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July 28, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

Various Artists

"Melody Fair: Songs of the Bee Gees"

eggBERT

A Bee Gees tribute album? Not as travolting a concept as you might think. Before spreading the disco epidemic in the mid-'70s, the brothers Gibb were grandmasters at the '60s games of folk-pop and follow-the-Beatles.

This 21-song compilation consists mainly of little-known, smart-pop bands of '80s and '90s vintage rummaging through the early Bee Gees catalogue, with results both charming and weirdly appealing.

Material Issue, Dramarama, the Young Fresh Fellows and the late Phil Seymour are the only names here with much of a national profile, but virtually the entire cast carries itself well. L.A.'s Baby Lemonade attempts the only disco-redemption and, if not for a wan lead vocal, would have pulled off its Big Star-ish garage-pop revival of "How Deep Is Your Love?"

The early Bee Gees were big on wistfulness, but as album annotator Alec Palao notes, "It's difficult to overlook the group's sense of the bizarre, particularly where lyrics are concerned." Druggy parables, hilarious nonsense rhymes and inscrutable visions are strewn throughout this compilation, along with the sweetly lovelorn and prettily alienated musings more familiar from the Bee Gees' best-of volumes.

"Melody Fair" makes a perfect companion piece for old-line Bee Gees fans who swooned and sighed to the early hits packages but didn't buy the original albums. The cast here for the most part avoids the hits in favor of obscure, but still engaging, fare. The reason is obvious from Material Issue's faithful re-creation of "Run to Me." Nice enough, but superfluous.

The other five bands that tackle well-known songs throw in a few wrinkles of their own. The best come from the Movie Stars, who apply a pedal steel guitar and a Cowboy Junkies kind of hush to "I Can't See Nobody," and the Insect Surfers' splendid surf-rock instrumental take on "Massachusetts."

The album strikes a good balance between wispy cotton candy like "Kilburn Towers," dreamily rendered by the Idle Wilds, and more aggressive fare. Among the latter are Dramarama's raw-and-desperate take on "Indian Gin and Whisky Dry" and Spindle's "The Earnest of Being George," a deliciously wrathful counterpoint to customary Bee Gees wist. The only dance-pop entry, a dramatic diva turn called "I'm Not Wearing Makeup," comes from Beri Rhoades, an Australian niece to the brothers Gibb. Uncle Barry produces and sings backups.

The songs still hold their charm and don't carry the burden of excessive familiarity, making this a worthwhile trip to a pleasant patch of the past. As for the tribute-payers, in almost every case the level of craftsmanship and good pop sense makes one want to hear more of what they do on their own time.

Available from eggBERT Records, 2755 Via Hacienda, P.O. Box 10022, Fullerton, CA 92635.

(John Easdale, Baby Lemonade, the Jigsaw Seen, Kristian Hoffman and Barry Holdship from the "Melody Fair" lineup will perform Aug. 6 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Tower Records in the Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa.)

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