"I know which buttons should be pressed," coos Sarah Nixey, as she slips into the opening track of Black Box Recorder's The Facts of Life. The entrance couldn't be more appropriate -- her elegant, half-whispered vocals are the essence of bedroom fantasy.
Nixey is the chanteuse for this British trio, which draws on the provocative songwriting of multi-instrumentalists Luke Haines and John Moore. The group's first album, England Made Me, was a more austere affair, coolly sketching characters lost in a joyless, demoralized society. The Facts of Life lightens the mood considerably, leaning toward romantic interplay inspired by the '60s duets of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin.
"With this album, we've gone for the more seductive approach," Nixey says. "The tracks needed to have a very sensual feel. The songs are incredibly sexy, and the vocal had to complement that."
Still, love is a cautionary pursuit in Black Box Recorder's world. Two pivotal tracks, "The Art of Driving" and "The English Motorway System," are almost twins -- both use the highway as an eerie metaphor for a troubled relationship. "May Queen" and the title song recall adolescent courtship anxieties, while "Straight Life" describes suburban comfort edging into stagnancy. The images are caressed with swaying melodies and lush keyboards, deliberately inverting the debut's sparse guitar textures.
Haines and Moore are the group's architects, churning out material in close, trade-off collaboration. Nixey claims songs often come together within a half-hour, noting the two are so attuned that "it's difficult to tell who came up with what." While Nixey earns no writing credits herself, she does play the role of creative muse.
"The way it really works is that I tell Luke and John various anecdotes, and they put those into songs. For instance, 'May Queen' is about my first kiss. We were in the pub one day, talking about whom we first kissed, where it happened, that kind of thing. And they went away and wrote a song about mine."
Already a success overseas, Black Box Recorder yearns for a breakthrough in the States. Nixey knows it's an uphill fight, however.
"We're different from your traditional, run-of-the-mill pop band. We're a bit darker, and the music is probably more intelligent. I don't feel that we fit into any category. We're just sort of out there for ourselves."
"I'm the queen of low overhead," Amy Correia admits cheerfully, and she's not kidding. Indeed, she spent several lean years living off puny nightclub gigs in New York and Los Angeles, before Capitol Records tapped her on the shoulder and offered a deal.
Correia won't have to clip grocery coupons for much longer, if her new album is any indication. A shockingly good debut, Carnival Love mixes folk, blues and pop in an intimate, richly melodic collection which sounds more like a career highlight than a first step. Led by her frayed yet graceful vocals, the songs linger on pastoral scenery and wistful, childlike reveries. It's not all sweetness, however -- "Blind River Boy" is an eerie tale of a drowning death, while "Gin" looks at morning-after regrets. Subtle percussion, piano and strings flesh out the arrangements, but Correia's gentle whisks of guitar, mandolin and baritone ukulele are the heart of the sound.
"I try to play all the instruments, just as a writer, to get inspiration from their different tones and characters," she explains with a smile. "Even though I'm not real proficient on any of them."
Correia grew up in the small town of Lakeville, Massachusetts, and this rural setting obviously inhabits her songs. In fact, one might guess she's from the South rather than the colonial Northeast, given the rustic, fishing-hole imagery of her storytelling.
"Well, I am from Southern Massachusetts," she says, laughing. "Yeah, people say that a lot, and I never even went to the South until three years ago. I do listen to a lot of blues and Southern music, but it's like I don't listen to the roots themselves -- I listen to the people who were influenced by that music, and that's what comes out in a weird, watered-down version. But hopefully, there's something pure about it."
Purity doesn't often lead to commercial success, but Correia may have the talent (and accessibility) to beat the odds. Currently, she's reaching new audiences on her first cross-country tour, as part of Capitol's high-concept "Girls Room" package (also including Tara MacLean, Kendall Payne and Shannon McNally).
"I hope that if I get enough critical response and can sell enough records, then I can make another record and just continue," Correia says. "That's my only goal. I don't have expectations that I'm going to sell a million records. I'm just taking it one day at a time, and hoping for the best."
For a happily married couple, Brett and Rennie Sparks sure understand loneliness. For apartment dwellers in Chicago, they sure understand the rural wilderness.
The Handsome Family's morose vignettes may not be autobiographical, but this only underscores the beauty of Rennie's characterizations. Maybe it's a milkman, standing on the roof to proclaim his love for the moon. Or a boy with a jar of dead fireflies. A heartbroken woman, mysteriously flown away by crows. A drunken fit on Christmas Day. A man watching ants creep over the hands of the brother he murdered.
"It's no fun to write happy Brady Bunch stories," says Brett. "I try!" Rennie protests. "I always set out to write happy lyrics, but somehow they just go wrong. Like this morning, I was trying to write this song about how great gravity is, and how cool it is as a principle. And it ended up being about termites, clicking their shells on the ground in this dark tunnel. So there you go. But it's going to be a nice song about termites, I think."
