CONSIDERING HIS gruff, offhand delivery, it comes as no great surprise when St. Johnny frontman Bill Whitten starts quoting Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" halfway into "Scuba Diving," the opening song on the New York quartet's new "Let It Come Down." St. Johnny clearly intends to sound worldly and world-weary, and -- with the assistance of Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann and a new guitarist and drummer -- it frequently does.
"Down" has a denser, more intricate sound than its predecessor, "Speed Is Dreaming," and its flourished of country ("Pin the Tail on the Donkey"), blues ("Fast, Cheap and Out of Control") and gospel ("Million Dollar Bet") sometime suggest a whacked-out version of "Let It Bleed"-era Rolling Stones. Whitten is not yet capable of penning classic rock songs, though. Such tracks as "Just When I Had It Under Control" and "Bluebird" are arresting, but more for their studio atmospherics than for their lyrics or melodies.
The members of Earth 18 have impeccable hardcore-punk credentials: Guitarist/synthesist Jon Dupree played with D.C.'s Void and bassist Graham McCullough with Detroit's Negative Approach. These days, though, this Washington trio owes more to the early than the late '70s. The band's eponymous EP draws on English glitter, metal and art rock, and its instrumental track, "Automatic Lullaby," is sufficiently grandiose to suggest the music that lean, mean hardcore set out to immolate. The disc's most effective track, "The Church (Blue Love)," marries Led Zeppelin and T. Rex. It may not be a consummation profoundly to be wished, but Earth 18 makes it work. ST. JOHNNY -- "Let It Come Down" (DGC). To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202/334-9000 and press 8104. EARTH 18 -- "Earth 18" (The Medicine Label). For a free Sound Bite, press 8105. Both appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club with Edsel.