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Their Humor Comes Out in Jest Measure : Three Local Bands Have Their Fun Getting Silly, Funny and Sometimes Manic in New Releases

March 24, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

With April 1 approaching, we turn our attention to recent releases by local bands with a sense of humor. There's the crude punk-rock comedy of the Vandals, the often silly but sometimes illuminating pop-rock ditties of the Ziggens, and the manic, absurdist antics of the artsy Vitamin L. Ratings range from * (pathetic) to **** (miraculous). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.

*** The Ziggens "Rusty Never Sleeps"

Skunk Records (cassette)

With their second album, the Ziggens delight once more in the sillier aspects of mundane living. They drop tacky pop references as if they were dimes, invoking in passing the likes of Kenny Rogers, Gomer Pyle, Crystal Gayle and Lawrence Welk. Gilligan and the Skipper get an entire song to themselves. Other cuts discuss such downers as dandruff and datelessness, or proclaim the delights of grocery shopping.

If you're getting the idea that these guys are too innocuous and simple-minded to merit your attention in these troubled times of ours, hold on for a second.

Musically, the Ziggens are a sharp little trio that reminds us how rewarding it is to hear a band rock with zip and dexterity, just for the fun of it. There's a bit of the spirit (if not the virtuosity and sophistication) of NRBQ and the Turtles at play as Bert Ziggen, Brad Ziggen and Jon Ziggen go at it.

The album is a deftly woven patchwork of exuberant, Buddy Holly-style roots rock, surf music, Beach Boys-inspired harmony, folk-pop balladry, kitschy country twanging and lean, muscular garage-punk.

Along with the silly stuff, there are flashes of poignancy and even insight. "Call It Quits," by guitarist and main songwriter Bert Susanka, is a collection of disconnected, seemingly slapdash images scattered around a core of sadness.

One could dismiss it as an example of unfocused songwriting, but it is far more meaningful to take this romantic breakup song as a portrait of how a mind in pain tries to wander away from the thing it doesn't want to face.

Drummer Brad Conyers is the band's bard of childhood, wistfully exploring the workings of fragmentary memory in "On the Way" and, in the robust "Dickie Built a Halfpipe," evoking the wonder that can be implicit in the small, everyday things that happen in suburban back yards and kitchens.

In songs like these, the Ziggens come off as cousins to Jonathan Richman, another playful but insightful rocker whom some dismiss as softheaded because of his innocent stance and almost boundless capacity for silliness.

Some of "Rusty Never Sleeps" is straightforward. Susanka confronts his mortality in the sweet acoustic strum "When I Die." Playing the part of an onlooker at his own funeral, he laments that the one thing missing from his life was spiritual awareness.

"I'm Tryin,' " a fine, surging rocker, also has a serious, questing undercurrent. In the deeply felt anthem "Carry Your Cross," Susanka strives to find meaning in suffering.

All this, and Gilligan, too.

(Available at Bionic Records, Zed Records, and from the Ziggens, (714) 848-7711, or P.O. Box 2354, Buena Park, CA 90621-2354.)

The Ziggens play April 9 at Club 5902 in Huntington Beach, with Sublime. (714) 840-6118. ** Vitamin L "Uno Dos"

Vitamin L has the uno-dos of rhythm down reasonably well on this frantically wailing debut album, in which metallic guitars scream, bass and drums hammer out thrash tempos or boom with frenzied funk, and a trombone brays at strategic moments and adds to the avant-garde, jazz-tinged flavor of the whole thing. What's missing is some of that do-re-mi, boys. When it comes to melody, Vitamin L is a washout.

Using the good ingredients at its disposal, including strong musicianship, a surplus of energy, and an extroverted front man, Vitamin L generates enough interesting material to fill out a solid half-hour EP.

Unfortunately, the band carries on for 70 wearing, hyperactive minutes. By the end, you find yourself wishing you could grab the players and stuff a megadose of Ritalin down Vitamin L's collective gullet.

The band's sonic collage recalls such punk-funk-metal style-mixers as Faith No More and, closer to home, the 1980s Orange County band, El Grupo Sexo. The influence of such fringy rockers as Frank Zappa and Pere Ubu's David Thomas also crops up in numbers like "467 Lb. Wife," a willfully artsy number full of zany colors.

Singer David Leon is a musical actor who possesses some of the theatricality of Thomas, Faith No More's Mike Patton, or Chad Jasmine of National People's Gang. But all three of them can carry a tune; Leon, from the evidence here, cannot.

To its credit, the band applies its out-there means to everyday situations. "Nels" portrays the downside of doing manual labor and working in a family business. "Swimming," probably the most accessible number, envisions life as an aquatic obstacle course of whirlpools and treacherous currents.

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