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December 31, 2003

M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent
Merge, 2003
Rating: 4.0
The greatest change, or transfiguration, on Matt Ward’s third album, Transfiguration of Vincent, is the Portland, Oregon-based artist’s take on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Stripping away the melodrama and reducing the familiar '80s hit to a moody plea for comfort at the terminal end of a broken relationship, Ward makes the song his; as he does with just about every form of music he interprets. Ward expands on (and smoothes the rough edges of) the back-road folk-blues fusion of 2001’s impressive End of Amnesia, offering stronger hooks and richer lyrical imagery. The catchy, shimmering guitar work of “Outta My Head” and the deliriously inventive “Helicopter,” in which a man runs up a fire escape to save his baby from a “mess this world has made,” swings and moves with an energy the remainder of the album is hard-pressed to sustain. Other highlights include the woozy, wonderfully off-kilter “Sad, Sad Song” and “A Voice at the End of the Line,” a tender, gloomy-faced ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place during the early days of the Kennedy administration. Ward has a knack for taking timeworn melodies and infusing them with a wit and honesty that have little chance of ever sounding dated.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2003

The Fiery Furnaces: Gallowsbird's Bark
Rough Trade, 2003
Rating: 3.5
The Beatles' intentionally slapdash White Album contained fully fleshed out, classic songs ("Dear Prudence," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") and wildly silly sketches seemingly tossed off between the real takes ("The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," "Rocky Raccoon"). Imagine an entire album of nothing but first run-through Rocky Raccoons and The Fiery Furnaces' debut, Gallowsbird's Bark, justifies its existence. There's a fresh, willy-nilly playfulness to the sixteen songs (most of them under three minutes), as if brother-sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger were unknowingly taped while jamming together one night in the family den. There's not much diversity in the arrangements, banged out primarily on piano and guitar, but the pair's exuberance proves infectious. "Up in the North" and "Worry Worry" hit closest to the center mark, while "Bow Wow" is a little too reliant on coy, childlike rhymes ("Down in the dumps / Me and the seagulls we were looking for lumps") to leave a favorable impression. Gallowsbird's Bark possesses a stripped-down, almost primitive musical spirit and some clever wordplay regarding Eleanor's European travels. The Fiery Furnaces are a curious twosome, and it'll be interesting to hear what they conjure up next.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2003

Jay Farrar: Terroir Blues
Act/Resist, 2003
Rating: 3.0
If Sebastopol was Jay Farrar's attempt at experimenting with the structure and ideas of his music, Terroir Blues is a slight retreat to the sturdy, wood-carved, acoustic-based numbers that were his bread and butter in Son Volt. Of course, there's Sebastopol residue here (in the form of the six-part "Space Junk" noise loops scattered across the disc) and more than a little indulgence (four tracks get reprised). Despite some fine moments (the quietly impassioned "Heart on the Ground" and "Fool King's Crown," an interesting exercise in remote vocal distortion technique), what holds Terroir Blues back is the lack of a sense of revelry in the joy of creating music, or at the very least, a hint of spontaneity. There's a preordained seriousness here, undoubtedly influenced by the passing of Farrar's father during the writing of the songs, which makes for a taxing slog. Lacking the surliness of "Damn Shame" or the keen-eyed acidity of "Barstow," two of Sebastopol's standout cuts, Terroir Blues gets bogged down in a spot few listeners will endure inhabiting for long.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2003

Jim Lauderdale & Donna the Buffalo: Wait Til Spring
Dualtone / Skycrunch Records, 2003
Rating: 3.6
The pairing of stylistically restless troubadour Jim Lauderdale with folk-rock jam-band Donna the Buffalo proves mostly successful on Wait Til Spring. Genre-hopping from bluesy roots-rock (the opening title track) to breezy retro numbers ("Holding Back"'s distinct surf-rock vibe; the synchronized harmonizing on "Ginger Peach"), Wait Til Spring covers a lot of ground, held together by Lauderdale's consistently strong songwriting ("Listen to her ride the clouds / Flashing through the silence / Showing us that she's around") and Donna the Buffalo's tight musicianship ("This World Is Getting Mean" features some masterfully restrained guitar lines). The clunkers are real doozies, though: The tepid blue-eyed soul of "Slow Motion Trouble" sounds like Van Morrison on an off-off day, while the blandly arranged "Awake Now" could be a reject from an America recording session circa 1972. Lauderdale's willingness to explore as many musical styles as possible may not be the most financially secure move he could make, but it's pretty obvious that's the least of his concerns. Here's hoping he never kicks his heels up on the ottoman of his many laurels.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2003

Wilco: More Like the Moon [EP]
Self-released, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Available as a free download on the band's website (providing you have a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in your computer's CD drive), More Like the Moon is a twenty-odd minute, six-song collection of what sound like works in progress. Not entirely a palette cleanser (too short) nor an assemblage of tunes too out of sync with the vibe of recent efforts, Moon is mostly a treat for fans who've bought the album (sorry, file-traders) before the band's next full-length arrives. Points of interest: Foxtrot's "Kamera" gets a correct spelling, and a less successful reworking, as "Camera", all swirling keyboards and fuzzy overcast buzz muzzling the vocal mix. "Handshake Drugs" is a meandering guitar ditty, with a shaggy-dog beat and some harmless piano bosh for window dressing. "Woodgrain" is half-formed solo Tweedy lethargy, an insomniac-at-three-a.m. acoustic sketch that sounds like it was tossed off sitting at the kitchen table. The closing title track offers the impressive couplet "Collapsing galaxies / Feathered with falling stars." More Like the Moon can't quite clear its celestial inspiration. For legitimate owners of Foxtrot, however, you really can't beat the asking price.

::: Laurence Station

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December 27, 2003

Kinky: Atlas
Nettwerk Records, 2003
Rating: 3.5
While many attempts have been made to encapsulate Kinky's sound in a compact term ("Nuevo-Latino," "Worldbeat-Funk"), it's easier to think of the Mexican fivesome's second full-length record as the kick-ass soundtrack to one of those killer video games that can only be played on consoles you can't afford. In that vein, it comes as no surprise to learn that the band has given Moby a run for his money when it comes to providing background music to "cutting-edge" commercials. Fortunately, as anyone familiar with the band's 2002 self-titled debut can attest, Kinky's indescribable sound holds up just as well over an entire disc. With Atlas, the band has managed to take a step forward by adding elements of electronica and trance that barely registered on its previous effort. Especially notable is the decision to record several songs in English, including aggressive stomps like "Airport Feelings" and "My God is So Quiet." Atlas does a good job of capturing the energy of the band's spontaneous live show, much of which is provided by infectious, Latin-tinged percussion. If you choose not to familiarize yourself with Atlas, rest assured that there are many folks on Madison Avenue who are currently plotting to ensure that you become acquainted with the band regardless.

::: Eric Grossman

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December 24, 2003

Explosions in the Sky: The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
Temporary Residence, 2003
Rating: 3.8
If 2001's Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever occupied the murky no-man's-land between life and death, then The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, Explosions in the Sky's follow up, emphatically chooses life over death. The evocatively titled opener "First Breath After Coma" and the bracingly affirmative closer "Your Hand in Mine" imply a sense of optimism that the darker Those Who Tell the Truth did not. Utilizing the same straightforward dual guitar, bass and drums approach as before, the Austin quartet doesn't elevate its sound so much as refine the basic "one ringing note mushrooming into a thunderous crescendo" template. There's nothing here on par with Truth's "Have You Passed Through This Night?" and its aptly chosen dialogue sampling from Terrence Malick's poetic, war-as-folly epic The Thin Red Line. But Earth does brighten the brooding sturm und drang skies, revealing a band not driven by a dark muse to the point of repetitive parody. Explosions in the Sky might be in a holding pattern, stylistically speaking, but there are lot worse patterns the band could be working from.

::: Laurence Station

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December 18, 2003

Kelis: Tasty
Arista/Star, 2003
Rating: 4.0
After releasing an ear-grabbing debut (Kaleidoscope) and a less successful follow-up (Wanderland), Kelis goes for the top of the charts with Tasty, far and away her most radio-friendly album to date. The Harlem-born urban R&B artist, who's exhibited a penchant for multicolored hairstyles and progressive, edgy production (courtesy of her collaborations with the Neptunes), reins in her wilder impulses in favor of more obvious hooks and tried and true retro-soul beats. Kelis plays her strongest hand with the trio of songs that open the album: "Trick Me," with its aggressive beat and assertive guitar work; "Milkshake," with its sexually-charged piledriver rhythm and fantastic use of an "order-up" counter bell; and "Keep It Down," a tip of the cap to old school hip-hop and big-crunch production. The middle third, by contrast, drags Tasty down a few notches: "Protect My Heart" is a surprisingly bland Neptunes-powered production, while "Glow" and "Sugar Honey Iced Tea" (another Neptunes cut) drain the album's energy with slow-poured, smoothed-over soul numbers that seems ill-placed amongst the wealth of high-energy tracks surrounding them. But Kelis pulls it out in the clutch, finishing strong with the warm beat and effortless flow of "Rolling Through the Hood" and the suggestively erotic "Stick Up." Tasty might not be her most flavorful release, but it should accomplish exactly what it sets out to do: Up her profile.

::: Laurence Station

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December 16, 2003

Al Green: I Can't Stop
Blue Note, 2003
Rating: 4.0
I Can't Stop is being hailed as a comeback, both for Al Green and for the swaggering, joyful soul music he made with producer Willie Mitchell in the early '70s. And for the most part it is, an album lovingly swaddled in the vintage production touches, including organ swells and gorgeously harmonious backup singers, that marked such Hi Records hallmarks as Green's high-water mark, 1972's beautiful Let's Stay Together. Green can't be said to have ever really left the Southern-fried soul with which he made his bones, having attempted returns with Mitchell in the '80s and '90s. But I Can't Stop comes the closest he's ever come to recapturing both the sound and the spirit of his artistic heyday. "I Can't Stop," "I'd Still Choose You" and "I've Been Waitin' on You" (not to be confused with "You," "I've Been Thinkin' About You" or "My Problem is You") bristle with Green's contagious exuberance, goosed with hip-swaying horns and agreeable melodies. The earnest ballad "Rainin' In My Heart" flirts aggressively with cliché, but its understated musical buoyancy carries it through, and by the time Green nails the weathered urgency of "Not Tonight," it's long forgotten. Given how long it's been since Green and Mitchell worked so well together, I Can't Stop is impressively consistent: There's not a sub-par song in the bunch. And if there aren't exactly any timeless gems, either, that's certainly forgivable; the punchy horns in "Play to Win" and "I'd Still Choose You," Green's elated falsetto -- all of these moments make for a bouncy, head-bopping nostalgia trip. I Can't Stop isn't as flat-out uplifting (or, frankly, anywhere near as sexy) as his classic early albums. But it's such a likable record, a return to form if not entirely function, that such minor quibbles are rendered irrelevant.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 12, 2003

Barenaked Ladies: Everything to Everyone
Reprise, 2003
Rating: 3.4
On the basis of incessantly quirky, cavity-inducing songs like the breakout hit "One Week," it's tempting to dismiss Canada's Barenaked Ladies as an arena-filling band of jokey lightweights. To be sure, Everything to Everyone certainly packs in the humorous moments that were largely lacking from the group's last album, 2000's Maroon. But it also shows principal songwriters Steven Page and Ed Robertson reflecting on weightier topics related to the band's double-edged popularity. On the opening "Celebrity," Page paints a not-too-subtle picture of a nameless star coming to grips with an emptiness inside and a disconnect from humanity, while Robertson uses "Testing, 1, 2, 3" to slightly tweak the band's most recognizable sound: "Kinda like the last time / With a bunch of really fast rhymes / If I shed the irony / Would everybody cheer me? / If I acted less like me / Would I be in the clear?" Even the single "Another Postcard" is a wry wink at that aforementioned formula, taking the rapid-rhyme verse and sung chorus approach to its goofy extreme with a ridiculous song about chimpanzee stationery. "Shopping" is a semi-snide crack at consumer culture, while the ballad "War on Drugs" breaks the prevailing mood with a somber meditation on suicide and despair, among other things. Otherwise, Everyone (note the intended irony of the title) sticks to the Ladies' familiar pop-rock model, although "For You" breezes along on an O, Brother vibe. The album shows that Barenaked Ladies have little desire to discard their whimsical side, although it makes a good case that they're also not going to let themselves be defined by it without a fight.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 11, 2003

Jonny Greenwood: Bodysong
EMI, 2003
Rating: 4.0
With the soundtrack to Bodysong, Simon Pummell's cycle-of-life film collage (which uses snippets of footage from a century of cinema to track the breadth of human experience), Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood manages to create sounds that follow the film's basic structure (conception, birth, growing up, growing old, dying) without falling into the trap of obvious sonic signifiers (say, a newborn-sounding violin's wail or death-rattle percussion). Instead, Greenwood makes a collage of his own, using digital samples, a little guitar, and the talents of the Emperor String Quartet to flesh out an evocative, rather than literal, musical journey from womb to grave. "Moon Trills" employs delicate piano and aching strings to suggest life's creation, followed by the more sterile, electronic "Moon Mall." "Trench" features clipped, percussive beats, whereas the polyrhythmic "Convergence" is less restrained in its drum work. Fans of Radiohead's "National Anthem" will appreciate the free-ranging horns on "Splitter," while the closing "Tehellet," drenched in morose strings and bolstered by a moody rhythm section, closes the cycle in appropriately grim fashion. Certainly, Greenwood's songs are best heard in the proper context of Pummell's film. But they bear a distinctive enough stamp to stand sturdily alongside the work he's created with his more famous day job.

::: Laurence Station

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December 08, 2003

Elvis Costello: North
Deutsche Grammophon, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Not as self-consciously academic as 1993's The Juliet Letters, and far more in the spirit of the loose, effortlessly graceful pop of 1998's Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted from Memory, Elvis Costello's North is the anti-When I Was Cruel. There are no ringing guitars, no vitriolic anthems. Imagine sitting in an airport lounge, waiting out a delay, or in an upscale club: one of those dark, smoky, members-only joints. In the background, playing to no one in particular, is a man at a piano, serving up one slow, bourbon-poured ballad of love and loss after another. You spend the entire evening chatting with friends or staring at a muted television screen, but the following morning you can't get the music out of your head; it's managed to seep into your subconscious, impeccably played and meaningful without calling needless attention to itself. Granted, North is more than Costello at a piano; there are strings and horns bolstering these eleven tracks. But the mood is intimate, personal and unapologetically sappy. Costello opens with heartbreak ("You Left Me In The Dark") and closes with a ray of hope ("I'm In The Mood Again"). The seamless flow from dark to light is almost too faultless: North moves with an inevitable constancy, and could have perhaps benefited from one or two more upbeat tracks. But such consistency is certainly a forgivable flaw, especially when it's done as elegantly and earnestly as presented here.

::: Laurence Station

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December 05, 2003

Robert Wyatt: Cuckooland
Hannibal, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Robert Wyatt opens Cuckooland by stating "Faith may not be such a bad thing;" this from a man who's been a paraplegic since 1973, when he fell out a window during a party in London and busted his spine. Rather than vanish from the music scene (and considering that his bread and butter was as a drummer, such a retreat would have been perfectly understandable), Wyatt instead refocused his energies on string and brass instruments and, critically, perfected the distinctive, wounded falsetto that has become the focal point of his subsequent releases. Cuckooland, like Wyatt's work with the Soft Machine and his solo releases, is drenched in jazz ideas, motifs and arrangements. From the slow, sighing horns on opener "Just A Bit" to the shuffling bossa nova rhythms behind the DeMoraes and Jobim classic "Insensatez," Wyatt's love of the mutability and freedom of the form permeates the album. His left of center politics are hard to miss, as well. "Lullaby for Hamza" deals with the psychological damage wrought on children born around the time of the first Gulf War, while "Foreign Accents" is a moody litany of atrocities and human rights violations. Cuckooland's sixteen compositions are evenly divided by approximately thirty seconds of silence (certainly, the Second World War's Thirty Seconds over Tokyo comes to mind). Cuckooland doesn't entirely reconcile its drowsy, smoky jazz numbers with Wyatt's fiery polemics, but it does showcase the artist's interests and passions as well as any release since Rock Bottom, Wyatt's initial work after his tragic accident.

::: Laurence Station

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December 05, 2003

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci: Sleep/Holiday
Sanctuary, 2003
Rating: 3.7
Despite label shakeups and cash flow issues, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci soldiers on, crafting a unique brand of folk-pop that thankfully eschews ephemeral trends in favor of time-proven melodies and heartfelt delivery. Sleep/Holiday presents a fairly balanced mixture of slow and mid-tempo numbers staggered across its twelve tracks. The closest the Welsh band gets to actually rocking out is on "Mow The Lawn," a chugging near-burner undermined by a nagging, too-formal violin, which regrettably detracts from the otherwise stripped-down, no-frills delivery. While nothing here surpasses the infectious, sing-along pop elegance of "Let Those Blue Skies" from 2001's How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart, "Eyes Of Green, Green, Green" achieves a graceful beauty that reinforces just how good Gorky's is at taking simple melodies and infusing them with a warmth and weight that belie such humble origins. "Only Takes A Night" incorporates some much-needed, guitar-powered brawn to the primarily piano- and string-based arrangements. Overall, Sleep/Holiday finds Gorky's sticking to its idiosyncratic pop guns, and in doing so makes one hope the band handles future adversity with similar grace and care.

::: Laurence Station

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December 02, 2003

Counting Crows: Films About Ghosts: The Best Of
Geffen, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Counting Crows have released but four studio albums. Thus, a Best Of retrospective might seem a bit premature. However, the band has been around ten years and has never been particularly album-oriented, so a summation of the group's brightest moments seems appropriate. Films About Ghosts fits the bill to a T, as it covers all the most familiar hits ("Round Here," "Mr. Jones," "A Long December"). It also does a nice job of including some of the best songs the band's ever recorded (the infectiously shambolic "Hanginaround" and the tortuously introspective "Anna Begins"), though attentive fans may quibble about the absence of "A Murder of One" and "Daylight Fading." Curiously, there's no rhyme or reason to the sequencing. Chronologically, running from the non-album 1991 demo "Einstein on the Beach (For an Eggman)" through the so-so new track "She Don't Want Nobody Near" would have worked fine. That approach would have displayed the band's progression from aping heavyweight classic rock influences (The Band, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, et al) to making genuinely affecting, more personalized music (the rambling "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" and the piano-based ballad "Holiday in Spain"). The random jumble presented here proves jarring, especially when a solid but hardly revelatory cover of the Grateful Dead classic "Friend of the Devil" appears in between Crows originals. Not only does its inclusion break the flow; it's also somewhat incongruous to hear the singles-focused Crows cover a stridently AOR, non-radio darling of a group. For the casual fan or neophyte, however, Films About Ghosts covers all the basics, providing all the Crows most of them will ever need.

::: Laurence Station

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November 28, 2003

Jet: Get Born
Elektra/Asylum, 2003
Rating: 3.3
Know all those trying-to-be-cool rock and roll kids, the ones that are keeping the vintage T-shirt stores in business? Next time you see one wearing headphones, listen for the strains of Jet's debut CD, Get Born. The Australian four-piece has burst into the mainstream thanks to a sense of style (with their skinny jeans and AC/DC shirts, they could be poster boys for the retro-70s look), and, more importantly, a killer lead track. You'd have to be living under a rock to have not heard "Are You Gonna Be My Girl," which has saturated alternative radio (it's also the soundtrack to those ubiquitous IPod commercials). Like the rest of Get Born, "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" is incredibly derivative, yet nonetheless effective: Think of it as Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" with better lyrics. Although the disc's dominant vibe teeters between Strokes/White Stripes garage-rock and Stooges-style punk swagger, other tracks -- like standouts "Rollover DJ" and "Take It or Leave It" -- evoke the Stones and AC/DC (singer Nic Cester smokes a lot of cigarettes -- and sounds like it). Jaded listeners will discard the band as a laughable knock-off, even as younger listeners declare Jet the coolest thing in town and head straight to their parents' basement in search of Led Zeppelin tour shirts. Nevertheless, there's no denying the disc's unbridled energy, and those who pine for a return to the booze-fueled days of '70s rock must find immense pleasure in Get Born's finer moments.

::: Eric Grossman

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November 28, 2003

Travis: 12 Memories
Sony, 2003
Rating: 2.7
Warning! Britpop analogy alert! Travis's 12 Memories makes Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head sound like OK Computer. Now, don't take that too literally; it's just that any article about or review of Travis must mention all their Britpop brethren (we'll save Elbow, Starsailor and Oasis for another time). Fans of the Scottish foursome will be disappointed with 12 Memories, which plays like a wimpy, distant cousin to Good Feeling, the band's incendiary 1997 debut; gone is the grit and humor of such Britpop classics like "All I Want to Do is Rock" and "Good Feeling"). And for those who favor The Man Who, the band's ultra-melodic follow-up, there's very little here to remind them of such singalong anthems as "Why Does it Always Rain on Me?," "Turn" or "Driftwood." So is there anything worthwhile about 12 Memories? Well, with songs like "The Beautiful Occupation" and "Peace the Fuck Out," it earns the distinction of being one of the first major-label Britpop discs to discuss the war in Iraq. (Through his sardonic song titles and all-white suits, frontman Fran Healy leaves no doubt about which side of the fence he's staked out). Somewhat surprisingly, the two "protest" tracks are among the disc's strongest, matching worthy melodies with clever lyrics ("You don't need an invitation / to drop in upon a nation"). The other standout track, "Re-Offender," comes closest to mirroring the magic of "Why Does it Always Rain on Me?," still the band's signature tune. A straightforward look at domestic abuse, it's the disc's catchiest tune, and a worthy lead single. Unfortunately, the rest of 12 Memories is utterly forgettable, and far too dull for a band once known for the cheekiness of tracks like "U-16 Girls."

::: Eric Grossman

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November 27, 2003

The Handsome Family: Singing Bones
Carrot Top, 2003
Rating: 4.0
On "24-Hour Store," Brett and Rennie Sparks, returning with their sixth Handsome Family release, imagine supernatural beings occupying the same space as oblivious late night shoppers. Par for the course for the husband-wife duo, who've spent their career imagining the fantastic lurking just outside our peripheral vision. "The Bottomless Hole" is literally about a man who just has to know how deep his refuse pit goes, only to tumble endlessly, wondering when (if ever) he'll find out. The grim mood and countrified sound of Singing Bones doesn't differ dramatically from the past few Handsome Family albums (though pedal steel and bowed saw have been added to the mix). Brett Sparks' sonorous baritone adds unshakable veracity to Rennie's carefully plotted words. The Albuquerque-based couple has carved a unique niche in the American musical landscape, and they believe, deeply, in the world extrapolated therein: a place where multiple planes of reality intersect, myths have three-dimensional weight, and the night becomes a window into the spectral houses of all those who've crossed over to the other side.

::: Laurence Station

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November 27, 2003

Sufjan Stevens: Michigan
Asthmatic Kitty/Sounds Familyre, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Sufjan Stevens was born in 1975. He's now 28 and, with the release of Michigan, the multi-instrumentalist embarks on the ambitious quest to release an album a year for all 50 united states. Presuming he completes this project in 2052, with the release of, say, Hawaii, Stevens will be 77 years old. Can he do it? Certainly. The trick will be whether he can keep up the same level of emotional heft and familiarity with which he addresses his home state on the project's first release. If nothing else, Stevens has created an impassioned love letter to the Great Lake State. Tackling recession casualties ("Flint," "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head"), geographic features ("Tahquamenon Falls"), and personal tales of heartbreak ("Romulus"), Stevens exhibits a keen pop sensibility as he fleshes out the characteristics and hardships of those living on the Northern and Southern Peninsulas. Oboes, electric organs, glockenspiels and sleigh bells decorate the material, and the musical touches make one pine for an all-instrumental version of the album. Sadly, Stevens is a far stronger arranger and composer than a lyricist at this point in his career. While he exhibits moments of artful insight, as with "The Upper Peninsula" and its examination of a shattered family ("I've seen my wife in K-mart / In strange ideas, we live apart"), there are far too many clumsy moments like "Forget loss and perfect avocation / If it drops or stays in convocation" (from "All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!"). Nonetheless, Michigan is a promising start, and one looks forward to the lyrical insights Stevens might bring to bear on other states.

