If you're wondering what Panda sounds like, don't expect many clues from the cryptic packaging of its debut CD; bin browsers across America must be scratching their heads in befuddlement over this one. Truth is, even after listening to the music, slick comparisons prove problematic. This S.F. foursome — two guys, two gals — has assembled a disparate collection of comparisons over the last couple years: In a stroke of time-saving brilliance, one scribe compared them to those equal-opportunity pop scavengers, the Pooh Sticks (talk about one-stop shopping). Even Panda's bio is schizophrenically scattershot, suggesting everything from X and the Breeders to Grand Funk and Krautrock.

At times as fuzzy and charming as its namesake, Panda is as Panda does, and what it does most often is whip up a mŽlange of '60s- and '70s-flavored garage-pop/psych-rock within the cooler wavelengths of the alt-indie spectrum. Panda was actually recorded in 1993 at Komotion studio and took awhile to find its way onto Kokopop, a subsidiary of Shimmy Disc. It might not be perfect pop, but it is two fistfuls of solid songs and a fine debut. Produced by Tim O'Heir (Come, Throwing Muses), Panda is packed with great ideas, even if they're not always fully realized. Vocals, in particular, seem awfully strained and off-key at times. Regardless, there's more than enough here to keep Pandaphiles happy. Male/female vocal harmonies abound, as do catchy well-woven melodies, all manner of archetypal guitar sounds and poppy nuances of the handclap/tambourine nature.

Lyrics lean toward the whimsical and fantastic: Consider song titles like “Invisible King” and “Books of Water.” “Ninny Cake Bake,” with its “charming pancakes burning like mandrakes” and “Seconal bloodbaths,” was allegedly inspired by Richard Kern starlet Lung Leg, but don't ask me how. My personal favorite is “Hedgemount,” with its insidiously infectious chorus; least favorite? — the mini epic “Tiny Piper,” which kinda falls flat the way a lame joke does. The disk closes with “Fond of Chevrolet,” a ludicrous lighter-waving anthem to GM's finest. Beats the hell outta Bob Seger.

— Mike Rowell
Panda plays Thurs, April 20, at Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2595.

Conjunto Cespedes
Vivito y Coleando (Alive & Kicking)

Bobi and Guillermo Cespedes, leaders of the group that bears their name, have been thrilling Bay Area audiences with strong, rootsy Afro-Cuban music for more than a decade, but their Xenophile recordings — Vivito y Coleando is the second — take their message to a whole 'nother level. In a world of salsa dominated by languid rhythm sections laying down slick, air-conditioned arrangements and fronted by good-looking young men who tie their eyebrows in knots while singing about broken hearts, Conjunto Cespedes slams into you like an equatorial storm straight from the heart of West Africa, with a scorching percussive drive, Bobi's deep, soulful vocalizing and the tight ensemble playing that makes this conjunto one of the hottest bands around.

Like a traditional Santer’a ceremony, Vivito opens with “Que Viva Changó,” an homage to Changó, God of Fire, asking his blessing for the coming festivities. The rest of the disk bubbles along on a fluid bedrock of Afro-Cuban rhythm, a lava flow of timbales, congas, bongos and bells that glows with energy and submerges everything in its path. Highlights include Bill Friedman's lyrical trumpet on “Na Mi Na”; Guillermo's rippling flamenco-influenced tres fills on “Alafia”; Chris Cooper's violin flight on “Amor de Millones”; “El Pitirre y La Ti–osa,” a folkloric rumba/son done in a subtle, acoustic style; and above all, Bobi's marvelous vocals, a lush sound that warms the air like a flock of doves exploding out of a tropical palm tree.

— j. poet

The Joykiller
The Joykiller

From Henry Rollins to Wayne Kramer to Mike Watt, plenty of punk's founding fathers have abandoned their walkers for a fresh lurch round the slam pit these days, in part because of the newfound success of — perish the thought! — melodic hardcore. Witness the power of Dookie. In that vein, Epitaph records, whose CEO Brett Gurewitz has fearlessly led Bad Religion through a decade of brilliance, brings you Joykiller, the latest incarnation for True Sounds of Liberty frontman Jack Grisham. With a roster that reads like a who's who of the early SoCal scene — TSOL guitarist Ron Emory, Gun Club/Weirdos bassist Billy Persons, Vandals/Adolescents drummer Chris Lagerborg — Grisham's latest yowl is a 15-song, 33-minute punk-o-rama.

