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December 31, 2004

The Hold Steady: Almost Killed Me
Frenchkiss, 2004
Rating: 4.0
New York-based rock outfit The Hold Steady comprises Ex-Lifter Puller singer Craig Finn and bassist Tad Kubler (shifting to lead guitar), along with drummer Judd Counsell and bassist Galen Polivka. The quartet’s debut Almost Killed Me is an unusual and unusually successful mix of shamelessly obvious classic-rock riffs and Finn’s bluntly stated, near-spoken-word observations about life and the Minnesota of his youth (not to mention countless pop-cultural touchstones). Influences vary, from Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band (especially evident “Hostile, Mass.” and its use of brass) and Billy Joel (“Certain Songs”) to the Replacements (appealingly messy rhythms) and Hüsker Dü (Finn’s biting lyrics). What keeps Almost Killed Me from little more than gimmicky diversion is Finn’s impressive lyrical skills (“I’ll be damned if they didn't disappear / Wandered out of mass one day and faded into the fog and love and faithless fear,” from “Hostile, Mass.”) and the band members’ ability to serve up indulgent guitar solo clichés (as they do at the end of “Most People are DJs”) and then comment on such excess (by abruptly cutting off the solo and beginning the next song), thus celebrating and poking fun at them at the same time. The earnest “Certain Songs,” which celebrates those tunes that get “scratched into our souls,” and the gloriously anthemic “Knuckles,” which humorously rhymes “Kevlar vests” with “crystal meth,” are standouts. Although Almost Killed Me runs out of gas near the end, it nonetheless signals the arrival of an exciting and noteworthy new band.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2004

The Divine Comedy: Absent Friends
Nettwerk / Parlophone, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Neil Hannon’s first post-fatherhood album, Absent Friends, reflects a more sobering, candidly honest worldview from the conspicuously cheeky artist. The Baroque arrangements and ornately articulate baritone (and, occasionally, soaring falsetto) remain in full force, but the lyrical content clearly reflects a shakeup in Hannon’s long term priorities. The aggrieved “Leaving Today” reveals the artist checking in on his young daughter before heading off on the road; the delightfully airy “Come Home Billy Bird” follows a travel-weary businessman who can’t wait for his journey to end; the cavernous “Freedom Road” details a trucker hanging up his CB radio for the final time. Those hoping for amusing, “Generation Sex”-style Divine Comedy material will have to sate their appetite with the clever style-over-substance piece “The Happy Goth.” For those seeking material with a little more bite, there’s “Our Mutual Friend,” about a three’s-a-crowd romantic triangle that ends badly for its jilted narrator. The fact that Hannon opens the album with a title track lamenting notable entertainers and personalities who’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, and closes with “Charmed Life,” a lovely ode to his baby girl, answers any questions about the Hannon of old magically reappearing. Absent Friends is about putting the past in perspective and holding out hope for a brighter future for this generation and the next.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2004

Radiohead: Com Lag: 2+2=5 [EP]
EMI Toshiba, 2004
Rating: 3.0
Radiohead’s remix/B-sides/noise-farts collection Com Lag suffered from a first-pressing glitch on Four Tet’s remix of “Scatterbrain.” Subsequent releases have corrected the problem, but that still doesn’t overcome the EP’s main shortcoming: the bulk of the material here simply isn’t very engaging. A live version of Hail to the Thief’s “2+2=5” kicks things off in authoritative fashion, followed by Cristian Vogel’s commendable remix of the begging-to-be-remixed “Myxomatosis.” The lazily nostalgic, gentle, guitar-plucked “Gagging Order” is a rechristened version of "Move Along," a never-finished tune from the OK Computer era. But a trio of unmemorable cuts from the Hail sessions (“Paperbag Writer,” “I Am a Wicked Child” and “I Am Citizen Insane”) drains all life from the disc, validating Radiohead’s knack at choosing the best material for the full release. And closer “Where Bluebirds Fly” is a laptop experiment in repetitive starts and stammers that fails to reach a satisfying resolution. The choice moment, by contrast, belongs to a solo piano version of “Fog,” performed by Thom Yorke at the 2002 Bridge School Benefit. For a tune that’s lyrically inconsequential, the quavering timbre in Yorke’s voice wrenches every last ounce of emotional longing from a tale of baby alligators being flushed into the sewers. Com Lag is useful for the rabid B-side and rare track collector who can save funds by getting everything from the Hail recordings on one tidy package. Hardcore devotees, this one’s for you.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2004

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Greatest Palace Music
Drag City, 2004
Rating: 3.5
Fans of Will Oldham’s Palace catalog finally get their wish for a “greatest hits” collection. But the often willfully inscrutable Oldham couldn’t make things that simple. Instead of easily compiling these 15 choice cuts and serving them up in a nice, tidy package, Oldham decided to re-record the material in a country vein, using his bolder Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona and backed by some of the finest session men Nashville has to offer (players like drummer Eddie Bayers, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins). Unsurprisingly, Greatest Palace Music enjoys sterling production but mixed interpretive results. “New Partner” benefits from a fuller sound and “The Brute Choir,” despite running longer, has more urgency that its original. Some amusing reconfigurations include “I Send My Love to You” and “Pushkin,” both from 1994’s Days in the Wake. “Love” gets a Grand Ole Opry-style makeover, complete with swinging rhythm and livelier vocals; “Pushkin” exchanges its spare acoustic simplicity for a piano-and-gospel harmonizing arrangement. The misses, however, are whoppers: “Ohio River Boat Song” is drained of its emotional power, running a minute and a half shorter and reborn as a jaunty fiddler tune, and “Horses” just isn’t the same sans its blazing guitar work. Greatest Palace Music isn’t so much an apology for the earlier, often roughshod quality recordings as it is another curious, intriguing addition to Oldham’s redoubtable body of work.

::: Laurence Station

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December 23, 2004

Ludacris: The Red Light District
Def Jam South, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Astute Shaking Through regulars might recall that this writer took Ludacris to task last year for indulging in ugly, lowest-common-denominator posturing on Chicken -N- Beer. When it was announced that the title of his next album would be The Red Light District, your humble correspondent must admit that he feared more of the same. So it's an exceedingly pleasant surprise to report that District keeps such coarse pandering to a minimum. Even better, it's easily Luda's most consistent and -- can it really be true? -- experimental album to date. Yes, there's a fair amount of filler here -- most notably the pretty but vapid R&B of "Pimpin' All Over the World," which sounds like Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey attempting to go gangsta. But District packs a number of bouncy, accessible car-radio stocking-stuffers, like the ingratiating single "Get Back" (still a bit too puffed-up with thug posturing, but at forgivable limits), "Number One Spot" (hearing Ludacris rap "Scheme, scheme / Plot, plot" is a highlight that has to be heard to be fully appreciated) and "Put Your Money" (with a surprising guest turn from DMX). What's more, Ludacris bolsters his likeable traits -- his loose, Everydawg-made-good persona, his unique Southern drawl -- with an eagerness to expand his stylistic parameters: the tribal drumbeats and arresting "Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton" break of the Timbaland-produced "The Potion," on which he proclaims "Speakin' about what hip-hop is missin' and shit / I'm 'bout to fill a void"; the lilting street-psychedelia of "Blueberry Yum Yum." And even when he falls into the trap of complaining about the perils of wealth (as on the otherwise enjoyable "Large Amounts"), Ludacris avoids the alienating misogyny and affected thug-life misanthropy that have marred past works. For those reasons, The Red Light District is the best work of the Atlanta rapper's career so far.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 22, 2004

Elton John: Peachtree Road
Universal, 2004
Rating: 3.7
At his current level of media recognition, Elton John could easily set his musical career on "coast" -- and an argument can be made that he's done so for many years. But with Peachtree Road, John once again admirably sets out to make a strong album filled with solid, durable tunes, continuing in the vein of (and improving upon) 2001's Songs From the West Coast, instead of simply issuing a piece of product studded with one or two hopeful hits. And even more admirably, he succeeds -- mostly. The opening "Weight of the World" is too slow setting a tone, and "Too Many Tears" settles for cheap emotional button-pushing, tritely evoking the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But elsewhere, John -- aided by longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin -- delivers some of his best material in at least a decade, made all the stronger by its refusal to conform to modern-day radio format standards in hopes of scoring an "I'm Still Standing"-sized hit. The results are melodic and accessible without being calculated, occasionally bolstered by soaring vocal arrangements. Engaging numbers like "Answers in the Sky" (which echoes the swirling hook of "Philadelphia Freedom"), "My Elusive Drug" and the bucolic "Porch Swing in Tupelo" are inviting and assured, performed with the confidence of a commanding vocalist and the careful skill of a veteran popsmith -- the qualities that make the effortless "Turn the Lights Out When You Leave" a potentially huge hit single. Those standouts raise the waterline for serviceable numbers like "They Call Her the Cat" (which tries a bit too hard, lyrically, to evoke John's fanciful 1970s heyday). Let's be clear: Peachtree Road isn't a masterpiece. But it's a welcome reminder that Sir Elton became the mega-celebrity he is today for a reason: his prodigious way with a pop tune. As such, it's his most consistently rewarding effort in recent memory.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 04, 2004

Damien Jurado: Just in Time for Something [EP]
Secretly Canadian, 2004
Rating: 3.5
"I will not bend / Lucky, I guess." That line, from "Smith 1972," the opening track of Just in Time for Something, perfectly encapsulates the solemn determination of the characters populating Damien Jurado's vividly overcast musical universe. This five-song, ten-and-a-half minute EP may be a token gesture to hold over fans until his next full-length, On My Way To Absence, arrives, but it serves at least one essential purpose: Validating that whether in a studio or recording straight to an old reel-to-reel recorder using tape salvaged from a thrift store, as is the case here, Jurado crafts impassioned, affecting and brutally honest music. Despite tape flubs, the intermittent sound of a chair shifting and other unintentional background noises, Just in Time for Something works because of Jurado's open-faced lyrics and the haunted candor with which he delivers them.

::: Laurence Station

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December 01, 2004

Eminem: Encore
Aftermath/Interscope, 2004
Rating: 1.8
Given Eminem's deep psychological need to create and sustain conflict (even while publicly disavowing same), it's tempting to think that he made Encore, his fourth full-length album, as weak as it is on purpose, to bait his critics. It's just the kind of reckless move you might expect from a talent who so often chooses to sublimate his gift for intricate rhyme schemes in favor of adolescent fuming and puerile bathroom humor even Adam Sandler might wrinkle his nose at. But there's no reason to think that Marshall Mathers isn't playing it straight on Encore, and more's the pity. It's not simply the weakest album of his otherwise impressive career; it's one of the poorest performances from such a high-profile talent in recent memory. The misanthropy on display on such sonically uninvolving tracks as the wretched "My 1st Single," "Big Weenie" and "Puke" redefine tiresome. And for someone who spends so much time trying to bury hatchets with the likes of The Source and even (get over it already) Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Mathers sure goes out of his way to kick at pathetically easy targets (Michael Jackson and Jessica Simpson). The political screed "Mosh" and the interesting production on "Yellow Brick Road" and "Like Toy Soldiers" (which samples the ancient Martika hit "Toy Soldiers") offer briefly -- all-too painfully briefly -- engrossing moments. Those aside, Encore lives up to its title, rehashing the worst bits of filler from Eminem's earlier albums. If the distrustful, even hateful hermit heard so often here really does just want to be left alone, Encore might just fulfill that wish.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 01, 2004

Robyn Hitchcock: Spooked
Yep Roc, 2004
Rating: 3.6
If the idea of pairing Robyn Hitchcock with the contemporary mountain-folk-country duo of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch sounds a bit off-putting, don't worry: Spooked, the result of that very collaboration, never turns into the baroque piece of nonsense-baroque folk one might imagine. This is a very muted record, and that means that its joys are muted as well, such as the snippets of harmonizing on the opening "Television" (which redeems Hitchcock's slightly grating "Bing a bong a bing bong" intro) or the long, stripped-down and eerily faithful cover of Bob Dylan's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" (the title here appended with "Before They Close the Door") from 1997's Time Out of Mind. There are some quietly affecting moments here; the slight ballad "English Girl," the finger-snap percussion and harmonized "ooohs" on the lyrically foreboding "Demons and Fiends" ("Movin' out towards the kingdom / All I see is hobgoblins and ghouls") and the low-key twitchiness of "Creeped Out" ("Everything is happening behind your eyes"). Too bad they all follow upon one another, instead of being interspersed between less arresting moments like "We're Gonna Live in the Trees." Hitchcock, best known for his elliptical wordplay, continues the comparatively straightforward approach of his latter-day efforts, and the results here reveal a deep but measured unease with world events -- as on "Demons and Fiends" and "If You Know Time," which more-or-less directly references the war in Iraq ("The war that's coming/ Setting good guys against good"). Rawlings and Welch's bare-bones accompaniment proves a handsome fit, crafting an album that thoughtfully contemplates such time-tested subjects as love, war and the desire for escape. If Spooked isn't Hitchcock's most visceral effort, its spare acoustics make it nonetheless a diverting and likeable listen.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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November 24, 2004

Death From Above 1979: You're a Woman, I'm a Machine
Vice / Atlantic, 2004
Rating: 4.1
Dance metal? Why not? Toronto-based duo Death From Above 1979 -- Sebastien Grainger (vocals/screaming/drums) and Jesse Keeler (bass/Moog) -- prove that it's possible to get a groove on over skull-crushing beats and headbang-worthy riffs. The thrashing yet danceable "Going Steady" achieves what many biophysicists thought impossible: the coexistence of head-bopping and rump-shaking in the same temporal space. And that's what makes You're a Woman, I'm a Machine so much fun. Grainger and Keeler aren't limiting their options, either stylistically or musically. They capably cover everything from noisy freakouts ("Turn It Out") to electroclash chillouts ("Sexy Results"), and manage to hold it all together better than bands armed with triple the sonic arsenal. (Queens of the Stone Age, the gauntlet lays squarely at your feet.)

::: Laurence Station

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November 24, 2004

Castanets: Cathedral
Asthmatic Kitty, 2004
Rating: 3.9
San Diego's Castanets are an outré country outfit with a lead foot on the distortion pedal. Cathedral, the band's first widely available release, begins with lead singer/principal songwriter Raymond Raposa gravelly observing "puddles have turned into lakes," as a steady rumble builds. The storm (metaphorically and sonically speaking) doesn't break until "Industry and Snow," the third track, which features (given the dark mood) surprisingly effective toy piano, and devolves into a feedback-drenched squall. Castanets prove equally adept at traditional country ("As You Do"). But it's with the more adventurous cuts (such as the sepulcherally graceful "We Are the Wreckage," which floats on a sea of delicately shimmering notes) that Castanets validate their existence. With any luck, Cathedral will find an audience willing to explore darker corners of a genre that rarely cohabitates comfortably with experimental forms.

::: Laurence Station

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November 21, 2004

God Lives Underwater: Up Off the Floor
Megaforce Records, 2004
Rating: 3.9
Since 1995, God Lives Underwater has crafted an industrial-rock sound heavy on the electronica. On its fourth album, Up Off the Floor, God Lives Underwater takes that dark sound and adds a healthy dose of rock. The opening track, "White Noise," will inevitably be on the Fast and the Furious 42 soundtrack, whenever that arrives in theaters. It's the ultimate adrenaline-pumping driving song. "Tricked" is lyrically the darkest song here, highlighted by the chorus "I won't ever be tricked / Into thinking that they love me / Because no one does / And no one will / And that's the way I like it." On Up Off the Floor God Lives Underwater shifts its sound closer to the industrial and grunge sub-genres, away from the electronic field it's known for, a move sure to gain more fans and more respect than the group already has.

::: Tim Wardyn

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November 14, 2004

The Go! Team: Thunder, Lightning, Strike
Memphis Industries, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Coming across like a deliriously evanescent pep rally from the Outer Limits, Thunder, Lightning, Strike, the long-player debut from Brighton, UK-based sextet The Go! Team, boils over with sonic fripperies. The impossibly urgent, hyperkinetic "Panther Dash" is the kind of track Quentin Tarantino would use if he helmed a live-action version of Speed Racer. Choice cut "Ladyflash" exhibits a pastoral spaciness reminiscent of Manitoba; "Bottle Rocket" possesses a shuffling, Avalanches-lite beat and a creative, nicely melded array of sampled happenstances. The Go! Team's everything-in-excess approach is further reinforced by the groovy piano shimmy of "Feelgood By Numbers," the trippy, bended flute instrumental "Get It Together," and even a mock drill deviation, "Air Raid GTR." Such dizziness proves intoxicating. Like any good buzz, however, you're apt to wake up with a hangover, especially if you haven't filled up on more substantial fare first. Caveat Emptor: The Go! Team gleefully skips the main course and heads straight to the after-party.

::: Laurence Station

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November 11, 2004

The Blood Brothers: Crimes
V2, 2004
Rating: 4.1
The knee-jerk reaction to the Blood Brothers' Crimes is to cry "Sellout!" to anyone who cares about such things. (On a side note, isn't putting a price tag on anything technically a sell out?) Easily discernible melodies abound, and what's with the featured piano on the otherwise par-for-the-course, rabid meltdown number "Peacock Skeleton With Crooked Feathers"? Indeed, the Blood Bothers are -- take a deep breath, rigid hardcore purists -- maturing. Not to worry, though, you've still got the complementary vocal styles of wailing Johnny Whitney and the slightly more restrained Jordan Blilie. And the band's mad thrash is still very much in play (certainly, no one would accuse the frenzied "Feed Me to the Forest" and savage "Trash Flavored Trash" of being concessions to the mainstream). The Blood Brothers have moved up the label food-chain, but are still exploring dark corners ("My First Kiss at the Public Execution") and At The Drive-In-worthy lyrical nooks and crannies ("Rats and Rats and Rats for Candy"). There's just more variety, in an adventurous Brainiac, anything-goes sort of way. Case in point: the title track, which could easily occupy the stage with cabaret singers from bygone eras. Crimes is guilty of nothing save exhibiting the sound of a band that clearly isn't finished evolving. Deal with it.

::: Laurence Station

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November 10, 2004

Annie: Anniemal
679, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Anne Berge-Strand is a Norwegian singer/DJ whose debut, Anniemal, affirms that hip beats and introspective lyrics don't have to be musically exclusive elements. Highlights include a pair of Richard X-produced tracks, "Chewing Gum" and "Me Plus One," the former for its unavoidably bubblegum bounce, quick-footed and lively; the latter due to its confidently expressive sensuality (Annie promises to "rock your world"). "Greatest Hit," Annie's popular 1999 single, appears almost as an obligatory concession to those who know her solely as the performer who built the song from a loop of Madonna's "Everybody." But Anniemal's staying power comes from an overriding sense of loss. "No Easy Love" contains what should be a trite throwaway turn ("I have been working day and night / Trying to forget your smile so bright") that resonates due to the genuine emotion in Annie's voice. Electro-pop's Tapestry? Perhaps. But it's safer to name-check Anniemal as one of the stronger debuts released this year.

::: Laurence Station

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October 30, 2004

Ed Harcourt: Strangers
Heavenly, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Ed Harcourt leaves behind the bolder arrangements found on Here Be Monsters and From Every Sphere and ventures into late-night, "in love with being in love" romantic balladry on Strangers, his fourth release in as many years. The talented British singer-songwriter has crafted the warmest, most life-affirming album of his still-budding career. And it mostly works, with the brash/melodramatic cuts ("Storm Is Coming," "Let Love Not Weigh Me Down" and "Loneliness") strategically spaced amongst the piano weepers ("This One's for You," "Open Book") and glorious pop kickers ("Born in the '70s" and the title track, which successfully articulates the giddy excitement of first encounters that survive longer than a fortnight). The bland "Something to Live For" fails to make a love connection, however, and the overall polish proves a tad blinding and superficial. But Harcourt gets credit for sticking to his creative guns and not trotting out an elongated quasi-industrial detour (e.g., Monsters' "Beneath The Heart Of Darkness") in a self-conscious effort to shake things up.

::: Laurence Station

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October 30, 2004

William Shatner: Has Been
Shout! Factory, 2004
Rating: 3.4
Has Been is not The Transformed Man, Part 2. Which might be a good or bad thing, depending on how devoted one is to William Shatner's 1968 spoken-word riff on pop hits of the day, Shakespeare and wiggy poetry. Has Been lacks Transformed Man's colossal sense of hubris and campy, beyond-over-the-top execution. But what it does offer, at least its first half, is a 73-year-old man reflecting on a lifetime of ups and (mostly) downs, and it's that sobering confessional quality that gives the album an unexpected dose of depth and grace. Collaborating with Ben Folds (who also produced) and playing host to an array of guest stars, from Joe Jackson to Henry Rollins, Shatner surprises by avoiding self-parody or pandering to the masses that want the hammy Captain Kirk-meets-Priceline-pitchman shtick the actor has perfected. An attention-grabbing cover of Pulp's "Common People" proves an effective icebreaker. But then darkness settles. "It Hasn't Happened Yet" is pure existential angst over a life unfulfilled. "You'll Have Time"'s message: "Live life like you're gonna die." "That's Me Trying," with lyrics by Nick Hornby, is an epistle from a father trying to reconnect with an estranged daughter. "What Have You Done" is Shatner recalling the discovery of his drowned wife, Nerine, at the bottom of their pool. All pretty brave, in its own way. But Has Been loses its nerve in the second half. "Familiar Love" might have been an effective look at loneliness and one-night stands had the backing singers not upped the cheesy lounge factor; the title track is undermined by a hokey Spaghetti Western pastiche; and the closing, Brad Paisley-penned "Real" lacks the naked vulnerability of the earlier cuts, despite containing some pointedly well-executed lines ("Just because you've seen my on your TV / Doesn't mean I'm more enlightened than you"). While Has Been stumbles well before the finish line, Shatner convincingly proves that Transformed Man was more a product of its time than a mirror reflecting his true soul -- which is apparently pretty dark territory. Who knew?

