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TWO NICE GIRLS (Buy CDs by this artist)
2 Nice Girls (Rough Trade) 1989
Like a Version EP (Rough Trade) 1990
Chloe Liked Olivia (Rough Trade) 1991

Two Nice Girls began in 1985 as the duo of Gretchen Phillips (vocals/guitar) and Laurie Freelove (vocals/guitar). Joined by Kathy Korniloff (vocals/bass/guitar), they won Austin's "Sweet Jane" contest with a gorgeous, meditative version that interpolated Joan Armatrading's "Love and Affection" into the Lou Reed classic.

That medley appears on the trio's delightful debut album, along with a tasteful cover of Jane Siberry's "Follow Me" and a batch of fine Phillips and Freelove originals. The Girls' uncategorizable sound draws on folk, rock, bluegrass, cajun and jazz, all woven together with great warmth and virtuosity. (The sleeve credits D. Boon and Nina Simone as inspirations, along with the Shaggs, Slits and Throwing Muses.) But the group's primary appeal lies in its angelic harmonies, wry humor and durable songwriting.

Freelove, who had written two of the album's highlights ("Looking Out" and "Heaven on Earth"), left the group for a solo career shortly after its release. With two new members, Two Nice Girls made Like a Version, an EP which reprises the album's hilarious send-up of heterosexuality, "I Spent My Last $10.00 (On Birth Control & Beer)" ("My life was so much simpler/when I was sober and queer"), and adds five covers: from Sonic Youth's "Cotton Crown" to the Carpenters' "Top of the World." Repeating the "Sweet Jane (With Affection)" trick, the Girls graft Donna Summer to Bad Company in "I Feel (Like Makin') Love."

Chloe Liked Olivia, the new lineup's first full-length album, takes a bold but wobbly commercial step towards mainstream acceptability. By and large, the group's ambitious adventures into rock production don't work. While Korniloff's folky-pop "Eleven" and "Rational Heart" receive subtle and sympathetic treatment, some of Phillips' material goes very wrong. "For the Inauguration" is a clumsy political song that actually employs a Bush impersonator; slathering electric guitar on the lovely "Princess of Power" shows a lapse of both taste and artistic logic. New Girls Meg Hentges and Pam Barger both make positive songwriting contributions, but having four lead vocalists in the group may not be such a wise idea.

[Wif Stenger/Ira Robbins]