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Unwritten Law (Interscope)

In the two years since the release of Oz Factor, San Diego's Unwritten Law has taken a small step sideways, edging away from the manic, punk-tinged pop of that album and going full-throttle on its current batch of straight-up power pop. Such a distinction may sound like semantics, but it's just enough of a difference to broaden the audience and reach “mature” listeners. The band's deceptively simple formula also happens to be the basic foundation of rock & roll: a tireless (i.e., young) drummer; a bassist who's both melodic and driving; a pair of big, crunchy guitars (and very little wanking); good melodies and rich harmonies.

While comparisons to (vintage) Cheap Trick or early Jam are in order, Unwritten Law has infinitely more in common with little-known Staten Island power-popsters Dirty Looks. In addition to the similar lean, mean approach and respective suburban traumas (which surface in tunes like “Before I Go,” “Genocide” and “Lonesome”), singer Scott Russo yells “Let's go!” at the end of the high-speed “Teenage Suicide.” (One of the best tracks from Dirty Looks' excellent 1980 debut was titled “Let's Go.”)

If there's a complaint, songs like “Coffin Text” and “Holiday” may run together, and through the dozen tunes, only “Cailin” and “Before I Go” offer a breather. The former is an understated midtempo rocker that puts Russo's easy-on-the-ears voice front-and-center. Good single material. (Michael Lipton)

L.A. County Line
(Straw Dogs)

This 20-song compilation of local country-rock bands has a few standout tracks, and a strong regional flavor overall. It also has more than its share of laughably inept performances that sound so stagy they're like a rough equivalent of blackface minstrels trying to sing an Afro-American spiritual. The good ones – by Rosie Flores, the Groovy Rednecks, the Losin' Brothers, Annie Harvey and Trailer Park Casanovas (whose “Drunk” sounds like a Grand Ole Opry version of the MC5) – all make intriguing use of the country tradition while clearly expressing themselves in the present tense.

It's the bad 'uns that, for the sheer scope of their respective blundering, positively fascinate: Deke Dickerson throws down “Love Is Like a Faucet” with his usual aplomb, but it's a bankrupt effort typical of this Los Angeles wannabe, technically flawless but emotionally disconnected. Russell Scott should just throw in the towel – formerly prized for his fluffy tenor, now he simply has no voice left. The bass drags, the drums rush, and Scott, hoarse and strained, sounds like a ghost recorded by paranormal investigators – how this downright agonizing performance made it onto the final disc is beyond comprehension.

The Lucky Stars, a fairly decent band of musicians, shoot themselves in the foot with a set of lyrics so overloaded that trying to fit them to the assigned meter makes for a nerve-racking earful; Jennifer Quinn's amateurish bleat also just barely keeps time, yet does manage to toss in plenty of cliched hillbilly phrasing; P.J. Pesce and 1000 Dollar Wedding take a whiny, modern-rock-ballad vocal approach, sounding more like Counting Crows than honky-tonk heroes; Neil Mooney and Dan Janisch both fall into the trying-too-damn-hard category, with performances so mannered and forced they sound like community-theater actors unhappily cast as country singers. Christopher Sprague and Chris Gaffney round out the set with equally underwhelming contributions.

Whether you call this Americana, New Depression or (gag) “alternative country” matters not; essentially, L.A. County Line is a handy item for clearing the room once a party has run too long. (Jonny Whiteside)

A Closer View (ECM)

Bassist Gary Peacock and guitarist Ralph Towner are two-of-a-kind musicians. Freethinkers with substantial technical abilities, they create songs that seem completely spontaneous but carry overt elements of composition. They've done the duo thing for ECM before, most recently on 1993's Oracle, but transcend even that excellent recording with this date.

The combination of Peacock's expansive support – also a mainstay of pianist Keith Jarrett's sound – and Towner's broad-minded improvisations is as natural as evergreen, conjuring images that frequently suggest shaded meadows, blooming wildflowers and tumbling streams. The two go beyond the usual soloist-accompanist relationship, using any number of strategies to point and counterpoint their sounds. Peacock is adept at playing alternative melodies against Towner's classical and traditional themes, sometimes casting a somber shadow over the guitarist's pastoral impressions, and frequents the lead with stout lyrical statements or delicately harmonized double stops. Often their roles will change midstream, as the bassist moves up front and the guitarist takes to bridge and echo work.

