RAGGED DOLLS

Johnny Rzeznik, vocalist/guitarist for the Goo Goo Dolls, describes his reaction to A Boy Named Goo, his group's latest excursion into power pop, with characteristic candor. "I like it more than I thought I would," he says. "I always hate everything I do. After a while, I listen to it and go, `Fuck, that was lame.' I just hope nobody else does."

There's little danger of that. With a handful of solid indie-rock records under their belts and support from a raft of music critics, Rzeznik and his cohorts (bassist/vocalist Robby Takac and new drummer George, who apparently eschews the professional use of his surname) are appreciated by practically everyone who hears their music. Of course, not all that many people have: The Dolls claim to be "America's best-known unknown band."

In an effort to alter this situation, the group has embarked on a hyperactive touring schedule that's clearly taking a toll on Rzeznik. When asked about the Dolls' recent swing through Europe, he unenthusiastically calls the experience "okay" and notes that the band had problems with "little things--like finding food to eat." He subsequently admits that he's "been in a really bad mood for the past week" in a tone that suggests he'd much rather be sleeping than jawing with yet another journalist.

Rzeznik has every reason to feel impatient with rock scribes, who for better or worse have latched onto similarities between the Dolls and the Replacements, songwriter Paul Westerberg's greatest creation, with all the restraint of underfed pit bulls. "I think a lot of people write that because it's an easy comparison," Rzeznik states. "One of the things that makes people think we sound like the Replacements is that I put a ballad on every one of my records."

There's another reason: Superstar Car Wash, the disc that immediately preceded Goo, included the single "We Are the Normal," which Rzeznik and Westerberg wrote together. Rzeznik insists that the collaboration wasn't a calculated marketing move; rather, it was "a goof" between two longtime acquaintances that got out of hand as soon as representatives of the Dolls' label, Metal Blade, got wind of it. Because of the attention paid to "Normal," Rzeznik claims, "I don't think we'll ever write a song together again. I don't think either of us really wants to, after the last one."

Hobnobbing with rock-and-roll luminaries like Westerberg is a long way from the band's humble origins. Formed in upstate New York in 1986 and named for a bizarre toy bandmembers spotted in the back of a True Detective magazine, the Dolls released their first independent album, a self-titled production, a year later. Jed, their second release (and first for Metal Blade), got a much wider hearing and prompted predictions that the Dolls might be to the Nineties what R.E.M. and the aforementioned 'Mats were to the Eighties.

That didn't turn out to be the case, but the Dolls have kept plugging along, appearing on TV shows such as Late Night With Conan O'Brien and contributing to the soundtrack of one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Meanwhile, they've remained true to their original beer-and-brats approach to songwriting. Standouts from Goo include "Flattop," a thoughtful if not incredibly original rant against the impact of television on Generation X, and "Eyes Wide Open," a guitar-heavy slab of near-arena rock that tempers adolescent adrenaline with twentysomething angst. Also present are two fairly inspired punk covers--the Enemies' "Disconnected" and "Slave Girl," from Australia's Lime Spiders--that were produced by Rob Cavallo, the man behind the boards for Green Day's Dookie.

Still, much of the material on Goo would seem equally at home on any previous Dolls offering--which is to say that it sounds terrific at first but is hard to remember after the disc's played out. This fact may explain the group's emphasis on its frenetic live shows. Rzeznik hasn't given up on recording, though. He's already penning tunes for the band's next album because, he explains, "I want to have another record ready to go as soon as we're done with this one. I want to keep the momentum going." The Goo Goo Dolls, he adds, "are one of those bands that has to stay out on the road forever to try and break."

In the past, Rzeznik dealt with the demands of this lifestyle by escaping into recreational chemicals ("I was out of control. If I hadn't stopped doing what I was doing in 1989, I'd be dead now, I think"). But with those days behind him, he is newly focused on his music. While the Dolls might seem a bit long in the tooth by MTV's standards, Rzeznik, who's 28, claims to feel no pressure to achieve fame, fortune or any other career milestones on a predetermined time schedule. "It's either going to work or it ain't," he says. "I don't ever really think I'm going to do this and this and this by such and such a time. I just want to do what I do. I just want to write good songs. That's all."

And getting an occasional nap might not hurt, either.
Goo Goo Dolls. 9 p.m. Friday, July 14, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $9, 294-9281.

 
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