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Freshness Triples Shelf Life of Punk : Rubber "Rubber" (cassette demo) (*** 1/2) : Wank "Animals of Discontent" Bordello Pop (cassette) (***) : Brown Lobster Tank "Toothsmoke" Dr. Strange (** 1/2)

September 17, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From here on out, punk bands bearing pop hooks are suspect until proven innocent.

Before Nirvana, it was a sign of integrity for rockers with a flair for good tunes to deliver them scuffed up and raw rather than spiffed up for mass consumption. From the Clash and the Buzzcocks to Husker Du, the Replacements and the Pixies, that method led to some fine against-the-grain music in the '70s and '80s.

Now punk-pop is strictly with the grain, and it attracts some musicians who would have been apple polishers a few years back. But even those who play punk-pop out of a genuine fondness, rather than by calculation, are suspect. The relatively few innovators have moved on, and legions of less-inspired inheritors have moved in.

In Orange County, emerging bands can point to an 18-year local tradition of catchy punk that didn't become industry-trendy until two years ago, when the Offspring made it big.

But while birthright may entitle young O.C. bands to play this style without being accused of trend-hopping--the "Hey, I was listening to my big brother's Adolescents records when I was 9" excuse--they still have to measure up by injecting some kind of freshness and individuality into what is becoming a worn-out form.

Rubber, Wank and Brown Lobster Tank represent a new wave of O.C. punk-pop bands. All three overcome the suspicion of guilt by association by keeping their pop hooks memorably catchy, their punk sound raw yet accomplished, and by latching onto lyrical ideas and attitudes that aren't routine.

*

Rubber arrives with a chance to be a real winner. Some scene veterans have murmured that the band may be too brash for a new, unproven act, but on its five-song demo that brashness translates into vital music.

The four-member band suggests an alliance of the Clash and Oasis, more pop than the former, more punk than the latter. The arrangements are enlivened by deft shifts in density and song architecture and solid use of backing vocals.

Singer Keri Kelli has an actor's knack, with unpredictable phrasing that brings immediacy to the songs as he moves from stick-out-your-tongue impertinence to full-on urgency.

*

Where many others succumb to now-fashionable moroseness and piety, Rubber doesn't mind coming off as a band of desperate but not serious, fun-loving, appetite-driven reprobates.

One song here, "F.U.R.," captures an unbridled sexual lust; "Big Star" is about a craving for fame and privilege--something the band implicitly endorses even as it carries out a character assassination of a stuck-up rock hero found slumming in a dive bar. As the tempo picks up down the song's home stretch, Rubber seems to be using its grudge against the hotshot--"Hey, big star's goin' down, down, down"--to feed its determination to go up, up, up.

Rubber is daring enough to risk condemnation on such songs as "Tweeked" and "Junkie Girl," which seem to embrace the hard-drugging lifestyle, much as the New York Dolls did.

But there's a difference between falsely glamorizing the drug life and playing the part of an addict projecting a glamorous myth to justify his choices and put an alluring face on his debasement.

As do the Dolls', Rubber's songs focus on the momentarily enlivening highs of the junkie life. But "I," the last song on the demo, brings it all into perspective. The song offers a hard, curdled, thematic takeoff on Huey Lewis & the News' "I Want a New Drug," attached to an Alice in Chains-style heavy-grunge workout; some Beatles "Drive My Car" riff quotation also crops up.

Without overt condemnation, the song gets at the desperation and sour lack of fulfillment in a life given over to quick-fix cravings. If Rubber has staying power and can build from here, this tape, available at its shows, could be the start of something exciting.

Wank's singer, Mystery Train alumnus Bobby D., often uses his chesty voice to play the role of a dead-end kid whose swagger can't mask his dread of what's up ahead on the down-bound path he has chosen.

Wank loses some points for hewing too closely to the Clash-Rancid line; the ska-flavored "Never" and the crunchy, enthusiastic love songs "Charity" and "Rollin' On" might as well be Rancid numbers. But they are supremely catchy songs that Rancid might wish it had written.

The four-man Wank lineup has other influences and dimensions to draw on. An innocent love song, "I Fall Down," shows that Bobby D.'s tough-guy character is just a romantic softy at heart. While keeping a raw edge, the song is infused with the pure-pop brio of a Marshall Crenshaw.

On a 1995 cassette, "Say Uncle," Wank also proved it could pull off a good, rough-hewn ballad or a soaring, Cheap Trick-style pop-rock tune. Having more than one way to achieve gratification keeps Wank off the list of abusers of the punk-pop tradition.

*

Brown Lobster Tank doesn't fish in any uncharted waters. The band's barreling, stripped-down, melodic-punk songs pick up where the South Bay's Descendants/All faction and O.C.'s Big Drill Car leave off.

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