Dada Swims Against Tide With Its Pop-Rock Groove : Band: They're one of the '90s most able groups, but they compete against a world of raw sound and vehement emotion.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dada is one of the most accomplished new rock bands of the 1990s, but in today's climate, its ability may be a liability.

After two albums, the Los Angeles trio's mastery of the classic rock virtues is evident. Bassist Joie Calio, drummer Phil Leavitt and guitarist Michael Gurley are splendid players and artful arrangers whose songs are assembled from a full palette of varied, alluring hues.

But most of the media attention and chart action nowadays belongs to bands with raw slabs of distorted sound and vocals whose overriding vehemence of expression leaves little room for a pop classicist's finesse.

With its 1992 debut album, "Puzzle," Dada--which plays the Coach House on Saturday--made headway against the opposing current. The single "Dizz Knee Land" got lots of airplay, the band impressed with a harder-than-the-record stage sound in extensive touring that included arena gigs with Sting, and the album wound up selling about 300,000 copies, according to Dada's label, I.R.S. Records. Not instant stardom, but a more than solid start.

Two years later, the musical climate has grown even tougher for '60s-influenced pop-rockers.

Calio, Leavitt and Gurley, whose second album, "American Highway Flower," came out last fall, are realistic about their underdog status, but none of the Dada members sounded glum in recent phone interviews.

"This time everyone was expecting gold (sales of more than 500,000) by Christmas," Leavitt said, recalling the high expectations Dada had after its promising debut.

Reality, Calio acknowledged, has fallen considerably short of expectation--it's sold about 50,000. Plans call for promoting at least one more song to radio after the failure of the shoulda-been-a-hit track "All I Am." Dada will stay on the road through February, hoping the album can still get hot.

"But if radio doesn't latch on to it, OK," Calio said. "It'll be an interim record. I'm very proud of it. My goal is to look back and say, 'I didn't sell out. We made a great record.' "

With "American Highway Flower," Dada has found that its popularity differs widely from city to city on the touring map. It draws well enough to play 1,000-seat venues in Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Denver/Boulder, but it attracts only a small cult following of about 200 fans in some weaker areas.

"You can't worry about that stuff," Gurley said. "You've got to write your songs, play your guitar and hope for the best. If we said, 'Let's try to put more distortion on our barre chords and try to get on the radio,' that would just be copping out. This guy at a radio station in Boston said, 'Don't sell out and go punk and alternative, keep writing pop songs.' Fifteen years ago, he'd be telling us, 'Don't sell out. Start playing punk music.' "

In the last year, the most painful adversities Dada had to contend with weren't the marketplace's swing toward punk, but the death of Calio's mother during the recording of "American Highway Flower" and Gurley's yearlong struggle with tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome in his guitar-fretting hand.

"It's like hanging out with Sandy Koufax or something," said Leavitt, noting Gurley's post-gig therapy of icing down his hand.

Calio figures that facing adversity, whether it's physical pain or an inhospitable commercial climate, will build fortitude.

"We have nothing to do with what Spin and Rolling Stone consider the 'now' kind of vibe," he said. "I'd like for them to get around to including us. But I think we're a word-of-mouth band, and the more we record and play, we're going to win in the trenches anyway. I really feel we've got a shot at longevity, a career where we can look back when we're 50 and go, 'That was a good run, a good band.' "

* Dada plays Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $13.50. (714) 496-8930.

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