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Album Review

Over a Barrel, Barrelhouse Still Barrels On

*** BARRELHOUSE "13 Sonic Splendors"

May 19, 1999|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I worry a little about Barrelhouse.

No, it's not that two of the best songs on this O.C. soul-blues-rock band's fifth do-it-yourself release since 1994 depict double homicides with an utter lack of repentance. Nor that singer-guitarist Harlis Sweetwater (Steave Ascacio to his mom, unless she, too, buys into Barrelhouse's cutesy game of using pseudonyms that smack of cotton plantations) rhapsodizes about boozy good times--adding a nice undercurrent of melancholy--in the evocative Seal Beach street-scene ballad "I Feel High." Nor even that Barrelhouse must feel a tad lonely as the only young, aspiring local grass-roots band drawing on the Southern soul and blues-rock roots of Otis Redding and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I worry because this is the kind of extremely promising band that seems ripe to die on the vine if it doesn't get some fiscal and creative assistance soon.

Scores, if not hundreds, of Orange County bands are out there bucking for a record deal, but Barrelhouse truly needs one. This six-man band is hardly perfect, but given a decent budget and a savvy, simpatico record producer, its potential for growth is tremendous--assuming that Harlis and the boys are teachable.

On this CD the flaws are apparent, but they easily are outweighed by Barrelhouse's strengths. The husky-voiced Ascacio is a good student of Redding's, but not a great one.

His singing isn't supple or rangy enough to drive a song on voice power alone--although he tries, and shows the strain, on several tracks, including the tender soul ballad "Step Aside" and the admirable but failed flamenco experiment "Bird of Paradise," which sounds like Tom Waits growling jilted dejection between shots of whiskey in a Mexican saloon.

The ensemble playing is tight, but more could be done with arrangements built around two guitars and a sharp sax-and-trumpet duo. Maybe that mythical producer, with that mythical budget, could push Ascacio's singing to a higher level, help the band make the most of its instrumental solos and fan the flame of inspiration that flickers in Barrelhouse's performances.

There's plenty to work with. Barrelhouse always has written more good songs than merely passable ones, and that continues here. When Ascacio's voice gets to ride a strong melody, that sense of straining to pull the whole load disappears.

"Albert's Shovel," previously released last year on a cassette EP, is the gem of the album, a driven, wild-eyed, sparsely arranged gutbucket acoustic-blues work song in which the protagonist earns his living with said shovel, kills and buries his sweetheart and her paramour with it when he catches them in flagrante, then, having landed in hell, vows to dig his way out with it.

"Murder in the County" has the same body count and crime-of-jealous-passion scenario, set to a tough, funky groove as it takes a jaunty, sardonic look at drunken mayhem as part of the human tragicomedy.

*

Another highlight is "California Sun"--not the Rivieras' oldie from 1964 but a relaxed, '60s-pop-tinged celebration of the beach life that calls to mind Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" as Taj Mahal might have handled it.

"Somethin' Good" and "11th Street" add to Barrelhouse's repertoire of good, high-energy Memphis soul re-creations.

A label's marketing and art departments also could improve on Barrelhouse's do-it-yourself efforts; the '50s B-movie sci-fi cover motif here is an improvement in taste over the symbolic salaciousness of the artwork on Barrelhouse's previous CD, "Peach," but it has nothing to do with the band's music or image. And, as titles go, "Albert's Shovel" would have been a lot more intriguing and less blustery than "13 Sonic Splendors."

If any of O.C.'s accomplished resident blues-R&B veterans--James Harman, Kim Wilson, Lee Rocker or Walter Trout, for instance--is interested in taking some youngsters under wing and into the studio, Barrelhouse is obviously the local act that could make the most of expert tutelage.

* Barrelhouse plays Saturday at 11:45 a.m. at the Doheny Blues Festival, headlined by Wilson Pickett, Little Feat, Keb' Mo' and Indigo Swing. Doheny State Beach, 23500 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point. $22-$50. (949) 360-7800 (ticket office) or (949) 262-2662 (taped information).

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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