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NERVUS REX (Buy CDs by this artist)
Nervus Rex (Dreamland) 1980
WASHINGTON SQUARES
Washington Squares (Gold Castle) 1987
Fair and Square (Gold Castle) 1989

One of the few artistic successes on producer Mike Chapman's original Dreamland label, Nervus Rex epitomizes the bubblegum side of new wave pioneered by Blondie. The pace is brisk and the touch light on predictable yet pleasing throwaways like "Go Go Girl" and "The Incredible Crawling Eye." As a perfect point of reference, the New York band includes a lively cover of Shocking Blue's giddy early-'70s hit, "Venus." (I wonder what it would sound like if Bananarama gave that same song a discofied try...) Flimsy but fun.

After Nervus Rex, guitarist/singer Lauren Agnelli (who had once been a rock critic under the name Trixie A. Balm) formed the Washington Squares, a neo-Beat folknik trio with Tom Goodkind (whose varied career on the local scene included such '70s bands as U.S. Ape) and Bruce Jay Paskow (the Invaders). Outfitted with uniform berets, conservative suits, black sunglasses and acoustic guitars, the Washington Squares escaped their post-punk backgrounds to shoulder the untendered responsibility of being the nouveau in-crowd's answer to Peter, Paul & Mary.

Despite the inexcusably pretentious folk-beatnik pose, the band's evident sincerity and their attractive harmonies give the first album its own inherent validity. But the lyrics are simpleminded, and the trio's treatment of two traditional songs isn't very nice. Ex-Television drummer Billy Ficca and producer Mitch Easter (on piano) help out.

Winningly produced by Steven Soles, Fair and Square pushes the Squares further towards a musical personality they can legitimately claim as their own. Alongside well-chosen and adequately performed covers of Leonard Cohen and Hoyt Axton (the classic "Greenback Dollar"), some of the originals are quite good. "Join Together" is a rousing populist anthem that should have circulated in the '60s; "The Other Side of Sin" rediscovers folk-rock with reedy innocence and a voice that frighteningly resembles Freddie Mercury in spots. But when the pose dominates, as in a precious tribute to Neal Casady, the whole thing goes out the window. (And why dredge up Quicksilver Messenger Service's wretched "Pride of Man"?)

[Jon Young/Ira Robbins]