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2004

Elvis Costello: The Delivery Man
Mercury, 2004
Rating: 3.3
Elvis Costello's 21st studio release, The Delivery Man, is a song cycle about murder, lust and betrayal set in the Deep South. If that concept sounds somewhat vague, blame the messenger. Costello intentionally plays fast and loose with the narrative order, and has even commented that many songs in the storyline will be spread out across future albums. Bearing that caveat in mind, don't feel bad if nothing resembling an articulate tale involving a delivery man and the various women he loves, murders and/or otherwise betrays rises above the murk. What is apparent throughout The Delivery Man is that, despite some fantastic individual moments (the smoking electric blues of "Needle Time;" a grief-stricken duet with Emmylou Harris of Costello's Oscar-nominated "The Scarlet Tide" [sung on the Cold Mountain soundtrack by Alison Krauss and co-written by T-Bone Burnett]), there's a nagging lack of cohesion. The nervy urgency of falling-to-pieces opener "Button My Lip" inelegantly gives way to the smoldering regret of "Country Darkness." Likewise, the bluesy tramp of "Either Side of the Same Town" is blindsided by the alarming "Bedlam." Rather than ebbing and flowing from raucous to mellow, The Delivery Man is a helter-skelter assemblage. It convincingly exhibits the breadth of affection Costello has for homegrown American musical forms, but lacks a tight-enough center to stand among his sturdier, more disciplined works.

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2004

Jill Scott: Beautifully Human: Words & Sounds, Vol. 2
Sony, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds, Vol. 1 laid the groundwork for the North Philly singer-songwriter's approach to life and music: clean, stylish arrangements, positivism and her soulful voice. Beautifully Human: Words & Sounds, Vol. 2 refines the blueprint, cutting back on the debut's spoken-word asides to concentrate on Scott's velvety delivery ("Can't Explain (42nd Street Happenstance)" is melted-butter smooth) and anti-violence pleas: "Rasool" tragically recounts Scott's early exposure to the mean streets ("At 15 years old, it was the first death I'd seen"). Other than the upbeat, sexually charged "Bedda At Home," the middle portion of Beautifully Human settles into a mid-tempo comfort zone that, while hardly bland, lowers the pulse threshold considerably. Consequently, the more groove-oriented cuts, like the life-affirming "Golden" and assertively provocative "I'm Not Afraid" ("I am not afraid to be your lady / I am not afraid to be your whore") resonate strongest. The latest volume of Jill Scott's personal and artistic odyssey buffs the rough edges of Words & Sounds, Vol. 1 but sacrifices some of that record's spirited adventurousness. Perhaps Volume 3 will unify the best elements from both.

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2004

Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender
Drag City, 2004
Rating: 3.5
There's a certain irony to San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom's use of the harp as the primary instrument on her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Mender is heavily steeped in Appalachian folk balladry, but in utilizing her chosen instrument to summon notes that sound so fragile and winsome, Newsom forsakes any semblance of carved-from-the-earth authenticity. On the upside, however, she does create a unique canvas, better likened to some imaginary Misty Mountain Hop than to some earthbound environment. "Bridges and Balloons" (the sight of which makes "calm irritable canaries"), and perceptive weeper "This Side of the Blue" make a favorable impression, and it's obvious Newsom, like fellow folk explorer Devendra Banhart, possesses a particular musical vocabulary that merits continued patronage. When Newsom forsakes the fantastical for canned '70s slogans, however, as with the bass-heavy "The Book of Right-On," her footing is less assured. The Milk-Eyed Mender is an odd duckling that may irritate as many listeners as it entrances. Such polarization usually means an artist has struck a chord, however. For an artist like Newsom, one senses that middle-of-the-road acceptance would be a harsher assessment to bear.

::: Laurence Station

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October 14, 2004

De La Soul: The Grind Date
Sanctuary, 2004
Rating: 4.1
The Grind Date is De La Soul backed into a corner, coming out swinging. After parting ways with longtime label Tommy Boy, the estimable hip-hop trio shelved the third volume of its Art Official Intelligence series (apparently the brass at Tommy Boy considered it commercially unviable) and decided to make its first independent release a back-to-basics, stripped-down "we're not dead yet" statement. Mission accomplished. The Grind Date finds Pos, Dave and Maceo celebrating a decade-plus run in the rap game and conceding nothing to the latest generation of artists. "The Future" laments current high flyers who don't appreciate the groundwork laid by earlier MCs. "Verbal Clap" addresses De La Soul's less than prolific catalog: "I call 'em words from me that take long to cook / So some feel free in sayin' that we don't hunger for beats / Not that we not hungry, just picky in what we eat." The message is simple: De La Soul wouldn't still be around (and attract such guest artists and producers as J-Dilla, Ghostface, MF Doom, Common, Flava Flav and Sean Paul) if the group was no longer relevant. Or, as they claim on "No," featuring Butta Verses, being on top of the game is measured over time as opposed to flavor-of-the-moment rhymes. The Grind Date is the sound of a rejuvenated heavyweight who may have lost his belt but has in no way conceded the fight.

::: Laurence Station

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October 10, 2004

The Delgados: Universal Audio
Chemikal Underground, 2004
Rating: 3.8
The Delgados' fifth studio release, Universal Audio, sheds the heavy orchestral garments characteristic of the Glaswegian four-piece's previous two efforts. Devotees of The Great Eastern, Hate and "too big is only the tip of the iceberg" producer Dave Fridmann (who did major body work on the former and only provided a superficial buff job on the latter) might miss the ecstatic pop flourishes. But they shouldn't sell the clean, amiable Universal Audio short solely do to such absences. If anything, the Delgados reveal a confidence and emotional directness heretofore lacking in their work. The vocal are brought to the fore with no storm of symphonic bombast running interference. Or, as Emma Pollock sings on heady opener "I Fought The Angels:" "Everybody knows that I only have myself to blame." Fortunately, other than the minor quibble that there's not as many immediately bracing hooks as on past efforts, Universal Audio has very little to apologize for. Pollock and Alun Woodward split the singing duties, with Pollock handling the darker-themed material ("Come Undone," featuring delicate piano and quavering cello, and the choice line "These are days that you really don't want to last") while Woodward errs on the side of optimism in the face of adversity (the power chord-laden "Get Action!" and the "live for today" micro-anthem "Now & Forever"). Oddly enough, Pollock gets saddled with the most irresistibly peppy, vacuous track, "Everybody Come Down." Universal Audio finds the Delgados working out a straightforward guitar-bass-drums pop-rock jones, and handily proving bigger doesn't exclusively mean better.

::: Laurence Station

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October 10, 2004

Hope of the States: The Lost Riots
Sony: 2004
Rating: 4.6
With its most impressive debut The Lost Riots, Hope of the States has burst onto the British music scene as the latest Next Big Thing. Sure enough, the disc's melodic, forward-thinking songs of hope and despair have earned the band the requisite comparisons to Radiohead. To the casual listener, The Lost Riots comes off as one long anti-American diatribe, as singer Sam Herlihy injects plenty of venom into songs like "The Red The White The Black The Blue," "Black Dollar Bills" and "1776." However, any intonations of cross-Atlantic ill-will are erased by the upbeat "Enemies/Friends" ("Come on people, keep your friends close, your enemies won't matter in the end"). On most tracks, Hope of the States achieves a sprawling, epic sound, thanks to the use of violin and a three-guitar attack. And when the band goes instrumental, like on "The Black Amnesias," it comes off as a more accessible, less-experimental Mogwai. This most confident debut presents Hope of the States as a band for the future -- a place it'll most likely find very comfortable.

::: Eric Grossman

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September 30, 2004

Thalia Zedek: Trust Not Those In Whom Without Some Touch Of Madness
Thrill Jockey, 2004
Rating: 3.5
There's a dark theatricality to Thalia Zedek's music, expressed via her deliberate singing style, a concentrated slow burn, and frugal choice of core instrumentation (drums, viola, guitar and piano -- no bass) that add gravity to the New York-based confessional singer-songwriter's words. The oddly named Trust Not Those In Whom Without Some Touch Of Madness (the title comes from a pair of mismatched fortune cookie notes taped together that Zedek once received) lacks the emotional resonance of 2001's stellar Been Here and Gone, but nonetheless contains several standout tracks: the grim but determined "Evil Hand," featuring some welcome lap steel, and "Brother," a country-blues number bolstered by an uplifting cello, and ends with the resigned but still defiantly delivered observation, "But it's all over now / A new king's been crowned / And we all recognize him." The cumulative effect of Trust Not is a wearying one; Zedek will never be accused of false optimism. She cuts to the core of her pain, and isn't afraid to bathe her record in the resulting gore. This can be a tough slog, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more honest, nakedly vulnerable performer currently recording.

::: Laurence Station

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September 30, 2004

The Arcade Fire: Funeral
Merge, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Funeral is a big-hearted record, gushing with emotion. Montreal-based quintet The Arcade Fire lists nine people (friends and family members) who have passed away, hence the ceremonial title of the group's debut. The ten tracks offered here don't explicitly deal with loss, but are obviously greatly informed by it. "Une Année Sans Lumière" mentions burnt-out streetlights (one for every dear soul lost, presumably); "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" concerns a power outage. But The Arcade Fire isn't wallowing in self-pity or reflecting a bereaved, paralytic state. If anything, Funeral is bursting with energy (albeit in a nervy, Talking Heads sort of way). Lead vocalist Win Butler has a hybridized vocal style reminiscent of David Byrne or Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, and he's at his best on the big, sweeping orchestral pieces ("Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and the sway-croon pleading of "Crown Of Love"). The best moments belong to Régine Chassagne, however. She brings an evocative sense of place to "Haïti," which features a sunny, roiling beat and intriguingly dark lyrics ("In the forest we are hiding / Unmarked graves where flowers grow") and the closing, fragile, "In the Backseat," which comes closest to providing an elegy for the dead. Lyrically, the band's not quite there yet, exhibit A being "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)" and the clunky couplet: "My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids / But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids." But in terms of sheer ambition -- and the realization that if you're going to use strings, you might as well go completely over the top with them -- The Arcade Fire is a promising, unapologetically melodramatic sure bet.

::: Laurence Station

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September 28, 2004

Devendra Banhart: Niño Rojo
Young God, 2004
Rating: 4.2
Devendra Banhart describes Niño Rojo as the child to Rejoicing in the Hands' mother. Which shouldn't imply that the 16 tracks (which came out of the same sessions as Rejoicing) on Niño Rojo (literally, "Red Boy") are somehow less developed, or dependent upon Rejoicing for clarity or comparative insight. Instead, Rejoicing offers a remote perspective (“Rejoicing in the hands of the Golden Empress / Is the mother / Is the sun” -- life-giving but distant), while Rojo is friendly, warm, not as abstract and more ingrained in the messy world of the living. Consequently, it's a more accessible (if not as deeply rewarding) work, thanks in large part to added instrumentation and players. The engaging "At The Hop" is co-written by and performed with Andy Cabic (in whose Bay Area band Vetiver Banhart is a collaborator); "Noah" effectively employs piano and cello to accentuate the longing in Banhart's voice; "Be Kind" refreshingly revels in straight-ahead pop. Niño Rojo may not appeal to the "freak-folk" crowd that so heartily embraced Rejoicing and its shambling predecessor Oh Me Oh My..., but Banhart effectively displays a willingness to broaden his musical horizons that will undoubtedly serve him well on subsequent releases.

::: Laurence Station

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September 28, 2004

Interpol: Antics
Matador, 2004
Rating: 3.3
Is Antics superior to Interpol's highly regarded debut, Turn On The Bright Lights? Well, yes, providing your criteria involve a tighter, less fussy sound and gimmick-free production. Antics is no-frills Interpol, with the New York quartet refining its passive (yet paradoxically insistent) bark and thrum -- a soundtrack for the hopeless urban romantic. Paul Banks has the requisite needy-yet-threatening vocal timbre to pull off such conflicted lines as "Time is like a broken watch / I make money like Fred Astaire" ("Take You On A Cruise"), and manages to infuse the bulk of Antics' ten tracks with a peculiar aching vulnerability tinged with menace; love this heartsick fool or he may well hurt you. The urgent, not quite falling-to-pieces (but damn near close) "Not Even Jail" is a highlight, as is the hard-beat-energized, Clinic-worthy "Length of Love." Antics finds Interpol improving its American Psycho-reserved rock formula without running out of unblemished ideas. Hence, a passing grade.

::: Laurence Station

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September 22, 2004

Tim McGraw: Live Like You Were Dying
Curb, 2004
Rating: 3.6
Tim McGraw is one of the brightest stars in Nashville's modern country firmament: An engaging performer with an ear for picking well-constructed songs and just enough rebellious pluck to insist on recording with his live band, the Dancehall Doctors, rather than session musicians. (Being married to one of the most attractive women in country -- hell, in popular music -- is just icing on the cake.) Live Like You Were Dying continues his streak, armed with a handful of exceptionally sturdy songs that are not only pleasant radio fodder, but also daring enough to push at the boundaries of conventional country fare. The energized opener "How Bad Do You Want It" flirts with pop-crossover status, its briskly rocking guitars setting a toe-tapping pace the rest of the album strains to keep up with. One has to give McGraw credit for spending his hard-earned fan capital on songs like "Drugs and Jesus" (about the two prevalent options available to questing souls in a small town) and the bracing "Kill Myself," a nervy take on a despondent man's contemplation of suicide. In fact, perseverance in the face of adversity is the album's central theme, from the earnest title track to the formulaic "We Carry On" to the likable "Do You Want Fries With That." It's all very commendable, but one wishes McGraw had taken a few more chances with the material, most of which is as lightweight and ultimately disposable as much of modern country. "Back When" hints at what's holding the singer back; it's a nostalgic ode to an "old and outdated way of life," a simpler time when "A ho was a hoe / Coke was a Coke... and when you said 'I'm down with that' / It meant you had the flu." It's a perfectly legitimate sentiment, albeit a bit backward-looking for someone with McGraw's willingness to rub up against Nashville conservatism. One wonders if he appreciates the irony when he sings "They put pop in my country / I want more for my money." So do we all, Tim, and Dying is the sound of you almost -- almost -- fulfilling that promise.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 21, 2004

Reverend Horton Heat: Revival
Yep Roc, 2004
Rating: 3.4
It was 1992 when Jim Heath -- that's Horton Heat to you -- first made a long-lost art called rockabilly cool for the alternative nation, singing spirited odes to drugs, sex and fast cars, and playing the guitar like nobody's business. Twelve years, some great albums, a major-label deal and a few not-so-great albums later, we find the Reverend a changed man. Revival carries little more than a glimmer of his past grunge-infused aesthetic. "Mellowed out" may be a strong choice of words, as the album has no shortage of heel-kicking honky-tonk guitar riffs on tracks like "Callin' In Twisted." But it strongly lacks the "bales of cocaine" rambunctiousness Heat and his band employed to gather their underground following back in their heyday. The prime example of how the Reverend has aged is a newfound sentimentality in ballads like "Someone In Heaven," a pure-country anthem written after the passing of Heath's mother. Such sentiment (also evident in the anti-heroin lament "Indigo Friends") brings a sense of responsibility and composure to a band whose main objective has always been to take listeners on a hell-raising ride. If this deters fans from picking up the record, it shouldn't. It's a stronger album that those from Heat's Interscope period, and while songs like "Party Mad" and "If It Ain't Got Rhythm" no longer sound new, they do have their own rewards. A bonus DVD with three live songs and an interview with Heath is a nice extra that makes it a must-buy for those die-hards in the Reverend's congregation.

::: Nathan Lynch

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September 21, 2004

The Finn Brothers: Everyone Is Here
Nettwerk, 2004
Rating: 3.6
Tim and Neil Finn have been creating perfect pop music for decades with Crowded House and Split Enz, as well as solo work and two previous albums under the Finn Brothers moniker. And on Everyone Is Here, they put that experience to good use, crafting a thoroughly enjoyable pop album worthy of repeated listens. "Luckiest Man Alive" shows how the brothers feed off of each other as if they know what the other is thinking, as expressed in the lyric "I know that it's you behind / Everything that I do." More than 40 years of combined experience results in an album that works well as music for the road or for a party thrown by discriminating baby boomers, full of tight harmonies and musicianship on songs such as "Disembodied Voices" and "Edible Flowers." Everyone Is Here shows that the Finns, unlike aging purveyors of '80s pop like Phil Collins or Don Henley, have no intention of slowing down their sound, and every intention of continuing to create solid pop music under their own rules.

::: Tim Wardyn

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September 13, 2004

The Thrills: Let's Bottle Bohemia
Virgin, 2004
Rating: 3.5
It'd be a stretch to say that The Thrills have jettisoned their sparkling California sound on Let's Bottle Bohemia, the band's sophomore effort. Conor Deasy still warbles his way through stories of has-beens and never-weres (Exhibits A and B: "Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?" and "Faded Beauty Queens"), while Kevin Horan's twinkling keys provide the backbone for several tunes. But it's clear that the band has taken great strides to tighten things up. Whereas their acclaimed debut, So Much for the City, included several five-minute tracks, Bohemia checks in at around 35 minutes, with songs averaging about three-and-a-half minutes. And several tracks feature a hardened edge that was nowhere to be found on City (that's R.E.M.'s Peter Buck contributing guitar on "The Curse of Comfort"). Lead single "Not for All the Love in the World" and closing track "The Irish Keep Gate-Crashing" are a study in contrasts: the former is perhaps the album's most downcast -- and melodic -- track, while the latter offers a jig-like romp. Fans of So Much for the City's warm, Beach Boys-esque charms may be disappointed with The Thrills' musical progression, but most should enjoy Bohemia's varied charms.

::: Eric Grossman

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September 13, 2004

The Black Keys: Rubber Factory
Epitaph, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Akron, Ohio no longer holds the title of "Rubber Capital of the World." One good thing to come out of this industrial downturn is the number of abandoned rubber factories in town just begging for rock duos with a serious passion for electrified blues to set up shop and make music. And the Black Keys (singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and percussionist Patrick Carney) do just that on the aptly named Rubber Factory. Having established their basic crunchy-blues sound on The Big Come Up and refined it on 2003’s lauded Thickfreakness, Auerbach and Carney up the ante on Rubber Factory by expanding their scope (the achingly heartsick ballad “The Lengths”) and managing to make a cover of the Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle” their own by twisting the pop structure into a loose, after-dark back-porch jam. The duo’s bread and butter, obviously, is its blistering rootsy blues numbers, and there’s certainly no shortage here. The energized “10 A.M. Automatic” is positively anthemic (a rather atypical blues aspect that nonetheless pays substantial dividends), while the down-and-dirty “Aeroplane Blues” measures up to the deepest cuts on the duo's first two albums. Rubber Factory finds inspiration in decay, and signals a hopeful future for the Black Keys, whose popularity should eventually allow them to record in a rundown factory out of personal preference as opposed to financial necessity.

::: Laurence Station

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September 10, 2004

The Gunshy: No Man's Blues
Latest Flame, 2004
Rating: 3.1
The Gunshy, previously a one-man show run by hard-working singer-songwriter Matt Arbogast, has transformed into a full-fledged band withNo Man's Blues. The album finds Arbogast refining an alt-country/rock blend, approaching the task with a certain vigor and honesty that at times makes you want to punch a hole through the wall. The singer's husky-shaky vocals don't seem to come off as singing at all, but rather high- and low-pitched rasps; think Tom Waits with a sore throat. But the vocals lend themselves to the kind of pessimistic-macabre lyrics that Arbogast seems to have a knack for writing. Songs like "I Will Die Alone" and "Dead Ends" present a brutally realistic outlook on life and love and making it as a musician. But yells of "I'm fucking up my life for rock and roll" in "Seven Weeks" are directly contradicted by the confident and sanguine backing arrangements, arrangements that aren't incredibly original or elaborate but offer enough variety to keep building momentum throughout the album. This turns No Man's Blues into a kind of double-headed coin. Some may see it as complex, others as inherently conflicted. The truth is it's both, but at its core the album offers a red-blooded country-emo sound that should be allowed its place, and given more credit then the band probably gives itself.

::: Nathan Lynch

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September 10, 2004

Argentine: In Other Fictions
BMI, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Few bands have been able to successfully bend traditional rock elements into a means of producing albums that stress atmosphere, texture and mood over the pop-rock formula of melody, rhythm and hook. It can be done: Talk Talk did it; Radiohead and Yo La Tengo's best albums were birthed when they created entire worlds with guitars, bass and drums, all the while managing to rock out to sounds that weren't exactly of the head-bobbing persuasion. This is what Argentine strives for with its debut, In Other Fictions: music that takes you places in lieu of giving you something to sing along with. "The World Gets Younger," a tune that would make Thom Yorke proud (if not a little bothered by the fact that Ian Carpenter's vocals sound a bit like his own) strives for a spacey-twilight aura, pulling it together with sparse, reverb-heavy guitars. Any lesser band might make the mistake of taking an album like this in convoluted and eccentric directions, but Argentine keeps a perfect center of gravity. In fact, it might be too perfect. What the album lacks is a collection of moments that change the moods and textures just enough to keep a casual listener interested. "Westerly" comes closest to achieving this, as cello and violin work by contributing member Mocha Ishibashi creates a slow-swirling whirlpool of dark yet optimistic sound. It's one of the shortest cuts on In Other Fictions, but it's a track that should put watchful eyes on a sprouting band.

