This Nashville foursome gets frequently compared to Ben Folds Five, but despite the similar sound (tricky, piano-based pop loaded with vocal harmonies and hints of Tin Pan Alley), there are just as many differences: better singing, better production and more detailed arrangements here, and on the negative side, less of Folds' emotional pull and post-punk scrappiness. The songs dart between ragtime bounce ("Lend Me Your Ears," "Vegetable Kingdom"), speedy romps ("Drought," "Go Lucky"), sophisticated ballads ("Bigger Than the Both of Us," "Run, Rabbit, Run"), a tropical tango ("Ambiance") and crowd-pleasing pop ("Have Fun," "Comfortable"). The Fluid Ounces are still nearly unknown, but their rise seems inevitable -- a group this polished, charismatic and accessible for elude the majors for long. Grade: B+
Overzealously hyped as the new edition of This Mortal Coil, the Hope Blister indeed serves as a conceptual mouthpiece for 4AD figurehead Ivo Watts-Russell and concentrates on dreamy cover songs (in this case, sources include the Cranes, Chris Knox, Brian Eno, John Cale and David Sylvian). However, the group's lack of a rotating lineup and more stark presentation defy This Mortal Coil's star-studded grandiosity. This debut is somewhat disappointing, actually -- its pristine dourness is numbing more than illuminating, and "Spider and I" and "Sweet Unknown" are the only tracks lovely enough to measure up to their precedents. The problem may be singer Louise Rutkowski, whose booming Alison Moyet-like voice is too robust to communicate any real intimacy. Perhaps the guest-vocal idea shouldn't have been tossed out, after all. Grade: B
This talented ensemble's third album is a pretty (if somewhat cloying) collection of lushly arranged pop songs, recalling '60s ear candy like the Left Banke and the early Bee Gees mixed with a modern touch of the Magnetic Fields' deadpan moodiness. The songwriting is uneven (tellingly, the best track, "Like a Summer Rain," is a cover), but the artful layering of piano, guitars, horns and strings is enough to smooth over the clumsy moments. Who would guess that such delicacy could come from Brooklyn? Grade: B
The Lonesome Organist is Jeremy Jacobsen, a one-man-band eccentric who has previously played with blues-informed indie acts like Jon Spencer and 5ive Style. However, none of his collaborations will prepare you for his second solo album Cavalcade, an otherworldly delight striking a zany, virtuosic perch somewhere between silent-film soundtracks, blues, white-trash hootenanny and Dada whimsy. Jacobsen jumps between organs (no synthesizers!), saxes, saws, steel pan, guitars, piano, drums and percussion -- sometimes even playing two instruments simultaneously -- while adding effects-soaked vocals to half the tracks. The disc is predictably uneven, but instrumentals like "The Storm Past By," "The Low Strike," "Cranked Up Too Hard" and "Boing!" are amazing constructions, matching frantic helium melodies with roller-rink keyboards and gleefully loopy rhythms. Grade: B+
Sadly, the Muffs' fourth disc is another missed opportunity, a cheerless batch of punk-edged pop which comes off just as blasé as its title. Songwriter Kim Shattuck retains her gift for crafting seesaw melodies out of classic British Invasion hooks, but her swollen-tongued singing sounds increasingly indifferent and destroys any potential impact of the lyrics. Four years ago, Blonder and Blonder signalled an exciting band on the rise, but it's beginning to appear that one great album is all the group had to offer. Grade: B-
Quasi's previous three albums were delightful, but Field Studies sails past them all. Showing improvement on every front, the duo's latest release boasts more consistency, tighter song construction, sweeter harmonies, less grating keyboard tones and a blossoming talent for Lennon-esque balladry.
