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November 27, 2005

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Howl
Red Ink, 2005
Rating: 3.4
It's a terrible box we put rock 'n' roll bands in. We want them to continually update their sound, to stay fresh, to reinvent themselves. But the minute they actually do that, we flinch as if we've been struck. That's an over-simplification, of course, and in the case of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, one could argue that fans were eager for the trio to refine its signature, hard-edged drone-rock, not abandon it. But the band takes a hard right turn with Howl, and it's a smart move. BRMC's past two albums each sported a handful of moments where everything clicked just so -- clearly, a recharging of the batteries was in order. On Howl, the group strips back the layered atmosphere of feedback, noisy guitar and swirling rock psychedelia that earned it endless comparisons to the Jesus & Mary Chain, revealing a surprisingly traditional, rootsy songwriting foundation. Back-porch boot-stomps, slide guitars and dollops of old-time religion (gospel-tinged choruses, lots of references to the devil, restless sinners and so on) owe much more to, say, The Basement Tapes than the Velvet Underground. Yes, there are some more familiar rock moments here, like the title track, but even those take a step back from the endearingly derivative echoes that defined the group's best moments on previous efforts. It's a startling change at first, but one that gradually feels relaxed and right (although some songs, notably "Ain't No Easy Way," lack a certain necessary urgency, and the album as a whole feels about four songs too long). Whether the shift is a reaction to recent troubles -- since 2003's Take Them On, On Your Own, the band was dropped by Virgin and nearly torn apart by internal squabbles -- it's certainly a refreshing and revelatory palate-cleanser.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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November 27, 2005

Fall Out Boy: From Under the Cork Tree
Island, 2005
Rating: 3.5
At its best, Fall Out Boy's second full-length effort winningly synthesizes elements of punk-pop and that hard-to-define ethos (as much lyrical worldview as musical genre) some call "emo" into a hyperactive tangle of self-aware quips, smartly executed time changes and random blasts of pop-cultural trivia. Although the end result can feel a bit forced (with song titles like "Of All the Gin Joints in All the World" and "Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner"), when the quartet scores -- as on the ubiquitous single "Sugar We're Goin Down" -- it scores big, with grappling hooks, soaring background vocals and meaty mouthfuls of verbose lyricism that stop short of drowning the melodies. It's a busy record, occasionally ambitious, with whiplash-inducing breaks that dip into heavy metal and show-tune aesthetics. But lyricist/bassist Peter Wentz can get bogged down in the kind of trite teen-journal-entry poetics that he succinctly punctures elsewhere with lyrics like "I'm the first kid to write of hearts, lies and friends" (from the laboriously titled "I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy And All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me"). That's even more disappointing given his brief winks at the self-importance of so many similar bands -- "Yeah we're friends/ Just because we move units," singer/guitarist Patrick Stump sneers on "Champagne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends." During the opening "Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn't Get Sued," Stump issues the following warning: "Take my advice 'cause we are bad news / We will leave you high and dry / It's not worth the hearing you'll lose." Cork Tree (mostly) gives the lie to that assertion, and holds out the promise that this capable quartet will, sometime soon, fully transcend its breast-beating teen-angst trappings and record an album truly worthy of a little tinnitis.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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October 26, 2005

Lightning Bolt: Hypermagic Mountain
Load, 2005
Rating: 4.4
Best way to enjoy music by Lightning Bolt: Crank and surrender. Hypermagic Mountain’s second track, “Captain Caveman,” all atomized vocal distortion and no-Ritalin-allowed rhythmic riffage, announces everything you need to know about the latest earsplitting noisefest from the high-revving bass and drum duo of Brian Gibson and Brian Chippendal. For those who thought 2003’s Wonderful Rainbow seemed extreme in its pulverizing level of intensity, Hypermagic Mountain reduces it to the equivalent of a by-the-numbers Bread rehearsal. Hypermagic Mountain’s sum effect eclipses its redline-obliterating parts, but special dispensations must be given to the leaking madness of “Megaghost,” with its yelping, wounded-animal sound effects and furiously tight interplay between guitar and drums. And it would be criminal to overlook the amazing proficiency exhibited on "Bizarro Zarro Land," which nimbly flirts with control and chaos, dexterously catapulting from one treacherous musical peak to next without once losing its footing. Hypermagic Mountain will be a tidal shock of relentless jackhammer threats to the non-discriminating music fan. For the initiated, there’s true primal joy to be heard in this mammoth creation. You’ve just got to be willing to shed those tightly guarded notions and listen.

::: Laurence Station

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October 26, 2005

Constantines: Tournament of Hearts
Sub Pop, 2005
Rating: 3.7
As regrettable as it is to trot out the old “strong first half, weak back half” reviewers’ cliché, the Constantines’ third release, Tournament of Hearts, cruelly forces the issue. Running a snug thirty-seven minutes, Hearts absolutely outshines (sorry) 2003’s Shine a Light -- or so the first five of its ten tracks would lead the eager listener to believe. There’s the pulse-quickening kickstarter “Draw Us Lines,” the impressively subtle rhythms of “Hotline Operator,” the lived-in blues riffs of “Love in Fear,” and the meaty force of “Lizaveta,” with its emphatic declaration “We were born to live!” The cycle closes with the moping, countryish “Soon Enough,” a nice change-of-pace number. Shame the Constantines fail to sustain the momentum. The obvious ’70s hard-rock workout “Working Full Time” and the pedestrian “Good Nurse” start the slide toward mediocrity, and by the time we reach the penultimate “You Are a Conductor,” with its lame J. Giles-esque, “Love Stinks” beat, Tournament of Hearts has sunk from "Holy Cow!" gobsmacked status to a "What’s All The Fuss Then?" shrug-worthy ranking. Incredible initial run, though. If the group can maintain such energy across an entire album, then more enjoyable reviewer clichés will surely be employed in the future.

::: Laurence Station

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October 26, 2005

Animal Collective: Feels
Fat Cat, 2005
Rating: 3.5
The last track on Animal Collective’s Feels is called “Turn Into Something.” This turns out to be an appropriate title, because the song actually progresses, moving from a rumbling, twangy stomp to an ecstatic, airy finish. The same cannot be said for preceding cuts “Loch Raven,” “Daffy Duck” and “Banshee Beat,” which meander with unfocused dream-logic vocals and no discernible sonic payoff. Granted, Animal Collective doesn’t have to follow a standard verse-chorus-verse structure to be effective. But such improvisational-sounding music translated better in the back-porch setting of the acoustic Sung Tongs (created by the duo Avey Tare and Panda) than the electric, full-band effort (plus a host of guest artists) exhibited throughout Feels. Opening shot “Did You See the Words” starts with a peculiarly Mercury Rev, expansive-harmony vibe, then collapses into a shambling mess, complete with tinkling piano breakdown. If the material was revelatory in its unpredictability, offering something heretofore unheard in the world, then such willy-nilly compositions could be forgiven. But Feels doesn’t trump earlier, more intimate Animal Collective releases. It’s just louder and messier.

::: Laurence Station

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October 26, 2005

Deerhoof: The Runners Four
Kill Rock Stars, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Deerhoof has it backwards. Its earlier, mondo-prog releases ran roughly thirty minutes yet possessed the density of albums twice as long. The Runners Four, by contrast, is twice as long yet is comprised of short pop tunes. Not that the stylistically hyperactive San Francisco quartet will ever be confused with manufactured, American Idol-style top 40 confections. Rather, The Runners Four is simply another interesting collection of tunes from a group that refuses to curtail its trespasses across musical boundaries. “Running Thoughts” sports a cool Stereolab-meets-Enon spacey groove. And singer Satomi Matsuzaki manages to make what could be annoying vocalizations (like those heard on the suitably titled “Chatterboxes”) affecting in a whimsically playful manner. Echoes of past efforts can be heard, especially on the epic guitar squalls of “You're Our Two.” But this is Deerhoof trying out pop fripperies and capably managing what many preprogrammed radio acts fail to convey: a sense of adventure and fun from start to finish.

::: Laurence Station

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October 26, 2005

Six Organs of Admittance: School of the Flower
Drag City, 2005
Rating: 3.5
School of the Flower, Ben Chasny’s seventh release under the Six Organs of Admittance moniker, flows effortlessly. The gauzy weightlessness of “Words for Two” transitions seamlessly into the acoustic plucking of “Saint Cloud.” The noodle and drone of the near fourteen-minute title track ends with a thick layer of fuzz that somehow makes sense (in a loopy kind of way) given that the follow-up track’s called “Thicker Than a Smokey.” School of the Flower is as pretty as its titular place of higher learning intimates and as substantive as bongsmoke. Peace way out.

::: Laurence Station

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October 06, 2005

Devendra Banhart: Cripple Crow
XL, 2005
Rating: 3.6
Consider the crossover demographic potential: an all-Spanish-language Devendra Banhart record, a protest record -- plus a generous dollop of the trippier-hippie fare reminiscent of his earlier work -- all rolled into one genre-trumping smorgasbord of musical delights from the de facto leader of the free/freak/nu-folk movement. Devendra Banhart’s 22-song fourth album, Cripple Crow, delivers so many styles and moods that it’s impossible to label. This is probably the point. Consistency of material is another matter, however. As nice as his cover of Simon Diaz's "Luna de Margaerita" is, there’s the lovely but overlong “Santa Maria De Feira” detracting from the artist’s native-language cuts. Likewise, the spaciously epic peacenik-anthem title track is affecting for what it doesn’t say as opposed to the youthful obviousness of “Heard Somebody Say” (“It’s simple / We don’t want to kill”). And the gentle folk number “Queen Bee” conveys far more pastoral sentiment than the goofy wild-child chant of “Hey Mama Wolf” (complete with wolf calls!). The best moments are among the most straightforward, with languid brooder “Now That I Know” and the beautiful piano closer “Canela” standing out. Cripple Crow does a wonderful job expressing the range of Devendra Banhart’s musical interests, uneven though the actual payoff may be.

::: Laurence Station

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October 03, 2005

Ryan Adams: Jacksonville City Nights
Lost Highway, 2005
Rating: 3.9
Pure country from Ryan Adams (working once again with solid backing band The Cardinals) and that’s not a bad thing. Jacksonville City Nights finds Adams retuning to his hometown , lamenting busted personal relationships and still trying to come to terms with his native soil. Adams isn’t pushing any envelopes or performing cross-genre tricks; this is late ’60s Jerry Lee Lewis interpretive territory (though Adams is still not in that rarified league, it’s nice to see him paying due respect to the masters of the form). Last-call barroom laments like “A Kiss Before I Go” and “My Heart Is Broken” hit their intended targets. “Dear John,” a seemingly marketing-driven duet with Norah Jones, fares better than expected, and at a lean forty-five minutes and change, the economy of the set (especially compared to the bloated Cold Roses) is noteworthy. There aren’t as many memorable cuts as on Adams' stellar solo debut, Heartbreaker, but Jacksonville City Nights reveals an older, more seasoned performer.

::: Laurence Station

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October 03, 2005

Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary
Subpop, 2005
Rating: 3.1
Endorsed by Isaac Brock and fans of The Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade’s debut Apologies to the Queen Mary gets by more on energy than chops. Manic tracks like “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father's Son” and highlight “Shine a Light” deliver high-replay-value excitement. But a dearth of compositional ideas and reliance on repetitive hooks dooms the harder-to-attain Groundbreaking Quotient. As a first effort, Apologies to the Queen Mary shows undeniable promise. This is not the Holy Grail of Canadian art pop, however. Wait for a second salvo, and then we’ll see what these lads are truly made of. Until then, it’s obvious who should be opening for Brock and Modest Mouse on their next tour.

::: Laurence Station

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October 03, 2005

Blackalicious: The Craft
Anti-, 2005
Rating: 3.4
The backward complement to 2002's breakthrough Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious’ The Craft has that old-school vibe scientifically perfected. The smooth flow of "World of Vibrations" and the groovy populism of "Supreme People" set a no-crumb-out-of-place table. Tracks like "Automatique" might be admitting too much about the thought process behind the creation of the album but at least on the sobering "The Fall & Rise of Elliott Brown" the listener can feel the pain and loss beyond the clinical studio setting. Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab know exactly what they’re doing, and The Craft reinforces the mastery of their craft. But a little less formula and more personal expression would have gone a long way toward making this one an essential addition to their discography.

::: Laurence Station

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October 03, 2005

Elbow: Leaders of the Free World
V2, 2005
Rating: 3.0
Leaders of the Free World, Elbow’s successor to the attention-garnering Cast of Thousands kicks off with a fine, bombastic statement of purpose. The triumphant "Station Approach" is clearly buoyed by passionate optimism and ringing guitar parts (the tour is over and the boys are clearly stoked about future prospects). "Picky Bugger" lowers the dynamism altitude, an anti-excess stop sign. "The Stops" (appropriately named) apes Nick Drake and conveys all the dour misery the tragic artist’s name intimates, while the title track marks the beginning of a downward spiral. George Bush is too easy a target, and slamming him just doesn’t carry the activist weight it might have, say, pre-Iraq invasion. The back end of the album trundles along, failing to rival the opening energy or offer anything as interesting as the non-anthemic detours.

::: Laurence Station

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October 03, 2005

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Volume 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack
Columbia / Legacy, 2005
Rating: 4.0
Evenly split between Dylan’s folk and rock periods, the two-disc No Direction Home returns to the bootleg/alternate-take format of the original three-volume bootleg series release (and also serves as a handy tie-in to the carefully controlled, Martin Scorsese-assembled film of the same name). The first disc is dominated by Dylan the earnest disciple of Woody (check the wonderfully understated interpretation of Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land"), questing traveler and endearing fabricator of a more romantic upbringing than Hibbing, Minnesota could provide. Other gems include the first complete take of “Mr. Tambourine Man” from June 1964, and a politically ambiguous, quasi-amorous “Blowin' in the Wind” from April 1963. The second disc is dominated by the frizzy-haired, electrified wordsmith Dylan, who hit his peak in the mid-’60s with the matchless trio Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. It offers a few moderately, historians-only alternate cuts from those seminal efforts. But it’s the kiss-off electric “Maggie's Farm,” from the July 1965 Newport Folk Festival, that carries the most punch. Dylan’s allegiance was always to the artistic muse, and here the first Great Disappointment to more agenda-minded types (unplugged purist Pete Seeger, in particular) backfires in the face of those who presumed Dylan ever intended to be pigeonholed. The second disc, on the whole, is less interesting than the first, but overall No Direction Home is a solid addition to the legacy-conscious framing of early and transitional Dylan-alia.

::: Laurence Station

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October 03, 2005

Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better
Sony, 2005
Rating: 3.6
Franz Ferdinand keeps the frenzy level pumped to 10 on its sophomore effort, You Could Have It So Much Better. At its best when working under the three-minute mark, the Scottish four-piece still has nothing relevant to say, but has managed to serve up a tighter collection than its crazily hyped debut. The fast and furious, guitar-driven “This Boy” and frantic stomper “Evil and a Heathen” ensure the rave won’t run out of electric juice before the buzz wears off. A few wrinkles add welcome variety to the familiar design: the stylish menace of “Walk Away” features Morrissey-incanting lines like “I am cold / Yes I’m cold / But not as cold as you are,” and serves as a nice change of pace to the patented high-energy antics. “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” (apparently about the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Freidberger) is surprisingly endearing in its delivery. But the heatedly delivered title track typifies the too-cool-to-slow-down clip. You Could Have It So Much Better? Perhaps, but why bother when you’re having this much fun?

::: Laurence Station

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October 03, 2005

Tenth Hour Calling: Tenth Hour Calling
Independent, 2004
Rating 4.3
"This is not a band compiled on a whim, but a band put together with great care and thought towards the spiritual and musical aspect of performing." That's what the bio on the Web site for Tenth Hour Calling says, and it could not be stated more perfectly. This five-piece Christian rock band uses rhythms, harmonies and technical brilliance seldom heard in any genre. It's better than the sum of its parts, and since most of the members have degrees in music, that's saying something. On songs like the funky groove of "I See" and the Eagles-esque "Last Time," Tenth Hour Calling has managed to pool its collective talents to make the debut album of the year. The intensely fierce and technically flawless "Rain" and the lyrically brilliant and spiritually cleansing "Color Me" are the two best tracks on the album, and two of the best songs to come from the Christian music world this year. If Tenth Hour Calling keeps up this level of quality on future releases, it could end up being one of the most technically sound and talented bands ever.

::: Tim Wardyn

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September 26, 2005

Iron & Wine / Calexico: In the Reins [EP]
Overcoat Recordings, 2005
Rating: 3.7
In the Reins finds Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) collaborating with Calexico (primarily Joey Burns and John Convertino), and the end result is a seven-song mini-album that successfully marries Beam's hushed, Southern-haunted romanticism with Calexico’s dusty Southwestern, Mariachi-influenced sound. Stylistically, a considerable amount of ground is covered in just over thirty minutes. The tethered restraint of “He Lays In Reins” gives way to the high-lonesome lament “Prison on Route 41,” which infuses just enough energy to not make the sun-brightened horns of the toe-tapping, showy “History of Lovers” sound like a complete shock to the senses. Middle-track dud “Red Dust” is a faux-bluesy, forced roadhouse boot-stomper, but the closing three tracks, especially the sadly strumming, gorgeous bend and bow of “16, Maybe Less” more than recovers the fumble. In the Reins will please fans of both Beam and Calexico, and perhaps bring crossover business to each.

::: Laurence Station

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September 26, 2005

The Dandy Warhols: Odditorium or Warlords of Mars
Capitol, 2005
Rating: 3.3
The Dandy Warhols' first two releases featured intermittently rewarding wasted jams; the second two, commercial-friendly pop hooks. For their fifth album, The Dandy Warhols split the difference. But that doesn’t mean they make it easy for deadline-blowing reviewers scrambling for easy, analytical angles. The assertion that the first half of Odditorium or Warlords of Mars represents the initial, indulgent and unfocused stage of the Dandys' development and the back half covers the more sales-conscious post-2K Dandys doesn’t hold water. While Odditorium is rife with inaccessible feedback squalls (“Love Is the New Feel Awful”) and meandering snoozers (“Easy”), the presence of the short hoe-down stomp “The New Country” thankfully breaks up the drugged-out excesses and reveals just how good the band can be when it actually bothers to play actual songs with a discernible structure and winning hook. That's something the second half of Odditorium possesses in spades, from the comparatively tight “Everyone Is Totally Insane” to the swinging “more cowbell!” brilliance of album highlight “Down Like Disco.” There’s even a suitably trippy closer, “There Is Only This Time” -- only it isn’t the end. Reverting to the lame wastefulness of the first half, we get the near twelve-minute, tepid “A Loan Tonight.” So Odditorium contains the best and worst aspects of the Dandy Warhols. This is somehow appropriate for a band that has never quite broken through to the mainstream and ultimately sounds like its members couldn’t care less if the brass ring ever fits their fidgety, non-committal fingers.

::: Laurence Station

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September 24, 2005

Super Furry Animals: Love Kraft
XL / Beggars Banquet, 2005
Rating: 3.6
The sound of guitarist Huw Bunford diving into a swimming pool is the first thing you hear on the Super Furry Animals' incredibly laid-back seventh album, Love Kraft. Recorded in Spain and completed in Rio de Janeiro, Love Kraft is unhurried, smooth and easy on the ears. Opener "Zoom!" does just the opposite of its titular promise, transmitting space-junk frequencies over stoned grinner melodies. The loose and shambolic sing-along stomp of "The Horn" works in some fibrous harmonica and hammered dulcimer, but it's more Gomez-style harmless trippy blues than Exile on Main Street-period Rolling Stones lethal indulgences. The closest the band gets to the zany inventiveness of Radiator-era Furries is "Psyclone!," a rumbling, hilarious declaration of extinction that opens with a Woody Guthrie-worthy send-up: "Pterodactyl, brontosaurus, tyrannosaurus gather 'round..." Overly synthesized tracks like the flow-busting "Lazer Beam" and the fuzzy "Frequency" detract from the weenie-roast beach-chill vibe. Notably, Love Kraft is the first Furries album to feature the writing and singing of all band members, which means less frontman Gruff Rhys and presumably more variety. But aside from the noted exceptions, Love Kraft is a solidly unified-sounding work: No political rants or social observations, and, regrettably, no Welsh-language detours. Just the Furries kicking it in warmer climes and putting aside deeper concerns for the time being. Perhaps On Vacation would have been a more apt title.

