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Damn Good Southern Jangle-pop

There was a time not so many years ago when you couldn't drive past a frat party in Raleigh, North Carolina, without hearing the Connells. Not on record, but in person, from the backyards on those shitty plywood frat-house stages where they were cementing their reputation as a sweet Southern jangle-pop band that could make the frat boys feel mannish and sensitive at the same time.

The Connells have long since graduated from the backyard-kegger scene. The only way they can play their hometown now is on the main stage at the local corporate outdoor barn (they headlined opening day at the thing a few years ago), or on certain summer nights when most of the kids are at the beach, playing under some silly assumed name in the bars they used to struggle to fill.

Most bands wouldnÕt bother with the club shows. It's a pretentious rock-star move, best left to fogies like Aerosmith and soon-to-be fogies like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, bands who think it's great nostalgic fun to stumble over the monitors at the front of a two-foot stage and struggle to be heard over the blather of the crowd.

But if nostalgia is what drives the Connells back into their hometown clubs, it's a bitter nostalgia. When the Connells play their secret club shows, it's no star turn, no grab for attention; it's the only way left for their friends to see them without being swallowed up in the crush of baggy shorts, baseball caps and crisp white T-shirts.

See, the Connells were never really into that whole frat-boy thing. It would've been tough; when they were in school in the early '80s, "alternative" music hadn't really hit the mainstream yet, and the fratties were still handing out dirty looks to dumpy, bespectacled art-school types like Connells frontman Doug MacMillan, with his sloppy hair and the heavy Anglophile inflection in his voice.

That depressed, faux-Morrissey tone was so pronounced on the Connells' first album, 1986's Darker Days, that those few non-North Carolinians who heard it must have imagined Raleigh as some kind of New Manchester, all coal dust and drizzle. It's not. But to young indie-pop hopefuls with a serious Smiths jones, being stuck in the painfully sunny South must have seemed as bleak.

A year later, things were looking a different kind of bleak. The Connells' neighbors to the south, R.E.M., had hit big with Life's Rich Pageant, and even bigger with Document, and suddenly mopey Southern jangle-pop was The Shit. The Connells signed to the newly-formed TVT Records and found themselves languishing in another kind of hell. They had survived the years of frat parties, they were the proud owners of a well-reviewed album (1987's Boylan Heights) and, there they were, stuck fighting off R.E.M. comparisons all day and playing to the same drunken frat-rats, now decked out in bright new R.E.M. T-shirts, all night.

And then the legal hassles began. Though both guitarist Mike Connell and his twin brother John are lawyers, no one could have anticipated the coming hugeness of alternapop when the Connells signed their contract with TVT. When bigger offers from bigger labels began to appear, the Connells found themselves trapped in a bitter struggle with a label whose biggest success thus far had been a TV's Greatest Hits collection.

Luckily, they'd had a lot of experience with bitter struggle, and they'd grown accustomed to the threat of permanent obscurity back when obscurity was still the logical conclusion to their careers. They kept on playing shows, kept on writing songs and killed time with weddings and friends and all the other trappings of nouveau Southern gentility.

By the time last year swung 'round, the contractual firestorm had mostly ended. (TVT, infused with fresh capital by the never-dying Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine, suddenly wasnÕt such a bad place to be.) And the Connells, still as perversely, bitterly optimistic as ever, released Ring, a damn good Southern jangle-pop record at a time when damn good Southern jangle-pop is no longer as cool as it once was.

Ring could well change all that. Equal parts bright-eyed guitar pop and brooding ballads, the album blends liberal doses of the band's trademark shimmery guitars and MacMillan's wispy voice with something new: a half-decade's worth of frustration and regret. When the combination works, as it does on the college-radio hit "'74-'75," the result is the kind of precise, painful stoicism that's long been a staple of the literary South.

It's the best thing they've ever done. Over a dense, muted background of strings and voices, MacMillan sings the words of almost sorry, of near-regret: "When I look on in your eyes / then I find that I'll do fine / When I look on in your eyes / then I'll do better / I was the one who let you know / I was your sorry-ever-after. '74-'75."

Coupled with its quiet, evocative video of a Raleigh high school's class of 1974-75, the song captures some small part of the ambiguity, the confusion, of growing up Southern, as the Connells did, in a world where nobody seems sure what Southern means anymore.

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The Connells have grown up, all right -- grown up and left that childhood world of backyards, frat-boys and beer far behind them. And they might miss it, as the mended arm, newly freed, misses the weight of the cast. But only for a moment, late at night, driving past the frat houses, hearing someone else's voice on the wind sweeping the cups and cans and cigarette ash into the street.

-- Ross Grady

The Connells perform Tuesday, Sept. 13, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. For information

all 526-6551.

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