::: Laurence Station

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November 25, 2003

The Beatles: Let It Be... Naked
Capitol, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Imagine Get Back, the Beatles album bridging the chaotic sprawl of the White Album with their peerless studio achievement Abbey Road. Imagine Get Back doing just what its title indicates, harkening to a hungry Liverpool quartet mimicking American rock and blues standards. Sadly, Get Back never happened. The abortive sessions, brought on by internal tensions within the band and the folly of allowing the creative process to be filmed under such a dark cloud, thwarted any attempt to get back to something resembling the group's early days. After all the success, excess, and global expectations to elevate basic rock to high art each time out, it seems almost naïve to imagine the Beatles hoping they could recapture the feeling of the late 1950s. The cynical antithesis of Get Back is Let It Be, a fractured, hurly burly collection that never received the band's official stamp of approval. Let It Be... Naked claims to be the album the band intended, but it's simply yet another guess at what Get Back might have sounded like. "Dig It" and "Maggie Mae" have been excised in favor of "Don't Let Me Down;" Phil Spector's overbaked post-production tweaking (which came about while the producer was working with John Lennon on various solo projects) has been scrubbed clean from "Across the Universe," "The Long and Winding Road" and "I Me Mine."  Thankfully, the wonderful Lennon/McCartney duet "Two of Us" remains. (Unfortunately, Lennon's cheeky closing line "I hope we passed the audition" missed the cut.) Let It Be, in both this format and the original, is not so much an album as a collection of fragments and brilliant solo creations fighting to be heard above the clamor of a band disintegrating. The casual fan could do just as well building his own sequence from the 1970 original, Naked and the third Anthology disc. Better yet, we should all call it a day and simply let it be.

::: Laurence Station

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November 25, 2003

Sun Kil Moon: Ghosts of the Great Highway
Jetset Records, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Businesses, from retail outlets to casual dining restaurants, often change their facades in order to curtail the perception that they've grown stale or become complacent. A makeover is a great panacea for jumpstarting flagging sales or simply recapturing notoriously fickle consumer interest. Singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek understands this concept. His band Red House Painters spent the '90s releasing moody, introspective rock albums that moved a consistently decent number of units. Kozelek produced a few solo releases as the millennium turned and now brings back the full band concept with Sun Kil Moon. Red House Painters drummer Anthony Koutsos joins him, as do American Music Club's Tim Mooney (also on drums) and former Black Lab Seattle bassist Geoff Stanfield. Basically, the name may have changed, but the musical bill of fare remains the same: Ghosts of the Great Highway is propelled by excellent songwriting, rich, heartfelt vocals, and solid musicianship. "Glenn Tipton" wrestles with everything from who's the better Judas Priest guitarist (though one can't overlook the fact that the song's not called "K.K. Downing") to a woman who ran a donut shop and died unexpectedly. "Carry Me Ohio" explores youthful memories and forlorn romantic regrets. "Salvador Sanchez" and "Pancho Villa" are the same song, both about champion boxers who died young: the first played as a fuzzed-out, low-flying guitar burner, the second emphasizing understated acoustics and elegant strings. The epic "Duk Koo Kim" (named after another boxer who died tragically) stands out via Portuguese guitar and some stylish xylophone work. Tracks like "Last Tide" and "Floating" shine less brightly, but Ghosts is nonetheless one of Kozelek's strongest collections, trading off between melancholy soul searchers and fiery, roughhewn rockers in a balanced but never contrived manner.

::: Laurence Station

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November 24, 2003

The Flaming Lips: Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell [EP]
Warner Bros., 2003
Rating: 3.8
Just in time for the holidays, the Flaming Lips return with an EP that includes four new songs and a trio of fair-to-middling remixes. No one's going to buy this thirty-minute collection for the modified Yoshimi tracks: The title song gets the digitized makeover twice. Jason Bentley's "Ego In Acceleration" version is a chill-out take on the Lips' more passionate original, while Blow-Up's recasting proves a more effective, pulse-driven affair that captures the urgency in Wayne Coyne's voice. Jimmy (Dntel, The Postal Service) Tamborello's "Do You Realize??," driven by toy piano and Spartan techno beats, falls flat, especially when compared to Scott Hardkiss' more creative, cosmically-warped version that appeared earlier this year on the Fight Test EP. But Ego Tripping isn't just a rehash EP: It opens with three of the four new cuts, linked by title and theme to the sun. The dark, piano-based "Assassination Of The Sun" ("Now this horrible machine churns out pain instead of love") casts the orb as a menacing, oppressive force beating down on us hapless humans. "I'm A Fly In A Sunbeam" provides an instrumental bridge, with bright horns breaking through an overcast electronic mix, leading into the more hopeful "Sunship Balloons," which follows a pair of lovers taking the titular vessel into the heart of the sun -- or at the very least, enjoying great sex. On the hopeful closer "A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn't So)," Coyne sings in a lower register, but still offers his childlike view of humanity putting aside its differences and living in harmony. Near the end he asks, "Tell me I'm not just a dreamer?" Sorry, Wayne: That's exactly what you are, and Ego Tripping thankfully provides little hint you'll ever wake up and see the world any differently.

::: Laurence Station

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November 24, 2003

The Books: The Lemon of Pink
Tomlab, 2003
Rating: 4.1
The Books' follow-up to 2002's Thought for Food finds the collaborative duo of Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto further refining their collage-structured, electro-acoustic aesthetic. Where Thought for Food was created over a long period of time, with the duo working from different locations, The Lemon of Pink came together within months under one roof. The end result is, not surprisingly, far more cohesive. The appropriate tick-tock percussive rhythm of "Take Time" merges seamlessly with the cuckoo clock samples woven into "Don't Even Sing About It." Likewise, "S Is For Evrysing" closes with a fractured selection from the Lord's Prayer that ties in nicely with the phonetic lessons sampled on the brief "Explanation Mark." Other highlights include the Gandhi-sampling "There Is No There" and the opening title track. While The Lemon of Pink might not sport individual tracks as strong as Thought's "Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again" or "All Bad Ends All," it's nonetheless a stronger effort overall, revealing a band growing in confidence with the application of its ideas.

::: Laurence Station

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November 06, 2003

Sarah McLachlan: Afterglow
Arista, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan has hardly been coasting since her last studio album, 1997's multiplatinum Surfacing. She married her drummer, Ashwin Sood; spearheaded the female-empowered alt-rock festival Lilith Fair; lost her mother to cancer, and had her first child. Afterglow, then, seems an apt title, given the hectic jumble of triumphant and tragic events over the past six years. And McLachlan certainly appears in a reflective mood, commenting on post-9-11 global strife ("World on Fire," with its earnest plea "Stay close to me while the sky is falling") and yearning for the comfort of a loved one in the face of personal tragedy ("Push"). Longtime producer Pierre Marchand does his usual buff-and-polish routine on these mostly subdued piano-based compositions, and while there's nothing approaching the memorable hook of Solace's "Into the Fire" or the stalking menace underlying Fumbling Towards Ecstasy's "Possession," Afterglow stays true to McLachlan's impeccably designed songcraft and keen sense of melody.

::: Laurence Station

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November 05, 2003

Blue Epic: Love & Hate [EP]
Empathic/TVT, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Birmingham, Alabama's Blue Epic surges with post-adolescent yearning on its debut EP Love & Hate, and that longing is for more than the usual peace, love and understanding. Over the course of the disc's five tracks, the earnest quartet strains to find a place for itself in the great stylistic ether, doggedly affecting an indie-rock stance belied by broad, mainstream-courting gestures. That's another thing Blue Epic yearns desperately for: acceptance. Jangly guitars are stacked like cordwood; melodies waver between verbose emoting and anthemic accessibility. And throughout, singer Phillip Roberson swings for the radio-friendly fences with a vocal timbre that strives to favorably recall Jeff Buckley. This approach makes for decent listening on the rocking "Time to Borrow" and the bracing "Underwater" (the EP's standout), which resonates with traces of James and Gene Loves Jezebel (traces of layered New Wave also echo throughout "Roses") . It works less well on a flinch-inducing cover of Neil Young's "A Man Needs a Maid," which sounds like Starsailor or Remy Zero trying to assert some as yet-unearned rock muscle. Love & Hate is about as original as its title suggests. But if its scrabble for identity lacks inspiration, its glossy finish sparkles enough to suggest that the brass ring of mainstream success isn't entirely out of this young band's reach.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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November 05, 2003

The Dismemberment Plan: A People's History of The Dismemberment Plan
DeSoto, 2003
Rating: 3.0
The idea of a remix compilation/competition, in which members of the now-defunct Dismemberment Plan offer the band's music for friends and fans to deconstruct and rework, sounds like a fantastic concept. The downside is that, no matter which entries get picked for inclusion on A People's History of The Dismemberment Plan, it's virtually impossible to offer a consistent, smooth-flowing reinterpretation of the D.C. quartet's already eclectic and exuberantly experimental pop-rock vision. If this was Dntel's History of The Dismemberment Plan, for example, with Jimmy Tamborello bringing in guest artists to help him rework the Plan's catalogue, it could be judged as a unified whole. The best one can do with A People's History is select the most interesting or creative remixes, and there are a few. Cynyc's "Following Through" stretches out the Change track, adding an invigorating breakbeat behind singer Travis Morrison's elongated vocals. Erik Gundel seamlessly inserts the acoustic guitar part from "The Faces "Ooh La La" behind the Plan’s “Superpowers," taking an already wistful song and making it even more poignant. Unfortunately, however, there are more duds here than triumphs. The reworking of "Time Bomb" by ASCDI lamely overemphasizes the ticking beat from the original, and Deadverse's menacing, unnecessarily heavy-handed "Automatic" sounds like a reject from a failed Massive Attack record. A People's History is more a novelty than an essential addition to the Dismemberment Plan legacy. Hopefully a collection of rarities and unreleased material will be forthcoming, adding a proper exclamation point to the tale of one of the most exciting and innovative bands of the '90s.

::: Laurence Station

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November 04, 2003

Guided by Voices: Best of Guided by Voices: Human Amusement at Hourly Rates
Matador, 2003
Rating: 4.3
Want to learn how that Sequence Function works on your CD/MP3 player? That's easy: Become a Guided by Voices fan and you'll learn that skill as a simple survival instinct. The band, after all, and specifically leader Robert Pollard, is notorious for sprinkling masterful pop gems amongst a collection of semiprecious stones. The idea, then, of a generous, budget-priced, 32-track compilation that collects nothing but the band's peak singles seems custom-fit to the label-hopping indie-rock veterans' mixed bag of a catalogue. The problem lies in figuring out which 32 songs to choose from. The mid-'90s peak collaborations of Pollard and onetime guitarist Tobin Sprout (Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes) are most heavily represented, with four tracks each. But even that seems a few tracks too sparse. Sure, essential efforts like "Tractor Rape Chain" and "Hit" are here, but whose skewed rationale excised "Gold Star for Robot Boy" and "Weed King" from the final mix? Especially when 1999's career low point Do the Collapse gets two selections ("Surgical Focus," fair enough, but who felt the insipid "Things I Will Keep" had to be represented?). Work dating back to 1987's Devil Between My Toes reveals what a keen ear Pollard possessed, even then, for melody, despite their less-than-pristine recording fidelity. For diehards, there's the Hardcore UFOs box set (which includes this disc, only with the tracks running in chronological order). Casual fans and the more cost-conscious, however, will be (mostly) satisfied with this appropriately off-kilter, near-definitive overview.

::: Laurence Station

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November 04, 2003

Aesop Rock: Bazooka Tooth
Definitive Jux, 2003
Rating: 4.1
In interviews, New Yorker Ian Bravitz claims the title for his latest Aesop Rock album, Bazooka Tooth, is exactly what it describes: a person with a molar-mounted cannon, ready to "blow shit up." And while many listeners prefer to dig deep for additional meaning in Bravitz's complex, fifty-cent worded, historical name-checking art raps than the artist ever intended, there is indeed more to Bazooka Tooth than its goofy title image. Bravitz's greatest strength is his wildly imaginative, at times willfully outlandish wordplay; he's simply the Human Thesaurus of modern rappers. And he's usually got a beef, as evidenced by the gritty slice-of-life narrative "6B Panorama" from 2000's Float, and essentially every track on 2001's breakout Labor Days. In this case, Bazooka Tooth is Bravitz's reaction to the world of celebrity and fame (of which he’s achieved a modest, but still appreciable, degree). "Easy" opens with "Cameras or guns / One of y'all's gonna shoot me to death," while  "Limelighter" finds Bravitz claiming he's "Out to kill the video star." By contrast, the sharp, relentless "We're Famous" finds the artist celebrating his perceived place in the hip-hop hierarchy, taking pot shots (along with guest El-P) at less-talented pretenders. Blockhead, whose inventive, elegant production work complemented Bravitz's unapologetically gruff delivery in the past, takes a back seat here, and the beats (mostly by Bravitz himself) are dense, multilayered and confrontational: a sledgehammer to Blockhead's paint brush. Regardless of his less than subtle studio technique, Bravitz remains one of the most resourceful and bracing artists in his field, and that alone merits his fifth release a solid recommendation.

::: Laurence Station

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November 04, 2003

Peaches: Fatherfucker
Beggars XL, 2003
Rating: 2.0
Fatherfucker, the successor to 2000's The Teaches of Peaches, inverts the aggressively raunchy energy of its predecessor. Where Teaches was brash, Fatherfucker is dim; where Teaches was shocking in its gender-bending, sexually charged language, Fatherfucker is bland, repetitive and obvious in its attempts to turn standard conventions upside down. Teaches' opener "Fuck the Pain Away" had a memorable hook and a danceable beat; Fatherfucker's icebreaker "I Don't Give a Fuck" merely repeats its title phrase over a sample of Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation," to less energizing effect. Peaches just doesn't seem to be having as much fun provoking her listeners this time out. Which isn't to imply that she isn't having fun, because she certainly does, as when desiccated proto-punk/ad pitchman Iggy Pop shows up for the mercifully short "Kick It." (This meeting of pathological attention-seekers contains the following exchange: Iggy: "I heard you like kinky shit." Peaches: "That just depends on who I'm with." Iggy: "What is it, S&M or some kinda toy?" Peaches: "Like you said, search and destroy.") "I'm the Kinda" trades on the rap couplet "Knockin' you out like Rocky Balboa / Drown you in a flood deeper than Noah." (Note to Peaches: Noah built the ark, honey; he wasn't the water.) Fatherfucker is the sound of an artist either out of fresh ideas, or truly following the mantra of her opening track. Whatever the case, it appears Peaches used up her entire lesson plan on her far superior debut.

::: Laurence Station

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November 03, 2003

Thea Gilmore: Avalanche
Compass, 2003
Rating: 3.7
Impressively, English-born singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore, not yet 24, already has five albums to her credit. Working with producer Nigel Stonier throughout her still-nascent career, Gilmore has steadily improved her craft with each successive release. Fortunately for her development, if not pocketbook, there's been no major breakthrough critical or commercial release derailing her maturation process; she's been able to grow in relative obscurity, immune from hyper-scrutinized articles and dating-game tabloid nonsense. Which leads us to Avalanche, her most polished, least turbulent work to date. There's nothing here approaching the incendiary power of her 1998 debut Burning Dorothy, particularly "Militia Sister" ("You fucked your way in / You can fuck your way out"), or possessing the raw spontaneity of last year's Songs from the Gutter. "Heads Will Roll," with its Dylan-esque social-commentary raps ("Absolution.com delivers with a little bit of luck"), or the anti-commercial "Mainstream" -- these are as riled up as Avalanche gets. "Rags And Bones," with its quasi-electronic production tics, and the catchy strum-and-thrush "Have You Heard" shine here, while the bland "Juliet (Keep That In Mind)" and sedate "Pirate Moon" are particularly uninspired offerings. Where Gilmore goes from here -- whether she fumbles toward safe, MOR, Sarah McLachlan fare, or mines emotional wounds with the intensity of Polly Jean Harvey, is anyone's guess. But Avalanche is far closer to the former, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, there's more than enough promise and talent here to warrant keeping tabs on where Gilmore ventures next.

::: Laurence Station

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October 31, 2003

Ryan Adams: Rock N Roll
Lost Highway, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Rock N Roll (yes, we know it's spelled backwards on the disc, but we don't feel like indulging), Ryan Adams' fourth official solo release, opens with the confident "This Is It," a deliberately coarse assault of manic guitar solos and hook-laden lyrics. It's Adams' approximation of garage rock, and as such, it betters just about anything his friends in The Strokes have committed to date (and makes one wish for Adams' rumored song-for-song rerecording of Is This It). Rather than stay in one vein, however, Adams runs through a variety of trends, as he did with '70s rock and soul on 2001's Gold. He out-Golds Gold's style-hopping frenzy by far, however, spanning decades, continents and different modes of the difficult-to-pin-down beast called Rock. It's an undeniably audacious display, like the music geek with the awesome vinyl collection showing off the vastness and depth of his music knowledge in hopes of scoring with the hot chick. "Shallow" pays a debt to '90s Brit rock; "1974" is also British, but of the sleazier,'70s Stonesy variety. The slick, slippery "So Alive" finds Adams successfully utilizing a higher register '80s croon (think Ultravox as fronted by a less morose Morrissey), while Paul Westerberg fans will appreciate the gritty "Do Miss America." Adams even apes himself (circa Whiskeytown) with the lonesome, countryish "Wish You Were Here." Though Rock N Roll contains 14 Adams originals, it’s essentially a stylistic covers record, and a damn fine one at that. Those hoping to hear the more sensitive, mopey, and artistic side of Adams will have to content themselves with the bifurcated follow-up Love Is Hell.

::: Laurence Station

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October 31, 2003

Joe Henry: Tiny Voices
Anti-, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Listening to Joe Henry's Tiny Voices is like being in a smoky jazz club well past midnight, stuck with a brokenhearted drunk lamenting what went wrong with his life. Joe Henry is the drunk, and the house band backing him just happens to contain some of the finest players in the game (percussionist Jay Bellerose, guitarist Chris Bruce, Don Byron on clarinet and sax, bassist Jennifer Condos, trumpeter Ron Miles, and pianists Dave Palmer and Patrick Warren). Tiny Voices is a heavier sounding album than 2001's Scar, as Henry delves even deeper into the urban mythology of the wasted, emotionally crippled yet brilliantly gifted jazz vocalist. The main problem is that unlike, say, Billie Holiday, Joe Henry is more a faithful mimic than the genuine article. His suffering is speckled with all the right detail, but the pain never feels authentic so much as scrupulously studied and perfectly replicated. "I remember when love was something I craved / But I settled for less and the comfort it gave," he confesses on the slow, meditative "Animal Skin." Similar grim proclamations about coming up just short in the game of love and life abound. On the weary, resigned "Flag," Henry states "Love's just a mirror for a thief," and opines "Life is for the living," on the smooth, warm "Flesh and Blood." Throughout, Henry's backing band bristles and shines, even during the multitude of subdued downturns. The challenge with Tiny Voices is finding the stamina to slog through innumerable hangdog tales, while hoping Henry takes a bathroom break and the band returns for a wordlessly exquisite encore.

::: Laurence Station

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October 30, 2003

Constantines: Shine a Light
Sub Pop, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Buzz-building Canadian rock quintet The Constantines follow-up their modestly distributed 2001 self-titled debut with the more musically adventurous, if still lyrically average, Shine a Light. The disc can be approximately dissected thusly: a more fuzz-rock, heavy-distortion first half, and a straight-ahead, classic-rocking second side. Vocalist Bry Webb's husky growl ideally suits the forceful rhythms and odd time signatures the band explores on "Insectivora" and the title track. At times, the band's easy-out rhyme schemes detract from the inventive sound ("Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)" with its chorus of the same, and "Summertime is our time" from "Scoundrel Babes"). The closing "Sub-Domestic" finds Webb in sing-speak mode over a stripped-down, marching drumbeat and crunchy bass, and shows off the Constantines' ability to turn down the volume and still execute at a compelling level. Though trite lyrics too often undermine strong instrumentation, Shine a Light is a promising sophomore effort from a group that clearly has the chops to blaze even brighter -- providing overexposure doesn't burn them out first.

::: Laurence Station

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October 29, 2003

Do Make Say Think: Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn
Constellation, 2003
Rating: 4.1
While not exactly nine songs of unbridled joy divided into three movements as the title indicates, Toronto sextet Do Make Say Think (DMST) offers its most exuberantly loud and celebratory release thus far. Veering closer to labelmates Godspeed You! Black Emperor's patented quiet/loud/even louder territory (sans the politically charged screeds), DMST manages to retain its dub/jazzy identity amidst all the crashing excess and bombast. "Auberge Le Mouton Noir" is a particularly strong showcase of tight guitar-bass-percussion interplay, while the intricate "Ontario Plates" shifts from moody jazz into brighter sonic territory, with swaggering horns and ferociously clanging cymbals. "Horns Of A Rabbit" melds backwards guitars with Dave Mitchell’s and James Payment’s violent percussion, with Charles Spearin’s steady bass tying the whole thing together. The fleeting "It's Gonna Rain," complete with drizzly effects, doesn't have much to contribute, and the sad-horned lament, "107 Reasons Why" offers the sole contradiction to the overall mood and title declaration. Winter Hymn is one of the year's memorable, noteworthy listens, and DMST's finest effort overall, as the group finally lives up to the all action verbs in its blustery moniker.

::: Laurence Station

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October 29, 2003

Dressy Bessy: Dressy Bessy
Kindercore, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Is Dressy Bessy still Dressy Bessy when the Denver, Colorado quartet's lyrical content moves beyond bubblegum anthems and the guitars ring a little more discordantly? Is this the same band, preciously named after a popular doll, whose music elicits thoughts of pizza parties, sleepovers and kids dancing around a cheap plastic record player spinning old 45s? Well, the easy answer is, yes, of course it is. We still hear Tammy Ealom's familiar, sprightly vocals, guitarist John Hill's sharp hooks and the crisp rhythm section of bassist Rob Greene and drummer Darren Albert. And on cuts like the short, peppy "New Song (From Me to You)" and exuberantly up-tempo "Better Luck," there's no doubt Dressy Bessy hasn't completely abandoned its love of '60s psychedelic pop, or its debt to '80s twee-pop pioneers Talulah Gosh. But there's a definite sense of regret in Ealom's voice on "This May Hurt (A Little)," which concerns two friends drifting apart, and Hill's surprisingly use of angular, inharmonious chords on "Georgie Blue," indicating a more mature, creatively restless group. "Girl, You Shout!" which sounds like a fun girl-rock call-to-arms, contains the biting line "It's not the first time in your life / You'll find that your mother / she's let you down," while "Hey May" finds Ealom asking, "What are you going to do / When the world turns in on you?" Dressy Bessy's darkest record yet is also its strongest, if only because there's a little more grit and tears mixed into the familiar, rapidly-approaching-stale sunshine-and-happiness mix.

::: Laurence Station

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October 29, 2003

Nina Nastasia: Run to Ruin
Touch & Go, 2003
Rating: 4.2
Run to Ruin, singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia's latest release, contains half as many songs, and runs a quarter of an hour less, than last year's critically celebrated The Blackened Air. But you're not likely to hear a weightier thirty-minute album. Run to Ruin is a spaciously played, elegant creation in which every note counts. Recorded live and containing very little post-production polish from producer Steve Albini, Ruin mines similar themes of loss, betrayal, and the generally gloomy disposition that colored Blackened Air, but the mood here is more urbane than Blackened Air's countrified feel: there's no footloose "All for You." Rather, Nastasia, backed by dramatic strings and doom-hearkening percussion, explores the burden of kept secrets ("We Never Talked"), irreconcilably strained relationships ("You Her and Me") and the nakedly honest observations of a performing artist ("Superstar"). What keeps Nastasia from succumbing to grotesque melodrama is the razor-like incisiveness she brings to her lyrics -- the lost souls exhibited here are not mere caricatures. Run to Ruin is a window into a world filled with regret, madness and suicide, and its power comes from Nastasia never once pandering to her audience. This is one artist who emphatically means every carefully chosen word she utters.

::: Laurence Station

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October 28, 2003

Yo La Tengo: Today Is the Day [EP]
Matador, 2003
Rating: 4.2
Yo La Tengo gets symmetry. The indie-rock trio opens Today Is the Day with a revamped, considerably revved-up version of the title track that appeared earlier this year on Summer Sun; later, it fittingly ends this six-song collection with a reworking of "Cherry Chapstick" (from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out), transforming it from an upbeat winding guitar ditty into a winsome, slow-plucked dirge. In between, the venerated critical darlings offer outtakes from Summer Sun and the obligatory cover song. "Outsmartener" recalls some of the freer compositions that defined the trio's experimental Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo. "Styles of the Times" is a grinding rocker fueled by Ira Kaplan's punk affectations, while the instrumental "Dr. Crash" reflects the trio's groovier moments, courtesy of deep bass and penetrating guitar lines. Fans of the all covers Fakebook should enjoy Georgia Hubley's delicate, acoustic interpretation of folk legend Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death," even if she doesn't deviate too far from the original. In short, Today is the Day covers a lot of stylistic ground, and does so, impressively, in less than twenty-five minutes. As such, this handsomely eclectic collection merits inclusion as an essential addition to Yo La Tengo's richly diverse catalogue.

