Lula’s Birthmark is spawned from the same unctuous pop radio genre that thrived in the mid-’90s with middle-aged acoustic rockers Toad the Wet Sprocket and Duncan Sheik. Critics have labeled their lyrics too bleak and serious for their pop style. But it’s not like pop music has never addressed serious concerns before. In 1964, J. Frank Wilson recorded his one smash hit “Last Kiss,” a pop song about teenage death. The issue is not that the lyrics are too grave, but that the subject matter might be a bit too disturbing. There’s a lot of juvenile sexual molestation going on here.

On their eponymous debut album, the musical arrangements hit some high notes. Accomplished pianist Jay Ladd puts the local band stamp on his group with his lilting, Ben Folds-influenced compositions. “Black Swan,” the strongest track on the album builds over a dance beat until it breaks into a screaming rock anthem chorus. Mastered in local mix-master Brent Lambert’s Kitchen, all of the tracks on Lula’s Birthmark’s album are incredibly tight and well produced, achieving a professional style uncommon in a local band but all too common on commercial radio.

On its new Split EP project with the Rusty Nails, Carrboro’s Aftertax grind through a short set of five quirky punk songs. This release, too, includes some rather shocking lyrics. On “A Gimp Is A Gimp,” bandleader Sockboy, aka Mike Gonzales, shouts, “Ants are crawling up my ass … Pull my hair and slap my ass.” Aftertax’s half of Split EP closes with three strong, speedy rock ‘n’ roll tracks which pull from the urban power pop tradition that Green Day brought to the masses. The music, however, frequently digresses into the British punk sound that the Archers of Loaf made famous around here, while the Clash-like guitar and high hat bridges provide a nice transition into The Rusty Nails’ Scottish-punk bagpipes on the second half of this collaboration. –john martin