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Every time she scanned the Billboard chart in the summer of '89, Indigo Girl Amy Ray had to chuckle. Perched near the top of the pops, frighteningly close to the likes of Paula Abdul's Forever Your Girl and Don Henley's The End of the Innocence, was the Indigo Girls' self-titled debut album. To Ray, it was a lot like the chart game from Sesame Street: Which of these bands doesn't belong?

As it turned out, the secret to the group's success was all in the timing. Ray and fellow Indigo Girl Emily Saliers' debut LP hit the stores just as the late Eighties female singer-songwriter trend was peaking--post-"Luka" and post-"Fast Car." The music scene was ripe for a female duo that could strum its guitars thoughtfully and know when to turn on the pathos.

Ray admits the suddenly hip status of female singer-songwriters was the reason the Decatur, Georgia, duo lucked into a record contract after years of shopping around demos. "There's no denying that we probably got signed because of that trend," she acknowledges. "And the radio stations were probably more receptive to us because of that trend. But we don't really like to be stuck in that category. I don't think any of those artists want to be stuck in that category. We consider ourselves to be, you know, human songwriters."

There were other contenders among sensitive female folkies at this time, like Michelle Shocked, Cindy Lee Berryhill, and Phranc. But for mainstream audiences, Shocked was too raw, Berryhill too quirky, and "all-American Jewish lesbian" Phranc . . . well, not many listeners could even get past the crew cut.

But everyone from CD-spinning yupsters to alternative-oriented college kids could agree on the Indigo Girls. In the sea of brazenly eccentric neofolkies, this group was considered to be the safe choice for record buyers--Ray's tattoos and all. How safe? Safe enough to score a gold-certified record. Safe enough to win a Grammy award as Best Contemporary Folk Group. Even safe enough to be placed in medium rotation on MTV.

There is an axiom, however, that "real" folk groups don't venture into pop turf. Ray doesn't buy it. "Artists like Joan Baez that people consider to be true folk had pop hits and sold millions of albums."

One reason that the Indigo Girls' appeal cuts clean across the demographic lines is that their material is so comfortably middle-of-the-road. On the one hand, there's nothing traditionalist about their folk music. Ray claims to be more influenced by Husker Du than by Pete Seeger. Saliers did spend much of her teens listening to the anguished tunes on Joni Mitchell's Blue, but that's about as close to traditional folk as she gets.

Ray and Saliers, however, aren't exactly folk anarchists either. The Indigo Girls don't have anything in common with recent boundary-stretching "antifolk" artists like Lach or Roger Manning. In fact, the group would probably be laughed off the stage at the Fort, the Lower East Side antifolk club where the performers sound more like punks than coffee-house poets.

While they're neither purists nor iconoclasts, the Indigo Girls have produced some of the most likable radio-ready folk-pop since the heyday of Peter, Paul and Mary. The group's sweet, uplifting "Closer to Fine" was one of the few Top 40 tunes from last year you didn't have to feel embarrassed about humming along with. The pair's recently released Nomads*Indians*Saints LP also has a few could-be hits, including "Watershed," a tune full of the group's usual backwoods philosophizing.

The best thing about the duo's albums is vocal interplay, particularly the close harmonies and trancelike rounds. Of the two, Ray has by far the stronger pipes. Solo, Saliers' singing seems wispy and unassured. But together the Girls--with each of their voices rising at a feverish pitch--can sound as heavenly as the young Everly Brothers.

Ray credits rigid choirgirl training for the duo's vocal dexterity. "Sacred music is arranged in all these different parts, and a lot of the parts overlap," she explains. "And you do a lot of call and answer. Both of us sang in choirs, and I think a lot of those choral music formulas subconsciously come out."

If there's been a consistent gripe about the Indigo Girls' music, it's that the lyrics are often inordinately mopey. "Keeper of My Heart," from the new LP, is an especially strange and maudlin track that has Ray expounding on the dark symbolism behind her tattoos. Even she admits that this one might have gotten a little "too confessional."

But the singer doesn't apologize for the group's gloominess. "Some people don't like somberness, and that's okay with us," she notes. "The truth is there's a somber edge, but we're also so idealistic and hopeful and naive in our own way. And we're always sincere. I think everyone who's seen us perform live can see that."

Well, maybe not everyone. Ray admits there's a writer in New York who's always panned the group in print. The duo decided to invite the curmudgeonly critic to one of its shows recently, thinking it might change his opinion. "He came to our concert and ended up calling us pretentious," sighs Ray. "He thought we were being too idealistic or something, which is really funny to me. You know the world is screwed up when you try to be a nice person and honest and someone thinks you're being fakey."

The Indigo Girls will perform at Celebrity Theatre on Monday, November 5. Showtime is 8 p.m.

In the sea of brazenly eccentric neofolkies, this group was considered to be the safe choice for record buyers--Ray's tattoos and all.

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John Blanco