THE BONGOS have always had a curious way of dealing with their pop instincts. Even though their songs generally had all the earmarks of truly popular music -- strong melodies, beguiling harmonies, enticing rhythms -- their records nonetheless sat somewhere short of accessible. Maybe it was the new wave atmosphere the band came up in, or perhaps it was the diffidence that fed singer Richard Barone's oblique lyrics. Whatever the case, the Bongos were a pop band in theory only, and that limited both their appeal and their audience.
"Beat Hotel," the New Jersey quartet's latest album, ought to change that some. Not that the Bongos have in any way sold out; the sound of this album is in most respects the same as ever. Rather, what the band and producer John Jansen have done is make the most of the material's strengths, so that Barone's tuneful tidbits no longer go undersold.
The Bongos follow a number of strategies, ranging from extra percussion for such numbers as "Totem Pole" and "Apache Dancing," to cannily recycling melodic ideas in the arrangements. As a result, a quirky rocker like "Space Jungle" gleefully pounds its chorus home; "Come Back to Me" fluffs out its verses with delightfully lush background vocals; and even the fragmentary narrative of the title song achieves unanticipated urgency. Before long, even casual fans will find themselves regular visitors to "Beat Hotel."
THE BONGOS -- "Beat Hotel" (RCA NFL1-8043); appearing Saturday at the Marvin Center, George Washington University.