::: Nathan Lynch

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September 09, 2004

The Upwelling: The Upwelling [EP]
Noreaster Records, 2004
Rating: 4.2
In the space of four tracks on one EP, New York's The Upwelling has created a listening experience that is not only thoroughly enjoyable but one that must be talked about. The trio combines the atmospheric optimism of Pink Floyd, the electronic undercurrents of Depeche Mode and the vocals of Tears for Fears to create the best EP of the year. The best track is "Ladder 104," in which Ari Ingber's vocals match the urgent intensity of the music, inviting the listener into a cinematic rescue mission with a sing-along chorus that would have been right at home in the movie Backdraft. If the band releases a full-length album anytime soon that involves the listener as much as this EP does, or matches its energy, it will be the year's best rock album, hands-down.

::: Tim Wardyn

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September 09, 2004

Woke Up Falling: Woke Up Falling
436 Records, 2004
Rating: 3.1
The Portland, Oregon-based trio Woke Up Falling sports a diverse rock sound that intersperses crunching guitars and killer beats with slower, more contemplative tracks. The results are undeniably passionate. "In Silence" and "Circle a Date to End This War" are great, intense numbers that won't make your speakers explode, and they're impeccably written as well. The problem lies in the vocals. Singer Gordie Muscutt sounds like The Cure's Robert Smith mixed with Bert McCraken from The Used, and it's a sound that takes a long time to get used to. Worse, if you don't have the lyrics in front of you, the words become obscure warbles, as if he's convulsing while he's singing. Still, Woke Up Falling sounds better with each spin. If you're looking for tight, angst-driven (but not necessarily hard) rock music, this is definitely worth a listen.

::: Tim Wardyn

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September 08, 2004

The Libertines: The Libertines
Rough Trade, 2004
Rating: 4.5
Let’s get the backstory out of the way: The Libertines have been fraught by internal conflict, most notably singer Peter Doherty’s recent battles with crack cocaine -- take a look at the cover of the band’s self-titled sophomore effort and you’ll see a somewhat disconcerting picture of Doherty and bandmate/partner-in-crime Carl Barat, taken the day Doherty was released from jail after serving a couple of months for burglarizing Barat’s apartment. Now to the music: The album’s opening track, “Can’t Stand Me Now,” is perfectly indicative of all The Libertines have to offer. Strikingly personal, undoubtedly bouncy and rife with tension, it offers some of the most exciting rock music you’re likely to encounter this year. (Just ask producer Mick Jones, who has likened The Libertines to his former band The Clash.) The disc covers a wide range of moods, from peppy tracks like “Last Post on the Bugle” that recall The Jam, to shambolic punk tunes (“Don’t Be Shy”) that sound as if Doherty had showed up to the studio in a drug-induced haze (which, sadly, was no doubt the case at times). On the strongest tracks, notably “Can’t Stand Me Now” and the closing number “What Became of the Likely Lads,” Barat and Doherty trade off insults and testimonials like a pair of scorned lovers, creating and feeding off of an unmistakable energy. The Libertines isn't without its missteps (the tuneless “Arbeit Macht Frei”), but there’s no denying its status as one of the most exciting discs in recent memory.

::: Eric Grossman

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September 08, 2004

Talking Heads: The Name of This Band is Talking Heads [Expanded Edition]
Rhino, 2004
Rating: 4.7
It’s rather odd, the number of critics and fans who want to toss the Talking Heads’ two live albums (The Name of This Band is Talking Heads [TNOTBITH] and Stop Making Sense) in a caged death match. If anything, the two albums complement one another, with TNOTBITH offering a career concert retrospective of the band through its 1981 Remain in Light tour, and Stop Making Sense, recorded over three nights at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre in December 1983, offering a more concise glimpse of the band during its cresting wave of popularity spurred by the single “Burning Down the House.” Of course, Stop Making Sense is more a soundtrack than a live album, a necessary byproduct of director Jonathan Demme’s film (and still the best way to “hear” the concert). TNOTBITH, long available only on vinyl, has finally entered the CD era (ironically, just as the format ceases to be viable in the age of iPods and other Gigabyte-sized storage formats). Thankfully, Rhino has done an excellent job remastering and expanding upon the original analog source. The first disc of the two-CD set covers the band’s early days (1977-79), when the quartet was still finding a sound to call its own. The live renditions are looser approximations of their studio counterparts, with “The Big Country” intriguingly exchanging the ennui of the original in favor of an angrier, darker tone. The second disc (1980-81) is the sound of a band at the height of its powers, employing a ten-piece band and backup singers, and exhibiting an absolute mastery of its material. The Talking Heads bring a dazzling, polyrhythmic dimension to the older songs and explode the sonic possibilities of the newer, studio cuts. TNOTBITH and Stop Making Sense are both vital documents of what made the Talking Heads such an important and exciting band. It’s nice to finally have them both on equal footing.

::: Laurence Station

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August 24, 2004

Clinic: Winchester Cathedral
Domino, 2004
Rating: 3.4
The album cover of Clinic's third full-length, Winchester Cathedral, looks like something the Polyphonic Spree might favor. A hand splayed before a bright sun is not the sort of optimistic, life-affirming image that comes to mind when considering Clinic's signature look (surgical masks and smocks) or sound (sinister and nocturnal). Winchester Cathedral, however, does brighten the Liverpudlian quartet's heavily drone-oriented, damaged-art-rock sound. Not that the first half of the album is any indication of this. Devotees of Internal Wrangler and Walking With Thee will no doubt embrace opener "Country Mile," in which the Greenwich Time Signal morphs into a fire-alarm-warning noise, before dissolving into the familiar panicky backbeat and droning melodica Clinic has mastered to an "ears closed" proficiency. "Circle of Fifths" and "Anne" follow in a tediously similar vein. It's not until the late-in-the-game pseudo-Motown number "Falstaff," featuring singer Ade Blackburn's best Smokey Robinson imitation, that Clinic sends one out of its moss-covered ballpark. The song is airy and smooth, a true standout. The succeeding klezmer waltz "August" isn't nearly as daring, but at least it moves in a different direction. Winchester Cathedral may be a transition album, or it may just contain a few curveballs to keep discerning listeners on their toes -- only Clinic knows for certain. As it stands now, if the group holds fast to what works, there won't be much point in owning more than one album by the band. And what a shameful waste that would be.

::: Laurence Station

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August 20, 2004

Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous
Warner Bros., 2004
Rating: 3.5
Jenny Lewis (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Blake Sennet (guitar, vocals) of Los Angeles quartet Rilo Kiley may be creative equals, but it's Lewis -- whose voice and lyrics have come to predominate -- who's become the clear focus. Sennet sings on just one track of the band's new More Adventurous, going solo on the pleading, brief "Ripchord". The rest of the album serves as a showcase for Lewis' impressive vocal range, with Sennet, bassist Pierre de Reeder and drummer Jason Boesel (not to mention a string and horn section) capably supporting her. The exuberant "try anything" feel of 2001's Take Offs and Landings and 2002's less daring but still unpredictable The Execution of All Things have been spurned in favor of a professionally polished, radio-friendly vibe. And while the arrangements veer between sprightly and bland, More Adventurous does prove to be Rilo Kiley's most consistent and sharply executed release to date. "I Never," an impressive Patsy Cline workout, and the infectious, darkly self-flagellating "Portions for Foxes" make a strong impression, while the anti-Bush, anti-death penalty, anti-good-song opener "It's a Hit," despite the presence of a punched-up baritone sax, falls flat. More Adventurous isn't exactly false advertising, although it's obvious Rilo Kiley is weary of its second-tier indie-rock status, and wouldn't mind adding a stadium or two to its tour itinerary in the near future.

::: Laurence Station

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August 17, 2004

The Earlies: These Were the Earlies
WEA, 2004
Rating: 3.4
You can't accuse the Earlies of skimping in the musical inspiration department. The Anglo-American quartet's debut, These Were the Earlies, pays an enormous debt to a pair of '60s experimental pop heavyweights (The Beatles and The Beach Boys), while layering in some liberal doses of Spacemen 3/Spiritualized-style distortion. But the group didn't stop there, as the entire concoction's tied together by a quasi-religious theme of traveling home under the watchful eye of Mother Mary. And it's not half-bad, providing you can get over the fact that the Earlies have yet to find a sound to call their own. Opening hymnal "In The Beginning" is a dead ringer for the Beach Boys' opening prayer from the unreleased Smile sessions (the big difference being the Earlies actually have lyrics). The interesting "One of Us is Dead" apes the Fab Four's "A Day in the Life" ("I heard the news today / They said one of us is dead") before triumphal horns and an innervating beat predominate. '70s rock isn't left out of the mix either; "Wayward Song" proves a less-optimistic recasting of Kansas' "Carry on Wayward Son." Pleasant electronic filigree ("Slow Man's Dream"), more references to Mother Mary to hurry up and shepherd lost souls home ("Morning Wonder," "Dead Birds") and a gentle piano number ("Song For #3") that tips its cap to the much-cited Psalm 40 ("How long will we sing this song?") flesh out the disc. These Were the Earlies is a proper past-tense summation of such backwards-leaning material. The group's obviously done its homework; now it's time to work on an original thesis for its follow-up.

::: Laurence Station

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August 17, 2004

Jim White: Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See
Luaka Bop, 2004
Rating: 3.7
On Luaka Bop's website you'll find Jim White saddled with the unwieldy label "trip-folk Americana." While that might sound like someone in the marketing department trying a little too hard to pigeonhole the idiosyncratic artist, a listen to his first two releases (1997's Wrong-Eyed Jesus and 2001's No Such Place) actually lends credence to such a multifaceted description. White -- former cab driver, professional surfer and fashion model -- is a restless soul, and his music reflects a man who, to paraphrase a line from Jim Lauderdale, is "only happy when he's moving." Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See finds White in full collaboration mode. Aimee Mann, Barenaked Ladies, Chocolate Genius and Bill Frisell make noteworthy appearances, but it's Joe Henry (who produced the bulk of the tracks) who makes the strongest impression. Quite simply, Drill a Hole is White's distinctive, Panhandle-troubadour vocals performed over the jazzy, late-night tones of a Joe Henry-assembled band. Fans of White's first two albums may be alarmed by this dramatic stylistic shift, but fortunately, the Florida native's curiously perceptive lyrical observations avoid getting drowned out by Henry's soulful horns and muted strings. White does briefly lose his sense of place on the Barenaked Ladies team-up, "Alabama Chrome," a song so structurally similar to the Canadian pop band's other work (cascading harmonies at a fast clip; shiny, car-commercial-fodder hooks) that it sounds like it landed on the wrong album. But Drill a Hole is an interesting listen nonetheless. White's restlessness is a boon for audiences that appreciate performers who obey a higher muse than formulaic retreads falling off a conveyor belt every two years.

::: Laurence Station

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August 13, 2004

Marah: 20,000 Streets Under the Sky
Yep Roc/PHIdelity, 2004
Rating: 2.4
When Philadelphia-based outfit Marah took an abrupt turn into slickness on 2002's Float Away with the Friday Night Gods, hardcore fans cried foul. Many of those fans are no doubt relieved that the band's creative core – brothers David and Serge Bielanko – weathered that storm, resisted the urge to dismantle the band and returned with 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, which hews closer to their acclaimed 2000 release Kids in Philly. But the Bierlankos might have been onto something with Friday Night Gods, because at least they were trying to expand their scope; while it has its moments, 20,000 Streets smacks of contrivance. The album's strutting soul-rock positively aches to position the brothers as the Gen-X descendents of 1970s Bruce Springsteen; its attempts to canonize the brothers' Philly stomping grounds are driven by too-precious nods to vintage pop (the cloying "Shimmy shimmy ko-ko-bop"s and other nursery rhyme-like signposts of "Freedom Park," the blue-eyed soul pastiche of "Sure Thing," the ill-conceived doo-wop hijinks of "Pizzeria") and a need to spin the neighborhood's working-class denizens into tragic characters (the junkie transvestite of "Feather Boa," the interracial lovers of "Soda"). Despite a couple of buoyant singalongs ("Tame the Tiger," "Going Through the Motions"), such street-level mythologizing mires Marah in a quicksand of nostalgia that renders 20,000 Streets ineffectual and over-earnest. The brothers' love of their region's music and its day-to-day tableaus are no doubt sincere, but they'd be better served by forward-looking musical explorations that don't mistake easy retro touchstones and tired lyrical conventions for homage, or for depth.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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August 13, 2004

Rogue Wave: Out of the Shadow
Sub Pop, 2004
Rating: 3.3
Self-released in early 2003, Rogue Wave's debut Out of the Shadow has been re-mastered (though it still betrays its raw, "in the bedroom" lo-fi origins), repackaged, and sent back into the world with Sub Pop's advertising weight behind it. Principally recorded by Zach Rogue and subsequently bolstered by what would become members of Rogue Wave, Out of the Shadow offers indie-pop that moves through a variety of moods (mopey, peppy, earnest and carefree) and operates primarily in a minor key. Rogue Wave manages some pleasant hum-along choruses ("Kicking the Heart Out"), tackles serious issues from a childlike perspective ("Postage Stamp World"'s busted-home lament, with a wounded Zach Rogue inviting the listener to get in line and lick not a stamp, but his behind). Fans of Elliott Smith, Lou Barlow and Death Cab for Cutie won't be disappointed. There's definite promise here, if not the stunning masterpiece of popcraft that a sudden deluge of impressive notices might indicate. It remains to be seen whether the band possesses staying power, or, like its oceanic namesake, will vanish just as swiftly as it came.

::: Laurence Station

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August 13, 2004

Comets on Fire: Blue Cathedral
Sub Pop, 2004
Rating: 3.3
Let there be rock. Ethan Miller and his Santa Cruz-based cohorts believe in the power of spacewalking guitar solos, peeling organ freakouts and Robert Plant-style vocalizations (without the meddlesome distraction of actually being able to comprehend the lyrics). Comets on Fire simply want to flex a serious hard rock/proto-metal jones, and Blue Cathedral, the band's third release, is the strongest refinement yet of the group's shamelessly retro obsessions. "The Bee and the Cracking Egg" is a multiple-movement strut, equal parts Iron Butterfly sludge and Hawkwind cosmic detours. "The Antlers of the Midnight Sun" features gratuitously muscular riffs and Miller's Thunderbolts-of-Zeus delivery. What the band lacks in originality (not to mention coherence and subtlety), it more than makes up for with committed chops and indefatigable energy. For those who remember raising the lighter (but only after firing up the bong) during the '70s, and newcomers who want an approximation of what the origins of hard rock/metal sounded like for their generations, Comets on Fire are only too eager to oblige.

::: Laurence Station

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August 13, 2004

Nine Men's Morris: It's A Wonderful Life
Segue, 2004
Rating: 2.0
Taking their name from a 4000-year-old board game, Nine Men's Morris is in fact a trio of gentlemen from New York who make their national debut with It's A Wonderful Life. To let the band speak for itself, the album is "road trip, windows down, summer breeze music at its best." That line alone should be enough to put a smile on your face, and indeed NMM has managed to produce an album full of fun-filled, straightforward pop-rock; it's musical Prozac, really. Even frustrated-in-love songs like "Don't Say You're Sorry" and "The Kiss Off" present an outlook on life that's reached the highest possible level of self-esteem. The problem with It's A Wonderful Life is that it's too unrealistic and cheesily earnest to be taken with much seriousness. The soaring three-part vocal harmonies, complete with "oooohs" and "ahhhs", that permeate almost every track deny the opportunity to sit back and appreciate fun lyrics like "Kelly looked like Julie Brown / not "Downtown" Julie Brown / But the one with the big breasts / from Earth Girls Are Easy". The group's primary shortcoming lies in its unwillingness to take more risks with its sounds. Formulaic songwriting has its place, to be sure, but when it's put to inoffensive, adult contemporary beats and synth lines, a little goes a long way.

::: Nathan Lynch

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August 07, 2004

Sketch Show: Loophole
Cutting Edge, 2003 / Third Ear Recordings, 2004
Rating: 4.0
When listening to Sketch Show, it's all about the flow. Ex-Yellow Magic Orchestra members Haruomi Hososno and Yukihiro Takahashi definitely consider the sum impact of an album on potential listeners, making sure their digital glitches and electro-gloss finishes move seamlessly from the opening track to the last. Where their 2002 debut Audio Sponge emphasized identifiable pop elements, Loophole is more reserved, studied and edgy. It's also an incredibly delicate-sounding and beautiful work. The fluttering, unsteady buzz of opener "Mars" morphs effortlessly into "Wiper," which plays off of clipped, tense vocals and the sound of rain to create a moody evocation of someone fleeing a bad situation. "Chronograph" emphasizes a repetitive beat and a languid rhythm that contrasts nicely with subsequent track "Plankton" and its skittering, mechanical determinism. "Flakes" is an achingly fragile, psychotropic excursion, while "Attention Tokyo" buzzes and squawks as intermittent voices struggle to be heard. Loophole even gets groovy, with "Fly Me To The River" coming closest to Audio Sponge's "Supreme Secret" in terms of funkiness. The closing "Stella," with its lazy guitar pluck and artificial shimmy, isn't cut from the same superior cloth as the rest of the material, but at least it knows its place in the overall sequence. Start to less-than-commanding finish, Loophole is a deeper, more rewarding listen than Audio Sponge. What it lacks in hooks it more than makes up for with craft and understated elegance.

::: Laurence Station

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August 06, 2004

Ben Kweller: On My Way
ATO/RCA, 2004
Rating: 3.2
Imagine the younger brother of one of the members of Weezer making a solo album, and you've got a pretty good grasp on Ben Kweller's 2002 release Sha Sha. Kweller's follow-up, On My Way, is the sound of a young artist shedding the paroxysmal skin of youth and trying on an array of more refined, slightly oversized, professional musician duds. Kweller still keeps things simple with guitar-driven pop rock, but there's an uneasiness at play throughout. "My Apartment" is "where I hide away from all the darkness outside," Kweller admits before describing a kid ten years his junior on the title track who "still likes the things we used to think were fun." "Down" opens with "I am empty and I'm tired" and the darker "Ann Disaster" finds him defensively accusing "I know what you want / You want a piece of me." As if to balance the grim content, Kweller goes overboard with the flipside of melancholy, as on the tepid ballad "Living Life," where he promises "I'm not gonna hide anymore / I'm gonna listen to myself," while grasping for higher notes. "Believer" wallows in too-easy platitudes ("My path is dark, my steps uncertain, unless I walk with you"); likewise, the closing "Different But The Same" opines that "All you gotta do is put yourself with the people / They're the ones who make the world spin." On My Way lacks the spastic spontaneity of Sha Sha, and falls short in the lyrical department. The title is spot-on, however. Kweller's certainly on his way; he's just not quite there yet.

::: Laurence Station

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August 06, 2004

Graham Coxon: Happiness in Magazines
Parlophone, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon sounds positively liberated on his fifth solo album, his second since parting ways with the band during the Think Tank sessions (The Kiss of Morning was released before Think Tank came out). Happiness in Magazines shuns the lo-fi lessons learned on his previous efforts in favor of an all-inclusive studio experience. "Spectacular" is a loud, full-bodied opener that literally vibrates out of the speakers, showing off not only Coxon's impressive guitar skills but also his willingness to indulge in shamelessly muscular riffs and explore assured, brawny rhythms. "No Good Time" and "Bittersweet Bundle of Misery" are compulsory Britpop nuggets, dispensable but both quite adept at living in the bubblegum-pop moment. "Freakin' Out" pays homage to (or shamelessly rips off, depending on your point of view) the hard, chugging riff employed by the Skids on "Into The Valley," while the spoken/screamed-word-via-megaphone tirade "People of The Earth" is lightweight Mark E. Smith, abrasively out of place in Coxon's rocking but hardly inflammatory songbook. Happiness in Magazines is the sound of a former sideman confidently flexing his muscles for anyone who's interested. More people should be.

::: Laurence Station

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August 03, 2004

The Futureheads: The Futureheads
679, 2004
Rating: 3.8
So what if early Radiohead is a synthesis of U2 theatrics and Pink Floyd anxiety? The simple fact is all bands borrow from their influences. Great bands manage to evolve by incorporating their sundry inspirations into a unique and stimulating sound, which is then aped by later generations of bands, thus continuing the cycle. The four young lads comprising the Futureheads hail from Sunderland, in North East England, and, like Radiohead, take their name from a song by a band they sound nothing like (The Flaming Lips, in this case). The group's edgy, fast-paced New Wave 2K brand of rock recalls the sharp, nerdy delivery of XTC, the impassioned focus of the Jam and ping-ponging hooks reminiscent of the Vapors. What sets the Futureheads apart (though there's certainly no guarantee they'll forge an identity as potent and far reaching as Radiohead's) is that every member sings (often in unison, from a cappella to wonderful, cascading harmonies), and the group possesses a surfeit of memorable, punchy hooks ("Le Garage," "A To B," and "Carnival Kids"). While it's true the Futureheads haven't arrived (the lyrics lack specificity and the band's sound hasn't wholly gelled), they're still young and anything's possible. File under: A Band Worth Keeping Your Ears Pricked For.

::: Laurence Station

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July 28, 2004

Tanya Donelly: Whiskey Tango Ghosts
4AD, 2004
Rating: 3.5
Finding contentment within the homestead, even as the rest of the world goes to hell in a hand basket, is the primary mood coloring Tanya Donelly's third solo album, Whiskey Tango Ghosts. Recorded at her home with husband Dean Fisher and friends, Whiskey Tango Ghosts celebrates domestic harmony ("The Center") while taking jabs at the Bush administration: "Hey, who let the psycho in?" she asks on "Story High," commenting, "He's messing up everything / Doesn't anyone see him but me?" Elsewhere, she explores the concept of taking refuge indoors on the moody "Whiskey Tango" ("I know we're dug in deep here / Why can't we live high with the wind?"). But that old standby -- interpersonal relationships -- gets plenty of attention as well, as on the country-inflected "Just In Case You Quit Me," with its buoyant assurance against oppressive heat ( "I can make it rain / I will make sure it finds you"). Of course, no matter how earnest, at times such sentiments can come across as overly precious, as on "The Promise," when Donelly swears "I will draw the crescent down and set it in your crown." And there's certainly no mistaking her desire for a saner, safer, family-friendly world as she closes with the traditional Latin hymn "Dona Nobis Pacem" ("Grant Us Peace"). Whiskey Tango Ghosts is a supremely intimate, homespun album, one that isn't meant to arrest the senses so much as it strives to assuage the pain of turning on the nightly news and being bombarded with grim tidings on a global scale.