::: Laurence Station

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October 28, 2003

Stereolab: Instant 0 in the Universe [EP]
Elektra/Asylum, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Having successfully synthesized bossa nova, electronica, French pop and space-age lounge influences into a singular, brilliantly creative mélange with 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Stereolab’s greatest challenge lay in figuring out what to do next. The band's post-Ketchup work has veered between refining its patented pop-gumbo template (Dots and Loops) and a tendency toward indulgent overkill (Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night). In short, the second half of Stereolab's career has been dogged by the nagging question: Where does the band go from here? Instant 0 in the Universe offers a glimpse of the answer. It's the band's first release since the tragic death of singer Mary Hansen last year, but, rather than the thud of a band in mourning, Instant 0 finds Stereolab upbeat and sounding more vibrant than it has in years. From the bright, bouncy "...Sudden Stars" to the insistent, pumping beat powering "Mass Riff," it's obvious that Stereolab has recommitted itself to exploring the intricacies of a sound it's mastered to the point of redundancy from a fresh, inviting perceptive. While there's certainly nothing remotely groundbreaking here, the music nonetheless sounds substantive and alive. One would be hard-pressed to find a better tribute to a fallen member than that.

::: Laurence Station

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October 28, 2003

Throwing Muses: Throwing Muses
4AD, 2003
Rating: 4.0
"I'm so mad I could spit," Kristin Hersh rails on “Solar Dip,” from Throwing Muses' self-titled reunion album, and her anger is welcome indeed. It's a pleasant surprise to hear just how vital and intense the Muses sound after such a long layoff (the group disbanded following 1996's Limbo, with Hersh devoting more time to her solo career and growing family). Bassist Bernard Georges and drummer David Narcizo provide an urgent, wildly tempo-shifting rhythm section that perfectly complements Hersh's jagged, idiosyncratic guitar style and fiery vocal delivery. Toss in backing vocals (on select tracks) by long-departed original member Tanya Donelly, and Throwing Muses, the 2003 incarnation, sounds as close as it ever has to the pre-House Tornado lineup some sixteen years back. The key, obviously, is singer-songwriter Hersh, and her uncanny ability to transmute mundane domestic details about late night visits to Wal-Mart and arguments with her husband into combustible, elementally charged touchstones of sonic therapy. "You quit making mistakes / I might not leave / You quit making mistakes / I might just stay," she threatens on "Speed and Sleep," and there's something in the way she couches the words that indicates this woman is deadly serious. Such moments make this the most energetic Muses record since the band's initial self-titled debut, from the rising fury of "Mercury" to the rocking closer "Flying," in which Hersh lays out what one imagines could be her attitude toward her bandmates: "This place is fascinating when you're here / But when you're not, it's not / But if I'd known leaving every home would get me here / I would've gone sooner." Throwing Muses, and the music world at large, are the better for her having decided to stick around.

::: Laurence Station

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October 28, 2003

Clearlake: Cedars
Domino, 2003
Rating: 3.3
On Cedars, British rock quartet Clearlake retains the theatrically dour outlook of its debut, Lido, bringing in ex-Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde as producer to conjure a warmer, friendlier sound. Thus, a slate of tracks with glum lyrics dwarfed by anthemic, big-dumb power chords. "Wonder If the Snow Will Settle" offers a steady yet effectively theatrical drum beat to offset the pensive cynicism felt by singer Jason Pegg. Elsewhere, sound and lyrics reconcile nicely on "Just Off the Coast," its rough, bluesy riff meshing tightly with Pegg's tale of distance and hoped-for reconciliation. Unfortunately, when Clearlake misses the mark, it does so widely. "It's All Too Much" offers second-rate, Pablo Honey-period Radiohead histrionics while "Treat Yourself With Kindness" traffics in over-baked melodrama, which betrays the album's resolutely downbeat mood. Cedars is the sound of a young band still struggling to figure out what it wants to be and, more importantly, how such an identity will ultimately come to define its sound. There's enough promise exhibited here to warrant future attention; call it an endorsement of Clearlake's heretofore-nonexistent breakthrough release.

::: Laurence Station

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October 28, 2003

Dido: Life For Rent
Arista, 2003
Rating: 2.5
Yawn. After a few spins of Life For Rent, Dido's follow-up to her multi-platinum 1999 debut No Angel, it becomes clear that no new ground's being broken. Worse, the London beauty has left behind the trip-hop effects that made her previous disc such a pleasant surprise, in favor of more straightforward story-songs. Lacking its predecessor's edgy tone, Life For Rent offers up one bland, polite tune after another, with such Lillith-ian titles as "Don't Leave Home" and "This Land is Mine." The melodic opener "White Flag," the CD's strongest tune (as well as-surprise-the lead single), comes closest to re-creating the magic of "Here With Me," the debut single that propelled Dido's unexpected success. It's followed by "Stoned," a good four-minute song trapped in an exhaustive six-minute track (why the one-minute instrumental intro?). Still, the two opening tracks don't make up for such rubbish as "Mary's in India," in which Dido attempts to explain how she stole her friend's man, but ends up coming off as an excruciatingly self-indulgent storyteller. Fans of Dido's clear and distinctive voice won't be disappointed (that, at least, remains as unmistakable as ever). But they're not likely to be thrilled, either.

::: Eric Grossman

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October 28, 2003

Sting: Sacred Love
A&M, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Cynics will view Sacred Love, Sting's first collection of new material since 1999's Brand New Day, as another attempt to appeal to the MOR crowd by using a slew of guest artists in order to appear worldly and soulful. Conversely, more generous listeners will applaud his continued use of guest artists to produce the sort of worldly, soulful music that's rarely heard on Adult Contemporary radio anymore. Anyway you slice it, Sacred Love, with its sitar solos ("The Book of My Life"), African grooves ("Never Coming Home"), and heavy subject matter -- the current war on terrorism is discussed on several tracks -- is Sting's most adventurous disc as a solo artist. Mary J. Blige is wisely enlisted on the gospel foray "Whenever I Say Your Name." Lead single "Send Your Love"'s Moroccan picks up where "Desert Rose," Brand New Day's wildly successful single (and the theme for a much-ridiculed Jaguar commercial), left off, and "This War" comes out of nowhere to deliver some genuine, nerve-rattling rock (thanks mostly to Dominic Miller's guitar). All of which is wrapped up in pristine engineering (the album was produced in 5.1 Surround Sound), making Sacred Love as much of a headphone record as it is a hopeful launching pad for slick Top 40 hits.

::: Eric Grossman

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October 24, 2003

Van Morrison: What's Wrong With This Picture?
Blue Note, 2003
Rating: 4.1
In the title track of "What's Wrong With This Picture?," Van Morrison offers an easygoing dismissal of those who expect him to be the same restlessly questing, blue-eyed Celtic troubadour of old. Claiming to have "left all that jive behind," he then proceeds to work out a cracking jazz and blues jones that moves effortlessly from that leisurely-paced opener to the lively "Whinin Boy Moan" and the rambling, slow-poured, "Too Many Myths." "Meaning Of Loneliness," the album's highlight, finds Morrison skillfully name-checking philosophical heavyweights Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche and Hesse without making it sound pretentious, unlike his shout-out to William Blake on Veedon Fleece. How does he do this? Mainly because he's older and wiser now, claiming "if you think too deeply you're gonna end up in distress," and pointedly noting "fame and fortune never brought anyone happiness." Van Morrison, mere mortal, may try a tad too hard to distance himself from Van Morrison, larger-than-life music legend ("Just because they call me a celebrity / That does not make it true / Because I don't believe in the myth, people / So why should you?"). Nonetheless, it's nice to see that the fire still burns within this veteran performer's belly. This is one picture Morrison can proudly hang beside his best work.

::: Laurence Station

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October 23, 2003

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Greendale
Reprise, 2003
Rating: 2.4
What is there to say about Greendale, Neil Young's ambitious concept album and film project? Just two things: One, it's better than Are You Passionate? And two, unless you're a diehard fan of Young's more rambling, adventurous material, you should probably skip it. Concept pieces are always a crapshoot, and when they work, it's usually because of the unique ferocity of their ideas, or the risk-taking scope of the music. On the former count, Greendale certainly has plenty of ferocity, but it's hardly distinctive: Young's nomadic narrative requires its own Cliffs Notes, and the lack of cohesion or focus (which Young pretty much cops to in the liner notes) give the record less heft than the irate rambling of your neighborhood curmudgeon. Which wouldn't be as critical if Greendale had more to offer on the latter point. Hail To The Thief, however, this ain't. Heck, it's not even Trans. Having ill-advisedly gone for a one-guitar approach, Young all but neuters the trademarked ragged glory of Crazy Horse, whose rhythm section gamely trudges along behind him through a series of numbingly similar shuffles, the most grating of which ("Double E") is further hobbled by a singular lack of melody. For a brief, shining moment toward the middle, the unexpectedly poignant "Bandit" offers a glimmer of hope, a ray of light through the gristly murk. But Greendale ends much as it begins, with a shambling gait through a thorny, one-dimensional landscape devoid of distinction.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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October 23, 2003

Basement Jaxx: Kish Kash
Astralwerks, 2003
Rating: 4.0
With Kish Kash, Brixton, South London duo Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton mostly eschew the relentlessly pumping 4/4 beats and Prince-worshipping shenanigans that colored their 1999 debut Remedy, as well as 2000'a attention-getting follow-up Rooty. Kish Kash is a downbeat, surprisingly ruminative affair, less concerned with dance-floor breakouts than the inevitable post-party comedown. The BellRays' Lisa Kekaula sets the tone early on the opening "Good Luck": "Tell me, is life just a playground?" "Lucky Star" features an audacious collision of Dizzee Rascal's rapid-rap delivery and Bulgarian strings and more familiar skittering House beats, but even here the lyrics speak to just about anyplace save the club: "I was born in the court of pocketless / I want to stand judge to put money on trial." "Supersonic," spotlighting 65-year-old singer Totlyn Jackson, is the closest Basement Jaxx comes to its past efforts: manic, unpredictable and loose, it energizes the entire set. Less successful is "Plug It In", in which J.C. (N'Sync) Chasez's feather light, falsetto vocals fall flat against the frantic, rave-like backdrop. Contrasted against those numbers, "Living Room" and the mellow Meshell Ndegeocello closer "Feels Like Home" only reinforce the duo's retreat from the disco -- a brief respite, or maybe a deeper commentary on a scene that's grown stale since their last night out.

::: Laurence Station

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October 23, 2003

The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow
Sub Pop, 2003
Rating: 3.8
The Shins' eagerly awaited second release finds them setting a darker tone than that of their 2001 cult-hit debut, Oh, Inverted World. Maybe the moodier, less-upbeat vibe has something to do with the band's move from the drier, sunnier climes of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the colder, wetter, alt-rock haven-of-the-moment Portland, Oregon. Regardless, Chutes finds guitarist/vocalist James Mercer less concerned with crafting the great hooks that defined Inverted ("Caring Is Creepy," "New Slang"), and more obsessed with interior drama ("We shared some information we might not recover from") and the bleak state of the world ("I don't look back much as a rule / And all this way before murder was cool"). Other than the winding guitar peals and lively rhythm that powers "Kissing the Lipless," Chutes' strongest moments are pensive and understated. The cautionary, reflective "Young Pilgrims" ties Mercer's words to an appropriately subdued pluck-and-strum arrangement, while "Gone For Good" relies on restrained pedal steel and a high-lonesome twang to carry off its tale of loss and regret. "Turn a Square," a generic, bouncing pop-rock number, overwhelms Mercer's clever, if obtuse, wordplay ("I react like it's 1805 / Swim to the poles just to find the right satellite");  it's the sole dud. Contrary to expectations, Chutes Too Narrow proves the Shins have more on their minds than singing the perfect harmony or writing the ultimate couplet, and it's that deeper sense of introspection that makes it a keeper.

::: Laurence Station

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October 19, 2003

Cowboy Mouth: Uh-Oh
33rd Street, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Fred LeBlanc, drummer and most visible front man for the New Orleans-based MOR roots-rock barnstormer Cowboy Mouth, has an undeniable knack for muscular, singalong melodies. On Uh-Oh, however, those hooks prop up brittle foundations patched-and-painted with oddly employed trip-hop trimmings. After a jarringly out-of-place opening cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows," drenched in floating vocals and self-consciously Cocteau Twins-lite instrumentation, LeBlanc delivers a trio of hard-hitting testaments to his way with a chorus: "Disconnected" and "Tell the Girl" make full use of his barreling baritone, and the sub-two-minute "Friends" skates by on punk-pop intensity and a see-sawing, pogo-worthy lyric structure. But things fall apart; the center cannot hold. The title track falters on dippy "falling in love" sentiment, compounded by LeBlanc's tendency to wallow in frat-boy humor and fifth-grade innuendo. And "So Much the Better," the similarly titled "Better" and the too-eager "Senseless" fail to register an impression after they're done. LeBlanc's a relentless entertainer, genetically incapable of reining in his Big Rock instincts, but here they work against him, as well as the rest of the band. Guitarists Paul Sanchez and John Thomas Griffith, each capable singers and songwriters in their own right, contribute only one tune apiece (Griffith's earnest, power ballad "Can't Stay Here" and Sanchez's amiable lost-love lament "Invincible), and each is a textbook lesson in its writer's strengths. Whether their limited face time is due to LeBlanc's fevered front man zeal, a mounting sense of torpor or both is hard to tell. In the end, the album's cover outlines the possible reasons for the disc's phoned-in feel. A cute-as-a-button tyke, mouth wide open, bashing a drumkit, symbolizes LeBlanc's overpowering enfant terrible persona. More tellingly, the band logo suggests an odometer about to turn over, suggests that this band of stalwart road warriors may be feeling run-down by its always-a-bridesmaid status. Uh-oh, indeed.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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October 16, 2003

Ted Leo/Pharmacists: Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead [EP]
Lookout, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Initially intended as a single from the Hearts of Oak LP, Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead grew exponentially into a 30-minute solo showcase for Leo, featuring the title track, three covers, a trio of new tracks, and a stripped-bare version of Oak's "The High Party," which rivals the full-band original. The covers (a ramped-up take on Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town," a fretful interpretation of The Jam's "Ghosts," and a fun, if somewhat meandering, visitation of Split Enz' "Six Months in a Leaky Boat") show Leo nodding to his influences. As for the newer material, "The Sword in the Stone" finds Leo explaining the hard truths of the music business to a newcomer, advising the artist to get over his sense of entitlement and treat his chosen craft as job ("Excalibur or your guitar?"). "Bleeding Powers" ties in well with the lost and restless themes permeating Oak ("The road leads me somewhere, but it's not yet to your door") and features nice split-channel guitar solos from Leo and Dan Littleton. "Loyal to my Sorrowful Country" indirectly takes a jab at current domestic and foreign U.S. policy. Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead is a nicely balanced selection of familiar songs and new cuts from Leo, an artist who's clearly come into his own after toiling for years in relative obscurity.

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2003

Iron & Wine: The Sea & the Rhythm [EP]
Sub Pop, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Sub Pop had to do something with the leftovers from the two CDs worth of material Samuel Beam originally submitted to the label. Eleven cuts were released on last year's highly regarded The Creek Drank the Cradle, leaving a whole wealth of material (about a CD-and-a-half by this reviewer's reckoning) gathering dust in Sub Pop Burghermeister Jonathan Poneman's office, just begging to be released. Clocking in at just over twenty minutes, The Sea & the Rhythm's five tracks, unsurprisingly, fit in cozily with the Creek material and a few of them (the dry, melancholic "Jesus the Mexican Boy" and the delicate, ruminative "Someday the Waves") could have easily been appended to the sub-forty-minute initial release. Of course, with a CD-and-a-half of songs still available for public consumption, Poneman and Co. can wait for Beam to release his second full-length and then roll out three or perhaps even four more EPs just like this one.

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2003

The Rapture: Echoes
Strummer/Universal, 2003
Rating: 3.3
Echoes is less experimental than the Liars, not quite as funky as Out Hud, and boasting considerably less musical proficiency than Radio 4. Nonetheless, New York indie-rockers turned dancepunk heroes The Rapture manage a solid collection of groove-oriented numbers that easily exceeds anything from 1999's derivatively post-punk Mirror. The trio of opening tracks shows little promise, however, primarily because of skeletal, dance-discouraging beats and vocalist Luke Jenner's panicked Robert Smith pleading on "Olio" and painfully straining falsetto on "Open Up Your Heart." It's when the Rapture steps back to allow the DFA production team (Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy) room to operate that Echoes truly comes to life. From the upbeat, infectiously hip "I Need Your Love" through "Killing," with its staccato beats and angular rhythms, Echoes is a worthy addition to the collection of any black-clad underground brooder who secretly wants to get down on it at the gloom 'n' doom club. Bottom line: Some great beats propping up a not-so-tight band, making it sound much cooler than it actually is.

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2003

The Kills: Keep on Your Mean Side
Rough Trade, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Vocalist/guitarist VV (Alison Mosshart), late of the Florida punk rockers Discount, and British drummer/guitarist/vocalist Hotel (Jamie Hince) constitute The Kills, a stripped-down electric blues duo whose debut LP, Keep on Your Mean Side, does a nice job of channeling everyone from Delta bluesmen to "Long Snake Moan"-era PJ Harvey. The blunt, raw "Cat Claw," with VV demanding "You got it / I want it," and the bluesy "Pull a U," with its heavy Zeppelin-esque riff and requisite sexual-tension-bursting lyrics ("your black magic and your two dollar love"), typify the swaggering, sexy and potent music the Kills capably fashion. The stomping, appealingly messy "Black Rooster" features VV's and Hotel's vocals nicely complementing one another; the damaged "Wait" is all steady strum and narcotic beat. "Fuck the People" proves a misfire, if only because VV's aggressive approach doesn't wholly jibe with the freewheeling, rollicking rhythm. Keep on Your Mean Side is a solid debut from a duo with enough moxie to shamelessly retread their myriad influences without coming across as so annoyingly derivative as to negate its brash, anything goes energy.

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2003

Guided by Voices: Earthquake Glue
Matador, 2003
Rating: 4.1
Yes, the perfect three-minute pop song is the more commonly referenced musical goal, but on Earthquake Glue, Guided by Voices headmaster Bob Pollard continues his search for the perfect two-minute pop gem. And he damn near finds it with "The Best of Jill Hives," with its classic chugging bassline and Pollard's indirect but no less incisive lyricism ("Do we really need to see all her punch-drunk history?"). The former schoolteacher comes as close as he's ever gotten to crafting an all froth, no pith nugget for the ages. The rest of Earthquake Glue, however, provides the usual mixed bag of ringing guitar anthems ("My Kind of Soldier"), gritty, blues-based numbers ("Dirty Water"), and appealingly skewed Britpop ("Useless Inventions"). The album's most poignant moment, "A Trophy Mule in Particular," finds Pollard seeking to "collect [his] troubles and brave the weather" amidst a "tumbling" stock market and "crumbling" rock market, his New World fears succinctly and rhetorically posited thusly: "Where am I now? For I am a solider." On "Apology in Advance," he challenges the label "disabled vet" with the defiant response "Well, I'm not there yet." Like all Guided by Voices albums, there's more coal here than diamonds (cases in point: the turgid, overlong "Beat Your Wings" and "Secret Star" ). But Earthquake Glue nonetheless contains the band's best work since the energized Isolation Drills and edges out last year's Universal Truths And Cycles in the memorable hooks department. Pollard clearly intends to continue mining for the ultimate two-minute pop gem.

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2003

Goldfrapp: Black Cherry
Mute, 2003
Rating: 3.7
Allison Goldfrapp and musical partner Will Gregory partially jettison the sci-fi electronic torch songs of 2000's stellar Felt Mountain for decidedly more earthbound concerns on the follow-up Black Cherry. "Strict Machine" has gained the most notoriety (as most accessorized masturbation songs are want to do), with Goldfrapp purring "Get high on a buzz / Then a rush when I'm plugged in you" over a warm electric hum. It's as if Goldfrapp swapped a portion of her Portishead collection during the intervening years for a few of French Techno DJ Miss Kittin's releases. Not that the detached, ethereal reserve that defined Felt Mountain has vanished completely. Touches of it can clearly be heard on the spacey, spacious, synth-drenched title track, and the sedate, airy "Forever," wherein Goldfrapp pines "Here I wanna be a stranger." Ultimately, Black Cherry lacks the unified flow of Felt Mountain, primarily because the band hasn't divorced itself completely from its past sound. Case in point: "Hairy Trees'" dreamy, drowsy groove is followed by the denser, harder and lyrically explicit "Twist" ("Put your dirty angel face / Between my legs / And knicker lace"), making for an often disjointed, unfocused listening experience. You can't exactly space out to it, or dance or have sex to it, without seriously reprogramming the track sequence. And that's just too much to ask when a person's just hoping to get his or her groove on.

::: Laurence Station

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October 13, 2003

Tomanonymous: I Am Be
Independent, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Tom Connelly -- aka Tomanonymous -- bills himself as a bass-playing singer-songwriter, the implication being that his instrument of choice distinguishes him from the pack of guitar-strumming troubadours. But the songs he offers on I Am Be don't quite stand too far out from the crowd, adorned as they are with an agreeable light-jazz sheen, complete with guitar, keyboard and horn arrangements (and earthy percussion, courtesy of Rikki Jo Medow). Which is not to suggest that Connelly doesn't create a warm and identifiable sound. His melodic sensibilities point toward classic '70s jazz-fusion, with a rare hint of Donald Fagen thrown in; his wordy way with a lyric ("I try to come to grips with this stranglehold I keep on my lips") at times recalls Ani DiFranco. When these forces are in alignment, they create some memorable moments, as with the peppery opener "What'll We Tell Shirley" and the insistent "Sometimes" (the latter buried, alas, toward the end of the disc). At others (the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger," "Ask Me," an ill-advised cover of R.E.M.'s "Perfect Circle") Connelly sounds, well, anonymous. But he displays a good ear for full-sounding arrangements and percussive (but not showboating) bass work, enough so to suggest that he'll yet live up to the album's titular statement of definition.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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October 13, 2003

The New Pornographers: Electric Version
Matador, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Cynical observers might point out that Mass Romantic, The New Pornographers' first record, was intended as little more than a one-off from a collective of Canadian indie-rockers and American-born singer Neko Case. That as such, it wasn't supposed to catch on with listeners and critics the way it did; heck, this isn't even a real band, they'll probably mutter, the way Dan Bejar's Destroyer is, or Carl Newman's Zumpano. Well, the Pornographers may not have intended to become a going concern, but their smart power-pop has found an audience, and on the new Electric Version they return the favor by sounding more like a "real" band. As fun as Mass Romantic sounded, it sported an undeniable patched-together feel, as if the members drew lots on who would play on which song. A heavy touring schedule over the last couple of years has sharpened the band's interplay, never more evident than on "It's Only Divine Right," in which the non-singing/songwriting members -- bassist John Collins, keyboardist Blaine Thurier, and drummer Kurt Dahle -- are allowed to stretch out the standard pop-song template, adding bite to the fat major chords backing the effervescent harmonies. Naturally, tighter musicianship still plays second fiddle to the compositions of Newman and Bejar, and of course Case's amazing vocal range. Nothing here approaches the pop perfection of Romantic's "Letter From An Occupant," but songs like Newman's "The Laws Have Changed" and Bejar's spirited "Testament to Youth in Verse" nonetheless add weight to one of the year's strongest and unabashed pure-pop releases.

::: Laurence Station

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October 12, 2003

The Blood Brothers: Burn Piano Island, Burn
ArtistDirect, 2003
Rating: 4.0
After Seattle's The Blood Brothers signed with ArtistDirect and hired producer Ross Robinson (At The Drive-In, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot and, well, Vanilla Ice's ill-fated rap-metal exercise Hard to Swallow), there was some fear among the underground avant-hardcore set (is there really such a group?) that the band would head into hook-happy pop waters. These fears are quickly allayed during "Guitarmy," the 39-second opening shot that kicks off Burn Piano Island, Burn. Shrieking vocals ("We wrapped your Corvette in cellophane / Set it aflame") defiantly set the tone, with Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney trading off on screaming duties. Robinson manages to rein in the overbearing intensity of previous Blood Brothers albums This Adultery Is Ripe and March On, Electric Children! Drummer Mark Gajadhar shines here, proficiently keeping time in a manner that lessens the chaos of prior efforts without dampening the force of the quintet's relentless, piledriver approach. The paranoid urgency of "Every Breath Is a Bomb" (which surrealistically asks "Can you knit the stiletto back into the bloodstain?") and the equally manic "Ambulance vs. Ambulance" ("The Ambulance Angels chisel a crack in your mouth / And then they paint a landscape with your regret and shouts") reveal a band clearly enamored with the bizarre wordplay of At the Drive-In, among other influences (the title track incorporates a little Red Hot Chili Peppers slap-bass funk into the mix as well). At 45-plus-minutes, Burn Piano Island, Burn grows a tad wearisome. Still, it's the band's most vital disc to date, and one of the year's most memorable listening experiences.

