THE WORDS POWER pop tend to connote the fairly gruesome sonic image of grown men (it's usually men) trying to sound as guilelessly exuberant as they were when their hormones first took hold. So it's a rare and beautiful thing when bands tapping into the guitar-pop nexus of the Four B's (Beach Boys, Beatles, Big Star, Byrds) actually achieve the liftoff of their forebears. And few have soared higher in the past decade than Ivy on 1997's Apartment Life, their second album. Over a sound so crystalline it left your speakers gleaming on contact, multi-instrumentalists Adam Schlesinger and Andy Chase chased jet-fueled bursts of guitaristic exuberance like "Get out of the City" with the gracefully pensive likes of "Back in Our Town." At its center was the heavily accented wisp of Chase's wife, Paris-born Dominique Durand, whose distracted, somewhat distant singsong vocals helped keep the rockers' urgency from cloying and the ballads' melancholy from dragging.
The new Long Distance never quite measures up to Apartment Life's contact high. The group trades that album's crisp guitar hooks for moodier, trip-hop-style keyboards, and they're much better at the former than the latter. But there's something appropriate about Ivy's more subdued approach here. After all, if your band had spent four years getting dropped and picked up and dropped again by record labels, not to mention watching your recording studio burn down, you'd sound tired too.
Still, plenty of brightness glints through the cracks of Long Distance's dolorous surfaces. "Lucy Doesn't Love You," one of the best song titles ever, mates scrappy "What Goes On" rhythm guitar with Burt Bacharach-ian brass like it was the most natural thing in the world. "Blame It on Yourself" is one of those gemlike pieces of song- and studio-craft (love that tremolo-heavy guitar solo and the tinny filtering on the penultimate chorus, guys) that will baffle pop geeks when it stalls at No. 55 on Billboard. And the cover of the Blow Monkeys' "Digging Your Scene" is giddy without putting a mask on the experience that went into getting it made.