Too square to be techno and too hip to be easy-listening, this French duo proves that just about anything can be trendy, if it's marketed right. Blessed with a cinematic sense of arranging and an enviable rack of vintage synthesizers, the boys groove through 10 sensual compositions, ranging from languid acoustic-guitar ballads ("All I Need," "You Make It Easy") to beepy New Wave disco ("Sexy Boy," "Kelly Watch the Stars") to instrumental majesty ("Talisman," "New Star in the Sky"). As if to prove the group's pedigree, "Remember" is even co-written with Jean-Jacques Perrey, of the pioneering synthesizer duo Perrey & Kingsley. The sound gets dangerously close to muzak at times -- particularly in "Ce Matin La" -- but these warm, sexy tracks drip with atmosphere. ***
Calexico is all about flickering campfires, wagon wheels and desert skies. Joey Burns and John Convertino, the nucleus of the band, have played with lopsided country-influenced artists like Victoria Williams and Giant Sand, and these roots are obvious within these rustic arrangements of acoustic guitar, piano, vibes, trumpets and strings. Inevitably, the shadow of Morricone also hangs heavy over these mostly instrumental tracks, but Calexico is more about understatement and atmosphere than Morricone's bold majesty and gnawing harmonic tension. Nevertheless, the disc does have trouble rising above an aimless pastiche of Western clichés, even if it's considerably more polished and confident than the band's first album, Spoke. ***
Indie-rock titan Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, the Halo Benders) continues to move Dub Narcotic Sound System away from its strict roots-reggae beginnings. The spontaneous dub-style ramble of Johnson's vocals remains, but the musical tracks span a wide variety of gritty rock, funk and soul rhythms. ***
OK, here it is -- after years and years of delay, the most famous concert bootleg ever has an official release. This is Dylan at the peak of his explosive inspiration, fearlessly careening through two discs' worth of landmark classics like "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Visions of Johanna," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and a shockingly venomous version of "Like a Rolling Stone." Instantly, this set jumps onto the short list of rock's all-time greatest albums. No exaggeration. *****
Everything you've heard about this record is true -- it is unrelentingly morbid, and thoroughly steeped in death, depression, hospitals and disease (check lighthearted song titles like "Cancer for the Cure," "Going to Your Funeral," "My Descent Into Madness" and "The Medication is Wearing Off.") As on the first Eels disc, E's lyrics are far stronger than his melodies, but the vivid production details compensate for the simplistic tunes. ***
Released overseas two years ago, the seminal industrial group's latest album moves away from shattering blasts of random noise toward a cleaner, tighter, rhythm-based sound. A sizeable chunk of the band's drama is lost, but there is one quintessential Neubauten moment: a pencil-and-paper solo during "Die Explosion Im Festspielhaus." ***
Taking another break from the Bad Seeds, Mick Harvey releases his second collection of translated Serge Gainsbourg covers. It's inevitable that this one is inferior to 1995's nifty Intoxicated Man, just because that disc used up most of the best material. Pink Elephants comes off as a bit of an afterthought -- in fact, five of the 16 tracks (including highlights like the slashing "Who Is 'In' Who Is 'Out'" and "Torrey Canyon," plus the Nick Cave/Anita Lane duet on Gainsbourg's biggest hit "I Love You...Nor Do I") were already released on Intoxicated Man-era singles. The noticeably shoddy artwork also suggests a rush job. Still, there are some nice moments, like the playful tango of "Anthracite," the strolling "Scenic Railway," the pretty "Non Affair," the galloping "The Ticket Puncher" and the goofy "Comic Strip." Harvey's weak voice remains a problem, but the sophisticated arrangements support him beautifully. If the album introduces a few more Americans to Gainsbourg's work, then it has accomplished its goal. ** 1/2
Distinctive, acrobatic singer from underappreciated college-radio band drops her last name and goes high-tech. No, we're not talking about Björk, but Mimi Goese, one-time siren of the spellbinding Hugo Largo. Soak has little in common with that group's late-'80s records, however, beyond Goese's airy voice and earthy poetic imagery. In fact, "Clues of You" and "The Watch" are the only tracks which strongly echo Largo's flowing counterpoint, even though producer/multi-instrumentalist (and former Largo violinist) Hahn Rowe supplies most of the disc's musical texture. This would be fine if Goese's new synthetic sound paid off, but the simple truth is that these arty tunes just don't swing. Goese's melodic sense was always a bit iffy, and her weaving vocal lines rarely hit a groove with the rhythm tracks here. Exception: "I Spy," an exciting lurch of jagged guitars and careening tempos. Otherwise, more minimal cuts like "Fire and Roses," "Love Is an Island" and "Thrilled to Pieces" are the best bets. ***
Following the lead of '60s acid heroes who stuck around too long, Mudhoney have moved past garage-punk and are entering their anonymous hard-rock phase (the new album's "Ghost" even seems to quote "Cat Scratch Fever"). The group's musicianship is undeniable strong, but the one-dimensionality of Mark Arm's droning snarl and tedious melodies dooms the album (and band) to obscurity. ** 1/2
Trends come and trends go, but there will always be Pere Ubu. Surviving countless personnel and label changes, the group rumbles on, ever adding more chapters to a singularly unified body of work. Pennsylvania is one of the more difficult Ubu albums, hampered by one of David Thomas' least charismatic performances (too much low-register voice and spoken-word mumbling), but the intelligence of the songwriting is undeniable. The current Ubu players don't have the stylistic flair of past lineups, but guitarist Jim Jones is still aboard and his thick, cranky lines -- part punk, part surf, part Delta blues -- are probably the best reason to pick up this disc.
