For years, American new-wave bands were reluctant to be as explicitly political as their British and Irish counterparts. That's changing now and The Call's "Modern Romans" delivers a surgical commentary from within the belly of the American empire.

A California quartet, The Call has wedded the sculpted funk of New England's Talking Heads to the explicit political agitation of England's Clash. While this combination seemed forced and unconvincing on The Call's debut album last year, it has matured into a vibrant vision on "Modern Romans."

Singer-songwriter Michael Been still occasionally overstates his case, as when the title tune draws the too-easy parallel between the Roman Empire on the brink of decline and modern America. A more effective allusion is made in the album's first single, "The Walls Come Down": Amid a bright guitar figure and a march beat, Been warns how easily the walls that protect Americans' private lives could come tumbling down. He then adds that the Russians aren't the problem; "corporate criminals" are.

On "Turn a Blind Eye," Been recites a litany of political apathies that rises in Dylanesque outrage as the nervous new- wave rhythms increase in tension. Reinforcing the Bob Dylan legacy is keyboardist Garth Hudson, who makes "Destination" one of the best synth-pop workouts yet constructed. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM THE CALL -- Modern Romans (Mercury 810 307-1M-1). THE SHOW THE CALL with Growing Up Different, Friday at 9 at the Wax Museum.