::: Laurence Station

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September 22, 2005

Sigur Rós: Takk...
Geffen, 2005
Rating: 3.8
It’s fascinating how the intentional repetition of 2002’s ( ) -- variations on a theme that moodily shifted from bright to darker elements -- retains a freshness and stirring immediacy, while Takk..., Icelandic quartet Sigur Rós’ optimistically uplifting fourth release, shifts into a cruise-control comfort zone, blissfully coasting on what has come before. If the material on Takk... rivaled the best moments on sophomore breakthrough Agætis Byrjun, such redundancy can easily be brushed aside as progressive refinement on a notably inventive template. The opening title track’s ethereal, alien harmonics are followed by the familiar stacked resonance and gargantuan swells of “Glósóli,” pretty but well shy of the altitude attained by Agætis Byrjun standout “Svefn-G-Englar.” And the awesome fragility attained by the nearly nine-minute “Sé Lest” ultimately peters out and drains whatever momentum Takk... has established. The high points are the most conventional (and un- Sigur Rós-like). The refreshingly brief “Með Blóðnasir” features some bracing drum effects at the end, while “Gong” retains backbone thanks to a recognizable rhythm section that prevents it from being overwhelmed by expansively synthesized melodramatics. Takk... is a beautiful-sounding record and it’s obvious Sigur Rós isn't intentionally aping its musical language to cash in on what still remains far left of mainstream art rock. To quote painter Georgia O’Keefe: “To create one's own world in any of the arts takes courage.” No doubt Sigur Rós has done just that. This works great for the locals but can leave tourists a tad restless after experiencing a similarly themed ride yet again.

::: Laurence Station

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September 22, 2005

Sexsmith & Kerr: Destination Unknown
V2, 2005
Rating: 3.4
Dubbed an “Everly Brothers” project by Ron Sexsmith, Destination Unknown, the singer-songwriter’s collaboration with longtime drummer Don Kerr, proves to be just that: lots of slow, honey-coated two-part harmonies about love found and (more obviously) love lost. At its best -- opener “Listen” and the (comparatively) jaunty “Diana Sweets” -- Destination Unknown glides with respectfully earnest ease through the guileless sounds of yesteryear. Indeed, on “Lemonade Stand,” Sexsmith celebrates the simplicity of micro-capitalism and, more importantly, an unfussy, youthful outlook. There’s not a shred of sarcasm in lines like “a heart must have a reason where eyes don’t understand,” from “One Less Shadow.” But the slow, shuffling pace doesn’t make for the most invigorating listen. Obviously, it isn’t meant to. This is an album intended to carry people back to another, less complicated period in their lives. Just look at the album cover: Big car in the background, adorable tyke behind the wheel of a mini-cruiser coming right at us. Consistent to a fault and imbued with an aching loveliness, Destination Unknown is a misnomer of a title, for Sexsmith and Kerr know exactly where they want this music to take us. A few bumps along the way might have helped make for a more memorable journey, though.

::: Laurence Station

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August 23, 2005

John Vanderslice: Pixel Revolt
Barsuk, 2005
Rating: 3.7
The post-9/11 world is a scary place, but the interior of one’s heart is even more frightening. Such weighty thematic underpinnings fuel Pixel Revolt, John Vanderslice’s fifth album. Vanderslice opens from an abstract perspective with “Letter to the East Coast,” which touches on the notion of a time-traveling Joan Crawford and how lonely that can be. “Plymouth Rock” grounds itself to the modern reality of a solider in Iraq who (understandably) has second thoughts about combat after getting shot his first night out (“I lost the reason I’m here”). “Exodus Damage” cleverly ties descending tones to its lyrical conceit (“Let it fall down / I’m ready for the end”) about a wannabe anti-government terrorist, while the shimmering, tight groove-oriented “Peacocks in the Video Rain” explores the mindset of a pop star’s ultra-obsessive biggest fan. The mellotron- and Moog-powered “Trance Manual” concerns a journalist in Iraq seeking a little physical comfort from a prostitute and features one of the album’s sharpest lines: “You are a flag of a dangerous nation.” The back half of Pixel Revolt is more personal in nature -- the elegantly fragile “New Zealand Pines” recalls happier days with a former flame; the anti-depressant lament “Dead Slate Pacific” staves off suicidal thoughts while longing for a distant love. But it's pieces like “Radiant with Terror,” Vanderslice’s updating of Robert Lowell’s poem “Fall 1961” (in which dirty bombs replace nuclear war), that potently express a societal dread and prove far more resonant than the heartsick tales that are positioned to leave a deeper impression. Pixel Revolt doesn’t reconcile the political and personal, and that may be the point. But it nonetheless makes for a frustratingly uneven listening experience.

::: Laurence Station

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August 23, 2005

The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema
Matador, 2005
Rating: 4.1
Imagine if the New Pornographers listened to their modern peers for inspiration (specifically the Shins) and also absorbed (and regurgitated in bite-sized pop nuggets) the expansive progressiveness and experimental artiness of Genesis, Brian Eno and John Cale. The end result might sound something like Twin Cinema, the Vancouver-based nontet’s (welcome to the fold, singer-pianist Kathryn Calder and vocalist Nora O'Connor) third release. Twin Cinema has the winning distinction of being the most rocking set from the Pornographers to date -- and also the strangest. The opening title cut plays it safe, offering a burst of loud, pop and proud high-energy righteousness. Then, just when you think the waters are safe, over the edge they go with “The Bones of an Idol,” with its persistent piano chords and bizarre lyrical imagery of people on rafts fleeing with their ancient artifacts. (Allusions to the current political climate, perhaps, but obvious explanation would detract unnecessarily from the obliquely skewed enjoyment quotient.) “The Jessica Numbers” is an untamed combination of percussion and spit, elastically prog harmonies and wiggy guitar parts. “Falling Through Your Clothes” is the spookiest tune the Shins wish they’d recorded. The hard beats on the otherwise pedestrian “Use It” and fantastic “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” imbue Twin Cinema with more muscle than prior Pornographers releases. But it’s the psychotropic, wild-abandon approach to songcraft that makes this one a keeper. If Clear Channel ignores the pop gems filling Mass Romantic and Electric Version, they’re never going to get it, so the band might as well indulge their weirder tendencies. Corporate radio’s loss is the discriminating listener’s gain.

::: Laurence Station

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August 11, 2005

Indicia: Identifying Marks
Kanpai Records, 2005
Rating: 3.9
The debut album from California duo Indicia takes the listener to an underground groove made famous by groups like Moloko and Sneaker Pimps. Identifying Marks begins with the undeniably catchy “It’s Coming Around,” which could have actually been an outtake from the Sneaker Pimps' Becoming X. Vocalist Betsy Ullery conveys a sexy sincerity that even makes the repetitive chorus of “Corners” (“I can’t reach you” is repeated 16 times) sound genuine. While Ullery sexes up the album, David Ward meshes his influences -- Uberzone, Dubtribe and Bassbin Twins among others -- and lays a sonic backdrop perfect for a rave, relaxing on the couch or that seedy brothel downtown. Ward and Ullery have created a sonic wonder that is perfect for anyone who thinks that electronic music is just the rehashing of one beat. Don’t be surprised if Indicia starts invading more clubs around the nation soon.

::: Tim Wardyn

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August 04, 2005

Michael Penn: Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947
spinART, 2005
Rating: 3.7
Michael Penn’s wife, Aimee Mann, released The Forgotten Arm earlier this year. Mann’s album is apparently set in the 1970s and examines a relationship played out against a cross-country travelogue. Penn’s Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 is even more explicit about its thematic point and setting. And, unlike Mann’s, Penn’s cover art and liner-note background imagery accurately reflect the post-World War II America in question. But, like his significant other, Penn uses his lyrical brush to add the barest detail to this work about busted relationships and renewed hope for finding warmth in the comforting arms of another. Aside from name-checking well-known landmarks and referencing familiar street names, brief, instrumental pieces “The Transistor” (1947 being the year of its invention) and “18 September” (the date the Department of Defense was created) and the charming “The Television Set Waltz” are as obvious as Penn comes to linking his words to the Los Angeles of yesteryear. The main focus is connecting lines like “Every good thing I had abandoned me,” from opener “Walter Reed,” with “Lose some more / Show him it’s worth dying for” from “Room 712, The Apache” before reaching the upbeat conclusion that for every ending, there’s a beginning (“On Automatic”). Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 is Penn’s most unified sounding record (impressive considering it’s long gestation period and the varied blend of styles employed), and despite sounding overly mannered in spots (“Your Know How”), marks a welcome return from an artist whose solo work rates high regardless of the time or place it’s set in.

::: Laurence Station

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August 04, 2005

Caesars: Paper Tigers
Astralwerks, 2005
Rating: 2.7
It makes sense. Sweden's Caesars had to make their lead single the most addictive song on the album. “Jerk It Out” was everywhere for a couple of months this spring -- on the radio, iPod commercials and every record store listening station. Now where are Caesars? Did they fall off the earth? Not yet, but it’s coming quickly. If “Jerk It Out” is taken off their fourth album, Paper Tigers -- as it should, since that song has appeared twice before on Caesars releases -- then the chances of this Swedish quartet being known amongst casual listeners, especially in the states, is remote. Although the music hints at the Stooges and Soundtrack of Our Lives, the album fails to warrant repeated listens. With the exception of “Jerk It Out,” “Spirit” and “It’s Not the Fall that Hurts,” the entire album is forgettable. By the halfway point, it becomes too easy to zone out and for the music to fade into the background. After a couple of listens, the slicked-up monotone becomes monotonous and repetitive, as do vocalist Cesar Vidal’s echoed vocals. The Strokes, the White Stripes and the Hives have exhibited staying power with albums that are solid from beginning to end, and Caesars try to ride the wave. Unfortunately for them, that wave has ended and the undertow will suck them back into the ocean of bands, to be forgotten just as quickly as they were found.

::: Tim Wardyn

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July 29, 2005

Bob Mould: Body of Song
Yep Roc, 2005
Rating: 3.4
Body of Song is an apt title for Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü career-summarizing solo release. Hankering for Workbook-worthy self-examinations? The slow, simmering “Circles” (“My circle of friends is shrinking down”) and straight-ahead power rock of “Underneath Days” deliver the goods. Club kids will feel right at home with post-Modulate offerings, from the vocoderized vocals and pumping beat vitalizing “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope” to the more guitar-oriented “I Am Vision, I Am Sound.” But it’s fans of Mould’s power pop-rock trio Sugar who’ll reap the greatest reward from Body of Song. Short and cutting, “Best Thing” offers a healthy dose of sourpuss Sugar (“You just lost the best thing you never had”). Even with the excessively treated keyboard effects, the upbeat and passionately delivered “Paralyzed” is classic verse-chorus-verse Sugar. Despite being overly repetitive, “Missing You” nonetheless serves up fat power chords and signature Sugar harmonies. The duds stand outside obvious classification: “High Fidelity” is a pokey, acoustic-based ballad featuring weirdly out-of-place tubular bells; closer “Beating Heart the Prize” is a ponderously over-long, muddled exhibition of indulgent guitar parts. Body of Song is patchwork and spotty, dappled with a handful of sparkling additions to Mould’s estimable catalog. On the whole, however, it falls short of either his solo or Sugar-fueled efforts.

::: Laurence Station

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July 22, 2005

Sparkwood: Jalopy Pop
Sparkwood Music, 2005
Rating: 3.9
What if Moby had a hankering for the Beach Boys and decided to do a little remix? Jalopy Pop could very well be the result of such an endeavor. With the exception of the first and last tracks (which make up 15 of the disc's 56 minutes), Jalopy Pop is a dissertation on 1960s surfer rock complete with summer lovin' and groovin' on the beaches -- "Nichole's Overture," "In Your Lovin' Arms" and "Miles Away" could easily be outtakes taken right off a long-lost Beach Boys album. Bart Padar, the mastermind behind Austin, Texas-based trio, takes the '60s doo-wop sound of "Cruel World" and refreshes it by adding cryptic lyrics like, "Sometimes I wish that life as we know it would end." Overall, the mixture of electronica with the catchy rhythms of 60s surfer rock makes for an undeniably entertaining album, and will introduce another generation to just how much fun surfer rock can (and used to) be.

::: Tim Wardyn

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July 22, 2005

Parchman Farm: Parchman Farm [EP]
Jackpine Social Club, 2004
Rating: 2.3
Remember how the radio couldn't get enough of Jet's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" The public seemed to like the fact that the band took everything that was sacred about classic rock, sucked the life out of it and made it radio-friendly. Now take Parchman Farm, a quartet from California that, within the five-tracks of this EP, manages to take Jet and suck the remaining life right out of it. Didn't think that was possible? Take a listen. The band invites comparisons to Kings of Leon, but is closer to a dirtier version of Jet, with a raspier and more annoying vocalist (Eric Shea), who plays the harmonica like he can't quite find his lips. Parchman Farm's fuzzed-out rock sounds so dirty that a shower is necessary after every listen. Thankfully, this is only five songs long. Hopefully, Parchman Farm has realized its mistake and won't come out with a full album. One soul-sucking band per generation is plenty.

::: Tim Wardyn

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July 22, 2005

Of Montreal: The Sunlandic Twins
Polyvinyl, 2005
Rating: 3.8
The Kevin Barnes Experience (or Of Montreal, on official documents) continues to get the funk out with The Sunlandic Twins, a worthy successor to 2004’s impressive Satanic Panic in the Attic. While still stylistically varied, and utilizing multiple movements in many of the songs, Sunlandic Twins’ highlights are the ones that coax you to dust off the dancing shoes. In this respect, “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games),” featuring a steadily pumping beat and sharp melodic ticking shift toward the end, and the punkier “I Was Never Young” work best. Big pop hooks are still very much in the mix, as well, from the energetic opener “Requiem for O.M.M.2” to the intricately structured “Forecast Fascist Future.” Barnes also can’t resist tossing out overly literary similes (“I’ve been a gloomy Petrarch with a quill as weepy as Dido,” from “So Begins Our Alabee”), and the second half lacks the spirited kick of the first. But, on the whole, The Sunlandic Twins is another laudable effort from Barnes and company.

::: Laurence Station

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July 20, 2005

Teenage Fanclub: Man-Made
Merge, 2005
Rating: 3.7
More akin to the gray-skied mood of Songs from Northern Britain than the energized pep of Grand Prix, Teenage Fanclub’s seventh full-length release, Man-Made, doesn’t hit you over the head with immediately accessible hooks and Bandwagonesque-memorable melodies. This is a mature, reflective work (read: repeated spins are expected to reveal the deeper layers), the sound of a veteran group content with its cult status and simply playing to its strengths: Smartly crafted guitar-pop that will appeal to the faithful and perhaps add an adherent or two. Tortoise’s John McEntire produces, but doesn’t impose overt studio gimmickry on the twelve tracks (evenly distributed among the trio of principal singer-songwriters -- Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley); rather, McEntire’s mix is understated, exhibiting a not-quite-samey but uniformly smooth flow. Blake, once again, stars, with nary a dud among his four contributions (the lone rocking cut “Slow Fade” being the best). But balance is key, and thus we get "Only With You," McGinley’s lovely (if plodding) ode to monogamy, followed by "Cells," Blake’s delightfully uncomplaining ode to decay. Love’s contributions are defined by excellent arrangements, from the shimmering taffeta guitar work that closes “Time Stops” to the buttery-smooth rhythms of “Save.” Thanks to McEntire’s tight rein on the production and the still-formidable skills of the players, Man-Made finds Teenage Fanclub successfully keeping middle-age spread at bay.

::: Laurence Station

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July 19, 2005

Engineers: Engineers
Echo, 2005
Rating: 3.2
“One In Seven” is the best song on the London-based four-piece Engineers' self-titled long player. Guitars soar, drums pound, and a sense of urgency swells dramatically, ending in a powerfully symphonic cavalcade of wannabe-anthemic rock. The problem: “One In Seven” is the last song on the album. The ten tracks preceding it simply don’t measure up (though opener “Home” lands nearest). Not that there’s anything particularly horrendous with the drowsy haze of “Waved On” or the spaciously placid “New Horizons.” But for a band clearly capable of righteous storms of sound to hunker down rather than embracing their obvious gift for bombastic melody seems wasteful. The rousing “One In Seven” can’t be called a tease so much as a missed opportunity to arrest listeners’ senses early on, thus keeping them involved for the duration. There’s a reason the strongest material is typically sequenced near the front: Forty minutes in, attention spans tend to drift. Engineers has structural issues; hopefully its successor will follow a better blueprint.

::: Laurence Station

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July 19, 2005

Röyksopp: The Understanding
Astralwerks, 2005
Rating: 3.8
More alive and texturally diverse than its subdued electronic debut Melody A.M., Röyksopp’s The Understanding reveals Norwegian duo Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge building on the percolating energy of Melody’s "Röyksopp's Night Out" and fearlessly expanding its musical boundaries. Melody A.M. may be a more unified listening experience, but The Understanding is considerably more invigorating. The biggest complaint here stems from the excessive emphasis on vocals, which too often fall into overlapping Pet Shop Boys tripe (“Only This Moment” being the most obvious offender). Chelonis R. Jones brings soulful resonance to “49 Percent” and The Knife’s Karin Dreijer offers an evocative, otherworldly turn on “What Else Is There?” But it’s the non-vocal tracks that leave a lasting imprint, with the jazzy, confidently expressive opener “Triumphant” and the elongated, Kraftwerk-pulsing “Alpha Male” earning the highest marks. The Understanding is one of those bold sophomore efforts that will most likely split fans of the duo into two camps, with the Air/Boards of Canada downbeaters lamenting the new direction and the dance-oriented, Basement Jaxx set reveling in the unexpected vibrancy of Röyksopp’s present sound. Let the anticipation begin for the (hopefully) anything-goes third release.

::: Laurence Station

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July 19, 2005

Laura Cantrell: Humming By The Flowered Vine
Matador, 2005
Rating: 4.0
Nashville-born, New York-based Laura Cantrell is obsessed with finding a pure country sound. Not the latest marketing-driven Toby Keith patriotic anthem or sugary pop confection perfected by Shania Twain: Cantrell prefers dirt-free, articulate production, with an emphasis on the stories behind the songs, a truth that goes beyond contrived lonesome ballads or Saturday night shit-kicker stomps. Humming By The Flowered Vine, her third album, is a well-sequenced blend of interpretations, originals and covers. The traditional “Poor Ellen Smith,” about a man sent to the gallows futilely professing his innocence, is imbued with an unvarnished, acquiescent insight -- as when the condemned narrator gazes from the bars of his cell and studies the grave of the woman he’s accused of murdering. The Cantrell-penned “California Rose” pays tribute to honky-tonk singer Rose Maddox, who agonized over leaving the family singing group to strike out on her own, and moves at a quick but measured clip, conveying a lot of information with easy sincerity. Cantrell brings a guarded toughness to Lucinda Williams’ “Letters,” backed by some suitably sturdy guitar lines. Obviously, the peerless craft and genuflecting reverence are beyond reproach; those desiring a more progressive form are out of luck. Cantrell is all about keeping the flame of the past alight, and in that respect Humming By The Flowered Vine burns with dazzling clarity.

::: Laurence Station

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July 19, 2005

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Self-released, 2005
Rating: 3.8
New York five-piece Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-released, self-titled debut is a concrete example of a young band aping its influences and still managing to convey a discernible identity. Two major reasons lead singer/songwriter Alec Ounsworth and crew overcome sounding so familiar without offering anything unique: good taste and chops. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY) kick things off with the appropriately titled “Clap Your Hands!,” a drunker carnival barker swoon that recalls Black Rider-period Tom Waits. The controlled minimalism of “Over and Over Again (Lost and Found),” which offers the strangely appealing couplet “A clean shave in the morning / And a full beard with no warning,” has Ounsworth affecting less-frantic David Byrne-esque vocalizations. The peppier “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” and “Is This Love?” find Ounsworth summoning an unholy Gordon Gano-meets-Isaac Brock strangulated yelp. CYHSY has crafted a whatever-sticks debut with meritorious replay value. The brief instrumental interludes (“Sunshine and Clouds and Everything Proud” and “Blue Turning Gray”) are fairly insubstantial, but they add variety to an already impressively eclectic mix. Slot this one under: Bands whose record collections you’d want to borrow from.

