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Hello, We’re Happy to Meet You

TIMES STAFF WRITER

International Pop Overthrow is a sprawling but unobtrusive rock festival dedicated to obscure bands that would rather coax ears with catchy tunes and crafty harmonies in the classic Beatles tradition than bash them with the brutal noise of hard rock and punk.

This year, more than 150 bands are playing in the second running of a 12-day, 18-show Tour de SoCal race through Los Angeles-area clubs that takes a detour into Orange County today and tonight. Each act gets no more than 30 minutes to play.

Big Hello, which plays tonight at Fitzgerald’s in Huntington Beach, is a band whose debut album, released last year, makes for a splendid pure-pop “howdy.” The band hails from Chicago, home of the ill-fated band Material Issue, whose 1991 anthem “International Pop Overthrow” lent a name to the festival, now in its second year. (Material Issue disbanded in 1996 after the suicide of its singer-songwriter, Jim Ellison.)

Out front for Big Hello is singer Chloe F. Orwell (a name too good to be real?), who reminds one at first of wisp-popper Juliana Hatfield, until a mean streak kicks in that makes her a sassy sister to Kim Shattuck of the Muffs, minus the screaming, or Christina Amphlett of the Divinyls. If Orwell had been born 35 years earlier, she would have fit right into the Shangri-Las, toughest of the early 1960s girl groups.

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The mixture of sweetness--whipped up with all manner of harmonized “oohs” and “aahs"--and the tartness that comes from the attitude in the songs and in Orwell’s delivery makes for a satisfying pop confection that’s breezy but biting, like a good, sharp wind coming in from Lake Michigan on an otherwise warm day.

Of course, the Mersey is another body of water that comes to mind: Chances are that any band on International Pop Overthrow will be at least partly a throwback to the Beatles. “Sister Mary,” an atypically gentle, wistful track, borrows grooves and harmony decoration from “Rain” and “You Won’t See Me.” But no sooner is it over than Big Hello is putting a wallop into the post-Beatles tradition: The next track, “Hooked on the Girl,” recalls Cheap Trick or Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus.

With drummer Brad Elvis handling most of the songwriting--and worthy contributions from Orwell and guitarist Johnny Million--Big Hello bids wise-alecky ill tidings to a series of targets. There’s the anonymous gossip in “Star 69" (“Star 69, punch it in, punch you out/Don’t you feel stupid now?”) and, in “Colorado Coastline,” a brisk and clever adieu to the states of California, Nevada and Utah, which are getting in the way of a would-be surfer who wants to enjoy the beach without giving up her Rocky Mountain high perch:

Up on a mountain looking down below,

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Got my surfboard waxed and I’m ready to go.

Waiting for the big one to hit any day,

Hello Denver, goodbye L.A., Hey!

Colorado coastline, it’s just a matter,

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A matter of time.

Big Hello shows it has a heart on the next track, “Clouds Cover the Mountain,” an earnest, jangling pop song that invokes Helen Keller as an inspirational example of how to make something good out of desperate circumstances.

If smart pop ever could overthrow the dismal order of mass-market radio, Big Hello would be one of the Count Fives or Grassroots of today: nothing too weighty in the grand scheme of things, but capable of off-the-cuff gems that would make dialing in a surprise-packed treat.

(Available from Parasol Records, 905 S. Lynn St., Urbana, IL 61801-5205. e-mail: parasol@parasol.com; https://www.parasol.com)

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* Big Hello plays at 8 p.m. on a nine-band International Pop Overthrow festival bill tonight at Fitzgerald’s, 19171 Magnolia St., Huntington Beach. 7:30 p.m. $8. (714) 968-4523.

* Nine other bands play an International Pop Overthrow concert today at Eastgate Park, 12001 St. Mark St., Garden Grove. Noon. Free. (714) 903-8327.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).


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