ALL EARS: SXSW GOES POP! 

They are coming from the most unlikely places, like New York City.

Unlike The Strokes, New York's official ambassadors of debauched retro rock, the four members of Palomar couldn't muster enough attitude between them to make the chess club feel uncool. Their second release, imaginatively titled Palomar II (Self-Starter Foundation), is an instantly addictive piece of major-key pop, full of sing-along - sometimes scream-along - choruses. The bandmates - three girls and one guy, all 21 years old, and as their bio points out, single - are more often than not all singing at the same time, sha-la-la-ing in high, innocent voices. Those naïve sounding vocals have more than bubblegum on their minds, though; the lyrics skip right over the standard "I love you baby" stuff and get to the little quirks that make young adulthood interesting. Instrumentally, the group obviously owns a big collection of post-punk and power pop records, resulting in guitar lines as wiry and sharp as the choruses are non-threatening.

Pas/Cal may have an equally unchallenging vocal approach, all falsetto and sweet harmonies, but they wear it more like dissipation than innocence. Coming from Detroit, the land of Eminem and the White Stripes, they suffer their own sore thumb complex - but frankly, the boys wouldn't sound at home in any American city in the year 2003. Their debut EP, The Handbag Memoirs (Le Grand Magistery) splits the peppy '60s stuff with slower Belle & Sebastian-like numbers, and it's easy to envision the B&S cult taking to Pas/Cal enthusiastically, what with their hummable tunes and cheerfully ambiguous sexuality. A full-length disc reportedly is on the way soon, but this 20-minute sampler has enough variety and savoir faire to spare.

Speaking of the '60s: There was a lot of legitimate excitement last year about The Hives, the Swedish "garage" band that for some reason dresses only in black and white. I'm hear to tell ya, there's more going on over in the Land of Bergman than ascot-wearing, pseudonymed rockers. Meet The Venue, a group of Swedes who are more musically sophisticated than the Hives without sounding any less authentic. Their Mmhm! (released by Bella Union, the label owned by Cocteau Twins Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie) contains any number of gems that could have made the cut on the influential Nuggets collection of '60s garage rock and psychedelia; they somehow even get the fuzzy feel of vintage records without sounding precious or affected. The title track is 63 seconds of rocket fuel with no lyrics apart from "mmhm!" and an ecstatic "ah, ah, ah!" From there, it's all the Who and Kinks and mods and Small Faces and ... whew. A lot of fun, is what it is, with occasional bits of mild awkwardness in the lyrics to remind you that these fellas weren't born to the Queen's English. Who cares - let's dance!


More by John DeFore

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