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Personal Correspondence

O delivers songs that play like an intimate, honest note from a friend.

*** FLUF "Road Rage" Honest Don's

October 29, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fluf has been through some changes in the year since its last album, "Waikiki."

The San Diego trio, which has strong Orange County roots, is back on a small independent label after a one-album fling with life in the majors on Way Cool/MCA. The departure of classy drummer Miles Gillett leaves just O, Fluf's main creative cog as singer-songwriter-guitarist, from the original lineup that started cranking out garagey but warmly melodic punk rock in 1992.

Contrary to its title, "Road Rage," Fluf's fifth album, is no bilious tirade, but rather plays like a welcome note from an old friend. The album rings familiar, continuing the brawny, anthemic yet unpretentious approach Fluf has taken from the start. But it is also very personal, with the direct and honest form of address that good friends can afford to take.

Like a trusted friend, you can believe O--short for Otis Barthoulameu--implicitly. (A popular alterna-band such as Third Eye Blind might proffer a well-put-together assortment of catchy songs that mean nothing because everything feels so staged and studied; they seem to exist only because the band needed to put out a record.)

O stands behind his music the way Fort Knox used to stand behind the dollar: There's an almost tangible substance in his husky, homey (yet not unattractive) voice, something that simply assures you that you're hearing the pure, uncalculating truth, that these songs exist because a strong feeling or opinion came over him and he had to dash off that note to the friends he thought would want to know.

The 14 songs on "Road Rage" hurry by in 33 minutes; there's room for such grace notes as the Television-like harmonized guitar ending on "Just Like You" and for some helpful backing vocals from bassist Josh Higgins and drummer Francis Winfield. But it's all to the point.

And the points are interesting. On several tracks, O looks outward at trends and issues that matter to him, with a knack for pithy, telling observations. "I'm It on the Net" crystallizes the most troubling question about the depersonalizing potential of the Information Age in a couple of couplets:

I've got friends all over the place

Who knows who when they don't have a face?

But that's OK, it's fine with me

No one to deal with, no one to see.

With "Living It Up," O makes a cogent appeal for treating drug addiction as a disease rather than a crime by avoiding soapbox rhetoric and sticking to the human stakes involved. On the lighter side, "Leo & George" is a brisk valentine to the Fender guitar, noting, to a thrashy beat, that thrashy punks appreciate its tonal wonders as much as previous rock generations do. "Hang Out" is an ode to unashamed self-acceptance, with O holding out his own unfashionable physique--as round as his name--as a case in point.

O's insight extends to personal issues. "If I Could Feel Good," a catchy highlight, notes that happiness depends on one's perspective on life, rather than achievements on a resume. The song resonates because of the anguished, elegiac tone O takes, making it clear that knowing intellectually what's required to feel good is merely like holding a road map when satisfaction remains distant and there's not a lot of gas left in the heart's tank.

Friendship is paramount in the universe of Fluf, and "Road Rage" ends with a sequence of songs about betraying and keeping the trust that friendship requires; there's a warm glow to "$79," "Something's Wrong" and "You and I Agree," the three closing songs that support O's bedrock ideals of loyalty and engaged concern.

Musically, Fluf doesn't extend the vocabulary of dense, melodic guitar-rock rooted in such 1980s sources as Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. But with O's good instincts for lending interest and structure to a song by changing the thickness and tone of the guitars, and the energetic rhythmic approach being carried forward with a new drummer, Fluf makes the familiar worth revisiting.

The recording is available from Honest Don's, P.O. Box 192027, San Francisco CA 94119; (415) 896-0836.)

BE THERE

Fluf, Chix Digit and Buck play today at Linda's Doll Hut, 107 S. Adams St., Anaheim. $7. 9 p.m (714) 533-1286. Fluf, Chix Digit and Iron-Ons play Friday at Club Mesa, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa. $6. 9 p.m. (949) 642-8448.

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