A year ago, it seemed that Vertical Horizon were the sole heirs to the chiming big-rock sound of the defunct Toad the Wet Sprocket and Gin Blossoms. But just as VH's debut finally achieved belated radio success with "Everything You Want," a handful of new challengers to the throne has arisen on various labels. And while none have the thoughtful complexity of Toad, they're all worthy newcomers:

 

Radford Radford
Radford
(RCA)
½


Radford's strong guitar-pop style was already out for the public to taste with songs on the Never Been Kissed and Teaching Mrs. Tingle soundtracks, long before the band's chimingly attractive first album hit the streets a few weeks ago. The band saved 11 other songs for its debut, which sounds like nothing so much as a revved up version of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Twining guitar lines, thoughtful bass twirls and an earnest pop rock vocal style puts Radford at the head of the pack that these days includes Vertical Horizon and Mars Electric.

This one is worth cranking through your car speakers repeatedly.

 

Mars Electric - Beautiful Something Mars Electric
Beautiful Something
(Portrait)
½


The first non-retro '80s metal band on the revived Portrait label (which has up to now featured old hard rock acts like Great White and Ratt), Mars Electric combines the modern energy of Fastball with the anthem rock sense of Vertical Horizon and Toad the Wet Sprocket, and even tosses in the occasional heart-stealing falsetto chorus, a la Radford.

Singer Jacob Bunton's vocals are lower and more earthy than Radford's Jonny Mead, but the two bands are very much of the same middle of the road crunch-rock school. Never mind the pretty haired, faux New Wave androgynous pose on the back of the album, this is feisty modern rock that is built to be played loud and proud in arenas filled with head-nodding fans. Producer Greg Archilla's experience working with Collective Soul is easily heard in the opening guitar sounds of "Your Light" and the band cranks out harmony sweetened riffs throughout Beautiful Something.

This is power pop with a bullet.

 

Zoppi - Suspended Zoppi
Suspended
(MCA)


"Suspended," a song that moves from light strums to anthem rock with a hint of the influence of Cheap Trick in one vocal section, is one of the sharpest bits of guitar pop rock I've heard in a year. And that second song on Suspended is only one of a dozen tuneful tracks on this debut that carries the name of lead singer/songwriter Bob Zoppi but also includes brothers Rick and Paul Vogelsang.

Produced by Matthew Wilder, the guy who put No Doubt on the map, Suspended is a warm, catchy bit of rock that owes occasional nods to the pop genius of Jellyfish (especially on "What You Get") and just never stops churning out the head-swaying, can't turn it off rock jams.

"One Sun," the ninth song on the disc, is currently climbing the charts in a number of cities thanks to its Cranberries-esque falsetto croons from Zoppi and hooky guitar, bass and drum mix from the brothers Vogelsang, but you don't need to dig that far back into this disc to find gold. Suspended starts off with one of its best "Feel Love," a funky fresh take on dating and attitudes about what an individual life means ("what's with fate, we're not just here to sculpture, to only procreate.")

While much of the CD throbs along at a mid-tempo rock beat, the band throws in a nice changeup in "I Want to Fly," a string-imbued ache of a song, with a breath of "la-da-da"'s calling out for release as the song fades to the horizon.

Zoppi is definitely a band to watch for in the future. But for now, don't miss this solid, potential hit-laden album.

 

Stir - Holy Dogs Stir
Holy Dogs
(Capitol)


I remember listening to Stir's eponymous debut album a couple years back with hope, but ultimately disinterest. The St. Louis act's debut never quite gelled for me. But Holy Dog kicks off with "Superstation," a slammin' bit of guitar exuberance that's too fresh and powerful to ignore. The band follows that up with "Climbing The Walls," a taut, harmony sweet rocker that kisses Matthew Sweet's heels and nods at the chiming rock school of the other bands reviewed this week. The slowly building drums of "Velvet Elvis" yield an elegiac mix of heartland rock and exoticism, as backup singers add an African tribal influence to its broad sound. And then there's "New Beginning," a high-octane "na-na-na-na" rocker that gets about as loud and driving as pop rock can without turning metallic.

Those are just the first four songs. There's also "Only A Dream" which is nearly impossible not to hum along with, "Clear" which sounds a mellow Toad the Wet Sprocket track and "Stop Killing Me," which sounds like a Toad song on speed. Then there's "Spaceman," a cosmic ambient jam and "Grounded," which treads across the same art-rock sonic collage path as early Genesis.

Clearly the nearly two years on the road promoting Stir's debut served to sharpen and hone the band's rock sense; every track on this disc shimmers with brash energy and bold hooks. Don't pass this one up.

 

New Collections:


Cracker - Garage D'or Cracker had its own brief romance with the charts and alternative rock FM radio in the early '90s, thanks to "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)," "Low," "Get Off This," and "Eurotrash Girl." Those songs and a dozen others, including three brand new studio tracks, are collected on Garage D'ior, from Virgin. A limited edition of the disc also includes a second disc of live cuts and rarities, including a live rendition of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere" with guest vocalists Adam Duritz (Counting Crows) and Joan Osborne.

Skid Row
had a brief fling with the pop charts at the end of the '80s with "Youth Gone Wild," "18 and Life" and "I Remember You" before the glam metal scene crashed and burned, taking most of the period's progenitors with it. There's been a resurgence of some of those '80s-early '90s bands of late and Skid Row, or at least part of the band (they have a new singer and drummer) is back on the concert trail with a collection of hits, rarities and new releases in Atlantic Records' 40 Seasons: The Best of Skid Row. The disc includes the above songs, along with "Monkey Business," "Slave To the Grind," two remixes ("Into Aother" and "My Enemy"), two demos ("Frozen," and "Fire in the Hole") a live version of "Beat Yourself Blind" and two new songs. Skid Row's new lineup, which promises a new studio album in the works, opens for KISS at the Chicago-area Allstate Arena on May 11.