::: Laurence Station

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July 13, 2005

Xiu Xiu: La Forêt
5 Rue Christine, 2005
Rating: 3.6
Nocturnal, nightmarish and fantastic are worthy adjectives to describe La Forêt (or “The Forest” for you non-Francophiles sleeping in the back), the discordantly anti-commercial outfit Xiu Xiu’s latest psychological meltdown masquerading as a pop-rock album. Singer/programmer Jamie Stewart is still all about heavy melodramatics (“It’s impossible to just keep on living,” he professes on the relationship-gone-sour opener “Clover” as an ominous vibraphone plays), but La Forêt expresses such sentiments in more creative ways than prior Xiu Xiu efforts. “Muppet Face” moves from airy synth to spookily moody rhythms and, ultimately, industrial shrieking. “Baby Captain” utilizes twisted lyrical dream logic to manifest emotional frailties in the forms of “black Phoebe” and a “white gold girl.” The aggressively violent imagery of “Saturn” (arrows stabbed through the bottoms of mouths) draws on the mythological tale of Zeus freeing his siblings from his father’s belly. La Forêt’s least interesting numbers are, unsurprisingly, the most straightforward (the guitar-and- bass-driven “Pox”) and those that go overboard on the metal-scraping production elements (“Dangerous You Shouldn't Be Here” and the closing “Yellow Raspberry”). That La Forêt is ultimately a difficult, uneven work fits the Xiu Xiu M.O. to a T. This isn’t a band looking to be loved so much as it desires a swift kick in the teeth. Alas, reaction to such obvious sadomasochistic goading exceeds the energy threshold of this reviewer.

::: Laurence Station

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July 13, 2005

The Magic Numbers: The Magic Numbers
Heavenly/EMI, 2005
Rating: 3.7
Siblings Romeo and Michele Stodart and Sean and Angela Gannon comprise the Magic Numbers, a group enamored with sweet harmonies and lovelorn melodies. The quartet’s self-titled debut displays an impressive range of styles, from the soulful pop devotional “Mornings Eleven” (“I would die for you”) to country-tinged ballads (“Wheels On Fire”). And while the lyrics tend toward the generic and vapid (“She don’t love me like you,” from “Love Me Like You”), the primary appeal of Magic Numbers is the lovely harmonizing, especially the back-and-forth interplay between Romeo and Angela on “I See You, You See Me.” The closing “Hymn For Her” -- tacked onto “Try” after a pointless stretch of silence akin to far too many so-called "hidden tracks" -- is a wonderful ode to love’s redemption (“I've been hurt before, but all the scars have rearranged”). It packs an emotional wallop that blows away the superficially polished preceding tunes; it's here that the “magic” of the Magic Numbers glows brightest. With more tracks like this one, the nascent foursome will truly have an album worth crowing about.

::: Laurence Station

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July 13, 2005

Missy Elliott: The Cookbook
Atlantic, 2005
Rating: 3.3
If it ain't broke, don’t fix it. Not the most original axiom, but it's an appropriate one, considering the criticism lobbed at the Missy Elliott-Timbaland tandem for recycling prior efforts. 2003's This is Not a Test! sold poorly and didn’t wow the reviewing cognoscenti (this site being an exception). Hence, something had to change. The Cookbook is the Big Shakeup in the Missy Elliott camp: Producer Timbaland has been cut back to two tracks, and an army of other producers ushered in to collaborate with Elliott. Aside from breaking any uniform flow the album might have had, this only reinforces just how strong the artistic symbiosis between Elliott and Timbaland is. It’s hardly a coincidence that the first two tracks belong to Timbaland and stand as high as anything else offered. The amusing, thematic table-setting “Joy” has Elliott trying out a bizarre Jamaican-Romanian accent that doesn’t really work, but does allow her to list the numerous guest-star “ingredients” featured in the mix. It’s Timbaland's stripped-clean beats that stand out, masterfully rising and falling behind the raps of Elliott and Mike Jones. “Party Time” is a high-energy dance-floor explosion, with Timbaland ratcheting up the beat and setting the bar for the subsequent club tunes. Those that measure up include the '80s-beat sampling “Lose Control” and the Rich (“Crazy in Love”) Harrison-produced banger “Can't Stop.” The Neptunes-engineered “On & On” is less successful, with its overly familiar revving-power-plant rhythms doing little to complement Elliott’s razor-sharp rhyming. “Click Clack” is a raunchy “in da club” throwaway that craters due to a tired beat and lame flow. Toss in a handful of ballads with R&B songbirds (the uneven, intermittently brilliant “My Struggles” being the highlight), and The Cookbook is complete. Too bad the final dish is an over-baked confection that falls well below its primary chef’s abilities.

::: Laurence Station

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July 11, 2005

Son Volt: Okemah and the Melody of Riot
Transmit Sound/Legacy, 2005
Rating: 3.7
Okemah and the Melody of Riot (Okemah being a tip of the cap to Woody Guthrie’s Oklahoma hometown and "Melody of Riot" being, well, an indication of the rollicking melodies to be found within) is nominally the fourth studio effort from Jay Farrar's Son Volt. It's also the first in nearly seven years, not counting the recent Retrospective from a few months back. Of course, considering that lead singer/songwriter Farrar is the sole returning original member, you could call it Son Volt 2.0. That's not likely to matter to Farrar's faithful fans: Despite the revamped lineup, Okemah sounds like a Son Volt record. That is, there are little of the exacting production tics that defined Farrar’s intervening solo albums, and lots of pedal steel and slide guitar. Regardless, it’s all tied together by the signature sound of Farrar’s untreated, nasally warble and crypto-Americana lyrics (like “Updated consciousness / knocking on doors,” from the mid-tempo opener “Bandages & Scars”). Whether making a refreshingly non-finger-pointing anti-war statement (“Endless War” and its “same result, different name” outlook -- “Still trying to understand / How another wrong makes a right”) or waxing nostalgic for a musical/mythical America long gone (“Afterglow 61” and the aforementioned “Bandages & Scars” which includes the affectionate acknowledgement “The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head”), Farrar imbues the material with genuine and passionate concern. This is not a man who stands in the mirror, affecting the perfect pose before gigs. And, despite taking few chances thematically or musically, the reincarnated Son Volt delivers a tight, nothing-wasted set. And if it drums up some additional tourism for Woody Guthrie’s birthplace, well, so much the better.

::: Laurence Station

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July 08, 2005

Waterproof Blonde: The Morning After the Night Before
Crash Avenue Entertainment, 2005
Rating: 3.3
Waterproof Blonde is a tease. On its debut album The Morning After the Night Before, the band briefly exudes the raw intensity that shot Garbage and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into the big time (although its sound is more bluesy and less electronic or fuzzed-out, more like the Donnas or the lesser-known Honey Tongue), before kicking back into rock/pop mode and coasting the rest of the way. Gritty tracks like "Hold Me Down" and "Feel" showcase singer Rachel Hagen's vocals, which are the audio equivalent to a kick in the head. Unfortunately, those are the only two tracks -- which happen to be the first two on the album -- to do so. The middle of the album tends to drag, especially on "Parade" coming right after "Fall on Her" -- both reminiscent of No Doubt's "Simple Kind of Life" in that they don't really climax, but are decent enough to satisfy most musical palates. Note to Waterproof Blonde: If you have two songs that sound exactly the same, don't put them right next to each other. The band tries to bring the same intensity at the end of the album with "Supermodel Craving" and "Tackle Queen," but it seems canned and uninspired. Overall, The Morning After the Night Before isn't bad, but the promise of the first two tracks is never fulfilled.

::: Tim Wardyn

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July 08, 2005

Jamie Lidell: Multiply
Warp, 2005
Rating: 4.0
Multiply is Jamie Lidell’s tribute to ’60s soul and ’70s funk. The erstwhile Super_Collider collaborator hasn’t entirely lost touch with his techno roots, however. Multiply successfully melds programmed beats with Lidell’s fearlessly elastic croon. Check out the overdubbed, digitized baritone and faux falsetto on “A Little Bit More” or the spot-on Otis Redding homage of the title track, complete with Otis-aping lines like “Stuck between my shadow and me” as the synthetic beat keeps perfect time. The brassy funk of “Newme” and the whir-and-shuffle, stuttering shout-speak of “When I Come Back Around” also merit special mention. Multiply sacrifices cohesion in its quest for stylistic diversity, but it’s a bravura tour through the smooth sounds and hot jams of yesteryear.

::: Laurence Station

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June 30, 2005

Fountains of Wayne: Out-of-State Plates
Virgin, 2005
Rating: 3.0
The cover of Out-of-State Plates, Fountains of Wayne’s sprawling two-disc compilation of B-sides, rarities and previously unreleased material, shows a collection of junked cars. Well, at least the band’s honest about the contents. Simply put, barring a few notable exceptions, these are the songs that either weren’t good enough or didn’t fit into any of the New Jersey-based group’s proper releases. Older cuts -- the brief, heartfelt “Places” and the only slightly longer, closing “Imperia,” which, according to the liner notes, pays tribute to singer Chris Collingwood’s grandfather -- leave an impression, as do a pair of new songs: the classic power-pop gem “Maureen” and "The Girl I Can't Forget," a playful ode to drunken confusion. For those who didn’t spend time and money tracking down decent but hardly revelatory songs like “California Sex Lawyer” or “Elevator Up” and are eager to hear a too-serious stab at Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time,” Out-of-State Plates capably does its palate-cleansing job, setting the table for the eagerly awaited successor to Welcome Interstate Managers. Besides, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure. Happy hunting.

::: Laurence Station

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June 27, 2005

Dressy Bessy: Electrified
Transdreamer, 2005
Rating: 3.4
To accurately describe Dressy Bessy's style, one might well use the term "bubblegum punk". "Pop punk" currently has too much of a connection to teenage angst, and there's hardly a song on Electrified that can be considered less than exuberant. (When was the last time liner notes listed band members as playing "guitarz", or a lyricist used the phrases "wiggin' out" or "stop foolin'"?) The band addresses traditional pop concerns like fame, bad relationships and falling in love, while coating Tammy Ealom's sung-spoken vocals with some nice hooks, guitars for texture, and dependable drums and bass for the rhythm. Britt Myers keeps the production fairly minimal, adding some piano and vocal dubbing, but otherwise this is the raw guitar rock of youth. The problem is that uncomplicated joy mixed with uncomplicated rock can be taken for only so long. While "Side 2", "Stop Foolin'" and "Electrified" contribute an excellent one-two-three opening, and "Who'd Stop The Rain" is a lovely country break from the rest of the album's summery vibe, on the whole Electrified offers too much syrup. "HelloHelloHello" sports the saddest guitar hook in the world, possessed of such exuberance but paired with a melody that just weighs it down. "It Happens All The Time" merits extra points for pulling the album out of the perceived second-half slump, but it's not quite enough. If Dressy Bessy were a girl, she'd be charming, endearing and cute, and you'd spend dates in some combination of trips to the malt shop and making out in the back seat of your car. But after getting home each night you'd read Goethe for a few hours to make up for the lack of conversation.

::: Peter Landwehr

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June 24, 2005

Pernice Brothers: Discover a Lovelier You
Ashmont, 2005
Rating: 3.4
Discover a Lovelier You, the fifth Pernice Brothers record, bears familiar hallmarks of the band’s previous efforts. There’s English Lit vocabulary (“Tontines and silly oaths and hyperbole,” from “Sell Your Hair”), cheeky, pop-culturally relevant titles (“My So-Called Celibate Life”), and Biblical allusions (“Fingered wounds proved I had been dead,” from “Pisshole In The Snow”), all tied together by unlucky-in-life-and-love story-song sketches. Where Discover a Lovelier You falls short is in the hooks department. Yours, Mine and Ours was just as literate and lovelorn, but enjoyed far more memorable choruses. “Saddest Quo” is Discover's classic Pernice Brothers track, catchy and quick-witted, despite some baffling declarations like “Wandering through like a head of tetra cyclic cattle.” Despite lead singer/songwriter Joe Pernice’s MFA-backed smartness of songcraft, the Pernice Brothers slot solidly alongside bands serving up one three-minute pop gem after another, like the Magnetic Fields and the New Pornographers. In that regard, Discover a Lovelier You is a modest triumph, and certainly not indicative of the group’s best work.

::: Laurence Station

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June 24, 2005

Van Morrison: Magic Time
Geffen, 2005
Rating: 3.8
On the title track of Van Morrison’s Magic Time, the nothing-left-to-prove Irish troubadour sings, “You can call it nostalgia / I don’t mind.” Boy, doesn’t he. Morrison continues to revel in some quasi-romantic, pre-1970s period of pop culture, a Brigadoon of Celtic-flavored, misty-eyed blues-rock. Opening the album with a song called “Stranded” and announcing how adrift he feels in modern times might be stating the obvious, especially when Morrison follows it with a track called “Celtic New Year,” whose title and Astral Weeks-period sound veers dangerously near self-parody. It’s also rather confounding to pick up the tempo with a determined tune like “Keep Mediocrity at Bay” and then follow it up with safe, to-the-half-note-faithful Frank Sinatra and Perry Como covers (“This Love of Mine” and “I'm Confessin',” respectively) that neither update nor transform the compositions into distinctively Morrison-esque interpretations. But, missteps aside, Magic Time delivers that familiar blanket on a chill winter’s day vibe, and Morrison fans will thankfully bury themselves under it. “Evening Train,” with its steady chug-along beat and familiar harmonica, and the par-for-the-course “Gypsy in My Soul” won’t move mountains in the search for something unexpected and daring, but they more than do their jobs. Besides, at this point, the notion of Morrison using a vocoder and musing about dark futures over detached electronic beats just wouldn’t seem right. We’ll call it nostalgia and accept that Magic Time isn’t meant to overreach its guaranteed target market.

::: Laurence Station

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June 24, 2005

Turin Brakes: JackInABox
Astralwerks, 2005
Rating: 3.0
Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian just want to break free on JackInABox, the South London pop-folk duo Turin Brakes' third release. On “Fishing for a Dream” they seek “somewhere where we can be ourselves.” On “Over and Over,” Knights urges, “let’s get lost in space” because “I’m stuck in a rat race.” “Above the Clouds” reinforces the desire to escape the terrestrial binds of work and traffic jams, emotionally draining personal entanglements and dead-end encounters. Even the warm ode to bustling city life, “Building Wraps Round Me,” exudes a claustrophobic heaviness. At its best, JackInABox manages a smooth flow undercut by genuine pain. “Road to Nowhere” offers no false sentiments with lines like “everyone’s dying or curling up in pain.” Elsewhere, “Last Clown” features a jazzy coda that takes Turin Brakes’ sound into an adventurously fresh direction. Undermining these positive elements are tracks like “Forever,” with cloying, trite lines like "I’m infected by your love," with the narrator declaring himself "chemically changed" by the experience. Turin Brakes' stab at funkier material, “Asleep With the Fireflies,” sounds like a send-up of Counting Crows (“I’ve been hanging around / My head in my hands and my feet on the ground”). In a nutshell, JackInABox lacks the consistent flow of The Optimist LP and doesn’t match the sturdy songcraft of Ether Song.

::: Laurence Station

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June 24, 2005

Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock and Roll
Fierce Panda / The Orchard, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll is so over as a lifestyle choice for the aspiring musician. The South London quintet Art Brut claims as much throughout its charming, almost-but-not-quite-there-yet debut, Bang Bang Rock and Roll: “I just want a girl to hold my hand,” moons singer Eddie Argos on the title track, while the hopeful bent of leadoff single “Formed A Band” aspires to bring peace to the world. Art Brut’s sharp guitar lines and hefty beat won’t win many points for originality, but it’s hard not to root for a band that so guilelessly examines the awkward romantic entanglements of youth. Reticence in the heat of the moment is nakedly exposed on “Rusted Guns Of Milan,” and the thrill of finally hitting a horizontal home run is deliriously celebrated on “Good Weekend,” with its dizzy-headed pronouncements (“got myself a brand new girlfriend”) and chest-thumping, Tarzan holler of a chorus (“I’ve seen her naked, twice!”). Art Brut’s best move, however, is dedicating a song to the one that got away -- “Emily Kane,” in this particular instance, with its endearing sentiment, “I hope this song finds you fame.” Frenzied throwaways like “Modern Art” and vapid observations like “popular culture no longer applies to me,” from “Bad Weekend,” keep Bang Bang Rock and Roll from attaining that rarified feel of unveiling something truly special. But on the strength of its virginally gobsmacked confessional numbers, Art Brut undoubtedly merits “remember the name” grading.

::: Laurence Station

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June 24, 2005

Akron/Family: Akron/Family
Young God/ Revolver, 2005
Rating: 3.3
If Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam formed a barbershop quartet, it might sound something like the warm and fuzzy folk stylings peppering Akron/Family’s self-titled debut. Backing up this notion are the roundabout, yearning “Suchness” and gentle love paean “I'll Be On The Water,” which professes to have “Lightning bolts in my chest” for its object of affection. Akron/Family favors far messier production techniques than Beam, however. Sounds of fiddling with the tape machine, presumably for authenticity’s sake, and assorted digital blips and bird samples abound. While this formless and free approach has an undeniable lo-fi charm, the canned effects emphasize the artificiality of the recording process, not the “in the wild” spontaneity seemingly aimed for. But thanks to artists like Joanna Newsome and Devendra Banhart, sun-glazed folk with idiosyncratic flourishes is the sound du jour for many in the indie rock community; just don’t imagine you’re intercepting something never intended for a ten-dollar latte-sipping public. Akron/Family has definite talent, but less forced naturalness, tighter song structures and greater emphasis on appealing harmonies could only help the group in its quest to conquer the known musical universe, or, at the very least, the corner organic foods mart.

::: Laurence Station

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June 24, 2005

Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy
Jagjaguwar, 2005
Rating: 3.0
Austin rock outfit Okkervil River’s fourth release, Black Sheep Boy, is verbose and labored. Singer and songwriter Will Sheff has no trouble tossing out SAT-approved vocabulary words like "abecedarian," but the biggest problem stems from a lack of groove. Black Sheep Boy never flows, despite the seamless transition between tracks and obvious thematic links concerning helpless lambs, royal archetypes and stone-cold lovers. On “The Latest Toughs,” Sheff wedges in an awkward “author’s note” and encourages listeners to fill in the subsequent pause with their own musings. Such meta-participatory gimmicks undermine the emotional heft Black Sheep Boy so earnestly tries to impart. The least wordy tracks, unsurprisingly, prove the most effective, as on “In a Radio Song,” where the music is allowed to shift and expand without being bound to some ruler-straight notebook of pronouns and synonyms. Black Sheep Boy has bold ambitions, but Okkervil River hasn’t quite reached the point where polished execution equals or surpasses preliminary concept. Prescription: Less abecedarian, more instinctive melody.

::: Laurence Station

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June 16, 2005

Brian Eno: Another Day on Earth
Hannibal, 2005
Rating: 3.6
Here’s an easy summation of Brian Eno’s latest solo album, Another Day on Earth: A seamless integration of early, post-Roxy Music vocals and later, moodier ambient compositions. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Another Day on Earth does feature the heaviest vocal work from Eno in more than a quarter of a century (discounting his 1990 collaboration with John Cale). But the majority of the vocals are so tweaked and treated, morphed and modulated as to simply lose any sense of the man himself. Underscoring this point is Eno’s least processed performance on “How Many Worlds,” which features a tinny piano and Eno’s voice refreshingly front and center, asking unanswerable questions like, “How many people will we feed today?” Tellingly, the least affected-sounding track is one of the most affecting of the bunch. Mostly, though, we get words buried beneath trance-like ambient snowdrifts (“And Then So Clear,” “Going Unconscious” and “Caught Between”). The most powerful moment arrives at the end, and isn’t even performed by Eno. Aylie Cooke’s eerily detached spoken-word work on “Bone Bomb,” about a young suicide bomber, hits hard and ends the album on a powerful note. Those eager for another “Baby’s On Fire” from Eno will have to satiate themselves with this gut-punch of a highlight.

::: Laurence Station

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June 16, 2005

Gomez: Out West
ATO, 2005
Rating: 3.4
It’s rather fitting that bluesy rock outfit Gomez’s first release for Dave Matthews’ ATO label is a double live set. Spotlighting the group’s jam-oriented tendencies and leaning heavily on material from the British sextet’s first two albums -- the Mercury Prize-winning debut Bring It On and the similarly structured Liquid Skin -- Out West works best when it extends the studio cuts. “Here Comes the Breeze” and “Revolutionary Kind” especially benefit from this sweaty-workout approach, allowing greater interplay between band members and a more spontaneous sound. The two covers prove hit-and-miss, with a meatier stab at Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog” segueing nicely into Bring It On’s “Free To Run.” A growling attempt at Tom Waits’ “Going Out West” buttresses just how great the original is. Out West’s main drawback is pacing; despite being drawn from a trio of sold-out shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco earlier this year, there’s little sense of momentum. Even simply taking the highlights from the three performances and stitching together a set list that builds to a rousing finish (greater crowd feedback, clearly delineated encores, and so forth) would have helped convey what a Gomez live show feels like. Instead, its rousing peaks and studio-same-y valleys defeat the entire purpose of a live document.