There's 14 songs on this disc, and only one -- the punk throwaway "It Don't Mean Nothing" -- is underwhelming. The rest are absolutely first-rate, swinging between energetic pop ("Under a Cloud," "Birds," "The Skeleton") and soaring, baroque epics. The latter are stressed more than on past releases, typified by the wonderful "Smile," "The Golden Egg," "The Star You Left Behind" and "A Fable With No Moral." Sam Coomes once again leads the way, singing in his boyish voice while hammering his pleasantly outdated keyboards, while drummer Janet Weiss (on loan from Sleater-Kinney, of course) adds her usual polished muscularity. For variety, Coomes switches to guitar on five tunes (most notably, "Empty Words" and "Me & My Head"), Weiss writes and sings the dreamy "Two by Two," strings are added to two tracks and crony Elliott Smith contributes a few basslines. Coomes' songwriting has become so striking now, he's actually held back by Quasi's organ/drums novelty. Grade: B+
OK, so maybe it's one of the worst album titles in history -- regardless, Stereolab has closed off an amazingly prolific decade with another superior release. Clocking in at a mighty 76 minutes, Cobra is the group's most ambitious effort yet. The tracks are so precisely constructed that it feels inadequate to call them "songs" -- these are full "compositions," without a doubt.
There's simply a staggering amount of content on this disc. "Strobo Acceleration," "Infinity Girl" and "Op Hop Detonation" are the only breezy, easily digestible items. Other pieces experiment with skewed time signatures ("The Free Design," "The Emergency Kisses," "Blips, Drips and Strips"), space-age bebop ("Fuses," "Continuum"), post-Brian Wilson balladry ("The Spiracles," "Caleidoscopic Gaze") and disciplined minimalism (the 11-minute "Blue Milk"). Further tracks revisit the group's roots in airy European pop. Drums come and go, while dashes of trumpet, strings, musical saw and vibraphone add extra color. Laetitia Sadier's bilingual lyrics play a lessened role, but the elegant coolness of her vocals remains the perfect topper. Yes, Stereolab can be inhuman and tunelessly abstract at times, but the brilliant sophistication of the material can't be denied. Grade: B+
The Super Furry Animals remain super-frustrating. Immensely talented but equally confused, the group's kitchen-sink assemblages of pop, rock and experimentation veer wildly from track to track, sometimes hitting their targets, sometimes sailing far left. And the Furries wouldn't have it any other way, apparently. The uneven Guerrilla is no different. When the band dives into densely produced pop -- as on "Do or Die," "Turning Tide," "Northern Lites," "The Teacher" and "Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy" -- they're a joy. However, detours into techno grooves are awkward and unconvincing, while a Beach Boys-influenced power ballad ("Chewing Chewing Gum") doesn't develop adequately. These Welsh eccentrics have a fantastic album bubbling somewhere inside them, but they'll never record it unless they gain a little more focus. Grade: B
There's just something about Germans and synthesizers -- this talented trio sculpts modest little instrumentals with a sense of composition, tension and discipline that eludes most of their UK peers. No flashy technology or samples here, just a methodical set of tick-tocking vignettes with shifting melodic shapes. Pure brain food. Grade: B
Some people have criticized that Tom Waits' first album in six years is too derivative of past releases like Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years and Bone Machine. Why complain? He has found his sound, and he mines it brilliantly. Mule Variations may not expand upon Waits' established junkyard clatter, but these 70 minutes likely add up to 1999's finest album. He's in a bluesy, introspective mood this time around: "Lowside of the Road," "Get Behind the Mule" and "Eyeball Kid" clank along like ghostly Negro work songs, while "Black Market Baby," "Chocolate Jesus" and "Cold Water" are darkly atmospheric. In fact, "Big in Japan" (featuring the members of Primus) and "Filipino Box Spring Hog" are the only truly extroverted tracks. More typical are sentimental ballads like "Hold On," "House Where Nobody Lives" and "Georgia Lee," and of course, few performers can raise a lump in your throat like Waits can. Meanwhile, "What's He Building?" is a murky spoken-word piece reminiscent of Ken Nordine. Yes, every track is its own universe, as Waits sculpts his legendary growl and muted scrapes of keyboards, guitar, sax, trumpet and percussion into a haunting set of creaky, derelict landscapes. If you've never experienced a Tom Waits album, Mule Variations is a great place to start -- you may never hear music the same again. Grade: A-
