The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show

Among rock instrumental albums, The Mermen's mid-90s release A Glorious Lethal Euphoria is a pinnacle - but one that arrived with pre-weathered crags. Propulsive tracks like "The Drowning Man Knows His God" and glistening contemplations like "Between I and Thou" still deliver a visceral impact, but this was a trio expanding on surf music, and the style's limitations eventually betrayed them, casting them into redundancy.

Five years later, the group has developed a twofold strategic response. First, they're casting the inspiration net a bit wider, with a host of western, Latin and Asian elements filling out the melodies. Second, they're adopting arrangements that have brought new life to other instrumental styles. A few tracks here - the best ones - are distinguished by Jim Thomas' aggressively experimental guitar dancing nimbly around various new-age ethereal washes. Thomas used to have only breakneck drumming to bounce off of, but he now seems ready to take on the whole world, as with the wall of ambient effects on "Heart Beatitude."

Earlier Mermen albums are still preferable for a cranked-up soundtrack to a top-down moonlight drive, and some of the tunes here are so thin that the many extra touches are a vital distraction to keep the set flowing. But on balance, the Mermen have escaped the ascetic grapplehold of the purists who demand that surf music stick close to Dick Dale's Spartan model. And once outside those tight confines, they may yet find more room to grow. -T.E. Lyons

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Big'n/ Oxes
Box Factory Records

Albinista : n./adj., practitioner(s) of a form of post-punk rock typified by precise rhythms dominated by loping bass and big, big drums, blistering high-end guitar, and declamatory vocals most often mixed down in the recording. (From alternative critspeak, after the work and philosophy of "indie supremacist" performer/producer Steve [Big Black/Rapeman/Shellac] Albini.)

Example: this split CD, with three tunes each from Big'n and Oxes, a record so ungodly fine, it gives one hope for this benighted generation.

Big'n is the most solidly Albinista of the two. The teasing start/stop, thump-n-yell opening of "King of Mexico," the distorted, raving vocals on "Old Negro Work Song," and the interplay of instruments in the epic "Angelus Occultation" are textbook examples of the style. Some might even mutter "derivative," but screw 'em - this rocks, and rocks hard, with "Old Negro" opening up an especially head-bangin' 40 oz. o' whoopass.

Oxes, on the other hand, are zealots of the Albinista sect known as "math rock." Punk's version of progressive rock, math rock is the sound of pissed-off brainiacs who think AC/DC and algebra make a tasty, meaty mix - and, boy, do they ever when Oxes does the cooking.

As good as their eponymous CD is, these tracks are even better, with this version of "And Giraffes: Natural Enemies" twice as furious as the one on the album. Though usually an instrumental band like science-gods Don Caballero, the driving "Undefeated" features vocals, shouted like a lunatic under the barrage. But, as is often the case with mathmongers, there's beauty in the barbwire. The closing track "China, China, China" is eight-plus minutes of brilliant racket. Quiet glory explodes, then subsides into haunting skree and rumble, with a surreal phone conversation about the record introducing the rabid bonus track "USA, USA, USA." It's one of the best records this year, kidsand it's cheap! -Bill Widener

Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Super-hero
Winthrop Records

No, this isn't some kitschy, modern super-hero soundtrack, full of Beck and Third-Eye-Blind crapola. This is a re-release of an original 1975 album, devoted to the sole purpose of a rock exploration of a very popular comic character. Was it cool then? So-so, actually. Is it cool now? Good god, no, except in that kitschy memorabilia way that's so popular with the kids nowadays. But is it good? Insanely enough, yes.

The songs vary wildly, from the straight rock "Spider-Man," to the funky "No One's Got a Crush on Peter," to the 50s doo-wop of "Gwendolyn." Frankly, the music is great. It's better than Tommy (not the movie Tommy, but the album done solely by the Who) rock-opera-wise. And a rock opera it is, chronicling the origin of Spider-Man, some fights with his arch-nemeses, and the death of Gwen Stacy.

I want to whole-heartedly recommend this album to everybody. But there's a fat little goblin (a Green Goblin, at that) named Stan Lee who prevents me from doing so. See, Stan the Man lurks between almost every song, giving a little narration about Spider-Man in that mind-crushing Marvel style, full of extreme verbs and adjectives. There's your kitsch comedy gold, in Stan's poignant dramatization of Gwen's death.

Yeah, a few songs suck and Stan makes you want to spill your brains on the floor. But the rest is fantastic, both in tune and as a musical interpretation of Spidey. But it's worth the dough just to see the CD back, displaying the Marvel band, with Captain America on tambourine. -RB