::: Laurence Station

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June 10, 2005

Four Tet: Everything Ecstatic
Domino, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Kieran Hebden’s fourth Four Tet album, Everything Ecstatic, jumps all over the musical map, from crashing cymbal-squalling frenzies (“A Joy”) that trigger recollections of fellow laptop composer Dan “Caribou” Snaith’s work, to deliriously explosive percussion that could put on smile on the face of peerless jazz drummer Rashied Ali. But the overall sound of Everything Ecstatic pushes in fresh directions for the compositionally questing Hebden. Familiar folktronica structures have been torched for insurance money now financing a new, freewheeling approach that can loosely be summed up as jazzy Orientalism. Touches of this stylistic shift colored 2003’s Rounds, but Everything Ecstatic proves an emphatic break with the charged-particle, pastoral energy so prevalent on Dialogue and Pause. The breakneck, Polynesian tribal rhythms of “High Fives” and the metropolitan pulse of Hong Kong on “Turtle Turtle Up” are the most obvious examples of Ecstatic’s strong Asiatic focus, but everything crystallizes on the closing, intimate “You Were There With Me,” which conjures images of meditating on a peaceful Sunday afternoon as lazily swaying chimes play. The low-energy, nocturnal hip-hop vibe of “And Then Patterns” fails to mesh nearly as well, and the dispensable “Fuji Check,” doesn’t have enough time to develop into an interesting detour or serve as a transitional segue between more substantial tracks. Consequently, Everything Ecstatic doesn’t come together as solidly as prior Four Tet releases, but it unquestionably contains the blueprint for far greater explorations to come.

::: Laurence Station

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June 06, 2005

System of a Down: Mezmerize
Columbia, 2005
Rating: 3.7
Mezmerize is the first of two System of a Down (SOAD) releases due out this year (the second, Hypnotize, drops in the fall). Like the genre-hopping metal band’s previous releases, Mezmerize is unapologetically up-front about its politics -- case in point: "B.Y.O.B.," with strident anti-war couplets like “Why don't presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor?” And, as has been the case since the group’s self-titled 1998 debut, the melodies have progressively become more integral to the overall mix of angrily opinionated lyrics and rapid-fire chord changes. "B.Y.O.B." alternates between a jarring Red Hot Chili Peppers-style refrain ("Everybody's going to the party, have a real good time / Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine"), frantic thrashing, and Elmer Fuddian "Lalala"s. “Sad Statue” manages to make the chorus “You and me / We'll all go down in history / With a sad Statue of Liberty” hummable. “Violent Pornography” serves up the choice finger-snapper “Choking chicks and sodomy.” But it’s when SOAD takes a more bizarre slant that the band’s originality and sense of humor shine. “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song” features the Zappa-worthy verse “There's nothing wrong with me / There's something wrong with you / Don't eat the fish,” while “Radio/Video” may be the world’s first accordion-based metal song. More tracks like this would help offset the exhaustive laundry list of pissed-off concerns. Mezmerize is on par with 2001’s Toxicity as SOAD’s best offering to date. Hopefully, Hypnotize will up the ante further while easing up on the lead-foot activist pedal.

::: Laurence Station

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June 04, 2005

Belle & Sebastian: Push Barman to Open Old Wounds
Matador, 2005
Rating: 3.9
Fans of the Scottish pop group Belle & Sebastian have been waiting for its new compilation, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds, for quite a while now. The band is famous for releasing singles and EPs filled with exclusive material (excepting "The State I Am In", off of Tigermilk) -- a trend reversed with the string of singles from Dear Catastrophe Waitress -- and Push Barman is a self-proclaimed "budget priced" double CD that compiles the seven singles/EPs released on Jeepster: Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, 3...6...9... Seconds of Light, This Is Just A Modern Rock Song, Legal Man, Jonathan David and I'm Waking Up To Us. In addition to simply being a package for the band's more obscure tracks, the album nicely spans its shift from folksy, melancholy introspectiveness to light summer-pop, with the former contained on the first disc and a mix of the two styles on the second. The songs all sound less cleanly produced than any of the full albums, so this is probably not the best introduction for neophytes. At the same time, it's an excellent bridge between the band's two styles for someone who owns just one album, and is enough of a blend of sweet, sad, happy and romantic to last for quite a few spins. On "This Is Just A Modern Rock Song", singer Stuart Murdoch claims, "We're just four boys in corduroy / We're not terrific but we're competent." Push Barman is a pleasant confirmation that this line sells Belle & Sebastian short.

::: Peter Landwehr

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June 04, 2005

At the Drive-In: Anthology: This Station Is Non-Operational
Fearless, 2005
Rating: 3.9
Given that At the Drive-In split into two diametrically opposed bands -- the conventional rock outfit Sparta and aggressively outré The Mars Volta -- the career retrospective Anthology: This Station Is Non-Operational is a welcome refresher course on what solid music can come from the tension born of competing musical philosophies. Running (mostly) chronologically, Non-Operational opens with the raw, frenetic “Fahrenheit” and evolves to the discrete, start-stop dynamics of the band’s final studio release, 2000’s Relationship of Command, personified by the bracing “One Armed Scissor.” As the El Paso-based group’s proficiency increased, so did the experimental nature of its sound. The recorded turning point of ATDI, 1999’s Vaya EP, is well represented here by “Metronome Arthritis” and “198d.” This is where the battle between easily discernible melodies and more progressive jams plays out most obviously: a tug-of-war that ends in a draw but results in an incredibly thrilling listening experience. The non-LP material that fleshes out the rest of the anthology is less rewarding. “This Night Has Opened My Eyes” is a comparatively straight cover of the Smiths’ original, as is a suitably wiggy workout of Pink Floyd’s “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk.” Also, the only cuts represented before 1997’s El Gran Orgo is a more inspired live rendition of Acrobatic Tenement’s “Initiation" -- there's nothing from the early EPs Hell Paso and Alfaro Vive, Carajo! While that's hardly essential stuff, it still would have been nice to have a track or two included, thus presenting a more thorough overview of ATDI’s career.

::: Laurence Station

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June 04, 2005

Common: Be
MCA, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Be is an appropriate title for Common’s latest release. Short, assertive, and to the point, it’s a perfect header for an album filmed with equally concise, self-assured and message-heavy tracks. Clocking in at less than 43 minutes (in comparison to the hour-and-twenty-minute, brilliant but uneven Like Water for Chocolate and 2002’s near-75-minute, eclectic, captivating, Electric Circus), Be finds Common (Lonnie Rashied Lynn), along with producers Kanye West and Dilla, avoiding filler and excessive guest appearances in favor of tight rhymes and soulful, homogeneously smooth beats. The joy of sex (“Go!”) and respecting the Almighty (“Faithful”) coexist peacefully in Common’s musical universe. One curious choice, given the appealing flow, is the inclusion of a live version of “The Food,” jarringly noticeable thanks to an introduction by Dave Chappelle and before-and-after audience reaction. Perhaps Common wanted to shake up the effortless vibe, but it definitely throws off the warm consistency present throughout. Be won’t win many points for daring, but in terms of user-friendly hip-hop charged by a refreshingly positive undercurrent, it more than hits its hard-to-miss mark.

::: Laurence Station

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June 04, 2005

Smog: A River Ain't Too Much to Love
Drag City, 2005
Rating: 3.0
The parentheses bracketing his performing handle may be gone, but Bill Callahan's 12th Smog album, A River Ain't Too Much to Love, follows a wearyingly familiar template: Deliberately ruminative vocals; spare arrangements; welcome faster-tempo songs offering a brief respite from barren stretches of snail-paced tracks. Death and redemption (“Say Valley Maker”), a supportive family (“Rock Bottom Riser”) and recollections of youth (“Drinking at the Dam”) form the thematic center of the album. At times, Callahan's penchant for clever phrasings gets the better of him, as on “I'm New Here,” which comes off like a less inventive Silver Jews cut, offering such Dave Berman-lite lines as “She said I had an ego on me / The size of Texas” and “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / You can always turnaround.” With its skipping beat and lively fiddle, “The Well” is a highlight, even if the notion of confronting one’s self while staring down a dark well falls flat. The album's other highlight, the closing “Let Me See the Colts,” features some solid drumming by Jim White of the Dirty Three, while Callahan asks “Is there anything as still as sleeping horses?” Yes, Bill, there is: a motionless river.

::: Laurence Station

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May 26, 2005

Maria Taylor: 11:11
Saddle Creek, 2005
Rating: 3.4
Maria Taylor (one half of Azure Ray and a member of Now It's Overhead) steps squarely to the fore on 11:11, an enjoyable if not arresting debut. Moving from electronically tweaked dream pop (“Leap Year” and the lovely, hook-laden “Song Beneath the Song”) to folky, monochromatic pieces reminiscent of M. Ward’s recent work (“Speak Easy”), Taylor ties it all together with her understated, graceful pipes. “One for the Shareholder,” the album's highlight, sports a noticeable dance-floor groove, complete with breathy vocalizations, references to a “cold box of cheap red wine” and noncommittal sex. This no-strings-attached moment hits hard and leaves a bruise. The bulk of 11:11, however, is diluted by the liberally applied digital sheen glistening off the majority of the gauzily abstract arrangements.

::: Laurence Station

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May 26, 2005

The Wallflowers: Rebel, Sweetheart
Interscope, 2005
Rating: 3.3
Steady as she goes, with a lyrically apocalyptic bent, defines The Wallflowers’ fifth full-length release, Rebel, Sweetheart. Jakob Dylan and company have never strived to make anything grander than good old-fashioned, guitar-driven rock records. And producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen) delivers an immaculately crafted, every-note-in-place recording that is as confidently executed as it is formulaically inoffensive. Rebel, Sweetheart’s main point of interest lies in Dylan's topically doom-and-gloom outlook. “Days of Wonder” cynically wishes the war in Iraq a happy birthday; “The Passenger” claims, “I’m not responsible for how lost we are.” “Here He Comes (Confessions of a Drunken Marionette)” bitterly contends, “A guilty conscience means at least you’ve got one.” At its bleakest, “We're Already There” grimly observes, “No amount of nightmares would ever compare / To the thought of only silence in this ghost-filled air.” At times, Dylan overreaches with his imagery, as on the tenebrous “God Says Nothing Back,” singing, “As teardrops from a hole in heaven come / Overhead like ravens dropping down like bombs / Through the morning silver-frosted glow.” Obviously Dylan enjoys the Wallflowers setup, but it’s interesting to consider what a solo album, less burnished and pristine, might sound like from the son of arguably the most famous solo artist in rock history.

::: Laurence Station

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May 26, 2005

The Coral: The Invisible Invasion
Deltasonic, 2005
Rating: 3.8
The Coral’s third full-length release (or third-and-a-half, if you count last year’s mini-album Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker) reveals a band that has outgrown the youthful exuberance exhibited on "Spanish Main," from the Hoylake sextet’s debut. Likewise, the spirited optimism of "Pass It On," from 2003’s Magic and Medicine, is ill-suited for the paranoid, edgy and deliriously unsettled tenor pervading The Invisible Invasion. Singer James Skelly is convinced there’s a “conspiracy in the corridors” on the moodily catchy “Cripples Crown,” all the while dodging snooping satellites overhead. The frantic “The Operator” deals with an unlucky chap who’s taken away and has his head drilled into. “Leaving Today” is stuck with “sorrows until tomorrow.” But such unhinged material is simply a warm-up for the strangest yet most assured song the group’s recorded. Lyrically surreal, yet pointedly relevant given the hotspot of today’s global conflicts, “Arabian Sand” builds on insistently humming keyboard lines and fierce middle-bridge guitar histrionics to Skelly’s defining, whisper-to-a-mad-raver line: "Can you dance with the lepers in the madman's house?" It’s political commentary devoid of the obviousness of a polemic -- and the hook is fantastic. The Invisible Invasion is far from a masterpiece (tracks like the unimaginative jangle-rock number “So Long Ago” and the underdeveloped, dispensable “In The Morning” help to ensure that), but it encouragingly signals a definite progression in the Coral’s thematic and arrangement skills. Let’s hope the world isn’t such a scary place to live in come the band’s next release.

::: Laurence Station

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May 25, 2005

Dave Matthews Band: Stand Up
RCA, 2005
Rating: 3.0
Stand Up, the Dave Matthews Band’s first collection of brand new material since 2001’s Glen Ballard-produced Everyday (2002’s Busted Stuff being re-recordings of earlier songs), is a more rough-hewn, randy affair than its overly slick, pop-polished predecessor. The most obvious difference is Matthews’ vocal style, which isn’t artificially treated or Pro Tools-masked, but more raspy and weather-beaten (if not an outright drunken slur, as on the opening “Dreamgirl,” which finds Matthews crooning, “And after a good, good drunk / You and me wake up and make love after a deep sleep”). Musically, Stand Up may not be as obviously pop-oriented as Everyday, but producer Mark Batson (India.Arie, The Game, 50 Cent) does his best to coax radio-friendly, if uninspired, rhythms from the band. “Hello Again” adds some welcome funk into the mix, and for the live DMB diehard, there’s the extended jam closing out “Louisiana Bayou.” On "Stand Up," Matthews urges listeners to do just that, but it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself. Lack of energy and a dearth of hooks adds up to one of the most tepid releases Matthews and his crew have released. Must be worn out from all those live gigs.

::: Laurence Station

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May 25, 2005

Martha Wainwright: Martha Wainwright
Zoe, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Being the daughter of Katie McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III -- and the sister of Rufus -- all but guarantees that Martha Wainwright will have to contend with high expectations for her debut. And despite too-frequent instances of heavy-footed production, which buries Wainwright’s gorgeous, sandpapery vocals, Martha Wainwright delivers a one-to-listen-for unveiling. The best moments are the least adorned, with the unsubtly titled “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” (Clear Channel certainly wouldn't approve) towering over the remaining twelve tracks. The opening line ("Poetry has no place for a heart's that's a whore") sets a confessional tone that punches holes through the professional artifice of the studio and exposes an utterly vulnerable Wainwright, her guitar and spare accompaniment. “Who Was I Kidding?” manages a similar if less emotionally potent effect. Imagining an all-acoustic version of Martha Wainwright hints at the true potential lurking beneath the strings and high-calorie programmatic flourishes that, while undeniably pretty, detract unnecessarily from the eponymous focal point. Here’s hoping for a considerably more naked second act.

::: Laurence Station

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May 23, 2005

Gorillaz: Demon Days
Virgin, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Four years, G-sides and remix collections and several million units moved find Gorillaz in a surprisingly downbeat mood. For the collective’s sophomore effort, Demon Days, "Clint Eastwood" has been replaced by the actor’s grim, vigilante-with-a-badge character “Dirty Harry.” The intro samples from the Dawn of the Dead soundtrack, which segues into the moribund “Last Living Souls.” That primary primate Damon Albarn has swapped Dan The Automator for Grey Album baker Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton as his chief collaborator, and brought in a Who’s Who roster of guest stars (from an Ike Turner piano solo on “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” to actor Dennis Hopper reciting the terrible fate of the Happy Folk in “Fire Coming Out Of A Monkey's Head”) belies the “just a fun side project for the Blur frontman” image. Gorillaz is big business now, and what may have started out as a virtual cartoon cooking up a dub-hip-hop-indie-electronica stew has boiled over into a too-serious stab at global commentary sprinkled over gristle-tough beats. The aforementioned “Dirty Harry,” with its funky rhythms and thankfully not-too-heavy-handed strings, and “Feel Good Inc.” (featuring De La Soul) are worthy of the debut. But “Kids With Guns” and “O Green World” both exhibit their woe-is-the-world message too obviously, offering flavorless tasters. Granted, the world isn’t exactly better off since since the last Gorillaz album, but that doesn’t mean we need to be reminded of it by a loose collaborative outfit that will never be mistaken for the Clash when it comes to political or social consciousness. If anything, Albarn should have never lost the “sunshine in a bag” he carried around on the last album; we could really use some of it now.

::: Laurence Station

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May 16, 2005

Monade: A Few Steps More
Too Pure, 2005
Rating: 3.2
So distinctive is Laetitia Sadier’s weightlessly elegant singing style -- easily slipping between Anglo and French vernaculars -- that any side project is invariably going to be judged against her day job as the voice of Stereolab. In the case of the first Monade release, 2003’s Socialisme ou Barbarie: The Bedroom Recordings, Sadier took six years on the project and it came across as a low-key, personal collection that revealed a more intimate portrait of its creator. A Few Steps More is just that... only with a full band supporting the vocalist this time around, and from the opening, lounge-y bars of “Wash and Dance,” it’s near impossible not to judge the material against recent Stereolab offerings. And, other than a pair of under-a-minute sketches (“Dittysweep” and “Dittyah”), what’s heard is a less-adventurous-sounding Stereolab. The spacey grooves of the title track and the hushed melodies of “Paradoxale” are pleasant enough, but simply don’t resonate as strongly. Besides, Sadier’s already got a full-time band, which is part of what made The Bedroom Recordings so appealing and different in the first place. Fleshing out Monade only reinforces what great chemistry Stereolab possesses. And that’s a few steps in the wrong artistic direction, especially if Sadier’s interested in distinguishing herself apart from the Groop.

::: Laurence Station

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May 16, 2005

The Dresden Dolls: The Dresden Dolls
8ft., 2004
Rating: 4.1
Goth rock and cabaret? Well, the Dresden Dolls call it Brechtian punk cabaret. On their self-titled debut, they manage to bring a gothic edge to a piano/cabaret sound not normally heard in any type of music, except select theater attractions. Pianist/vocalist Amanda Palmer displays the sarcasm and lyrical wit of a P.J. Harvey or Fiona Apple, especially on “Gravity” (“If I could attack with a more sensible approach / Obviously that’s what I’d be doing... right?!”) and the opener “Good Day” (“You’d rather be a bitch / Than be an ordinary broken heart”). But it's the other half of the Dolls, Brian Viglione, who steals the show with very brief, subtle solos and sounds; on “Coin-Operated Boy” as Palmer sings “I can even take him in the bath,” the percussionist inserts a perfectly placed rubber-duck squeak. The Dresden Dolls excel in the unexpected, going from head-bobbing kiss-offs like “Good Day,” “Bad Habit,” and “Gravity” to gender-questioning full-throttle assaults like “Girl Anachronism” and “Coin-Operated Boy.” The piano-and-drum sound is fuller than one would expect; first-time listeners will find it hard to believe that the Dolls are only a duo. Based on the talent on The Dresden Dolls, they could become one of the few acts to sell out stadiums with a cult following instead of mainstream appeal.

::: Tim Wardyn

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May 16, 2005

Quasimoto: The Further Adventures of Lord Quas
Stones Throw, 2005
Rating: 4.3
Helium-inflated vocals? Twenty-six tracks, most subdivided into a scatterbrained series of micro-skits? Ultra-smooth, jazzy beats and vintage synthesized samples? Yes, the following hip-hop profile can only fit one suspect: Lord Quas, underground champion of 2000’s The Unseen, and alter-ego of super producer Madlib (who will one day cash Social Security checks as Otis Jackson Jr.). Still operating out of the Lost Gates neighborhood, a stoned state of mind located near Oxnard, CA, Quasimoto celebrates getting high (most overtly on “Greenery,” although memory-impairing recreational excursions inform the entire experience), not being played by women (“Hydrant Game”), nuclear destruction and alien invasions (“Civilization Day”) and environmental disasters (“Tomorrow Never Knows”). Throughout, Madlib impressively manages to keep the proceedings from slipping into total chaos. Even so, there’s a frustrating sense of intentional subterfuge throughout. Obviously, that’s Lord Quas’ modus operandi: ADD-rattled observations on life, the universe and every hallucinogenically-lacquered blunt ever rolled. But it can’t help but undermine the momentum, especially on pieces like the two-minute, criminally truncated “Strange Piano,” which fuses a spacey composition with Quas’ dissociative pop-cultural name dropping (Dennis Hopper and Chewbacca?). Such are the mad beauty and aggravatingly gratuitous throwaway gems to be found on The Further Adventures of Lord Quas. Normality has no known address in this proficiently skewed neighborhood.