But what's that giant sucking sound?
Trouble is, Joykiller is b-o-r-i-n-g, a maudlin outpouring, for the most part, of brokenhearted violin music set to a hardcore tempo. The lyrics — eeyowtch! A sonnet like “Love You More Dead” — “Cleaning up the house and you won't be pleased/ Fell down and I hit my knees/ Please God make her deceased” — would be funny in some contexts; here, paired with songs like “I Wanna Drink Over You” and the whining “She's Having Fun” (rhymes with “I thought love was a walk in the sun”), it makes-ya-wanna-puke.The Joykiller is not entirely without merit, but cool Frank Kozik cover art and a couple of tracks with an exoskeleton of substance — “Show Me the System” and “Seventeen” — do not a Ball-Hog or Tugboat? make. You're quickly mired in the dreck that passes for turbulent punk these days, an overproduced sound reminiscent of late-model Killing Joke, with Grisham yelling unmelodiously around Joykiller's vacant hallways like a drunk seeking his lost dog. Joykiller may echo punk's past, but not its future. The revolution will not be reconstituted.

— Colin Berry

Steel Pole Bath Tub
Scars From Falling Down

Like Mudhoney and Soundgarden, S.F.'s Steel Pole Bath Tub effectively combines riff-centered hard rock with postpunk fury. That's about the only similarity: Scars From Falling Down, the band's major-label debut, is full of menace, but one born of desperation, not macho posturing, however bastardized.

The first lyrics on Scars set the tone: “I don't remember being on the floor/ I don't remember how it smelled.” Little else is recalled, and the wild night the song describes seems more harrowing than enjoyable. If this is one of the “scars,” they've certainly given it an appropriate soundtrack. Mike Morasky's blistering guitar gives the song a sense of impending doom Black Sabbath would be proud of.

Sampled sounds fade in and out of the music, giving the album a strange, almost psychedelic quality. The overall effect is one of barely controlled chaos; SPBT creates an unpredictable sonic landscape where anything can happen — and usually does. On “Population 2,” distorted guitar noise fades into quieter passages, which then erupt without warning into aural assaults. Barely audible speech nearly buried beneath swirling music throws listeners off at the beginning of “The Conversation,” leaving them wondering — like the song's narrator — if it's all in their heads.

Thankfully, SPBT's experimental leanings are backed up by solid songwriting. On “Home Is a Rope,” one of the strongest cuts, bassist Dale Flattum sings, “There's no reason to try,” over a stormy backdrop of raging guitar. Without the anchor of a pounding riff, the song might meander off into inner space. But the hook is there, which helps drive home a message about suburban aimlessness. Despair — like guitar distortion — is rarely so catchy.

— Robert Levine
Steel Pole Bath Tub opens for Faith No More Mon, April 24, at the Warfield in S.F.; call (510) 762-BASS.

In a Major Way

Language holds a special place in hip hop; words or phrases discarded by the masses are resurrected and redefined in an MC's verse, then recited by hip-hop fanatics streetwide. In a Major Way, E-40's third dictionary of the Vallejo vernacular, ensures that the dialect of urban youth will be misunderstood by pastors, principals and penelopes (E-40-ese for police) for a long time coming. But it's the savory V-funk, marinating the tracks like Flint's barbecue sauce, that gives his vocab flavor. “Fed” has all the ingredients of Vallejo “mob music”: a heaving 808, sagging synths sprinkled with a recurring music sample, droopy bass and a few scattered scratches. Combined with the rapper's trademark supersonic flows — which shoot up to 100 miles per hour and then screech to a slow, chirpy drawl — this hypnotizing cut explains why E-40 makes his bank deposits in an armored truck. With mob music comes the mob content, and as more rappers fulfill their own rhymes, it's becoming harder to brand some cuts as pure fiction. “Dusted 'n' Disgusted,” an ominous track about rub-outs and paybacks, has guest rapper 2Pac eerily predicting set-ups by roughnecks and promiscuous daisy dukes. Fans of E-40's two previous from-tha-trunk independent albums (on his Sick Wid' It label) have always been down with his curbside view of the ghetto. In a Major Way does not fake the funk, either, lyrically or musically.

— Philippe Shepnick

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