Tripstar, At the Instar Motel. On this, the band's debut CD, Tripstar (formerly Instar) delivers melodic, vaguely psychedelic pop-rock with a slick, early-'90s feel. The harmonies soar prettily, the production sounds professional and we can easily imagine several of these gently trippy songs popping up on commercial modern-rock radio. Singer Bryan Hoskins ("of the angelic visage and voice," says the impossibly silly press kit) has a remarkable falsetto. That said, there's a fine line between Jeff Buckley and some anonymous Muny hopeful, and sometimes Hoskins crosses it. Although the lyrics are often unspeakably wretched ("I long for somewhere I can be wholesome/I can feel dandy not again lonesome"), the CD is sufficiently thick with hooks and sticky melodies to distract all but the most jaded ears from this embarrassing detail. Tripstar isn't reinventing rock & roll, nor is the band "a synergy of soaring elations, earth-shuddering profundity and magnetic innocence" (we're hoping whoever wrote this press kit is trying to be funny), but they're pleasant enough.
Ded Bugs, Planet of Blood. Full disclosure: This CD was accompanied by several handfuls of penny candy, a clever ruse that almost worked. Radar Station ate two pieces before deciding that those cursed Ded Bugs had compromised our much-vaunted journalistic ethics -- and for the price of a few quarters! We swallowed some ipecac and thereby returned to our original incorruptible state. Ahem! Representing De Soto, Mo. (population 5,993), the Ded Bugs won a Slammy last year for Best Punk Band, and it's easy to understand why after a spin of Planet of Blood, their fifth full-length. The Bugs' winning, goofy pop/punk isn't breaking any new ground, of course, but it never fails to charm and amuse, with zippy, handclap-peppered songs about dead girlfriends and zombies named Bob. If you like the Ramones, B-movies, comic strips and barre chords, you'll dig these antic De Sotoans, who also earn major Radar Station bonus points for their excellent graphics, laugh-out-loud liner notes and endearingly self-deprecating band bio. Or maybe they had us with the candy.
Javier Mendoza Band, Beautiful. Depending on your frame of mind, there's something either very disturbing or, um, very erotic, about this CD's cover photo, which depicts a smoldering, shirtless (possibly naked?) Mendoza closely flanked by the fully dressed men in his band, who all sport identical knowing smirks. Huddled intimately around their hunky leader, they look as if they're poised to whisper something very important into his ear. Musically, alas, the CD isn't nearly so enigmatic. The press kit describes JMB as a "transnational pop-rock band with a Latin edge," which more or less describes these inoffensive, midtempo modern-rock ballads. Mendoza won a Slammy this year for Best Reggae/World Music Artist, but it's obvious that he'd like to move beyond this subgenre and appeal to mainstream pop fans. Beautiful sounds glossy and competent, as befits a band that has an entertainment lawyer, a fan club and major-label aspirations. Frankly, JMB doesn't do much for Radar Station, but then again, neither do 98 percent of the bands at the top of the adult-contemporary charts, which suggests that our inability to get excited about JMB probably means they'll be wildly successful. Surely no one but an old crab-ass like Radar Station would object to lyrics such as "Your vulnerability is so empowering."
Tomorrow's Caveman, Today. This unapologetically retro quintet makes primal, Nuggets-inspired garage-rock with dirty proto-psych and surf-guitar inflections. Singer Ray James has an effectively snotty/soulful delivery, the guitars have just the right touch of distortion and the songs never seem self-conscious or kitschy. The only thing that keeps this band from being 100 percent authentic is the fact that its members were all born some 35 years too late. Rest assured, these guys will never go all techno on your ass; no drums will be sampled, no tapes will be looped and no fancy French producer's going to remix "(I Wanna) Come Inside (Your Mind)." Those of a certain temper will no doubt disdain Tomorrow's Caveman for this refusal to get with the 21st century; others will find their stubborn devotion to a moribund genre refreshing and bold.
Jive Turkey, Post-Modern Ambition. The cringe-inducing name notwithstanding, Jive Turkey delivers sophisticated, interesting hip-hop and '70s soul, a unique fusion of organic and synthetic sounds. Although the rapping mostly leaves us cold, the instrumentation is tight and funky, and contemporary beats, scratches and samples put the old vibes in a fresh context. Jive Turkey won a Slammy this year for best R&B band, but that title doesn't begin to describe the breadth of influences displayed on this, their debut CD: Funk, jazz, house and reggae all enrich the stock, making Jive Turkey frankly uncategorizable. Call it party music, and leave it at that.