::: Laurence Station

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May 12, 2005

Petra Haden: Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out
Bar/None, 2005
Rating: 3.5
On Petra Haden’s first solo album, 1996's Imaginaryland, the accomplished violinist recorded a multi-tracked a cappella record, complete with an Enya cover and music by Bach. The Who Sell Out provides an even greater challenge for Haden’s vocal mimicry. From the opening, vocodered “seven days of the week” announcement on “Armenia City in The Sky” to the soaring rhythmic gymnastics of “I Can See For Miles,” Haden near-flawlessly replicates the structure of the veteran British band’s acclaimed 1967 album. Obviously, given the personnel and equipment limitations, Haden’s Who Sell Out isn’t as full-bodied or emotionally gripping as the original. But it is a marvelous display of overlapping solo voice, taking an artistic gamble that could too easily have come up snake eyes and delivering more than a mere novelty, Richard Cheese-style subversion of popular music. For Haden’s next dare, how about Who’s Next, or, at the very least, an a cappella stab at “Baba O'Riley”?

::: Laurence Station

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May 11, 2005

Weezer: Make Believe
Geffen, 2005
Rating: 1.7
It’s somehow fitting that a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, quoting Prospero renouncing the use of magic, appears in the liner notes of Weezer’s fifth (and weakest) release, Make Believe. For whatever enchantment the quartet cast on listeners over the past decade has a good chance of being completely dispelled thanks to this overblown yet paradoxically self-deprecating effort. Singer Rivers Cuomo writes meek lyrics better suited to acoustic guitar accompaniment and little more. Indeed, Make Believe might sound more sincere if the precision-metal production didn’t steamroll Cuomo’s lyrical misery in bombastic arrangements featuring factory-issue power chords and a MOR-safe rhythm section. Big label bucks are invested in Weezer’s endearing brand of geek rock, no matter how incompatible with the whiney, cowering-in-a-corner content of Cuomo’s songs. “Perfect Situation” embodies this paradox, marrying peppy handclaps to lines like “I don’t want to be lonely for the rest of my days on the earth.” “Pardon Me” features Cuomo offering apologies to everyone he’s ever even remotely offended anywhere, backed by a supercharged pop arrangement. Maladroit may have been unfocused and inconsistent, but at least it rocked. And even Pinkerton -- which if anything managed to be even more miserable -- served up memorable hooks. The breezy (with the occasional threatening storm cloud) “Blue” and “Green” self-titled releases retain solid replay value. Make Believe is an unappealing mix of by-the-numbers product smothering a battered psyche. It simply doesn’t work. On the blandly obvious “This Is Such A Pity,” Cuomo asks, “How did things get so bad?” If Cuomo's lucky, he'll get a chance to answer that question on the next album.

::: Laurence Station

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May 11, 2005

Lucinda Williams: Live at the Fillmore
Lost Highway, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Ah, let us revisit the self-indulgent double live album, staple of hard rock acts in the ’70s, from Thin Lizzy, who more than delivered the goods with Live and Dangerous, to Led Zeppelin’s bloated, dreary The Song Remains The Same. Thanks to the storage capabilities of the compact disc, double live releases today can be even more overstuffed and unrestrained. Left-of-center country luminary Lucinda Williams’ Live at the Fillmore offers the best and worst aspects of the format. Fillmore is a cherry-picked assortment of songs from three November 2003 shows and, unsurprisingly, heavily features cuts from her last two studio albums, Essence and World Without Tears -- (18 of the 22 songs featured here, to be exact). This being Williams’ first live release, it would have been nice to hear more of her earlier material, especially considering that several of the high points come from the underrepresented back catalog. “I Lost It” (which first appeared on Happy Woman Blues before receiving its definitive recording on the classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) kicks off the brawnier, more engaging second disc, followed by an excellent rendition of Sweet Old World’s “Pineola” and, later, a fierce, stretched-out interpretation of Car Wheels’ “Joy,” which finds a jazzed Williams proclaiming “We got the mojo workin’ tonight.” Fillmore’s first set suffers from a samey repetitiveness, all sad-slow ballads and too-intimate sketches that fail to quicken the pulse the way a live album should. Closing with an assertively rocking version of “Changed the Locks” and the dirty boogie “Atonement” help redeem the disc (somewhat). Considering that Fillmore isn’t drawn from a single show, it’s baffling as to why the slower numbers are bunched together and the more exhilarating songs pushed nearly an hour into the listening experience. As a result, the album falls somewhere between Thin Lizzy and Zeppelin on the double live barometer.

::: Laurence Station

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May 11, 2005

Nine Inch Nails: With Teeth
Nothing/Interscope, 2005
Rating: 3.8
It's been five years since The Fragile, Nine Inch Nails' last proper studio effort. That engaging album revealed NIN maestro Trent Reznor to be more concerned with expanding the sonic experimentation heard on 1994's landmark The Downward Spiral than with solidifying his status as a generation's icon of fetishistic misery -- a Morrissey for the Ministry set, if you will. With Teeth is a half-step backward, largely streamlining his electro-metallic compositions and, in the process, giving more prominence to lyrics designed to resonate with isolated types who derive some measure of identity from the psychic toll of strained relationships (whether they're romantic, familial or just plain fucked-up in nature). Tight, thudding drums (courtesy of Dave Grohl) and crisp arrangements occasionally give way to abrupt swells and semi-jarring turns, but the effect is understated, not calling attention to itself the way grandiose songs on Spiral and The Fragile often did. While that makes the songs less immediately memorable -- there's no "Closer" or "Head Like a Hole" here -- they're nonetheless ingratiating, and the album as a whole takes less time to digest than those earlier, more ambitious efforts. Reznor can still rage with textbook efficiency, as on "You Know What You Are?," but With Teeth's most affecting moments are those where he pulls back a little, as exemplified by the talk-singing cadence and almost funky rhythm of "Only." Reznor doesn't attempt to bludgeon the listener with either overreaching musical ambition or awkward lyrical poignancy, making With Teeth that rare animal: a Nine Inch Nails record that doesn't force a false sense of visceral urgency.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 11, 2005

The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday
Frenchkiss, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Singer/lyricist Craig Finn and his fellow Hold Steady players revisit much of the same turf first heard on the band’s impressive 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me. Separation Sunday is less a sophomore effort than a continuation of Finn’s documenting of people he has known and the group’s desire to unapologetically rock out. Characters like the morally loose Halleluiah (called Holly by her friends), menacing pusher-pimp Charlemagne and freewheeling Gideon (the “cowboy on the cross-town bus” from Almost’s “Sweet Payne”) make return appearances. And Finn’s juxtaposition of the sacred and profane has been sharpened to a fine point: “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” mentions Jesus and a tattooed phrase on a girl’s lower back that confidently proclaims “Damn right you'll rise again.” There are literary references, from Nabokov’s pedophiliac Humbert Humbert on opener “Hornets! Hornets!” to a diverse group of writers (William Butler Yates and William Blake, being two of the more notable ones) name-checked on the frenetic “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night,” not to mention repeated lists of saints and kids desiring to be saved before destroying themselves. Separation Sunday isn’t quite on par with Almost Killed Me, primarily because it won’t stun listeners with its freshness. Only the next record will tell whether Finn exhausts his reservoir of tales before consumers lose interest.

::: Laurence Station

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May 06, 2005

The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart
Yep Roc, 2005
Rating: 4.1
Oceans Apart, The Go-Betweens ninth album -- and third in the last five years -- finds dual front men Grant McLennan and Robert Forster (ably backed by the rhythm section of drummer Glenn Thompson and bassist/keyboardist Adele Pickvance) exploring everything from the distance between London (where the bulk of the album was recorded) and the Australian band’s home base of Brisbane to the beauty and solitude of Tasmanian geography. It’s also the most self-assured album McLennan and Forster have made since reuniting after an extended hiatus during the 1990s. Forster’s “Here Comes a City” kicks things off with a moody tale of train travel that features aggressively bristling guitar lines and wickedly barbed observations like “Why do people who read Dostoevsky always look like Dostoevsky?” McLennan’s “Boundary Rider” reaches back to his Queensland legacy, revisiting the same terrain as the band’s ’80s-period single “Cattle and Cane,” cleverly juxtaposing the fences meant to keep cattle hemmed with a young man’s yearning to escape the rural world of his forbearers and find a greater purpose in life. Forster makes similar observations on “Born to a Family,” working off of a nice change-of-pace skiffle beat and sketching the story of a bright-bulb lad not cut out for blue collar life. Other highlights include Forster’s recollection of “Darlinghurst Nights,” nearly two decades back, when a colony of artists and bohemians operated on the fringe outside Sydney, and McLennan’s romantically melancholy “The Statue,” which somehow manages to pull off a line like “The sunrise seeks you through a maze of dragons” with straight-faced aplomb. If 2000's The Friends of Rachel Worth was a tentative warm-up and 2002's Bright Yellow, Bright Orange an encouraging but inconsistent workout, Oceans Apart is the sound of two artists hitting a self-assured and motivated stride.

::: Laurence Station

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May 06, 2005

Stereolab: Oscillons from the Anti-Sun
Too Pure, 2005
Rating: 4.3
Stereolab’s brilliantly titled Oscillons from the Anti-Sun is a three-disc, 35-song box set (plus a no-frills DVD of band videos and television appearances) that culls from eight EPs and, presumably, frustrates dedicated followers who’ve spent hundreds of dollars over the years tracking down this hard-to-find and import only material. Guitarist/programmer Tim Gane sequences the tracks in non-chronological order, thus depriving listeners of easily charting Stereolab’s sundry stylistic shifts over the years. Regardless of mode, however, there’s no mistaking the distinctive Stereolab sound -- from the dense, Velvet Underground-aping “Golden Ball” to the experimental electronic noodling found on “Les Yper Yper Sound,” the signature blend of Laetitia Sadier's and Mary Hansen’s airy harmonies, backed by Gane and the rest of the band’s agreeable electro-rock rhythms, remains intact. Gane deserves credit for spacing the band’s more familiar pieces (“Cybele's Reverie,” “Jenny Ondioline,” “The Noise of Carpet”) across the three discs, which avoids front-loading the obvious selections and helps spotlight lesser-known but equally impressive songs like “Off On” and “Escape Pod.” A convenient way for novices to discover what all the fuss is about and veteran fans to round out their collections, Oscillons is another valuable addition to the copious Stereolab catalog.

::: Laurence Station

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May 05, 2005

Architecture in Helsinki: In Case We Die
Bar None, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Aussie octet Architecture in Helsinki progresses dramatically in ambition and proficiency on In Case We Die, the successor to Fingers Crossed, the exuberantly eclectic pop band’s 2004 debut. Hand and power tools are listed among the numerous instruments; vocal duties are handled by committee, often overlapping and serving up choral group-sized harmonies. Stylistically, In Case We Die is like a Jackson Pollock drip painting, chaotic and bustling. The peppy stamp of “It'5!” is balanced by the start-stop restlessness of "Frenchy, I'm Faking." Likewise, the piano drone of “Maybe You Can Owe Me” offers temporary calm before the horn-blast dance stunner “Do The Whirlwind” hits. The sub-four-minute title track (complete with the amusingly appended “Parts 1-4”) and subsequent, scatterbrained “The Cemetery,” which moves from country to new wave to punk in rapid fire succession, affirm Architecture in Helsinki’s determination to avoid being pigeonholed. Somehow, like Pollock’s art, this swirling, colorful melodic kaleidoscope works. Rhythmic continuity is so over.

::: Laurence Station

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May 05, 2005

Edan: Beauty and the Beat
Lewis, 2005
Rating: 4.0
Scratches and samples, bubbling sci-fi synth effects and liberal usage of a mini-Moog define the sound of hip-hop historian/DJ Edan’s Beauty and the Beat. Refining the ideas at play on his blueprint-sketching debut, Primitive Plus, Edan ventures into deep space for its successor, perhaps trying to catch the signals that left Earth back in the ’80s, carrying the sound of MC heavyweights like Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube and KRS-One beyond the humble confines of the Milky Way. Not that Edan limits himself exclusively to battle-rap artists from two decades back: Beauty and the Beat finds Edan spitting, and featured MCs like Mr. Lif and Insight rhyming over hard-rock chords and acid-drenched psychedelic rhythms. “Rock And Roll” conveys a sense of going to a light show while listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The overall feel is of an academic exercise in hip-hop cultural anthropology -- Edan doesn’t want people to forget the nascent years of the movement. “Open your ears and listen,” he urges on the introductory “Polite Meeting.” Not to worry. Based on the lesson plan laid down here, future classes should fill up quickly.

::: Laurence Station

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May 03, 2005

Aimee Mann: The Forgotten Arm
Superego, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm has been billed as a concept album about an ex-Vietnam vet and boxer named John, and Caroline, a woman he meets at the Virginia State Fair and winds up driving across the country with in the early 1970s. Based on the pulpy, late-’40s style artwork by Owen Smith decorating the liner notes and a dearth of era-specific details contained within the lyrics, there’s very little grounding Mann’s concept to the period in question. If anything, lines like "The King of the Jailhouse and the Queen of the Road" hearken to a much earlier timeframe, and even the few ’70s-style cultural references we do hear (like Calvin Klein jeans) barely register. Essentially, Mann is rehashing familiar themes prevalent throughout her work: Co-dependent relationships, crippling addictions and emotional upheavals. Once the contrivance of The Forgotten Arm’s vaguely sketched plot device crumbles, there are still solid tracks to be found. “Goodbye Caroline” features a beautiful melody and lively arrangement; “Video” shows off Mann’s gift for clever lyrical turns (“It’s all loops of seven-hour kisses, cut with a couple near-misses”). Producer Joe Henry manages to move things along with a consistent (though a tad samey) flow, and the brass by West End Horns on “King of the Jailhouse” adds a welcome shine to the primarily guitar- and piano-based compositions. For better or worse, The Forgotten Arm, lyrically and musically, sounds like yet another Aimee Mann album. Which is great for fans, though even they may start wondering at what point Mann takes greater chances with her material than providing it with a superficial facelift.

::: Laurence Station

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May 02, 2005

Ryan Adams: Cold Roses
Lost Highway, 2005
Rating: 2.9
Ryan Adams had something to prove with his 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker. Taking what he’d learned from alt-country bellwether Whiskeytown and showing he could capably strike out on his own, Adams crafted an album that remains the finest of his still-budding career. But then Gap commercials and the energy-draining fame game supplanted musical progression in favor of neatly slotting into a People magazine personality configuration. Despite such distractions, Adams remains as prolific as ever, with the double-disc Cold Roses (credited to Adams and his backing band, the Cardinals) being the first of three releases this year. Cold Roses’ first set is by-the-numbers, brokenhearted MOR fare, sometimes maudlin (“When Will You Come Back Home?”), infrequently dramatic (the piano-driven “How Do You Keep Love Alive”) and mostly forgettable. The second disc redeems Cold Roses from an even-less-enthusiastic recommendation. It’s looser and more jam-oriented than the first half, not nearly as constrained by Adams’ mournful examinations of love, life and lies. And the Cardinals finally make a discernible impression, especially on “Easy Plateau” and the lively, surefire single candidate “Let It Ride.” The larger issue is what Adams plans to do with his talent over the long haul. He can craft catchy, just-left-of-traditional country-rock tunes in his sleep. The problem is, there’s no great award for songwriting prolificacy. Cold Roses displays an artist on auto-pilot, with the intermittent flash of genuine originality reaffirming why Adams continues to have the cachet to record with febrile abandon.

::: Laurence Station

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May 02, 2005

Autechre: Untilted
Warp, 2005
Rating: 3.7
Autechre’s eighth full-length, Untilted, reveals electronic tunesmiths Sean Booth and Rob Brown reclaiming the digital groove of the duo’s fertile mid-’90s period. The catch is that it still sports the dehumanized metallurgist influence of 21st-century Autechre releases Confield and Draft 7.30, which challenges listeners to burrow deep down the digital rabbit hole in order to tease out the densely layered melodies. Initial salvo “LCC” provides a good example of this technique; jumping off with a repetitive stamp, like some unattended machine pounding out beats only automated equipment can truly appreciate. Halfway through, things shift to a spikier groove, which adds a brief respite from the opening, mechanized melodic onslaught. There’s a greater sense of motion as sounds are elongated and allowed a little welcome breathing room. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the intense “Augmatic Disport,” where mulch beats are obliterated almost as soon as they burst into existence. Closing, quarter-hour long “Sublimit” manipulates stark 4/4 beats and elicits a near-hypnotic sense of propulsion -- just don’t worry over the destination, for only the Autechre brain trust knows for certain. Untilted lives up to its title, finding Booth and Brown unbowed in their belief that clinical repetition and street-smart hip-hop beats can coexist in the universe. But it’s a big universe, and there are times when locking onto the exact coordinates Autechre’s transmitting from can be a long, cold and lonely chore.

::: Laurence Station

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May 02, 2005

The Books: Lost and Safe
Tomlab, 2005
Rating: 4.2
Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto find pale shelter in retreating from a fight on the duo’s third Books release, Lost and Safe. Though it's never explicitly stated, it’s not a big stretch to correlate the album’s title and quoting of recursive phrases like “I want all of the American people to understand that it is understandable that the American people cannot possibly understand” as a reaction to America's current Homeland Security-trumps-personal freedoms climate. The Books find folly in not fighting back, facetiously claiming, “We know to seek success is utter nonsense” on the stark, aptly titled “A Little Longing Goes Away.” The sharper-edged “Be Good to Them Always” grimly portends “This great society is going to smash.” “Smells Like Content” succinctly sums up red-colored, East and Left Coast election-night despair: “Expectation leads to disappointment.” Musically, Lost and Safe is the Books’ most lyrically verbose release. Not that the duo’s familiar use of pop-cultural touchstone samples and cut-and-paste approach to song construction has fallen by the wayside (though “If Not Now, Whenever” suffers from a channel-surfing approach, never establishing a sustainable rhythm). Lost and Safe may be about outing those reticent to challenge the established world order, but it’s paradoxically the most confident the Books have sounded. For a prime illustration of this, listen to “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps” (which sounds like the twosome broke into Tom Waits’ tool shed for some welcome percussive assistance), a clever description of an everyman and no-man, a person so excessively detailed as to be practically non-existent by song’s end. 2002’s Thought for Food and 2003’s The Lemon of Pink established the Books as a brainy collaborative with a talent for assembling interesting snippets of found sounds and hip dialogue; Lost and Safe is an expression of two artists who are neither lost nor playing it safe.

::: Laurence Station

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April 25, 2005

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: B-Sides and Rarities
Mute, 2005
Rating: 3.7
Pity the diehard Nick Cave fan who's spent the last twenty years striving mightily to get his hands on every flexi-disc, 7-inch platter and stray compilation on which the priapic Australian tunesmith’s songs have appeared. Conversely, kudos to the latecomer who’s new to the savage wit and crimson-soaked wisdom of Cave, who along with his backing band, the Bad Seeds, have made some of the most viscerally exciting, literate and idiosyncratically arresting music of the past two decades. The unsurprisingly hit-and-miss B-Sides and Rarities collects 56 tracks that run the gamut from the expected alternate or acoustics takes of familiar tunes to howling-mad peculiarity (“King Kong Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Mi-O” being the ideal representative of this particular type). B-Sides and Rarities can best be summed up by a five track run that comes near the end of the second of its three discs. The cartoonishly lurid, three-part (plus reprise) “O'Malley's Bar” (slotting into the justifiably underrepresented “massacre ballad” genre) and beautiful “Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum” (which cheerily translates to "Dread the passage of Jesus for he will not return") succinctly embody both the range of Cave’s talent and his excessiveness to the point of self-parody. B-Sides and Rarities is a loosely chronological run through the history of a band that has never been easily pigeonholed. While two discs might have been more effective, the sheer overkill of this collection is par for the course for Cave and his supporting players. When things have gone too far, Cave’s just warming up. Beware all ye who enter here.

