IS THAT GARAGE band down the street the next R.E.M.? Major record companies don't want to find out the hard way, so they're signing indie-label bands at a frenetic clip. Some smaller labels may not survive these raids, and the bands that haven't been plucked yet tend to be even more commercially marginal than ever before. Musically, of course, that's not inherently a bad thing, as some of the following demonstrate.
The Clean "Vehicle" (Rough Trade). Back together more than a decade after inaugurating the New Zealand indie-pop scene, this unassuming trio sounds as fresh as ever. The essence of the simple, rollicking sound subsequently expanded by the Chills and the Verlaines is distilled in each of these 13 spare, jumpy, almost- throwaway songs, which make such everyday concepts as "I Wait Around" and "Big Cat" sound simultaneously both ordinary and extraordinary.
The Jack Rubies "See the Money in My Smile" (TVT). They don't call it "pub rock" anymore, but bands like the Godfathers and the Jack Rubies still play punchy, melodic hard rock in the Ducks Deluxe/Brinsley Schwartz mode. The Rubies' lyrics, which show the effects of a British education, are sometimes watered-down Dylanesque: Songwriters Ian Wright and S. D. Ineson drop references to Guy Burgess, Nietzsche, Mona Lisa and Charles Manson What matters more are the melodies, which can verge toward Lloyd-Cole-contemplative on slower songs like "A Walk Down Any Street" but kick up some dust on tracks like "Baby Fire."
Miracle Room (Bar None). Cornball noise-rock song titles like "Windowpain" are actually the worst thing about this New York-area trio, which plays big, booming but sinuous art-punk -- sort of the brutalist flip side of gossamer minimalists Hugo Largo, whose Hahn Rowe engineered and mixed this four-song EP. Though harsh, tracks like "Mother of Destruction" and the shout-along "These Are My Friends" use typical rock instruments to achieve a most untypical effect, a hypnotic groove midway between traditional Middle Eastern and no-wave noise merchants like Glenn Branca. It may not be miraculous, but it is both energizing and entrancing.
Modern English "Modern English" (TVT). Indie labels aren't just for bands on the way up; they're also for those on the way down. The English still make glossy new-wave pop, but their inspiration is clearly flagging. Re-recording their 1982 college-radio hit, "I Melt With You," shows how lost this band is; not only is it a desperate attempt to attract attention, but the new version is only slightly altered. This mostly modestly funky album sounds fine, if a bit enervated, but it actually cultivates rather than conquers ME's reputation as a one-hit wonder.
The Pooh Sticks "Formula One Generation" (Sympathy for the Recording Industry). This Welsh quintet recalls the Undertones in their sprightly "Teenage Kicks" period; indeed, the album has not one but two versions of a song called "Teenage High." The Sticks, though, are more knowing than the early 'Tones: The opening "Radio Ready" comes with an overture that features the barely heard strains of such songs as the Raspberries' "Overnight Sensation," only to explode, "It suddenly hits you, a surprise, a bullet, a shock/You're falling in love with one of the New Kids on the Block." The Sticks can overreach (as in the epic "Tonight"), and such teen-love songs as "Soft Bed, Hard Battles" and "Time to Time" are far from innocent, but that just throws some interesting shadows on their beaming-bright three-chord romps.