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SOUND & VISION

What a Few Hundred Bucks Can Buy : Low budget becomes high art in videos by two Southern California bands. Even the King of Pop is scaling back.

December 17, 1995|Lorraine Ali | Lorraine Ali writes about pop music for Calendar.

Low-budget gems by Southern California bands the Rentals and Supernova are uncut jewels in the outrageously expensive world of pop videos. Together, the productions cost less than one of those fancy refrigerators. They lead the competition in this month's Sound & Vision, in which current videos are rated on a scale of 0-100.

Both bands follow in the footsteps of Beck, whose homemade "Loser" video in 1994 inspired a horde of big-name directors to spend fortunes trying to duplicate its amateurish look. But most of them looked about as authentic as Kevin Costner as a sea warrior.

On the other side of the financial universe, even Michael Jackson seems to be showing some restraint these days. He may not be using out-of-focus shots and wavering camera work in his latest spectacular, but it looks as if he's trying to come back down to earth after the nightmarishly expensive "Scream."

Here's to frugality.

*

Supernova, "Math." This obscure Costa Mesa trio, whose members insist they are from a planet called Cynot, made the coolest video of today's lot for a mere $500. The musicians bob around awkwardly in spacesuits, strike robotic, Devo-esque poses and bounce off one another like molecules under a microscope. Set in a cheesy, spaceship-like environment (actually a public skyway in Minneapolis), this is the stuff that great futuristic space shows like "Dr. Who" and the original "Star Trek" are made of. "Math" is way funnier than "America's Funniest Home Videos," more stimulating than "Babylon 5" and almost as fascinatingly weird as "Jerry Springer." 90

*

The Rentals, "Friends of P." This black-and-white video, which you can't miss if you're an MTV regular, was made for a whopping $400. The Rentals--whose lineup includes members of Weezer and That Dog--offer a video that has quirky, new wave appeal, yet one that is the polar opposite of "Math" in the energy department. The musicians, wearing thick, plastic-framed glasses and drab expressions, stand uniformly still while singer Matt Sharp (the video's director) recites lyrics as if he were in some kind of instructional film. Enhancing the starkness, the words are printed in Russian subtitles across the bottom of the screen. If you love "Dragnet" reruns or '50s occupational films, you'll be riveted by this three minutes of sterility. 85

*

The Pharcyde, 'Runnin'." This L.A. hip-hop quartet, famous for its cartoonish pranksta rap, beat "White Man's Burden" to the screen with this twist on racial roles in America. The group members play stately mansion owners who are waited on by the all-white help. In this cleverly ironic video, a blue-eyed mammy takes care of the kids, two blond women haul baskets of laundry across a manicured lawn and a laborer builds a platform for a slave auction. These scenes are intercut with incongruous performances by each Pharcyde member, but the basic story line--that racism hurts no matter which way it's directed--flows as smoothly as the group's fluid grooves. 80

*

Elastica, "Car Song." In this clip by acclaimed video director Spike Jonze (credits: Beastie Boys to Weezer), three members of the British coed rock band roll through the streets of a Japanese city in a futuristic bubble car in search of a monster to slay. Looking like comic strip characters in their red vinyl uniforms, the three eventually step onto the pavement and begin sneaking around corners, aiming laser guns and eventually bringing the fire-breathing offspring of Godzilla to its knees. The campy dramatics work wonderfully with the band's quirky pop tune. 78

*

Rancid, "Ruby Soho." This self-directed video is supposedly a glimpse into the everyday life of Rancid, whose members are shown slacking on the couch, staring vacantly at each other and drawing on their jeans with a felt-tip pen. Though there are a few gratuitous shots--numerous side views of the singer's towering Mohawk and the guitarist's tattooed fingers (which spell out P-U-N-X)--in this video, whose premise is nothing flashy. It's simple cinema verite , suburban style. 70

*

Michael Jackson, "Earth Song." There's no escaping Jackson. Even if you're a fan, his omnipresence can be overwhelming. He returns this time with yet another visual extravaganza, singing about the decaying state of the Earth as we see the rain forest being chopped down, the African savannah being stripped of its wildlife and a nation being ripped apart by war. As usual, the special effects are spectacular--especially when the forest rebuilds itself. But even more remarkable is that the video's focus is on something other than Jackson himself. 70

*

Tha Dogg Pound, "Let's Play House." A classic example of how you can spend tons of money on a video and not come away with anything better than an average, dorky, teenage exploitation film. You know the drill: The two Dogg Pound members play bad at a house party, which is attended by scores of G-string-clad gals and a few fully clothed guys (yes, Snoop is one of them). Well, someone has to carry on the boring gender cliches of hair bands like Poison and Ratt in the '90s. 40

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