Multi-instrumentalist Kit Watkins first came to attention here with Happy the Man, one of the few progressive rock bands to emerge from Washington. After two overlooked albums for Arista, Watkins left the group to join the nationally known Camel. He's been back for a while, teamed with percussionist Coco Roussel (they'll be at The Door on Tuesday), and still pushing a European art-rock sound that's less convoluted than Genesis or Yes, more ethereal than Brand X and yet kickier than Tangerine Dream. "Labyrinth" (Azimuth Records, P.O. Box 3495, Arlington, Va. 22203) is a surprisingly commercial album recorded in a short time and on a tight budget. It's also a stronger unit than many offerings by big-name bands treading the same waters.
Watkins, playing piano, minimoog, clavinet, organ, flute and guitar, manages to create a thick, multi-tracked sound that appeals to both the head and the feet (though seldom on the same cuts). With unpredictable shifts in tempo, lush orchestral textures and complicated melodic structures, the sound is not unlike a keyboard-oriented and decidedly pop-ish Weather Report. The weaknesses -- a predictably Gustave Holst-ish soundswell in "Mt. St. Helens" and some laborious doodling on "While Chrome Yellow Shine" -- are more than offset by the rousing punch on "Coin Opera," the romantic gentility of "Spring 1980" and the tasteful discipline Watkins and Roussel exhibit on tone poems such as "Two Worlds" and the title tune. Both players are technically proficient and creatively daring, a combination that often leads to obtuse or pompous music; in this case, it's high-energy and accessible.
The North Star Band is a Washington country-rock quintet that's been successfully kicking around the regional bar scene for the last five or six years. "Burnin' 'em Up/Live at Eskimo Nell's" (Es-ki-mo Brand Records, P.O. Box 5794, Bethesda, Md. 20014) is a more accurate representation of their ongoing appeal than a studio album done two years ago for the local Adelphi label. North Star bills itself as kick----country and most of the album is upbeat, from an appropriately swinging medley of Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose" and Waylon Jennings' tribute, "Bob Wills Is Still the King," to the band's own distinctive and driving originals, including singer Al Johnson's anthemic "Redneck Hippie."
Pianist Louis Hager's "Settle for My Dreams" and "Waitin' " are both in a decidedly Marshall Tucker-ish style, and if the band suffers from a problem, it's that the many originals seem a tad too derivative. Good, but derivative. What saves them are excellent harmonies and tight ensemble playing built around Hager's rollicking piano and Jay Jessup's outstanding pedal steel and electric guitar leads. Most of the 12 songs clock in at three minutes or less, reflecting North Star's de-emphasis on solo-cluttered arrangements. They do give in to a somewhat meandering 12-minute reading of Johnson's "Tallahassee," but that's the only major mistake on an otherwise well-conceived album. North Star appears at Quincy's in Arlington every Tuesday evening.
Tiny Desk Unit, a favorite of the art crowd that it came out of, has released its second EP, "Naples" (9 1/2x16 Records, 1737 DeSales St. NW, #300, Washington, D.C. 20036). There's something so precious and minimal about the effort that it's almost enchanting: occasional lyrics in French, global reference points, art and angst colliding in dark corridors. Like the Talking Heads, TDU establishes a simple, clipped groove; unlike them, TDU doesn't really progress much beyond the occasional accent or ornamentation from Bob Boylen's synthesizer or Michael Barron's Quicksilver-ish guitar. Susan Mumford's hedge-hopping vocals sometimes squeak and purr alluringly, as on "Take Me to Paris (I See a Pink Airplane)," but "Naples" lacks inventiveness or charisma. The problem with minimalizing is that sometimes you also end up trivializing; that may work on a canvas, but it's death to an art band.
One final local production: John Guernsey's "Rocketville" (Subconscious Records, Box 181, Garrett Park, Md. 20896) is rooted and almost immobilized in the '60s sound and tradition. Guernsey's career goes back to the seminal Claude Jones band in the late '60s, so it's not surprising that his new album so strongly echoes the Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful, Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield and other influential bands of the era whose melodies swing up rather than down. Guernsey's voice and delivery are not unlike George Harrison's (listen to "Still in Love"), but his gift for hummable melodies is offset by a brooding mindscape cluttered with nightmares, bad dreams and troubled personal relationships. The best songs benefit from splendid guitar work by Nils Lofgren (credited as Lefty Potomac), but overall it seems that Guernsey's work hasn't moved into the '70s, much less the '80s.