::: Laurence Station

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October 10, 2003

Death Cab for Cutie: Transatlanticism
Barsuk, 2003
Rating: 3.1
Despite employing the same basic indie-pop template utilized to agreeable effect on its previous three albums, Death Cab for Cutie lays an outright goose egg with the bland, tepid Transatlanticism. What's gone wrong here? Well, there's guitarist/producer Christopher Walla's dense but subdued mixing, which never grabs the listener's full, undivided attention. Moreover, singer/lyricist Ben Gibbard turns in a loose song cycle about physical and emotional distance, one that fails to make as deep a connection as 2000's We the Facts and We're Voting Yes, or stir the caustic, volcanic passions of "Styrofoam Plates" from 2001's The Photo Album. Speaking of The Photo Album, the drummer for that effort, Mike Schorr, has been replaced by the competent but too-restrained Jason McGerr, further compounding Transatlanticism's lack of oomph. "The New Year" kicks things off in rousing fashion, with a booming beat cleverly intimating the exploding of fireworks. But then the energy level plummets until the solid (but hardly overpowering) "We Looked Like Giants" rises out of the surrounding funk. By this point, Transatlanticism has drifted so far off course, so deep into the gloom of Slumberland, that no amount of clever lyricism or friendly guitar-pop chords can right its badly listing fortunes.

::: Laurence Station

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October 09, 2003

Dave Matthews: Some Devil
RCA, 2003
Rating: 3.0
On "Baby" -- one of the more economical tracks on Dave Matthews' solo debut Some Devil -- the leader of the world-famous band bearing his name intones "Everything has to begin and end." Fair enough. It's a shame, though, that too many of the tracks on Some Devil simply take longer than needed (five minutes on average) to reach their conclusion, most running out of gas somewhere around the three-and-a-half minute mark. "An' Another Thing" is the most blatant offender, with Matthews slowing drawing out each syllable as he indulgently wallows in a forced drunken falsetto to no great effect. "Too High," at nearly six minutes, should have been called "Too Damn Long." When Matthews discovers the beauty of economy -- getting to the point and not extending what's supposed to be a stripped down, non-jam oriented work (i.e., the intriguing flipside to his expansive, jam-oriented Dave Matthews Band material) -- Some Devil shines. "Gravedigger," a grim acceptance of our ultimate fate and an examination of lives past, is the best lyric Matthews has ever written. (The song works so well, in fact, that there's a second, acoustic-only version tacked onto the end of the disc.) It also falls into that magical three-minute window in which the vast majority of great pop songs reside. Succinct, assured and bereft of unnecessary instrumental garnish, "Gravedigger" proves Matthews has the potential to rein in his more indulgent tendencies and unearth clear-sighted, genuinely affecting gems. Some Devil takes too long to tell its thirteen tales, when less could have offered so much more.

::: Laurence Station

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September 30, 2003

Lightning Bolt: Wonderful Rainbow
Load, 2003
Rating: 4.1
Lightning Bolt -- the hyper-dynamic duo of bassist Brian Gibson and drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale -- pushes even further into the energizing, concussive realm of art-for- noise-rock's-sake, the same territory to which the tandem staked a compelling claim on 2001's potent Ride the Skies. Wonderful Rainbow is 40-plus minutes of unapologetically angular, distorted percussive rhythms and garbled vocals. From the terse opener "Hello Morning" to the elongated, epically grounded closer "Duel in the Deep", Gibson and Chippendale push the tolerance level with uncompromising skill and prodigious energy. Highlights include the back-to-back, richly caffeinated blasts of "Dracula Mountain" and "2 Towers". Perhaps the album's most remarkable feat is its utter lack of density: One never gets the sense that anything excessive or unnecessary was utilized in constructing its sonic brickworks. While Wonderful Rainbow certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea, there's no doubt grudging respect must be paid to Lightning Bolt for following its uniquely dissonant vision.

::: Laurence Station

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September 30, 2003

Xiu Xiu: A Promise
5 Rue, 2003
Rating: 3.5
On Xiu Xiu's third release, front man Jamie Stewart continues to profess his love for all things Joy Division. Early on during A Promise, Stewart perfects his signature Ian Curtis epileptic wail ("Apistat Commander") and then closes the album with an appropriately melodramatic collapse ("Ian Curtis Wishlist"). In between, Xiu Xiu refines the spoken-word, spiky and nihilistically hollow creations the group's explored since its 2002 debut Knife Play. "Pink City" sports some interestingly scratchy textures, while "Sad Redux-O-Grapher" offers Stewart a chance to slide further off the deep end over a coolly detached, digital backdrop. A tedious, excruciatingly drawn out (not to mention flat) cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" conveys exactly the effect Xiu Xiu hopes for -- this is not a band concerned with its listeners' comfort or, presumably, mental wellbeing. The world is a hard, empty place filled with pain and bitterness, and the sooner people go the way of Curtis, Stewart's Patron Saint of Apocalyptic Misery, the better. Until that day comes, Stewart must content himself with creating the soundtrack to our slow, inexorable demise.

::: Laurence Station

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September 30, 2003

Cex: Being Ridden
Temporary, 2003
Rating: 3.7
Rjyan Kidwell continues the IDM-to-Hip-Hop transformation that began with 2002's Tall, Dark & Handcuffed on the fun, gleefully vapid Being Ridden. Make no mistake about it: Kidwell (even his last name sums up his philosophy of music as entertainment) wants to be huge, complete with TRL-screaming fans and big ups from Carson Daly. The main thing holding him back -- well, aside from intentionally choosing a handle phonetically interchangeable with one of his favorite topics -- is brains: Kidwell's simply too snakily self-aware for his own good. From the android-pose cover shot (which shamelessly apes Bowie's Heroes album) to rapping about the "sovereign nation of [his] station wagon" on the opening "The Wayback Machine", Kidwell has mastered the whitebread, suburbanite wannabe-gangsta pose to a T. From the angsty, faux-tough "Not Working" to the inspired "Earth-Shaking Event", which takes emo and indie rockers to task for moping about failed relationships, Kidwell nails white middle American concerns as filtered through an unashamedly hipless hip-hop motif. But all that stellar work is undone by non-rap tracks like the meandering, pointless "Other Countries" and the pretty but out-of-place closer "Nevermind". It would have been nice if Kidwell had stuck to his white-schlep soul man routine throughout, instead of gesturing back to earlier electronic or acoustic-based instrumental work. And while Being Ridden will never pass muster at MTV (too clever; too critical of other genres), Kidwell proves he's got the skills to matter on a critical scale, regardless of the his all-but assured lack of prime time exposure.

::: Laurence Station

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September 29, 2003

Pete Droge: Skywatching
Puzzle Tree, 2003
Rating: 3.6
On Skywatching, Pete Droge engineers a slight shift from the rootsy emphasis of his two previous albums, Find a Door and Spacey and Shakin'. Perhaps taking a cue from his pure-pop MOR side project, The Thorns, he tunes into a mid-'70s AM radio wavelength, turning in a sturdy set of lightweight but likable mid-tempo rockers that float along on breezy California grooves. "Train Love to Stay," "Live This Out" and the ingratiating "Bring Up the Failure" (an easygoing dig at our put-down culture) amble amiably atop sunny guitar-pop structures; the unabashed slide-guitar confection "She Got the Potion" conjures images of the Bay City Rollers discovering the joys of pot and Big Star. Droge delivers his melodies with an audible grin that lets us know he accepts these songs for the cheerful foot-tappers they are; nothing more, nothing less. This sense of reveling in the tangible joys of summertime singalongs helps carry Skywatching over its less-assured footing, as on the gratingly sappy "Lily Wants a Mountain," the awkward acoustic version of sprightly guitar-pop opener "Small Time Blues," and the aimless "Do Be True." But if Droge missteps here and there, no sweat: It's not perfection he's aiming for, after all, but the ephemeral Nirvana of breezy California rock.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 29, 2003

Ambulance Ltd: Ambulance Ltd
TVT, 2003
Rating: 3.3
On this five-song EP, Brooklyn's Ambulance Ltd achieves a balance between the whipped-cream guitar swirls of Ride and the stalwart indie-rock musculature of Superchunk. "Stay Where You Are" echoes the muted lushness of both college-rock poles, with a half-breathy vocal that sounds sighed as much as sung. "Primitive (The Way I Treat You)" rehashes the shoegazer aesthetic of late '80s/early '90s Brit-pop with much the same care as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, but without the gravelly vocals and gnashing feedback. "Heavy Lifting" surges forward on a quietly insistent drumbeat-and-strum approach, shored up with piano and a vocal melody that sticks to a supporting role, adding texture to the overall sound rather than grabbing attention as the focal point. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- the standard-issue lyrics aren't much to call attention to, nor are they worth obscuring entirely -- but it hobbles the closing "Young Urban," which gets only the first half of its title right; there's not much that suggests the bustle and sweat of big-city life here. As introductory EPs go, Ambulance Ltd does a commendable job of laying out the band's stylistic markers. But it'll take a full-length debut that tinkers a bit with the proven formulas so dutifully transcribed here to set Ambulance Ltd apart from its still-overpowering influences.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 29, 2003

DMX: Grand Champ
Def Jam, 2003
Rating: 3.1
Give DMX credit for livening up the baroque gangsta blueprint laid out on his first three albums with infusions of old-school soul. Trouble is, he did that two years ago, on the aptly titled The Great Depression. Grand Champ is little more than that album's unofficial sequel, which wouldn't be an issue if pretty much every DMX album weren't a sequel to the one before it. The songs in which X shines on this, his fifth release, find their luster somewhat dimmed by the easiness with which one can pick out their progenitors. The defiant R&B chorus of "Untouchable" would go down a little easier if it weren't so evocative of Depression's "Trina Moe" and "When I'm Nothing." "Where the Hood At" is a bracing shot of the kind of ruff-riding anthem at which DMX excels, with a distinctive hook that showcases his singular gruff growl; if only it didn't naggingly (and unfavorably) compare to "Who We Be" or "One More Road to Cross." "Rob All Night (If I'm Gonna Rob)?" Just a retread of "I'ma Bang," or perhaps "What's My Name?" The rest of Grand Champ is a primer in familiar gangsta posturing (including some vociferous gay-bashing), loaded down with a dizzying string of guest performers like an arm too heavily weighted with bling-bling. Mildly engaging jams ("Get It On the Floor") and rote tales from the hood ("Shot Down," an obligatory 50 Cent collaboration) abound, but too little stands out to make Grand Champ more than an uneven contender. Here's hoping Earl Simmons can once again reach the Best in Show high point of 1999's ...And Then There Was X before more innovative artists elbow him out of the running.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 28, 2003

Emmylou Harris: Stumble Into Grace
Nonesuch, 2003
Rating: 3.4
Emmylou Harris's second straight collaboration with producer (and Daniel Lanois protégé) Malcolm Burn is as warm and earnest as 2000's much-lauded Red Dirt Girl, if a tad too repetitive in its moody, percussive underpinnings and sanded-down rhythmic impulses. Where Red Dirt Girl bounced all over the map in search of stylistic inspiration, Grace stays the course (reserved, heavy atmospherics over grand histrionics) to its detriment. The marriage of Emmylou's ethereal-yet-burdened vocals with Burn's understated production works wonderfully on opener "Here I Am," but by the time "Lost Unto This World" and closer "Cup of Kindness" unspool, the sound has grown stunningly stale. The gritty, guitar-driven "Time in Babylon" stands out, giving Grace a fuller, meatier tone, while "Jupiter Rising," a more obvious, straight-up pop tune, falls flat primarily because of its transparent commercial provocations. Stumble Into Grace's saving grace, naturally, is Harris's voice, possessed of a mature poignancy that transcends pedestrian production; it's far too genuine an instrument for the lackluster arrangements offered here.

::: Laurence Station

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September 28, 2003

The Fire Theft: The Fire Theft
Rykodisc, 2003
Rating: 2.7
It's rather ironic that a band taking its name and inspiration from the Promethean gift of knowledge to man would sound so utterly bereft of ideas on its debut album. The members of The Fire Theft, three-fourths of '90s indie-rockers Sunny Day Real Estate (aerial vocalist Jeremy Enigk, drummer William Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel), are proven musicians whose intensely felt prior work would seem to set the stage for a triumphant reuniting in the new century. Sadly, the energy and electrifying bombast that made the trio's last SDRE album, 2000's The Rising Tide, so effective has been watered down and blandly recycled here. What we're left with is a buffed-to-gleaming collection that lacks the passion and over-the-top prog-rock pretensions that made Tide so remarkable and confident. "Chain" is a standard-issue peace anthem that follows in the obvious tradition of countless other "make love not war" songs, while "Summertime" is a by-the-numbers love song so overproduced with orchestral flourishes it's a wonder any sentiment at all makes its way through the dense wall of strings and horns. And the grating power ballad "Heaven" is one false move away from being mistaken for an Ed Kowalczyk spiritual recitation. Only at the close, with the refreshingly straightforward "It's Over" and the less effective but still solid "Carry You," does The Fire Theft sound like a real band, and not some hyper-contrived studio affectation. Sadly, it comes too late, whatever creative sparks the album promised early on long since doused. The Fire Theft is a major disappointment for a genuinely talented trio.

::: Laurence Station

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September 28, 2003

British Sea Power: The Decline of British Sea Power
Rough Trade, 2003
Rating: 3.3
The Decline of British Sea Power, the debut from the Brighton based English quartet, contains elements of indie rock, post-punk and classic guitar rock, a mix that makes for a familiar if disorienting listen. While British Sea Power appears to be touching on everything from Pixies' buzzsaw intensity (the manic fun of "Apologies to Insect Life") to morose Joy Division-meets- Echo & the Bunnymen anthems ("Remember Me"), the band has yet to formulate exactly what it wants to do or say musically. The diverse influences are still percolating, and any sense of cohesive absorption of earlier rock outfits' methods and styles never quite congeal into original expression. Think Radiohead circa Pablo Honey, where the future innovators were still trying to reconcile alternative attitude with big, stadium-level U2 antics -- not quite there yet, but a few years later, the seeds sown sprouted into The Bends. While it's still far too early to tell if British Sea Power will make anywhere near as gargantuan a creative leap, Decline does show some promise. The near fourteen-minute "Lately" and U.S. bonus track "Heavenly Waters" (with its epic guitar swells and crashing sea-percussive effects) hint at greater things to come. For now, however, British Sea Power stands amongst many similar young and guitar-driven hopefuls, its members waiting to see if something greater awaits them beyond this maiden voyage.

::: Laurence Station

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September 25, 2003

Natalie Merchant: The House Carpenter’s Daughter
Myth America, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Francis Child and Harry Smith would certainly approve of Natalie Merchant’s first independent release since her early days with 10,000 Maniacs. The House Carpenter’s Daughter covers a variety of traditional and contemporary folk songs, from the impassioned labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” to the requisite murder ballad “Diver Boy”. What makes the collection stand out, however, is the integrity and interpretive vocal ability Merchant brings to the material, displaying a rich emotional range and a cathartic sense of release. It’s obvious that, beyond just caring deeply about these songs, Merchant has a special affinity for any music that comes into existence for reasons beyond material gain: pieces of a community’s history, or tales passed on to travelers during long, lonely voyages across the Atlantic. There's a weight and gravity to these ballads and hymns, songs that can't be tied to any specific artist, but rather exist to connect our shared experiences as a people.

::: Laurence Station

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September 22, 2003

Turin Brakes: Ether Song
Astralwerks, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Hardcore quietcore fans need not worry about Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian selling their souls for rock 'n' roll on the British duo's second Turin Brakes album. Ether Song is a worthy follow-up to 2001's Mercury Prize-nominated The Optimist LP. Of course, when word got out that the Brakes were leaving their native land for Los Angeles and allowing producer Tony Hoffer (Air, Beck, Marianne Faithfull) greater control over which songs made the final cut, concern grew that the gentle acoustic folk songs on which the pair's established its reputation would get cast aside in favor of high-tech studio gimmickry and experimental tape loops. Not to worry; this is still a work dominated by Knights' methadone vocals and Paridjanian's casually narcotic guitar strum. The chopped-up, blenderized verse of "Panic Attack" is about as far out as Hoffer's production inclinations get, and the mildly rocking "Little Brother" about as close to Black Sabbath as the duo's likely to come. Ether Song is a more polished successor to Optimist. It may not be the most exciting work you’re likely to hear this year, but as a lazy-afternoon chill-out record, it should have few peers.

::: Laurence Station

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September 21, 2003

The Darkness: Permission to Land
Atlantic, 2003
Rating: 3.7
Show of hands: How many people out there are pining for the days of ’80s big-hair metal bands like Winger, Warrant and Whitesnake? England’s The Darkness certainly has no reservations about revisiting the days of ozone-devouring vats of hair spray, catsuit spandex outfits and shamelessly indulgent, dumber-than-dumb rock. Recent recipients of metal torchbearer Kerrang!’s Best Live Act and Best Album awards, the Darkness apparently has no concept of the current garage rock revival, either, aiming instead for stadiums full of lighter-waving followers, hopefully screaming wildly as the band rips through cuts from its expressively over the top debut Permission to Land. Front man Justin Hawkins, possessed of a forced falsetto wail and a wardrobe patched together from Freddie Mercury's old castoffs, is nothing if not deadly serious on tracks like the revved-up "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" and the anti-heroin anthem "Givin' Up." And while power ballads clearly aren’t the band’s strong suit, the Darkness still manages to invest the two offered here ("Growing on Me" and "Love Is Only a Feeling") with more than enough heavy mettle to prove that it isn't merely posturing or poking fun at the era of Ratt and Cinderella. These guys truly mean it. It’s just that combination of sincerity and an ability to emulate the sound of its heroes (and, in most cases, do so with more proficiency than those heroes themselves) that makes Permission to Land a fun, diverting trip through the (admittedly guilty) pleasures of a wildly excessive decade.

::: Laurence Station

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September 20, 2003

Verbena: La Musica Negra
Capitol, 2003
Rating: 3.6
Verbena frontman Scott Bondy's musical identity crisis isn't quite as pronounced as that of, say, Local H's Scott Lukas, but La Musica Negra proves that he still hasn't found a sound to call his own. That's partly because Bondy can't seem to help paying homage to his forebears: The opening "Way Out West" (itself a nod, perhaps, to the Big Star ballad) gratingly winks at (and name drops songs from) the Beatles, the Stones and even (oddly enough) Wall of Voodoo. It's also due, in part, to Bondy's zealous fondness for well-worn rock tropes, including a numbing over-reliance on religious imagery (Jesus gets name-checked more often on Negra than in a month's worth of gangsta rap platters). This isn't entirely a bad thing, as La Musica Negra offers enough happily crunchy guitar workouts ("Me And Yr Sister," "White Grrls," "Killing Floor (Get Down On It)") to offset the sepia-tinged air of derivative nostalgia. If, as with Lukas, one can still hear faint echoes of Kurt Cobain in the raw-nerve groove of "It's Alright, It's Okay (Jesus Told Me So)," at least there's a pretty and pleasant bon mot like "Ether" to restore karmic balance. If Bondy wants to build a career out of continually rearranging his influences to create grungy ear candy, that's certainly his right. But there's enough evidence on Negra to suggest that there's a big, gesturing arena-rock record inside him waiting to come out, instead of the ghostly karaoke he delivers here.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 20, 2003

The Bronx: The Bronx
White Drugs, 2003
Rating: 2.7
For a few brief, shining moments, the sharp-edged screaming of Matt Caughthran and the jagged, whirly-bird guitar snarls of "Heart Attack American" -- the leadoff track from the Bronx's self-titled debut -- conjure an encouraging image of post-punk kids channeling At the Drive-In by way of early Fugazi. But after four or five of The Bronx's tight (under three minutes) bursts of jackhammer punk pounding in a row, the promise of potential gives way to the numbing reality of a young outfit so hyped-up on its own adrenaline that it can't pause to inject more than a hint of substance into its all-too familiar sound. Produced by former Guns 'N' Roses hired gun Gilby Clarke, The Bronx chokes on its one-note buzzsaw drone, like Iggy Pop with a bad case of acid reflux. There may be enough talent deep down inside this ferocious foursome to eventually emulate the art-punk sweep of At the Drive-In (or who knows, even the muddy prog-punk of The Mars Volta). But this short, spiked introduction does little to fan such hopes. Given another album or two to stretch its wings, The Bronx could one day establish its own address -- if listeners' attention spans (and Caughthran's shredded vocal chords) can hold out that long.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 19, 2003

My Morning Jacket: It Still Moves
ATO Records/ RCA, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Having enjoyed several years of cult status among music insiders (including #1 fan Dave Grohl), Louisville-based quintet My Morning Jacket hits the big-time with its major-label debut. Like its two predecessors, 1999's raw The Tennessee Fire and 2001's epic At Dawn, It Still Moves defies cookie-cutter categorization with dense, complex arrangements that echo southern gothic folklore. Led by the bearded, shaggy-haired Jim James, the Jacket crams elements of soul, blues, and Dixie into its melodic, often-lengthy jams (the CD's 12 songs cumulatively top the 70-minute mark). Moves does an excellent job of re-creating the band's polished live sound, which has been tightened by over two years of almost constant touring. Opener "Mahgeetah," a concert staple for much of the past year, is indicative of the band's overall sound; the band's twin guitar attack (James and cousin Johnny Quaid) collides with its muscular rhythm section for a foot-stomping groove, over which keyboardist Danny Cash lays light, lingering notes. Other standout tracks include the anthemic, guitar-heavy "Run Thru" and "Easy Morning Rebel," an upbeat romp that features the work of the legendary Memphis Horns: It's amusing to note that MMJ now shares space with Elvis and B.B. King on the Horns' resume. While Moves drags a bit in places (it's perfect for chilling out on your porch, even if you don't have one), its passion and musicianship make it an exceptional listen. And to think, we made it through an entire review without mentioning James's vocal resemblance to Neil Young (oops).

::: Eric Grossman

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September 19, 2003

Broadcast: Haha Sound
Warp, 2003
Rating: 4.3
The Birmingham, England group Broadcast's Haha Sound proves an interesting complement to its impressive 2000 debut The Noise Made by People. On Sound, the band -- vocalist Trish Keenan, bassist James Cargill and guitarist Tim Felton, down to a trio following the exit of keyboardist Roj Stevens, and enjoying assistance from Neil Bullock on drums -- still exhibits a knack for lush electronic dreamscapes. But where Noise was sweeping and overtly cinematic, Sound proves intimate and winsomely childlike. The scale is more modest, dealing with sensitive interiors as opposed to brash exteriors. One need only compare the weighty throbbing bass and detached, chilly vocals of Keenan on Noise opener "Long Was the Year" versus the playfully airy approach of Haha's lead track, "Colour Me In", to realize Broadcast, while still sticking to its fundamental electronic template, has taken a far different tack on the overall feeling created by its music. Keenan is the key, turning in a much more relaxed and personable delivery, especially on poppier numbers like the appropriately named "Lunch Hour Pops" and gently lilting "The Little Bell". Dissonant, considerably more angular instrumental interludes ("Black Umbrellas," "Distorsion") break the album's rhythm, but in a good way, offering variety rather than disrupting the overall flow, while the looping, frenetic "Pendulum" offers Keenan a chance to sing in an edgier key.  Haha Sound is an apt title for a band clearly enjoying itself and in a far more giving and amiable mood compared to its previous effort.