In the Air, the group's fourth album, presents more of Rennie's literate tales nestled in her husband's clean, country melodies. Brett sings in a deep, deadpan voice, evenly intoning the eerie images. Not a word is wasted. Recorded entirely at home on a Macintosh G3, the disc is a marvel of economy. "Don't Be Scared" and "Grandmother Waits for You" offer flickers of optimism, but wistful odes like "A Beautiful Thing" and "Lie Down" are more haunting. Still, Brett cautions not to overlook Rennie's dry sense of humor.
"People can't understand if something is funny and, let's say, morbid at the same time. They don't really like things that spin in both directions at once. But that's life, you know?"
You remember Lambchop, the stage-sagging posse of misfits who put a dark, arty twist on the local Nashville scene. So why does the group's fifth album, Nixon, take such a sharp right turn? With only a tinkle of pedal-steel guitar to recall the band's hayseed beginnings, this surprise disc instead dives into classic soul, stressing horn charts and silky strings over Grand Ole Opry twang.
"To me, it seemed perfectly natural," says leader Kurt Wagner. "We certainly had been heading that way for awhile. Soul was something everybody was listening to, around that time -- we still do, actually. It's something I've listened to, ever since I was a kid."
Simulating that lush, refined sound wasn't easy -- even for a group with a dozen or so members (depending on who gets time off work). With help from a gospel choir, a professional string section and the producer's own side band, the expanded Nixon features over 40 musicians. Yet where Lambchop's swollen arrangements once threatened to topple under their own weight, they're smoothly integrated now. Accordingly, it took almost a year to polish off these 10 songs, at the band's own expense.
"We don't make that much money, but we saved our pennies," Wagner says. "I just figured we'd keep working on the record, and spend what we had until we had enough to finish it. I had no idea how long it would take, but I didn't want any money thing to stop us."
Not a concept album as might be expected, Nixon only takes its title from the painting on the cover. While Watergate scholars will be disappointed, the overlap between the album's sleek, '70s-soul influences and Nixon's reign is obvious. Meanwhile, Wagner croons his wistful thoughts on love, family and small-town alienation in his peculiar, quavering voice, as the band's languid scenery floats gracefully around him. But will Lambchop stick with this elegant new direction, or hike back to the country?
"Well, it's like anything we do. I just think it will settle into our 'Lambchopness' or whatever you want to call it, and we'll try to incorporate things which we've gotten out of it. I like to move forward and I like to think about new ideas, but it's definitely going to be part of what we are."
It's no surprise that Low comes from Duluth, MN -- those numbing, desolate winters hang heavy over the group's sound. Crawling tempos, gentle chimes of guitar, carefully sustained tension and shimmering production are the hallmarks of this snowflaked trio, which has been mesmerizing the indie-rock set for over seven years. Led by the husband/wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, Low is plagued by facile comparisons (most often, with Galaxie 500), but its biggest headache may be overeager conclusions about the members' own emotional colors. Sparhawk is quick to emphasize that slowness doesn't necessarily mean sadness.
"We're not a bunch of quiet, depressed people. By our music, some people think we're going to be really pent-up and sensitive, or something like that. In fact, we're pretty normal folks."
Low's sixth album, Things We Lost in the Fire, won't be mistaken for More of the Monkees anytime soon, but it does prove the trio's songs are less concerned with despair than with "soberly reflecting on things" (as Sparhawk puts it). Still, the disc's greatest strengths are textural. The eerie blend of Sparhawk's understated guitar and the couple's sensuous harmonies alone would be enough, but the elegant hums of keyboard, strings and trumpet add a second layer of beauty. Partial credit goes to unexpected producer Steve Albini, working far outside his usual scrape-and-noise realm.
Besides bassist Zak Sally, the album features another important contributor: Sparhawk's and Parker's infant daughter Hollis, who happily gurgles during the maternal "In Metal." Other songs (especially "Embrace") add resonant nods to the two's new parenthood.
"The birth of the baby is probably the most intense experience of our lives," Sparhawk says. "It has to have affected the music. Actually, it was weird -- I recently had to write down all the lyrics for the record, and I was surprised at how many of them were about death and being buried. So there's that, but it's intermixed with stuff about birth and the baby. I don't know what's going on there!"
Low's longevity is unusual (and admirable) for a group with such a tightly defined sound. Family ties obviously feed this vitality, but Sparhawk also points to the band's eclectic tastes in outside music. Inspiration can come from anywhere, whether it's the Beatles, Spacemen 3, the Misfits or Rage Against the Machine.
"There are so many things which we feel strongly about experimenting with, and I think if we had closed off the possibilities of exploring those things, we would've only lasted for a couple of records and wouldn't have found any new places to go. But, of course, it's all relative. I hear lots of variety, whereas most people probably say, 'Oh yeah...just slow and quiet.'"