::: Laurence Station

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April 15, 2005

Damien Jurado: On My Way to Absence
Secretly Canadian, 2005
Rating: 3.8
On My Way to Absence is Damien Jurado’s self-described "tribute to jealousy," a 12-track exploration of one of humankind’s most volatile and destructive emotions. Hardly fallow territory for any artist, and certainly familiar turf for the Seattle-based urban-folk singer (see Jurado’s last full length, Where Shall You Take Me?). On My Way to Absence addresses its main thematic inspiration in both frustratingly sketchy (“Lion Tamer” and its unresolved wordplay, “The gun in the drawer / The long distance call / A story to tell”) and bluntly direct (“I’m a sinking ship tied to my lover’s waist,” from the string-laden “Night Out For The Downer”) ways. And Jurado makes every word count, blessed with a guilelessly raspy delivery -- underdog pipes singing for outcast truth-seekers everywhere. The most interesting aspect of Absence is Jurado’s co-production with long-time collaborator Eric Fisher. From the prevalence of nakedly obvious strings to the use of brass on “Icicle,” it’s obvious Jurado was looking to make use of the studio for more than recreating a stripped-down busker’s street-corner environment. Ironic, or unsurprising, then, given his strengths, that Absence’s best moments are the least fussed over. The direct, affecting “Fuel” is simply Jurado and his guitar; “Lottery” finds Jurado and Rosie Thomas (who joined Jurado on Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska) handily employing their vocal talents, backed by an uncomplicated arrangement. Not that Jurado’s studio experimentation is a total bust. The elemental fuzz-rocker “I Am The Mountain” successfully marries treated vocals and roaring guitars to excellent effect. But Jurado’s arrangements will never be confused with Radiohead’s; Kid Absence, this is not. What Absence is, is another solid addition to Jurado’s commendable catalog.

::: Laurence Station

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April 15, 2005

Billy Idol: Devil's Playground
Sanctuary, 2005
Rating: 3.7
Mick Jagger was definitely onto something when he famously sniffed that he couldn't imagine singing "Satisfaction" well into his old age, even if he hasn't yet followed through on that idea just yet. There comes a point at which rockers "of a certain age" simply look ridiculous plowing the same furrows that made them famous some 20 or 30 years earlier. But Billy Idol, apparently, is not one of those rockers. Devil's Playground, his first release since 1993's forgotten Cyberpunk, finds the sneering, spiky-haired punk-pop icon partying like it's 1984, when songs like "Rebel Yell" and "Flesh for Fantasy" made him a bona-fide star. (He's even recruited guitarist Steve Stevens, who jumped ship after Rebel Yell, to provide some much-needed guitar muscle, making the record a little more metal-based than punk.) But it's not just the music that hearkens back to the '80s, it's Idol himself, who sounds as if he's gotten his hands on Dorian Gray's portrait and stashed it in a vault with all those unsold copies of Whiplash Smile. "Rat Race" agreeably approximates the power-balladry of "Eyes Without A Face," while "World Comin' Down" is a spirited, likable throwaway homage to 1970s punk-pop. "Sherrie" is his version of Iggy Pop's "Candy," a sugar-sweet pop number that embeds itself in the memory long after you'd expect it to evaporate. Songs like "Scream" and "Body Snatcher" sag a bit due to some trite lyricism, but they're enjoyable enough, and "Romeo's Waiting" is a surprisingly engaging tale of unrequited lust. "Cherie" and "Lady Do Or Die" even sport a low-key country-ish vibe, for which Idol proves disarmingly suited. Sure, Billy Idol's always been a bit of a cartoon character, but on songs like the balls-out pop-metal opener "Super Overdrive," a questionable cover of "Plastic Jesus" and the abominable yule log "Yellin' at the Christmas Tree," he's wise enough to embrace that status just enough to make it work for him rather than against him. This is just well-executed, fun rock 'n' roll. Devil's Playground sounds like the album he should have (and could have) recorded 20 years ago to follow up 1983's breakthrough hit Rebel Yell. If he had, there's a good chance Idol's career would have taken a much different path.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 15, 2005

Brendan Benson: The Alternative to Love
V2, 2005
Rating: 3.5
The Alternative to Love, Brendan Benson’s third and most polished full-length release, doesn’t sport as many memorable tunes as 2002’s Lapalco. In terms of execution and craft, however, it reveals just how far the singer-songwriter has come since his 1996 debut, One Mississippi. The opening couplet from “Gold into Straw” (“I'm writing the words to this song with a poison pen / I'm turning straw into gold and then back again”) and epic-pop, Phil Spector-worthy production of “The Pledge” reinforce Benson’s standing as one of the finest.’60s pop-classicist tunesmiths currently working. Lyrically, Benson retreads Lapalco’s exuberantly downbeat examinations of love and loss. “Spit It Out” tries to assume a brave face in regards to moving beyond a failed relationship (“Start all over when it's all over”); “Cold Hands” plays on the contradictory emotions so common to working through a bad patch in a partnership, from claiming “There's no future for us” to wanting to go back to the way things were. What a Benson album will sound like if the artist ever decides to articulate a feeling of happy suburban commitment is anyone’s guess. For a winning formula primer, he might want to get a hold of Ben Folds’ number.

::: Laurence Station

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April 15, 2005

Amon Tobin: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory OST
Ninja Tune, 2005
Rating: 3.2
Chaos Theory, Amon Tobin’s soundtrack for the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell 3 video game, is built on repetitive beats, befitting level replays deep into the night. As such, it’s hardly the most inspired release by the talented electronic composer -- although the moodily cinematic opener “The Lighthouse,” complete with suggestively menacing strings and shimmering rhythms, stands proudly alongside Tobin’s better compositions. Additionally, the complementary “Kokubo Sasho Stealth” (all snaky, jazzily couched reserve) and “Kokubo Sasho Battle” (assertive and climactically rousing) impressively reveal Tobin’s versatility in regards to balancing mood and tempo. But the bulk of the album is dominated by situational loops, from the pulse-quickening “Ruthless” to the watery, sonar-blipping “Theme From Battery” and the glitchily familiar “Displaced”. An unnecessary, denuded reprise of “Ruthless” further amplifies the dearth of ideas at play here. There’s little doubt that Chaos Theory does what it's meant to do: provide solid background noise to special-ops, night vision-wearing virtual stealth warriors. Compared to the rest of Tobin’s catalog, however, it’s merely a mildly engaging diversionary maneuver.

::: Laurence Station

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April 05, 2005

Glen Phillips: Winter Pays for Summer
Lost Highway, 2005
Rating: 3.6
On his second solo studio album following the dissolution of 1990s pop-rock powerhouse Toad the Wet Sprocket, Glen Phillips cements his musical post-Toad identity in a way that his previous effort, 2001's Abulum, didn't quite accomplish. Winter Pays for Summer showcases the singer's knack for insinuating melodies, married to lyrical explorations that manage to be introspective without being self-obsessed. That thoughtful bent translates into some slower numbers whose melodies aren't as immediate as one would expect ("Courage"), although "Half Life" proves winsome even without a buoyant pop hook. Clearly, Phillips is aiming for a higher ground, one where his songs don't rely solely on their hummability. That's a worthy goal, and a roster of respected guest performers known for intelligent pop – among them Jon Brion, Dan Wilson (Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic), Ben Folds and Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish) -- helps Winter reach it more often than Philips has done in the past. Occasionally, however, the album is hampered by an occasionally simplistic lyric (the opening "Duck and Cover," from which the album's title comes, suggests that life's ups and downs "cancel each other out") or slightly self-serious moment ("Gather"). Still, at its best -- the ingratiating "Thankful," the slowly rousing "Cleareyed," "Easier" -- Winter offers intelligent, catchy rock with a slight folksy undercurrent (this is a Lost Highway release, after all) that rewards repeated listening.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 04, 2005

British Sea Power: Open Season
Rough Trade, 2005
Rating: 3.0
If Brighton-based quartet British Sea Power’s 2003 debut The Decline of British Sea Power was wildly all over the place in terms of musical cohesiveness and spot-the-influence name-checking, its sophomore salvo Open Season is more clearly defined, though far less adventurous. The group has narrowed its focus to unmemorable guitar-driven rock numbers that fail to inspire repeated listens. Once again, the shade of Ian McCulloch in his Echo & The Bunnymen prime hovers over singer Yan’s English moor-haunted, wounded romantic vocals, with occasional possessions reminiscent of Psychedelic Furs (“Be Gone”) and Belle and Sebastian (“The Land Beyond”). “It Ended On An Oily Stage” makes the strongest impact, conveying a sense of urgency that the rest of the album never quite rivals. The busy “How Will I Ever Find My Way Home?” is overly repetitive, while the pretty, generic “Please Stand Up” lacks any lyrical specificity. British Sea Power might be enamored with Anglophilic history (“Victorian Ice”) and fragmented Antarctic ice shelves (“Oh Larsen B”) but, despite obvious talent and wit, it fails to leave more than a marginal impression.

::: Laurence Station

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March 27, 2005

Kathleen Edwards: Back to Me
Zoe, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Back to Me, Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards’ follow-up to her 2003 country-infused debut, Failer, is an apt title. The notion of returning home, be it to family, a lover, or oneself, permeates the 11 tracks. Lyrically, Back to Me could be labeled Back to Failer, as many of the songs rework/refine the busted-romance angle Edwards apparently only scratched the surface of the first time around. “In State” echoes Failer’s "Six O'Clock News," involving a woman fed up with her outlaw lover who turns him in, truculently observing “Maybe 20 years in state will change your mind.” The spurned heroine of “What Are You Waiting For?” proves just as cutting, with lines like, "You say you like me in your memory / You've got to be fucking kidding me." The best moments, unsurprisingly, are among the freshest. “Pink Emerson Radio” skillfully interweaves moving to a new city with the recollection of escaping from a fire and struggling with which possessions to save and which to forsake. The closing “Good Things” simply celebrates the reliable security blanket that is one’s family. Musically, the title track is a bluesy rocker that adds welcome variety to the mid-tempo flow, and the addition of brass on “Somewhere Else” helps brighten the back end of the collection. Overall, Edwards' touring band -- and especially producer/guitarist Colin Cripps -- provides a tougher, more expressive sound than the studio-buffed Failer set. Back to Me is a solid successor to Failer, though at some point Edwards is going to have to toss aside the sour-relationship crutch if she truly wants to distinguish herself from the rest of the country-rock crowd.

::: Laurence Station

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March 26, 2005

M83: Before The Dawn Heals Us
Mute, 2005
Rating: 3.9
The galaxy of electronic pop-meisters M83 has been cut in half. Nicolas Fromageau has left the fold, leaving Anthony Gonzalez to his own dark devices. Before The Dawn Heals Us is the blood-quickening nocturnal complement to Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts’ sun-drenched, sky-watching reticence. If Dead Cities was an electronic soundtrack to a moderately engaging nature film, Before the Dawn Heals Us is the reasonably successful score to an artsy French thriller. Gonzalez opens big with the cosmic awesomeness of “Moonchild,” layering big drums and spacious synthesized “ohms” behind spoken-word claptrap involving creation and meaning, being and... well, you get the idea. Cojones audaciously displayed, Gonzalez shifts to the more earthbound “Don't Save Us From The Flames,” featuring a shrieking explosion of percussive, scorching metal and electronic fuzz. The most uplifting moment is one of the least dramatic, however: “Farewell / Goodbye,” a breathy duet between Ben & Cyann’s Ben and Big Sir singer Lisa Papineau, proves genuinely affecting thanks to the performers' abilities to convey heartbreak with whispered understatement. The antithesis of that understatement is “Car Chase Terror!,” in which actress Kate Moran acts out the imperiled-victim-in-a-car routine, serving up cringe-worthy lines like “Mom is going to keep the Devil away.” Gonzalez may have wanted Moran’s bit to be intentionally cheesy, but it simply falls flat. On the whole, Before The Dawn Heals Us is a more unified, singular vision than Dead Cities. Despite losing half its energy, the galaxy of M83 burns twice as bright.

::: Laurence Station

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March 26, 2005

Kings of Leon: Aha Shake Heartbreak
RCA, 2004
Rating: 3.8
Ah, the vagaries of sudden fame. No two people are affected quite the same. In the case of Kings of Leon, the U.K.'s enthusiastic reception of the Southern-flavored quartet’s debut, Youth and Young Manhood, has left the group slightly bewildered but mostly emboldened. The band’s sophomore effort, Aha Shake Heartbreak, documents the insane pressure-cooker life of a young touring band. From meaningless hook-ups (“Slow Nights, So Long” and its jaded observation “I hate her face, but enjoy the company”) to the zoned-out weariness of “Rememo” and its intimation of staring out a plane window, too wired to sleep but too exhausted to do anything but vegetate, the three Followill brothers (and cousin Matthew) have clearly been on a whirlwind ride for the past two years. Fortunately, the band has grown tighter and considerably more confident in its musicianship. The starkly naked “Milk” is whittled to a bare-bones rhythm and singer Caleb’s nearly inarticulate, tersely delivered lyrics. “Razz” is a funkier number, with lines like “Sweet mutilations of a sold to nothing man / Lord have mercy / Shake is falling through your hand” that sound like transcribed glossolalist hymns. And it’s that primitive, spontaneously interpretative vibe that makes Aha Shake Heartbreak such a peculiarly distinctive record. If Youth and Young Manhood was Kings of Leon tentatively using well-tested implements, Aha Shake Heartbreak is the sound of a group boldly forging a unique identity from common tools that have been stripped of all pretense and decoration.

::: Laurence Station

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March 24, 2005

M.I.A.: Arular
Beggars Banquet / XL
Rating: 3.8
The back-story on Maya “M.I.A.” Arulpragasam can easily overshadow whatever artistic endeavors the young, London-based MC pursues. Forced to flee her native Sri Lanka at age 10, leaving behind a father who was a Tamil freedom fighter (and whose nom de guerre provides the title for M.I.A.’s debut), Arulpragasam grew up in a tough council estate, learned English, and soon discovered music and painting as outlets for dealing with her turbulent upbringing. Unsurprisingly, then, Arular can be interpreted from a variety of angles. On the one hand, it’s an electronically infused dance record with a predilection for stripped-down Banghra and Jungle beats. It’s also a stridently militant record, offering slogan-like lyrics (“Every gun in a battle is a son and daughter too”), delivered by M.I.A. with liberated gusto in a unique ESL-bent, staccato chant. The notion of sex as a weapon is explored in lines like “Load up, aim, fire fire, pop” from “Fire Fire”, as well as in surprisingly blunt demands like “You can stick me / Stab me / Grind me or wind me,” from “Hombre,” a song about a woman’s self-destructive relationship with a married man. Sometimes, though, a weapon is just that: injurious and often lethal. The two singles that got M.I.A. noticed, the suicide bomber ode “Sunshowers” and the ridiculously bouncy “Galang,” close the album and remain among the strongest tracks she’s done. Arular is an impressive first outing, even if it does suffer from repetitive drill syndrome (see: “10 Dollar”) and too often favors a smart hook over offering anything politically relevant to say (“I got the bombs to make you blow / I got the beats to make it”). Considering where she’s been, however, there’s no question that brighter days lay ahead for M.I.A., regardless of how long she engages the music business.

::: Laurence Station

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March 24, 2005

Moby: Hotel
V2 / Mute
Rating: 3.7
In the liner notes to Hotel, Moby states that, whether he likes it or not, he’s “messy and human.” (As opposed to, say, the more efficient but less entertaining tidy and robotic.) And Hotel easily lives up to that assessment. Forsaking samples, Moby shifts his focus this time around to harder beats and radio-friendly pop hooks. His voice is also nakedly exposed, unmodulated and free of Pro Tools reconfiguration. Dueting with Laura Dawn (formerly of the all-girl punk ensemble Fluffer), Moby, for better or worse, gets his groove on. If Play was gospel music for the “no time for church” digital set and 2002’s 18 a cosmic-flavored initial stab at more straightforward dance-pop, Hotel is the culmination of Moby’s shift from detached electronic noisemaker to, well, a Vegan-friendly Bono. Positive tracks like “Lift Me Up,” with its pumping rhythm, and the inspiring “Beautiful” are catchy, emotionally charged sketches celebrating the chaotic business of being human. Despite working in a more organic setting, Moby still finds time to pay tribute to heroes of synthesized mood music from yesteryear: “Spiders” is so derivative of the mid-’70s collaborations between Davie Bowie and Brian Eno that Moby should consider paying the pair royalties. The New Order cover “Temptation,” on the other hand, is a completely new song, less urgent and more repentant. To appease Moby’s inner robot, there are the graceful structures populating a bonus disc filled with more than an hour’s worth of expansively smooth ambient compositions. Hotel is Moby’s “comfortable in his own skin” release. It's certainly not the most bracing thing he's ever done, but it's hardly disposable pop dreck. For a guy who once put out an album called Everything Is Wrong, he currently sounds like everything is, if not ideal, at least noticeably upgraded.

::: Laurence Station

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March 21, 2005

Damon & Naomi: The Earth Is Blue
20/20/20, 2005
Rating: 3.7
The Earth Is Blue, the sixth release from ex-Galaxie 500 members Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, is a dewy dream-pop affair that favors vaguely defined lyrical sketches of people, places and things over concrete foundations and specific arrangements. Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara continues his collaboration with the duo, adding some inventive fills (especially on a narcotized cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and some decorative E-Bow-ing on the closing title track). Lyrics like “The cracks and emptiness in your life / The desert you cultivate inside,” from the graceful “House of Glass,” typify The Earth Is Blue’s disconnect from tactile reality. This is mood music for the electric traces of the daydreaming mind. A couplet from the subsequent “A Second Life” (“I want you as I wished you’d be / But not as who you were”) might skew the preordained “what will be, will be” message found in tracks like "Beautiful Close Double" ("We are who we are until the end"), but Krukowski and Yang manage a consistency of tone that holds steady throughout.

::: Laurence Station

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March 21, 2005

Dead Meadow: Feathers
Matador, 2005
Rating: 3.0
On its fourth album, Feathers, Dead Meadow comes across like a more jam-oriented Oasis (case in point: the sleepy, yawning chasm-span of “Heaven”) with Trail of Dead-worthy lyrical pretensions (“Through one thousand lives the moon will rise,” from “Stacy's Song”). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it's just hardly as revelatory as Dead Meadow so earnestly strives to make Feathers sound. Serious-minded references to an otherwise-undefined “Allmighty” abound, as do biblical (Abraham) and mythological allusions (“Don't Tell the Riverman”). And then there’s the gaze-into-the-cosmos-and-witness-the-infinite guitar and drum solos, somewhat restrained on “Let's Jump In” and “Let It All Pass,” but totally unhinged on a closing, nearly 14-minute long untitled excursion into parts known. Space-rock aficionados will dig the zero-G atmosphere, but it meanders through excessive pockets better left unexplored.

::: Laurence Station

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March 20, 2005

Antony and the Johnsons: I Am A Bird Now
Secretly Canadian, 2005
Rating: 4.0
If Antony and the Johnsons’ self-titled 2000 debut was a showcase for the singer’s distinctive, tremulous tenor gasping falsetto-rarefied air, I Am A Bird Now is a celebration of the collaborative arts and furthers the group’s desire to see a world more sympathetic to those who don’t subscribe to a strictly heterosexual way of life. While the first half of the disc falls in line with the debut (lots of dramatic piano chords and anguished expressions of longing), it’s on the stronger back end that Bird spotlights its inspirations. Antony duets with childhood hero Boy George on the impassioned (a word that quickly becomes redundant in describing this cabaret pop group) “You Are My Sister”; Rufus Wainwright handles vocal duties on the brief, languorously expansive “What Can I Do?”; Lou Reed introduces “Fistful of Love” with a short poem recital. In the most inspired pairing, folk wonder Devendra Banhardt joins Antony on the strangely enchanting “Spiralling.” The oddest detour comes courtesy of band member Julia Yasuda, who taps out Morse code and performs an intriguing, short spoken-word piece called “Free at Last.” Antony returns on the final track, “Bird Girl,” the transformation hinted at during the beginning of the album complete, and expressed via appropriately racing strings and soaring vocals. I Am A Bird Now is a beautiful-sounding record, and though it doesn’t contain anything as remarkable and emotionally piercing as the debut’s “Cripple and the Starfish,” it nonetheless reveals a band and lead artist refining a musical universe populated by drag queens, cabaret dancehalls and a tolerant and open community.

::: Laurence Station

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March 15, 2005

Daft Punk: Human After All
Virgin, 2005
Rating: 3.0
It’s official: The robots have won. Daft Punk’s ironically titled Human After All sheds all pretense of the human emotion and desire that fueled 1997’s insanely beat-driven Homework and 2001’s blissful, late-night disco comedown Discovery. What’s left are robots (and lazy robots at that) who’ve taken over the Paris studio of Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem Christo and figured out how to loop synth and guitar lines with monotonous simplicity. The title track opens with vocoderized vocals and then falls into a catalytically pointless cycle. “Robot Rock” takes a promisingly groovy guitar line and jams the repeat button for nearly five minutes. “Make Love” is digital smooth looping; “The Brainwasher” favors wiggy loops; “Technologic” is Discovery’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” recast as a helium-binging jabberfest bereft of clever hooks. Perhaps Tom and Guy managed to untie themselves in time to finish the closing “Emotion,” which suffers from the same repetitive disorder as the preceding tracks but at least works in more elaborate loops and a warmer sense of production. No telling, really. The robots may have won, but that doesn’t mean we have to cheer their victory lap.