::: Laurence Station

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September 19, 2003

Enon: Hocus Pocus
Touch and Go, 2003
Rating: 3.6
Before the arrival of ex- Blonde Redhead Toko Yasuda on Enon's second and best release, High Society, the New York-based indie-pop band sounded like a group struggling to shed its connection to group leader John Schmersal's earlier outfit, the dearly departed Brainiac. Enon's sound on its debut, Believo!, was all over the map, awkwardly fractured and out of control. Yasuda appeared to be just the steadying influence the group needed, adding welcomed vocal variety and holding the rhythm section together nicely on bass. High Society, while still dominated by Schmersal's spastically scattershot approach to songcraft, was a tighter, more electro-pop-oriented effort, and the future of the band seemed clear. The arrival of Hocus Pocus, however, exposes a band sounding more fractured than ever. Schmersal and Yasuda split the vocal and songwriting duties, with Matt Schultz backing them on drums. The problem: Enon's band identity gets muddled when the focus shifts exclusively to either principal. Tellingly, the best tracks involve the two leads appearing together. "Murder Sounds" is a wonderful mesh of Yasuda's breathy sing-speak delivery and Schmersal's energetic background vocals, while "Starcastic" trades on the high energy generated by the two singers engagingly trading off on chorus and verse. Hopefully Enon will build on these two tracks for its next release, playing to its strengths as opposed to isolating its talents in less appreciable spaces.

::: Laurence Station

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September 19, 2003

Spiritualized: Amazing Grace
Sanctuary / Spaceman, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Spiritualized mastermind Jason Pierce has applied his fascination with drugs and the divine to many musical styles. 1992's Lazer Guided Melodies bore a psychedelic '60s pop inflection, while 1997's landmark Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space employed expansive, free-rock cosmic freakouts in its search for the Prime Mover. Pierce's last full-length release, 2001's Let It Come Down, revealed ambitious -- if bloated -- orchestral ambitions in a quest to touch the outer heavens. With Amazing Grace, Piecre has finally come back down to earth -- the Mississippi Delta, to be exact. Grace is drenched in a feedback of heavy squalls, inharmonious bleats and bluesy, smoked-to-the-nub riffs. It's as if Pierce, who's been restlessly re-treading the same themes of faith and redemption throughout his career, has forsaken all the excess instrumentation interfering with his quest to make a sound worthy of a rock concert only an angelic host could appreciate. He gets off to a fine start with "This Little Life of Mine," all stripped-bare crunchy guitars and maniacally banging drums, followed by the driving rocker "She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)". "Hold On" hints at Pierce's past work with a grand, bombastic opening, but then slows down to an appealing acoustic strum and harmonica-paced finish. The brief, furious "Never Goin' Back" proves the disc's highlight, with nothing wasted and the energy at full tilt. "Cheapster," meanwhile, is the true dud, crippled by Pierce's faux-early-electric-Dylanesque rap. And the closing "Lay It Down Slow" is a winding comedown that one wishes Pierce would have excised in favor of something a little meatier. Amazing Grace isn't in the upper echelon of Pierce's Spiritualized catalogue, but it certainly stands as one of the artist's most emotionally committed and energetically crafted records, one that might even motivate him to stay earthbound a little while longer.

::: Laurence Station

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September 17, 2003

Frank Black and the Catholics: Show Me Your Tears
Spin Art, 2003
Rating: 2.5
Frank Black has been quoted recently as warming to the idea of reuniting his seminal post-punk outfit, the Pixies. That longstanding ambivalence could be melting, in part, due to a sense of nostalgia following a painful divorce. But Show Me Your Tears, which is very much a product of said divorce, presents a strong argument against attempting a Pixies reunion. That's because the Frank Black of Tears is no longer capable of wringing compelling art from pathos, as his former band did so well. Of course, it's unfair to keep judging Black's work against such a yardstick. But even by the standards of Black's previous Catholics and solo offerings, Show Me Your Tears is a disappointment. Sticking closely to the rootsy template he's followed with backing band The Catholics since 1998, Black turns in a lackluster collection of melancholy numbers marred by affected vocal tics ("Jaina Blues"), murky lyricism ("New House of the Pope," "Everything is New") and just plain limp melodies (throw a rock). The Catholics manage to slip in a few hints of muscle amidst the standard-issue arrangements, as with the bounce-throb bass that propels "Nadine" and the pristine '70s California-pop echoes of "Manitoba" (having Van Dyke Parks on board certainly doesn't hurt). And Black does muster some welterweight moments toward the end, with the love/nature allegory "The Snake" and "Manitoba"'s wrenching realization that "I have seen the face of God / and I have dearly paid," as concise a summation of love gone wrong as one could hope for. But they're not enough to lift Tears out of its bog of half-hearted catharsis. Call it a warm-up, and hope that if Black's intent on purging himself of heartbreak, he'll have gotten enough distance next time around to approach the subject with his signature oddball flair.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 16, 2003

M83: Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
Gooom, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Following up their 2001 self-titled debut, electronica duo Nicolas Fromageau and Anthony Gonzalez, or simply M83, give us this an hour-long balancing act between natural- and artificial-sounding compositions. Dead Cities reinforces the French pair's penchant for distorted vocals and cheesy synthesizers, but the tracks here ultimately add up to far less than the sum of their assorted parts. Song titles conveniently match the accompanying music: Thus, on "Birds" we hear birds chirping, while "In Church" utilizes a pipe organ to intimate the spaciousness of a grand cathedral. "Cyborg," meanwhile, is a hybrid mix of robotic and muted human vocalizations. While this approach to track titles may add some clarity, Dead Cities feels lacking in spontaneity. Things move from organic to electronic tracks, each tightly constructed and inalterably following a monotonous ascension from softness to a melodramatic, swelling climax that becomes not only predictable but also dull. The near-fifteen minute closer "Beauties Can Die" breaks the mold, if only because the song's expansive scope allows for a little variation on the done to death "soft-to-loud" technique. Dead Cities is an accomplished study in programmatic dynamics, one that works better in theory than in practice; neither breaking new ground nor successfully re-treading the well-worn path many others (from My Bloody Valentine to Múm) have traversed before.

::: Laurence Station

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September 16, 2003

Linda Perhacs: Parallelograms
Kapp Records, 1970 / Wild Places, 2003 (Expanded Reissue)
Rating: 3.8
Linda Perhacs' lone album, Parallelograms, was released in 1970. After that the singer-songwriter retreated to the Pacific Northwest and retired from the music business. Wild Places sought to show the world what it had missed with a 1997 reissue that suffered from poor sound quality. Not to be deterred, the label managed to track down master tapes from the Parallelograms sessions (from the artist herself, no less), and just like that, a second, expanded reissue has appeared, with crisp sound and a slew of bonus tracks. And while Parallelograms isn't some lost classic finally getting its due, the album nonetheless is an accomplished collection of pastorally inclined flower-power ditties ("Chimacum Rain," "Call of the River"), social commentary ("Hey, Who Really Cares?") and barbed observations on the shallowness of the dating scene, circa the late '60s ("Porcelain Baked over Cast-Iron Wedding"). The title track stands out for its fascinating excursion into spacey rock territory, built around Perhacs incantatory, geometric lyrics ("Quadrehederal / Tetrahedral"). The bonus material is interesting, if not essential listening: Unreleased track "If You Were My Man" sounds like a standard-issue love song of the era, while the inclusion of Perhacs' recorded notes to her producer is excess filler that does little to illuminate one's insight into the artist's creative process.

::: Laurence Station

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September 16, 2003

Damien Rice: O
Vector Recordings, 2003
Rating: 4.0
With O, Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice crafts a hauntingly lovely collection, full of spare, emotional songs. Ballads like "Cannonball" and "The Blower's Daughter" (the latter about a relationship -- or rather, an infatuation -- gone wrong) are earnest and thankfully devoid of irony. Lead single "Volcano," a favorite of the Starbucks set thanks to a strong VH1 push, benefits from gorgeous interplay between Rice and guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan. The disc culminates with "Eskimo," a 16-minute opus that flirts with pomposity (it closes with an opera sample), but is still unquestionably more adventurous than anything attempted by David Gray, John Mayer or Pete Yorn -- just three of the many singer-songwriters Rice has been grouped with. A gifted, natural performer, Rice has had little problem connecting with audiences, filling O's quiet stretches with a likeable persona developed from his previous life busking on the streets of Europe. Verdict: The perfect CD for a wintry Sunday afternoon.

::: Eric Grossman

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September 13, 2003

Kings of Leon: Youth & Young Manhood
RCA, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Kings of Leon pay respect to southern-boogie swamp rock on their full-length debut, and while there's nothing here that equals or exceeds the work of the Allman Brothers (or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for that matter), Youth & Young Manhood proves an authentic-sounding take on the pressures that come with being a restless Southern Man looking for more out of life than a factory job and a tricked out, Ram Tough Ford truck. Be it fear of commitment -- as on "California Waiting," wherein singer/guitarist Caleb Followill bemoans "While you're tryin' to save me / Can't I get back my lonely life", -- or the assurance that "Time on me is wasted time" (on the rollicking "Wasted Time"), Kings of Leon tap into the anxiety of being pigeonholed too young, questing for a sense of purpose beyond settling down and starting a family by one's twenty-first birthday. And not unlike the uncertain characters populating their songs, the band members (Caleb and his brothers, bassist Jared and drummer Nathan, along with guitarist cousin Matthew Followill) have yet to stake out a distinctive musical identity, borrowing a little too liberally from their Southern Rock roots without adding anything original to the mythology. Given time, Kings of Leon may yet update the template the way the Dixie-bred Drive-By Truckers have. But with Youth & Young Manhood, the group's laid a solid enough foundation upon which to build.

::: Laurence Station

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September 12, 2003

Killing Joke: Killing Joke
Red Int / Red Ink, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Killing Joke singer Jaz Coleman, astonishingly, sounds just as enraged at the state of the world as he was over twenty years ago, when the band's combustive, brutally potent self-titled debut arrived. Titles like "The Death & Resurrection Show," "Total Invasion" and "Blood on Your Hands" reveal a man who has definitely not mellowed with age. Coleman and his fellow bandmates' current self-titled record harkens back to the venerable British outfit's post-punk roots; while the dance and artistic pretensions that colored the releases in between have been eschewed in favor of a visceral, back-to-basics gut-punch, the band proves that there's still considerable life left in the sledgehammer protest anthem. The dual-bass punch of Youth (just Youth) and Paul Raven, Geordie Walker's fierce guitar histrionics and the energized bashing of ubiquitous guest-drummer Dave Grohl generate a crushing wall of noise, against which Coleman unleashes rants against oppressive governments -- or pretty much any organized body politic ("Total Invasion") -- ponders destruction from beyond ("Asteroid") and takes a winning stab at punishingly direct metal posturing ("The House That Pain Built"). Killing Joke doesn't supersede the previous self-titled incarnation so much as it refines the band's legacy and sound without sacrificing an ounce of fury. The result is a real keeper.

::: Laurence Station

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September 09, 2003

Hidden Cameras: Smell of Our Own
Sanctuary Records, 2003
Rating: 3.7
There is no homosexual god. Meaning, there is no widely accepted modern day deity explicitly acknowledged as being gay. And, no, none of the Fab 5 from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy count. Hidden Cameras singer/guitarist Joel Gibb certainly takes umbrage with this issue, as evidenced by the lyrical content of the Cameras’ debut Smell of Our Own. From the leave-’em-high-and-dry-at-the-church-altar declaration “Ban Marriage” to the acoustic, provocative “A Miracle”, wherein Gibb empathizes with Mother Mary for having to carry the “disease” called Jesus, the Hidden Cameras' frontman bends over backwards to challenge one’s perceptions on what’s straight, what's narrow-minded and what’s defiantly far left of center. When not wrestling with thorny theological issues, Gibb and his fellow Cameras wrap their sweetly symphonic harmonies around subjects ranging from the joys of casual sex (“The Animals Of Prey”) to an exhortation to philandering married men to drop the charade and join the gay parade already (“Shame”). Gibb’s passionate vocals and direct, literate lyrics work best when he’s confronting issues that concern him (like organized religion, for instance), as opposed to wallowing in less confrontational topics (as when he frolics happily on the beach with “Boys Of Melody”). Gibb’s also not afraid to delve deeply into sexual predilection, as proven by “Golden Streams,” in which “golden bone meets the golden bun,” and by the closing “The Man That I Am With My Man,” which celebrates being urinated on by one’s partner. Hidden Cameras is a bit misleading a name for this Canadian outfit: The cameras are definitely on, and the participants only too willing to expose themselves to anyone willing to watch.

::: Laurence Station

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September 09, 2003

The Thermals: More Parts Per Million
Sub Pop, 2003
Rating: 3.0
The Thermals rip through 13 tracks in just under 28 minutes on the Portland-based group’s debut. Led by singer Hutch Harris (imagine John Darnielle’s noisier little brother), the band takes the three-chords-no-frills indie rock aesthetic to heart, offering rough and tumble four-track efforts that range from lo-fi (“It's Trivia”, et al) to outright no-fi (“No Culture Icons”). Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla mixed the songs in a professional studio, but the home recording feel remains, which definitely adds to the album’s scruffy, underdog charm. The Thermals (Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, guitarist Ben Barnett and drummer Jordan Hudson), all veterans of other Portland bands, sound comfortable playing together, like a bunch of friends taking a break from their respective band duties to get together and jam. And while the results aren’t exactly groundbreaking, they're undeniably loose, spirited and just plain fun. On “Time To Lose,” Harris proclaims, “I think we’re reached the limit". This might indeed be the case, but hopefully the exuberance and energy the Thermals exhibit here will garner the group enough buzz to make a second, slightly more polished effort next go 'round.

::: Laurence Station

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September 07, 2003

Crooked Fingers: Red Devil Dawn
Merge Records, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Despite lacking the slow-burn intensity of his self-titled debut and deprived of the understated gestures of hope evident throughout 2001's Bring on the Snakes, Eric Bachmann successfully manages to make his third Crooked Fingers album a winner. He achieves this mostly by eschewing the simplistic rhyming schemes the permeated his earlier albums in favor of greater lyrical complexity ("With thirty years of hopes and fears breathing down my neck / Such a sad, sad thing / I set you free 'cause I can't get you back") and employing a fuller, more polished band to add greater emotional heft to his tales of loss, blind faith and hollow redemption. "Boy With (100) Hands" uses a hollow-sounding trumpet to great effect as Bachmann tries to bump up the spirits of those who shortchange themselves in the game of life, while the breakup ditty "Disappear" gets considerable mileage from a cello that refreshingly loosens up the entire structure of the piece. Red Devil Dawn reveals the ex-Archers Of Loaf leader gaining momentum with his latest incarnation, which bodes quite well for future releases.

::: Laurence Station

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September 07, 2003

Four Tet: Rounds
Domino, 2003
Rating: 4.3
Much like fellow laptop musician Dan "Manitoba" Snaith, Londoner Kieran "Four Tet" Hebden is a firm believer in incorporating the sound of live instruments into his recordings. With Rounds, his third full-length release since 1999, Hebden offers his take on digitized funk, always making certain, much like Snaith, to keep the human rather than impersonal electronic element at the forefront of the music. Opener "Hands" begins with a heartbeat before giving way to an expansive swell of delicate crashing cymbals. The funky "As Serious As Your Life" employs hard-edged samples and wailing horns, like an onrushing swarm of insects that expertly leads into the moody, bass-driven "And They All Look Broken Hearted". Throughout, Hebden demonstrates his mastery of flow, and, critically, his ability to shift the feeling of an album without losing an ounce of consistency; the anxious, insubstantial "Spirit Fingers" is drummed out of existence by the brilliant "Unspoken," with dense beats and drowsy, minor key piano parts that evoke DJ Shadow with a head cold. Rather than lose control of his programmed loops, Hebden sounds completely in control, the conductor of an invisible digital orchestra, changing gears on a whim. Organic electronica has proven to be the most exciting direction the genre has traveled in years, and Hebden handily reinforces the notion that he's a leader, rather than follower, with Rounds.

::: Laurence Station

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September 07, 2003

Elbow: Cast of Thousands
V2, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Cast of Thousands, Manchester-based Elbow's relatively swift follow-up to 2001's ten-years-in-the-making Asleep In The Back, finds singer Guy Garvey proclaiming the desire to "pull [his] ribs apart / And let the sun inside" with exhilarated anticipation. Shortly, a full-blown choir joins in, conjuring an image of someone being pulled under, slipping unconscious for the final time. Thankfully, Elbow has not turned into the Polyphonic Spree; it's as defiantly miserable as ever, in spite of the rousing success of its debut. The band sounds agitated this time around, primarily by the pressure to duplicate, and hopefully surpass, Back. Not to worry: Cast of Thousands achieves its goal by expanding the orchestration (not so insular and moody this time out) and concentrating on a clear theme: Salvation for those without any hope of ever attaining the pearly gates. "Fallen Angel" could be Cast's declaration of eternal damnation: "All the fallen angels / Roostin' in this place / Count back the weeks on worried fingers / Virgin mother whats'erface". "Grace Under Pressure" proves equally defiant: "Eyes of an angel / Lay me down / We still believe in love/ So fuck you". Cast of Thousands is populated by a motley crew of fringe-dwellers, outsiders and no-accounts, looking for a warm place to drink and like-minded company to occupy the waking hours -- and Guy Garvey is the right man to tell their tales. On Cast of Thousands, he proves that good things may not always come to those who wait, but you can at least get drunk (and get laid) while counting down the hours 'til the Grim Reaper inevitably comes calling.

::: Laurence Station

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August 18, 2003

Kraftwerk: Tour De France Soundtracks
Astralwerks, 2003
Rating: 3.6
It's the centennial of professional cycling's greatest event, and twenty years since the initial release of Kraftwerk's celebratory single honoring the Tour. What better timing, then, than to rework the single, toss in a few new tracks, and serve up the first substantial release by the groundbreaking electronic pioneers in seventeen years? While it would be too much to ask the German outfit to top such '70s-era masterworks as Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine, or even approach the innovative level of its last true masterpiece, 1981's Computer World, Tour De France Soundtracks nonetheless offers some impressive cuts. The three retro-fitted versions of "Tour De France" flow like a compressed aural history of the band's sound, from the synthesized '80s cheese of "Etape 1" to the cool, minimalist trance of "Etape 3", which flows seamlessly in to "Chrono", with its aptly metronomic beat and sweeping-synth digital washes. "Titanium" and "Elektrokardiogramm" successfully reinforce the "man-machine in harmony" aesthetic the band's been cultivating since its inception, while the energy and elegance of "La Forme" and detached resonance of "Regeneration" prove that the old masters have aged gracefully with the times: no longer following or leading the techno/electronic movement, but rather operating within their own realm of digitally manufactured bliss.

::: Laurence Station

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August 16, 2003

Michael Franti and Spearhead: Everyone Deserves Music
Boo Boo Wax, 2003
Rating: 3.8
As a member of the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Michael Franti once stood poised to break out as one of hip-hop's holiest prophets, the love child of Chuck D. and Gil-Scott Heron. But what's jarring about Everyone Deserves Music, his latest effort with post-Heroes project Spearhead, is the way in which confrontation has given way to contemplation. On songs like the summery soul-funk opener "What I Be," "Love Invincible" and the Bob Marley-inspired "Pray for Grace," Franti trades in his challenging rhetoric for humility. Musically, it's a natural progression; "We Don't Stop," "Bomb the World" and "Never Too Late" sport easy, organic arrangements, and Franti's once sharp voice has weathered into a fine, light instrument. Lyrically, however, the fit is less precise, as on the title track, in which Franti adopts a naive, treacly all-is-love vibe: "Even our worst enemies deserve music," he sings, an all too forgiving stance from a onetime politically conscious firebrand. Such sentiments, well-intentioned though they are, prove distracting. It doesn't help that Music is heavily front-loaded, with album highlights "What I Be," the funky singalong "We Don't Stop" and "Bomb the World" packed fairly close together. That's good for the album's early flow, but it's less of an advantage as the disc wears on (although a remix of "Bomb the World," featuring Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, does prop up the final stretch). The musical stretches Spearhead makes go a long way toward making Everyone Deserves Music a memorable, even highly recommended affair, but the sanding down of Franti's rougher edges just prevents it from being an essential album. Spearhead fans deserve more consistently inspiring fare than they get here.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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August 16, 2003

Ween: Quebec
Sanctuary, 2003
Rating: 3.6
The first half of Quebec, Ween's first studio album since 2000's White Pepper, is a welcome tonic for fans who found the latter's lush production a bit too sterile and its songs a tad featherweight. "It's Gonna Be a Long Night" is a classic Ween opener, similar to Chocolate and Cheese's "Take Me Away": Over a steady, snaky guitar run from Dean Ween, Gene Ween croaks out a passable Lemmy Kilmister imitation. In fact, Chocolate and Cheese is Quebec's handiest reference point, less musically cohesive than 12 Golden Country Greats or The Mollusk. The charmingly fluttering wash of "Zoloft" briefly recalls the chiming absurdity of "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)," crossed with the shimmering polish of White Pepper's "Flutes of Chi." But after the halfway point of "Fancy Colored Marbles" and "Hey There Fancy Pants," Quebec devolves into a series of indulgent jams devoid of memorable hooks or lyrical conceits. The winning meta approach of classic Ween -- songs that simultaneously skewer and unironically embrace traditional songwriting and performing conventions -- quickly dissipates, and the album's exuberant early momentum is quashed. True, most albums lag in the second half, but the lag here is so noticeably at odds with the intelligent goofiness it follows as to almost negate it. Ultimately, Quebec reveals a Ween still in touch with its wonderfully slanted gifts, but with a steadily weakening grasp on its elusive mojo.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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August 14, 2003

Café Tacuba: Cuatro Caminos
MCA, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Mexico's Café Tacuba has created its purest distillation of Rock en Español (rock music performed with Spanish lyrics) with the quartet's fifth full-length, Cuatro Caminos ("Four Roads," so-named for a major intersection in the band's home base of Mexico City). It's also the group's tightest, most musically cohesive effort to date. That's quite an accomplishment, considering the album was recorded in three different locations using three different producers (longtime collaborator Gustavo Santaolalla, Dave Fridmann and Andrew Weiss). On the downside, Cuatro Caminos lacks the dizzying sonic variety of 1994's astonishing Re and isn't nearly as experimental as 1999's double CD Reves/Yosoy. But on the opening, infectious rocker "Cero Y Uno" ("Zero And One") and the propulsive, epic "Hoy Es" ("Today Is"), Cafe Tacuba shows just why it's one of the finest outfits working today by displaying the chops to play off of intricate orchestral arrangements and willingness to explore the outer reaches of a song's musical possibilities. Longtime fans will be disappointed by the lack of traditional, folk-oriented numbers, and those anxious to hear the band explore more electronic landscapes will undoubtedly find little to sate their appetite save for the techno, dance-oriented "Puntos Cardinales" ("Cardinal Points"). Cuatro Caminos is a pop-rock album, the band's most shamelessly listenable release since its 1992 self-titled debut. And there's nothing wrong with that, especially when the material is executed as confidently and impressively as it is here.

::: Laurence Station

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August 08, 2003

The Coral: Magic and Medicine
Deltasonic, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Hoylake's the Coral has moved from the high-seas chanteys of the sextet's promising, if over-hyped, eponymous debut to higher ground and more folk-oriented tunes on Magic and Medicine. From the gloomy, pipe organ-driven opener "In the Forest", with James Skelly's vocals conveying a whiff of desperation and menace, through the bruising, Dylanesque "Talkin' Gypsy Market Blues", Magic and Medicine reveals a tightness of song structure and definition of purpose (still all things '60s, but more folkie than psychedelic) lacking on the group's debut. The variety that made the first release so much fun is still evident, only the group's narrowed its focus. "Liezah" winningly emulates a classic British folk ballad, complete with rhythmic clip-clopping hoofbeats on cobblestone. "Bill McCai" tells the story of a depressed nine-to-five commuter who despairs to the point of suicide, while single "Pass It On" is an upbeat, hummable ditty espousing optimism in the face of adversity. "Eskimo Lament", with its trite play on the children's rhyme "Rain, Rain Go Away," and the dry "Careless Hands" fall short of the otherwise lofty bar raised by the rest of the tracks. The Coral has clearly improved on its debut, however, and that's hopefully a harbinger of even stronger work to come.

::: Laurence Station

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August 08, 2003

Bob Dylan: Masked & Anonymous [Soundtrack]
Sony, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Perhaps it's only fitting that the soundtrack to Larry Charles' loopy, uneven Masked & Anonymous is an equally loopy and uneven collection of Bob Dylan covers by an international slate of artists. There are some genuinely inspired moments here (Los Lobos' warmly energetic "On A Night Like This" and Articolo 31's crazed electro-rap version of "Like A Rolling Stone"), but mostly the disc is bogged down by too-obvious cuts (Gospel powerhouse Shirley Caesar's raise-the-roof-and-pass-the-collection-plate take on "Gotta Serve Somebody" and singer/songwriter Sophie Zelmani's barely-there, utterly bland rendition of "Most Of The Time") that seriously dampen its replay value. Dylan manages to breathe new life into a rerecorded version of "Down In The Flood" and adds even more world-weary resignation to the great "Cold Irons Bound." But his two traditional tracks ("Diamond Joe" and "Dixie") feel like rehearsal warm-ups. Masked & Anonymous, then, is an inessential addition to the Dylan catalogue. Not that this will be an issue for Dylanophiles, who will snap it up and do their best to make Charles' film profitable. Much like Dylan's other acting and soundtrack effort, 1973's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Masked and Anonymous will leave its mark mainly as a curious detour: Not a vital stop on your destination through his work, but perhaps a brief, modestly engaging excursion.

