Pop Off the Tops

Photos (top three, respectively) by
James Bunoan, Matt Otto, ChickenhawkIf nothing else in 2004, we wanna start some bar fights.
Here's the first punch: our picks for bands who, while "best" had all its meaning sucked away by American Idol, are gonna deliver something or other to a lucky few this year. In a year, you'll have all their shiny vinyl full-lengths. This weekend, you could grab their lame little demos—and get the right to say you got there before anyone else.

THE BLOW UP BLOW: An all-star Long Beach lineup playing at peak potential, Blow Up Blow (from a Damo Suzuki lyric, confidential sources report) tap out immaculately calculated post-punk that peels Krautrock hum into a Burma/Ubu ramjet. Like Jonathan Richman once said, they don't push out a sound so much as an atmosphere, a jittery, thick-as-cough-syrup prog-jam-fogbank as hypnotic and urgent as the blip on a heart monitor. Single (which better be "Super Tonite") coming not soon enough. THE DISTRACTION:Four skinny dicks with ugly clothes and beautiful equipment, already done and cashing in drink tickets before the soundman works up to cursing: that's an old formula, sure, but so is bathtub meth, and no one's tired of that yet, either. Reuniting most of Electric Eels cover band the Crummy Fags with one Utah mod and a bass player who's always laughing at something, the Distraction finally (and painfully) shook off their perky punk-pop past for a sneery new-wave snob shtick, and you know what? It's sort of making them famous, in a crummy way. Punk kids have never been anything if not suckers for punishment. Full disclosure: the band features an OC Weekly freelancer who can't do a goddamn thing to get you coverage in the paper. EMANON: Genius MC Aloe Blacc finally finished his psycholinguistics degree at USC and jumped back into hip-hop, performing as Emanon with Sound in Color alum DJ Exile and rapidly getting a reputation for all-consuming creative daring. Live trumpet on stage? Guitar breaks? Keyboard trills? All part of the master plan. Last year saw a series of EPs, but look for a full-length on up-and-coming label Sol Rising (home of other notable soon-to-be-titans Little Sci and Stacy Epps) in 2004. GREATER CALIFORNIA: Eerie soundtrack music for endless midnight drives to nowhere; for drinking whiskey in weed-choked, forgotten cemeteries; for staring back at shifty characters who'll look at you only from the corners of their eyes. Singer Terry Prine's deep, practically disembodied moan of a voice—you don't really care what he's singing as much as about the way he's singing it—is both disarming and comforting, like wrapping yourself up in the warm old coat your uncle shot himself in. There are poignant paeans to missing summers, changing seasons and stuff we don't have a clue about, but we love the way they keep us guessing. HELMUT STEIN EXPERIENCE: Last we heard from the Helmut Stein Experience, at the tail end of 2001, they had just put out a superb three-song sampler, a drippingly delish mlange of sweet soul, blues, jazz and R&B. Turns out it was just a prick tease for this full-length, which builds on the sampler's foundation of classic, what-if-white-people-were-never-allowed-to-make-music rhythms, with some groovy, grooving extras. Every track is a standout, if only because it's all real music, rooted in real aural history, a nod to the decades before poseurs and publicists took over everything. THE MANIFOLDS: These greater-LA-basin kids catchphrase their band as Gravity-plus-Estrus—they're talking about certain hipster record labels there, but the semantics still stand, and hot-and-heavy translates over just fine, especially with that jovian double-drum-set rhythm section. The Manifolds aren't full enough of themselves to really push getting signed, but there are much worse ways to run a trust-fund indie label into the ground than this. Messy, loud and smart, like the history teachers who make it—the Minutemen and the Mono Men say yes. PISTOLA:A Santa Ana group crafting Spanish/English/Spanglish gems that tickle the heart and fists the way few other local groups do. It's as masculine as emo-pop gets, and their Cure covers rule! RICHARD SWIFT: Singer, songwriter and sometime bandleader Swift—who looks like Eraserhead with better hygiene—is set to follow up concept album The Novelist (a mix of experimental electronic grumblings, catchy pop and '30s swing, with banjos, vaudeville trumpets and snappy percussion) with a proper debut this year. If his last side project—a set of songs for children more appropriate for martinis at a downbeat Silver Lake hipster bar than recess at Romper Room—is any indication, it'll be worth the wait. THE 60 WATT KID: After the dancing and the disastering wind down, Costa Mesa's Kevin Litrow gets a little lonely and a little blue. Blame us for forgetting that behind the white pants and hipster cachet was a demure little solo singer-songwriter. Strapped into that acoustic guitar, locked behind a keyboard and collared by a harmonica, Litrow on his own looks as cramped and tense as a Mercury astronaut shuddering through reentry, but his music is nothing but silence and open space, spare analog-tech acoustic pop dirges balanced on Eno drone and cloudy Van Morrison anomie. SON DEL CENTRO: The house band for the badass Santa Ana community space Centro Cultural de Mxico, Son del Centro won't be playing paying venues anytime soon. The three- to eight-member group is strictly a nonprofit operation that performs at anti-war protests, school events and even street corners so the world can hear gratis the virtues of son, native music of the Mexican Caribbean state of Veracruz that's like a twinkling glimmer for SanTana's rough reality. Even if you no hablar espaol, that's no concern: Son del Centro is all about soaring acoustic music that renews hope in humanity as they strum, pluck and pound. —A bunch of us See also: the Alleged Gunmen, the Bolides, Entrada, G.B., Greyboy, the Intelligista, the Lipstick Pickups, the Matachine, Odelia, the Orphans, Pelos, Street Trash, the Thingz and the Willowz.

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