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In our own back yard

By GINA VIVINETTO, Times Pop Music Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

An occasional roundup of music by local artist

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FOUR STAR RIOT, THE BEST THINGS (VITAL RECORDS, WWW.FOURSTARRIOT.COM) Four Star Riot is one of the most polished acts on the Tampa Bay area music scene. The band, which last year changed its name from Soulsystem, plays tightly crafted power pop, a little grittier than that of Train and Third Eye Blind, with bouncy beats and bass that recall the Police.

The Best Things offers 11 songs, from This Can't Be All, with its subtle ska rhythms and noirish guitar, to the greasy There It Goes, which finds singer-guitarist Steve Alex love-starved and bitter.

"Honey, you ain't too easy to please," he growls. "You're a stripped down version of a model in a magazine."

The Best Things' material is radio-ready: likeable licks, catchy hooks, sing-along choruses. The band, for better or worse, even serves a bona fide power ballad in Lose Myself, with enough sap to make all but the tough girls' hearts sticky. Best cut: the Stonesy Something So Right, complete with sing-along "hoo hoo" backing vocals and a whistling Hammond B-3 organ.

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ANNA O., HORSES, GOD, AND THE PERFECT KISS (LAVA CORE, WWW.ANNA-O.COM) Horses, God, and the Perfect Kiss is another full-length offering from restless Anna O., whose music, thankfully, is as interesting as she is prolific. From one song to the next, Horses is dizzying in its scope. Heck, within one song, the possibilities are endless. How many emotions do you go through on the title track with its merrily fickle tone? Anna O. is desperate, then coy, sultry, then flippant. What of that out-of-leftfield jazzy breakdown? Yow.

Such is Anna O.'s music. And it's a delight. Lyrics, too, are tough and perceptive. The obvious comparisons would be to poetic punks Patti Smith and PJ Harvey, but Anna O. has her own thing going on.

Hipsters, dig the pain-drenched Novocaine's references to the Velvet Underground:

Nico is singing 'I'll Be Your Mirror'

Two freaks in a pond

and it can't get much queerer

Top-notch arrangements and terrific collaborators back Ms. O., who herself plays guitar, keys and vibraphone. A who's who of Tampa Bay area talent, including Andrew Irvine on bass and Jim Morris, Kacy Ross and Steve Connelly on guitar, lend their talents.

Hear the gorgeous melodies and lush vocals on Rocket Boy? The piano-driven jazz shuffle Hollywood references the mythological Icarus and Casablanca. It also features that frosty vibraphone.

Horses, God, and the Perfect Kiss belongs in the disc player of every hipper-than-thou alterna-girl and her clued-in boyfriend.

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THE UNREQUITED LOVES, THESE ARE THE UNREQUITED LOVES (FACEFIRST RECORDS, WWW.FACEFIRST.COM) Tampa singer-guitarist Mike O'Neill has been considered one of the local scene's finest songwriters for as long as he's been on the scene, a decade-plus. O'Neill's current band, the Unrequited Loves, sticks to the formula in which O'Neill works best, a tight trio playing punchy, 1960s-inspired garage rock.

The sound is muddy, yet elegant, with Chewing Gum a perfect example of O'Neill's subtle genius. The song spins along on a delicate guitar line, backed by banging drums and driving bass that explode with every chorus. O'Neill's singing, too, is always understated, to the point of the guy mumbling. Anyone trying to decipher O'Neill's lyrical mysteries is in for a treat. On some songs, the guy wields words as gently as someone with a ladybug in his palm; on others, he unleashes them like a fist to the chin.

When O'Neill sings, "You picked a hell of a time to show up and to share the love," the line is stronger for his monotone detachment. Can you say, "time bomb"?

When O'Neill does work himself into a tither, screaming -- which he does in live settings -- look out.

These Are The Unrequited Loves isn't only O'Neill's gig. Bassist Keith Bartlett is a marvel, and drummer Ed Lowery sings lead on Sideswiped, a robust R&B-meets-garage-rock number. Other winners: Closed Up Soul, which finds a sentimental narrator telling his forlorn beloved he'll never again wash the hand she held, the blues rocker Our Love Is Oh So Wrong, and that catchy sing-along title track.

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RUDESQUAD, NO PRACTICE (WWW.RUDESQUAD.COM) Pinellas County ska freaks Rude Squad serve up a huge dollop of fun on their debut, No Practice. The tunes are peppered with Caribbean beats, plenty of sax and trumpet, and references to local landmarks, including a young lady "working Central Avenue" in St. Petersburg.

Lead cut Groupie details all the fun and foibles of a chick trailing her favorite musician and includes a spirited rap courtesy of the sextet's resident rapper, Steve DeCosmo, and a lyrical allusion to the Police's Lolita-inspired Don't Stand So Close to Me. Singer-guitarist Eric Best handles the rest of the vocals, and his detached punky voice will remind you of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.

The bright jingle-jangle guitar and horn blasts on Co-Pilot should get your feet shuffling. Bassist Alex Trellu takes every opportunity to offer feisty bass lines, further driving the band's rollicking sound. That's Rude Squad in a nutshell. The band's themes don't go beyond the boy-girl stuff, and that works fine when songs are as cute and clever as Slut Phase and the rich boy put-down Pretty Boy. (Like the band's ska-pop predecessors the Specials and the English Beat, the band also has a grudge against the elite.) No Practice is all about life's simple pleasures: good times, dancing and getting the girl.

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LIZ PENNOCK & DR. BLUES, LIVE FROM ST. PETE (UPRIGHT RECORDS, WWW.LIZPENNOCK.COM) Liz Pennock and hubby Dr. Blues have long been favorites on the local scene for their delightful boogie woogie piano and guitar raveups. The sound is splendidly caught on the new Live From St. Pete, recorded during a show at Caspy's.

Opener Ivory 'Neath My Fingers finds Pennock tickling the keys and singing in her signature sultry croon. Pennock is backed by Dr. Blues' understated, elegant strumming. The two share vocals on the hilarious Gator Tail. Most of the disc's material is original, but Gator Tail, penned by the late, great local blues legend Rock Bottom, is an ode to "that sweet white meat" that only a Cracker could appreciate. It's too good to resist covering. Hear Dr. Blues wail on his electric guitar in a sublime solo on that cut and know why locals relish the lusty licks of the man with the beret.

Harmonica peppers many tunes, as do references to local color, including those nasty stingrays at Sunset Beach on Treasure Island.

If you would like your local act's CD considered for In Our Own Back Yard, send it to Gina Vivinetto, pop music critic, In Our Own Back Yard, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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