::: Laurence Station

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July 26, 2004

The Hives: Tyrannosaurus Hives
Interscope, 2004
Rating: 3.1
The Hives finally have a major label debut. Sure, it only took 11 years, two full-lengths, a compilation, and a slew of singles, but Tyrannosaurus Hives is here, and it represents the Swedish rock quintet's shot at the big time. Tyrannosaurus Hives, despite benefiting from a bigger budget than 1997's Barely Legal or 2000's Veni Vidi Vicious, still clocks in at a lean thirty minutes. Since the Hives have never sought to do anything remotely original (assuming a punk-rock incarnation of the Rolling Stones isn't considered groundbreaking), the band earns its money on hooks; take away the catchy songs and you're left with zilch. "Walk Idiot Walk" hits the bullseye, with its rumbling bassline and driving, Pete Townsend-lite guitar licks. "Diabolic Scheme" is also fun, with singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvist affecting an unhinged mental patient persona, while "B is for Brutus" is notable for at least trying out tempo changes other than fast and faster. Four years removed from Veni Vidi Vicious, Tyrannosaurus Hives should add up to more than simply a tighter record with gaudier production values. That it doesn't could spell trouble for a band eager to avoid being sent back down to the minor leagues.

::: Laurence Station

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July 26, 2004

!!!: Louden Up Now
Touch & Go, 2004
Rating: 2.8
Dance punk or dark disco -- or whatever you label it -- strives to mix politics, funk and electronica into a copacetic musical gumbo. Out Hud (with whom !!! shares members), Radio 4 and The Rapture are also part of this movement, although if last year's single "Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)" is an accurate barometer, !!! would appear to be at the vanguard. Louden Up Now, the group's second full-length, includes "Me and Giuliani," which should give some indication of the dearth of ideas at play here. There's also an instrumental version of another track tacked on to the end. Now, this wouldn't seem so bad, or filler-friendly, if !!! offered an advancement on "Giuliani." Alas, no. What we do get is a scatological lesson in the many ways one can say "shit" in multiple languages ("Shit Scheisse Merde, Pt. 1). "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Karazzee" finds vocalist Nic Offer claiming "You can learn a lot from taking your pants off" before endorsing staring at the sky to discover answers to a few of life's deeper questions. The aggressive "Pardon My Freedom" is a slew of expletives in search of a reason to exist. Aside from "Giuliani," "Hello? Is This Thing On?" is the best thing here, with Offer entering total meltdown mode ("Everybody thinks I'm fucking crazy or something"). The band encourages fans to pronounce its name as "chk chk chk," but Louden Up Now is more apt to compel dance-punk fans to mutter a disappointed "Tsk, tsk, tsk."

::: Laurence Station

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July 26, 2004

Mclusky: The Difference Between Me And You Is That I'm Not On Fire
Too Pure, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Honestly, it comes down to this: Evolve or call it a day. The Welsh rock trio Mclusky's previous album, Mclusky Do Dallas, was its defining, adrenaline-fueled, world-collapsing statement of purpose. The Difference Between Me And You Is That I'm Not On Fire may reunite the band with Dallas producer Steve Albini and feature the debut of solid new drummer Jack Eggleston (replacing the ferociously intense Matthew Harding), but Mclusky sounds like a band at a crossroads. Should it try and perfect the sound and fury of Dallas (good luck) or head in an entirely new and unexpected direction? Difference gives a few hints as to what the next destination might be. "You Should Be Ashamed, Seamus" finds singer Andrew Falkous spitting quintessential Mclusky lines like "Born in Cardiff, raised by wolves and died on his fucking arse." But at nearly five minutes, it's excessive and unnecessarily repetitive, whereas the earlier, less polished Mclusky would have sealed the deal in half the time and been perfectly satisfied with the end result. Granted, there are still "classic" two-minute exercises in self-immolation (the bleak "Icarus Smicarus" and pulverizing "Lucky Jim" stand out), but nothing that exceeds -- or approaches -- Dallas' chaotic brew. And for those who didn't think it possible for Mclusky to record a near eight-minute track, there's the closing "Support Systems." A slow, moody build-up leads into pounding drums, racing guitars and lyrics worthy of Roger Waters ("Think of life as a battle between ghosts and liars / Or think of it as a barrier to self-fulfillment"). "Support Systems" makes the case for Mclusky cashing in its punk chips for a little prog rock pretension, which could actually be a very interesting direction. Jut don't be the farm on it actually happening.

::: Laurence Station

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July 19, 2004

Juliana Hatfield: In Exile Deo
Zoe/Rounder, 2004
Rating: 3.8
The void created by the diminished presence of Riot Grrl and feminist rock has left many female artists, who once aligned themselves with such movements, in an awkward place. Quality artists, who were (and still are) seen as revolutionary, have stumbled, only to pick themselves up and turn out pure crap. Liz Phair, Alanis Morissette and many of their female contemporaries just aren't what they used to be. So perhaps it has worked to Juliana Hatfield's advantage to keep her craft a few steps outside the realm of fem-rock. She's always been more approachable than the abovementioned artists, and despite studio and media issues has remained fairly consistent in her alternative/jangle-pop blend. Her latest release, In Exile Deo, holds true, marking what is possibly Hatfield's best work since her solo debut, 1992's Hey Babe. The album offers a wide mix of material, including friendly pop songs ("Tourist" and "Some Rainy Sunday") of the kind Hatfield made her name with. But they're wisely placed between the harder, country-tinged anthems "Get in Line" and "Dirty Dog," which work not only due to their execution but also due to the wholesome vein of rock simplicity in which they were written. Add in ballads like "Tomorrow" and the organ-filled "My Enemy," fortified by Hatfield's signature wispy vocals, and what results is an incredibly well-rounded album that hits home time and again, proving that not all female rockers have gone the way of homogeneity.

::: Nathan Lynch

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July 19, 2004

Brent Palmer: Stabilize [EP]
Independent, 2004
Rating: 2.9
It's a shame that so many independent singer-songwriters, who seem to grow on trees nowadays, are so often labeled as disposable folk/pop. Brent Palmer isn't short on talent; the five heartfelt love songs on Stabilize, his third release, aim to be anything but disposable, utilizing Palmer's exceptional guitar and vocal skills over a wide mix of backing instruments. The cello-laced "Asleep in the Back" bears echoes of Elliott Smith's weeping guitar and honey-drip vocals; it's by far the standout track here. The professional production on "Dirty Souls" and "Losing Streak" is commendable for an independent release, and fellow Austin musician John Leon's pedal steel work does wonders in enhancing the emotion established by Palmer's performance. But it's in his writing that Palmer comes up short. Lines such as "I am an addict and you are the patch / The nape of your neck the small of your back / I've got to have it or I'm going to die" from the opening "Addict" cover no new ground, and fail to offer anything that can't be heard by the pound on Top 40 radio. The end result is an EP that sounds nice enough, but when stripped of its bells and whistles offers little in the way of originality. Talent can only get you so far. But if Palmer can break free of his genre's clichés and pitfalls, he might be on to something.

::: Nathan Lynch

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July 19, 2004

NEMO: Signs of Life
Binge Records, 2004
Rating: 3.0
Given the limitations of recording in a New York apartment, the Brooklyn-based duo of Luke McCartney and Dennis Tyhacz have created a debut CD, Signs of Life, that sounds impressive -- at least through the opening four tracks. Dreamy guitar licks pitched against filled-out bass lines and cymbal-heavy beats make for some well-constructed indie-rock, drawing obvious elements from R.E.M. and The Cure. McCartney's voice can take some getting used to, but the wonders of reverb on songs like "Metropolitan" and "Northern Light" bring to mind images of music bubbling up from the depths of an ocean trench; it's a nice touch. "The Burn" and "Aviator," while retaining the introspective and romantic qualities of previous tracks, also show us that Nemo knows how to rock. At the same time, they give us a taste of McCartney's lyrical stylings as he comments on the state of our politicos and their constant bending of the truth. Unfortunately, Signs of Life runs out of steam rather quickly. The remaining thirteen tracks are either rough rehashings of the same ideas heard in the first four, or poorly executed novelties that attempt to do too many things at once. "Swimming In the Rhine" verges on alt-country, with Tyhacz on slide guitar, but the song sticks out like Dick Cheney at a daycare center. The cringe-worthy "Lunar Ship to Mars" sounds like a Guided By Voices remix gone awry, as the seams in the lo-fi production start to show through. While it's not without its moments, Signs of Life would have benefited greatly by cutting down the number of tracks and concentrating production efforts on several of its unpolished bits.

::: Nathan Lynch

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July 19, 2004

The Polyphonic Spree: Together We're Heavy
Hollywood, 2004
Rating: 3.9
Much like the Flaming Lips' classic The Soft Bulletin conjured images of Wayne Coyne using miscast action figures to play the lead roles in his songs, Polyphonic Spree mastermind Tim DeLaughter imbues the symphonic choral-pop band's second album, Together We're Heavy, with a guileless sincerity that's hard to knock. Where The Beginning Stages Of... sounded like a hastily recorded demo with a thirty-six minute filler track at the end, Together We're Heavy is a fully formed creation, in which the instrumentation is just as important as the gimmicky robed choir. Piano, Theremin and percussion play Devil's Advocate to the Spree's vocal exuberance, adding a dramatic tension to the arrangements (a dynamic that was decidedly lacking on the debut). "Hold Me Now," "Two Thousand Places" and the refreshingly moody "One Man Show" soar, while the bland "Suitcase Calling" and the belabored "When the Fool Becomes a King" weigh the album down. Together We're Heavy proves The Polyphonic Spree has more to offer than "Come on get happy" platitudes and tips on overcoming large-scale logistical snafus. It's a sonically interesting, lyrically diverse collection; good news during uncertain times.

::: Laurence Station

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July 19, 2004

Sparta: Porcelain
Geffen, 2004
Rating: 2.5
Sparta follows up its 2002 debut Wiretap Scars with an effort that finds the band perfecting the pre-Unforgettable Fire U2 bellow and bluster, as executed at a tempo worthy of Fugazi. That level of passion and precision isn't always reflected in the lyrics themselves; Jim Ward sings of vague endings and beginnings, yearning for personal space and a desire for emotional release, where clichéd inspirational slogans ("Only you with time can define your life / It's yours") jockey for position with clichéd rhyming couplets ("You can hear the sound / When walls break down"). To be fair, Sparta has no intention of exploring the weird psychic soundscapes of former At the Drive-In band mates (and current Mars Volta provocateurs) Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez. But Porcelain's aggressively hopeful, generic alt-rock anthems just aren't very interesting. Rather than stamp the material with any sense of personal experience or unique worldview, Sparta plays it safe, championing individual freedom in as broad and demographically fluid a manner as possible ("We'll head for a forest / To a river of truth / There we'll take a stand / Heads held high / Start this life again"). Guitars shred, drums pulverize, and Ward certainly sounds committed to every truism he's spitting. But it's all formulaic and forgettable, no matter how tightly constructed.

::: Laurence Station

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July 16, 2004

The Dandy Warhols: The Black Album / Come on Feel the Dandy Warhols
Beat The World Records, 2004
Rating: 3.0
The Dandy Warhols' The Black Album has been one of those mysterious, eagerly sought-after unreleased albums that might or might not contain arcane knowledge about the inner workings of Courtney Taylor and his Portland-based musical brethren. Time for a reality check: The Black Album is the brazenly decadent rock quartet's failed first attempt at what would become their second album ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down; eventual Come Down tracks like "Boys" and "Good Morning" appear in less polished forms. Which is bad news for those who shelled out big bucks on eBay or through shady file-trader networks for the unauthorized version, because The Black Album is basically a collection of works-in-progress and false start/never were, half-born songs. "Twist" (aka "Rooster"), a bluesy, Stones-y cut, and "The Wreck," an epic, nine-minute reworking of Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" are the best of the hardscrabble batch. Come On Feel The Dandy Warhols, meanwhile, is the first compilation issued by the band, and is basically a closet-cleaning collection of stray b-sides, narcoleptically adrift cover tunes and tape-recorded messages. "Stars," an excellent cover of the Brian Jonestown Massacre original, stands out, but, true to its odds and sods nature, Come on Feel is a starkly hit or miss affair, which no amount of creative sequencing can wholly remedy. The two-disc bundle is currently available only from the Dandy Warhols official web site.

::: Laurence Station

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July 15, 2004

The Fall: 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong
Sanctuary, 2004
Rating: 4.7
Sorry, Fall diehards, but there's no "2 X 4" or "Bombast" here. What you do get with 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong (cheekily mocking the title and cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong) is two discs and over two-and-a-half hours of the caustic wit and sardonic wisdom of Mark E. Smith, as backed by his revolving door roster of co-conspirators from 1978-2003. No doubt, relevant chatboards will host debates over what made the cut and what did not. But with so much material to choose from, it's difficult to fault Fall aficionado Daryl Easlea's selections. Wisely sticking with a strict chronological sequence, 50,000 moves from the rough-edged declaration of "Repetition" through the fecund '80s period and even manages to polish off the band's few-and-far-between gems from the start of the '90s to the present. The second half of the first disc and first four tracks of the second masterfully distill the vital '82-'86 run, during Brix Smith's first tour of duty with the band. Smith (as in, then-wife of Mark E.) brought a keen-eared melodic sensibility to the Fall that brightened the art-punk outfit's often coarse sound without diluting an ounce of its impact. This hour-long middle section is simply stunning. Being the first Fall compilation to utilize the band's entire catalog, 50,000 is about as definitive an overview as we're likely to get of the group's first quarter-century of sonic abrasions. As for those who still feel something crucial has been left out, Easlea puts it best in his introductory sleevenotes: "Rather than apologise for what isn't here, revel in your opportunity to compile your own 39." Good luck, because you'll have a hard time topping this batch.

::: Laurence Station

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July 13, 2004

Junior Boys: Last Exit
Kin, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Staccato beats, tinny keys and metrosexual anxiety permeate Last Exit, the debut full-length by Hamilton, Ontario electro-pop trio Junior Boys. Lead songwriter Jeremy Greenspan possesses a breathily earnest, blue-eyed soul vocal style reminiscent of a less-assured David Sylvian, or a less-fragile Alison Moyet. Last Exit sports some obvious touchstones from the late '70s and the early '80s (Gary Numan, New Order), but its true antecedent is the detached, passively engaged romanticism of David Bowie. Think Station to Station-era plastic soul, sans the prog pretensions -- more hopeless romantic than coked-out paranoiac. The strongest moments on Last Exit marry Greenspan's voyeuristic infatuations with minimal synth-loops and Spartan beats ("More Than Real," "Bellona"), or expand on the formula with clever additions (the closing "When I'm Not Around" and its snappy horn samples). When Greenspan moves closer to the action, Junior Boys sacrifice some of their effectiveness ("Three Words" is too full-bodied in comparison to the clean sound preceding it, and Greenspan's voice sounds jarring, no longer just out of reach, safely on the sidelines). Last Exit is noteworthy for taking on a sound that's easy to screw up (emoting over synthetic beats) and actually making it work. Whether the Junior Boys attempt to progress the form remains to be seen.

::: Laurence Station

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July 13, 2004

Jay Farrar: Stone, Steel & Bright Lights
Transmit Sound, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Ponder this, Jay Farrar faithful: In a live setting, would the somber numbers on Terrior Blues negate the rocking cuts from Sebastopol? How would Farrar reconcile the divergent moods of the two albums, the latter fiery, angry and muscular, the former a sad lament, conveying an aching sense of irrecoverable loss? Stone, Steel & Bright Lights tackles the issue with a two-pronged solution: Cherry-pick renditions of the various songs from different venues during Farrar's September-October 2003 tour dates and then cluster them together. Each album gets a run of five straight tracks, an approach that works to a point. The Terrior Blues material, even bolstered by the presence of Washington D.C. alt-country act Canyon backing Farrar and adding definite punch to the originals, still brings things to a crawl (especially in regards to the dour-in-any-setting "Cahokian"). Farrar also debuts two new songs: the acoustic, unwavering "Doesn't Have to Be This Way" is a thumb in the eye of the current administration, while the declarative anthem "6 String Belief" challenges staid music convention ("Killed by consolidation / Killed by saturation / The underground will correct"). For an encore, Farrar rips through two covers, with Syd Barrett's acid-washed "Lucifer Sam" the most surprising (and refreshing) psychedelic detour. The more obvious choice, Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane," fits Farrar's demeanor and style to T, although Farrar and Canyon do nothing particularly new with it. Stone, Steel & Bright Lights affords Farrar an opportunity to let his hair down, but not too much. There's a rigid sincerity to his work that refuses to allow him to drift too far from the statements of purpose he so carefully lays down in the studio.

::: Laurence Station

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July 09, 2004

Rush: Feedback [EP]
Anthem/Atlantic, 2004
Rating: 3.5
There seems to be something in the water that classic-rock icons are drinking this year: Feedback is the third 2004 release from a major, veteran rock act to revisit material influential to its sound. Luckily, whereas Aerosmith's Honkin' on Bobo and Eric Clapton's Me and Mr. Johnson were both questionable exercises, Feedback presents Rush in a comparatively favorable light. That's partly because the quintessential power trio had the good sense to keep this all-covers disc to a manageable (and inexpensive) eight-song EP; as a result, the concept doesn't really get a chance to wear too thin. But mostly it's due to a combination of unbridled exuberance and whimsy that captures the spirit of friends getting together in a garage to thrash out fun, sloppy covers of favorite songs. Alex Lifeson's giddy abandon propels "Summertime Blues" and sets the pace for a loose charge through Love's frenetic "Seven And Seven Is." Other tunes are more jarring; hearing Geddy Lee's signature yelp on "For What It's Worth" and Clapton's white-boy take on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" is disconcerting, to say the least. It's easy to carp about the way the band takes few risks with the material, playing it as straight as the cover band that played your high school prom. It's also easy to bemoan the absence of the tight, layered chemistry of Rush's latter-period, Counterparts-to-Vapor Trails sound -- not to mention Neil Peart's weighty lyrics. But really, such quibbles have little place when discussing this likeable lark. When Lee, Lifeson and Peart bash their way through workmanlike versions of "Summertime Blues" or "Shapes of Things" and a surprisingly faithful interpretation of The Who's snarling "The Seeker," Feedback rings with the satisfying echo of three men celebrating three decades of trailblazing progressive rock by revisiting, and capably approximating, the sprawling, primal allure of classic rock 'n' roll.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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July 08, 2004

Razorlight: Up All Night
Vertigo, 2004
Rating: 2.8
Razorlight is more than The Strokes, London Bureau -- all nervous guitar lines and neither-here-nor-there bar-hopping energy -- but what's left of the mucho-hyped UK outfit's identity feels second-hand borrowed, as well. Pre-millennial back-Strokes like "Rock'n'Roll Lies," with front man Johnny Borrell affecting a start-stop stutter reminiscent of Julian Casablancas; the whiny-desperate sing-speak pleading of "Which Way Is Out;" and the slithery title track, complete with vacuous late night observations ("This town is full of counterfeit dreamers / And maybe I'm one too"), are easy targets. Fellow skuzzy-glam rockers Libertines at least manage to make such tired '70s faux-New York cool sound fresh. What really dooms the lads in Razorlight, however, are even lamer retreads like "Vice," with its big dumb power chords and hard chugging, mid-'70s Springsteen angst and teeth-grating penchant for state-the-obvious lyrical tripe ("Get on the dance floor / That's what it's there for"). The frenetic, fun "In the City" and stark -raving mad chant of "To the Sea" reveal hope for a stronger, more personalized sophomore effort.

::: Laurence Station

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July 07, 2004

Nina Nastasia: Dogs
Socialist, 2000 / Touch & Go, 2004
Rating: 3.4
The re-release of Nina Nastasia's debut album, Dogs, provides fans of her sophomore effort, The Blackened Air, and her most recent release, Run to Ruin, an opportunity to hear an artist who hadn't yet found her voice, but clearly exhibited the potential of even greater returns emphatically validated since. Steve Albini produces (as he's done on all of Nastasia's albums), creating a raw, overdub-phobic quality. Dogs displays flashes of the mordant wit Nastasia would refine on subsequent releases ("Could it be something that I said that's making you put poison pins in my bed?"), but mostly comes across as lyrically lazy or unrefined ("Buffalo rumble in the wind sometimes / In the wind sometimes"). The musically out of place but arresting "Smiley" stands out, as does the atypical jam-fest "Nobody Knew Her" and the gritty "Jimmy's Rose Tattoo." Intriguing but uneven and not wholly satisfying, Dogs is a must-have for the swelling ranks of Nastasia disciples and merits a mild recommendation for the casual listener.

::: Laurence Station

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July 07, 2004

Jim Lauderdale: Headed For the Hills
Dualtone, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Jim Lauderdale won a Grammy collaborating with Ralph Stanley on Lost in the Lonesome Pines. He let his hair down with tour warriors Donna the Buffalo on Wait Til Spring. And now the Americana-enamored singer-songwriter teams up with the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter (and a galaxy of guest appearances -- David Rawlings, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Allison Moorer, to name but a few) to craft Headed For The Hills, a loose, rootsy tramp through an engaging collection of toe-tapping tales about scoundrels, thieves and other colorful outsiders. Hunter doesn't play on the album, but he co-wrote the 13 songs with Lauderdale, and his spirited character sketches mesh nicely with Lauderdale's primarily acoustic arrangements. The earnest love song "Tales from the Sad Hotel," featuring some appropriately pleading pedal steel by Bucky Baxter, is a highlight, as is the lively "Crazy Peg and Darby Doyle," about two hard-luck lovers hoping to make a fresh start in a new town. The closing "Upside Down" reunites Lauderdale with Donna the Buffalo, and it's the only track here to feature percussion. It's also the most out of place, solid enough but too ill-suited to the stripped-down arrangements that dominate the rest of this engaging release.

