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Pop trio follows heard instinct 

Something happened to Babe the Blue Ox around the time that they released their major-label debut, "People," three years ago on RCA Records. In addition to the scrutiny often attached to such leaps in economic faith, there was a philosophical shift in the band's self-image.

"One person ... me, spent a lot of time thinking about whether there was a close enough relationship between intent and reception," says singer and multi-instrumentalist Tim Thomas. "Left to my own devices, I will write the most esoteric and difficult music -- just for me. And we found that on "People," a lot of what we were intending was getting lost in its production. When it came time to consider our next direction, we found that what we really wanted to do was make music we could sense."

Thomas, vocalist/bassist Rose Thomson and percussionist Hanna Fox have been tooling around the eclectic ends of the musical spectrum since 1989, when they discovered their common interest in New York's rich musical foundations and common ground via their musical training at Brown University. A series of moderately successful releases for Homestead Records (where they began an odd tradition of naming their records after those of Barbra Streisand -- "Je m'Appelle Babe," "Color Me Babe" ... you get the picture) established their heavy-grooved, light-headed whimsical approach and won them status as one of college rock's most reputable and reliable live bands.

On "The Way We Were," released late last year on RCA, Thomas and company seem to achieve the balance between intent and reception that they were looking for. Tracks like "I'm Not Listening" and "Basketball" carry their playful cartoon charm into heady realms of textured, sophisticated pop. Thomas presses his baritone into the grooves of the band's rhythmic bounce, while Rose Thomson's vocals soar in wispy air-pop abandon. Elsewhere, as on the blues sway of "My Baby 'N' Me" and "The Monday After," the gaze is decidedly more downward and the escape less obvious. Throughout, the lyrics hold life accountable for its random miscellany, finding genius in orchestrated celebrations of the mundane.

And beneath everything is a well-deserved sense that they know exactly what they're doing. "There is no, and there never was, a correct way to record music," says Thomas. "You only have one guide, and that's your ears."

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