::: Laurence Station

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August 03, 2003

Richard Ashcroft: Human Conditions
Virgin Records, 2003
Rating: 2.9
How can the author of some of the best songs to come out of the UK over the past decade put out such an uneven disc? That's the first question that arises after hearing Richard Ashcroft's second solo CD, the wholly uninspiring Human Conditions. As the singer and chief songwriter for The Verve, the dearly-missed Britpop powerhouse most famous for such epic tunes as "Bittersweet Symphony," "The Drugs Don't Work" and "History," Ashcroft emerged as a troubadour for a whole generation of "Wonderwall"-afflicted youth. After The Verve's 1999 break-up, Ashcroft distanced himself from the band's psychedelic bent, using his solo debut (2000's underrated Alone With Everybody) to display a penchant for melodic, straightforward rock-and-roll. However, Human Conditions suggests that Ashcroft has forgotten how to rock, choosing to indulge what appears to be a messiah complex (song titles include "Paradise," "God in the Numbers" and "Lord I've Been Trying"). Granted, opening track "Check the Meaning" and lead single "Science of Silence" are as sing-along worthy as anything on Adult Alternative Radio at the moment, but there's far too much filler here for an artist of this caliber. A most disappointing misstep for an artist who, at one point, could seemingly do no wrong.

::: Eric Grossman

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August 03, 2003

The Music: The Music
Capitol, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Like so many hyped UK acts, The Music has been subjected to a boatload of comparisons in the British press, so let's get those out of the way. Yes, the Leeds foursome's self-titled debut sounds at times like Led Zeppelin-meets-The Chemical Brothers, and lead singer Robert Harvey (he of the shaggy hair and sunken cheeks) could probably win a Robert Plant wail-a-like contest. However, there's nothing derivative or fake about the energy that emanates from The Music's best tracks, namely "The Dance" and "Too High" (we're not grading song titles here). The band's formula for its high-energy, rock-dance mélange is quite simple; take youthful exuberance (average age: 19), add an exceptionally-tight rhythm section, and let the superfluous, over-indulgent jams flow, as they most certainly do over the course of ten songs and just over 55 minutes on this most promising debut.

::: Eric Grossman

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August 01, 2003

Macy Gray: The Trouble With Being Myself
Sony, 2003
Rating: 3.4
Macy Gray's noteworthy 1999 debut, On How Life Is, heralded the arrival of a distinctive and interesting voice in the world of contemporary R&B. The massive success of the single "I Try" only reinforced that the future looked bright for Gray, despite her raspy, laughing-gas vocal delivery and penchant for oddball, and at times too self-consciously morbid, lyrical interplay ("I've Committed Murder"). 2001's boldly wacky, sexually charged The Id revealed Gray confidently expanding her sonic range, with larger production numbers and perhaps ten too many overdubs than necessary. The fact that The Id underwhelmed both critics and consumers alike adds credence to the hesitant, uncertain title of Gray's third release. The Trouble With Being Myself is a retreat, both musically and artistically. The production is more subdued, Gray's brash, freak-unleashed daring -- so prominent last time out -- replaced by yearning pleas to a lover ("She Ain't Right for You"), weighty introspection ("Things That Made Me Change") and childlike, schoolyard taunts ("She Don't Write Songs About You"). Not that Gray has stifled her unbridled sexuality entirely. "Come Together" sets a lascivious tone early, commenting on how a lover's "fine chocolate ass brings nothing negative to mind," closing with a bold sequence of horns nicely punctuating the unrestrained, upbeat mood. Way off the beaten path, there's "My Fondest Childhood Memories," in which Gray describes killing the respective lovers of her mother and father in order to keep the family together. The Trouble With Being Myself is solidly produced, if too safely MOR to stand beside Gray's debut, and it doesn't exhibit anything close to The Id's sense of risk.

::: Laurence Station

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August 01, 2003

Enon: In This City
Touch and Go, 2003
Rating: 3.4
The electro-pop purveyors of Enon are on a roll. As an appetizer before the release of the full-length Hocus Pocus later this year, the New York-based trio revisits one of the best tracks from 2002's excellent High Society for this remix collection. The original album version of "In This City" worked off of a minimal drumbeat, synthesized squiggles and Toko Yasuda's coyly detached vocal stylings. The two remix versions offered here veer from this template in creative and interesting ways. The first, by the band, is appropriately referred to as the "Soap Mix," using a bubbling synthesizer as a base from which to explore the form and function of the song, transporting it from cool, neon-blinded cityscape to a more organically fluid, undersea odyssey. Underground glitch-hopper Dälek’s take, by contrast, takes a late-night, dub-house, chill-out approach, with Yasuda's voice stretched out and toned down in an intentionally languid, drugged-out manner. Up against these two efforts, the remaining two tracks, "Murder Sounds" (an instrumental version of an upcoming Hocus Pocus track) and a dub version of the older, rougher-edged "Inches" seem like mere padding. The real benefit for fans, aside from the two remixes, comes in the form of three videos: The High Society version of "In the City" features a fantastic computer-generated trip through a neon-splashed metropolis; two other High Society tracks, the punked-out "Pleasure and Privilege" and the electronic-flavored "Carbonation," are also offered. In This City may only be an appetizer, but at least give Enon credit for offering more than the standard album track and a few poorly recorded live tracks or z-sides.

::: Laurence Station

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July 30, 2003

Longwave: The Strangest Things
RCA, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Because Longwave hails from New York and wears its influences rather loudly on its collective sleeve, the band has racked up a string of comparisons to the Strokes. Please. In its brightest moments, The Strangest Things, the quartet's major-label debut, shimmers with gossamer guitar lines that briefly suggest the Stone Roses, the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen, and pulses with near-guttural bass runs that rather viscerally recall both New Order and the Cure. In short, it's as firmly rooted in the progressive pop of the 1980s as the Strokes' numbingly hyped Is This It was in the '70s. The effect is generally pleasing and in places -- "Wake Me When It's Over," "Everywhere You Turn" and the arresting "Tidal Wave," an album highlight -- downright memorable. But a full three-fourths of the record feels more like the work of a band that hasn't yet staked out a sonic identity. Tracks like "All Sewn Up" and "Pool Song" sound rather obviously built around the pleasant and familiar aural landmarks of the bandmembers' heroes, rather than works of full self-expression. It doesn't help that all twelve songs churn along at a strength-sapping, mid-tempo ebb, or that vocalist/guitarist Steve Schiltz croaks his lyrics in a post-Gothic monotone that suggests a netherworld where Peter Murphy and Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts are conjoined twins. Worse, those lyrics are, with few exceptions, impenetrably banal ("Everywhere you turn/ it's always something," "When I'm all sewn up/ I feel like giving up"): Only Tidal Wave's insistent yet melancholic refrain "I am everything you wanted/ I am everything you need" rises above the journal-entry murk. Still, Strangest Things is only a first album, and unlike, say, Is This It, it offers plenty enough raw material to suggest that Longwave could grow into more than the sum of its members' record collections. Definitely a band worth watching.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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July 27, 2003

Live: Birds of Pray
Radioactive, 2003
Rating: 2.5
"I don't need no one/ to tell me 'bout Heaven," Ed Kowalczyk asserts on the leadoff track of Live's sixth studio album. Well, duh. More than any other Live release, Birds of Pray illustrates a basic truth that most free-thinkers take for granted, one that seems to have escaped Kowalczyk and his earnest bandmates: namely, that the self-righteous never lack firm belief in their ideas pertaining to matters religious or spiritual; they just think everyone else lacks them. Which is not to say that Pray is as thunderously, self-importantly righteous as, say, a Creed album. But it is the band's least self-aware effort to date, swaddled in fervent lyrics that would sound pretentious if it weren't the fact that Kowalczyk seems to have no idea just how unintentionally humorous they are ("Spirit manifest as 'she,'" anyone?). Live's spiritual bent has always seemed ham-handed, but on its breakthrough sophomore effort Throwing Copper the band knew enough to temper the swami mysticism within earthbound lyrics and grand, swirling anthems. That aspect has diminished on subsequent releases, although 2001's V arrested the decline somewhat with bursts of insistent melodicism and a surprising hip-hop swagger. Here, the musical foundations aren't strong or interesting enough to support crypto-romanticism like "Our love, this cloak and dagger/ this silent will to brighten everything." In fact, the songs are a procession of brittle riffs that seemed pieced together, a la ProTools, from Staind and Puddle of Mudd rehearsals. From its lame pun of a title to the guileless near-arrogance of lines like "I believe in the sanctity of dreams... I believe that society will never dream like me," Birds of Pray just seems clueless, like a high school kid who doesn't realize that his strident need to seem interesting just makes him a joke, and not a particularly funny one at that.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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July 13, 2003

Pernice Brothers: Yours, Mine & Ours
Ashmont, 2003
Rating: 4.1
The Pernice Brothers finally sound like an actual band. After doing little more than backing lead singer/songwriter/professional miserablist Joe Pernice on their first two efforts, 1998's decent Overcome by Happiness and 2001's excellent The World Won't End, the Brothers have come into their own as a strong and cohesive unit. Yours, Mine & Ours offers a more expansive sound, sporting interesting (read: diverse) arrangements and a tighter interplay between bandmembers. Case in point: "One Foot In The Grave", which channels Joe Pernice's unique brand of upbeat pop misery via a great, stamping beat and tight background harmonies. "Sometimes I Remember" is classic jangle rock, while "Number Two" mines a country-ish vein that isn't overly dissimilar from the work of the Brothers' earlier incarnation, The Scud Mountain Boys. But while the Pernice Brothers may sound more like an actual, wholly collaborative band here, there's no question that Joe remains the heart, soul and voice of the unit. And while his lyrics haven't brightened considerably compared to the first two albums, there's still a lot to admire here. "Baby In Two" cleverly connects the desire for Solomon-like wisdom with a man desperate to organize his personal life, while "Judy" has Pernice crooning the line "Tell her that you saw me" with enough self-absorbed pity to make Morrissey proud. All of which adds up to make Yours, Mine & Ours the Pernice Brothers' strongest effort yet.

::: Laurence Station

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July 13, 2003

Ed Harcourt: From Every Sphere
Astralwerks, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Paul Young or Tom Waits? Ed Harcourt stands at a fork in his career. On his latest release, the young, gifted British singer-songwriter proves himself a master of the soulful ballad ("Bittersweetheart") and more experimental, percussively challenging musical constructs ("Ghostwriter"), but he has yet to really commit to a particular style. While such diversity isn't necessarily a bad thing, it does tend to break the rhythm of his albums. 2001's Here Be Monsters covered a wide swath of ground, from the bright, hopelessly romantic pop of "She Fell into My Arms" to the murky, steam-punk underworld of "Beneath the Heart of Darkness". With From Every Sphere, Harcourt continues to wrestle with a short attention span (stylistically speaking), and on at least one track ("Undertaker Strut"), he successfully manages to marry his Young-ish balladeer leanings with the more brooding, Waitsian tones he's confidently tackled in the past. At times, Harcourt misses the mark entirely ("Bleed A River Deep" and "Fireflies Take Flight"), but for every stray misfire, there's a "Watching The Sun Come Up," which carries enough passionate delivery and potent lyrics ("The sky is a picture of violence") to guarantee this 25-year-old a promising future, no matter which road he eventually takes.

::: Laurence Station

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July 07, 2003

Dave Gahan: Paper Monsters
Mute/Reprise, 2003
Rating: 3.2
Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan certainly isn't the first rock singer to have succumbed to the lure of drug addiction and consequently picked up the physical and emotional shards. He's not the first to have later musically documented his rise and fall, either. Upon listening to Paper Monsters, Gahan's first solo album after a lifetime of singing the words of Mode mastermind Martin Gore, one wishes Gahan had studied some of those addiction-and-recovery records, rather than Depeche Mode's '90s output, before committing his story to disc. Paper Monsters can't help recalling the more contemplative moments of, say, DM's Violator, in part because of Gahan's warm and identifiable voice. But while the record's understated musical backdrops sound soothingly familiar, "soothing" isn't the best tone with which to explore so personal an array of topics. "Dirty Sticky Floors" and "Bottle Living," documents of Gahan's drug-use days, sport engaging but generic arrangements, while the subdued vibe of "Bitter Apple," "Black and Blue Again" and "Stay" slowly drain the proceedings of any emotional momentum. Not that they're bad songs: They're not, not at all. But they're far too comfortable. Rumination is to be expected, of course, and "Hold On" and "A Little Piece" fulfill that function quite nicely, understated and thus spare in their poignancy. But too much reflection equals not enough action, and Gahan's halting lyrics beg for an urgency and immediacy that Monsters doesn't deliver. For all its thematic weight, Paper Monsters is oddly tentative, with Gahan still figuring out how to develop his own voice. By sticking a bit too closely to the kind of musical approach he knows best, he hobbles this attempt at self-definition. At least when Morrissey struck out on his own with Viva Hate, he tempered the obvious Smiths references with a sure sense of his own identity. When Gahan can do the same, he'll have the tools necessary to do the job he gamely attempts here.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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July 03, 2003

The Polyphonic Spree: The Beginning Stages Of...
Hollywood, 2003
Rating: 3.5
If the suits at Coca-Cola ever decide to revive the early '70s "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" commercial campaign, The Polyphonic Spree wouldn't be a bad choice to bring the life-affirming jingle to a whole new generation of listeners. Created by ex-Tripping Daisies frontman Tim DeLaughter, Polyphonic Spree is a 20+ piece choral group/mini-orchestra that traffics in bright, hopeful melodies akin to the "sunshine pop" tunes bands like First Class, 5th Dimension and Up With People were recording thirty-plus years ago. The Beginning Stages Of..., the Spree's debut, which first appeared last year on Good Records, opens with what could be the collective's musical as well as thematic statement of purpose, "Have a Day/Celebratory". That song's "life is good, enjoy it" message permeates the record, as reinforced by such titles as "It's the Sun", "Days Like This Keep Me Warm" and "Light and Day/Reach for the Sun". While the upbeat message is laudable, the entire exercise could prove overly precious, not to mention repetitive, if not for a few tunes that help add much needed variety. "La La" utilizes a horn section and rolling back beat to great effect, while "Soldier Girl" moves away from the album's predominant subject matter of basking in the sun's warmth and hanging around in trees, while garbing its sound in a shimmering digital sheen. Though the closing 36-minute "A Long Day" -- consisting of little more than keyboard drone and DeLaughter chanting -- seems excessive and unnecessary given the bright three-minute ditties preceding it, The Beginning Stages Of... manages to stand out as an evanescent pop love-fest. It may not drive all of the gray skies from the world, but it certainly can't be faulted for attempting to do just that.

::: Laurence Station

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July 01, 2003

Prefuse 73: One Word Extinguisher
Warp, 2003
Rating: 4.1
Scott Herren is a man of many musical identities. As Delarosa and Asora, he's a glitchy sound manipulator who still manages to maintain a firm grip on the human element (Agony, Pt. 1). As Savath + Savalas, he pursues a more laid-back, organic vibe (Folk Songs for Trains, Trees and Honey). But it's as Prefuse 73 (the name deriving from Herren's partiality to pre-fusion jazz circa 1968-1973) that the America-born, currently Barcelona-based artist has made his most indelible mark. 2001's Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives found Herren in full electronic hip-hop mode, armed with a sampler and turntables, slicing and dicing raps with masterful precision. The follow-up, One Word Extinguisher, is a refinement of the dense, angular breakbeat rhythms Herren manipulated so smartly the first go 'round. It's also, according to the artist, a breakup album. Indeed, tracks like the hook-laden, accusative "Plastic" (featuring Diverse), the cheeky "Female Demands" and the tightly wound title track handily support this statement. Personal baggage aside, Herren's most noteworthy accomplishment here lies in his ability to effortlessly glide from one track to the next (e.g., from the trance-oriented "Dave's Bonus Beats" to the heavy, digital funk underpinnings that color "Detchibe"). But Herren's main problem is that he doesn't know when to quit. At 23 tracks (including two strong bonus cuts at the end), One Word Extinguisher simply tries to say too much, dragging noticeably during the final third, thus weakening the final impact. Here's hoping Herren fuses his multiple personalities and produces the genre-transcending masterpiece he's clearly got in him.

::: Laurence Station

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July 01, 2003

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever To Tell
Interscope, 2003
Rating: 3.7
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (singer Karen O, guitarist Nicolas Zinner and drummer Brian Chase) burst onto the New York music scene in 2000, riding a cresting wave of popularity fueled by the "authenticity" of the Strokes. But the trio put its own spin on the burgeoning garage-rock revival movement by serving up punked-up, sexually charged, two-odd-minutes-and-a-cloud-of-dust mini-anthems like "Bang" and the excellent "Art Song" (from its 2001 self-titled EP). Fever to Tell, the Yeahs' highly anticipated full-length debut, affords the band with an opportunity to prove it's more than just a trendy live act with a charismatic lead singer and punchy, if somewhat limited (and too obviously dated), sound. Well, if you've heard the previous two EPs (2002's tense, potent Machine being the other), Fever to Tell's screeching, confrontational garage-punk won't disappoint. The sleazy "Rich," about a wealthy woman procuring sexual favors from all too willing men, restless "Date With the Night" and insistently rocking "Black Tongue" prove that the Yeahs have mastered the art of the brief burst of noise, spit and three-chord fury. Which is fine, but what else have you got? Fortunately, the creative cupboard's not entirely bare. The surprisingly heartfelt "Maps" reveals heretofore unseen sincerity in O's lyrics as she pleads with a lover to remain in her arms ("Wait/They don't love you like I love you"), while the sad, steady lament "Modern Romance" gives the band a chance to create tension at a slower pace, instead of masking its playing deficiencies behind breakneck, cred-building sloppiness. Fever to Tell, then, shows that this seeming one-trick pony is capable of more varied and interesting material than its members have previously exhibited.

::: Laurence Station

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June 29, 2003

Guster: Keep It Together
Palm/Reprise, 2003
Rating: 3.8
The fourth release from the charming New England trio Guster feels as if it were just unearthed from a time capsule or dug out from the bottom of a studio vault. That's because Keep It Together, brimming as it is with innocuous, fetching melodies, sounds like the missing link between the band's first two independent albums --1995's Parachute and 1997's Goldfly, both on Aware -- and its praiseworthy major-label debut, 1999's sublime power-pop confection Lost and Gone Forever (Sire). The unrelenting, insistent catchiness of songs like "Barrel of a Gun," "Center of Attention" and "What You Wish For" is turned down a few notches, and that urgent hummability is notable for its absence. Which isn't to suggest that Keep It Together isn't a perfectly serviceable summer driving record: Highlights "Amsterdam," "Homecoming King" and the title track float on singalong choruses and the efficacious harmonizing of singer/guitarists Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner. (They also showcase percussionist Bryan Rosensworcel as a capable lyricist with a knack for hook-ready story-songs at least as radio-friendly as those of Barenaked Ladies.) Miller's turns at the lyrical bat ("Diane," "Careful" and "Ramona" being the standouts) yield some contagious moments as well, but they're more low-key than his vibrant songwriting on Lost and Gone Forever. Keep It Together, then, is a perfectly fine album, and its appeal grows with repeated listenings. But given the four years since the band's previous album (and arguably its defining moment), one can't help wishing it didn't sound quite so effortless. A little more elbow grease would have gone a long way.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 29, 2003

James Mason: Carnival Sky
Sonoface Records, 2003
Rating: 2.8
Charlottesville singer-songwriter James Mason displays a proficiency for wispy, manmade atmospherics of the kind Nick Drake is known for, all minimalist instrumentation and soft-spoken vocal delivery. That style serves him well on Carnival Sky, a whispery song cycle recorded at home via eight-track that relies heavily on thoughtful silences; it's a perfect album for playing in the background at the public library. As an artistic statement, however, it demands more heft than Mason's muted vocals and hushed picking can provide. Ostensibly a cohesive work in three "parts," Carnival Sky too often gets lost in its studied insubstantiality, its soft, susurrus tone ironically overwhelming the material. "Laura's Stones," "Front," and "The Old Dark Will" glimmer with the promise of a young songwriter finding his voice, but the more engaging "Begin to Hypnotize," with its sharp bass and gossamer strumming, cries out for a stronger melody to put it over. By the time "If Your Car Breaks Down," which sounds like an outtake from Drake's Pink Moon, unspools, the album's sameness of sound is so pronounced it's difficult to appreciate the song's quiet prettiness. A little more stylistic variation, at least vocally, would serve Mason well. As it stands, Carnival Sky is a pleasant calling card for a songwriter in need of stretching his wings.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 29, 2003

Blue Man Group: The Complex
Lava, 2003
Rating: 2.9
Blue Man Group, the populist performance art trio turned corporate brand, engages in a curious kind of reconstruction on The Complex, an album of rock-as-concept that doesn't so much take apart and rebuild typical rock song structures as it mimics them, with engaging but all too often empty results. The Group has always placed a particular emphasis on percussion in its performances, and there is a propulsive vibrancy that rumbles below the surface of most of the tracks here. But there seems little point to these surprisingly conventional songs and instrumental progressions, and as a result there's precious little for those rhythms to propel. A couple of brief, soundalike interludes early on ("Above," "Time to Start," "Your Attention") gently nudge an elbow into rock concert traditions ("Please yell if you are paying attention"), but they give way to a largely pedestrian batch of actual songs, led by a parade of guest vocalists. One would like to think there's a subversive statement here about the blandness of much of commercial radio, but it's far more likely that the vocal turns by Dave Matthews and Bush's Gavin Rossdale are as free of intended irony as those songs' lyrics are free of fresh content. Tracy Bonham and, on a rote reworking of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," Venus Hum fare better. But even those performances can't mask a dominant feeling of a muscle car stuck in idling mode. Absent the Group's stage spectacle of pounding on self-made instruments (which sound too much like, well, traditional instruments) and audience-participation mugging, it's difficult to establish a connection, or figure out a point to, this agreeably listenable but disarmingly simple Complex.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 26, 2003

The Mars Volta: De-Loused in the Comatorium
Universal, 2003
Rating: 4.3
Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, formerly of At The Drive-In, explore a considerably more progressive sound on their full-length debut as The Mars Volta. De-Loused in the Comatorium is a concept album inspired by the life of friend who committed suicide: Specifically, it concerns a week in the life of a person in a coma after overdosing on morphine. As laid out on De-Loused, this unconscious landscape is a place where reality bends in fantastical and unexpected directions and erratic time signatures are the order of the day. "Inertiatic ESP" and "Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)" bear the concussive rhythmic assault beloved by ATDI fans, while "Eriatarka" and "Televators" mine the prog-rock vein for all it's worth, complete with Bixler trying on his best Jon Anderson vocal intimations. The true standout tracks, "Drunkship of Lanterns," "Cicatriz ESP" and "This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed," best convey the disorienting landscape of our cataleptic protagonist, as he wanders from one bizarre situation to the next. Fittingly (from a thematic standpoint, that is), upon waking, he decides the interior world is preferable to the conscious realm, and kills himself. De-Loused in the Comatorium is unapologetically self-indulgent and intentionally cryptic (lyrically speaking). But its musical adventurousness proves intoxicating, especially compared to the staid pabulum currently occupying the airwaves.

::: Laurence Station

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June 26, 2003

Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It in People
Arts & Crafts, 2003
Rating: 3.7
After collaborating on 2001's excellent Feel Good Lost with an intimate group of like-minded Toronto-area friends, Broken Social Scene collective organizers Brendon Canning (KC Accidental) and Kevin Drew (Divine Right) decided to go for broke with the follow-up. Not only has the sound expanded from Feel Good Lost's organically sinuous lo-fi song structures, but the lineup has grown exponentially, as well. As many as fifteen members appear at irregular intervals on You Forgot It in People (released way under the radar in Canada on the Paper Bag label late last year and finally enjoying broader distribution in the States), and the end result is a mixed bag of hit-or-miss pop-oriented tunes that, if nothing else, advertise what a close knit and inventive music scene Toronto has. Those pining for Lost-worthy efforts are duly rewarded on tracks like "Capture the Flag" and "Late Nineties Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries". Aficionados of messy, guitar-oriented rock will jump right to "Almost Crimes," while "Pacific Theme" sports enough groovy, sun-bleached rhythms guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even the most jaded Sea and Cake fan. "Cause=Time," with its steady, upbeat vibe and (speaking of Sea and Cake) Sam Prekop-styled sing-speak vocals, stands out here, as does "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl," with beguiling chanting courtesy of Emily Haines of the Metric. You Forgot It in People may be less than the sum of its incredibly diverse parts, but it's nonetheless a solid collection from a collective that clearly has no hard and fast rules when it comes to making music -- and, despite missing several of its musical marks, that's a laudable concept indeed.

