Throwbacks: the Giants
Chances are any new pop band you discover will sound like a slight modification of those that came before it. Chances are just as great that the band in question will shun older-band comparisons. ''How dare you suggest we're not original?'' the new pop band might snap.
Under the Influence of Giants is not your typical new pop band. This Southern California foursome may find success with a pleasing brand of pop that shows sparks of originality. But they're not afraid of older-band comparisons. Just look at that awkward band name. They actually invite comparisons to pop giants. And when they say giants, they mean a diverse assortment of mostly '80s-era artists: The Talking Heads, Hall & Oates, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna are all name-checked in the band's official biography, along with Paul McCartney and the Beatles. In fact, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was one of the very first albums bought by the band's drummer and keyboardist Jamin Wilcox.
You certainly hear all of those influences on the band's self-titled debut, to be released Aug. 10. The album grows on you with each listen. That's in part because every song sounds different, with slices of trippy new-wave, jamming R&B, sweet pop balladry and fiery funk all thrown into the mix. And it's in part because the best songs -- and the weaker songs, as well -- get better the more you listen to them. When the grounded and pining bluesy rock verse of first single ''Mama's Room'' gives way to an irresistible, in-flight disco chorus, lead singer Aaron Bruno shifts from a rich baritone to a dreamy falsetto. He's singing about enjoying the unexpected, something slightly uncouth -- specifically, ''making love in mama's room,'' while mama herself is away. But generally speaking, he's also giving voice to your aural reality: ''Mama's Room'' is a surprising pop delicacy to savor.
Beyond intended influence from these young adults' pop forefathers -- including, in Wilcox's case, his own father, Willie, the drummer for Hall & Oates -- you also hear influences from their contemporaries, which they've conspicuously chosen not to name-drop. UTIOG has crafted a disco-inspired rock-pop hybrid sound very much in vogue. And its debut drops at a near-perfect time, as fans eagerly await fall releases from the Scissor Sisters, Justin Timberlake and the Killers, to name just three leading lights of today's burgeoning retooled, post-hip-hop pop sound.
Lead singer Bruno is flamboyant in the manner of his fellow straight poppers -- which is to say, he sings and presents himself in a slightly exaggerated style that never veers over-the-top. In a sense, UTIOG creates music that way, too. It has created confidently swinging modern-day pop that is heavily influenced by yesterday. But to paraphrase one giant: With UTIOG, yesterday sounds so far away.
Two dance-pop bands came on strong at the start of this millennium, only to retreat into silence for years since. In the case of iio -- the name is adapted from Sony's Vaio laptop line -- Markus Moser and Nadia worked dance floors into a state of frenzy with two great singles, ''Rapture'' in 2001 and ''At the End'' in 2002. Four years is a long time to wait for a third single, much less a full album. If only it were worth it. The new single ''Is It Love,'' leaves you wanting more, and even with 13 new songs ranging from progressive house to ambient to trance, this New York-based band's debut album Poetica doesn't offer even one more great dance number. Obviously, the delay was caused by a lack of inspiration as much as the reported disputes with music executives. Excepting for two well-known songs and several other fleeting moments, Poetica is a 70-minute journey into musical boredom.
Venus Hum's Annette Strean, Kip Kubin and Tony Miracle haven't been heard from since their 2002 debut, Big Beautiful Sky. Disputes with music executives are to blame here too, though so is the fact that Strean nearly lost her voice. They've returned with The Colors in the Wheel. As before, Venus Hum intrigues with its rock-influenced angular electronica and with Stearn's Bjork-esque vocal performance. Sometimes the music is too busy and too intentionally chaotic and jarring. Sometimes, too, Stearn comes across not just as a more pedestrian version of Bjork -- which is not necessarily a bad thing -- but also as a weaker version of more recent Bjork acolytes, such as Imogen Heap. But the stars align for the trio at several turns here, most notably with a sizzling dance-rock stomper of a first single ''Yes and No,'' and with an affecting dance-pop lullaby, ''Go To Sleep.'' It makes you dream of more Venus Hum to come.