Orange County didn't invent melodic punk rock, but its bands have embraced it and honed it to a finer degree than maybe anywhere else.
The Offspring's new "Conspiracy of One" is the highest profile example of hook-laden O.C. punk of late, but plenty of others are still thrashing it out below the radar of the Billboard Top 200 chart.
The Vandals' latest, "Look What I Almost Stepped In," and the debut solo album by Vandals drummer Josh Freese continue and extend that tradition expertly, while Riverside quartet the BellRays, which play Costa Mesa on Friday, put a spin on pop-punk with an R&B-soul twist that's all too rare.
**** JOSH FREESE
"The Notorious One-Man Orgy"
Among the rarest species in all of pop music are great solo albums by drummers. In 99 and 44/100% of the cases where drummers do attempt to grab the spotlight, they rely on a whole lot of help from their friends.
Freese certainly has plenty of friends to call upon as a long in-demand drummer who not only supplies the rhythmic power to the Vandals, but scores of others including Guns N' Roses, Devo, Paul Westerberg, Suicidal Tendencies and A Perfect Circle.
Yet even those varied credits don't prepare you for the scope of this debut, for which Freese not only steps forward in writing and singing all the songs, but also playing all the instruments except for a few noteworthy guest appearances.
He positions himself squarely in the melodic pop-punk milieu of his illustrious peers and forebears, but without adhering to any punk conventions. As he puts it in the whimsically autobiographical "Josh Freese Is Ready": "Don't need no guidelines / Don't want direction."
There are lots of slashing bar chords and runaway train tempos, but Freese reaches well beyond meat-and-potatoes punk with the paddle-ball groove of "So All Under Me," the pure pop of "Why Won't 'Left Eye' Get With Me?" and the power pop-punk ballad "Queen of the Gangsters."
Meanwhile, his years working with Vandals songwriters Joe Escalante and Warren Fitzgerald have paid off in lyrics brimming with self-deprecating humor.
Freese also knows how to get an idea across without beating listeners over the head with it. "Men and Women" at first sounds like Sparks-meets-"Seinfeld" with a narrative championing what seems to be nothing: "Every person that I know are men and women . . . Some are skinny / some are fat."
Then, layered over a strong "Day Tripper"-ish guitar hook he quickly, unobtrusively makes his point: "Men and women . . . they both have arms and hands / But try to find someone that understands."
There's not a weak link in the songwriting, performance, recording chain here. Freese is clearly on fire.
**** THE VANDALS
"Look What I Almost Stepped In"
Punk's energy and speed have always made it the perfect forum for expressing teen angst and confusion. The long-term question that has befuddled many an enduring punk group is "What do you do when you grow up?"
The veteran O.C.-Long Beach quartet, whose members are now in their 30s, answer that question with intelligent humor and undimmed passion in their 10th album, the fourth for Nitro, the label started by Offspring singer Dexter Holland and bassist Greg Kriesel.
The songs--mostly written by guitarist Warren Fitzgerald while bassist-songwriter Joe Escalante has been busy launching his label, Kung Fu Records--careen through ongoing career woes, the dawning realizations of life as adults and relationship pains.
"Sorry, Mom and Dad" takes the decidedly un-punk stance of sympathizing with parents. Its flip-side viewpoint places responsibility for kids' burnout lives on their own shoulders:
Now you're 35 and working in a warehouse
Cuz you spent your college money on cocaine
And the shame of your existence
Is ever so persistent
Cuz you know your parents tried
And you're to blame--you're to blame
The punk credo of "Live fast, die young" gives way to insights about aging explored in "Flowers Are Pretty":
So don't worry what might give you cancer
Or stay up nights just wanting answers . . .
Things start off they're so terrific
They'll [mess] up it's scientific
Entropy, uncertainty won't yield to you
The group also is less concerned as time goes by about displaying its non-punk influences, here with gorgeous if fleeting nods to the Kinks (the first few bars of "The New You") and the Beach Boys (the intro to "That's My Girl").
A sense of humor--probably the Ramones' greatest gift to its numerous punk progeny--is strong as ever with the Vandals, from the romantic horror story in "Jackass" about a guy supremely humiliated by his rock 'n' roll-playing girlfriend, to "Behind the Music," the story of the Vandals' career arc hilariously encapsulated in 2 minutes and 40 seconds.
Through it all the group seems to be a bottomless pit of instrumental, lyric and melodic hooks, churning out one catchy verse and chorus after another.
*** THE BELLRAYS