::: Laurence Station

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June 24, 2003

Mogwai: Happy Songs for Happy People
Matador, 2003
Rating: 4.1
Mogwai's moody fourth full-length release finds the Scottish quintet continuing its penchant for ironic album titles (after 2001's mostly subdued Rock Action), furthering its fascination with Biblical-related song titles ("Moses? I Amn't," following Rock Action's "You Don't Know Jesus," Young Team's "Like Herod" and one of the group's finest songs, "Mogwai Fear Satan"), and offering the requisite epic jam ("Ratts Of The Capital"). The difference here, however, is in the details. Mogwai has evolved beyond the soft-loud instrumental dynamic that defined its earlier work. "Haunted By A Freak" certainly rises and falls with familiar Mogwai chord changes, but the band teases out the notes, offering more subtle interplay between the usual rising tide/crashing waves/calm seas approach. The confidence and deliberate intent marks a notable and welcome progression. "Ratts Of The Capital" is, unsurprisingly, one of the strongest cuts here, proving that Mogwai works best when given a chance to stretch its musical legs and explore every nook and cranny of a song's structure. "Kids Will Be Skeletons" boasts a shimmering, unhinged quality, like a beautiful sunrise after a terribly violent storm. "Boring Machines Disturb Sleep" stands out for guitarist Stuart Braithwaite's vocal intonations, which regrettably force the listener to decipher them, no doubt the opposite of the band's intent. But that's a minor quibble for Happy Songs for Happy People, an album that may well come to be regarded as Mogwai's graduation from unproven Young Team to mature, veteran rock outfit.

::: Laurence Station

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June 19, 2003

Grandaddy: Sumday
V2, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Jason Lytle and his compatriots in Modesto, California-based Grandaddy struck a nerve with 2000's The Sophtware Slump, which garnered substantial critical, if not commercial, success and expanded the band's sound, refining the thematic and musical template of 1997's Under the Western Freeway. Unlike Slump, however, Sumday, Grandaddy's highly anticipated follow-up, proves a letdown. The former's most appealing aspect was its variety: "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's The Pilot" and "Hewlett's Daughter" were catchy indie-pop cuts, wholly distinctive in form and content, bursting with memorable hooks and appealing riffs. Sumday, by contrast, feels stuck in a holding pattern. Familiar chugging guitars and a torpid mid-tempo flow permeate, while Lytle's lyrical and vocal approach prove too samey and uncomfortably claustrophobic. Case in point: the sheltered misery and longing on "The Warming Sun," in which the narrator pines to "experience the experience once again." That snippet is every bit as generic and pointless as it sounds, and lines like "I have no say/ On my decay" (from "O.K. With My Decay") give it plenty of competition. "El Caminos In The West" comes closest to recapturing the energy and warmth of Slump, its melody nearly on par with the prior album's "Crystal Lake". But it's not near enough to save Sumday from being categorized as a misfire from a talented band that has managed to regress by notably uninspiring and unfortunate degrees.

::: Laurence Station

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June 19, 2003

Gillian Welch: Soul Journey
Acony Records, 2003
Rating: 4.2
The narrator of "Look At Miss Ohio, " the opening cut of Gillian Welch's latest release, proclaims she "wants to do right/ But not right now," and that phrase pretty much sums up the album's laid-back, spaciously playful vibe. Looser and more brightly lit than either of Welch's first two records, and less concerned with weighty existential issues regarding life, death and the significance of the date April 14 than her 2001 masterstroke Time (The Revelator), (the unfortunately tritely titled) Soul Journey finds Welch updating and rearranging traditional standards ("Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor," "I Had A Real Good Mother And Father") and even bringing in a full backing band for the Neil Young/Bob Dylan and the Band-worthy closer "Wrecking Ball." Granted, the more introspective moments prove most affecting, particularly Welch's beautifully executed solo effort, "One Little Song," but the upbeat mood is what drives Soul Journey. The approach Welch and partner David Rawlings bring to the material feels crafted for private enjoyment rather than public consumption, and the end result is not only Welch's most personal work to date but one of her most emotionally satisfying as well.

::: Laurence Station

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June 19, 2003

Blur: Think Tank
Virgin, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Think Tank has been labeled a Damon Albarn solo album masking as an official Blur release -- the band's seventh studio effort, for those keeping count. And while Think Tank certainly indulges in Albarn-favored sounds (world and Afrocentric music, to name a few), that glib description is a disservice to the record's real strength: namely, the band's rhythm section -- bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree -- finally getting a chance to let loose. Obviously, frontman/chief lyricist Albarn and recently departed guitarist Graham Coxon have received most of the press over the years and, just as obviously deserve the lion's share of the credit for ensuring Blur's place in the formidable history of British pop music. But if it accomplishes nothing else, Think Tank will be remembered more as the album where James and Rowntree came into their own (and dominated the proceedings) rather than the disc that broke Coxon's will to stay in the band. "Ambulance," with its trance-oriented beat, and the driving "Jets" provide James and Rowntree the most to work with, while the less rhythm-oriented songs, the mercifully short, neo-soul nugget "Good Song" and the bland "Sweet Song" (sense a pattern emerging?) drain energy from an otherwise diverse and engaging affair. Engaging, that is, despite the notable absence of Coxon's distinctive guitar work (the closing, appropriately mournful "Battery In Your Leg" being the only song on which he appears). Think Tank, then, is neither the best Blur album nor the worst; rather, it's a unique creature, guaranteed to be the oddball in the band's catalogue, as the temporary trio will undoubtedly have replaced Coxon (no small task, that) for their next effort. Viewed in those terms, acknowledging the baggage and messy back-story that played a part in its creation, Tank merits major points for sounding as accomplished as it does.

::: Laurence Station

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June 17, 2003

Cursive: The Ugly Organ
Saddle Creek, 2003
Rating: 4.0
To paraphrase Paul McCartney, the world has had enough of self-indulgent breakup albums. What then to make of The Ugly Organ, a painfully indulgent, metafictional wallow in the post-divorce mindscape of Cursive singer-guitarist Tim Kasher? The short answer is that Kasher's relationship troubles translate into an expansion of the depth and breadth of the much-heralded music scene in his home base of Omaha, Nebraska. All Music Guide recently opined that if Omaha's wunderkind Conor Oberst is "the next Dylan," then Kasher must be the next Lennon. More accurately, if Oberst is Omaha's answer to Ryan Adams (which seems much more likely), Kasher, to his credit, is the city's Greg Dulli. Ugly Organ unfolds like nothing so much as the Afghan Whigs' conceptual 1993 album "Gentlemen." Kasher's jagged, jarring song cycle suggests an unholy fusion of the Cure's Robert Smith and Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, especially on "Art is Hard," "A Gentleman Caller" and the disc's most rocking moment, "Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand." "Butcher the Song" is a difficult listen due to Kasher's all-too candid snatches of dialogue between himself and a romantic partner, wrapped in a strangely delusional bout of self-pity: the protagonist opines that the band's listeners keep coming back to gorge on Kasher's tortured romantic life ("Who's Tim's latest whore?"). Luckily, it's saved by an ominous arrangement accented by the album's secret weapon: Gretta Cohn's deft cello work. Kasher's thematic pretensions and dreadful metaphors (the ugly organ, you see, is the heart, as well as the keyboard depicted in the cover art) drag the disc down, but there's enough crackerjack dynamism in the band's somber thrashings to suggest a brighter future once their main songwriter comes back down to earth.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 17, 2003

Powerman 5000: Transform
Dreamworks, 2003
Rating: 3.6
The title track to Transform suggests a recurring theme of self-empowerment, which gets echoed most notably in the accessible, easily digestible single "Free," a song that suggests leader Spider One has been absorbing the determinative credos of classic Rush. But "Theme to a Fake Revolution" sums up the album's real lesson, and succinctly at that. From Spider's vocal phrasing (borrowed heavily from brother Rob Zombie) to its crisply starched wall of crunch, Theme hammers home the disc's aura of packaged and mass-marketed rebellion. There are plenty of fist-pumping moments to be found on Transform -- the grating "Stereotype" aside -- but they're largely indistinguishable from those of any of the band's modern-rock/nu-metal peers. If Spider at any time recognizes the irony of wrapping an album of staunch tirades against conformity in a time-tested generic metal assault, he doesn't let on. If the listener doesn't take such titles as "Action" and "A is for Apathy" too seriously, Transform can prove a fairly enjoyable slice of modern-rock mosh fodder. Just remember track five: "That's Entertainment."

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 17, 2003

The Thorns: The Thorns
Aware/Columbia, 2003
Rating: 4.1
Make no mistake: The Thorns, a collaboration between pop-rockers Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge, is a triumph of MOR rock. But its slices of summery California melody are so well-executed it's easy to forgive the disc's occasional swerves into syrupy sentiment. "I Can't Remember," "Think it Over" and the engaging "No Blue Sky" are acoustic-based folk-rock nuggets whose sugary harmonies bear the DNA strands of classic Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. But the trio's willingness to move beyond the CSN template yield the disc's most substantial rewards. Sweet's off-kilter harmony exercise "Now I Know" recalls his more adventurous work, especially the latter half of 1999's superlative In Reverse. Elsewhere, the classic-rock vibe of "Runaway Feeling" and "I Set the World on Fire," the punchy, ELO-does-garage-rock kiss-off "Thorns" and the shimmering "Dragonfly" and "Such a Shame" highlight an attention to much more than simple three-part ecstasy. The butter-drenched vocal harmonies can be overwhelming in spots, but each of the principals involved brings enough of his songwriting savvy to the table to make The Thorns a guilty pleasure of pure California dreamin'.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 11, 2003

Mull Historical Society: Us
Blanco y Negro/Beggars Banquet, 2003
Rating: 3.8
One has to expect a certain amount of obsessive-compulsive traits from those musicians who are such can-do control freaks that they play every instrument themselves. And judging from Loss, the debut album from Mull Historical Society, Colin MacIntyre certainly seemed to fit that bill. But on Us, MacIntyre, now the sole member and visionary of MHS, dials down the kitchen-sink instrumental assault and morbid subject matter of Loss to produce an amiably hook-laden pop record. "The Final Arrears" is both straightforwardly catchy and a bite-sized nugget of radio-friendly philosophizing ("Reach out your hand/ where it lies is where it lands"). Similarly, "Her Is You" is a brilliantly encapsulated laundry list of projected fears and regrets minimally accompanied by MacIntyre's spare piano. But the record's populist pop leanings don't preclude a sonic ambitiousness. "Live Like the Automatics" is an ambivalent semi-tirade against consumerism ("Fighting society/ never did much for me") that channels an aggressive Brian Wilson, while "Asylum" is a melodious wash of Phil Spector-ish uplift that emotes with an earnestness even Coldplay's Chris Martin would have trouble emulating. One wishes that MacIntyre's obvious proficiency with hooks and pure-pop melodies (the sterling "Am I Wrong," "Gravity") was matched by a more audacious lyrical depth: It's too easy to imagine Us as the first step toward the schmaltz of Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me" instead of, say, Badly Drawn Boy's far more preferable brand of arresting and occasionally adventurous singalong. One also wishes MacIntyre were a better editor: Us is at least three songs too heavy. But if it fails to challenge in any meaningful way, it's nonetheless a breezy and engagingly well-made pop record, and that's a victory in itself.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 11, 2003

The Postal Service: Give Up
Sub Pop, 2003
Rating: 3.7
The pairing of Death Cab for Cutie songwriter Ben Hibbard and indie/synth-rock visionary Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel is an intriguing concept, and one that pays off, albeit in a subtle and ultimately feathery fashion. Give Up, the duo's first full-length collaboration under the moniker The Postal Service, marries Gibbard's winsome songwriting approach with Tamborello's atmospheric, melancholy soundscapes almost perfectly. Gibbard's free-associative lyrics on the borderline-mawkish "Such Great Heights" and the imaginative, post-apocalyptic scenario "We Will Become Silhouettes" achieve a parity of timbre and mood with Tamborello's active but not too-busy tracks. When it works, as on the stirring opener "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," "Such Great Heights" and "Recycled Air," this approach breaks out of the imagined restraints the listener might put impose on the project, given the duo's past credits. Indeed, these songs evoke an alternate-reality Freedy Johnston weaned on New Order and German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk (or, on "Clark Gable," a Gen-Y Al Stewart with a fondness for ProTools). But Gibbard's loose lyricism, while imbued with some degree of ruminative substance, ultimately contributes to a sameness of tone that anchors Give Up in calm, soothing numbers without daring to dive for something with heartier punch. (The pretty "Sleeping In," especially, is a Harvey Pekar-esque little non-sequitur perfectly suited to, well, sleeping in.) Slight shifts in mood (as on the closing "Natural Anthem") ultimately aren't enough to elevate Give Up above a merely lush slice of sweetly languid electro-pop.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 05, 2003

The Cramps: Fiends of Dope Island
Vengence 675 Records, 2003
Rating: 1.5
Offbeat "horror boogie" heroes the Cramps have staked out a legendary (some would say infamous) career since they first got together in a dingy New York apartment in 1976. Back then, their pop counter-culture act was full of camp and fun, but nobody dared accuse them of being talented. Twenty-seven years later, nothing much has changed. The Cramps' surf-boogie/doo-wop brand of rock and roll still plays second fiddle to the band's bizarre costumes and stage show. Fiends of Dope Island is the band's first new release since 1997's Big Beat from Badsville, and the first new material released on its Vengeance 675 label, but it could just as easily have been released back in '76. Things kick off with Lux Interior snarling "Satan Baby, Satan" before launching into "Big Black Witchcraft Rock," an unimaginative rockabilly affair, and it's all down hill from there. The band would do well to follow their own advice from track 5, and "Call Dr. Fucker" to help with their "rock-n-roll emergency," because this recording needs some serious help. Even the title track stinks to high heaven -- or, as Ivy and the boys would prefer to hear it, to hell. It would be nice to blame the band's poor sound on Father Time and advancing age, but let's face it, the group was never all that good to begin with. If whatever the Cramps have got appeals to you, get yourself decked out in your favorite scary costume and makeup and go out to catch a live show some Halloween night, but don't waste your money on this lackluster effort.

::: Steve Wallace

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May 04, 2003

Linkin Park: Meteora
Warner Brothers, 2003
Rating: 2.5
Rap-rock, nu-metal, whatever you want to call it, the ground that Linkin Park treads is clearly a restrictive patch of turf. Okay, that's not an entirely fair assessment: After all, it can be argued (with some exceptions) that there are no bad genres -- just talentless practitioners. Still, as the Korns and Papa Roaches of the world -- to say nothing of the Limp Bizkits -- keep proving, the bar for the genre is set relatively low enough so that when a band exhibits even a modicum of melody, a smidgen of songwriting, it's seen as a major step forward. Such was the case with Linkin Park's 2000 debut Hybrid Theory, a populist, mall-ready disc of packaged post-teen angst whose sprightly mix of sour subject matter and sweet pop instincts propelled songs like "Crawling" and "In the End" into the modern-rock/MTV stratosphere. But three years later, that album's surprising moments -- the dual vocal approach of Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda, the family friendly melodicism undergirding such rote snarls as "Shut up when I'm talking to you!" (from "One Step Closer") -- have clearly outlived their sell-by date. Meteora, the fresh-faced septet's second proper release (not counting 2002's appallingly uneven remix package Reanimation), treads further down the well-worn grooves of the genre, sanding them down into a rut. The freshness of the familiar approach gone, the embarrassing pedestrian lyricism of songs like "Somewhere I Belong" and "Easier to Run" becomes more glaringly apparent. The regurgitation of stock life-is-hard tropes by millionaires is off-putting enough in the hands of less-accomplished nu-metalers; coming from a group whose debut offered a glimmer of hope for the expansion of the genre's boundaries, such creative laziness is all the more disappointing.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 25, 2003

The Flaming Lips: Fight Test [EP]
Warner Bros., 2003
Rating: 4.2
Aside from promoting singles or offering cuts that didn't make the band's last album, EPs should offer a little something extra to encourage discriminating buyers. Say, inventive covers that take the material in exciting and unexpected directions or, even better, brand-spanking-new tracks that keep fans in touch with the current sound of their favorite group. The Flaming Lips clearly understand this concept: Fight Test offers both engaging covers and some fresh songs to boot. "Can't Get You Out Of My Head," Kylie Minogue's 2002 mid-tempo dance hit, becomes a yawning chasm of obsessive desire, complete with mournful "La-la-la"s and melodramatically Baroque flourishes. Radiohead's "Knives Out" is transformed from nervous-tic warbling to languorously spacious piano dirge. The two new tracks, "The Strange Design of Conscience" and "Thank You Jack White (For The Fiber-Optic Jesus That You Gave Me)," operate at opposite ends of the Lips' musical spectrum, with "Strange" working off an electronica beat akin to the band's most recent album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and "Jack White" a loopy mix of fellow Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie's folksy, campfire-tale style and the band's earlier "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain" acoustic rambling. As an added bonus, Scott Hardkiss' spaced-out, hyper-digitized mix of "Do You Realize??" proves a nice companion to the Lips' epic original. The only dud is the trio's take on "The Golden Age," which merely retreads Beck's far more accomplished original. Considering that the Lips acted as the genre-hopping troubadour's backing band on his most recent tour, it logically follows that they wouldn't deviate too wildly from the source, which is fine in concert but falls totally flat here. Fortunately, that's the only moment this otherwise excellent EP comes up short.

::: Laurence Station

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April 25, 2003

Lisa Marie Presley: To Whom It May Concern
Capitol, 2003
Rating: 2.8
Give Lisa Marie Presley credit for at least penning some of the lyrics she sings on her debut, something her legendary father never did. Unfortunately, one of those assisting her with said words is Glen Ballard, who never met a generically bland turn of phrase he didn't like. To Whom It May Concern, rather than the statement of purpose the title hints at, is a monstrously overproduced MOR pop-rock fest that buries Presley so deeply in the mix one wonders if it's the session musicians who aren't the real focus, rather than Ms. Presley. Grungy opener "S.O.B." and the radio-ready, infectiously punchy "Lights Out" shine brightest, the synergy between commercial demand and Presley's "concerns" meshing perfectly. The rest of the album, however, is one long flat, uninteresting retread of familiar themes (desired relationships, budding relationships, and the ever-popular broken relationships). Even the liberal expletives scattered throughout sound tired and canned. Lisa, you don't need the money and you certainly could find better ways to spend it than hiring unoriginal hacks with whom to collaborate. Do it for yourself next time out, radio playlists be damned.

::: Laurence Station

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April 25, 2003

Damien Jurado: Where Shall You Take Me?
Secretly Canadian, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Like many folk singers, Damien Jurado is in love with stories of the everyday and the commonplace. If the world of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska existed as a geographic entity, Jurado would have a zip code on Main Street. Every album beyond his unfocused, anything-goes debut, Waters Ave S., has tread familiar ground: Everyday Americans, the lower and middle class folks that form the backbone of the country. These are Jurado's people, and on Where Shall You Take Me?, he proves he has yet to exhaust the desire to tell their stories: Where Shall You Take Me? peers into the windows of houses affected by alcoholism and abuse ("Amateur Night"), romance gone sour ("Intoxicated Hands") and patient suitors ("Tether"). At his best, Jurado intimates more than he tells, such as on the skillful ballad "Abilene," where a young girl isn't buying the promises of a stranger who wants her to elope with him, and "Matinee," in which the sadness felt by the narrator can't be disguised by his fond recollections of trips to the local theater. The closing "Bad Dreams" is the album's true triumph, however, a bold plea for help (the album's overriding theme) complemented nicely by deftly interwoven piano and violin arrangements. The middle sags a bit, but Where Shall You Take Me? proves another worthy addition to the budding Jurado catalogue.

::: Laurence Station

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April 19, 2003

(Smog): Supper
Drag City, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Bill Callahan's second straight parenthetically bracketed Smog effort finds him in passive-aggressive mode; passive as in vocal delivery (laconic, disinterested, barely-there emotional release) and aggressive in regards to lyrical content ("In your bedroom just off the highway/ Come in through your window/ Think I tore your ribbons on the way"). After the moribund Dongs of Sevotion and the musically bland Rain On Lens, Callahan and his band turn in a genuine rocker (album highlight "Butterflies Drowned in Wine") but generally stick to a familiarly low-key, "please don't notice me" approach that ideally suits Callahan's less than buoyant sing-speak style. Sarabeth Tucek's warmer vocals complement Callahan on the pensive opener "Feather by Feather," but fall flat when captured in open space, as on "Truth Serum." Callahan deserves credit for sticking to his own musical vision, mainstream acceptance be damned. Supper isn't likely to win over many new converts, but faithful fans are likely to find it a filling, if vaguely unsatisfying, meal.

::: Laurence Station

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April 12, 2003

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: The Secret of Elena's Tomb [EP]
Interscope, 2003
Rating: 3.5
After rolling out Source Tags & Codes, its highly anticipated major label debut, last year, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (excising of leading ellipse duly noted) offers an in-between effort, something to tide fans over until the band’s next major release. The Secret of Elena's Tomb could have been little more than a slapdash serving of B-sides and raw live versions of familiar songs. Fortunately, it contains four new tracks and an electronic number, the propulsive, instigatory "Intelligence," which initially appeared on last year's "Another Morning Stoner" UK single. So credit to TOD for offering more than mere filler. The four new tracks offered here are a wildly scattershot, hit-or-miss affair, however. The high-energy "All St. Day" and mid-tempo rocker "Crowning Of A Heart" are further refinements of the apocalyptic, anthemic Source Tags sound the band's been pursuing since its inception, the former Bic-lighter friendly and menacing at the same time, while the latter sports a tight, appealingly Britpop-slanted influence. Opener "Mach Schau" is a featureless sturm-und-drang misstep, with a tired rise-fall sonic technique that falls completely flat, while the bland "Counting Off The Days" sounds like TOD's stab at a radio-friendly, TRL-worthy blockbuster ballad, perhaps aiming for its own "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." (Hopefully the suits at Interscope aren't nudging the band down that slippery slope of sacrificing artistic credibility for the sake of moving more units.) A host of multimedia features, including videos, artwork galleries and links to the band's website, add undeniable value to this slight but mostly appealing collection.

::: Laurence Station

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April 05, 2003

The Clash: The Essential Clash
Sony, 2003
Rating: 4.3
Longtime Clash fans, those convinced that Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and company were the greatest rock and roll band in the world, may figure that they've heard everything on The Essential Clash before. But even those fans are bound to find a few surprises, such as "This is England," from 1986's Cut the Crap, the band's last studio album recorded without visionary guitarist Jones. Cut the Crap was critically panned and didn't sell well, and it's likely that many diehard fans overlooked it. But "This is England" is that disc's standout track, starting off as a bizarre, catchy cross between Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More" and Van Halen's "Jump" before Joe Strummer steps up to the mic to deliver a quintessential Clash song, restrained but still forceful. Strummer appears to be taking a hard look at the personal toll the years have taken on both his band and his country; although he still stands tall, you can hear the long years separating him from the youthful revolution and rebellion he was once part participant in, part witness to: "I've got my motorcycle jacket on," he sings, "but I'm walking all the time." The Clash didn't go out with a bang, the way the Sex Pistols did, instead settling into more of a melancholy fade that never quite reached its finish until Strummer's untimely death in late 2002. But Strummer and the Clash are still an inspirational force, as the powerful performance of "London Calling" by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Steven Van Zandt at the 2003 Grammy Awards certainly proved. The Essential Clash is a happy reminder of that fact, recommended both for those who wonder what all the original fuss was about and for those tried-and-true fans who might just come across a lost or hidden treasure among its forty stirring tracks.

