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Local Yokels 

Wednesday, May 6 1998
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The Cherries
Crotchrocket
(Badman Recording Company)

Alternative rock is dead? Who said alternative rock is dead? Cool name, cool title, cool album art, and the same damn three-piece distorted guitar crunch with a nose ring. Most indicative lyric: "I try so hard." Corresponding local corner: Haight & Masonic

Ciao Bella
1
(March)

Hardly a new release, yet harshly overlooked by just about everyone, Ciao Bella's 1 brings basement pop out of the basement. Although the record would fit right in with the finest from Elephant 6 bands like the Apples in Stereo and Beulah, the guitar-driven bottom of Alameda-based CB's bright and addictive tunes owes more to Big Star than the Beach Boys. Still, Mario Hernandez and Jamie McCormick employ plenty of ahh-ahhs and ooh-oohs in a series of happy accidents and cranking riffs that sound as happy as a flea and as melancholy as a thrift-store painting. This is power pop. Strawberry Hill, Golden Gate Park

Half Film
East of Monument
(Buzz)

The best thing about slowcore bands like Half Film is that they demand the listener pay attention. The worst thing about them is that sometimes you fall asleep by the third song. Similar to the Texas-based Bedhead -- without the intricate guitar interplay -- Half Film make a lulling, atmospheric pillow of sounds. Amid a bass that sounds like strings and something else that might actually be strings, the guitar notes have space to breathe even if listeners don't. Conor Devlin is suffocating. He's mumbly and hard to understand, never singing over the mix, yet the emotional quality of the music, the feeling of being "Coated," "Beaten by a Landslide," and "A Year on Your Last Legs," comes through in his intonation and lazy phrasing. At times, Jason Lakis' drums sound like they were taped in a cave, which is actually a good thing. Reportedly recorded in one take. Chestnut & Jones

John Wesley Harding
Awake
(Zero Hour)

Despite the album's bookended "Good Morning (I Just Woke Up)" and "Good Bye (Late O'Clock)," used to create a natural sense of beginning and end, Awake lacks any real consistency as an album. Early on "Your Ghost" has an innovative backbeat with Moog and harmonica samples, but by the next song it's back to the same moderately smart folk rock that Harding's been making since the late '80s. "Burn," with a flicking-lighter rhythm track, should be great, but the corny chorus of flammable phrases ("Baby we're all going to burn" and "Make sure the house band plays 'Light My Fire' ") is a wet blanket. Vocally, Harding's still somewhere between Billy Bragg and midperiod Elvis Costello, but his voice doesn't carry this remarkably lifeless record. Diverting guest work -- from local musicians Carrie Bradley (Ed's Redeeming Qualities, 100 Watt Smile), Alison Faith Levy (the Loud Family), Chuck Prophet, and Chris von Sneidern (Map of Wyoming) -- doesn't help. Grant & Green

Hugh
Brave Little Soldier
(Mafia Money)

Instrumentally, more hooks than a Velcro outlet, but if you take the Flaming Lips' Hit to Death in the Future Head and remove the catchy choruses and the bizarre and witty lyrics, you're left with wacky songs without a punch line, bubble gum that doesn't pop. Still, more polished, more direct, and -- most importantly -- more fun than either of Hugh's first two full-length ventures. Monday Night, Texas & 17th Street

Junior Varsity km
Taking Care of You
(Darla)

Junior Varsity is 20-year-old Kenric McDowell. He calls this project, a superlimited 600-record edition for local label Darla's series of ambient recordings, "overeducated drum 'n' bass." McDowell may well be a smart kid. And the drum 'n' bass he proffers may be on this side of intelligent. But Taking Care of You seems, well, too easy. Drum 'n' bass, as I understand it, is most compelling when you have to peel away layers to get to the bass/base of the song. The exciting part is getting distracted by the breaks, the samples, and the abrupt shifts of rhythm and tempo. While McDowell's drums are rat-tat-tatty and listenable -- a d'n'b prerequisite -- the breaks aren't breathtaking, the samples seem dry, and the New Age-y bliss sounds like it came out of a can of Korg. Second Street & Minna

Lecture on Nothing
Truckloads of Bibles EP
(PopMafia)

Pure collage, on record, is the process art of the music world. Visual process art -- art whose process of creation is the most interesting thing about it -- is most fun for the person who gets to make it. Improbably, Lecture on Nothing, who cut-and-paste fragments of found sound, television commercials, religious radio, and loads of other samples and beats, produce fascinating audio process art. The samples create dialogues with one another, often developing both a narrative and a theme for each song. "Truckloads of Bibles" and its manic, demented do-gooders is about missionary fervor; "Addiction" -- recorded in North Beach -- lets the afflicted tell a story in their own voices. Folsom & Sixth Street/Broadway & Columbus

