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Ever Earnest

At times, it's hard to believe that it's been over a decade since Emily Saliers and Amy Ray came out of Atlanta's Emory University as the Indigo Girls -- hard, because listening to the two today, they still sound like a pair of earnest recent college graduates out to shake up the world.

That's both the Indigos' greatest strength and their greatest weakness. The weakness, of course, comes from what critics would term a lack of development; listen to the Indigo Girls' eponymous debut EP from 1986 and the recently released Shaming of the Sun, and you hear a lot of the same things: Saliers's clear soprano playing against Ray's rough alto, folkish tunes given a bit of a rock edge, lyrics that range from the introspectively personal to the politically strident. But supporters of the Indigos would respond, so what? What one person sees as stagnation, another sees as stability. And there is something admirable about the Indigo Girls' stubborn adherence to the sound that got them started. Other bands might cast about for the next big thing, but the Indigos are happy to stick with what they know. Call it collegiate arrogance or mature assurance; however you term it, it's managed to guarantee that, while the Indigos might not have soared as high as some of their peers, they also haven't sunk as low. They're about as reliable as popular music gets.

And they're also about as fun. Somehow, for all their social concerns -- Shaming of the Sun contains songs about immigration problems, the rash of burnings of black churches and Native American rights, among others -- the Indigo Girls never devolve into dourness. Maybe it's just collegiate optimism, but there's something in Saliers and Ray's voices, especially when they blend, that suggests no matter how bad things may seem, if we all just think right and work together, then by golly, we can make it all work out.

That's particularly true live, where the Indigos' engaging personalities come across best. The pair rarely use touring as just a way to push their latest product; instead, an Indigo Girls show is more likely to mingle old favorites such as "Closer to Fine" (the closest the pair has come to a hit), "Galileo," "Touch Me Fall" and "Strange Fire" with revealing covers of everything from the Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet" to Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" to Dylan's "Tangled up in Blue" to Neil Young's "Down by the River." At times, it's astonishing to hear the range of music the Indigo Girls are willing to sink their teeth into, and even more astonishing to hear how they make well-known songs purely their own.

Maybe that's the most collegiate thing about Saliers and Ray -- their jaunty belief that no tune is beyond them, that they can do anything they want. Truth is, most of the time they're right.

-- Carrie Bell

The Indigo Girls perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 25, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $17.50 to $31. For info, call 629-3700.

Matthew Sweet -- Over the last decade, Matthew Sweet has done plenty to complicate his bid for commercial acceptance. After authoring one of post-punk's purest unions of melody and malady in 1991's near-hit Girlfriend, Sweet promptly retreated into the self-indulgent shell of its follow-up, Altered Beast, which belittled its best concessions to popcraft with, among other things, a sound bite from the soft-core porn debacle Caligula. Then in 1995 he rebounded with the wonderful 100% Fun, only to snuff out any renewed momentum with this year's disappointingly glib and caustic Blue Sky on Mars. Those sharp fluctuations carry over into the live Matthew Sweet experience as well. There have been magical gigs at which Sweet breezed through generous sets of loud, tightly delivered power-pop perfection, and others at which he's appeared more adept at hoisting a six-pack than at keeping his guitar in tune. But it's just that sort of inconsistency that, in the end, makes the guy so likable; it also might explain why Sweet fans are such a patient lot. At Numbers, 300 Westheimer, Monday, June 23. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.50. 629-3700. (Hobart Rowland)

Yo La Tengo -- Thirteen years, eight releases and a handful of EPs into their career as indie rock's low-key mainstays, Hoboken, New Jersey's Yo La Tengo has finally arrived -- and dammit, it's about time. Simply by doing the same thing over and over while constantly refining and focusing, the trio has evolved from scattered, record-collecting eccentrics into the true classicists of '90s indie rock. Blending, as always, elements of what makes Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Pavement and My Bloody Valentine great (not to mention the zillion bands they've covered), Yo La has long had a clear voice. But they've never sounded so comfortable using it as they do on their latest CD, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. And unlike a few of their lo-fi brethren, Yo La has remained a consistently sharp and intriguing presence on-stage. Just in time for indie rock to catch up with Yo La Tengo, Yo La Tengo has caught up with itself. At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue, at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 21. Tickets are $8. Barbara Manning opens. 869-COOL. (Roni Sarig

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