Pennsylvania starts out sluggishly, but eventually kicks into gear with biting grooves like the slashing "Urban Lifestyle," the spunky "Muddy Waters," the edgy "Drive," the cowboy shuffle of "Wheelhouse" and the downright nasty "Fly's Eye." "Monday Morning" is angular and more melodic, while the minimal "Perfume" is instantly gripping and dramatic. Instrumental tracks mix dub, Middle-Eastern drone and krautrock into the Ubu brew, while Thomas' eerie lyrics continue to explore the geographical obsessions which have dominated his recent work (both group and solo). No ear candy here, but definitely rewarding. *** 1/2
Two sides of Lou Reed: a digitally remastered reissue and an excellent new live disc.
Notoriously controversial, Berlin was one of Reed's most daring releases, a numbingly bleak concept record that perversely followed Transformer, perhaps his most accessible album ever. Produced with eerie orchestrated bombast by Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper), this 1973 release boasts classics like "Lady Day," "How Do You Think It Feels," "Men of Good Fortune," "The Kids" and "Sad Song" as Reed mumbles through nihilistic tales of drug addiction, suicide, sexual decadence and brutality in a stoned, detached stupor. An indescribably harrowing record, and a career landmark. The reissue includes improved sound, liner notes, full artwork and lyrics.
Twenty-five years later, Reed gives us Perfect Night Live in London, his best live record as a solo artist. Ever underestimated as a gearhead, he spends the liner notes raving about his new effect box The Feedbucker (apparently, it eliminates the feedback resulting from acoustic-guitar amplification), and his guitar does sound wonderfully warm and clear, giving the disc a striking in-your-bedroom ambiance. Reed growls through an interesting mix of proven classics ("The Kids" again, "Vicious," "Coney Island Baby"), revised obscurities ("Original Wrapper," "Kicks") and three pieces from his recent Robert Wilson stage collaboration, Time Rocker. Oddly enough, the only misfire is the most famous song of all, "I'll Be Your Mirror," which he sinks with an awkward, tuneless vocal. ****/****
It's easy to say Shonen Knife are a one-joke band whose time has passed. It's easy to say their downward move from Virgin to an indie label proves their commercial failure. But if Shonen Knife's heyday is really over, how come their two Big Deal albums are stronger than anything released during the Virgin years? Last year's Brand New Knife was an impressive return to form, and Happy Hour is even better. True, the more mature, reflective writing of Brand New Knife has switched back to more chirpy songs about animals and food, but c'mon, Shonen Knife is about fun, not philosophy. The trio shows surprising versatility too, adding successful forays into hard rock ("His Pet"), ska ("Cookie Day") and wacka-wacka funk ("Jackalope") which don't sound nearly as awkward as previous attempts to diversify. Other treats include the headphone-hopping "Hot Chocolate," the punky "Banana Chips," the almost-profound "People Traps" and a cover of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer." *** 1/2
Featuring Debbie Googe (ex-My Bloody Valentine) and Katharine Gifford (ex-Stereolab), Snowpony offers unusual rhythm-focused songs on their debut album, loaded with textural detail and topped with Gifford's blank, carefully enunciated vocals. Given the disc's heady musical thrust, it's no surprise that Tortoise's John McEntire produces. ***
Ever eager to challenge their audience, these alternative-rock legends take a daring step on A Thousand Leaves, scaling back their trademark dissonance in favor of delicate guitar interplay, understated grooves and refined instrumental workouts. Who knew that Sonic Youth could evoke the hazy shades of '60s bong-hit classics like Surrealistic Pillow, Strange Days and Electric Ladyland? And yet, here's the proof. This lengthy disc (11 tracks, averaging almost seven minutes apiece) will frustrate fans seeking the adrenaline and brutal distortion of the band's early years, but with repeated listens, the album's subtle virtues shine through. Kim Gordon's five tracks are underwhelming (even if "French Tickler" and "The Ineffable Me" are the disc's most aggressive moments), but Lee Ranaldo comes through with the wistful "Hoarfrost" and the darkly disturbing "Karen Koltrane." Elsewhere, Thurston Moore leads the group through "Sunday," "Snare, Girl" and the highlight "Wildflower Soul," all significant additions to the Sonics' formidable catalog. You say punks can't age gracefully? Check out A Thousand Leaves. *** 1/2
