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POP BEAT

Rating New Releases of Orange County-Based Musicians : Albums: Walter Trout scores with first solo release while National People's Gang reaction depends on how stagey you like your songs.

November 23, 1989|MIKE BOEHM

For this week's Pop Beat, we'll catch up on some recent releases by Orange County-based performers: The scale is * (poor) to ***** (a classic).

Walter Trout Band

"Life In The Jungle." (Bozz of Electra): ****

Trout, who lives in Huntington Beach, gave up a steady, high-profile gig when he left John Mayall's Bluesbreakers to go on his own earlier this year. Now we can see why--"Life In The Jungle" heralds the arrival of a blues-rock talent of the first order. The album, recorded in Denmark and issued in Europe (it's available as an import at Music Market in Costa Mesa), showcases a performer who is confident, mature and strikingly well rounded. Trout's sizzling guitar work alone makes "Life In The Jungle" a must for six-string aficionados, but there is much more than that here. Among the album's five original songs are two ebullient, good-timey rockers and a couple of lovely, pop-flavored ballads sung with a wistful soulfulness. The stormy title song conjures up the fear brought on by a murder in Trout's own neighborhood.

At various times, Trout's approach can recall the stately blues balladry of Eric Clapton ("The Mountain Song,"), the warmth of Little Feat ("Frederica"), or the animal spirits of Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Good Enough To Eat"). A live version of Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" finds Trout indulging his old tendency to overdo the speed and flash. But elsewhere, he reaches an effective balance between wildness and control with playing that serves his material rather than his ego.

Trout and his versatile backing trio are at their most potent on stage: The album ends with a searing, 15-minute psychodrama built around live renditions of the blues standards "Cold Cold Feeling" and "Serve Me Right to Suffer." The two connected songs become an epiphany of anguish and remorse in a performance that can stand as a textbook example of blues musicians tapping the deepest reaches of their chosen calling's well of emotions.

National People's Gang

"Orange." (Dr. Dream): *** 1/2

One's attitude toward National People's Gang depends largely on one's response to Chad Jasmine's calculatedly theatrical singing. Listeners who like their rock vocals in the offhanded vernacular might not go for Jasmine's stagey act, which can seem archly Anglicized and overdone. But there is nothing wrong with theatricality when it brings a meaty role to life, and NPG's songs come off like one-act monologues in which Jasmine gets inside the skin of obsessed characters placed at emotional extremes. "Love Button," for example, finds him doing a wired, James Woods-type turn as a gambling junkie going bust in Vegas.

Some of these playlets are abstract, but they never lack an intriguing, off-center point: "Breaking Ground," an evocative, thought-provoking song about detachment, seems to look down upon the sweat and heartbreak of humanity from somewhere above the stratosphere. "White Boxes" is an unsettling examination of the disguises that dysfunctional families don in an attempt to appear normal. A feverish version of Simon & Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" becomes a simultaneously mocking and exhilarating demolition derby ride over the song that sounds as if Johnny Rotten is in the driver's seat.

Stylistically, NPG is an art-rock band with a strong command of textures ranging from shimmering pop brightness to furious, focused pounding. The rhythm section is deft and strong, with new bassist Deyo Glines adding some funkiness. Chad Forrello is the do-everything MVP of NPG, a guitarist of commendable selflessness whose playing is exciting without being obtrusive. Perhaps best of all, the band steers clear of fashionable cynicism. Without sacrificing the right to be ironic, National People's Gang shows that you don't have to lose a sense of innocence, idealism and heart to prove that you're smart. After last year's fine debut album, "The Hard Swing," NPG serves notice with "Orange" that its creative reserves run deep.

Exude

"Testosterone Tapdance." (Rah! Rah!): ***

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