If you listened closely enough, you could find fuzzy, familiar pop hooks on this Dallas quartet's first three albums, but more often than not it wasn't worth the effort to sift through the bland country-rock guitars and shuffling two-beat rhythms. But Fight Songs (Elektra), the group's fourth and best LP, is a great leap: a solid pop record largely free of cosmetic cowboyisms. Strangely, the most dominant influence is the British Invasion: except for its cha-cha rhythm, the moody but infectious "What We Talk About" could've been lifted off Rubber Soul. Ken Bethea and front man Rhett Miller have never been brilliant guitarists, but they've learned a thing or two about restraint, so when the corrosive solo on "Jagged" finally comes, it packs a real punch. And though the instrumental hooks all seem vaguely familiar, they're bolstered by the ragged vocal harmonies. Miller's lyrics are crammed with broken hearts, self-doubt, and bittersweet memories of less complicated times, but the band's uncluttered, almost breezy attack staves off the sad-sack mopeyness that usually comes with the territory. The band headlines one of the more tolerable of the street fairs that plague the city from May to September. Friday, 7:20 PM, Old Saint Pat's Block Party, Desplaines between Madison and Adams; 312-648-1021. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Danny Clinch.