THIEVES LIKE THEMTHE REIVERS STEAL AWAY TO A LABEL THAT UNDERSTANDS THEM

It used to be that albums were named after their hit single. But then rock 'n' roll got meaningful, and choosing the title track became an art. Some groups stick with the hit. Others go for the most enigmatic or lyrically potent. Still others choose whatever hits them at 4 a.m. when the beer runs out. The real poets always pick a title for which there is no corresponding song.

When it came time for the Reivers to name their new record, they settled on the song "Pop Beloved." It's a surprising choice.

The only instrumental on the disc, "Pop Beloved" is a languid, meandering number that creeps up on you. With its bass melody, whining guitar sample and gongs-and-incense Eastern feel, it is the antithesis of a pop tune.

But naming a jangly alternative record after a dirge summarizes the dichotomy that has been the Reivers lately. Made up of two men and two women, the Reivers have always worked two levels. On the one hand, they've turned out west-of-Springsteen, heartland guitar rock--serious, almost pastoral stuff. But on the other, the group has always produced punky, thrashy music with a quirky sense of humor. Pop Beloved is no exception.

"Although everybody thinks `Pop Beloved' is serious--our cynical statement on the state of pop or whatever--that title came from a Bob and Ray radio skit called `Mary Backstage, Noble Wife,'" says the band's singer-songwriter John Croslin. He's talking by phone from Orlando, Florida, where he is producing a record for a local band called Naomi's Hair. "In that skit the old, wizened stagehand who spouts pearls of wisdom is called `Pop Beloved.' We just thought it was funny."

But then Croslin remembers the other side. "I originally wanted to call it `Poppa,'" he says. "It reminds me of my father, who died a few years ago. I wanted it to be peaceful, but it came out kind of dark. In a strange way though, it's uplifting to me. There's a nobility to it."

Nobility is not a word usually associated with guitar bands from Texas, but like the offbeat instrumental after which their new album is named, the Reivers are not your average alternative band. Blessed with Croslin's songwriting skills and the powerful voices of Croslin and guitarist Kim Longacre, this Austin quartet--bassist Cindy Toth and drummer Garrett Williams complete the lineup--have all the tools essential to great guitar pop.

Able to switch from delicate ballads to punky rockers in a blink, this band's patented folk-rock song-stories spin a world full of lazy afternoons and buzzing dragonflies. It's a melancholy world that's moodier, more obsessively detailed than the usual "Shiny Happy People" alternative context. Like William Faulkner, whose last novel provided the group with its name, this band knows how to create a distinct universe. But just when the vision becomes too brooding or quiet, the foursome throws in a dash of abandon and rocks out.

Like the two sides to their music, the Reivers' recording career has also worked on two levels. A year ago, after its second major-label record End of the Day failed to meet sales expectations, the band and Capitol Records parted ways. That the group was dropped after making what was and is a great pop record--its best so far--is an example of how promising acts can fall through the yawning cracks at big record companies.

While their fans assumed that being dropped by a major label was a deathblow and drew a collective breath, the Reivers heaved a sigh of relief. The Reivers are a prime example of the reverse-dream-come-truism that some bands, particularly those not easily packaged and marketed, are better off on small labels.

Big labels are often faceless, monolithic corporate entities that don't have the time or subtlety to effectively work every act they sign. The hitmakers get the support and the interesting, off-center music drifts back to the indies.

Although they don't have the cash or the distribution network of a major, the few progressive, on-top-of-it indies often spend the time necessary to understand and effectively promote and market bands like the Reivers. Free of Capitol, Croslin and company returned to Atlanta's DB Recs, the label that had handled them before Capitol purchased the contract.

"I'm not saying everyone who signs with a major will have our experience, but be aware that getting signed can be the easy part," says Croslin. "Connecting and getting people at the label to understand you is another story." The Reivers got their start in Austin in 1984. Originally called Zeitgeist, the band that would become the Reivers released its first record Translate Slowly a year later. Sued by a Minneapolis new-age quartet that already had the name Zeitgeist, the band made one of those painful name changes that have become such a common occurrence in this, the fourth decade of rock 'n' roll. The then-nameless band settled on the Reivers--a word meaning "thieves." Inspired by its new name, the band built up a fierce legion of fans at home in Austin and became the subject of a major-label bidding war. But when it got out that Kim Longacre was pregnant, the competition ceased and the offers dried up. After Longacre had her baby, the phone began to ring again.

Signing with Capitol in 1986, the band released its second record Saturday soon after. Powered by spirited, authentic tunes and a growing vocal chemistry between Longacre and Croslin, Saturday made it clear that this was a fresh alternative band on the verge on making it all click.

Saturday also brought the Reivers the curse of critical acclaim. Buoyed by great press and a word-of-mouth reputation, the band took its time at a follow-up. Two years and innumerable live shows later, the group finished End of the Day in 1989.

By that time the band's personality and ambition were unmistakable. Their homegrown lyrics had grown pointed and articulate, and there wasn't a weak tune on the entire record. The band's trademark mix of the serious and the playful was near perfect. Even Croslin's croaky, deadpan singing showed signs of enthusiasm.

A totally satisfying collection, End of the Day jumped up into the Top 10 on both the CMJ and Gavin college- alternative radio charts. The aching irony is that this kind of success--the nontriple-platinum kind--convinced their label to wave bye-bye. Faced with a talented but eclectic act that was going to take time and intelligence to promote, Capitol pulled the plug.

"It was for the best, let's just say that," Croslin says, being diplomatic about the split. "A majority of the executives there really didn't get it. They kind of gave up on us."

The switch back to a small indie has refueled the band's creativity and desire to go back on the road. According to Croslin, the band is "flourishing" now like never before.

"We've done our best record," he says, referring to Pop Beloved. "And I think our music is more together lyrically than it's ever been. We're making money on the road. We're not in debt. And hey, we've even got a record company that will answer our phone calls."

The Reivers will perform at the Mason Jar on Monday, July 22. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

"In that skit the old, wizened stagehand who spouts pearls of wisdom is called `Pop Beloved.' We just thought it was funny."

Like William Faulkner, whose last novel provided the group with its name, this band knows how to create a distinct universe.

The Reivers are a prime example of the reverse- dream-come-truism that some bands are better off on small labels.

Faced with a talented but eclectic act that was going to take time and intelligence to promote, Capitol pulled the plug.

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