You have to admire Ween's audacity, proudly releasing a two-disc live compilation even though the group's hardly a major concert draw. As might be expected, it's a peculiar mix of songs, ranging from noisy duels with backing tapes ("Cover It With Gas and Set It on Fire," "Mountain Dew") to country-western pastiches ("Japanese Cowboy," "Mister Richard Smoker") to would-be power metal ("Mushroom Festival in Hell," "Doctor Rock") to catchy pop ("Voodoo Lady," "I Can't Put My Finger on It") to exasperating nonsense (two aimless bouts with space-rock which stumble on for 26 and 30 minutes). Still, the biggest problem isn't the uneven material, but the loss of the duo's clever arranging skills outside the studio. Grade: B
This is Mammoth's fifth collection of on-air KCRW performances, but judging from this set, the past year of radio hasn't yielded much. Not that any of these 17 tracks are truly bad, but nothing here demands to be released, either. Generally, what we get are informal -- but inferior -- versions of existing album cuts. Sometimes, the artists are top-drawer (Beth Orton, Air, Lyle Lovett, P J Harvey), sometimes they aren't (Semisonic, Ednaswap, Sixpence None the Richer). John Martyn does a clumsy cover of Portishead's "Glory Box," Buffalo Daughter makes funky nonsense, Brad Mehldau applies jazz piano to Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)," Angelique Kidjo wails a capella and the Freestylers rant over frantic dub grooves. The most noteworthy item is probably Mercury Rev's "Opus 40," which gets a much more relaxed, intimate treatment here. Enough to make the purchase worthwhile? Up to you. Grade: B
The music of the Clash and the Go-Go's hasn't aged at all, and still sounds thoroughly contemporary. So why attempt tribute albums, especially when faced with these no-name rosters of artists? The labels may have good intentions, but the results really don't pay off.
The Clash disc is the better of the two, pitting a new crop of punk acts against the group's legendary anthems. There are a few cute twists, too -- Skinnerbox does a traditional reggae version of "Straight to Hell," Error Type 11 swings through an acoustic stab at "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" and Incognegro turns "Brand New Cadillac" into rambling hip-hop. On the more traditional side, Murphy's Law, Saves the Day, Dave Smalley and Ill Repute do credible jobs blazing through "Hate and War," "City Rockers," "Death or Glory" and "Train in Vain." But otherwise, yikes. A comical Battle of the Bands Who Can't Sing seems to be brewing behind the scenes -- the winning entry goes to One King Down, who dares to destroy "London Calling," but Hot Water Music, the Sick, Kid Dynamite, the Dropkick Murphys and Stigmata all make gallant efforts. Given that the Clash's biggest weakness was Joe Strummer's voice, you'd think that a tribute album would do better.
Meanwhile, the Go-Go's tribute is generally a disaster. There's exactly one track worth hearing: the Frogs' wacky take on "Vacation," featuring two giggling little girls as singers, a helium-sucking chorus and maddening cries of "what-ever!" Amazingly, this is the only contribution with even a hint of fun, though the Pinehurst Kids, Sunset Valley, Truly and Sugarsmack tracks aren't so bad. Elsewhere, the Go-Gos' charms are drearily buried under ugly synthesizers, drab punk and mannered vocals. Fig Dish turn "Head Over Heels" into agonizing sludge, the Chainsaw Kittens wreck "We Got the Beat," Season to Risk puts a hideous gothic-industrial spin on "This Town," the Blank Theory's "Get Up & Go" is dopey grunge and Allon Beausoleil's sitar medley falls flat. Um, whatever.
Grades: City Rockers: B-, Unsealed: C
Six bands, 15 songs, 39 minutes. This fluffy collection is an artist showcase for New York's Jet Set label (best known for launching Firewater, now signed to Universal Music). Don't look for any of Firewater's post-industrial swagger here, however -- this disc is twee to the core. Unified around a wispy '60s-pop theme, the participating acts range from decent (the easy-listening jangle of Tomorrow's World, the perky Loveletter) to trivial (the girlie la-la's of Milky and Kim & Co, the all-instrumental Wallpaper) to horrible (the astoundingly grating Death by Chocolate). Hasn't the lounge movement burned itself out by now? Grade: B-