ERIC MARING

"Penguins Rock the World"

Mad Cat

SHWA

"Just a Thought"

Shwamusic

On his new release, singer-songwriter Eric Maring comes across as someone who believes in the power of positive folk-pop with all his heart and soul.

He's a throwback to the '60s in that respect, an unwavering optimist ("Don't ever put stock in a voice that puts you down," he warns on "Leo") as well as a social commentator ("Conversation With the Sniper" is a personal note to felon John Allen Muhammad, who's depicted as wasting his time "giving into sadness and giving into rage"). There are times, too, when Maring sounds like a cross between Steve Forbert (especially during hushed ballads, a la "Downtown") and Joni Mitchell (like her, he favors alternate guitar tunings).

Mind you, he's not in their league when it comes to songwriting, but "Penguins Rock the World" nonetheless has its charms. "Get Up and Believe," the opening cut, vibrantly mixes idealistic fervor with world-beat flavors, for instance. Several other cuts here, including the cartoonish title track, inspired by Maring's daytime gig as a grade-school teacher, also benefit from a cast of talented area musicians.

"Just a Thought" finds former solo singer-songwriter Shwa Losben leading a new alt-rock quartet that bears his name and packs plenty of rhythmic vitality and melodic appeal. Losben often sounds out of sorts with the world, struggling to make sense of relationships ("Here and Now") and dealing with exiting partners or dwindling interest ("Let Yourself Out" and "Forget I Said Anything"). Still, he and his bandmates ultimately display more craft and tunefulness than reasons to rant.

-- Mike Joyce

Appearing Tuesday at Iota. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Eric Maring, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8130; to hear Shwa, press 8131. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)