You can twist yourself in knots, trying to find a poetic description of the Tin Hat Trio. Hmm...a Romanian western, starring Antonio Banderas? Astor Piazzolla, stranded in the Louisiana Delta? Maybe it's a bossa-nova romance in the Dust Bowl heartland. Or Parisien bluegrass. Flea-market jazz meets Aaron Copland. Chamber music, slumming amid coffeehouse bohemia. Nope, nothing quite fits.
"We're always getting called something like 'genre-bending' or 'difficult to categorize,'" says leader Mark Orton. "That's almost the byline for the band. It can be frustrating. Every once in awhile, we feel like saying, 'Listen, it's just music!' But this is a reality. We do have to figure out ways to describe ourselves. It's difficult to pin us down, and that's what I enjoy."
The trio's second album, Helium, expands the scope even further. Though Orton, Carla Kihlstedt and Rob Burger stuck with guitar, violin and accordion (respectively) on last year's Memory is an Elephant, they stir in several new flavors here. Orton plucks dobro and banjo, while Burger wrestles with piano, pump organ, harmonica and an autoharp-like relic called the Marxophone. Less focused on improvisation, the disc mixes original material from all three members, defying pastiche with subtly eclectic highlights like "Beverly's March" and "Seamless Extraordinaire." Most surprisingly, the climactic "Helium Reprise" adds seven other players and a memorable vocal cameo by Tom Waits.
"In the beginning, it was easier to reference world musics just so we had roles to fit into," Orton says. "At this point, we're comfortable playing anything, so the references are more oblique. I feel like this record sounds more 'American.' There are bluesy qualities which weren't necessarily on the first album."
Thanks to the heavyweight support of Angel Records (a label usually known for more traditional sounds), the Tin Hat Trio has toured all over the States and Europe -- even "weird places in Illinois." The group courts crossover audiences in both nightclubs and theaters, and it's no wonder, given the members' diverse projects (their resumés include names like John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Oranj Symphonette, the Grassy Knoll, Mr. Bungle and the Lounge Lizards). But are the three committed enough to pursue Kronos Quartet-like notoriety?
"We're old friends, and I think we'll keep doing this on some level for a long time. But whether we'll be making record after record until we're coming out with our Christmas album, that's less likely. We're interested in doing film-scoring work, and working with dance companies. We're also doing larger projects like the Waits track. These are the kinds of turns which the group will take, over time. But I think the trio will always exist. If we don't hate each other now, after this many years, I can't imagine the band's going to break up. Unless Rob marries Yoko."
Beck knows he can't clone Odelay. Cheerfully marching into fresh territory, he throws out the samples, dumps the raps and switches from hip-hop to a vivid brand of funky soul. He fails to land another killer single, but confirms his shaggy genius with lusty romps like "Mixed Bizness," "Sexx Laws," "Peaches & Cream" and "Debra."
Jeff Buckley/Mystery White Boy (Columbia)
The sound quality could be better, but this posthumous compilation of Buckley's live performances boasts nervy reinterpretations and dazzling vocal gymnastics. Songs from the acclaimed GRACE are predictably magical, but the disc's biggest lure is its bounty of rarities, which includes three previously unreleased compositions ("What Will You Say" is superb) plus covers of Big Star's "Kanga Roo" and Judy Garland's "The Man That Got Away."
Clinton/Disco & The Half Way to Discontent (Luaka Bop/Astralwerks)
A new side project of Cornershop's Tjinder Singh and Benedict Ayres, Clinton backs off lyrical content, instead focusing on tangy dance grooves, quirky synthesizer fun and the usual cultural cross-pollination (the gospel organ in "Sing Hosanna," the raga-esque "G.T. Road," the hip-hop scratches of "Mr. President," a foreign vocal sample here and there). Superficially cute, but nothing more.
Dirty Three/Whatever You Love, You Are (Touch and Go)
Haunting and mournful? Or just plodding and tedious? There's no denying the homespun authenticity of this violin-led trio's instrumental swirls, and their fifth album does have its moments (the graceful "Some Summers They Drop Like Flys," the dramatic "Lullabye for Christie," the slow boil of "I Offered It Up to the Stars & the Night Sky"). Still, the music's meandering sluggishness eventually wears out its welcome.
The Divine Comedy/Regeneration (Nettwerk)
Is there a U.K. act left which isn't influenced by Radiohead? Here, the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon abruptly dumps his established foppish persona and recruits producer Nigel Godrich to give this more earnest material the full OK Computer treatment. The unvarying drone of Hannon's restrained vibrato eventually grows deadening, but when a chorus soars into focus (as on "Perfect Lovesong," "Bad Ambassador" and "Love What You Do"), the results are gorgeous.
