IT USED TO BE that rock fans with well- out-of-the-mainstream tastes had to rely on imported albums to sate their craving for new music, putting them at the mercy of high prices and capricious distribution.
Luckily, small domestic labels such as Relativity and Homestead have helped put an end to both problems, through a combination of records licensed from British labels and new releases by otherwise ignored American vanguard bands. Here are some current examples:
COCTEAU TWINS -- "The Pink Opaque" (Relativity EMC 8040). Though this arty trio tends more to the evocatively atmospheric, there are some wonderfully melodic moments here, such as the dreamy "Pearly Dewdrops." Drawing equally from Siouxsie and the Banshees and Abba, the group plays the rich voices of Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Frazer off against droning, semi-psychedelic guitar lines for a sound that is lushly ephemeral.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK -- and the Egyptians, "Gotta Let This Hen Out" (Relativity EMC 8056). Hitchcock's combination of neatly turned melodies and curiously surreal lyrics makes him an engaging songwriter, while his raggedly insistent singing has made his albums utterly charming. The big advantage of this live album, recorded last year in London, is the additional edge created by the stripped- down arrangements, especially on "Heaven" and "Brenda's Iron Sledge." Guaranteed cult hero material.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS -- "The First Born Is Dead" (Homestead HMS 026). Back when he fronted Australia's The Birthday Party, Cave was a wildman in the best Captain Beefheart tradition. These days, though, he's metamorphosed into a sort of Delta blues punk, resurrecting classic country blues forms as post-punk expressionism. Oddly enough, it works wonderfully, from the moodily indulgent "The Black Crow King" to the Elvis epic, "Tupelo."
THE MARCH VIOLETS -- "Electric Shades" (Relativity EMC 8039). Like so many of Britain's psychedelic revivalists, the March Violets offer a curious mix of vision and revisionism. They are not above employing dance grooves or fashionably droning guitar lines, but at the same time, they cherish such '60s standbys as sudden tempo changes and garage-rock grunge. When the two sides meet, as they do on "Snake Dance," the results are stunning.
GENE LOVES JEZEBEL -- "Immigrant" (Relativity EMC 8036). This band takes a far more traditional view of psychedelic rock, and as a result sounds a lot closer to the contemporary American model. Granted, the band does go in for an occasional flog of the drum machines, but its real emphasis is on guitar interplay and on Michael Aston's wry wordplay. At its best, as on "Cow" and "Coal Porter," it's as catchy as it is befuddling.
SONIC YOUTH -- "Bad Moon Rising" (Homestead HMS 016). This Long Island quartet is into noise in a big way, which lends an artful angularity to the songs here. Admittedly, it might help if at least one of the four could sing as well as the collective generates feedback, but that isn't always a problem. Especially when the band recruits Lydia Lunch for the delightfully abrasive "Death Valley's 69."