The dozen tunes, most no more than four or five minutes long, are detailed miniatures that slip in and out of recognizable forms and alternate between light and downhearted moods. The collaborative “Postcard to Salta” is among the most composed, with its minor-key dignity and assertive Peacock solo. Another collaborative effort, “From Branch to Branch,” is propelled by the bassist's Eastern modalism played at a Western gallop. Towner adds a surreal 12-string effect to the bassist's “Moor,” and shows a knack for self-accompaniment on his Spanish-flavored “Toledo.” The combination of Towner and Peacock is like a Gore-Tex jacket: tightly woven, yet it breathes. (Bill Kohlhaase)

Emotional Rollercoaster (A&M)

The passionate, punchy pop on Emotional Rollercoaster by Santa Barbara's Ridel High is chock-full of sing-along-in-your-car melodies that manage to be fresh and fun while lyrically exploring themes that are neither: soured relationships, dishonesty, greed, etc. It'd seem that the peppy power trio (which gained nominal notoriety with its 7-inch “Wynona Ryder,” an ode to the pint-size actress) has learned how to purge the negative in the context of a bouncy song, much in the way artists such as Elvis Costello and the Cars did in their heyday.

A harmony-happy collection of rock tunes, the album has an undeniable '80s new-wave sensibility, from the infectiously pensive hooks of the opening track, “Self Destructive,” to the Green Day-like post-punk pulse of “Places People Hide Their Money,” to the loveless laments (“I've got another chick to abuse me, I'm waiting for the day when she will lose me”) of “Battleship Grey.” Gutsy guitar grooves and bubbly beats of cuts like “180” and “Look at Me Now” would have easily fit on the soundtrack to any of last decade's John Hughes movies, even if slower stuff like “Galaxy Girl” lacks that retro spark. Like fellow Michigan native (and friend) Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, R.H.'s leader and creative force, Kevin Ridel, has a pleasant whiny croon and writes the kind of stick-in-your-head confectionery that's tailor-made for KROQ overplay and college-crowd consumption. (Lina Lecaro)

Work and Non Work (Drag City)

A short instrumental of low-tech flying-saucer music opens Broadcast's Work and Non Work, a collection of previously hard-to-find singles by one of the best bands to come out of the still-percolating Birmingham music scene, whose other offspring include Crescent, Movietone and, of course, Flying Saucer Attack.

This mysterious combo, whose members choose to remain anonymous, fuses smart elements like flashy Burt Bacharach and '60s James Bond arrangements or the ethereal song stylings of My Bloody Valentine and Stereolab and blends them into primitive sampling strangeness. Whipped up in an 8-track mixture of organ, bubbly toy synths, Mellotrons, loops and drums, the result is exceedingly colorful ear candy. The hooky tunes range from goofy instrumentals that will remind you of how much you actually hated H.R. Pufnstuf to ravishingly gorgeous voice-in-the-sky orgasms for your earballs (e.g., the instrumental epilogue to “Message From Home,” like a soundtrack to a near-death experience, i.e., floating into the laser-white center of a gigantic jeweled circle turning slowly in the heavens . . .).

While the band's lyrics entail the usual stuff about boy-girl blah blah, and some of the lines are of questionable genius (“We've got time to work it out/We've got what numbers cannot count”), most are fine, and far secondary to the great sound. “The Book Lovers” bounces with a perfect '60s-Peter-Sellers-movie harpsichord theme, meshing beautifully with panging cymbals and drums and an unnamed vocalatrix's breathy diaphragm. And two other songs are killer classics: the aforementioned “Message From Home” intros with spooky tape loops and Derek Bailey-like guitar klanks, then drums and maracas lead into cheery, pinging organ that's sugary as cotton candy, as she apologizes for heart crimes committed presumably against you, dear listener; program “The World Backwards” last, as it's a knockout of a climax with its hippie-carousel breeziness, urgent non sequitur lyrics (“Unprepared for what's to come/Pick numbers from above” – okay!) and apocalyptic choruses smothered in Mellotrons, bells, samples and fake vinyl pops.

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