Nine albums in seven years -- how many bands can match Stereolab's dizzying productivity? The group's third compilation of singles and rarities is a two-disc affair this time, collecting almost two hours' worth of shimmering grooves, drones, songs and experiments. The lush tracks from the previously limited-edition Music for the Amorphous Body Study Centre are the star attraction, but accompanying items like "Seeperbold," "New Orthophony," "Munich Madness," "One Small Step," "You Used to Call Me Sadness" and especially "One Note Samba/Surfboard" are equally thrilling. *** 1/2
This double disc is almost wonderful. Almost. Sugar Plant, an enigmatic male/female duo from Japan, would love to seduce you with their serenely flowing melodies and creamy Stereolab-meets-Galaxie-500 textures. However, there's just not enough meat in these songs to warrant their marathon lengths (number of tracks under six minutes: two). Singer Shin'ichi Ogawa coos in poetically broken English over pristine grooves and simple chords, while chiming guitars and keyboards lull the listener into a honeyed stupor. But stupor isn't what we're hoping for here -- "Happy" and "I Was You" are the only tunes which manage to be hypnotic rather than drowsy (though to be fair, the closing 20-minute "Meadow" is a surprisingly good attempt at a Harold Budd/Brian Eno-style ambient landscape). ** 1/2
This disc probably will be totally ignored, and it deserves better. Not that it's anything close to "dazzling," but these intelligent Cincinnati rockers ought to be viewed as something other than a runt little brother to the Afghan Whigs (especially considering how overrated the Whigs are). This is Throneberry's third album, and as with the Whigs, the band's sound remains hard to pin down. Sixties-era garage rock underlies the melodies, yet the grandiose presentation, tight arrangements and radio-savvy production place the band firmly in the modern day. Actually, the group's most interesting feature is Jason Arbenz's lyrics, which are based in strings of metaphorical imagery that surprisingly recall the baroque reflections of vintage Procol Harum. Engaging, literate tracks like the title song, "Summerschool," "Isn't It a Pity" (not the George Harrison tune, but the allusion is telling), "Let's Hear It for Decay" and "Quinnipiac" shouldn't end up in the cutout bin. ** 1/2
First things, first: Victoria Williams should not produce herself. The au naturel, field-recording ambience of Musings of a Creekdipper (her fifth, and least engaging, album) may add authenticity, but it's also an unpleasant distraction. That problem is nothing, however, compared to the fundamental drabness of the tracks. Where is that trademark child-like exhilaration? That unique backwoods hoot of a voice, wailing into the heavens? Nowhere. Instead, we get a dozen sluggish, nearly cheerless reflections that have all the energy of oozing swamp mud. Perhaps it's age, or perhaps it's the sad toll of multiple sclerosis, but Williams' voice has completely lost its zing. In fact, the whole album is curiously enervated, as if Williams and band were in desperate need of a long nap. Still, if you can get past the listless performances, you'll find a few excellent tracks. "Grandpa in the Cornpatch" continues the expansive, Van Dyke Parks feel of 1994's Loose, "Periwinkle Sky" and "Blackbirds Rise" are eerily beautiful, "Let It Be So" is a sweet love song and "Allergic Boy" paints an affectionate portrait of a sniffly child. It's just too bad the songs weren't presented better. ***