Jamming to keep from crying

Mar 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

Largely overlooked for more upbeat end-of-year discs when it came out in late ’98, Girl Bros. nevertheless made it onto a few public radio top-ten lists – and deservedly so. While not exactly a Wendy (Melvoin) and Lisa (Coleman) record, this is indeed the work of the attitude-and-estrogen duo known best as the-artist-when-he-was-known-as-Prince sidefolk. Here, however, the pair are working under a pseudonym that refers to the album’s dedication to Melvoin’s brother Jonathon, the Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist who died of a heroin overdose in 1997.

While Girl Bros. bears some of the sunburned-pop sensibilities and swagger of Wendy and Lisa’s other outings, its squinting melodies here are stripped until they resonate as much with hope as heartbreak. Like Big Star’s similarly named Sister Lovers, this is pop inverted to explore the contradictory emotions of living and losing. Melvoin and Coleman turn their pop hooks, chiming acoustic guitars, sinewy keyboard harmonies and bulbous bass lines into tools of introspection. "All Nite," featuring Seal sideman Chris Bruce on guitar, for instance, is equal parts dirty rocker and vigil; its two-part vocal melody stretches out over a few notes too many, simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. On "Bring You Back," Melvoin ponders what-if; by the song’s end – a bare drumbeat – the feeling of knowing defeat is as noble as it is crushing.

Even on the more strangely quiet, upbeat fare, like the Prince-era whisper-disco of "Let’s Say," the shadow-boxing funk of "I’ve Got No Strings" or the off-time keyboard line that redeems the borderline-corn of "I’ve Got a Big Bowl of Cherries," the funk conjured is more out-beat than upbeat.

This is personal stuff and not without flaws, or the occasional lapse into Renaissance festival lullaby ("Love & Trouble"). But as trite as, say, "Cherries" gets, it’ll still induce misty eyes. And "Jonathon," with its bare, acoustic guitar immediacy and tossed-off – but utterly perfect – melody, is so pure it’s undeniable. In its late afternoon way, Girl Bros. is brilliant.