::: Laurence Station

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June 30, 2004

Patti Smith: Trampin'
Sony, 2004
Rating: 3.4
"Gandhi," the nine-minute-plus, spoken word middle track of Patti Smith's Trampin', steadily works itself into a frenzy, climaxing with Smith passionately exclaiming "Long live revolution!" Too bad her talented backing band -- Lenny Kaye (guitar and pedal steel), Jay Dee Daugerty (guitar, percussion), Tony Shanahan (bass, keyboards, and Hammond organ) and Oliver Ray (guitar, organ) -- never works up the energy to complement her fiery polemic. There's a mannered formality to the arrangements on Trampin', a growing sense that Smith was operating on a separate musical plane, disconnected from the finished result. Only on the closing title track, a heartfelt spiritual with daughter Jesse on piano, does Trampin' seamlessly meld lyrics and accompaniment. Smith spends the majority of the album preaching for a little peace, love, and understanding in the post-9/11 world on the stamping opener "Jubilee," the milquetoast "Mother Rose," and the 12-minute anti-war rant "Radio Baghdad," which hearkens back to the equally shambling but less obvious "Radio Ethiopia" cut first heard some 28 years ago. The real dud here is the unfortunately named "My Blakean Year," in which the usually reliable Smith, backed by sawed-raw strings, offers the painfully nonsensical couplet "The threads that bind the pilgrim's sack / Are stitched into the Blakean back." Trampin' is an improvement on Gung Ho, Smith's previous release, if only because she hasn't sounded this committed and politically charged in years. Clearly, strife brings out the best in her. Now if only her band would rally around her spirited call to arms.

::: Laurence Station

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June 29, 2004

Les Savy Fav: Inches
Frenchkiss, 2004
Rating: 4.1
The foresight exhibited by the volatile indie rock band Les Savy Fav in relation to Inches (collecting nine 7-inch singles from the past eight years) is quite remarkable. Especially in light of the short shelf lives many acts have, coupled with the fact that the group hadn't even put out a record when the concept was first initiated. The band's stated goal was to create a work that was sequenced from the most recent track to the oldest, thus allowing the listener to hear the band devolve as the music played. Appropriately enough, Inches moves from the precise, controlled intensity of "Meet Me in the Dollar Bin" to the reckless, sloppy "Rodeo." And, for the most part, it's a fun ride, energized by Tim Harrington's consistently manic vocals (which actually help hold the album together) and guitarist Seth Jabour's sharp guitar lines. The nervy, Feelies-esque "Yawn, Yawn, Yawn" and the hilarious skit "Reformat (Dramatic Reading)" (concerning a submarine captain responsible for the death of his entire crew) are two highlights. Not everything works (the poor fidelity of "Reformat"'s live version is a letdown), but taken as a whole, Inches is a fantastic collection, achieving what other full-length Les Savy Fav albums have not: Delivering a wholly satisfying listening experience.

::: Laurence Station

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June 25, 2004

Arto Lindsay: Salt
Righteous Babe, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Arto Lindsay goes to Carnaval on Salt, his sixth solo album (and third for Ani Difranco's Righteous Babe label), and his patented bossa-nova-meets-electronica sound finds new expression and inspiration from Brazil's sensually charged annual celebration. From the smooth flow of "Kamo (Dark Stripe)" (where, according to Lindsay, "two's as good as one") to the pumping beat and digital hyperactivity of "Jardim Da Alma" ("Garden of the Soul"), Salt serves as a randy excursion through sweaty, electric Latin landscapes. Effortlessly switching between Portuguese and English, Lindsay's laconic, sing-speak delivery may not seem like the best instrument to vocalize the energy and passion of Carnaval, but the veteran performer successfully manages to insinuate feelings of desire -- both restrained and wholly uninhibited with the confidence of a surefooted tour guide leading his listeners just off the main parade route. Salt is passionate without being lascivious -- a gentleman's observations on an intoxicating feast of flesh.

::: Laurence Station

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June 17, 2004

Zero 7: When It Falls
Elektra/Asylum, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Lounge music, Sunday mornings, bedroom soundtrack -- read anything about Zero 7 and you'll get the idea. There's nothing on When It Falls, the British collective's sophomore effort, that substantially differentiates the band from Air (the atmospheric act to which it's most often compared), save for a tad more soulful polish than the aforementioned French duo usually musters. Keyboardists and knob-twiddlers Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns employ a crack staff of musicians and, especially, vocalists: From Mozez's soulful crooning on the opening "Warm Sound" to the soothing harmonizing of Sia and Tina Dico on "Somersault," Falls serves as a showcase for Zero 7's many singers, some of whom have solo projects. Fans of Simple Things, Zero 7's debut effort, won't hear anything new or different, but considering that Falls makes for lovely background music, it should satisfy those fans just fine.

::: Eric Grossman

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June 17, 2004

Keane: Hopes and Fears
Interscope, 2004
Rating: 3.5
Keane's Hopes and Fears, which has elicited polarizing responses from "whiny blandness incarnate" to Coldplay and U2 comparisons, eschews traditional Britpop guitars in favor of impassioned vocals and piano-driven melodies to make for a captivating debut. The trio's guitar-free lineup (drums, keyboards) is augmented by Tom Chaplin's full-throated vocal delivery. There isn't much variety on the disc, which many will find a bit thin after repeated spins, but there's no doubting the band's clean, confident sound on "Somewhere Only We Know" and "Everybody's Changing." Music for bedwetters or the Great Polite Hope? The anthemic closer "Bedshaped" will decide the issue for most listeners, one way or the other.

::: Eric Grossman

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June 17, 2004

Moonbabies: The Orange Billboard
Hidden Agenda, 2004
Rating: 3.7
The Swedish indie-pop maestros of Moonbabies produce psychedelic tunes that recall old-school Pink Floyd. The pair of multi-instrumentalists (Ola Frick and Carina Johansson) use synthesizers and ambient touches to hypnotize listeners. With The Orange Billboard, Moonbabies' second full-length release, the duo branches out to include more electronica elements, especially on the throbbing "Sun A.M." and the instrumental "Jet." It's likely Frick and Johansson will never enjoy international success (Air's lounge-friendly vibe offers more of a wide-ranging appeal), but with Billboard, Moonbabies should continue cultivating a loyal following of hipsters and fashionistas.

::: Eric Grossman

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June 16, 2004

A.C. Newman: Slow Wonder
Matador, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Making the most of a grant from the Canada Music Fund, A.C. Newman (late of Zumpano, currently with the New Pornographers) recorded Slow Wonder, a densely packed, lyrically dark power-pop album. The countryish "Drink to Me, Babe, Then" wryly observes "On a landslide / You ride in." "Come Crash" (which could, with the right amount of creative elbow grease, serve as a nice complement to J.G. Ballard's accident-seeking fetishists novel Crash) examines a relationship connected to surviving a car wreck. And "The Cloud Prayer" contains the grim (especially given the current climate) couplet: "I blew up in the sky for you / Anyone who saw it knew." Newman reinforces his standing as one of the strongest songwriters working in pop today ("Up through the crystal / Raised on mythology / She winds her way from truth to apology" -- from "The Town Halo") but at times outsmarts himself, as with "On the Table" and its forced wordplay ("Do re mi, innocent"). Fans of the New Pornographers will find Slow Wonder not quite as rocking (though "Miracle Drug" features some crackling guitar work), but possessed of just as many memorable hooks and choruses.

::: Laurence Station

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June 16, 2004

Nellie McKay: Get Away From Me
Columbia, 2004
Rating: 3.4
Sheer creative ambition does not, by itself, equal an enduring work of art. That's the lesson learned from Get Away From Me, the debut album by singer-songwriter Nellie McKay. While McKay's musical breadth is impressive and refreshing -- a torch song here, some rapping there, some strings here to flesh out her traditional piano-pop stylings -- Get Away From Me's kid-in-a-candy-store exuberance marks it as the work of someone inclined to the presumption that her every creative impulse is worth pursuing. Not surprising, really, given that McKay was 19 when the album was released. Some moments are genuinely affecting ("Manhattan Avenue"), while some sound forced ("Work Song") and some ("Toto Dies," "Change the World") will sound less and less authentic or imaginative the further the listener gets from the age of 21. There's no mistaking McKay's talent as a songwriter, even if, as on "The Dog Song," she still falls too easily prey to cloying preciousness. That McKay fought hard to have her debut released as a double album (even though its songs all fit snugly onto a single disc), is an indicator of Get Away From Me's flaws in a nutshell: When McKay can objectively realize that not every song she writes deserves to see the light of day, and is no longer quite so eager to impress listeners with the scope of her output -- when she's matured enough as an artist to know what to leave out as well as what to keep in -- she'll be well on her way to an artistically fruitful career. Although it does provide some glimmers of true promise, Get Away From Me proves she's not there yet.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 15, 2004

Miss Kittin: I Com
Astralwerks, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Heads up, club kids, Caroline Herve -- better known as Miss Kittin -- has gone solo with I Com. Co-produced by Tobi Neumann and Thies Mynther, a.k.a. GLOVE, I Com finds the well-regarded Berlin-based producer/DJ moving beyond (but not too far beyond) the electroclash movement she and Felix da Housecat are largely credited with spearheading. Miss Kittin manages to insert a dash of self-reflection and wry commentary into the techno beats and typically emotionally detached wordplay: "Professional Distortion" is the most obvious mirror cast against her world of all-night discos and rave parties, with Kittin matter-of-factly proclaiming "I have to pretend to pretend." The melancholy "Happy Violentine" reveals Kittin's desire to find true love: "Switch me in a standby mode / Until someone presses play." The intriguing "Allergic" ("I'm allergic to myself"), with its subdued, repetitive beat, and the pleading desire of "Dub About Me" offer additional shading, making I Com perhaps the most sincerely felt album yet produced by an artist working in a genre not exactly known for its warm and fuzzy approachability. Still, Miss Kittin wisely weaves club-friendly material into the proceedings. "Requiem for a Hit" features L.A. Williams' catchy opening refrain "Show me your tits / And let's make a hit," while "Meet Sue Be She" is a fun electro-punk detour -- as is "Soundtrack of Now," an assured collaboration with Kittin's longtime techno partner Hacker. I Com thus presents a new model for electroclash artists: it still exhibits some hallmarks of impersonal club music, but it also offers a (presumably genuine) glimpse inside the private diary of Miss Kittin.

::: Laurence Station

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June 15, 2004

The Beta Band: Heroes to Zeros
Astralwerks, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Having gone from critical darlings to backlash-branded outsiders during its relatively short lifespan, the Beta Band can be forgiven for coming across a little testy on the pointedly titled Heroes to Zeros, the Scottish rock quartet's third full-length release. "Simple" aptly sums up the frustration of trying to follow your muse while still catering to a mass audience: "I tried to do my own thing / But the trouble with your own thing is you end up on your own." Thus, the Beta Band attempts to have it both ways, offering more straightforward fare (the opening "Assessment," which is as close to anthemic rock as the Beta Band's ever come) and indulging in the far more peculiar (and interesting) brand of space-rock it's better known for ("Space" and "Space Beatle" -- the actual songs being more original that their respective titles). "Liquid Bird" pulls off the handy trick of capturing the stadium-friendly roar of "Assessment" without sacrificing the band's penchant for darker lyrical exploration: "He never guessed that the world would end / Crawling off the beach from the sea to the land." Heroes to Zeros may not wholly reconcile mainstream expectations with the Beta Band's desire for personalized expression, but it does come as close to aligning those twin poles as anything the band's recorded thus far.

::: Laurence Station

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June 14, 2004

Animal Collective: Sung Tongs
Fat Cat Records, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Acid-fried tone poems and obvious '60s psychedelia influences (most notably The Incredible String Band) roughly define the Animal Collective sound. Sung Tongs is more melodious than last year's pair of releases (Campfire Songs and Here Comes The Indian), still sporting long stretches of noisy drone but front-loading the album with actual sing-along harmonies ("Leaf House" and "Who Could Win A Rabbit"). When Animal Collective's penchant for experimenting with epic-length repetitive samples and vocalizations works (as it did with "Two Sails on a Sound" from Indian) the tandem of Avey Tare (vocals, guitars) and Panda Bear (vocals, drums) sculpts genuinely affecting and impressive music. Not all of the material meets those lofty standards: "Visiting Friends," the album's longwinded centerpiece, treads water when it should be ascending to a higher plane of sonic expression. Before, it sounded like Animal Collective sought only to please themselves. Sung Tongs sounds like a concession to the rest of us, and that's not a very exciting prospect from such a unique and potentially great band.

::: Laurence Station

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June 11, 2004

Devendra Banhart: Rejoicing in the Hands
Young God, 2004
Rating: 4.3
Listening to the idyllic (and at times striking) songs of Devendra Banhart is like watching time-lapse photography in nature films: everything is condensed and intensified, strange yet beautiful. Less than two years after his home-recorded Oh Me Oh My... appeared, Banhart returns with Rejoicing in the Hands, the first of two albums (Nino Rojo will be released later this year). Born out of a recent marathon recording session that produced 57 tracks, of which 32 were chosen and evenly subdivided to represent his prolific output, Rejoicing in the Hands, like its predecessor, features Banhart's distinctive high warble and creative guitar plucking. His lyrics range from the earnestly peculiar ("This is the sound that swims inside me") to the starkly simplistic ("That seed that grows all day / That seed that grows all night"). The one artificial moment on an album that strives mightily to come across as "off the floor" authentic appears at the beginning of "Todo los Dolores," where a false start by Banhart is a bit too canned and reminiscent of the jocular mood that precedes "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" from Bringing It All Back Home. Another problem is that some of the songs sound a bit unfinished and sketchy. But Rejoicing in the Hands is a remarkable album, and Banhart displays a range and gift for melody that belies his twenty-three years.

::: Laurence Station

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June 11, 2004

Rjd2: Since We Last Spoke
Definitive Jux, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Sample artist Rjd2's Since We Last Spoke does not pick up where 2002's lauded Dead Ringer left off. Since We Last Spoke is a completely different animal; moody and soulful where its predecessor was showy and cinematic. There's also no guest star cross-promotion gimmickry getting in the way of Rjd2 and his cut-and-paste craft. Since We Last Spoke pushes intricate sampling to the side in favor of drawn-out melodies with the occasional sound effect or breakbeat overlay. Like a tour through the A.M. dial of yesteryear (said yesteryear being 1976 -- the year of RJ Krohn's birth and also the title of one of the tracks), Since We Last Spoke works off of soulful pleadings ("Someone's Second Kiss" and "To All of You"), groovy funk ("Clean Living"), Latino horns ("1976") and classic-rock guitar riffs ("Exotic Talk," which takes flight into far trippier territory by song's end, and the considerably less successful "Through the Walls," which comes off as dated and dull) to create a soundtrack for the brokenhearted. This theme of dating-game downtime is further reinforced by the Rjd2's cover of Labi Siffre's schmaltzy ballad "Making Days Longer," which is given an even more downcast makeover here. Since We Last Spoke is more sonic retreat than bold reinvention, an intriguing, if not entirely triumphant, tip of the hat to the sound and spirit of the Year of the Dragon.

::: Laurence Station

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June 9, 2004

Sonic Youth: Sonic Nurse
Geffen, 2004
Rating: 3.5
Kim Gordon is back. After all but vanishing into session-player obscurity on 2002's Murray Street, Gordon returns with a vengeance on Sonic Nurse, the 19th release from veteran New York art-rock institution Sonic Youth. Guitarist Lee Ranaldo gets his obligatory track (the lyrically average but sonically vibrant "Paper Cup Exit") and Thurston Moore, when he's not working out trippy, protracted jams with Renaldo ("Dripping Dream" and "Stones"), goes on the offensive (and comes full circle) with the closing "Peace Attack," an anti-war/anti-Bush screed that harkens back to "Youth Against Fascism" from 1992's Dirty, when the elder Bush was at war with Iraq. But it's Gordon's tracks that make the strongest impact: From the sensually charged opener, "Pattern Recognition," to the breathy desperation of "I Love You Golden Blue," Gordon's presence dominates Sonic Nurse. "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" is a scathing denunciation of the vacuous nature of celebrity, while "Dude Ranch Nurse" possesses a slinky menace and an intriguingly slithery bass line. Ultimately, however, Sonic Nurse is on a par with Murray Street among Sonic Youth's second-tier albums. The band might never again scale the creative peaks of its Sister/Daydream Nation period, but it clearly hasn't resorted to phoning in its efforts for the established fan base.

::: Laurence Station

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June 9, 2004

Lali Puna: Faking the Books
Morr Music, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Faking the Books, Munich-based electro-pop quartet Lali Puna's third release, both refines and expands upon the band's prior work. The light-as-air melodies and icy-cool programming are still prevalent, but the outlook has changed, being more alienated and pensive in nature. On the title track, vocalist Valerie Trebeljahr observes "We've been wrong before / There is a lot that we survived." "Call 1-800-FEAR," powered by an insistent keyboard and metronomic beat, takes a more accusatory tone ("You lock the door of your panic room / When you should talk"). At its best, Lali Puna manages to successfully marry its dour message and beautiful sounds (the charming "Micronomic"). At other times, the looping vocals and minimal approach can grow tiresome, as with the spare "Alienation" and its repetitive refrain "Do you, do you, do you know?" Faking the Books is a small forward step rather than a dramatic leap for Lali Puna -- which, all things considered, is still a step in the right direction.

::: Laurence Station

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June 4, 2004

Edwin McCain: Scream and Whisper
DRT Entertainment, 2004
Rating: 2.6
Fans who enjoyed South Carolina singer-songwriter Edwin McCain's 2003 acoustic outing The Austin Sessions are in for a bit of a surprise: Scream and Whisper rejects that album's back-to-basics approach, redirecting McCain's folksy template toward a set of saccharine, feel-good MOR numbers that overdose on the singer's relentless earnestness. There are enough generic, empowering chestnuts here ("I'm thankful I'm alive;" "I'm turning this life around;" "the path that I follow will help me be a man") to warm the heart of any Oprah devotee; coupled with the tidy, professional polish of the disc's production, they're more than enough to offset McCain's impressive knack for easy-rockin' melody (best embodied on the one-two openers "Coming Down" and "Shooting Stars"). Elsewhere, McCain aims for topical gravitas by investing the perilous hardships of illegal immigrants ("White Crosses," a naked bid for Springsteen-esque social consciousness) with the same weight as the struggles of black musicians in the days before Civil Rights ("Good Enough," which ironically offers melanin-deficient props to pioneers like Duke Ellington and James Brown). And when he's not peddling platitudes, McCain is either giving voice to a maturing Peter Pan (the far, far too precious "Farewell to Tinkerbell"), encouraging listeners to "Save the rain from yesterday" (huh?) or trying to assert his rock 'n' roll bona fides with a misguided cover of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May." (Ed, if you missed the memo: the song is just plain tacky.) McCain possesses an amiable talent, but you wouldn't know it from Scream and Whisper, which only proves that the middle of the road is paved with good intentions.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 1, 2004

Sally: Sally
Paribus Records, 2003
Rating: 3.3
At times on this self-titled release from the Chicago outfit Sally, singer-songwriter-guitarist Charlie Deets strikes an intriguing, if imprecise, balance between rock 'n' roll's fuzzy authority and the hypnotic languor of Britpop. The low-end mechanics of Deets and bassist Melissa Neis lend muscle to "The Coming Spring" and evoke the primordial scruffiness of the White Stripes on "Very Biased Noses." Elsewhere, "Watermelon" borrows the central propulsive groove of the Breeders' "Cannonball" to contrast the push-and-pull of Deets' ragged punk screech and his more familiar drone. While engrossing numbers like "Clarks on Lincoln" benefit from the tension between Deets' nasal delivery and sharp, minimalist riffing, slower efforts ("Starve!") churn along in low gear, with Deets' vocals emphasizing rather than counterbalancing the deliberate pace. Still, Sally mixes a steady, bottom-heavy buzz and a slow, phlegmatic air with sufficient regularity to make one curious what sounds the band might yet create.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 27, 2004

Lenny Kravitz: Baptism
Virgin, 2004
Rating: 1.8
Lenny Kravitz became a star by peddling familiar wares in a flashy package: If there was always an element of "Been there, heard that" in his rock, soul and funk classicism, Kravitz's craftsmanship and charisma were usually enough to carry the day. But those elements are critically missing from Baptism, an album that only underscores the work that went into crafting the retro pleasures of albums like Are You Gonna Go My Way. Here, the issue isn't that Kravitz is steadfastly ignoring any musical developments that came along after the mid '70s; it's that his real and often-overlooked strengths -- commanding hooks ("Fly"), pliable riffs ("Are You Gonna Go My Way?") and deceptively insinuating melodies ("It Ain't Over Til It's Over") -- are nowhere in evidence. Well, there's "California," a slick piece of Sheryl Crow-style summer pop, but it lacks the buoyancy with which Kravitz has often kept other such lightweight numbers afloat. For an album that opens with a mission statement called "Minister of Rock 'N Roll" ("I can heal you / I can save your soul. I'll make you freak and make you lose control"), there's precious little rocking to be found, and the turgid numbers that make up Baptism's bulk are bogged down by insipid clichés ("Calling All Angels") and half-hearted tempos -- and, in "I Don't Want To Be A Star" and "What Have I Done With My Life?," grating attempts at self-reflection. Those latter numbers suggest that Kravitz might be suffering a mid-life crisis, which would help to explain the album's stunning lack of momentum, grit or flash. If that's the case, Baptism might provide the means by which he escapes his malaise. Don't want to be a star? Record another album like this one, and you just might get your wish.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 20, 2004

Gomez: Split the Difference
Virgin, 2004
Rating: 3.4
The line on Gomez's fourth album, Split the Difference, is that it's a back-to-basics return to form (straightforward guitars, bass and drums; less post-production fussiness) akin to the British five-piece's Mercury Prize-winning debut, Bring It On. Well, the album certainly fits that bill. The multi-tracked experimentalism of 2002's In Our Gun has been eschewed in favor of traditional bluesy riffs and conventional three-part harmonies. But Split the Difference simply isn't very engaging. The sing-along pep of "These 3 Sins" and the merry chorus that powers "Catch Me Up" don't latch onto the brain as fiercely as the tracks on previous efforts. The concerns are also considerably more frivolous: Whereas In Our Gun's title track equated people to bullets in a gun held by President Bush, helplessly waiting to be fired, Split the Difference offers vapid lines like "If you know how to run, sweet Virginia, you should run." Not that the album is a total loss, however: "Where Ya Going?" features some needed tough guitar and meaty percussion, and "Meet Me in the City" proves a fun, rollicking outing. On the whole, though, Split the Difference shows Gomez retreating from the edgier sonic territory the band had been progressing toward since its debut.

