Hot Poppers

There's melody, musicianship beneath the snarl of the Vox Poppers

"Musicality" -- and all that the term implies -- has long been the most misunderstood and undervalued element of punk rock. It's the kind of thing that so-called "real" punks have frowned upon ever since Glen Matlock was drummed out of the Sex Pistols for being too fond of the Beatles. That mentality, as well as some overactive pituitary glands, eventually resulted in the tuneless dreck known as SoCal/Orange County scene and, in turn, dozens of other hard-core fiefdoms.

But for all its bluster and fist-pumping machismo, the most compelling practitioners of the genre have always been its most musically and lyrically heartfelt. Strip away the pulsating guitar spuzz from the Ramones, and you're left with a minimalist East Coast Beach Boys; listen to the Clash's earliest records, and beyond the pseudo-political sentiments and "Hate or War" dogma, and you'll find pop moments sweet enough to give Bobby Sherman a toothache. Those groups (and scores of others since) instinctively knew that sincerity and melody -- nottestosterone-fueled posturing -- were the real hallmarks of great rock 'n' roll.

Maybe it has something to do with their ages or the players' unique personal history, but the Valley's Vox Poppers have always had a similarly intuitive understanding of this verity.

Led by singer/guitarist Tony Fontaine and Nick K., the group's members have a long and illustrious background in Arizona music. Fontaine was a founder of Tucson's Sidewinders (later Sand Rubies) before ditching the Rich Hopkins/David Slutes-led combo for L.A. punkers Smart Bomb. In late '96, he hooked up with Nick K. and bassist Art Banko, then playing in town with the Bishops. The trio formed a new group and eventually enlisted former JFA drummer Mike "Bam Bam" Sversvold -- himself a local pioneer with the skate-punk torchbearers -- solidifying the band's current lineup.

The band has crafted an impressive and long-overdue debut, Say Go, that transcends its compelling local pedigree. The 12-track disc (a self-produced affair, recorded at Platinum Studios in Tempe) finds the group drawing inspiration from the early blast of creativity that fueled the Class of '77.

Buried just beneath the spikes-'n'-sneer exterior is an innate sense of songcraft that goes a long way in carrying the material beyond well-informed mimicry.

After the beat band/punk mélange of the opener, "Surprise Goodbye" (replete with glorious "Oh, yeah!" exhortations), the group's playful side comes to the fore on the intro of "Listen to the Sounds" -- where it works a jazzy finger-popping motif before launching into a decidedly Steve Jones/Professionals-sounding anthem.

Elsewhere, the group splits the difference between Elvis Costello's horn-rimmed fury and the Boys' high-register remorse on "Underground," before making the inevitable stop at the Bowery for the Ramones-flavored "I Can Feel It."

The most endearing quality of the album is its knowing sonic touches. The bass line/guitar hammer build up of "It's Easy" hints at the Only Ones' "Another Girl, Another Planet" for a split second; the "God Save the Queen" riffage that leads into "It's Easy" lasts just long enough to strike a familiar chord.

And that, in a nutshell, is both the story and the charm of Say Go. Its influences are tangible, delivered with a wink and smile throughout, but it's merely a tint of color, not a slather of paint. Working as both hook and homage, it allows the listener to ease comfortably into the Poppers' own spirited muse.

Say Go is to be released in October on the band's own as-yet-unnamed imprint. The disc will be available on the Vox Poppers' Web site (www.voxpoppers.com) and at local retailers. In the meantime, the group is scheduled for a gig on Friday, September 29, at Jugheads, and with the Sonic Thrills on Friday, October 6, at Long Wong's on Mill. Showtime for both is 9 p.m.

Ruthless: Fame is fleeting for most local bands, and in the case of The Weaker Sex -- the group we profiled in this very space last week -- it was ridiculously so. Take care to note the past tense in the reference; the all-female hillbilly quintet, led by bassist Ruth Wilson and together just a few weeks, broke up as we were going to press last week.

Since her departure from Flathead in 1997, Wilson has been involved in too many projects to enumerate, but eternal optimists that we are, we thought that this latest endeavor would prove to be the one that the pouty-lipped chanteuse would see through to fruition.

We'll admit we didn't really think The Weaker Sex would survive for very long. Girl groups are, historically, fairly combustible -- for proof, look no further than the McGuire Sisters, Supremes, Runaways, Go-Go's, Bangles, etc. That said, we still expected The Weaker Sex's run to extend at least past the weekend. Alas, it was not meant to be, and the group imploded amid creative and, ahem, "personal" differences not long after Bash & Pop met with the band. The resulting bust-up forced the combo to cancel a trio of announced gigs, including a set last Thursday at Long Wong's on Mill (Wilson played solo instead) and a spot opening last Saturday's Grave Danger show at Nita's Hideaway.

However, this may not be the last we hear of The Weaker Sex, as Wilson and guitarist Tessa Chapparone (who, as we noted last week, is the daughter of local music vet Bruce Connole, a fact that ceases to amaze no one) have vowed that they will press on, having already recruited new members to fill the departed boots of singer Erica Cluff, vocalist/fiddler Heather Rae and guitarist Krissy Packard. We will, of course, keep you posted. Chuck Amok:Speaking of canceled appearances, roots rocker and former Green on Red mainstay Chuck Prophet -- about whom we penned a lengthy article in advance of his July 14 appearance at the Arizona Roadhouse -- finally returns to make up the date, which was scrapped because of van problems. The transportation troubles forced Prophet to cancel a number of other West Coast shows, which he'll also be making up during the final leg of a yearlong jaunt in support of his exceptional Hightone Records release The Hurting Business. Prophet will be playing the Roadhouse in Tempe this Saturday, September 23. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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