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.' “

— Philippe Shepnick

President's Breakfast
Doo Process
(Disc Lexia)

It's not only presidents who face an unpredictable combination of events and crises over breakfast each day; we're all bombarded by a rapidly changing collage of sights, sounds and tactile stimulations as we try to go about our daily lives. That's why this >President's Breakfast — a seamless combination of jazz, funk, hip hop, improv, dub and avant-garde — is the closest thing to a soundtrack for contemporary life around. But unlike real life, there are no walls of noise or competing soloists here. The Doo Process mix allows you to hear the contributions of individual players as they treat you to everything from get-off-your-ass-and-dance break beats, fantastic blasts of horns and hard-edged raps to even the spacey whirling of a hovering UFO. Percussionist extraordinaire Click Dark is the group's mastermind; core collaborators are bassist Nate Pitts, keyboardist Dred Scott, saxophonist John Yi, guitarist Will Bernard, trombonist Squantch and percussionist Jeremy Brooks. The musical mosaic is rounded out by guests like rapper Chris Burger, saxophonists Kenny Brooks and Glenn Spearman, DJ Titus Pierce and sampler Ed Hermann. With those ingredients, Doo Process is a nutritious way to start the day.

— Liz Sizensky
President's Breakfast plays an SF02 showcase Thurs, May 18, at CafŽ Du Nord in S.F.; call 861-5016.

Swingin' Utters
The Streets of San Francisco
(New Red Archives)

“The industry may try to manufacture punk rock bands, but they're not fooling anybody,” says Nicky Garratt, president of New Red Archives. A veritable walking library of punk rock history (who played with the UK Subs back in the day), Garratt should know the real thing when he sees it. And the Swingin' Utters are it. Comparisons to Stiff Little Fingers are unavoidable: The Utters' music is, without a doubt, reminiscent of the best of the '70s British punk scene. Looking back in anger to groups like Sham 69 and Angelic Upstarts, the Utters realize that energy isn't a simple matter of playing as fast as you can. By relying on the intensity of frontman Johnny Peebucks and the poetic frustration of lyricist/guitarist Darius Koski, the Utters generate more power than PG&E.

The Streets of San Francisco (produced by Rancid's Lars Frederikson) is an epi>phany of '90s neo-punk: All the raucous barroom antics and pissed-off anthems you could ever want, tempered with a thinking man's lyrics. Over the pounding rhythms of “Storybook Disease” Peebucks reflects, “I blame myself for breaking promises/ I made to myself in so-called 'dire need.' ” On “Petty Wage,” he sings, “My poor self-pity speaks with sobbing, mumbled words/ Strewn with the awful taste of bad, cowardly prose.” But unlike the “loser” squad, the Utters offset self-deprecation with fightin' words: “Time to do battle with your wits/ Time to spit back when you're spit upon.” Where there's an Utter, there's a skirmish to be had, and when Peebucks finally snarls, “I don't wanna go before my time,” you can't help but sing along.

— Silke Tudor
Swingin' Utters play Wed, May 17, at Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 621-4455.

Welcome to My Mind

This San Rafael-based mod quad plays the sort of revisionist '60s garageland frat-rock that seems to be experiencing yet another resurgence of late. That these dapper gents cover two tunes co-written by Billy Childish (of Thee Headcoats) and the surf classic “Mr. Moto” speaks volumes about where their inspirations lurk. The Hi-Fives aren't exactly reinventing the musical wheel, but they are slapping a new set of tires and a punkish racing stripe on a classic roadster. Songs like “I Go Feral in Just Three Days” and “Let's Hear a Cheer” — a hilarious Euro-tour diary of sorts — evoke the Ramones as much as, say, the Sonics. Theoretically, it's not the trappings but the songs that matter in the end, and Hi-Fives deliver with smartly simple poppers stuffed with hook-barbed riffs, goofy/perplexing lyrics and catchy choruses sung in unison. With nary a dud among its 15-plus tracks, Welcome to My Mind is one groovy little scooter ride. Gimme five, indeed.

— Mike Rowell

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