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Orange Curtain Keeps On Rising

Pop music: O.C. bands continue to impact U.S. record sales. Here are the best efforts from artists local and beyond.

December 30, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The exciting first blush of national recognition for the Orange County music scene has passed.

Now, nearly five years after the Offspring finally smashed the "Orange Curtain" that had shrouded a wealth of underground talent, it's downright routine for several local exports each year to sell bundles of albums or at least get a fair shot in modern-rock radio rotations.

The highest-profile Orange County act of the year was Korn, which has built a large and loyal grass-roots audience with an ominous, head-banging attack and singer Jonathan Davis' baleful cries from the Teenage Wasteland. "Follow the Leader" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart and became the band's third consecutive million-seller--making Korn the first Orange County rock band to notch three platinum albums.

Korn capitalized by organizing and headlining its own multiple-act arena caravan, the Family Values Tour. But artistically, Davis still doesn't have a steady-enough grip on the sometimes inflammatory language he hurls in his lyrics. And Korn's style, though a bit more flexible now, still is pitched to die-hard metal fans rather than to the ear-candy-loving mainstream.

The Offspring, whose 1994 album, "Smash," was the first mega-selling alterna-rock release from Orange County, showed signs of returning to the multiple-platinum circle with "Americana," a November release that quickly settled into the Top 10 on the Billboard albums chart and by year's end had become the band's third million-seller.

The most ironic development of the year was that Sublime, which disbanded with Brad Nowell's fatal heroin overdose in May 1996, was the year's most prolific O.C. recording act. MCA Records raided the vaults for three albums--a studio outtakes album (issued at the end of 1997), a live recording and a Nowell acoustic release. The Skunk label produced a feature-length video biography of the band, and Sublime remained omnipresent on KROQ two years after its demise.

Save Ferris shot into national contention with nearly 300,000 sales of "It Means Everything," a debut album of swing-flavored ska music. Reel Big Fish tried to prove that the ska wave hasn't crashed, following up its 1996 gold album, "Turn the Radio Off," with a lyrically inconsequential but musically zesty new album, "Why Do They Rock So Hard?"

No Doubt, which made Orange County ska famous (although its style leans much more toward mainstream pop-rock), teamed with Elvis Costello for "I Throw My Toys Around," a track on the "The Rugrats Movie" film soundtrack album. Otherwise, the band has lain low and labored on a planned 1999 follow-up to "Tragic Kingdom," its multiple-platinum breakthrough album from 1995.

Sales of Sugar Ray's 1997 album, "Floored," shot to nearly 2 million thanks to a sunny pop-reggae confection, "Fly," that flew counter to the hedonistic hard rock and metal that was the band's core style. Front man Mark McGrath made the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. Hoping to avoid having male modeling be its last peak achievement, Sugar Ray forsook metal and poured on the pop frosting to entice "Fly" fans with its next release, "14:59," which is due Jan. 12.

Social Distortion, the venerable flagship band of the Orange County punk movement, played the tortoise to those younger, more mercurial hares, finally getting a gold record in 1998 thanks to incremental sales of its 1990 album, "Social Distortion."

Together, the above-mentioned bands, the eight most successful acts from the county's alterna-rock scene, have sold more than 28.5 million albums in the United States during the 1990s, according to figures from the SoundScan monitoring service.

Trailing by 28 million-plus in commercial clout, but commensurate to the alterna-rockers in artistic worth, the local roots-music scene kept up a strong presence in 1998.

Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys led the pack in activity and recognition without even having an actual band release. Two side projects, one a tasty solo outing by front man Robert "Big Sandy" Williams singing doo-wop chestnuts, the other an almost all-instrumental, western-swing release by his sizzling bandmates, displayed the range and heat of their talent; while generally meatheaded and ham-handed "swing" bands proliferated as the trend-of-the-moment for '98, Big Sandy and band solidified their position as one of the few revivalist acts of the '90s making a distinctive addition to the traditions of the 1940s and '50s.

The Orange County blues scene generated good-to-excellent albums by three veterans: traditionalist James Harman, and blues-rockers Walter Trout and Mike Reilly.

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