::: Laurence Station

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May 17, 2004

Mission of Burma: ONoffON
Matador, 2004
Rating: 4.0
"I'm as high as a kite on a windless night," declares drummer Peter Prescott on "The Enthusiast." That line pretty much encapsulates the overall exuberance running through ONoffON, Mission of Burma's first studio release since 1982's landmark post-punk effort, Vs. The average age of the legendary Boston-bred trio's members may be 50, but there's enough spark and vitality here to awe music fans half that age. ONoffON, like Vs., boasts Burma's signature socially conscious lyrics, brawny riffs and disconcerting time signatures. The main difference between the two discs, however, is that the contributions of the members (perhaps owing to a greater maturity and sense of self) is more distinctive.  Guitarist Roger Miller handles global concerns ("Wounded World") and the coarser punk screeds ("The Setup," "Playland"), while bassist Clint Conley handles the quieter, more introspective numbers ("Hunt Again" and "Prepared," the latter's mournful cello proving an unexpected but effective addition to the MoB template), and Peter Prescott simply has fun, adding a welcome dash of levity ("Fake Blood" and the aforementioned "Enthusiast"). There's a fifteen-second silence in the middle of the album, which, purposefully or not, divides the disc into two distinct sections; though there are some solid numbers on the backside (Miller's rumbling, intense "Fever Moon" and Conley's loose, shambling "Nicotine Bomb"), they feel more like padding after the more consistently engaging first set. Nevertheless, ONoffON is no tentative baby step back into the rock arena. This is the real deal, played by men who haven't lost their edge after a two-decade absence.

::: Laurence Station

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May 12, 2004

Cypress Hill: Till Death Do Us Part
Sony/Columbia, 2004
Rating: 3.3
Longtime fans of Cypress Hill won't have much trouble finding moments to appreciate on the Latino trio's eighth album. There's plenty of gangsta bravado in Till Death Do Us Part's familiar grooves, and it occasionally hits its mark, as on "Another Body Drops," "Money" and the unsettling "One Last Cigarette." But even when it works, the thug posturing feels contrived, and not a little dated. But B Real, Sen Dog and DJ Muggs do manage to wriggle free of the formulaic template, incorporating authentic dancehall flavor on "Ganja Bus" and teaming up with Rancid's Tim Armstrong to deliver a passably engaging Clash pastiche on "What's Your Number," which trades in the album's cartoonish violence for -- well, a cartoonish pickup song. A roster of intriguing guest stars (including Prodigy and Latin rapper Tego Calderone) helps move things along, and Muggs manages to craft some solid backing tracks. But long before it's time to part, Till Death sags under a heavy sense of déjà vu that hinders even its interesting moments.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 04, 2004

Múm: Summer Make Good
Fat Cat, 2004
Rating: 3.5
The ascension of vocals in Múm's musical universe reaches a highpoint on Summer Make Good. It's a somewhat ironic shift, considering the group's lost singer Gyda Valtysdottir after its previous release, Finally We Are No One, leaving Gyda's twin sister, Kristin, to handle the bulk of the vocal duties. Summer Make Good has a stormier quality that lends itself to images of waves crashing violently against rocky shorelines and the ghostly sound of drowned victims wailing in the wind (fitting, perhaps, considering the album was written and recorded in a pair of lighthouses in Iceland). Kristin doesn't so much sing as offer strangulated, childlike whispers that are often double-tracked. Clips and clatters, glitchy mechanics and breathy cooing have displaced the beautiful melodies that are Múm's strong suit. Unlike the electronic explorations of the now-trio's debut, Yesterday Was Dramatic - Today is OK, and the intricate, propulsive interaction between ethereal and hard-edged elements on Finally We Are No One, Summer Make Good lacks an overriding sense of conveyance. We begin in a dark, moody place, and proceed to brood for three-quarters of an hour. Whether Múm returns to its purer electronic roots or attempts to become promote Kristin as a Kate Bush for the iPod Generation remains to be seen, but Summer Make Good is about right: good, not great.

::: Laurence Station

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May 04, 2004

Fennesz: Venice
Touch, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Electronic composer Christian Fennesz follows up the vibrant, organically inventive Endless Summer with Venice, a decidedly more downbeat and pensive counterpoint. Opener "Rivers of Sand," with its shifting, undulating quality, is as organic as Venice gets, quickly giving way to the warm crackle and morose organ swells of "Château Rouge." But there are highlights to be found in Fennesz's collaborative pieces: Experimental Viennese guitarist Burkhard Stangl joins in on the reverb-heavy "Circassian," a powerhouse of majestic chords and digital grandiosity, and "Laguna," a refreshingly direct, untreated guitar duet. David Sylvian lends his vocal talents on "Transit," a gloomy Scott Walker-esque take on future concerns ("Our shared history dies with Europe"). The jarring "The Stone of Impermanence" is the lone dud, primarily because it sounds so out of place, like a castoff from the composer's debut, Hotel Paral.Lel. Fennesz serves up an unnecessarily aggressive spike that closes an otherwise restively evocative but never deliberate sounding work. Venice doesn't hold together as well as Endless Summer, but it still proves another fascinating, creatively gallant album from one of the more vital artists currently operating in the world of electronica.

::: Laurence Station

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April 29, 2004

David Mead: Indiana
Nettwerk America, 2004
Rating: 3.5
Singer-songwriter David Mead serves up another collection of meticulously assembled, warm, romantic-to-a-fault pop songs with his third release, Indiana. Trading on his swooning pipes (think a countrified cousin of David Gates or Joe Pernice) and patiently plucked guitar lines, Mead embarks on a travelogue of heartbreak and near-miss love affairs, from the opening "Nashville," passing through "Indiana" and the high-lonesome territory of "New Mexico", eventually winding up stuck in his "old hometown" ("Ordinary Life"). Mead doesn't craft anything nearly as wonderful as "World of a King" from his 1999 debut, but he does pull off a memorable cover of (oddly enough) the Michael Jackson hit "Human Nature," transformed here into a curiously effective tale of loneliness and introspection -- a theme that was glossed over in the decidedly more club-oriented original. Indiana is an appealing collection of light-rock balladry that should appeal to Mead's core fan base, though the journey might be a little too smooth for music thrill-seekers in search of a bumpier ride.

::: Laurence Station

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April 22, 2004

Probot: Probot
Southern Lord, 2004
Rating: 3.4
He may have raked in a lot of dough and some mainstream cred with Foo Fighters (not to mention a fortune in Nirvana royalties), but Probot proves that alt-rock icon Dave Grohl may have missed his true calling. The arrangements on this pet project, ranging from bottom-heavy death-metal to sturdy, serviceable speed-metal and heavy rock, all sport the touch of a genre craftsman: Musically, this is as solid a hard-rock offering as fans of Motorhead and obscure Swedish crunch fans could ask for. Lyrically, however, Probot is a different story. Grohl enlists an A-list of the genre's singers, each contributing their own lyrics, which results in a wildly uneven listen ranging from workmanlike (Lemmy Kilmeister's solid "Shake Your Blood," a decent Motorhead pastiche) to awkward ("Dictatosarus," courtesy of Snake from Voivod) and the just-plain awful ("Silent Spring," on which Kurt Brecht of D.R.I. insults the average headbanger's intelligence with lines like "They started to die / But not fast enough / So they shot at each other / With bullets and stuff" and "As the earth gets sicker and sicker / A soldier aims and pulls the trigger / Angels cry and demons laugh / Another suicide bomb blood bath"). After a strong opening third -- including the stirring "Red War," with Max Cavalera of Soulfly -- Probot becomes progressively less interesting, picking up steam only with the surprisingly agreeable "My Tortured Soul" (with Eric Wagner of Trouble). Grohl's pop hits with Foo Fighters prove he's not the world's most insightful lyricist, but he couldn't have done worse than half the deservedly obscure artists he rounds up for this well-intentioned but too often unintentionally funny one-shot.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 22, 2004

Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen: Pin Your Spin
Basin Street Records, 2004
Rating: 4.0
It's easy to get caught up in the utter incongruity of Cleary's funk-soul venture; after all, he's a dapper Brit (better known to some as Bonnie Raitt's keyboardist) leading a groove-fluent African-American combo through the corners of New Orleans R&B via a range of worldly influences. But it's precisely those seemingly oppositional elements that make Pin Your Spin Cleary's sharpest effort to date. Cleary's soulful polish meshes well with his Gentlemen's loose, gritty precision, especially on the enveloping "Is It Any Wonder" and the creeping syncopation of "Agent 00 Funk." (Note to Cleary: Directly alluding to "funk" in your lyrics is too precious for a musician of your caliber; please don't do it again.) The assemblage manages to effortlessly blend Afro-Caribbean seasonings ("Oh No No No") and even a bit of a capella doo-wop ("Best Aint Good Enuff") into the street-sound proceedings, nicely leavening Spin's occasional moments of excessive slickness.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 20, 2004

Sufjan Stevens: Seven Swans
Sounds Familyre, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Seven Swans, Sufjan Stevens' fourth album, is the Brooklyn-based musician's most thematically grounded, musically unified album to date. Considering it was begun before, but completed after, Stevens recorded last year's critically lauded Michigan, the uniform flow of Seven Swans is even more impressive. Produced by Daniel Smith and featuring members of the Danielson Famile, Seven Swans is a stripped down, passionately felt (if gently whispered) album, in which Stevens wrestles with tests of faith ("Abraham") and the nature of evil in the world ("A Good Man Is Hard To Find," in which Stevens rehashes the Flannery O'Connor story from the viewpoint of the Misfit). Although his lyrics are decidedly Christian-devotional, Stevens rarely stoops to outright preaching. But at times he leaves little doubt regarding where he thinks true believers are headed: "We Wont Need Legs To Stand" confidently proclaims "When we are dead / We all have wings." Seven Swans rides along nicely, unified by Stevens' banjo, until the end: The penultimate title track reaches a majestic crescendo, filled with soaring strings and crashing cymbals, only to be followed by the less-than-impressive "The Transfiguration;" the inclusion of the slower track critically undoes the album's sense of momentum. Regardless, Seven Swans is a supple showcase for Stevens, paying respect to his faith by doing what he does best: crafting beautiful, genuinely honest music.

::: Laurence Station

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April 20, 2004

Sondre Lerche: Two Way Monologue
Astralwerks, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Similar to the recent Beyoncé/Missy Elliot/Alicia Keys tour, maximizing those three artists' R&B/hip-hop cachet, it's easy to imagine the trio of Ed Harcourt, Rufus Wainwright and Sondre Lerche pooling their respective fan bases to create a Tin Pan Alley-enamored, art-popsinger-songwriter event. Not unlike Harcourt or Wainwright, Bergen, Norway native Lerche emphasizes grandiloquent pop elements, even when the lyrical content is gloomily downbeat. Shades of Nick Drake's vocal style ("Track You Down") and Beatles-esque horn arrangements ("Days That Are Over") all have a place on Lerche's sophomore effort, Two Way Monologue, a precociously accomplished collection that doesn't hit all of its marks yet earns points for boldness of intent. In his early twenties, Lerche isn't a songwriter on par with his idols -- yet. But for every awkward turn of phrase ("Seemingly it seems to me I'm subject to a joke / And it's not a test") there's a redemptive gem ("Days you spend wanting some of Michael Landon's grace"). The real upside, however, is that Lerche has the two key ingredients any artist needs to enjoy a long and rewarding career: exuberance and chops.

::: Laurence Station

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April 16, 2004

Calexico: Convict Pool [EP]
Quarterstick/Tough & Go, 2004
Rating: 3.2
Calexico serves up the familiar and the refreshingly unexpected on Convict Pool, a six-song appetizer positioned to hold fans over until the Tucson-based band's follow-up to last year's excellent Feast of Wire arrives. Calexico transforms Love's "Alone Again, Or" from a '60s-psychedelic, pop-rock number into a Southwestern Tex-Mex blend of handclaps and sun-bleached horns. Likewise, the original "Sirena" trades on some expressive mariachi guitar and John Convertino's patented shuffling beat. An appropriately loose, expressively light cover of the Minutemen's "Corona" adds further variety to the familiar Calexico mix. The horns are still there, but angular, more aggressive guitar lines rise to the fore, something D. Boon would no doubt have appreciated. The too-brief "Praskovia" successfully integrates Russian waltz into the band's template, and the results are as unusual as they are appealing. Convict Pool successfully shows off Calexico's wide range of influences, and it will be interesting to hear how many, if any, are incorporated into its next full-length release.

::: Laurence Station

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April 15, 2004

Tortoise: It's All Around You
Thrill Jockey, 2004
Rating: 3.8
There's nothing on It's All Around You, the fifth album from the Chicago-based art-rock quintet Tortoise, that approximates the epic scope of "Djed," the nearly twenty-one-minute instrumental (from the band's 1996 effort Millions Now Living Will Never Die), a track widely regarded as the group's defining achievement. "Djed" has cast a long and difficult-to-escape shadow, often diminishing (in the eyes of longtime fans) over the band's subsequent work. But that shouldn't keep diehards -- or newcomers -- from appreciating the distinct charms of It's All Around You, which creates a moody, swirling collage of sound that ties in well with the perceptive insinuation of the title -- as if Tortoise was attempting to convey the constant restlessness of nature on tape. "The Lithium Shifts" features emotively wordless "ooh-aahs" courtesy of guest vocalist Kelly Hogan, married to a casually shuffling, tropical island beat. It segues seamlessly into the synth-driven "Crest," which climaxes with feedback-drenched crescendos reminiscent of a pounding surf. "Unknown" noodles along without apparent purpose (a rare event in the Tortoise catalogue), but the moving closer "Salt the Skies," which begins placidly before a muscular bass sets off an explosive chain reaction of furious percussion and guitar histrionics, is a late-arriving highlight. It's as if the members of Explosions in the Sky hijacked Tortoise's studio during the night and finished the album off in dramatic fashion. It's All Around You is certainly on par with 2001's Standards, just below the jazzier TNT. While it may not match the exuberant authority of a band at the height of its powers, set by Millions Now Living eight years ago, it does manage to prove itself worthy, in its own way, of the distinct creative voice that high-water mark captured so well.

::: Laurence Station

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April 14, 2004

Allison Moorer: The Duel
Sugar Hill, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Allison Moorer abandons the glossy textures and pop friendly hooks of her last album Miss Fortune for a grittier, more lived-in sound on The Duel. The rough edges haven't been sanded down: The guitars are crunchier throughout, and R.S. Field's production is suitably unvarnished, save for the appealing but slightly out of place "Louise is in the Blue Moon." The sound of The Duel fits Moorer's lyrical concerns to a T, from issues of faith (the impassioned "Believe You Me") to a dying person's request to hear a lullaby as darkness settles in (the achingly sad "Sing Me to Sleep"). Centerpiece "All Aboard" opens with a slow, chugging bass and tense beat, and closes with a loose, winding jam that owes more to the Band and Crazy Horse than it does to Nashville's Music Row. Indeed, Moorer has made a firm break from well-paved pop country highways in favor of dusty, back-road roots-rock thoroughfares. The Duel is a fine statement of purpose as to where her future musical directions are (hopefully) headed.

::: Laurence Station

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April 14, 2004

Murs: 3:16 - The 9th Edition
Definitive Jux, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Murs is neither the sharpest lyricist in hip-hop, nor is he blessed with the smoothest flow. What sets him apart from other, more gifted MCs is the refreshing degree of naked self-examination and social commentary he brings to the table. 3:16 - The 9th Edition clocks in at a tidy 35 minutes, but Murs manages to pack more provocative content into this comparatively brief timeframe than most rappers do on bloated, hour-plus, skit-heavy offerings. The title track addresses senseless violence ("Niggas with artillery / And nothing to spray"); "H-U-S-T-L-E" tells the tale of a non-drug dealing street entrepreneur; "Walk Like a Man" laments the loss of a close friend who was gunned down and the cycle of violence such events perpetuate; "And This Is For..." examines whites who co-opt black culture, with such pointed barbs as "We ain't the same culture when the police show up." In conflict with the socially conscious raps are uninhibited tales of sexual exploits: "Bad Man!" finds Murs claiming to be a "Heartbreaker for life," while "The Pain" attempts to justify his noncommittal behavior by claiming he's never found the right woman and thus sticks exclusively to shallow hookups ("They come and they go / And even if they don't come / They still have to go"). The raunchy "Freak These Tales" is a less verbose cousin to the Nails' "88 Lines About 44 Women." Throughout, producer 9th Wonder serves up an intriguing variety of '70s soul-flavored beats. 3:16 is Murs' show, however, revealing different facets of his personality that, while not completely harmonious, nonetheless reflect an artist with more on his mind than Cristal and bling.

::: Laurence Station

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April 13, 2004

50 Foot Wave: 50 Foot Wave
Throwing Music, 2004
Rating: 4.1
50 Foot Wave is a six-song exercise in slash-and-burn hard rock and cutting lyrical content. The self-titled mini-album debut from Kristin Hersh's new project (with the tight rhythm section of bassist Bernard Georges and drummer Rob Ahlers) kicks off, appropriately enough, with the dirty guitar riff and concrete-scraping feedback of "Bug." "You have a stone-cold picture of a girlfriend / And a celibate wife," Hersh rails, establishing an aggrieved tone of domestic discontent that permeates the disc. On "Glory Weed" she regretfully observes, "You already brought the battle home," while "Dog Days" accusatorily barks, "Don't touch me / I don't know where you've been." As a solo artist and the de facto leader of Throwing Muses, Hersh has spent her career using music as a therapeutic outlet for whatever demons are tormenting her, from the pressures of marriage and motherhood to the purging of aggressively shifting time signatures from her brain. 50 Foot Wave is her heavy rock incarnation -- no delicately introspective moments or catchy pop hooks to be found here. This is Hersh at her loudest and most raw, and in that respect she and her two bandmates generate a powerful, bruising triangle of sound.

::: Laurence Station

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April 13, 2004

Eric Clapton: Me and Mr. Johnson
Warner Brothers, 2004
Rating: 3.0
The Blues should never sound easy or fun, and they should most especially never come across as carefree or lighthearted. Eric Clapton's tribute to the work of delta blues legend Robert Johnson may be a collection of Johnson's standards, but in its reverential tone and the sheer joy expressed by Clapton and the all-star collection of session men joining him, the album proves utterly incongruous with the form it champions. Clapton transforms the dangerous undercurrent of smoldering sexuality inherent to Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues" ("You can squeeze my lemon till the juice run down my leg") into an interpretatively cheeky romp. The sense of impending doom hanging over "Hell Hound on My Trail" has been replaced by a swamp boogie shuffle, with an upbeat, exuberantly celebratory tempo. Clapton clearly loves this music, and he and his band (particularly Jerry Portnoy on harmonica and keyboardist Billy Preston) bring an impeccable sense of skill and timing to the work, but crack musicianship is not the same thing as expressing the sorrow, guilt and anxiety inherent to the blues. Fans of Clapton will enjoy hearing their guitar hero in top form; blues enthusiast will be far better off sticking with the originals.

::: Laurence Station

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April 8, 2004

Wheat: Per Second, Per Second, Per Second... Every Second
Aware/Columbia, 2003
Rating: 3.2
Newcomers who stumble across the sunny melodies and pristine pop production on Wheat's fourth album will find the group agreeably reminiscent of mainstream alterna-pop all-stars like Matchbox Twenty or Toad the Wet Sprocket. Whether more established fans will come along for the ride is an open question, however: Despite the presence of Mercury Rev front man and noted indie producer Dave Fridmann, Per Second sounds like the result of a far different band than the Massachusetts art-pop combo once known for doggedly refusing to promote itself or its shows. Fridmann's presence is most prominently felt on the catchy opener "I Met a Girl," which sports a slightly quirky melody that recalls The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne at his breeziest. Slick numbers like "Life Still Applies," "World United Already" and "Some Days" are genetically engineered for maximum radio accessibility; "These Are Things" and "Can't Wash It Off" (the latter featuring a promisingly fuzzy guitar sound and staccato beat) are insinuatingly memorable confections. If you don't know, or can look beyond, the staggering U-turn it represents, then Per Second is an amiable time investment for a top-down cruising summer afternoon. If you're hungry for weightier fare, however, you'd be best served by digging deeper into the band's catalog.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 1, 2004

Madvillain: Madvillainy
Stones Throw, 2004
Rating: 4.0
The long-awaited debut from Madvillain (Rhymes: MF Doom, Beats: Madlib) bears the distinction of being hip-hop's first superhero (villain)/pro-marijuana concept album. Imagine Doom engaging in a bit of chronic-fueled reverie pondering what life would be like in an alternate universe where rap battles involved actual rhyme-slingers with superpowers, and the overriding thematic arc of Madvillainy becomes clear. The level of braggadocio exhibited here is startling: "Accordion" features Doom claiming he's "Got more lyrics than the church's got ooh-lord's." But as assured Doom is of his quick-jab snaps and verbal prowess, it's Madlib's dense, oddball production that steals the show. From the DJ Shadow-styled "Sickfit" to the appropriately bombastic "Supervillain Theme," Madlib creatively melds electronic and jazzy elements, entertaining voiceovers akin to the kind heard on Batman or Superman cartoons, and snippets of Sun Ra to fashion a wildly diverse yet coherently executed tableaux of brainy, original noise-art. Doom may not possess tremendous vocal range, but he gets by thanks to consistently clever wordplay. Still, the drug culture send-up/anthem "America's Most Blunted" and the elliptical, cosmically bent "Shadows of Tomorrow," both featuring helium-voiced guest rapper Lord Ques, make a stronger lyrical impact. Madvillainy is a curious bird, resolutely sticking to its own bong-loaded, 4-color-comic bookworm vision.

