There's a lot to like about "Katrina and the Waves" (Capitol ST-12400), the eponymous American debut of a promising Anglo-American quartet. To begin with, there's Katrina Leskanich herself, a strong, commanding singer who knows how to pull power from her voice and use it effectively. Then there are the songs. Lean, melodic and built along classic lines, they capture the innocent enthusiasm of the early '60s without losing sight of the ironic cool prevalent today. Finally, there's the band itself, supporting those other virtues with an ideal combination of poise and fervor.
For all that, Katrina and the Waves, who will be appearing at the 9:30 club tonight, have their weaknesses. It isn't that everything they do is wrong; it's that all of it isn't right, either.
At its best, the band, mostly through the writing of guitarist Kimberly Rew, delivers songs as dramatic and irresistible as "Red Wine and Whiskey." Thematically, the song is less than heartening, detailing as it does the dissolute pleasures of drink, and the verses mirror this foreboding musically as the chords ominously inch toward resolution. But the chorus surprises us happily with a triumphant major chord refrain that seems to spit in the face of lines like "We had a lot of money, but we blew it down the line." It's hardly anything to celebrate, but that simple compositional trick makes the song work.
By contrast, there's "Que Te Quiero," a Latinized love song so predictable in its manipulation of cliche' that it could as easily have been ground out by a Brill Building hack two decades ago. Worse, it sounds almost as if that were Rew's intention, as if hewing to a formula counted as some sort of homage.
Granted, the song is catchy. But it's also maddeningly shallow, and that's the problem. Rew is, at heart, a formalist, and he has an annoying tendency to base his writing on structural precepts rather than let his ideas develop freely. While that doesn't prevent him from coming up with songs as affecting as the wistful "Going Down to Liverpool" or the vigorous "Walking on Sunshine" -- and, in fact, is the only salvation for novelty numbers like "Machine Gun Smith" -- it leaves far too much of the material relying on surface charm and the band's ability to put these devices across. That last is particularly deadly when Rew resorts to the blues, a style for which Leskanich is utterly unsuited, as "The Sun Won't Shine" all too clearly shows.
Even if Katrina and the Waves lack depth, at least their album is mostly successful as pop, which is more than can be said for Lone Justice. These young Los Angelenos were the talk of that town for months after they burst through the paisley pretentions of the neo-psychedelic scene with their hybrid of country and rock. Mutterings about "the Next Big Thing" were rampant in the music press.
After listening to "Lone Justice" (Geffen 24060), though, it's hard to imagine what all the excitement was about, for seldom has so much effort been exerted to such limited effect. The album doesn't so much open as erupt with "East of Eden," its massive Bo Diddley beat throbbing lustily under Maria McKee's full-throated exhortations, and although what follows isn't always as overstuffed, it's invariably as exaggeratedly intense.
In fact, there's something downright cartoonish about Lone Justice. Give McKee a song as self-consciously country as "Don't Toss Us Away," and as much as her vibrato and conversational inflection might recall Dolly Parton, the overall effect of her delivery is more caricature than evocation.
It doesn't help that the group's material reduces the country-rock connection to terms as bald as the hopelessly stiff rockabilly of "Working Late" or the slick, Ronstadt-style pop of "Sweet, Sweet Baby (I'm Falling)." On occasion, Lone Justice can focus its excesses effectively, as on McKee's playfully moral "Soap, Soup and Salvation," but for the most part this band is a victim of its own enthusiasms.
The Hooters, by contrast, are professional almost to the point of cynicism, but that doesn't prevent their major label debut, "Nervous Night" (Columbia BFC 39912), from exerting an almost addictive appeal. Part of it, to be frank, is simply a matter of craft, for the Hooters are master colorists, filling out their songs with richly shifting textures and dramatic detail. Touches as simple as using mandolin to lighten "Day by Day" and a honking melodia to add tension to "Don't Take My Car Out Tonight" add tremendously to the music, slyly pulling the listener into the action of the songs.
There's more at work here than arranging tricks, however, for at its highest points the Hooters' sound cuts to the heart of their music. "All You Zombies" is more than just another white reggae number, for there's an element in its minor key afterbeats that vividly evokes the sort of dread the lyric alludes to. Similarly the semimetallic crunch given "Don't Take My Car Out Tonight" keeps the music on edge, until the protagonist's unspoken fears become as explicit as our own.
Like the others, the Hooters can and do overstretch their strengths. But on this album that's only a minor annoyance, not a major flaw. On the whole, the Hooters have perfectly matched form and content in their work, and, as a result, "Nervous Night" is one of the strongest debut albums of the year so far.