriting the modern-rock Bible with an Old World quill, disrupting expectations with each turn of phrase.

Storm & Her Dirty Mouth
The impressive, 6-foot-tall, fiery redhead figure that Storm Large cuts almost matches the intensity and force of her pipes. The Amazonian Storm can wail, really wail, revving from moan to deep-throated growl within half a measure. Storm plucked two members of her current band from the remains of perennial 11th Street club favorites Flower S.F., who broke up on the cusp of a major label deal. While that band trafficked in funkier beats, Storm & Her Dirty Mouth -- now guitarists Michael Cavaseno and Geoff Pearlman, bassist Ubi Whitaker, and drummer Dan Foltz -- believes in more straight-ahead rock and a driving, bottom-heavy dirty-blues sound. At times, Storm's bellows recall early P.J. Harvey or Ann Wilson's tough-chick rumbles from Heart's glory days. The singer's lyrics, aggressive and deliberately provocative, are catchy and often confrontational. (Check out "Ima Yora," about a whore and a no-good bastard.) Bay Area rock fans glommed onto Storm and those dirty words without hesitation. Now, the group seems in control of its own destiny. The first Storm & Her Dirty Mouth EP, released this month, was recorded at the Plant with Thom Wilson, the guy who produced the Offspring. While they wait for the record company weasels to start sniffing, Storm and the band will be gigging the S.F. club circuit. Listen hard.

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