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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Quintet Remains Supple, Distinct

New Release Features a Dozen Tracks With Exquisite Ensemble Musicianship

*** 1/2 TRIP THE SPRING. "Leatherfoot" Sabertooth Records

September 27, 2000|JOHN ROOS

On its self-titled 1997 debut album, "Trip the Spring," the Fullerton rock band demonstrated a versatile touch with its musical stew in which blues, rock, folk, psychedelia and jazz mingled with uncommon ease. If the lyrics were opaque at times, they were at least pleasing to the ear and evocative.

The good news about its successor is that the adventure-seeking quintet sounds even more self-assured and distinctive. There's a seductive quality to these dozen tracks, in which the tone shifts from relaxed to tense and back again--sometimes within the same song.

Like any winning team, the individual talents mesh well in creating a unified attack. Lead singer Kevin Dutton, highly emotive and at times reminiscent of the Waterboys' Mike Scott, is perfectly suited to front the ever-shifting sonic textures produced by his brother-drummer David Dutton, lead guitarist John Kraus, keyboardist Chris Dalu and bassist Steve Parks.

Their instrumental chops are first-rate throughout, with well-timed solos complementing exquisite ensemble playing. Dalu's Dr. John-style piano rolls sparkle in the opening track, "1749," and the warm, rich guitar tones from Kraus highlight several songs, particularly his unexpected surf-guitar excursions in "OK Car," and his loping, spaghetti western-inspired licks that give "Visitor" its giddy-up.

But don't confuse Trip the Spring with long-winded jam bands like the Dave Matthews Band or Moe. With relatively shorter songs constructed around actual ideas, there's little room for ego-stroking, self-indulgent noodling.

Not surprisingly, Trip the Spring's signature genre-hopping blossoms on 'Leatherfoot." A mix of funky grooves and airy, alt-rock, "Desert Blue" sounds like Sly Stone backed by the Meat Puppets; "Ghost Town River" is one of those pretty-sounding, acoustic-tinged ballads that Neil Young--or Orange County's own Cowboy Buddha--would be proud of; and the bluesy, ominous "Devil Walkin" makes a fitting bookend to Robert Johnson's classic, "Come On in My Kitchen."

Also worth cheering is the emergence of Kevin Dutton as a more compelling, imagery-conscious lyricist. For instance, there's no mistaking the despair felt in "OK Car": "I'm a longtime passenger / My, oh my tattooed heart / Feel like falling apart." Equally telling is this line from "Crashin," a somber yet stirring tale of the fragility of romantic love: "When she throws you crashin / Something's gonna break."

Just when things are getting a little heavy, two easily digestible nuggets played back-to-back offer a welcome shift in mood. A compact pop-rocker with a hummable melody line and repetitive chorus, "Good Californian" is a near-perfect lead-in to "Senorita," an up-tempo, horn-drenched little ditty that'll surely put a bounce in your step.

What's most impressive about "Leatherfoot" is how it all comes together so naturally. Nothing seems forced or contrived. It's just five guys trippin' on a shared musical vision, and sometimes, that'll do just fine, thank you.

(Available from Sabertooth Records, P.O. Box 6165, Fullerton, CA 92834-6165; http://www.tripthespring.com.)

Albums are rated on a scale of * (poor) to **** (excellent), with *** denoting a solid recommendation.

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