The Muffs The Muffs
Happy Birthday To Me
(Reprise)
    ½


Kim Shattuck has now led California's The Muffs through three albums of frantically riffing, deliciously hummable punk pop. The miracle is, while peers like Green Day and Weezer have managed to turn their neo-retro punk anthems into radio hits, The Muffs still labor mostly in obscurity. Which is a shame, since song for song, they are without a doubt the most deserving act of fame.

Copping three-chord hints from Buddy Holly to Joan Jett to The Monkees, Shattuck & Co. crunch, cry and croon their way through 15 new songs on Happy Birthday to Me, most of them sprinting to finish long before the three-minute mark.

Muffs fans won't find anything unexpected on this disc — Shattuck screams a little less than on '95s Blonder and Blonder, but nearly all of the tracks rock hard, fast and hummable, and the formula of the last two albums holds true: there's a Monkees-esque country song midstream ("Pennywhore") and a "pretty" album closer in "The Best Time Around" (though it has more crunch to it than past Muffs album closers.) Shattuck continues her trademark of rasping Joan Jett-style through songs that could have been top 10 hits in the '50s and '60s, if they weren't played with distortion overdrive and a manic drumbeat. But old-fashioned attitudes aren't carried through in The Muffs' lyrics. In "Honeymoon," Shattuck sings about wanting someone "in the most obnoxious way." There's a country-tuned rant at someone Shattuck accuses of being just a "Pennywhore." And in the sway-grinder "All Blue Baby" (the title even sounds like an oldie!), she throws barbs like "you're ugly through and through."

If you heard the current Fruitopia commercial or saw the recent HBO Drew Carrey special or the Billy Crystal/Robin Williams movie Father's Day, you've caught a glimpse and heard a song or two from The Muffs (they appear onstage in both). If you've ever liked Joan Jett or Green Day (and wondered what they'd sound like together) check out this album. It's not the band's absolute best, but it beats most of rock radio's current offerings into an embarrassed silence.

The Muffs will play Chicago's Metro on August 2.

 

Coward Coward
Coward
(Elektra)
    ½


Speaking of bands that cop musical styles from the past and update them for the '90s, Coward recalls the strutting high energy of the late '70s, early '80s rock scene. Punch in a dash of punky attitude, a crunch of hooky guitar, some Cars-ish keyboard warbles and lots of doo-doo-doo harmonies and you've got Coward. This is a band unafraid to wear its Cheap Trick-meets-The Cars influences on their record sleeve.

Coward was produced by Jerry Finn, the same guy who handled last year's unsung but hard-to-resist debut punk-pop album by Fastball. The similarities between the two are immediately noticeable, from the supporting throbs of bass to the clean crunch of the guitars (I had to check the album notes to see if members of Fastball had migrated to Coward. They hadn't.)

The point is, this is an incredibly catchy, rock reference-laden album of should-be-hit singles. "My Wisdom" jaunts along with background "ooo-ooo"s and an "I dare you to mess with me" guitar line (not to mention the early '80s synthesizer effects). "Cliche" and "Popularity Kills" are lyric-fests of clever ("Cliche" sorts through pickup lines searching comically for the right approach: "what's a nice girl like—oh never mind/that could lead to 'what's your sign'...come on, come on, not another cliche")

Coward blasts a breath of both fresh and familiar air on the rock world. Turn up the volume.

 

Seven Mary Three
Rock Crown
(Atlantic)
 


Seven Mary Three starts out its third album with a Beatles reference ("Mean Mr. Mustard") and the album's best song — the quiet, unplugged emotion of "Lucky." It's a rare SMT moment of acoustic guitar contemplation from the normally grunge rockin' band. "Rock Crown" returns to a full force attack, but the album's next winner, "Needle Can't Burn (What The Needle Can't Find)" treads a Neil Young groove to produce a 2 ½ minute piece of head-nodding heaven. Unfortunately, the rest of Rock Crown never rises to the level of these early album champs. The Pearl Jam-Live-R.E.M. meld of guitars and roaring vocals gets old fast, as the band searches, unsuccessfully, for some strong songs to sell.

Seven Mary Three will play Chicago's Metro this Saturday (July 12).