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NEW KIDS IN TOWN

Rocking Voices From Hoboken

February 07, 1988|RICHARD CROMELIN

Artist: Richard Barone.

Personnel: Barone, vocals, electric guitar; Jane Scarpantoni, cello; Nick Celeste, acoustic guitar; Valerie Naranjo, percussion, vibes, piano.

History: Richard Barone's group the Bongos hasn't replaced Frank Sinatra as the favorite musical son of Hoboken, N.J., but after the release in 1982 of its debut album "Drums Along the Hudson," the band quickly moved to the forefront of the cultish East Coast underground pop scene. Guitarist James Mastro subsequently joined Barone, bassist Rob Norris and drummer Frank Giannini and became a second major force in the Bongos' brew. The Barone/Mastro duality was imaginatively exploited in 1983's "Nuts and Bolts," an LP they recorded in North Carolina with Mitch Easter showcasing Barone's music on one side and Mastro's on the other. The Bongos moved from the independent PVC label to RCA and released a 1983 mini-album, "Numbers With Wings," and followed it with the 1985 LP "Beat Hotel." Mastro then left the Bongos and formed the group Strange Cave while Barone, inspired by his work on "Nuts and Bolts," undertook a solo side project. He opened for Suzanne Vega on her East Coast tour last summer, and a show at the Bottom Line in New York was recorded and released last September as the album "Cool Blue Halo" (on Passport). The Bongos (Barone, Norris, Giannini and new members Ivan Julian and George Usher) are working on new material and looking for a label.

Sound: T. Rex, Bowie and the Beatles are still role models--Barone's album includes a song by each. But while the Bongos' sound has become increasingly rocking over the years, Barone's music inhabits a rarefied chamber-pop atmosphere. He gives his version of Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" a fugue-like arrangement, and his record company is aiming its promotional efforts on the Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry" at adult-contemporary, not rock radio. The combination of Barone's high, clean, cutting lead vocals, the glassy harmony singing, the somber cello and the reserved percussion conjure a mood of burnished melancholy rarely attained in pop music since the heyday of the Left Banke. At its most austere and abstract, this music can become antiseptic, but more often than not Barone and company warm it up enough to make it genuinely haunting.

Show: Thursday at At My Place.

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