::: Laurence Station

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March 15, 2005

50 Foot Wave: Golden Ocean
Artist Direct, 2005
Rating: 4.0
50 Foot Wave’s 11-track, full-length debut, Golden Ocean, includes eight originals and three songs from the trio’s 2004 self-titled mini-album; the three recycles (“Long Painting,” “Clara Bow” and “Dog Days”) benefit from a fuller sound that melds seamlessly with the overall sharper production. Golden Ocean expands upon the stripped-bare hard rock template of the elementally charged, self-titled release, featuring Kristin Hersh’s arresting vocals and lively guitar work and a rhythm section comprised of bassist Bernard Georges and drummer Rob Ahlers. Hersh’s lyrics deal with the same themes and concerns she’s been examining/wrestling with for years. “El Dorado” deftly articulates intermittent flashes of domestic madness (“Life and a cup of instant chaos by the window”). “Pneuma” (Greek for “soul”) includes such sexually charged lyrics as “I tongue a socket / You feel the jolt.” “Bone China” evokes PJ Harvey’s “Sheela-Na-Gig” with the line “Gonna wash that man right out of my head,” but with a clever turn: “And soap him into my eyes.” Golden Ocean’s watershed moment comes on “Petal,” a cathartic time bomb conveyed via blunt lyrics (“I don't think / We were supposed to sleep together”) and soul-scraping-raw delivery, impressively held together by a fluidly inviting guitar groove. While it’s doubtful Hersh will ever attain the naked emotional intensity of “Hate My Way” from her early Throwing Muses days, “Petal” is as furiously exposed as she's been on record in quite some time. Not everything works, though: “Diving” is lyrically substandard to the surrounding material (“Sunbleached, like I'm free / Independent as a leech”), and the closing title track doesn’t find its sea legs until the very end with a dense, suitably powerhouse peak. No matter what vehicle Hersh utilizes as an outlet, it’s obvious her creative wave has yet to crest.

::: Laurence Station

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March 15, 2005

The Kills: No Wow
RCA, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Compared to No Wow, The Kills' 2003 full-length debut, Keep on Your Mean Side, was positively baroque. Whittling things down to the bare essence, No Wow finds the duo of Alison “VV” Mosshart and Jamie “Hotel” Hince seeking the core of their maroon-colored blues sound. Unapologetically basic guitar riffs, dependably chugging bass lines and a tireless drum machine constitute the album's bone-saw naked rhythm. Mosshart handles the heavy lifting in the vocals department, sounding like a jaded lover waking up in a roadside motel after a particularly rough night with a lover known on a first-name basis only. “Gonna have to step over my dead body before you walk out that door” is the opening line on the record, and Mosshart certainly sounds like she means it. The panicky “Love Is a Deserter” and the white-poker-heated “I Hate the Way You Love” typify the bare-knuckled romantic battle royal at play throughout. “Rodeo Town” is the closest The Kills come to anything remotely introspective here; it’s a half-throttled, country-tinged gem that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lucinda Williams record. Problem is, No Wow could have benefited from more unexpected detours like this. It’s one thing to strive for the primal truth of a particular sound; it’s another to vainly bludgeon a thoroughly pulverized style in search of unsullied beats.

::: Laurence Station

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March 15, 2005

Sage Francis: A Healthy Distrust
Epitaph, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Having examined where he’s been on 2002’s Personal Journals, rapper Sage Francis turns his aggressive form of self-analysis on the world with A Healthy Distrust. “The Buzz Kill” is a manic assault, indicting Clear Channel for its bland formatting choices and bluntly assessing that the “U.S.A. has cracked.” This being the first track, it seems unlikely Francis will be able to sustain the intensity level throughout. Guess again. A Healthy Distrust is near-relentless in its laundry list of global concerns, touching on everything from guns as a metaphor for male inadequacy (“Gunz Yo”) to bringing the troops overseas safely home (“Slow Down Gandhi”). What keeps the record from being overbearing (one of the tracks is unsubtly called “Product Placement”) and, hence, single-rotation listenable, are Francis’ creative detours (a collaboration with indie-rock troubadour Will Oldham on “Sea Lion”) and solid production (notably the beats conjured by Danger Mouse and Sixtoo). The most affecting moments come when Francis sticks close to his own emotional core (the piano-backed “Crumble”) or relates a relationship built on the threat of violence (“Agony in Her Body”). Levity comes in the form of “Sun Vs Moon,” a celestial battle-rap showdown decided by God, who is cartoonishly described as an inebriated “big white guy in the sky.” The closing “Jah Didn't Kill Johnny” pays respect to country legend Johnny Cash by attempting a bizarre country-rap fusion that simply falls apart, especially when the sad harmonica cues up. A Healthy Distrust reinforces Sage Francis’ standing as one of the most verbally gifted rappers currently in the game, but it lacks the cohesive flow of Personal Journals and complains about a host of worldly ills without offering much in the way of a positive solution. If it could all be fixed with a battle rap, the smart money would definitely be on Francis.

::: Laurence Station

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March 14, 2005

Dungen: Ta Det Lugnt
Subliminal Sounds, 2004
Rating: 3.9
Gustav Ejstes’ latest Dungen release, Ta Det Lugnt (Take It Easy), is a loose, jam-oriented, “damn good times” throwback to an era when psychedelic folk and prog-rock held sway over the musical landscape. If this album had a fashion sense, it would tend toward acid washes and tie-dyes. Musically, there are few boundaries Ta Det Lugnt fails to brush up against: “Panda” kicks things over with cocksure posturing, all emphatic vocals (the entire album is sung in Ejstes’ native Swedish tongue) and rolling drum fills; “Gjort Bort Sig” is a sun-baked pop nugget featuring some tangy guitar lines. But it’s on the back-to-back assault of “Du E För Fin För Mig” and the title track that Ejstes puts his multi-instrumentalist skills to best use, moving from mournful violin to guitar flameout, thunderous prog explorations to a jazzy horn-and-piano finish. It’s a powerhouse display, and unavoidably reduces the rest of the album to an anticlimactic comedown, though the beautiful piano and flute number “Det du Tänker Idag Är du I Morgon” shines, as does the assertive closer “Sluta Följa Efter.” Ejstes is a remarkable talent, and it will be worth listening to hear if he leaves his ardently retrograde Dungen identity behind and pushes toward more forward-leaning concepts.

::: Laurence Station

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March 11, 2005

Wilco: A Ghost Is Born [Bonus EP]
Nonesuch, 2005
Rating: 3.4
Appearing on a bonus disc as part of the re-released European version of A Ghost Is Born -- and as a free download from Wilco’s website for those already possessing a copy -- this five-track EP of Ghost outtakes and live cuts is a reasonably fair deal. A bookend pair of non-album tracks proves palatable: The casually played, moody “Panthers” finds chief lyricist Jeff Tweedy mediating on familiar themes (“I'm proving death again”), while the bratty, fun “Kicking Television” delivers an adrenalized shot of punk energy that seems caged by the sterilized studio setting. (Fortunately, live bootlegs of the track are readily available to even the most novice trader.) The middle trio of live renditions is from an October 2004 show at the Orpheum Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. “At Least That's What You Said” and “The Late Greats” don’t deviate dramatically from their studio counterparts; “Handshake Drugs,” however, benefits from scorching guitar breaks that add a primitive immediacy to the otherwise mid-tempo piece. The Ghost EP is a slightly stronger collection than 2003’s similarly intentioned More Like the Moon download. Give Wilco credit for keeping fans sated in between albums -- honestly, though, it’s about time for an official live release. Hopefully, one of the powers that be at Nonesuch will read this and greenlight such an effort.

::: Laurence Station

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March 09, 2005

Boom Bip: Blue Eyed in the Red Room
Lex, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Exceptions trump the rules on Boom Bip’s Blue Eyed in the Red Room. Bryan Hollon (Boom Bip’s check-cashing name) built his reputation on creative sampling and collaborations with rappers like Anticon's Doseone. His 2002 release Seed to Sun marked a shift for Hollon, comprised mostly of abstract and experimental instrumentals. Blue Eyed in the Red Room continues this trend, but with barely any samples and an emphasis on live instrumentation. What stands out, however, are a pair of isolated vocal tracks. Gruff Rhys’ “Do's and Dont's” gives the set a much needed jolt of energy, trading on chant-like lyrics and an intricate foundation of clattering percussions and warm electronics. Nina Nastasia’s “The Matter (of Our Discussion)” wins best in show, detailing two lovers traveling in emotionally opposite directions (“I might leave tomorrow to feel the joy of a new start”). Hollon fills in the spaces with delicate tones, like digital waves gently breaking upon an isolated beach. The instrumental tracks primarily feature easy-bake guitar lines repeating with soothing insouciance. The penultimate “Aplomb” displays a little backbone, more angular and dissonant, distinguishing itself from its softer-edged neighbors. Blue Eyed in the Red Room doesn’t quite congeal, primarily because Hollon’s two collaborative efforts are the most impressive moments. Reverse the 8:2 ratio of instrumental to vocal cuts, and we might be talking a long-striding keeper.

::: Laurence Station

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March 09, 2005

Stars: Set Yourself on Fire
Arts & Crafts, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Fusing elements of Human League’s sophisticated new romantic aesthetic and Belle & Sebastian’s unapologetically arty preciousness, Montreal-based Stars deliver their most consistent effort with Set Yourself on Fire. Songs about ex-lovers reunited, intoxicated bliss in the suburbs and sundry love games predominate. Singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan play their respective roles well, he the indifferent but controlling cad (“He doesn’t want her but he just won’t let her go”), she the masochistic tender heart (“She started breaking but she still won’t let it show”), the soundtrack to their will they/won’t they romance drenched in strings, euphonious glockenspiel and an appealing digital hum. The anti-war “Celebration Guns” is a misstep more due to its thematic incompatibility than its unsubtle lyrics (“One by one you cage them in your freedom / Make them all disappear”). “Calendar Girl” falls victim to structural contrivance, as the months are counted down and a new leaf is turned over for our plucky heroine (“January, February, March, April, May / I’m alive!”). Set Yourself on Fire is solidly executed and will undoubtedly serve as a worthy musical complement to those pining for the one that got away.

::: Laurence Station

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March 08, 2005

Archer Prewitt: Wilderness
Thrill Jockey, 2005
Rating: 3.6
Archer Prewitt -- illustrator, creator of the Sof’ Boy comic, guitarist for The Sea & Cake and (time permitting) drummer for Edith Frost -- isn’t lacking for food on his artistic plate. But that hasn’t stopped Prewitt from releasing four solo albums. Wilderness, his latest, furthers the summery pop explorations of 2002's charming Three. Overcast clouds have settled in, however, as Prewitt dedicates the album to his recently deceased father (and pays tribute to him on the affecting “O, KY”), and the upbeat mood that permeated Three is ratcheted down a few notches. Lead track “Way of the Sun” is an excellent example of Prewitt’s ability to serve up a memorable hook but deliver it in the most understated manner; Prewitt’s undeniably passionate about his subject, but doesn’t resort to obvious musical bluster or vocal histrionics to convey his carefully chosen sentiments. The lyrics are urgent, but the delivery is complacent, and that makes for an odd (yet strangely rewarding) listening experience. Glad he found the time.

::: Laurence Station

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March 07, 2005

Andrew Bird: The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Righteous Babe, 2005
Rating: 3.4
Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs is the anti-Swimming Hour. In contrast to that stylistically helter-skelter 2001 effort, here Bird keeps all of his musical eggs in one basket (so to speak). The Mysterious Production of Eggs has a lazy, staring-at-the-sky-on-a-summer-day vibe. Even when Bird ramps up the wattage, as on the hammily Beatle-esque “Opposite Day” and the grandly theatrical “The Naming of Things,” Eggs rarely causes a fuss. Drummer Kevin O'Donnell and singer Nora O'Connor, members of Swimming Hour backing band Bowl of Fire, return, but Eggs is clearly more akin to Weather Systems, Bird’s solo mini-album from 2003, in terms of consistency of tone and laid-back bearing. Though overlong, Eggs flows nicely from a somber introduction to the grim tidings of the closing “The Happy Birthday Song.” Bird still prefers the collegiate thesaurus to the standard edition (“And they’re acting on vagaries / with their violent proclivities”) and trotting out impossible-to-relate-to metaphors (such as feeling like he’s “living in a Russian play”). As a result, Eggs fails to engage with the unpredictable inventiveness of Swimming Hour, and lacks the skillful brevity of Weather Systems. Ultimately, Eggs is an easier album to admire (thanks to the commendable craftsmanship) than to actually adore with repeated listens.

::: Laurence Station

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March 05, 2005

The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute
Universal, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Proponents of Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute will claim that anyone who doesn’t like the album simply can’t handle the lyrical depth and amazingly multi-layered musical complexity; critics who pan the release will claim it’s overlong, indulgent, and -- did we mention indulgent? The truth, as usual, falls somewhere in between. What main members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala and a host of guest musicians, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea (on trumpet, no less) to renowned salsa pianist Larry Harlow, have created is a dizzyingly expressive, near-77-minute aural journey inspired by former band member Jeremy Ward (who died of an alleged overdose in May 2003) and a diary he found in the backseat of a car while working as a repo man. The diary details an adopted child’s search for his birth parents, so, yes, Frances the Mute is a quest album of sorts. Not that the lyrics (“I’ve always wanted to eat glass with you again,” is a representative example) lay out Frances’ journey in linear terms. Frances the Mute can be admired for its astonishing technical proficiency: ADD time signatures, like those found on the band’s debut De-Loused in the Comatorium, are prevalent throughout. But it’s the sheer range of styles that impresses, from the jazzy grooves and metal-scraping guitar work on “L’ Via L’ Viaquez” to the moody rhythms and eerie melodies permeating “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore.” The multi-part, almost 33-minute-long closer “Cassandra Gemini” is the obvious magnum opus, however. Mars Volta pours every bit of its accumulated musical knowledge into the piece, from shifting dynamics to watery, vocoder-ized vocals. Too much? Absolutely. Give the band credit, though for following its dark-tinged muse with apocalyptic zeal.

::: Laurence Station

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February 28, 2005

Aesop Rock: Fast Cars, Danger, Fire & Knives [EP]
Definitive Jux, 2005
Rating: 4.0
Aesop Rock's Fast Cars, Danger, Fire & Knives is a solid collection of tracks that should tide over even the hungriest of the New York rapper's fans. Honestly, though, what makes this EP essential (at least to the first 20,000 or so fans who get their hands on a copy) is the accompanying 80-page booklet containing lyrics from all of Aesop's major releases. While it's easy to admire the prolific wordsmith's ability to turn a phrase, it has often proved cryptologist-difficult to decipher every word Aesop spits. Thankfully, the Rosetta Stone (or Rock, in this particular case) has arrived. Obviously, Def Jux could have offered the booklet with a bunch of filler tracks from past releases. Instead, you get seven new cuts that show off the diversity of Aesop's flow and some solid backing from a team of talented producers. Blockhead-engineered "Number Nine" is a hurly-burly slice of digitized funk; "Winners Take All" features dense head-bobbing production courtesy of Rob Sonic; and the self-produced, smooth-flowing "Zodiaccupuncture" contains quintessential Aesop rhymes like "And it looks like war / Quacks like war / So it's Occam's Razor and I'm swazye out the door." The back-and-forth banter between featured vocalists CamuTao and El-P on "Rickety Rackety" seems staid in comparison to the more impressive aural structures surrounding it. Fast Cars is volatile, angry, and certainly unappreciative of the current administration (especially its war policy). Fortunately, Aesop Rock manages to criticize without losing the beat. Those who pick this CD up after the lyrics booklets are gone will still find much to appreciate -- even if you can't understand every line.

::: Laurence Station

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February 28, 2005

M. Ward: Transistor Radio
Merge, 2005
Rating: 4.3
Matt Ward's follow-up to 2003's praiseworthy Transfiguration of Vincent doesn't contain as many memorable hooks and doesn't engage one's attention as directly. But it's a deeper, more rewarding listen, rivaling End of Amnesia for Ward's strongest release to date. Playing like a covers record (which it partly is) and thematically linking the demise of diverse material carried along radio waves with the bleary-eyed, non-tour-bus traveling musician, Ward conveys the image of an artist making due with a portable radio locked onto a distinctly American frequency, playing tunes both familiar and ancient. "To all the people underground / Listening to the sound of the living people breathing the air today," from "One Life Away," could easily stand in for the modern radio format, in which Clear Channel dictates what is heard and buries non-major-label artists from ever reaching a broader audience. Stylistically, Ward continues his exploration of 20th century American musical forms -- with one notable exception at the very end. His countrified guitar instrumental reworking of the Beach Boys' "You Still Believe In Me" would have sounded right at home on Bill Frisell's Nashville, while the endearing "Sweethearts on Parade" pays tribute to the vocal charms of Louis Armstrong. Standout track "Fuel For Fire" is a heartfelt reworking of Kris Kristofferson's widely-covered "Help Me Make It Through the Night," and ghosts of the Carter Family are channeled on "Oh Take Me Back," with its intentionally muffled mix and cavern-deep harmonizing. Interestingly, Ward's classical pretensions rise to the fore on a closing performance of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." This might just be a brief side note, or an intriguing indication of where Ward's musical interests are taking him next. Can M. Ward's Americanized Gregorian Chant be far off?

::: Laurence Station

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February 24, 2005

Crooked Fingers: Dignity and Shame
Merge, 2005
Rating: 4.1
Expanding on Red Devil Dawn's use of brass and building a fuller sound via a larger cast of talented supporting players, Eric Bachmann's fourth Crooked Fingers album, Dignity and Shame, is his strongest yet. Rather than leaning on his appealingly gruff Neil Diamond pipes to articulate personal stories of drunkenness and hardscrabble redemption, Bachmann takes a more imaginative approach here. "Andalucia" alludes to the tragic tale of a bullfighter who promises to give up the sport for his ladylove, only to be subsequently gored to death in the ring. "Sleep All Summer" offers the practical rather than typically pleading line "Why won't you fall back in love with me," to a lover fast running out of alternatives. Gifted Australian singer Lara Meyeratken joins Bachmann on several tracks, most impressively on "Call to Love," in which Bachmann attempts, in classic John-Cusack-in-Say-Anything style, to convince Meyeratken to ditch the man she's with and run off with him into the sunset. Musically, Dignity and Shame exhibits a fascination with Latin arrangements second only to recent Calexico offerings. "Twilight Creeps" is decorated with bright mariachi horn flourishes, while the opening instrumental "Islero" features some dexterous Spanish guitar. Dignity and Shame finds Bachmann embracing the band ideal in a way not evident even during his Archers of Loaf days. Putting out what had ostensibly been solo records under the name Crooked Fingers is starting to sound like a really smart move now that Bachmann's filled out the band.

::: Laurence Station

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February 24, 2005

Gruff Rhys: Yr Atal Genhedlaeth
Placid Casual, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Super Furry Animals ringleader Gruff Rhys' first solo album Yr Atal Genhedlaeth (The Stuttering Generation) -- performed in Welsh -- has a shambling, informal quality about it. It's obvious this brief, thirty-minute release, in which only three songs crack the three-minute mark, isn't part of some big marketing scheme or grand ego stroke on Rhys' part. What you've got is a collection of fun, percussive stompers ("Gwn Mi Wn"), cheeky ruminations on the afterlife ("Rhagluniaeth Ysgafn"), and dewy, synth-drenched pop songs ("Ni Yw Y Byd"). The electronic futzing on "Caerffosiaeth" breaks the album's off-the-cuff flow, but Rhys mostly eases back on the more experimental tendencies typical to a proper Super Furries release. Yr Atal Genhedlaeth sounds like a one-off; a palette cleanser for the Furries' frontman. It doesn't rise to the level of Rhys' work with his day job, but then again, it isn't meant to. Diehards and fans of Welsh pop will find fair returns on their investments. More casual listeners are best advised to wait for the next SFA full length.

