Big Head Todd & the Monsters

Riviera

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For a while there, it seemed like every town had a band like Big Head Todd & the Monsters -- and, if you live in a college town, you probably still have at least one that does. They're a roots band in the post-R.E.M. age, turning out serious, melodic, lightly jangly guitar rock that's very earnest and straight-ahead. At the height of alt-rock, they were on the cusp of success, but they pushed too hard -- hard enough that they wound up compromising their sound without the commercial rewards. This happened on two successive efforts, and they eventually retreated for a long, long time, taking five years between studio records before reappearing in 2002 with Riviera. This is a modest affair, never pushing too hard toward radio or to their jam roots. Frankly, after two deliberately calculated albums, the return to their simple roots is welcome, especially since they've cut away all excessive tendencies and made a clean, rather melodic, enjoyable record. There is no "Bittersweet" -- and even if there were one, it probably wouldn't get them radio play in 2002 -- but the songs are all sturdy, whether they're rockers (like the first-rate opener "Julianna"), or contemplative ballads, and they resonate because the group no longer is swinging for the bleachers, they're simply playing the game the best they know how. And, by doing so, they've wound up with their best record in nearly a decade.

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