Lucky
Candlebearercatchesfire
(Magnus Martyr)

A serious record, seriously executed. At their best, Lucky are spooky, obsessed with the same old-time relijun and the forsaken faithful that drive Nick Cave. At his worst, piano-playing frontman Sullivan is a drama queen like solo Peter Murphy. "Polly & Kim" is a terrible opener, threatening to ice pick the record before it even starts. But "Candlebearer Catches Fire," a weird tale of a quasi-Christ born in '69, fairly cooks. Most of the songs didn't happen anywhere near San Francisco. They're from some other place with stoops and lakes and locusts and Main Streets. Here, after the earth cracks one torrid night during an affair, the singer's lover goes through an abortion, feeling "scraped out like a gourd." Brilliantly, the experience matches the cycle of the seasons: the spring affair, the late-summer abortion, the reunion between lovers in October, the leaves stumbling into the street. Harrowing. Third Street & Mission Rock

Map of Wyoming
Round Trip
(Self-released)

For every Counting Crows that triumphantly captures the dream demo between KFOG and Live 105, 200 more sound like Map of Wyoming, a pale simulacrum of Sheryl Crow's backup band, minus the star power. Chestnut & Divisadero

Niagara
Niagara 01
(Bliss)

Jeff Davis, who once led a group called the Balancing Act at the end of the 1980s, is the man behind the oft-precious Niagara. "Spanish Motorcycle" kitchen sinks a bloopy "For What It's Worth" riff, offbeat bass, sawing violin, dissonant pianos, and shuffling trap drums into a pop ditty, but the treated and affected vocals make the lyrics -- "I'm filthy and I'm rich and I haven't got a dime" -- absurdly unbelievable. "Alcatraz," on the other hand, is a San Francisco romance pop tune with the singability of a Squeeze hit that suits Davis fine. Here, his grocery girl -- he loves the way she "bags his apples tenderly" -- wears a "velvet coat," keeps a cat in her bedroom, and probably owns "a Teenage Fanclub record or two." Is narcissistic love a redundancy? Third Street & Harrison

P.E.E.
The Roaring Mechanism
(Absolutely Kosher)

Marvelously blocky and ingenious, the new P.E.E. record, the second after 1996's terrific Now, More Charm and More Tender, is sort of like the periodic table of the elements, a confusing set of letters and symbols and mathematical enumerations that don't make much sense unless you understand the perfect order of the entire system. (The problem: I almost failed chemistry.) "I Can't Wait 'Til I Get Rickets," "The Rewards of Gourmet Dining," and "The Misguided Self-Punishers" are the hydrogen, the helium, and the oxygen of the record -- moderately familiar but still mysterious in their own way. "Ed Is Fifty," a four-minute tension-and-release epic, is one of those weird metals down on the lower tier of the table: You might have heard of it before, but you'll never really understand it unless you're a scientist. Or a musician. Valencia & 22nd Street

Vaportrail
E.P.
(Self-released)

The only difference between these kids and Ride is that Ride's 1991 EP was called Vapour Trail. Word to the young band: Dropping a "U" and shortening it into one word doesn't count as artistic creativity, especially if you're ripping off the rest. (And who in the hell listens to stuff like that anymore -- except for the like-minded local band Pete?) Yes, Ride were stealing old Jesus and Mary Chain back in the early 1990s, but they at least added a languid version of personality, a dreamy love, to their graft. San Jose

Various Artists
San Francisco: A Music City Compilation 1998
(Trocadero/Triggerfish Music)

That the most significant and comprehensive compilation of San Francisco bands comes from a record label in Germany says more about the local scene, or lack thereof, than any cranky set of reviews in a weekly newspaper. Critic Kurt Wolff's introductory essay tries to equate S.F. music with the rain, the fog, the wet sidewalks, but faced with the diversity of local acts he settles on a smarter (if vaguer and debatable) point: San Francisco is the sound of people who want to be here. Like most comps, and certainly any double-disc 43-song comp, there are hits and misses. Granfaloon Bus' "The Mission Song" is an undentable gem. Swell's "Bitter Friends" is better than anything on the band's last record and is almost as good as most of 41. Fantasy's "White World" nearly beats the group's live shows. But the burly riff in "Blue Hawaiian" is too tough for Dieselhed, and the trumpet at the end of the song is confusing. Chuck Prophet's "Ooh Wee" starts well, but devolves into pointlessness. Tracks by now-dead San Francisco bands (Paddlefoot, Mensclub, Mommyheads) and about every worthwhile living local (Tarnation, Sunshine Club, Waycross, Zmrzlina) make Music City essential listening for any S.F. club owner. Both of them. San Francisco

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Jeff Stark

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