Local H baffled by its acclaim

Three years ago, had some zealous scribe predicted Chicago duo Local H would land on dozens of critics' Top 10 lists by the end of the decade, many would have worked diligently to get him fired.

Including, perhaps, the band.

``I never think of what we do as anything that would qualify as being a critic's darling, you know?'' said Scott Lucas, the singer-songwriter half of the act. ``I have no idea what we would might have done to get on such a list. Besides, the music I liked growing up was never anything like that.''

It is now. Local H's most recent effort, the storming, vaguely conceptual ``Pack Up the Cats,'' found its way onto more than a handful of writers' lists, offering a supposed seal of approval that once seemed unlikely for the ``Copacetic'' team, which hasbeen plagued by comparisons to Nirvana. (Only Bush beats them in quantity.) Now, given killer cuts such as ``All-Right (Oh Yeah)'' and the slightly satirical new single ``All the Kids Are Right'' being powered up in invigorating live shows (including a gig Wednesday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre), the group is drawing comparisons to Cheap Trick and Aerosmith, with traces of Elvis Costello-ish punk for good measure.

All of which makes some sense to Lucas, 28, and his partner, drummer Joe Daniels, though it still leaves them baffled. ``All I can say is that we thought we had a good record going into this,'' he said. ``So maybe that's what (critics) see.

Then again, they tend to like a lot of crappy records too, so who knows?''

``Pack Up the Cats'' virtually stupefied some who had written off the band after the passable but hardly spectacular success of its sophomore release, ``As Good As Dead.'' The title could have been prophetic had Lucas and Daniels not had the foresight tocraft ``something that was timeless.''

``I think people lately have gotten too caught up in trying to figure out what's new and what's hip,'' Lucas added, ``and they start messing around with drum machines and new technology. That's fine for a while, but the problem is that becomes obsolete so fast. All these records using loops and samples on otherwise basic rock tracks are pretty soon going to sound as dated as a keyboard bit on a Dio track from the '80s.

``Whereas you hear a Led Zep record ...''

So we're more than 30 years from ``Sgt. Pepper'' and classic-rock radio continues to flourish, but might not Beck and Prodigy be considered equally timeless in 2025?

``But the records you'd listen to now or what came out of the '80s, like the SST records or stuff by R.E.M., those records weren't made to be hip or in step, just as the best '70s stuff wasn't made for the mainstream. It just found it's way there,'' Lucas countered. ``It's just about a certain sound. And myself, I would never make a record based on an article I read in a magazine telling me that some new trend was cool.''

Ditching modern-rock producer heroes in favor of Roy Thomas Baker (the man behind FM staples from the likes of Queen, Journey and the Cars), Local H sought to return to the song-cycle format of the best art-rock albums of the '70s, particularly by Pink Floyd (though nothing on ``Cats'' sounds even remotely like that band).

Within a few tracks, for instance, the would-be protagonist, a rock star in the making, is feeling ``Lucky''; by the closing ``Lucky Time,'' Lucas explained, ``without even knowing it, (he) has fallen into all the same rock-star traps that so many othershave succumbed to, and no one likes (him) anymore.''

It's a quick descent from the arena-rock madness of the opener to the questioning of ``What Can I Tell You?'' and ``She Hates My Job'' on through the antagonistic slam of ``All the Kids Are Right'' and the ruminative closing. ``You get to that moment of clarity, where you think, `Just one more chance and I won't (mess) up again,''' Lucas said. ``And then it happens all over again. It's human nature. You can't avoid it.''

It's the sort of album artists just don't make these days - at least, not rock groups. ``People aren't putting as much craft into their albums anymore,'' Lucas noted. ``When I grew up, the albums I used to listen to, there was that idea of making it a collection, something that belonged together, that couldn't be any other way.

``But I don't think people listen to records that way anymore. ... People just skip around - which makes sense, actually, since bands aren't really making records that are worth hearing from beginning to end. I mean, you listen to a 70- minute record andyou're just exhausted by it if you sit with it from start to finish. What happened to albums that were 38 minutes long?''

Regardless of the acclaim, it would seem the band's future is somewhat uncertain, given that Island, Local H's label, was snatched up in the recent merger of MCA and Seagram's. Is Lucas worried about falling for false promises of a rosy 2000?

``I'm feeling pretty confident that we're settled in here,'' he said. (And in fact, Island has reportedly committed itself to a second promotional push for ``Cats.'') ``That merger dragged out for so long, people really knew whether they were going to lose their jobs or contracts by the time any word got out. It's kind of a relief that it's all over now.''

Instead, Lucas and Daniels are just beginning to give thought to what they will record next - and it won't be a concept album.

``We've done that enough now. It's too early to tell, but I'm pretty sure it will be our `Back in Black.' Just 10 great songs. Nothing more.''

On Jimi Hendrix's ``Live at the Fillmore East'' (Experience Hendrix): Amazing, as expected, and further proof that most anything from the master's Band of Gypsys period is worth hearing, pointing to the funkier, ever more experimental work Hendrix might have created had he lived. At the same time, why all of this? Smells like completism and only the most ardent Jimiphiles (right, their ranks are many) will sit through every last minute.

On ``Wired Magazine Presents Music Futurists'' (Rhino): A savvy, if hardly perfect, overview of avant-garde pop and jazz that encompasses everything from space- age pop king Esquivel to way-out-there innovators such as Sun Ra and Steve Reich (though their selections here aren't as mind-boggling as you might expect). Plus stops for Can, Eno, Devo, Laurie Anderson, Thomas Dolby, Sonic Youth, even DJ Spooky. Still, Tangerine Dream? Swap it for a Kraftwerk tune.

On ``The Disco Box'' (Rhino): Four discs, exhaustive liner notes, excellent packaging and nearly all you need to know about the sound (including Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, The Silver Convention and The Andrea True Connection). But no Bee Gees?And only two Donna Summer cuts (and neither is ``Love to Love You, Baby'')?

Right - licensing fees. All is forgiven, then, except for Patrice Rushen's ``Forget Me Nots.'' Fun tune, but disco? That's stretching it.

On Mike Ness: Heard some of the new album, including the rousing cow-punk cover of Dylan's ``Don't Think Twice, It's Alright'' and the Springsteen duet, ``Misery Loves Company.'' If those are any indication, there should be no reason for the O.C. legend to return to Social Distortion. Powerful, powerful stuff.

On No Doubt: We're hearing May for a new album. Nice thought, but like the Steely Dan album that's supposed to show up June 8, I'll believe it when it's in my stereo.

On the new Pretenders single, from ``The Other Sister'' soundtrack (Hollywood): Chrissie should know better. ``I'll Stand by You'' was bad enough, but a Diane Warren ballad. Pure cheese and only vaguely worthy of being called a Pretenders tune. Better onthat soundtrack is Joan Osborne's remake of ``At Last,'' Etta James' staple, but she doesn't give it the proper passion. And don't even get me started on why Juliette Lewis was allowed to sing ``Come Rain or Come Shine'' (or anything else, for that matter) at any time.

By Ben Wener

Ben Wener can be reached at (714) 953-2248, or send e-mail to benwen(at)link.freedom.com

(c) 1999, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).