::: Laurence Station

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March 28, 2004

The Hiss: Panic Movement
Sanctuary, 2004
Rating: 3.6
Strictly speaking, The Hiss is not a garage-rock band; it bears no resemblance to the 13th Floor Elevators, the Electric Prunes or any of the other outfits archived in the popular Nuggets anthology series. It may resemble, in passing, some of the many post-Strokes bands of the misnamed garage-rock revolution (a misnomer created by lazy reviewers and propagated by even lazier ones, including yours truly). But the Atlanta-based quartet casts a large net in its trawl for inspiration, reeling in meaty bombast ("Clever Kicks"), tuneful, populist Brit-pop ("Listen to Me") and even Zeppelin-esque faux-folk rock ("Riverbed"). Panic Movement bears some stretch marks from the band's elastic reach, and proves most effective on nuggets of hard-rocking bravado like the brash "Step Aside" (which favorably recalls Uncle Anesthesia-era Screaming Trees), "Brass Tacks," "Triumph" and the kinetic charger "Back on the Radio," the most commanding track here. Workmanlike tracks like "Lord's Prayer" and the too-earnest screed "Not for Hire" sustain the album's momentum, although just barely, resulting in a disc whose rocking authority is tentative but no less authentic for it. The Hiss is certainly one of the most promising of the current wave of rock revivalists; it's easy to see why this disc is already a hit in the U.K. One senses it won't be long before its members turn in a set of sinewy rockers that deliver in spades on the promise Panic Movement so forcefully makes.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 23, 2004

Ron Sexsmith: Retriever
Nettwerk, 2004
Rating: 3.3
Retriever finds Ron Sexsmith reuniting with Martin Terefe, producer of 2002's laudable Cobblestone Runway. It also finds the singer-songwriter stuck in a contemporary pop-balladry rut. Whereas Cobblestone overflowed with interesting electronic touches and creative arrangements, Retriever is far less musically adventurous. Sexsmith's compositions are as sturdy as ever, executed with sincere integrity but too-plodding in stretches (the piano-based "Tomorrow In Her Eyes" and grim "For The Driver" making only marginal impressions). "How On Earth," with its rolling melody and feeling of unbridled optimism, stands out, as does the intimate, gentle "Imaginary Friends," with its warning to children about detaching themselves too far from reality. Retriever is also hamstrung by its sequencing; the disc's more up-tempo numbers crowd toward the end. The slow-plucked "Hard Bargain" contains the opening line "I'm a bit rundown, but I'm okay," which aptly sums up the overall mood here. Sexsmith isn't pushing the musical envelope as intensely as he has on past efforts, and while his songwriting is as delicate and graceful as ever, there's simply nothing here that he hasn't done better or with more flair elsewhere.

::: Laurence Station

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March 23, 2004

Scissor Sisters: Scissor Sisters
Polydor, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Scissor Sisters, brash purveyors of trash art rivaling the Dandy Warhols in terms of sheer exuberance for the form, are a campy New York five-piece trafficking in '70s-era disco and glam rock backed by fevered, funky grooves. With band member names like Paddy Boom, Ana Matronic and Jake Shears, it's obvious the group is in on the joke. Fortunately they don't treat their music like one. Given their channeling of Elton John piano-rockers ("Take Your Mama"), ballads ("Mary"), thematic underpinnings ("Return to Oz") and sleazy Bowie-esque numbers ("Lovers in the Backseat"), Scissor Sisters clearly understand (and revere) the bygone disco/glam era. Highlights include the dichotomous "Filthy/Gorgeous," a digital meltdown complete with pulsing rhythms and retro laser-beam sound effects, and a cover of Pink Floyd's paranoid downer "Comfortably Numb," transformed here -- thanks to an persistently repetitive beat -- into a wildly zonked-out dance number for speed freaks. "It Can't Come Quickly Enough" contains a line which could well be the well-schooled band's motto: "We knew all the answers and we shouted them like anthems." Scissor Sisters' debut is a brilliant ode to a musical era defined by vapid decadence and disposable dance tracks.

::: Laurence Station

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March 22, 2004

Menomena: I Am the Fun Blame Monster
Muuuhahaha!, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Portland, Oregon indie-rock trio Menomena gains points for coming up with the best album title of 2003; that I Am the Fun Blame Monster is an anagram for "the first Menomena album" only adds to the band's unconventional appeal. Toss in a flipbook in place of a traditional plastic CD case, and it's obvious that multi-instrumentalist/programmer Brent Knopf, drummer Danny Seim and bassist/guitarist Justin Harris have a larger agenda than simply going Gold and tracking numbers of units moved. Menomena wants to entertain -- but on its own terms. The band's loop-spastic, hyperactive sound clearly accomplishes this goal, although the abundant loops often seem more of a method to cover the thinness of the group's compositions, filling in the gaps in the Spartan drum-piano-guitar-based melodies. The jam-oriented "Twenty Cell Revolt" and the fuzzy, beat-mash-oriented "Trigga Hickups" stand out from the mix thanks to some emotionally moody piano in the first and compelling use of bass in the second. I Am the Fun Blame Monster is a promising debut from a band more clever than it is musically accomplished. (It could be worse; it could be more accomplished than clever.) Here's looking forward to the next flipbook of winningly off-kilter, original ideas.

::: Laurence Station

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March 19, 2004

Iron & Wine: Our Endless Numbered Days
Sub Pop, 2004
Rating: 4.1
Sam Beam's music is best heard in a remote location, far removed from freeways, cell phones that belt out Rachmaninov, and the general hum of city life. Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam's second full-length as Iron & Wine, holds true to the low-key format established on his 2002 debut The Creek Drank the Cradle and last year's devotee-pacifying The Sea & the Rhythm EP. Beam plucks and strums his way through twelve ego-less, mostly proper-noun-free tunes that are gorgeously understated, delivered in a quiet whisper. Although he's incorporated his touring band this time around, the focal point is still the bearded Beam himself, ruminating on universal abstractions such as faith, love and regret. Discernible rhythm doesn't make a substantial appearance until two-thirds of the way through with the spirited, defiant "Free Until They Cut Me Down." Beam's consistency to that point, while laudable, also keeps the album stuck in second gear for far too long, although the hushed intensity of "Cinder and Smoke" and the lovely, ruminative "Each Coming Night" easily stack alongside Beam's finest compositions. Our Endless Numbered Days is a warm, gently beautiful album that rewards the patient listener -- especially one with the means to escape the hustle and bustle of the modern world.

::: Laurence Station

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March 16, 2004

Godsmack: The Other Side
Republic/Universal, 2004
Rating: 3.4
It's been awhile since the novelty wore off the concept of a band "going acoustic" to display its versatility, a la Guns N' Roses' G N' R Lies. Of course, the MTV Unplugged craze had long petered out by the time Godsmack's self-titled debut barged onto modern-rock airwaves in the mid-late '90s. So what's a growling alt-metal band to do when it wants to show off its chops, stand out from the crowd and pad its coffers until its next proper full-length? Release a half-hour placeholder with acoustic reworkings of some signature songs along with a smattering of new tracks, that's what. Not everything on The Other Side works -- "Asleep," a moody recasting of the band's hit "Awake," squanders the original's menace, and the workmanlike opening ballad "Running Blind" lacks bite -- but most of the mini-album mines passable results from the acoustic-rock formula. Sully Erna dials down his gruff bark to reveal a surprisingly resonant instrument, which is no less effective for its reliance on well-worn acoustic-metal cliché on "Voices" and the spirited, foreboding "Keep Away." Oddly enough, Erna's singing is shown to its best effect on the Awake album track "Spiral," which all-too readily acknowledges Godsmack's stylistic and atmospheric debt to Alice in Chains. The Other Side intermittently showcases the sure hand this Massachusetts outfit can exhibit with melody and dynamics when it wants to, and the contrast with its regular sound could well give the listening public a fresher perspective of, and predisposition to, its talents by the time Godsmack releases its next platter of brawny metal anthems.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 16, 2004

Telefon Tel Aviv: Map of What Is Effortless
Hefty, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Telefon Tel Aviv (New Orleans-bred/Chicago-based duo Charles Cooper and Joshua Eustis) pricked the ears of IDM-dedicates with their smooth, jazzy 2001 electronica debut Fahrenheit Fair Enough -- and promptly began moving away from a style they could have milked for a few more releases. 2002's Immediate Action 8 EP dropped a hint of things to come with the addition of vocals into the pair's glitch-and-soul mix. Which brings us to the electronic orchestral soul of Map of What Is Effortless, which likewise sports vocals (on six of its nine tracks), with L'Altra's Lindsay Anderson and L.A. songwriter Damon Aaron splitting the singing duties. Anderson moves from detached spoken-word (the propulsive, glitchy "My Week Beats Your Year") to a more emotionally vulnerable state ("What It Was Will Never Again," which dramatically changes tempo at the end and features the unnerving, repetitive line "the pleasure's mine"). Aaron, meanwhile, channels the smooth R&B of the Isley Brothers throughout, and does so most effectively on the slow-tempo, percussively muffled "I Lied." The Loyola University Chamber Orchestra helps flesh out the overall mix, taking center stage on the string-drenched title track. Whether Laptop Soul catches on and becomes another subcategory beneath the maddeningly broad electronica umbrella remains to be seen, but whatever you end up calling it, Map of What Is Effortless is a beautiful creation. Those looking for more visceral fare, however, will have to jack their headphones in elsewhere.

::: Laurence Station

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March 12, 2004

Lostprophets: Start Something
Sony, 2004
Rating: 3.4
Start Something, the sophomore effort from Welsh nu-metal outfit Lostprophets, is the sound of a band throwing itself relentlessly at the limitations of its genre. Not content to peddle the well-worn riffs and blog-entry emoting of a Linkin Park, the band instead occasionally falls back to a stylistic default that recalls Faith No More at that band's commercial peak, somewhere between the thumping adrenaline of "We Care a Lot" and the everyteen croak-singing of Mike Patton. Even at such moments, though, the members show an admirable drive to expand the parameters of the form. Thus the muscular, P.O.D. flexing of "We Still Kill The Old Way" (with vocalist Ian Watkins in his most eerie Patton-clone mode) gives way to the sweeping anthemics of "Last Train Home" and the layered dynamics of "Goodbye Tonight." When they choose to step back into the straight-ahead power-riffing of "To Hell We Ride" and "Burn, Burn," Lostprophets' enthusiastic roar is leavened by a too-processed studio sheen, a regimented mix that reeks of ProTools. But when they make a dent, however small, in nu-metal's oxidizing walls, as on the Pink Floyd-meets-Deftones closer "Sway," the album gives a promising spark of truth to its title. It'll be interesting to see whether Lostprophets continue to build on what they've started here.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 12, 2004

Now It's Overhead: Fall Back Open
Saddle Creek, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Andy LeMaster's angular voice invests the Athens-based engineer's songs with a thoughtful yearning quality that hovers on the cusp between in-the-moment urgency and morning-after hindsight. That ruminative vibe proves a handy fit with LeMaster's expansive instrumentation, which snakes from the danceable percussion (courtesy of propulsive drummer Clay Leverett) of "Wait in a Line" through the fairly straightforward strumming of "The Decision Made Itself" to the elliptical "Antidote" (structured around Michael Stipe's floating guest vocals). If Now It's Overhead sounds less like the band LeMaster insists it is than a studio-rat side project on this second album, that doesn't detract from the distinctly personal stamp its principal puts on the proceedings (with an assist from Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor of Azure Ray). "Profile" begins with a clinical detachment reminiscent of Radiohead circa "Fitter, Happier," running through a set of personal-ad stats before LeMaster infuses the song with a humanizing need for contact backed with defensive aloofness: "In search of conversation / Name withheld / Just drop me a line, I will get back to you alright / In my sweet time." "Surrender" rides a deliberate, hesitant-yet-hopeful vocal hook ("In the back of my head there is time / I could still get away if I tried") in the chorus; "Turn & Go" nudges its gently unfolding synth-drone into a suitable backdrop for LeMaster's questing ruminations ("There is not what I want on a mountain peak / There is not what I want / In a valley deep / I don't know"). Fall Back Open builds its Brian Eno-esque architecture into a warm, vulnerable document of searching and fear of connection, resulting in a pleasantly engaging and subtly memorable offering.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 12, 2004

The Von Bondies: Pawn Shoppe Heart
Sire, 2004
Rating: 4.0
The influence of Detroit-area rock touchstones MC5 and The Stooges resonate through The Von Bondies' sophomore effort Pawn Shoppe Heart. The key difference between Heart and its predecessor, Lack of Communication (aside from the loss of Jack White's production duties and, presumably, friendship after his well-documented assault on lead singer Jason Stollsteimer), is a greater sense of purpose on the part of the garage rock quartet. Like that earlier effort, Pawn Shoppe Heart is drenched in sweaty, punk-informed scorchers, but there's a stronger sense of melody and timing throughout, the infectious "C'mon C'mon" being the most glaring example. The album highlight, though, is "Not That Social," featuring stellar guitar dynamics and bassist Carrie Smith on vocals. Not all is wine and roses in Detroit Rock City, however: Mid-album, the over-marinated, faux-bluesy "Maireed" brings the heretofore-manic energy to a screeching halt, while the blunt, primitive "Crawl Through the Darkness" finds the band regressing down rock's evolutionary ladder. Although it threatens to flicker out in spots, Pawn Shoppe Heart mostly blazes with an intensity that avoids sounding contrived or dated.

::: Laurence Station

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March 10, 2004

Xiu Xiu: Fabulous Muscles
5 Rue, 2004
Rating: 3.6
Fabulous Muscles, the third full-length release from San Jose indie-rock miserablists Xiu Xiu, explores such cheery fare as abused lovers who keep coming back for more, familial suicide and war violence. Throughout, singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart (the group's lone mainstay) offers up his most personal examination of relationships yet, specifically the sadomasochistic power plays within such private interactions. Musically, Fabulous Muscles is Xiu Xiu's finest hour. The intense drum work on "I Luv the Valley, Oh!" perfectly complements the desperation in Stewart's voice; the channel-panning fuzz that opens "Little Panda McElroy" establishes a disorienting backdrop for the conflicted, self-loathing lyrical content. The sing-screeching Stewart is at his best when he keeps things uncomfortably close to home (the sexually frank title track and "Mike," an elegy to his dead father). His biggest misstep is the spoken word anti-war rant "Support Our Troops, Oh! (Black Angels, Oh!)," which is both juvenile and pointless with its graphic description of American soldiers shooting and blowing up helpless civilians. For a band so willfully prickly, so enamored with despair and dissonance, Fabulous Muscles reveals a tighter, more cohesive-sounding outfit.

::: Laurence Station

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March 08, 2004

Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand
Domino, 2004
Rating: 3.1
Franz Ferdinand's music possesses an intriguing, passive-aggressive kind of wasted elegance that never quite pays off. Imagine Spandau Ballet's snottier younger siblings stumbling across their first punk rock record after a full day at art school, and the Glasgow quartet's musical pedigree comes into focus. The album ranges from crimson-bruised tales of dating ("Take Me Out" finds singer Alexander Kapranos lamenting "We're just a crosshair, just a shot, then we can die / I know I won't be leaving here with you") to more shallow romantic concerns (the calorie-free "Darts of Pleasure" sports the sleazy refrain "You can feel my lips undress your eyes / Skin can feel my lips, they tingle tense anticipation on it"). Franz Ferdinand explores hormonal rages with an affected sense of disinterested cool. The band's musicianship, though derivative of new/no-wave, is capably fashioned, but the disc's energy careens wildly, only reinforcing the feeling that there's nothing to hold onto: Ferdinand is numbingly empty. Unlike the willful embrace of vapidity served up by, say, the Dandy Warhols, Franz Ferdinand is eager to impress with its sense of style and disdain for love games and lonely-heart dancehall Wednesday-nighters.

::: Laurence Station

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March 07, 2004

The Coral: Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker
Sony, 2004
Rating: 3.0
It had to be frustrating for hardcore fans of the Coral living outside the UK to discover the only way they could get their hands on the band's new mini-album was to pay hefty import prices. Even more galling is the subsequent inclusion of Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker as a free bonus CD inside U.S. copies of the band's sophomore release, Magic and Medicine. The Coral cranked out this loose, unpolished, thirty-minute set over a seven-day period, and it shows. Nightfreak is imbued with an appealing, frantic punk energy, but hamstrung by third-rate Zappa lyrics like "My body's shaking and I'm shitting bricks". Early tracks carry the most promise: "Venom Cable" possesses a slithery, bass-heavy rhythm, while "I Forgot My Name" stomps and stammers with an infectious, devil-may-care fury. Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker (the madcap title is explained in a quote on the band's website: "We're Boris Becker's illegitimate sons, travelling round the world to get money off him. We're coming back to get the pay-off that we deserve!") is little more than a palette-cleansing diversion before work commences in earnest on the talented British sextet's third full-length release later this year. As a bonus disc to the current Magic, it's a fun trifle, but those who paid full price for the import version probably have a different opinion of its merits.

::: Laurence Station

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March 05, 2004

Califone: Heron King Blues
Thrill Jockey, 2004
Rating: 3.7
The backstory to Califone's Heron King Blues is certainly intriguing: Lead singer/songwriter Tim Rutili, upon discovering that a dream he had involving a man on stilts dressed as a bird had a historical precedent (Ancient Romans dressed a soldier in similar garb to frighten and ultimately defeat the Britons in battle), decided to create an album based on this bizarre, rather terrifying imagery. Using the freewheeling vibe of Captain Beefheart's Mirror Man sessions for musical inspiration, Rutili and the other members of Califone entered the studio without any preconceived notions as to what type of sound they would ultimately create. The lyrics were written on the fly, and then accompanied by improvisational arrangements. Too bad the results prove less interesting than their inspiration. The fifteen-minute long title track pays the album's deepest debt to Beefheart; it's an avant-bluesy jam that begins to treads water around the ten-minute mark. "2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other" is the lone outstanding moment here, a groovy slice of digital funk that stands as one of the finest creations in Califone's widely varied catalog. As far as the Heron King's concerned, other than the song title and artwork, he's nowhere to be found. Rutili's never been the most forthcoming songwriter, and whatever cryptic connection his lyrics have to his dreams (and coincidental historical events) falls well outside the interpretive abilities of this reviewer. Heron King Blues may lack spark and consistency, but it's a decent (just not essential) addition to the Califone catalog.

::: Laurence Station

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March 04, 2004

Kanye West: College Dropout
Roc-A-Fella, 2004
Rating: 3.4
Kanye West is a superstar producer in the world of hip-hop (Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name" and Jay-Z's "'03 Bonnie & Clyde"), and like the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams, West clearly craves a star's life outside the confines of the production booth. West's mucho hyped debut, College Dropout, shows he's well on the way, although he still has some work to do. Most glaring is the monotone delivery of West, who too often finds himself upstaged by his Who's Who of guest stars. Syleena Johnson's gorgeous pipes tower over "All Falls Down" while rappers Jay-Z, Talib Kweli and Ludacris dominate the flow on their respective tracks. Skits like "Workout Plan" and "School Spirit," which should reinforce the overarching theme of utilizing school-of-hard-knocks knowledge as opposed to the kind that requires you to earn a degree, prove too pedestrian in execution to make more than a marginal impression. The hit "Through the Wire" has surprisingly been pushed to the back, but still shows just how good a song Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire" is. College Dropout is a competent if overlong debut, which serves up solid but by no means groundbreaking production work a little too dependent on familiar hooks from '70s R&B staples. It positions West as a clever lyricist who might be better served having others interpret his words for him.

::: Laurence Station

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March 04, 2004

Stereolab: Margerine Eclipse
Elektra, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Margerine Eclipse is a blithe, energetic and wholly likable album. It simply brims with life, from its warm keyboard effects to its kinetically throbbing beats. Stereolab has clearly chosen to reconnect with the world at large after the tragic death of core member Mary Hansen in 2002. Laetitia Sadier's vocals are multi-tracked in places ("Need to Be" being a particularly obvious example), and, unsurprisingly, that's where Hansen's loss as a vocalist is most dramatically felt. Other than the poignant tribute to her ("Feel and Triple"), Stereolab honors Hansen by returning from the drone heavy, self-aggrandizing space the group's occupied over the last few albums with shorter, simpler compositions that emphasize airy melodies and spirited noise-pop typical of the band's early years. The gorgeous, warmly nostalgic "...Sudden Stars" (first heard on last year's Instant 0 in the Universe EP) and closing, mash-beat dominated "Dear Marge" are particular highlights. Stereolab has cooked up a thoroughly modern album using vintage ingredients, unquestionably proving that the cupboard is far from bare for this Anglo-French outfit.

