With its intensely singable melodies and oddball lyrics, along with frontman Herman Jolly's lovable binges of unearthly falsetto, Portland's Sunset Valley has found itself on the brink of greatness--only to fade into near obscurity--not just once but twice in the past five years.

Their 1998 release The New Speed garnered rave reviews and loyal fans aplenty in the fair Rose City, as did their big-label sophomore effort, 1999's Boyscout Superhero. Alas, all the hype led to zilch, ending with Jolly's move to Montana, the band's mourning fans left head-bobbing in the wind.

But rejoice, ye popsters. After wandering the wilderness of major-label rejection and nightmarish over-production, the men of the Valley have returned. With Icepond, a new release due Sept. 4 on Seattle's Barsuk Records (home of Death Cab for Cutie), Jolly and his faithful return to the sound that made them King Shit in the indie world oh so many years ago.

Gone are the spacey keyboards and multitrack barrage of Boyscout--a relief, according to Jolly. Former members Jeff Saltzman and ex-Heatmiser drummer Tony Lash are gone, as well.

The outcome: an amazingly beautiful collection of pop-rock tunage that starts up right where the band left off back in 1998.

"I think the tracks this time are a little more songs and less ideas put to tape," says Jolly. Though he refuses to utter the dreaded M-word, he does admit that "maturity" has figured into this latest batch of SV tunes. The skinny legs of the band's first teen-bop, space-age overture are now pleasantly plumper, filling out into the form of a knowingly curvaceous 30-odd-year-old divorcée. And damn, does she look good.

Jolly chalks up Icepond's lush sound to the reinstatement of the band's 1998 lineup: Jolly on guitar and vocals, Jonathan Drews manning the insistent drum kit, Eric Furlong provided the thrumming bass lines and gorgeous backing vocals. "The three of us had a special chemistry, and now we've returned to it," Jolly says. "Even at the first practice as a three-piece again, it felt nothing like anything else."

Can Sunset Valley still capture the interest of new bad things, as well as the now older and wizened hearts of the Hottentots of P-town? The answer may be found at Satyricon this Friday when the band volleys their new manna from heaven at their quasi-local crowd. Jolly himself downplays the need for a full comeback.

"We're just trying to offer some proof that we're vital and made a good record," he says. "I just want people to come to the show." Amen to that, brother. Kelly Clarke

Sunset Valley plays Friday, July 27, at Satyricon, 125 NW 6th Ave., 243-2380. Spoon, John Vanderslice and Those Peabodys also appear. 10 pm. $8+ advance (Fastixx).

Hiss & Vinegar

* The good taste and sensible spending habits of the public continue to amaze. Last Thursday, tickets to Tool's Aug. 8 show at the Schnitz went on sale, and the eruption of demand nearly made Ticketmaster's highly trained army of attack robots blow gaskets. Tix ($42.50-$47.50) to see the mega-selling NeuMetal heroes sold out in two minutes flat, satisfying some credit-card-wielding supporters and dashing the hopes of others. Savage, simply savage.

* Which defiant Portland hepcat punk band considers Bellingham, Wash., to be a city of "subdued excitement"?

* The struggle continues at Temple of Sound, the communal headquarters of a loose-knit congregation of folks who say their spiritual lives center on electronic dance music. The building ran afoul of fire inspectors this spring. Now, the Templites say they face a fine and a potentially lengthy tussle over the zoning of their semi-industrial Northwest Portland neighborhood. The Temple wants the zoning changed to allow commercial and residential use of its building (a change supported for the same area by super-corp CNF but opposed by some neighborhood groups). While the bureaucratic process unfolds with all the dignity and drama of glaciation, the Temple finds itself unable to rent rooms to "initiates" undertaking TOS's spiritual training. The Temple still offers a number of classes and services for a sliding fee scale, so if you're interested in helping them make rent, call 241-1432.

* A lot of Portland music types consider themselves total pinkos, but when was the last time they paid their union dues? If you want to see if that Billy Bragg song was right, call the American Federation of Musicians Local 99 at 235-8791. AFM is running a membership special through the end of August, waiving the usual $85 initiation fee. That brings the initial cost of joining the Comrades down to $38 per quarter for the first two quarters of membership, a total of $76.

* Wasn't too hard to figure out which folks parading down the Southwest 11th Avenue streetcar tracks on Friday evening were there for the inaugural night of the Fez Nightclub (316 SW 11th Ave., 226-4171), not lining up for rides on a $57M Czech toy. Those would be the drag queens in prom regalia, the gay disco kings in taut glitter shirts and a few ragged stragglers in search of free cocktails. Upstairs, the sound system recently salvaged from the just-closed Panorama boomed house music, while the Fez's brand new second-floor bar greeted the world with the scent of fresh paint. The bar's low ceilings, imitation sandstone floors, dim lighting and windows brimming with throw pillows simmered with a Bogey-esque Casablanca atmosphere. Plans to open the bar on a regular basis could really rock the Casbah--or at least the ceilings of Ozone Records.

* We're all for musicians "keeping it real" and living the "rock and roll lifestyle" or whatever. But when it comes to being too wasted to play, that's another matter. According to audience members, sinewy songwriter Chris Whitley's July 19 show at the Aladdin ended in sodden disgrace as Whitley's handlers dragged the polluted star from the stage about 20 minutes into his set. The Aladdin was good enough to refund everyone's dough.

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For the Good of the Independents, NAIL Sells Out

It's been six years since Mike Jones and Tom Hewson decided to do something about the headaches they faced as aspiring indie record moguls trying to get product to market. Together they entered the fly-by-night world of independent music distribution, forming what has become the highly reputable, and relatively venerable, Northwest Alliance of Independent Labels.

Unfortunately, the recent downturn in the economy and a shaky music industry forced NAIL, at the beginning of this year, to pare its impressive roster of nearly 600 labels to a far more manageable 150. Apparently, even 150 was too many.

As of this writing, NAIL is negotiating a deal to sell its assets to Allegro, a much larger local company specializing in the distribution of jazz and classical music. According to Jones, NAIL hopes to maintain its current integrity while benefiting from the deep pockets, customer base and marketing infrastructure of its prospective parent company. Jones describes the move as one whose time has come.

"They approached us a couple of years ago about it," explains Jones. "We turned them down at the time. I re-approached them back in March of this year. It looked to me like, if we didn't do something and align ourselves with a bigger player, we were going to be out of business."

The fact that NAIL is based in Portland and has been able to survive this long in such a daunting business climate makes his business attractive to Allegro, Jones says.

CD Forge, once the CD-manufacturing wing of NAIL, became an independent business last year. Jones plans on continuing to stoke the fires at Forge, while the NAIL marketing department would be absorbed by Allegro. The Allegro-NAIL buyout is scheduled to be finalized by July 30. Sam Soule