What you may have missed in end-of-year rush

Fall and early winter is the top time for record companies to load the shelves with new releases, hoping that some of them will score big with the holiday-buying crowd. This, of course, means that in the deluge, some good music can get overlooked. Following are three discs you might have missed, but might want to seek out.

Palo Alto Palo Alto
Palo Alto

Released at the end of last year, Palo Alto's smooth crooning vocals and sometimes languorous, sometimes pounding riff guitar-style sounds an awful lot like Radiohead circa their 1995 masterpiece The Bends. In fact, if you listened to the critics last year and ran out and bought Radiohead's Kid A and were as disappointed as I was in its long, ponderous exercise in mood that boasted little in the way of actual songs, you should go find this disc. This is the album Radiohead should have released. James Grundler vocals sound amazingly similar to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, and the band crafts moody but catchy songs throughout its debut.

The quintet doesn't, however, share a relative or even a continent with Britain's Radiohead (Palo Alto hails from Los Angeles), but it does share a similar songwriting vibe. Grundler sings of heavy topics like the "Depression Age" and of avoiding those who try to "sell, sell, sell me religion" (from "Swim"). And in "Beauty of Disaster" his lazy upper register crooning sounds a bit like a laid-back U2.

With an amazing ease, the band slips from pounding angst to slow, slipstream pondering and back, all in the same song.

Palo Alto is an album of depth, thoughtfulness, beauty and rock-pounding bashing. These are songs that you can listen to over and over again, each time finding new textures and meanings.

Highly recommended.


Elastica - The Menace Elastica
The Menace

Elastica's debut was in the Pop Stops top 5 album list for 1995, and the band kicked up the charts with "Connection" and "Stutter" from that self-titled disc, which was filled with perfectly updated restylings of angular guitar-driven '80s New Wave.

Since then, the band has appeared with new material on a couple of movie soundtracks, but otherwise seemed to vanish. A couple of lineup changes and five years later, they finally returned with their sophomore album, The Menace, a brash, punky CD, still centered around Justine Frischmann's vocals and guitar style, but adding more keyboard work and eschewing the tightly controlled sounds of their debut.

Instead, The Menace listens like an album recorded while the band was just having fun jamming at rehearsals. Frischmann whispers, croons, screams and caterwauls, the guitars offer loose, spur-of-the-moment-sounding flourishes and songs seem to begin and end without warning.

This may sound like just another way of saying this is a sloppy album, and in a lot of ways, it is. However, it's also a disc calculated to capture a sense of urgent immediacy, and The Menace gives off nothing if not a feeling of hungry prowling, high-powered Blondie-on-speed energy.

There are no geometric singles here like "Connection," but "Mad Dog God Dam" and "Generator" are both rock-hard party anthems waiting for play, and "Your Arse, My Place" is a women's power anthem. Raucous, loose and experimental throughout, the album ends with its most straightforward track, a cover of Trio's "Da Da Da," as if to remind us all of how much Elastica still ties itself to the '80s New Wave scene.


Mary Beth Maziarz - Supernatural Mary Beth Maziarz

What is it lately with bands getting lots of play from TV shows and yet not apparently getting any credence from major label record companies? A few weeks ago I wrote about Four Star Mary, which has received lots of play from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" but still has no big-label record deal. Mary Beth Maziarz, known as "the voice of 'Dawson's Creek,' " has also released a new album on a tiny independent label. (She also has a sampler CD and two other albums available.)

Supernatural is a soaring, lush creation of folk pop, working in the same arena as Sarah McLachlan and Tara McLean, though with a more folky, Beth Neilsen Chapman approach.

Her music is inspirational and insightful, and is often just as worthy of hourly radio play as McLachlan's material. "A Million Different Worlds" is one of the album's most upbeat tracks, wherein she presents lyrical snaphots of various people's problems and trials ("a college girl's gonna take her hardest test tonight/a thin blue line will bring her the news, confirming all her tears") as she reminds us in the chorus:

"A million different worlds going on around us
a hundred different choices every moment of the day
a million different worlds going on around us
what's yours today?"

In "Better Than Anyone," she paints a sweet, head-nodding ballad that would fit in well with Sarah McLachlan's piano-based songs like "Angel," "Adia" and "Ice Cream." And with "All I Want Is You," she dusts off U2's 1989 hit single to give it a subdued piano treatment that is arguably more effective than the original.

To find out more about Maziarz or to order her discs, check her Web site at www.marybethmusic.com.