::: Jim Kingman

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April 02, 2003

DC to Daylight: Xmas Murder '74
Urban Cheese Records, 2003
Rating: 3.0
On this six-track, five-song EP, San Jose outfit DC to Daylight (the name derives from a ham radio term) showcases a low-key, likable affinity for the pop-inflected side of the indie rock spectrum. When it's done well -- as on "Like a Man," a brief but memorable burst of primordial garage-rock groove that recalls Atlanta's Forty-Fives and other like-minded outfits -- Xmas Murder '74 glimmers with potential. But the momentum sags when the trio takes an ill-advised turn toward light, breezy pop rock: On the too-sprightly "My Way to Hell," the band trades in its workmanlike sense of practice-room menace for a grating melody undercut with tinkly Rhodes piano. And the lazy lolling of the lounge-y "I Hate Everybody" grinds the disc's mid-tempo pacing to a languorous halt. These numbers undermine the amiable strides made by the energetic "Like a Man" and the loping numbers "Just a Joke" and "Brand New Satellite" (both powered by Warren Hauff's passable Jesus and Mary Chain drawl). If DC to Daylight cranks up the tempo, jettisons its more irresolute pop leanings and refines its knack for sturdy indie-rock proficiency, that'll be a frequency worth searching out.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 30, 2003

Califone: Quicksand/Cradlesnakes
Thrill Jockey, 2003
Rating: 4.2
Author Greil Marcus's "Old, Weird America" -- a shadowy world of lonesome travelers, midnight shysters, uncertainty and deceit (i.e., the very antithesis of manicured suburban lawns and middle American contentment) -- has found a voice beyond Bob Dylan and the Band's legendary Basement Tapes. With its second full-length, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes Chicago-based Califone ably maps out this murky terrain, powered by the improvisational wanderings of core members (and former Red Red Meat cohorts) Tim Rutili and Ben Massarella. Building on Rutili's low-mixed vocals and abstract lyrical musings, and Massarella's deft programming and percussion skills, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes moves through electronic scribbles ("One"), full-bodied, bluesy rockers ("Your Golden Ass"), spare guitar and fiddle-based numbers ("Million Dollar Funeral"), and slow-poured bourbon-and-tears laments ("Vampiring Again"). That the album covers this wide musical terrain without losing its distinctive center is a credit to the musicians and their obvious affection for a skewed, grotesque America not included on traditional tour packages. At times, Rutili's abstraction gets the better of him; lines like "Oil the string and wind the wheel/ Box office poison day" come across as pointless wordplay rather than an inviting gesture into a secret world of language and sound. But no matter. If Califone manages to sustain the momentum generated here, Greil Marcus is going to have to add a few new chapters to his work on Old, Weird America.

::: Laurence Station

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March 30, 2003

Kristin Hersh: The Grotto
4AD, 2003
Rating: 3.9
One gets the impression that Kristin Hersh couldn't care less whether anyone listened to her music or bought her albums. Hersh operates in an intensely personal, interior world, seemingly immune to outside interference. From her impressive 1994 solo debut, Hips and Makers, through to the present, Hersh has explored themes of motherhood, family strife and finding a peaceable space to call her own with a bipolar intensity, swinging wildly through a kaleidoscope of moods and tempos, as if struggling to make all the pieces of her identity fit. With The Grotto, Hersh's self-examination continues, and she's wisely added Giant Sand's Howe Gelb on piano and Andrew Bird's violin to liven up spare, guitar-and-voice-based arrangements. "Sno Cat," with its sense of diminishing anger through travel, and the deliberate, intense "SRB," resonate with an emotional directness lacking on the rest of the disc. Appropriately, Hersh's greatest appeal is also her main liability: an impenetrability no amount of studio polish or inventively sculpted compositions can surmount. The Grotto presents more questions than answers, but is still an intriguing place well worth visiting.

::: Laurence Station

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March 30, 2003

Songs: Ohia: Magnolia Electric Co.
Secretly Canadian, 2003
Rating: 4.3
Where Jason Molina's last album under the Songs: Ohia moniker, Didn't it Rain, was about paralysis and Midwestern blue collar blues, Magnolia Electric Co. is all about motion and the redemptive power of change. Backed by the musicians who appeared on the Mi Sei Apparso Come un Fantasma (You Come to Me as a Ghost) live album, and produced live in the studio by Steve Albini, Molina opens up full-throttle to the collaborative process, even allowing guest singers to take over on two of the tracks, and the end result is nothing short of his finest release to date. There's a force and purposefulness behind Molina's songwriting that reveals an artist in full command of his craft. From the opening shot "Farewell Transmission," with its aching slide guitar and restless, questing lyrics, to the hopeful closer "Hold On Magnolia," Molina and Co. manage to infuse a sound clearly inspired by everything from '70s hard rock and '60s Nashville with a freshness and passion that nearly elevates the entire work to an American classic standard. Holding Magnolia Electric Co. back from entry into the exalted rock pantheon, ironically, is the very looseness that informs the entire work. Molina's use of guest vocalists on "The Old Black Hen" (a Merle Haggard-mimicking Lawrence Peters) and "Peoria Lunch Box Blues" (high-pitched, emotionally detached Scout Niblett) dampens the overall impact. Molina's so strong at articulating his own lyrics here that to have others step in and attempt to do justice to his words just doesn't work. Despite these missteps, Magnolia Electric Co. is an undeniable watershed for Molina, the moment where he "goes electric" and takes his career and art to a whole new level.

::: Laurence Station

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March 30, 2003

Ben Harper: Diamonds on the Inside
Virgin, 2003
Rating: 2.7
Ben Harper is the musical equivalent of the guy who's built an amazingly eclectic record collection for the sole purpose of showing off what an amazingly eclectic record collection he has. Diamonds on the Inside, Harper's fifth studio effort, struggles mightily to appease, across all genres, tastes and sensibilities. Bob Marley fans get the obligatory world-saving anthem on "With My Own Two Hands," while Prince devotees get "Brown Eyed Blues," and those with more countrified leanings get both "Everything" and the acoustic noodler "She's Only Happy in the Sun." "Temporary Remedy," meanwhile, is a grungy rocker that wouldn't be out of place on a Lenny Kravitz album; "Picture of Jesus" is well served by African rhythms. Rather than doing straight cover tunes, Harper has mastered the stylistic cover. While the dearth of personalized sound or substance is troubling, Diamonds raises a bigger (and, for Harper, potentially more troubling) question -- why accept second-rate takes on the readily available works of Harper's favorite artists? Harper's a solid musician, but his songcraft is obvious and unimaginative, taking the easy way out lyrically ("When you have everything/ You have everything to lose") and trotting out extended jams so common as to make Musak retreads sound innovative by comparison. Pass.

::: Laurence Station

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March 28, 2003

Fischerspooner: #1
Capitol, 2003
Rating: 3.7
Reworking and expanding on the tracks comprising their self-titled 2001 debut, Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner serve up a diverse platter of snappy electro-pop. These cuts may not be the final statement the subgenre has to offer, but #1 certainly strives to be the best damn party album in the bunch. In that respect, erstwhile European club smash "Emerge" successfully encapsulates all that Fischerspooner stands for: Dancing madly to a fast techno beat and looking damned stylish while doing it. The most interesting numbers, however, are the reflective and reserved tracks (a pensive, concentrated cover of Wire's "The 15th," and "Tone Poem," which builds on lyrics found by Spooner in a 19th century textbook). But #1 primarily sticks with a high-gloss, newer-than-new-wave sound. Ultimately, the duo's carefully constructed trashy glam image is the real product being sold, and the real star of #1 as well, as validated by Fischerspooner's championing among the NYC hipster elite. The glitter and fashion are just as important as the programmed noise, which might actually help blander fare like "Horizon" and "Invisible" come across as more than generic techno pap in a live setting. If nothing else, Fischerspooner is a band begging to be seen, not just heard.

::: Laurence Station

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March 28, 2003

Cave In: Antenna
RCA, 2003
Rating: 3.2
Cave In sticks to the basics on Antenna, the Massachusetts-born quartet's fourth album, a collection of familiar classic rock power chords and singer/guitarist's Stephen Brodsky's customary heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics. "Inspire" and "Lost in the Air" sport the most potential, revealing a band attempting to reach beyond its relatively limited range to fashion something distinctive and stirring from so exhausted a template. Undermining genuinely solid craft, however, are lyrics that go from less-than-complicated ("He loves to hate; she hates to love"), to simply too easy and obvious ("She had a lot to say; I'll take it to my grave"). Cave In possesses the chops to be a damn fine rock outfit. The question is what sort of rock outfit the group wants to be: Lame Puddle of Mudd faux-angst product or bolder experimentalist along the lines of Rush? With Antenna, the antenna's in place, leaving only the task of locking onto a more personalized and appealing signal.

::: Laurence Station

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March 28, 2003

The Libertines: Up the Bracket
Rough Trade, 2002
Rating: 4.0
Finally arriving stateside, The Libertines' Up the Bracket is more than a mere second-rate UK import of the wildly-hyped Strokes, but rather the genuine article: An unabashed, dirty guitar rock, sound riot of an album. Former Clash guitarist Mick Jones signed on to produce the group's debut, and thanks in no small part to the live recording of the tracks, there's an uninhibited spontaneity at play throughout. From the punk brattiness of "Tell the King" to the intentionally sloppy "The Boy Looked at Johnny," the Libertines manage to sound fresh and yet gleefully derivative of the sorts of bands Jones hung out with back in the mid-to-late '70s. Up the Bracket doesn't limit itself to early punk exclusively, however, as evidenced by the impressively Beatlesque harmonizing on "Radio America" and the socially aware protest song "Time for Heroes" ("We'll die in the class we was born"). Where the Libertines go or grow from here is anyone's guess, but it'll certainly be exciting to see what they do next.

::: Laurence Station

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March 28, 2003

Hootie & the Blowfish: Hootie & the Blowfish
Atlantic, 2003
Rating: 3.5
The guys in Hootie & the Blowfish know full well they'll never come close to duplicating the success of the gazillion-selling Cracked Rear View. The refreshing thing is that the band seems okay with that cold hard fact. On their self-titled fourth album (not counting 2000's odds and sods Scattered, Smothered and Covered collection), the members of this local-bar-band-made-good serve up a well-played, solidly crafted work with a comfortable, well-worn feeling. From Darius Rucker's husky baritone to an even mix of loose, rambling roots rockers ("Little Darlin'," "I'll Come Runnin'") and soulful (albeit canned, radio-friendly) ballads ("Tears Fall Down, "Show Me Your Heart"), Hootie & the Blowfish deliver their most sincere effort since, well, that well-known juggernaut from 1994. "The Rain Song," a muscular take on the Continental Drifters number, fails to register the dramatic punch of the original but still adds definite value to the set, proving to be the disc's strongest track. The bottom line is that fans of the "classic" Hootie sound will enjoy this record in the same way (if not with the same fervor) as Cracked Rear View. Capturing lightning in a bottle may only happen once in this band's career, but there's still nothing wrong with offering a familiar, if considerably less rewarding, take on a proven formula.

::: Laurence Station

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March 10, 2003

Lou Reed: The Raven
Sire, 2003
Rating: 1.5
This morbidly fascinating mess of an album falls just short of "absolute stinker" status because: a) it's not a rock and roll album per se, but a collection of tracks commissioned for a theatrical project; b) it hums with a conviction born of laudable intellectual curiosity and spiritual yearning; and c) because Lou Reed is, well, Lou Reed, and he's earned a little slack. That said, however, hoooo boy, is this thing a train wreck. Reed's fascination with Edgar Allan Poe is understandable and commendable, but it's exactly what sabotages The Raven. Reed lets his enthusiasm for his subject matter get the better of his actual skills as a songwriter and lyricist; more often than not, his words and garage-rock progressions are so completely at odds with the very concept of Poe as to be embarrassing. Even when things sound frustratingly close to recapturing the relatively recent glories of New York or Magic and Loss, Reed's oddball id (Ecstasy, anyone?) takes over: Think Dr. Dr. Frank-N-Furter staging a Poe tribute as filmed by David Lynch. Things improve when Reed's guest stars take the mic -- most notably Willem Dafoe reciting the titular classic, but also David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and even Steve Buscemi oozing through a head-scratching lounge-lizard bit. Taken as the soundtrack for a conceptual piece of art, The Raven is a passable curio. As a Lou Reed album, however -- you know, the way it's actually being packaged to consumers -- it's a heartbreakingly confounding non sequitur.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 09, 2003

The Minus 5: Down With Wilco
Yep, 2003
Rating: 3.6
Wilco joins the fold for the latest Minus 5 revolving door collaborative effort. Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey's and regular contributor/R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck's fascination with '60s pop continues, albeit through a glass darkly. McCaughey explores such dour topics as the joys of binge drinking ("The Days of Wine and Booze"), ill-fated relationships ("Retrieval of You") and disappointment ("Life Left Him There"), while employing a splatter effect of sounds that result in an experimental pop goulash. Imagine a cover band doing a half-remembered take on a Beatles-Beach Boys collaboration that never was, and Down With Wilco starts to make sense. The music has a reverential, "anything goes" quality typical of the fertile mid-'60s American and British scenes, evoking a time when there were no hard and fast rules on what could or could not be incorporated on an LP (thus producing works such as Revolver and the abortive Beach Boys' Smile sessions). From the Moog synthesizer on "View from Below" to Buck's employment of an electronic tanpura on "Life Left Him There," Down With Wilco desperately seeks to take the Way-Back Machine to a moment in time that can never be reclaimed, no matter how hard McCaughey and crew strive to channel it through an inalterably modern sensibility. Further detracting from the Minus 5 mainstays' retro intentions are the two Wilco-powered tracks ("The Town That Lost Its Groove Supply" and "The Family Gardener"), which sound like stray Summer Teeth (another work heavily influenced by Beach Boy mastermind Brian Wilson) cuts  rather than trippy '60s artifacts. Down With Wilco does accomplish one thing, however: It's sure to make fans mark their calendars for the next official Wilco release.

::: Laurence Station

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March 09, 2003

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Master and Everyone
Drag City, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Master and Everyone, former Palace primus inter pares Will Oldham's fourth release under the Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker, is a reserved, patiently crafted effort. It rewards close listening, but may fly a little too low beneath the radar for its own good. A loose song cycle built around its protagonist's inability to find a suitable companion, Master and Everyone showcases Oldham's excellent songwriting skills, as he tosses off such artfully deft lines as "No pain to lament/No dream undreamt" with casual ease, while never losing his grasp on the emotional center of the work. Oldham's primarily acoustic guitar and restively lonesome vocals get a welcome shot in the arm courtesy of Marty Slayton, who adds backing vocals on several tracks and shines on two particularly impressive duets ("Ain't You Wealthy, Ain't You Wise?" and "Hard Life"). The opening quartet of songs stands with the finest numbers Oldham's ever recorded, setting a tone of isolation and irreconcilable solitude for a man who can't see a clear way through to matrimony, grudgingly realizing he must go it alone in the world. The second half doesn't fare nearly as well, the lyrics failing to rise to the level of what has come before. This hurts the disc since, considering the sparse musical template employed, Oldham's lyricism is truly the only measuring stick to judge its effectiveness. The saving grace is Oldham's earnestly felt, barely-above-a-whisper croon, which ultimately proves more than enough recommendation for an uneven but subtly affecting affair.

::: Laurence Station

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March 02, 2003

Calla: Televise
Arena Rock, 2003
Rating: 2.9
New York indie rock outfit Calla opens its third album with the tension-filled menace of "Strangler," all threatening vocals and spiky guitar lines, backed by an intriguing white noise washout. It's an arresting beginning, and one that regrettably proves to be a false alarm. The band bides its time through much of Televise before truly breaking out of its turgidly moribund funk. "Carrera" breaks a sweat, its guitars soaring to life for a rousing finish; a similar sense of urgency drives "Televised," courtesy of a punchy beat and an extended, jam-oriented climax. But the album's middle stretch makes for some heavy slogging; singer Aurelio Valle's sing-speaking of his flat, uninspired lyrics only adds to the drag time. Calla does possess the chops to make some intense noise, however; perhaps an all-instrumental approach would be more suitable. Televise broadcasts the group's weaknesses more than its strengths, making for one signal not worth tuning into.

::: Laurence Station

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February 23, 2003

Holopaw: Holopaw
Sub Pop, 2003
Rating: 3.7
Gainesville, Florida's Holopaw serves up a lazy, hazy batch of pastorally-inclined, primarily acoustic-based songs on this engaging, if not particularly exceptional, debut. Singer/songwriter John Orth, last heard on Modest Mouse main man Isaac Brock's Ugly Casanova album, utilizes irregular vocal rhythms and off-kilter lyrics ("loopholes tightened off with tiny crushes") in anthropomorphic tales of despair ("Pony Apprehension"), while exploring a general fascination with the integration of nature and technology throughout. The main drawback here is that one song sounds very much like the next, musically speaking, although this spell is broken late in the record by the trumpet and fractured beats of "Cinders." Thus Holopaw's admittedly unique sound (aided and abetted by Brock's vocal contribution to standout track "Igloo Glass" and guest mandolin on "Pony Apprehension") is undermined by the album's limited musical range. Perhaps the next release will take more chances in this area, framing Orth's placidly abstract lyrics in a more inventive and memorable presentation.

::: Laurence Station

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February 23, 2003

The Go-Betweens: Bright Yellow Bright Orange
Jetset, 2003
Rating: 4.0
When Go-Betweens co-frontmen Robert Forster and Grant McLennan reunited to release 2000's The Friends Of Rachel Worth, the main question was whether the members of the Brisbane, Australia folk-pop duo would return to their respective solo careers or continue their collaboration. Bright Yellow Bright Orange answers that question: Forster and McLennan, having taken a tentative first step with Worth, serve up their strongest set of songs since the Go-Between's '80s heyday. Where Worth contained some infectiously listenable cuts, Bright Yellow Bright Orange overflows with memorable hooks and catchy choruses, reaping the benefits of the partnership between two distinctly different, yet, complimentary songwriters in top form. Standout cuts include "Caroline and I," Forster's comparison between himself and Princess Caroline of Monaco, and "Too Much of One Thing," a brilliantly executed ode to impermanence; "Poison in the Walls," sporting wonderfully skewed lyrics by ("Machines that make your wings/ Don't run on dirty oil") by McLennan; and "Mrs. Morgan," a poignant character sketch as stinging as it is elegiac. Not everything sparkles, however: "In Her Diary" features some nice strings but is lyrically flat and uninteresting, while "Make Her Day" fails to capitalize on its attention-grabbing beat, which ultimately proves redundant by song's end.

::: Laurence Station

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February 16, 2003

Ted Leo/Pharmacists: Hearts of Oak
Lookout, 2003
Rating: 3.8
On his last album, 2001's punchy and infectious The Tyranny of Distance, Ted Leo (backed by his band, the Pharmacists) explored the upside of romantic entanglements. But the new Hearts of Oak finds Leo venturing into noticeably darker terrain regarding matters of the heart. Where Tyranny found Leo giddy with excitement about being "Under the Hedge," Oak offers us a bitter narrator filled with recriminations and lamenting "I'm a Ghost." Leo's limited falsetto threatens to fall off the upper register, as it did with precarious delirium on Tyranny, but on Hearts of Oak the effect of reaching so far beyond one's grasp is more strain than release. The Pharmacists accord themselves nicely, rocking hard behind Leo with polished pop-punk intensity, but there's no breakaway epic jam like the last album's inspired "Stove by a Whale" holding the center together. Leo sings of broken hearts, missed chances, and New York after dark with the almost-defeated acceptance of a disaffected romantic searching for his next inspiration. Musical and thematic hurdles aside, Leo proves he's still as strong a lyricist as ever, effortlessly tossing off literate-but-not-smarmy lines like "And the French Foreign Legion/ You know they did their best/ But I never believed in T.E. Lawrence/ So how the hell could I believe I Beau Gest?" on "The Ballad of the Sin Eater." Hearts of Oak, while far from hollow, still falls noticeably short of the lofty expectations Leo and crew set with Tyranny; it proves solid, just not cut from the same sturdy wood as its predecessor.

::: Laurence Station

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February 04, 2003

Loose Fur: Loose Fur
Drag City, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, highly respected songwriter/mixer/producer Jim O'Rourke, and freshly-minted Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche were clearly up to something in the late hours of the band's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions, and Loose Fur is a document of the trio's time together. Working off of skeletal arrangements and Tweedy's affinity for found-sound squawks, bleats and radio clatter, Loose Fur feels, well, loose and shambling. The majority of the lyrics and vocals (shared by Tweedy and O'Rourke) are dispensed with early on so that the three musicians can get down to some good old-fashioned jamming. Tweedy is the dominant factor here; his scratchy bridges and feedback-drenched solos shoulder the heaviest musical load, and such noise works best on lyrically abstract tracks like "Laminated Cat" and the brightly painted "Chinese Apple." By contrast, O'Rourke's cuts ("Elegant Transaction" and "So Long") feel orphaned from a nascent solo project. Unsurprisingly, the best moment comes on "Liquidation Totale," wherein the trio dispenses with lyrics altogether and concentrates on where its collective noodling might lead. Whether it was meant as a one-off lark or the rough foundation for a future excursion, Loose Fur is a curious glimpse into the art and evolution of sonic creations. But ultimately, it's not a serious addition to either the Wilco or O'Rourke catalogs as much as a tchotchke for avid completests. Casual fans needn't bother.

::: Laurence Station

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January 27, 2003

The Sea and Cake: One Bedroom
Thrill Jockey, 2003
Rating: 4.0
With song titles ranging from "Four Corners" to "Interiors," not to mention the album title, one might presume Chicago's Sea and Cake has a definite theme in mind for its sixth release, the extremely synthesizer-friendly One Bedroom. Not so. This isn't some boxed-in, overly insular "home-as-refuge-from-the-outside-world" affair. On the contrary, One Bedroom offers some of the quartet's most expansive tracks since 1995's Nassau. Sam Prekop's distinctively airy, laconic vocal delivery has been pushed to the fore, and mixed a shade higher than on previous releases, albeit with uneven results. "Left Side Clouded" perfectly illustrates Prekop's lackadaisical croon, gliding effortlessly above the music, unforced and casual. "Mr. F" nullifies this approach, however, with lame split-channel histrionics ping-ponging the vocals in an irritating and sonically ineffective manner. And while Archer Prewitt's guitar, Eric Claridge's bass and John McEntire's percussion are still discernible, it's clear the electronic synth sound of 1997's so-so The Fawn has returned with a vengeance, most obviously on "Hotel Tell" and "Le Baron." The approach does yield some rewards, however, on the closing "Sound & Vision," a punched-up take on the Bowie original that proves One Bedroom's finest moment. While not quite hitting the creative heights of 2000's breezy, smart Oui or offering as many catchy tunes as the band's self-titled debut, One Bedroom nonetheless reveals a band of very busy musicians crafting a confident, impeccably-played work that rarely misses its progressively pop-oriented mark.

::: Laurence Station

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January 18, 2003

Kathleen Edwards: Failer
Zoë/Rounder, 2003
Rating: 3.7
Canadian singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards' debut album is a mostly straightforward country-pop affair, complete with the traditional instruments -- banjo, slide guitar, lap and pedal steel -- one usually expects from the genre. But what sets Failer apart is the vulnerable, alluring quality of Edwards' voice in conjunction with her smart, sincere, and often poignant lyricism. "Six O'Clock News" details the violent demise of a pregnant woman's reckless lover, while "Hockey Skates" utilizes a cleverly phrased sports metaphor to examine a relationship that just isn't working out. The song structures are tight, if unremarkable, save for the consistently impressive electric guitar work of Jim Bryson and the isolated but welcome use of saxophones (alto, baritone and soprano) on "12 Bellevue." But it's "Westby," a brilliantly buoyant and biting look at a young woman and her considerably older, married lover, that marks Edwards as a talent worth watching in the future. Its jaunty energy and cheeky tone displays the singer-songwriter's talents at their still-developing best, auguring a bright future and earning this freshman effort a passing grade.

::: Laurence Station

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January 12, 2003

The Books: Thought for Food
Tomlab, 2002
Rating: 4.0
On Thought for Food, guitarist Nick Zammuto and violinist/cellist Paul de Jong serve up an interesting collaboration, full of spare instrumentation mixed with strategically inserted vocal samples and found sounds. The end result is one of the more intriguing releases from the tail end of last year, an experimental indie effort that turns the done-to-death sound-collage technique on its ear, inverting the normal pile-on approach of proven artists such as DJ Shadow and coming up with something wholly new and refreshing. At times the Books are too reserved for their own good, as on "Thankyoubranch" and "Getting the Done Job". But at its best (the clanging, bottle-clink rhythm of "All Bad Ends All" with its famous Winston Churchill sample, and "Contempt," which takes the memorable Brigitte Bardot nude Q&A scene from the Jean-Luc Godard film of the same name and transforms it into a curious interview session between two men), Thought for Food is positively inspired. Denser tunes like "Mikey Bass" and the brief but energetic closer "Deafkids" help keep the album from meandering too much, as well. While neither a total palette cleanser nor quite a groundbreaking triumph, Thought for Food is nonetheless a worthwhile effort from two artists clearly following their own well-sated muse.

::: Laurence Station

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