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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Difford, Tilbrook Squeeze Out the Hits : The singing and songwriting team that leads the British band offers a pleasing blend of killer singles and newer material.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Guns N’ Roses at the Pacific Amphitheatre may have been the glitziest ticket in Orange County on Thursday night, but a pop fan couldn’t find a much better musical deal than what the Coach House was offering: hums, no poses.

More precisely, it was Difford & Tilbrook, the singing and songwriting team that leads the long-running British pop-rock band Squeeze. They provided 90 minutes worth of immensely catchy songs, rendered with the straightforward, stripped-down directness of an acoustic duo performance.

Removed from a full band setting, the best songs of lyricist Chris Difford and composer Glenn Tilbrook still shone like pop gems. Take first-rate material, add one of the best pop-rock tenors around (Tilbrook’s), and you have a nearly fail-safe formula for success. The only question was whether the notion of acoustic duo performance, something to which they aren’t much accustomed, would give D&T; the shakes.

It didn’t. The show was surprisingly varied, given the limited arsenal of two guitars plus piano plus minimally employed drum sampler. A full house of confirmed Squeeze fanatics added another ingredient--their voices in spontaneous sing-along harmony on a couple of the most familiar numbers, “Tempted” and “Black Coffee in Bed.”

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Difford & Tilbrook’s set was a pleasing blend of killer singles from Squeeze’s earliest phase (after a first run from 1978 to ’82, the band broke up, before re-forming in 1985), three good songs culled from the overlooked 1989 album, “Frank,” and half of Squeeze’s excellent new release, “Play.”

The new songs lacked the pure pop fizz of the choicest early Squeeze, but “Play” is a fully realized album of great depth, subtlety and cohesion. It gives a mature, often-moving account of the struggle required to make a relationship work. “Play,” indeed.

Tilbrook sang with a combination of Paul McCartney’s earnest, youthful exuberance--his primary vocal shade--and, on occasion, with some of John Lennon’s husky urgency. As Beatlesque as he was, Tilbrook never sounded like a mimic, thanks to the originality of Squeeze’s repertoire.

Difford’s nasal, croaky bass could have been inspired by Donald Duck. Somehow, it fit just right with Tilbrook’s choirboy voice on tandem bits, and proved a good vehicle for deadpan humor on Difford’s lone lead vocal, “Slaughtered, Gutted and Heartbroken.”

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As an opening gambit, “Annie Get Your Gun,” a song about the boisterous pleasures of rocking out, lived up to its subject and demonstrated clearly that the acoustic format was not going to make Difford & Tilbrook’s squeeze go limp. The song’s refrain, “She’s gone electric. . . . That’s unexpected,” took on a nice, wry dimension: unexpectedly acoustic, Difford & Tilbrook showed that they could nevertheless fulfill the lyric’s zesty command to “strum that thing and shout.”

Things got a bit iffy, though, as the duo went on strumming for about 20 minutes, playing nothing but aggressive, chordal numbers (with a harsh, too-bright sound mix on the guitars) long after they had proven they could rock. One began to wonder whether Tilbrook, whose accomplished electric lead work is a highlight of Squeeze’s shows, had turned gun-shy on acoustic guitar.

As it turned out, he was setting up an elaborate joke. Having rifled through that long opening sequence of Gatling gun strums, Tilbrook paused to apologize for all the “strident guitar rhythms,” adding breezily that “we are the basic, meat-and-potatoes guitarists. If there are any real guitarists here, feel free to criticize us at length.”

Of course, he then showed just what a “real guitarist” does, injecting a pair of taut, stinging solos into the next number, “Take Me, I’m Yours.” Contrast was no problem after that, as Tilbrook inserted the occasional solo, or switched to the piano for ballads.

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An old but charming ploy from Squeeze shows--divvying up the audience for a four-part harmony sing-along--worked nicely with this experienced group of Squeeze watchers, and laid the groundwork for uninvited but welcome audience harmonizing later on.

Difford & Tilbrook held their best cards for the encores. “Walk a Straight Line,” from “Play,” was a lovely folk-country ballad that honed in on that love-as-struggle theme with acuity and warmth. Bonnie Raitt should jump on it, if Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson doesn’t get there first. Of course, Squeeze deserves to have a hit with it most of all. “Up the Junction,” a 1979-vintage masterpiece (it’s a pop song that makes one care for, and ultimately grieve for, the characters involved) was as good, maybe even better, in stripped down form than in full-band regalia.

The Squeeze leaders’ acoustic tour is an advance scouting mission of sorts, a promotional jaunt intended to stir interest before they bring the whole band over this fall. Consider our interest stirred.

An opening set by Jane Hardaway left no doubt about the Long Beach folk-blues singer’s vocal ability--she showed the force, range and swooping, curlicue ornamentation of a young Joni Mitchell. The problem was that most of the songs Hardaway sang had the monotonic meander of some of David Crosby’s more mesmeric (i.e. dull) efforts.

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“American Cigarettes,” which sounded like a cross between Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and Crosby’s “Triad,” was one of the set’s strong points, along with an a cappella Celtic ballad that Hardaway delivered with a brogue. Two guitarists backed her during the rest of the set, but their playing fell into a sameness that matched most of the melodies. Hardaway might benefit from simpler, pared-down song structures and melody lines, and from a more understated singing style that would put content before vocal display.


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