::: Laurence Station

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March 02, 2004

The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed
4AD, 2004
Rating: 4.0
Tallahassee, main Mountain Goat John Darnielle's initial foray into the possibilities of big studio fidelity, sounded crisp but bloodless. It was a bit too clean, and not nearly as emotionally resonant as the artist's prior, more highly acclaimed ultra-lo-fi work. While he may never return to the days of portable Panasonic tape recordings and a lone acoustic guitar for musical accompaniment, We Shall All Be Healed reveals Darnielle making better use of superior technology without compromising the emotional impact of his work. Produced by John Vanderslice, We Shall All Be Healed offers a livelier collection of songs, from the underdog optimism buoying "Slow West Vultures" to the trenchant "Against Pollution," where Darnielle observes "When the last days come / We shall see visions / More vivid than sunsets / Brighter than stars / We will recognize each other / And see ourselves for the first time." The fuller musicianship proves more effective as well: Nora Danielson's violin stands out on the hopelessly romantic "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent" and the resolute "Quito." Not everything works, however. "The Young Thousands" isn't quite the anthemic call-to-arms Darnielle appears to be aiming for. And "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of" provides a rather lackluster closer. Still, at the least, We Shall All Be Healed emphatically proves that Darnielle can create compelling, dynamic music beyond the comfortable confines of his living room couch.

::: Laurence Station

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March 02, 2004

Ghost: Hypnotic Underworld
Drag City, 2004
Rating: 3.8
It's been nearly five years since we last heard from Ghost. 1999's double-shot of the gauzily psychedelic Snuffbox Immanence and the politically attuned Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet revealed the veteran Japanese experimental rock collective in top, appealingly scattershot form. Hypnotic Underworld finds Ghost taking its cues from the free-flowing style of German avant-noisemakers Amon Düül and the eccentric playfulness of Syd Barrett. Hypnotic Underworld opens with the twenty-three minute title track, broken into four distinct movements. The first (and longest), "God Took A Picture Of His Illness On This Ground," is an elastic, improvisational piece, largely subdued save for occasional bursts of clattering percussion and fussy horns. "Escaped And Lost Down In Medina" sports a Middle Eastern, acid-washed vibe highlighted by ecstatic, wave-crashing sonic flourishes toward the end. "Aramaic Barbarous Dawn" is an energetic, electronica-meets-ringing guitar mini-epic, dominated by guitarist Masaki Batoh's reverb-treated vocals, while "Leave The World!" is a terse slam of furious drumbeats. The remainder of Hypnotic Underworld features two covers (a psych-pop workout of "Hazy Paradise" from the Dutch prog-rockers Earth & Fire, and an evanescent take on patron saint Barrett's "Dominoes"); a pastoral, whispered vocal track ("Kiseichukan Nite") featuring some nice Celtic harp; and the beautiful flute-work of the appropriately name "Piper." There are some less-than-compelling moments, notably "Gangagmanag," a meandering ten-minute jam that doesn't get interesting until a dramatic shift in intensity during the final minutes. Ghost remains one of the more chaotic and interesting outfits working today, and Hypnotic Underworld proves another worthy addition to the group's idiosyncratic catalog.

::: Laurence Station

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March 01, 2004

Preston School of Industry: Monsoon
Matador, 2004
Rating: 3.4
Call it another example of indie-rockers thumbing their collective noses at the mainstream, or just poor sequencing on the band's part. However you justify it, Preston School of Industry's Monsoon is back-loaded, with its most appealing tracks coming at the end, as opposed to the typical frontloading of peak album cuts. Monsoon is certainly a stronger, more sonically cohesive work than the group's 2001 debut All This Sounds Gas. But at least the best cut on that album ("Falling Away") arrived early in the proceedings. Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg continues to evolve the three-minute-guitar-driven pop-rock ditty he first introduced on the one or two Pavement tracks he was allotted per album with that seminal college-rock outfit. Which is competent and semi-catchy, but not exactly memorable. It's the final two tracks that save Monsoon from total cutout bin oblivion: "Get Your Crayons Out!" provides an excellent example of what Kannberg can accomplish when he gets a little more radical with his arrangements and amps up the energy level (aided by members of Wilco). "Tone It Down," meanwhile, is the most emotionally direct song on the album, with Kannberg's voice clearly rising above the mix in a warm and accessible manner. Ultimately Monsoon proves an easy, agreeable listen; soft rock for graying indie-rockers everywhere.

::: Laurence Station

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February 19, 2004

John Vanderslice: Cellar Door
Barsuk, 2004
Rating: 4.2
After exploring themes of isolation and loneliness on Time Travel Is Lonely and charting the downward spiral of a gearhead on Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, John Vanderslice tackles family issues on Cellar Door. On his most lyrically forthcoming work to date, the San Francisco-based artist utilizes every element of Tiny Telephone, his recording studio, to conjure tense rhythms and dramatic keyboard effects, decorating richly panoramic sonic environments whose subject matter runs the gamut from American military involvement in world affairs ("Heated Pool and Bar") to a father called down to the morgue to identify a body that might be his son ("Coming and Going on Easy Terms"). "My Family Tree" deals with the loss of one's parents; "June July" examines a young man who returns home to his mother and subsequently survives a lightning strike. Vanderslice's love of literature and cinema is seamlessly interwoven throughout. Opener "Pale Horse" is a stripped down, liberal reworking of Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy;" Wild Strawberries" (Bergman's childhood memory classic) is used as a song title; the films Mulholland Drive and Requiem for a Dream provide the basis for "Promising Actress" and "When It Hits My Blood," respectively. "My Family Tree" succinctly sums up Cellar Door's overriding theme of growing up and apart from one's heritage: "My family tree is me / Now I'm set free." In sticking close to home, Vanderslice has crafted his finest album yet.

::: Laurence Station

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February 17, 2004

Norah Jones: Feels Like Home
Blue Note, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Come Away With Me, Norah Jones' enthusiastically received debut, was a jazz vocal album informed by country and blues. Feels Like Home, her eagerly anticipated sophomore effort, is a country-blues effort, enhanced by Jones' impeccable jazz vocal and piano skills. And it's that transparent alteration in design that allows Feels Like Home to take on a character and tempo all its own. Eight million (and counting) consumers can't be wrong; thus, it would have been easy to rehash Come Away With Me's downtempo, Southwest-styled urban flow. Fortunately, Jones and her touring band continue to explore very familiar territory, and, crucially, do so without coming across as disingenuous or entitled. "What Am I to You?" is a three-tissue ballad bolstered by guest musicians (and ex-Band members) Garth Hudson (on accordion and organ) and drummer Levon Helm. Highlight "In the Morning" finds Jones trying out a bluesy croon and also features her on an excellent Wurlitzer solo. Dolly Parton duets on "Creepin' In," effectively contrasting her striking, classic country voice with Jones' effortless, downtown approach. There are moments when Feels Like Home feels too maudlin ("Humble Me") or overly subdued ("Carnival Town"), but it's a generally winning collection of finely polished (albeit innocuous) gems.

::: Laurence Station

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February 11, 2004

Westside Connection: Terrorist Threats
Capitol, 2003
Rating: 2.5
Gangsta rap's fortunes have waned since Westside Connection -- the rap supergroup composed of Mac 10, WC and crossover star Ice Cube -- released Bow Down, one of the genre's more potent offerings, in 1996. Most observers would chalk this up to the inevitable ebb and flow of musical trends, not to mention such unquantifiable but no less real factors as the post-9/11 landscape and, most importantly, the particular social odiousness of the genre itself. Not the Connection, however: In these six eyes, it's not that gangsta rap has failed us; it's we who have failed gangsta rap. Terrorist Threats barks and growls at rappers gone "soft," especially on "So Many Rappers in Love," which amusingly makes fun of the traitors who now prefer flowers and walks in the park. Certainly, this isn't an original complaint amongst the gangsta nation, but its cause isn't helped by the empty thug posturing on display here. Each rapper has an agreeable flow -- and Ice Cube an undeniable presence -- but those gifts are under-utilized atop intermittently serviceable tracks like "Call 9-1-1," "Gangsta Nation" and "Don't Get Outta Pocket." If you're going to decry the decline of gangsta rap, you should at least make the attempt to show that the form has some originality left in it. But Terrorist Threats is nothing more than product, presumably slapped together to keep a hold of its target audience, whose tastes are rapidly expanding far beyond the genre. Unless you consider the appropriation of terrorist imagery into a milieu long dominated by gang and soldier posturing to be a revolutionary improvement instead of an ill-advised ploy (one that only backfires, underscoring the record's general sense of impotence), there's nothing here to reward repeated listenings. A handful of the music tracks themselves are engaging, but not enough to fend off the biggest threat to Threats: its own mediocrity.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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February 11, 2004

The Desert Fathers: The Spirituality
Threespheres, 2003
Rating: 3.0
On The Desert Fathers' debut The Spirituality, the trio of Acquaman (guitar) [yes, it's misspelled on purpose], Levitas (drums) and The Real (bass) manage to incorporate church hymnals ("Gloria in Excelsis Deo"), angular, Sonic Youth-style rock ("A Practical Joke") and anti-Darwinian rhetoric ("Peace in That" and "Evolution") into a sub-thirty minute, gleefully schizophrenic collage that works primarily due to its audacious energy. That doesn't rescue everything here: The closing "Transmorph" is an insensate mess, while the ironically titled "Focus" reveals a band with obvious promise that has yet to discover what it wants to say. From the liner notes, it's obvious the band is enamored with dogs and extremely devotional to God. Finding a more streamlined way to present its views would help The Desert Fathers find a larger audience. Although with music this willfully idiosyncratic, perhaps that's one goal the trio has no interest in pursuing.

::: Laurence Station

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February 3, 2004

Air: Talkie Walkie
Astralwerks, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Give Air credit for not recycling the effortless electro-pop of its debut Moon Safari. 10,000 Hz Legend was an aggressive (save for a few exceptions, particularly the robotic crooner "How Does It Make You Feel?"), folk-tronic detour that may have cost French duo Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin a few fans, but it definitely earned them props for not making Moon Safari II. Air's latest, Talkie Walkie, has the distinction of being another notch on Nigel (Sixth Member of Radiohead) Godrich's to-die-for producer's belt. Interestingly, it seems the envelope-pushing Godrich showed up an album too late, because Talkie Walkie has more in common with the easy sound of Safari (though there's no "Even Sexier Boy" single waiting in its grooves) than the daring, intriguing dissonance of 10,000 Hz. "Cherry Blossom Girl," with its gauzy vocals and diaphanous, '60s-style pop structure, sounds like some futuristic space station lounge act orbiting Mars, while the tepid "Another Day" serves up pointlessly inane lyrics ("It is just another day / You will live it anyway"). On the upside, thanks to an at-times insistent, others times wavering beat, there's an apathetic restlessness at play throughout -- a feeling that something must be changed, if only the energy could be mustered (the solid middle third "Universal Traveler," "Mike Mills" and "Surfing on a Rocket"). Talkie Walkie isn't on a par with Moon Safari, and proves far less daring than 10,000 Hz Legend. But it manages to hold up, in its own punch-drunk, electronically unstable way.

::: Laurence Station

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January 30, 2004

Jem: It All Starts Here [EP]
ATO Records, 2003
Rating: 3.3
Jem Griffiths' promising debut EP, It All Starts Here, features five tracks ranging from electronica to straightforward pop. Songs like the dance-worthy "They" and the multi-layered "Finally Woken" have found their way onto indie radio stations across the country, priming fans of smart dance-pop for Jem's full-length debut, due in March 2004. The disc's final track, the acoustic "Flying High," displays Jem's softer side, plus her penchant for heartfelt, personal lyrics ("I know there's no such thing as painless love"). If she plays her cards right, Griffiths might come close to mirroring the successes of fellow UK songstresses like Dido and Beth Gibbons.

::: Eric Grossman

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January 30, 2004

The Thrills: So Much for the City
Virgin Records, 2003
Rating: 4.2
A CD as consistent and thoroughly enjoyable as The Thrills' So Much for the City deserves to be reviewed on its own merit, without getting caught up in the disc's remarkable back story. One could argue that these five young Dubliners made the perfect love letter to California because they held the Golden State in such high esteem while growing up in Ireland. Or perhaps that the band nailed the dreamy California sound associated with the Eagles or Brian Wilson by spending various parts of the last few years relaxing on SoCal's beaches. Gentle harmonies and twinkling keys dot most every track, and Conor Deasy's relaxed vocals never get in the way of the band's engaging melodies. Though it's only a matter of time until songs like "Santa Cruz (You're Not That Far)," "Big Sur" and "Your Love is Like Las Vegas" find their way into your local Gap, keep in mind that, like the rest of So Much for the City, the tunes tell a story: the one about that idyllic land where the weather's great, the traffic's tolerable, and the breasts are real.

::: Eric Grossman

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January 26, 2004

Crime and Judy: Vendetta Chants [EP]
Latest Flame, 2003
Rating: 3.2
There's a lot to be intrigued by in the music of Milwaukee's Crime and Judy, and the live disc Vendetta Chants gives newcomers a basic sense of the charms to be mined from the band's approach. But the mix, which emphasizes dual female singers Angelique and India (first names only), sometimes at the expense of the serrated, tension-building violin of Cathy Kolb, can prove rough going, helping to lend an increasing sameness of tone to the five songs presented here. (A longer disc, presumably with more variety, would help matters as well.) The aforementioned vocalists play off of one another extremely well, their combined, full-on voices evoking Exene Cervanka and Siouxsie Sioux battling it out in an alternate-universe, Goth version of the Go-Go's. Kolb's smart violin swaths and slashes aren't the only instrumental calling cards; the interplay of guitar, drums and former Die Kreusen bassist Keith Brammer creates some appealing backdrops, full of likeable time shifts and progressions, on songs like the opening "Bandwagon" and "Intimacy Surface," which begins with vocals and violin contrasting some snaking, vaguely prog-rock noodling. No doubt a studio recording will better illuminate components of the overall sound that get lost here, particularly the lyrics. But in the meantime, there's enough flair on Vendetta Chants to pique the curiosity.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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January 26, 2004

Pink Swords: One Night High
Mortville Records, 2003
Rating: 2.8
One Night High, the brusque debut from Austin quintet Pink Swords, is a perfect encapsulation of snot-nosed punk orthodoxy. Which is to say that it clings vehemently to the conventions of a particularly loud and fast subset of the genre that its songs sound less like the work of human beings than the result of someone dragging a fist through the spiked, primordial ooze of protoplasmic punk rock. Serrated guitars hum and bark in familiar, fuzzy chord structures; frontman Pitts Gaffer bites off quasi-distinguishable lyrics with a throat-scraping yelp; songs like "So Wrong," "Trainwreck" and "Daddy's Baby" ride bareback on elemental riffs that don't start and stop so much as they thrash wildly for 90 seconds or so before getting distracted and jumping over to something else. Punk ideology is expressed mainly via nominally confrontational song titles ("Enter You," "Shit on You") and lyrics about doing it in bathroom stalls, which is about par for a band named Pink Swords (get it?) and given to pseudonyms like "Stinky Ran Von." Aside from brief swatches of piano at the tail end of "Fastime," there's nothing here that deviates even slightly from time-honored punk tradition, which is exactly the point. But even at 20 minutes, 30 seconds, a little bit of one-note buzzsaw aggression goes a long way. Pink Swords show they have the technical proficiency (or requisite lack thereof) to spit out blistering two-minute fire-and-forget punk nuggets. Time will tell if they can accomplish more -- or even care to.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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January 26, 2004

Brent Palmer: Boomerang Shoes [EP]
Grassroots, 2002
Rating: 3.3
Brent Palmer, a fixture of the Austin, Texas music scene, possesses an easygoing vocal style with a warmth and clarity that could, with the right material and the right circumstances, gain him an audience of John Mayer proportions. Palmer's sprightly, singer-songwriterly compositions are buoyed by engaging melodies ("Tin Heart") and a keen sense of the elements that make up a hummable, well-crafted tune. Craft, in fact, is exactly what drives his music; it's when he aims for art that Palmer falters. Lyrical musings like "Guess I missed the mark / Trying to fit this peg / In a square hole / It's an ugly place to start / But it works for me" are just slightly too wordy and self-consciously intelligent to guarantee wide acceptance, and the chorus to "Boomerang Shoes" sinks under the weight of this over-earnest approach. Still, Boomerang Shoes is an utterly agreeable collection of folkish pop songs, one that warrants keeping an eye out for future endeavors.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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January 26, 2004

Pagewater: Kinetic
Independent, 2003
Rating: 2.7
This Pittsburgh quartet processes a number of well-tread contemporary elements into a familiar mix. Kevin Facer's vocals lapse occasionally into the affected phrasing of Tool's Maynard James Keenan ("Fine Sense of Echo"); intriguing instrumental intros drop sharply into Incubus territory ("Perfect Design") or wobble uncertainly into rehearsal sessions for Our Lady Peace ("Keep Yourself in Mind"). Pagewater has a definite Sevendust-style knack for self-assured riffs and arresting rhythm patterns, which too often are overshadowed by less-than-dynamic melodies and a numbingly commonplace modern-rock wall of sound that undermines the songs' focus on idealistic individualism. But once Facer learns to edit his dense lyrics (hint: less is more), the melodies will likely follow, and the resulting streamlined sound could make Pagewater a serious contender in the heavy-rock sweepstakes.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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January 26, 2004

Placer: Summer
Dopamine, 2003
Rating: 2.7
Boston-based rock quartet Placer serves up a dense, musically accomplished (if not singularly distinctive) collection of songs on its debut album. Running less than forty minutes, Summer moves from winding alterna-jams ("What's Left") to more emotive, subdued tunes ("Crawl") with competent proficiency. What's lacking is a defining sound that either brings something new to the well-worn classic rock template or at least offers catchier hooks than the unmemorable ones presented here. The members of Placer prove their musicianship on Summer, but fail to say or do anything particularly original with it. File under: A band worth keeping an eye on. Besides, something better than Godsmack has eventually got to break out of the Beantown area, right?

::: Laurence Station

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January 26, 2004

Tigerella: Tigerella
Shmat, 2003
Rating: 2.8
Tigerella's self-titled debut is a collection of competently executed dream pop songs, with the occasional left-field sonic detour hinting at better things to come from the L.A. quintet. Yvonne Ng's vocals are professionally polished (though not particularly distinctive), while the steady rhythm section of bassist Steve Coghill and drummer Seiji Morioka nicely offsets the busy guitar histrionics of Bryan Yoshida and Gil Chinn. Competence notwithstanding, Tigerella doesn't offer anything new in the world of female-fronted, guitar-driven pop bands. "Caleb" is the lone track that stands out from the mix, simply because its lyrical content involves robots overthrown by humans. Such scenarios may be par for the course for the Flaming Lips, but in Tigerella's case, the song offers hope that the band has more interesting material in store for its follow-up.

::: Laurence Station

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January 26, 2004

Wellwater Conspiracy: Wellwater Conspiracy
Mega Force, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Wellwater Conspiracy's self-titled fourth album stays comfortably within the parameters of the decade the band has become quite adept at revisiting. Wellwater doesn't add anything particularly new to its cover of Thunderclap Newman's psychedelic '60s staple "Something in the Air," but it does typify the heady sound and trippy vibe full-time Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron, multi-instrumentalist (and ex-Monster Magnet guitarist) John McBain and Walkabouts keyboardist Glenn Slater pay tribute to here. Originals like the punchy "Wimple Witch" and catchy "Galaxy 265" follow the familiar template of Byrds-style melodicism as filtered through a post-alterna-rock '90s worldview. The electro-crunch instrumental "Rebirth" is an album high point, as is the Slater-powered closer "Dresden Overture." Wellwater Conspiracy's dogged resistance to innovation may not win the band many critical hosannas, but its mastery of a tried and true formula might just net the trio a Nuggets XXXIII: The Retrospective Bands slot at some point in the near future.

::: Laurence Station

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January 23, 2004

Galleon: So I Begin
Radikal Records, 2003
Rating: 2.0
So I Begin, the debut album from French electro-pop duo Galleon, marries droning '80s synth beats with ultra-cheesy upbeat lyrics. The results, while fun if you're on a dance floor and completely zoned out of your mind, become not only gratingly repetitive, but (at least beyond the club environment) extremely difficult to sit through. Songs like the pumped-up title track (of which we get both the opening short and closing long versions) and the nerve-scraping "Each Day," which plays like an heretofore-unknown, electronically-tweaked gem from John "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)" Parr, typify the ultra-positive and equally vapid approach to high-energy, calorie -free filtered disco loops typical of the mid-'90s French house scene. On the upside, "Da Rock" curbs the insipid singing in favor of a harder beat, but this is truly a pearl amongst swine. Galleon needs to add more variety to the mix (less lyrical content wouldn't be a bad idea, either). If not, So I Begin may also come to be known as the point where the duo ended, as well.

::: Laurence Station

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January 23, 2004

Angie Aparo: For Stars And Moon
Independent, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Angie Aparo may not break the bank with his latest solo effort, For Stars And Moon, but at least he can coast on the royalty checks from Faith Hill's cover of his tune "Cry." Whether Aparo's bread and butter becomes churning out Clive Davis-approved hits for the next dozen American Idols, or he finds fame hawking his originals directly, there's little question the artist has mastered the three-minute, contemporary pop-song format. For Stars And Moon's energetic opener "Hard Woman" and the Top 40-buffed "Shine On" best exhibit Aparo's keen ear for melody; he brings enough personality to the material that one can easily imagine seeing his name appearing on future Billboard charts in more than just a parenthetical songwriting credit capacity. Although a Broadway musical career might be Aparo's ultimate calling, given the shameless theatricality and flair displayed here.

::: Laurence Station

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