- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

“We’re trying to rock and yet we’re trying to do it in sort of an artistic way,” is the way singer and keyboardist Vivion Smith explains Juniper Lane’s philosophy. The Northern Virginia pop-rock band has a CD-release party tomorrow at Iota in Arlington.

For four years and now three albums, the quartet has been up and down the East Coast, earning praise for Miss Smith’s vocal power and stage presence as well as for the band’s new-wave guitar sound and dark lyrics. She studied classical piano from age 4 until college, and her mother was a trained opera singer.

“So I grew up singing in the house,” Miss Smith says. “She forced me to kind of follow in her footsteps.”

Though Miss Smith composes the words and melodies, the influence of the others in the group — Chris Bonavia on guitar, Eddie Pasa on drums and Brian Frederick on bass — “impact the shape of the songs more than mine do,” Miss Smith says from her Arlington home. “Chris has a lot of good ‘80s music influences, like Morrissey,” she says, which tend to complement Mr. Pasa’s drumming and Mr. Frederick’s bass.

On the new album, “Sirens From A Mile Back,” Miss Smith retains her Gwen Stefani-like vocals for such songs as “Soon I’ll Be Away,” but the goth atmospherics and the anguished cry “Pull me away” on “Love Letters” bring to mind the similarly gifted Amy Lee of Evanescence.

“I can hear, vocally, we have similar voices,” she says of Miss Lee, but she points up Juniper Lane’s difference in style: “We’re not into the rap-rock, heavy chunking guitars. … We’ll do more melodic guitar lines.”

True enough: the groove-pop “Cracks in the Pavement” takes its strums from Echo and the Bunnymen. “Drag You Down” stands out for its call-and-response use of piano and guitar and Miss Smith’s gorgeous sustain on the chorus, reminiscent of Velocity Girl’s Sarah Shannon.

“A lot of my songs are written kind of on two levels, and it’s usually the literal one that I’ll talk about,” Miss Smith says. “You’re the listener, so you should apply how you want it to work in your life.”

“Now That I’ve Started” is a nightmarish story of needing help and then being taken advantage of, though the chorus, “Stumbling and crying/ I’ll get there on my own,” makes a general statement of independence.

Backed by a killer rhythm riff to get the heads bobbing, “The View Is the Same” laments the commercialization of society and “pre-packaged art, defeating the artisan.” The closing torch song “Without Consequence” declares: “In spite of everything/ I want to trust/ I want to love without fear/ So build your walls/ I’ll swallow your lies for now.”

“I think a lot of the songs talk about being in dark times but getting to the better time,” Miss Smith says, adding with a laugh: “And to me, that’s optimism. What do I know? I just write the stuff.”

“This is the most rock we’ve done,” says local singer-songwriter Viki Nova of the songs on her self-released debut CD. She’ll be playing with her full band at Staccato in the District on Saturday night.

The Northern Virginia resident (by way of Hungary and Orlando, Fla.) used to do a lot of solo acoustic shows, so the new sound might seem like a stretch. But maybe not a huge one, given that she’s shared stages with rockers Fighting Gravity and Barenaked Ladies and loves dissecting Beatles songs and playing covers of Led Zeppelin’s “D’Yer Mak’er.”

“Catch Me If You Can” (Think For Yourself Records) doesn’t quite have the songs to match Miss Nova’s strong vocals, but if lyrics such as “I have to spread my wings and fly free” aren’t particularly deep, they’re certainly accessible. (“I like to play a show where people sing along,” she points out.)

“Addicted” is a stalker song set to classic rock. “If You Didn’t Need Me” opens with a dirge like the coda to Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away,” then totally rocks out. The pretty yet pointed “Die Another Day” asks skeptics: “When you tell me not to get my hopes up/ Does it mean that I should always aim low?”

The title track, recorded this summer, “is about leaving everything behind to pursue your dreams,” Miss Nova says. She left her day job as a Web designer in May.

Though she plays piano and guitar, Miss Nova’s voice is her main instrument here, sounding like Gwen Stefani (“I’ve always been told that”) on “Empty Promises” and one of the Bangles on the folk-rocker “At All Cost,” which she calls “one of those wantin’-something-really-badly songs.”

“Cost” is buoyed by mandolin, acoustic guitar, a rollicking beat and lines such as “I’d give up anything/ If it means my phone will ring.” It’s a three-minute pop gem.

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