I usually don't do a midyear ranking of the best local albums, but the Orange County crop for 1995 is already so strong and plentiful that a six-month list seemed in order. The local scene to date has produced a year's worth of excellence, and releases by such past perennial inhabitants of the local Top 10 as Social Distortion and Joyride are still to come.
Orange County is broadly defined for list purposes, our bankrupted boarders being stretched to include acts from the closely-intertwined Long Beach alternative-rock scene (i.e., Willoughby and One Hit Wonder), artists who may not reside in O.C. but who have had a strong performing presence here for many years (Covina's Rick Shea), and bands whose key personnel may no longer reside in the county but who have ineradicable historic ties to its music scene (such as Lutefisk's main man, Don Burnet).
1. Standard Fruit (Unreleased, untitled, unsigned). To that \o7 unsigned\f7 , add \o7 unbelievable\f7 . It's almost inconceivable that the music industry has turned a tone-deaf ear to this gem of an album, which rekindles the spirit of pure-pop pleasure in a way rarely encountered in this era of noise and loathing.
Standard Fruit's approach skips along the melodic-rock continuum somewhere between the Beach Boys and the Smiths, but the Fullerton band has a style and sound not slavishly derivative of anybody. The Fruit's fine, self-financed 1993 debut album was charming and full of pure-pop splendor, but the new one shows tremendous growth. The greatest leap is in the band's newfound knack for rocking out in an assured, unforced, vibrant manner that drives home, rather than obscuring, its splendid pop craftsmanship.
In a time dominated by snarling punkers, Standard Fruit has zero punk content, which may have much to do with its business predicament. The anger that does flare up at album's end (although not without some humorous undercutting) is just one emotional color in an array of songs that do justice to life's poignant and pathetic side, yet redeem the pain with the invigorating burst of joy-inducing vitality that is one of the unique gifts we can get from a great pop song. The album is loaded--absolutely packed--with songs that can take you out of yourself for their three-minute duration. And that, pop lovers, is the ultimate payoff.
Unfortunately, the music industry seeks payoffs of another sort. Standard Fruit's manager, Sam Lanni, tells an instructive story about how he brought a tape of one album track, "Diary of Ann," to a UCLA seminar in which a high-ranking talent scout for a major label was instructing participants in the ways of A&R.
As an exercise in how to sift through tapes to spot salable talent, students were asked to play tracks they had brought in, and their classmates would signal with a show of hands when they had heard enough to know they weren't interested. Lanni said that Standard Fruit's song played all the way through, with no show of halting hands, until the teacher stopped it herself.
Then the big-label scout admonished the class for wasting its time listening to a song that was too "happy" to have a chance in a modern-rock marketplace that supposedly wants only misery for company. She evidently didn't think it significant that the song had captured a room full of people sufficiently schooled in and enamored of pop music to be taking her course.
The Fruit delivers on stage as well as on record, and for now, on stage is the only place you're going to be able to hear what I'm raving about. Upcoming shows are July 8 at the Blue Saloon in North Hollywood, July 24 at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach, and July 28 at the Roxy in West Hollywood.
2. One Hit Wonder, "Tug of War" (Lethal); "Where's the World?" (Rock World). These two EPs, released simultaneously on different independent labels, showcase the perfect pop-punk band. One Hit Wonder roars with raw power and fed-up ire, yet it also seduces with its melodic savvy and impresses with its passion, its humor, its intelligence and its insistence that rock 'n' roll is, after all, supposed to be fun.
3. Water, "Nipple," (MCA). True to the band's name, its debut album flows nicely. The shifting textures and alluring melodies combine with a solid melodic-rock wallop to take a listener on an impressionistic journey.
4. Rick Shea, "The Buffalo Show" (Major Label). On his debut CD, this veteran of Southland honky-tonks delivers a poetic and lovely take on progressive country music. Gorgeous balladry abounds.
5. Chris Gaffney, "Loser's Paradise" (HighTone). Gaffney doesn't play as deep in left field here as he sometimes did on his two previous albums. Still, his is a singular approach to country and roots music, and there is no shortage of offbeat approaches, or of singing and songwriting full of deep feeling and robust energy.