::: Laurence Station

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February 22, 2005

Bloc Party: Silent Alarm
Wichita/V2, 2005
Rating: 3.4
Much has been made of Bloc Party's influences (think Gang of Four, New Order, PiL). But based on the London-based quartet's debut, Silent Alarm, the group has more in common with Boy-era U2 than some post-punk call-to-arms revolution in rock. Not that Bloc Party particularly sounds like early U2, but the basic template bears notable similarities to the Irish chart-toppers: There's charismatic front man Kele Okereke, capable of infectious pleading ("Like Eating Glass") and soulful ballads ("So Here We Are"); sharp-edged guitarist Russell Lissack (showing off quite nicely on "She's Hearing Voices"); a competent bassist and a dependable, keep-the-beat drummer. Like pre-world conquering U2, Bloc Party fights to contain its excess energy, reining in indulgent impulses (although the left-right channel-panning vocals on "This Modern Love" are overkill) and gets by on Spartan, three-chord arrangements. In short, there's genuine stadium potential here. Whether there's a Joshua Tree or an Achtung, Baby in the band's future is a far trickier prediction. Bloc Party will almost certainly find success. Based on Silent Alarm, however, it won't be as innovators or firebrands, but as purveyors of familiar hooks, passionately delivered and smartly promoted. And the Nobel Peace Prize goes to… Kele?

::: Laurence Station

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February 22, 2005

Iron & Wine: Woman King [EP]
Sub Pop, 2005
Rating: 4.0
Sam Beam's new Iron & Wine release, Woman King, slots in with prior lyrical concerns (Biblical references, rural imagery, family life), while adding some welcome new wrinkles to his sonic repertoire, making for a comfortably progressive listening experience. The title track finds Beam exploring harder rhythms, with percussion pushed to the fore. There's also a heretofore-unheard intensity and edge to his words: "Sword in hand / Swing at some evil and bleed." The more reserved "Jezebel" transforms the Biblical personification of a wicked woman ("born to be the woman we could blame") into an alluring, forever-out-of-reach lover. The clattering, shimmy-shake rock of "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven" namechecks Mother Mary and blinded Samson, transporting the tale of the virgin birth from the Holy Land to the gnarled forests of some imaginary, primeval Deep South. Califone's Jim Becker provides some distinctive violin sawing on "Grey Stables" and "Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)," and Beam's sister Sarah harmonizes beautifully with her sibling across the disc. Woman King is an ideal transition record for Beam, interweaving colorful new threads into a familiar pattern and hinting at powerful and majestic songcraft to come on his next full-length.

::: Laurence Station

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February 17, 2005

Mogwai: Government Commissions: BBC Sessions (1996-2003)
Matador, 2005
Rating: 3.3
Government Commissions (a compilation of tracks culled from BBC Sessions Mogwai cut between 1996-2003) opens with an endearing moment: recently departed DJ John Peel introducing the group's "Hunted By A Freak." The May 2003 performance offers a slightly more aggressive tempo, but retains the evocative sense of mystery evident on the original (from Happy Songs for Happy People). Beyond the nice tip of the cap to Peel, however, Government Commissions is a less than memorable affair. This is primarily due to the fact that while Mogwai hasn't altered its basic template dramatically since its inception, the Scottish quintet nonetheless makes albums that have a specific flow and mood. And since the grouping here isn't chronological, there's an unavoidably scattershot feel to the set list. Young Team's epic, nearly 12-minute "Like Herod" gets a protracted workout, some 18-and-a-half minutes of crushing force that then inharmoniously gives way to Rock Action's "Secret Pint," with its gentle guitar strum slowed down even further than the part on the LP version, more unassuming and supple. The two-part "New Paths To Helicon" improves on the studio versions, with crisper sound and more organic interplay between members. Government Commissions is hardly an essential addition to the Mogwai catalogue (diehards excluded, of course), basically serving as a decent slot-filler until the follow-up to Happy Songs arrives later this year.

::: Laurence Station

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February 15, 2005

Hood: Outside Closer
Domino, 2005
Rating: 3.8
The glitch-rock of Hood's last album, 2001's distinctive Cold House, has largely been put aside on its new release in favor of moodier, acoustic-guitar noodling, buried beneath murky horns and synthesized squalls. Lyrical allusions to distance and distress -- like traveling via train through rainy (preferably English) countryside pondering that special someone who's fallen out of easy reach -- permeate the band's new album, Outside Closer. Where Cold House obsessed over the memory and things dead and past, Outside Closer is more immediate, reacting to events that may have occurred mere hours before the journey begins. "End of One Train Working" asks "Where is the hope I had?," and none of the remaining songs bother to answer with any positivity: Among other like tracks, "Still Rain Fell," with its lazy guitar strum and doleful outlook, doesn't offer much chance of light at the end of the tunnel of love. Breakout single "The Lost You" stands tall here: stuttering and urgent, it's far and away the one song of the bunch guaranteed to create a rise in blood pressure. But Outside Closer isn't built to fill stadiums with sing-along anthems. This is a particular brand of miserablism only the British seem capable of pulling off without veering too far to the periphery of the average listener's attention span. It demands the right frame of mind, temperament and that ideal rainy-day traveling environment, in which nothing works out. When you're in the middle of such a moment, Hood's there to provide the soundtrack for your emotional nosedive.

::: Laurence Station

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February 15, 2005

LCD Soundsystem: LCD Soundsystem
Capitol, 2005
Rating: 4.2
Here's the challenge for LCD Soundsystem main brain James Murphy: On your full-length debut, try to top the bonus disc including three brilliant arty dance punk singles (2002's "Losing My Edge" and "Give It Up," and 2004's "Yeah") and their respective B-sides. Murphy certainly seems up to the challenge on lead track "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," with crunk-funk guitar and pulse-wave rhythms supporting his patented, couldn't-care-less sing-speak vocals. (Honestly, if Daft Punk really was setting up its P.A. system in Murphy's hipster pad, you'd think he'd sound a little more enthused.) Keeping the heat on the strong bonus disc, Murphy follows up with a diverse trio of solid tracks: The too-low-for-zero, hypnotically drowsy "Too Much Love;" the up-tempo mash-beat-obsessed "Tribulations;" and the caffeinated, spaz-rocker "Movement." The spacey, Lennon-esque "Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up" draws a little too much attention to its primary influence, and the intentional drone of "On Repeat" grows wearisome long before its eight minutes are up -- though it does make a good candidate for a closing track, if you're willing to shuffle the lineup. Of course, that would mean moving the chosen end piece "Great Release" somewhere else, and that just doesn't seem right, as its somber, pre-Airport/Furniture/Linoleum-phase Brian Eno sound, with doleful piano and epic sense of quiet space, really does end things on an appropriate comedown note. LCD Soundsystem doesn't quite overcome the high bar set by its bonus disc. That might sound rough, but fortunately, just compiling all of Murphy & Co's singles on one handy CD provides a valuable service for newcomers to his eclectically retro style.

::: Laurence Station

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February 07, 2005

Ani DiFranco: Knuckle Down
Righteous Babe, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Executing a complete 180 from last year's entirely solo Educated Guess, Ani DiFranco's Knuckle Down marks the first time the laudably independent folk-rocker has invited another producer into the studio. Joe Henry gets tapped for this unique distinction, and his presence ensures Knuckle Down a fuller sound than the typical DiFranco release. There are some wonderful string arrangements throughout, with Tony Scherr and Andrew Bird doing particularly exceptional work on the closing "Recoil." Julie Wolf's appropriately evocative melodica enlivens the questing "Minerva," and Todd Sickafoose's throbbing upright bass slots in perfectly with the loose jam of "Seeing Eye Dog." But Knuckle Down is still clearly Ani's show. Unlike Jim White, who seemed to be devoured by Henry's production on his recent solo release, DiFranco maintains the primacy of her lyrical content and, especially on the opening title track, works in her signature slap-percussive guitar work for good measure. From "Parameters," an arresting spoken-word description of a woman returning home and discovering an intruder waiting for her, to "Paradigm," which pays tribute to her immigrant parents, DiFranco never lets the music overwhelm her highly personalized wordplay. Not everything works: "Lag Time" proves an apt title, as the song meanders with no discernible payoff, while "Manhole" lacks the lyrical focus so keenly exhibited in the bulk of DiFranco's songcraft. Still, Knuckle Down holds together quite well, revealing an artist still developing a powerful and engaging self-analytical aesthetic nearly a decade and a half into her remarkable career.

::: Laurence Station

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February 04, 2005

The Chemical Brothers: Push the Button
Astralwerks, 2005
Rating: 3.3
Push the Button, like The Chemical Brothers' essential 1997 release Dig Your Own Hole, runs just over an hour and sports 11 tracks. It also opens with a powerhouse single, "Galvanize," featuring A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and some pretty Arabian strings courtesy of Najat Aatabu. While "Galvanize" is not on the same level as the pulverizing "Block Rockin' Beats," it nonetheless sets the stage for what sounds like a Chemical Brothers record on par with the duo's mid-'90s triumphs. Other than a few impressive moments, however -- like "Close Your Eyes," a winningly lighthearted collaboration with indie popsters The Magic Numbers, and "Marvo Ging," filled with well-integrated backward loops and some moody harmonica -- Push the Button proves less than inspiring. "Believe" gets tripped up on a repetitive vocal from Bloc Party's Kele Okereke (despite utilizing some smart digital filigree), while the equally recursive "Come Inside" treads familiar waters (get inside, already!). The worst (and soon to be most dated) offender is the bludgeoning political tirade "Left Right," in which guest ranter -- er, rapper -- Anwar Superstar barks about Bush and Saddam being the same, and how bad war is. (Save it for the political rallies as opposed to the dance floor, guys). Texturally, Push the Button is more a singles collection than a cohesive statement (in that respect, it's much different from Dig Your Own Hole). And if you're going to do a singles collection, it had better include more hits than the stray few exhibited here.

::: Laurence Station

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February 04, 2005

Lemon Jelly: '64-'95
XL, 2005
Rating: 4.3
Lemon Jelly toughens up its sound on '64-'95 (the title refers to the time span in which the albums that Fred Deakin and Nick Franglen sample here were released). And the results are surprisingly successful, though perhaps not as inventively praiseworthy as 2002's Mercury Prize-nominated Lost Horizons. Comparisons to those French purveyors of smooth-flowing electronica Air are blown completely out of the water on "'88 aka Come Down On Me," a hard-charging metal track that could be mistaken for a Queens of the Stone Age epic rather than the aquifer-fresh, chill-out creations for which the duo is known. "'68 aka Only Time" eases back on the accelerator, but still sports a metronomic pulse better suited to the Autobahn than the easy chair. "'95 aka Make Things Right" falls in line with the band's earlier concoctions, and thus disrupts the high-energy pace. Druggy dance grooves are well represented by the repetitively infectious "'75 aka Stay With You" and the slightly more introverted "'76 aka The Slow Train." "'64 aka Go," featuring vocals by William Shatner, is campy and fun, yet still imbued with enough dark menace to serve as a fitting curtain closer to another excellent offering from these gifted British sound collagists.

::: Laurence Station

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February 04, 2005

The Fiery Furnaces: EP
Rough Trade/Sanctuary, 2005
Rating: 4.0
As an easily digestible taster for the sprawling, conceptually ambitious full length releases of The Fiery Furnaces, the mini-album EP, more than does its job. Siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger manage to collect B-sides and stray tracks without the resulting assemblage seeming too slapdash. The primary reason for this is the near-uniform brevity of the songs, averaging out to a tidy four minutes each. There's also a playful pop evanescence underlying "Single Again," "Here Comes the Summer" and "Evergreen," which adds to the replay value. Not everything works, however: "Duffer St. George," a goofy take on the old minstrel tune "Jimmy Crack Corn," grates; "Smelling Cigarettes," featuring jarring tempo changes like those that defined the band's recent Blueberry Boat, sounds out of place amongst the less adventurous cuts surrounding it. But for those devotees who haven't the funds or access to track down everything the Fiery Furnaces have recorded, EP is an imminently enjoyable and bargain-priced addition to the duo's burgeoning catalog.

::: Laurence Station

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February 04, 2005

The Citizens: Are We There Yet?
Yellow Ball, 2004
Rating: 2.8
The short answer to this album's title: No. The New York-based Citizens go for the "all styles" approach over an individual statement of purpose on their debut, Are We There Yet? Epic pop meltdowns ("What's Happening At the Seams"), drunken piano warblers ("Deck Full of Jokers") and an inexplicable cross-pollination of muzzled spoken-word and unrepentant metal croon ("Mussolini's First Crush") jostle for the listener's attention, but fail to achieve any rarified form of distinction. The dirty-rocking, delightfully horndog "A Thing For You" wisely exploits the talents of rhythm section Jason DiMatteo (bass) and John Bollinger (drums), while "In B For Backward" offers an impressive stomp and roiling beat with some effective tinkling piano and on-cue background harmonies. But this stylistic-tryout grab-bag exposes a quartet that has yet to find a voice solely its own. The good news is, there's very little chance of a sophomore slump. File under: Promise of better things to come.

::: Laurence Station

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February 04, 2005

The Decemberists: Billy Liar [Single]
Kill Rock Stars, 2004
Rating: 3.0
Billy Liar features a pair of songs from the Decemberists' Her Majesty the Decemberists album, as well as two non-album tracks. The title track, a jaunty tune about a carefree layabout dreaming of a Japanese Geisha, is one of the weaker efforts from Her Majesty. Fortunately, "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," a conflicted take on surrendering to the charms and vices of the City of Angels, serves as a sturdy reinforcement. "Everything I Try To Do, Nothing Seems To Turn Out Right" and "Sunshine" aren't exactly lost gems, but both help round out the collection, the first offering a bleak assessment of an awkward romantic hook-up ("And we both had some fun / Though I twice bit my tongue / And it lasted too long for my taste") and the second an upbeat ditty you could imagine the group singing in the back of the van as it travels between gigs. As singles go, Billy Liar is a serviceable space filler until the next full-length arrives.

::: Laurence Station

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February 04, 2005

Trashcan Sinatras: Weightlifting
Spin Art, 2004
Rating: 3.5
Trashcan Sinatras' Weightlifting (the Scottish band's fourth release, and first since 1996's A Happy Pocket) is bipolar and gorgeous. As clichéd as it sounds, it's a summery record, as evidenced by frequent seasonal lyrical references, warm, gauzy guitar interplay and shimmering beats. But the emotional landscape is moody as hell. "Welcome Back" comes roaring out of the gates, all fist-pumping optimism and ringing endorsements ("Everyone's alive / Everyone survived"), but that's as musically assertive as Weightlifting gets. The rest of the album is locked into slow or mid-tempo grooves that prove lamentably innocuous, especially during the middle third. "Freetime" champions the "beauty in life," followed by "Usually," which retreats down a melancholy slide. "It's a Miracle" swings back to the affirmative, only to be clobbered back into submission by the dour "A Coda." The record's peak achievement is its title track, a devastatingly beautiful paean to letting one's burdens down and embracing the immediacy of life. Weightlifting, then, is a triumph tempered by doubt, an accomplished collection of conflicted feelings and guarded optimism. Don't call it a comeback, so much as a cautious outreach to a (hopefully) appreciative audience.

::: Laurence Station

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January 29, 2005

Lou Barlow: Emoh
Merge, 2005
Rating: 3.4
Lou Barlow certainly took his time recording his first official solo album. Of course, the hyper-prolific artist could hardly be considered a procrastinator -- those who've followed his work with/as Sebadoh, Sentridoh, The Folk Implosion, The New Folk Implosion probably couldn't care less which name Barlow uses for a new release. That he chose to use his given name and call the album Emoh ("Home," inverted) lends credence to the argument that Barlow has reached a comfortable groove in his career. Emoh definitely feels homespun, with its primarily steel- and vinyl-string acoustic guitar arrangements and Barlow's warm, unhurried vocals. But while it's appealing to hear Barlow sound so contented as he approaches middle age, Emoh can't help but lack in the emotional immediacy so typical of Barlow's earlier, non-eponymous work. "Monkey Begun" opens with the incongruous, sedately delivered line "For balance and control, a battle rages in my soul." Barlow's cover of '80s metal-glam band Ratt's primary hit "Round and Round" removes all teeth from a genuinely menacing song. Of course, Barlow can still toss off brilliant lines like "Smiling through denial my specialty" from the aching "Legendary," and obviously isn't afraid of offending the Christian faithful, as evidenced by "Mary," sung from the point of view of the true father of Jesus, grateful that Mary has contrived the whole immaculate conception angle: "Blame it on an angel, they'll believe." Emoh is relaxed-fit Barlow: a little older, a tad wiser, definitely no longer worried if he'll ever be the "Natural One" again.

::: Laurence Station

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January 27, 2005

Low: The Great Destroyer
Sub Pop, 2005
Rating: 4.0
David Fridmann and Low. Try and imagine that collaboration five years ago, back when the Duluth, Minnesota trio of guitarist Alan Sparhawk, his wife and drummer Mimi Parker, and bassist Zak Salley were recording with nothing-wasted, minimalist producer Steve Albini. Fortunately, just as Albini is maestro of the "more with less" aesthetic, Fridmann is his full-girdled complement on the other end of the spectrum. The Great Destroyer, Low's seventh full-length album, is its noisiest to date. Slayer still has nothing to worry about, but from the opening drone of "Monkey," it's obvious that this is not the same band that released Secret Name half a decade ago. The new sense of urgency in Low's sound has been building since 2001's stellar Things We Lost in the Fire and 2002's stylistically diverse Trust. Thus, songs like the elegant, doom-laden "Silver Rider" sport a sharper edge. Of course, Low goes overboard at points, and detrimentally so. "When I Go Deaf" ends with jarring feedback that, while undeniably adventurous, torpedoes a truly beautiful and haunting tune. The dissonance and harmonies mostly gel, however, especially on the moody "Pissing" and the spirited finale "Walk Into The Sea." The Great Destroyer is as close to a bridge-burning tempo shift as Low's ever released for mass consumption; give the band credit for taking the well-worn adage "to create, you must destroy" to heart.

::: Laurence Station

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January 19, 2005

The Violettes: The Violettes
Self-released, 2004
Rating: 4.3
For those who've been craving some dreamy, sitar-flavored rock with a folk influence, the self-titled debut from The Violettes is just the ticket. This Minneapolis quartet, fronted by the beautiful Sarah Khan, sounds as if its members just came back from a Ravi Shankar study session, adding an extra dimension to their style of ethereal rock. Khan, who sounds eerily like the female vocalist from Chumbawumba combined with Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles, makes every song a gorgeously meditative hymn. On "Awkward Moment," there are no drums, just heavenly vocals intertwined with upright bass, acoustic guitar, sitar and lightly glistened cymbals -- enough to put anyone into their own alternate reality. But the Violettes can groove as well: "Heavenly White Roses" starts off like a remake of Deee-Lite's "Groove is in the Heart," but instead of taking the beat and making it another generic club song, the group adds a sitar for a sound more from India than from Minnesota, while still managing to make the end result sound club-worthy. The Violettes can also play straight-ahead, guitar driven rock ("Full Spectrum," "In Sh'Allah") as well as anyone. The Violettes is like the soundtrack to a dream: the Violettes excel at creating music that's perfect for meditation, casual listening, or going into your own personal universe. The Violettes is a beautiful album that should hypnotize anyone who listens to it.

::: Tim Wardyn

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January 19, 2005

Mike Watt: The Secondman's Middle Stand
Columbia Records, 2004
Rating: 2.0
Mike Watt's The Secondman's Middle Stand is set up much like one of Watt's favorite books, Dante's The Inferno, and it chronicles Watt's own personal hell. In 2000, he suffered a fever that lasted 38 days, which ended, almost fatally, with an abscess bursting in his perineum. The first section of Middle Stand is set during Watt's fever, before the abscess bursts; the second, as he's going through therapy and fighting for his life. The third focuses on Watt's contemplation of life, death and ultimately surviving. To create an album that recreates what he went through is a wonderful thought -- if only it didn't sound so chaotic. "Pissbags & Tubing" and "Boiling Blazes" taper off several times into a chaotic mess with no rhythm or key to speak of. Either Watt's trying to recreate the intense pain of his experience, or he's a modern-day Dadaist. The Secondman's Middle Stand (a play on words: Watt was a member of the seminal punk group the Minutemen, and the ordeal is his middle, as opposed to his last, stand) is ultimately like listening to someone writhe in pain, or the after effects of when he "Puked to High Heaven." In short, it's excruciatingly difficult to sit through. No one should go through the pain that Watt did, so why should they be subjected to the rock opera version of it? This album should have two reviews. Concept: 4.0. Music: 0.0.

::: Tim Wardyn

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