Giant Ant Farm and Soul Scream stand apart stylistically from the punkish legions, roots bands and guitar-rock exponents that make up most of the local original-rock scene. Long Beach-based GAF draws on venerable cabaret music traditions, while Orange County's Soul Scream achieves a sharply played mating of sax-driven R&B with '80s collegiate-rock influences. Both are worth checking out if you're looking for something a little different. Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.
*** Giant Ant Farm, "Fortune" Vaccination Records Giant Ant Farm's forte is musical time-tripping back to the theater and cabaret music of decadent Weimar Germany, led by a front man who sounds as if he's been shown the way to a whiskey bar that has nothing on the jukebox but Tom Waits.
All the elements of Brecht/Weill performance are there, with clarinet, brass, accordion, acoustic guitar and upright bass combining for a wheezy and sinister circus-band sound.
Dren McDonald, the band's singer and main lyricist, weighs in with a Waits-like husky growl and Waits-like verge-of-dementia theatricality. The obvious homage is palatable because A) you don't hear nearly as many Waits knockoffs as Neil Young, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin copycats, B) the band plays inventively, and C) the surrealistic, weirdly humorous lyrics and overall atmosphere vividly evoke a landscape where everything is falling apart.
Musically nostalgic as it may be, "Fortune" packs some immediacy, drawing an implied connection between a Weimar Republic sinking soddenly toward Nazism's iron horrors, and a contemporary America where national confidence, cohesion and democratic values, while probably not in immediate danger of giving way to totalitarian rule, are at least having a rough ride of it.
In contrast to the overt expressions of anger and dread you get in most punk songs about the declining state of things, McDonald offers symbolic and metaphoric dreamscapes, like this ominous we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place vision from "Pirate Song:"
\o7 And the cats are going mad in the city that was somewhere Tennessee . . .
And the threat of parades hangs like a sword,
And we wait for the day the rain starts its pour.
And we'll sail from these streets for a Portugal shore
Where the cats are naive.\f7
Along with the crumbling social landscapes that dominate this album, the band's second, come portraits of dissolving romances and, in "Houdini," a peek into a particularly joyless and decadent party ("How would Houdini slip out now?" wonders the narrator).
Just as things threaten to become formulaic, GAF slips into a more pop-oriented gear down the homestretch in songs that ease off on the Waits-style huskiness and recall the vaudevillian and saloon-ballad sides of Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello.
"His Uncheckered Life" is the tale of a man who goes on a binge of debauchery because he can't take the pressure of upholding an unblemished reputation; "The Con and His Game" is a similarly catchy tune. In both cases, the main writer is Mike Flanagan, who plays saxophone and clarinet in Giant Ant Farm but also is the impressive songwriter and front man of the more conventional pop-rock band Willoughby.
"Monte," one of McDonald's crumbled-relationship portraits, registers the mood (although not the all-strings instrumentation) of Costello's "Juliet Letters" collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet.
Dark, witty and well-wrought, "Fortune" doesn't seem especially original if you consider the wider world of avant-pop, but Giant Ant Farm has the local sphere of Waits/Weill influence pretty much to itself and makes the best of it.
(Available from Vaccination Records, P.O. Box 3995, Long Beach, CA 90803.) \o7 * Giant Ant Farm plays Friday 14 at 9 p.m. at Sacred Grounds, 399 W. 6th St., San Pedro, (310) 514-0800; April 22 at 3 p.m. at Beach Fest at Shoreline Park in Long Beach, (310) 436-7727; and April 29 at 7 p.m. at Rhino Records, 1720 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 474-8685. \f7 *
** 1/2, Soul Scream, "Mister Sunshine", (no label)
As an old Broadway tune put it, "Ya gotta have heart, miles and miles of heart." Soul Scream's problem is that it (or, more precisely, its singer-lyricist, Dave Tetreault) is long on would-be wit but shows little heart. The album consistently avoids open feeling in favor of a pervasive cleverness that often seems arch, callow and stilted.
We should hasten to note that Tetreault and his four band mates do have miles and miles of talent as players. Soul Scream's second CD contains loads of impeccable, danceable pop-rock that melds coursing, Smiths-style guitar rhythms with brassy R&B horn arrangements out of the Tower of Power textbook.
The Orange County band's assets include a very sharp rhythm section, an inventive lead guitar player in Jon Ide and a first-rate soloist in saxophonist Kirk Tracy, whose command and tonal presence mark him as a player to watch.