Mark Eitzel/The Invisible Man (Matador)
The former American Music Club leader's fifth solo album is another set of languid, meticulously assembled portraits of loneliness and disillusion. Eitzel's anguished voice and lyrics are typically powerful, but his awkward, three-note melodies are a serious minus -- even in the disc's best moments ("Shine," "Anything," "Without You," the panoramic "Boy With the Hammer in the Paper Bag"), his rambling thoughts and immaculate arrangements don't seem smoothly integrated.
Elastica/The Menace (Atlantic)
Coming an exasperating five years after the band's acclaimed debut, this mediocre sequel is crushingly anti-climactic. Trashy, derivative, weakly produced and melodically threadbare, the album tries to hide rudimentary songs behind quirky keyboard samples and fails badly, only achieving minor joys with "Generator," "Love Like Ours" and the raucous single "Mad Dog."
The For Carnation/The For Carnation (Touch & Go)
Fronted by former Slint leader Brian McMahan, the For Carnation paces through six slow, brooding tracks on its debut album. Sculpted out of methodical rhythms, sparse arrangements, a few alternating chords and McMahan's eerily murmured vocals, these restrained pieces are flavorless at times, but the more dynamic "Emp. Man's Blues" and "Tales" expertly build a menacing tension.
Bill Janovitz/Up Here (spinART)
The Buffalo Tom leader's second solo disc moves from the hazy country-rock of 1997's Lonesome Billy to intimate, cleanly produced folk songs. Acoustic guitar dominates, despite occasional bits of piano, lap steel and electronic color. Janovitz's melodies can be somewhat rote, but his raw, emotional vocals spark the reflections of better tracks like "Atlantic," "Best Kept Secret," "Like Shadows" and the eerily floating "Your Stranger's Face."
Matthew Jay/Draw (Capitol)
This gentle Welshman shows a rich gift for melody on his pleasing debut, which offers a muted style of folk-pop landing somewhere between Nick Drake and (who else?) Paul McCartney. Jay's wistful lyrics and evenly inflected vocals are a bit short on charisma, but "You're Always Going Too Soon," "Call My Name Out" and especially "Let Your Shoulder Fall" are polished, mature songs which belie his young age.
Mouse on Mars/Niun Niggung (Thrill Jockey)
This electronic duo continues to humble its more sterile, knob-twiddling peers, standing apart with a gentle sense of whimsy and a percolating array of squirts, beeps, and warbles. The group's sixth album even dares to insert traditional horns and strings, heard most prominently in "Mykologics," "Download Sofist," and the playful "Albion Rose."
Sonic Youth/NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen)
Coming full circle, Sonic Youth is edging back to its experimental roots, turning from rock 'n' roll fury to chiming guitar harmonics and subdued interplay. This mild disc -- sadly, the group's least satisfying album in years -- concentrates on rise-and-fall dynamics, slowly unfolding textures and Beat-influenced lyrics, but the insular noodling only comes to life on "Renegade Princess," "StreamXSonik Subway" and the ominous title track.
Swell/Everybody Wants to Know (Beggars Banquet)
Formerly a trio, this veteran Bay Area group has mutated into a solo workshop for singer/songwriter David Freel. Unfortunately, this overly familiar blend of clockwork shuffles and brooding pop signals a good concept running out of steam. "East N West," "This Story" and "Someday Always Comes" quiver with hypnotic tension, but other tracks sag under drab repetition and aimless instrumental filler.
Wilco/Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
These likable rockers have spent years topping critics' lists while trying to defy their alt.country pigeonhole, but they go too far with this one. Previously rejected by Reprise, this erratic disc saps the group's rootsy warmth with low-key, randomly decorated performances which strain for the avant-garde but only achieve self-indulgence. A few tunes nail down an emotional groove, but others can't overcome the thin energy, shaggy filler and distracting instrumental gimmicks. The Replacements? Big Star's Sister Lovers? Sorry, still not in that league.
Yo La Tengo/Danelectro EP (Matador)
Ever as eclectic as they wanna be, Yo La Tengo casually enter the high-tech world with their new EP, which pits three gentle instrumentals against corresponding remixes. The original themes are deliberately a bit repetitive and flavorless to allow room for tweaking, so the mixes are what matter. Q-Unique's track goes nowhere, but Kit Clayton layers accelerating, out-of-phase snippets into a powerful clatter (see early Steve Reich) while Nobukazu Takemura sculpts an inventive, 11-minute suite of spastic percussion and oscillating strings.
Various Artists/Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Sub Pop)
Springsteen's classic Nebraska is so conceptually unified, it's a natural for a song-by-song tribute. However, Sub Pop's artist choices are surprisingly straightlaced (Chrissie Hynde, Los Lobos, Aimee Mann & Michael Penn, the Mavericks' Raul Malo), and only Deana Carter's "State Trooper" and Ben Harper's "My Father's House" truly nail the ghostly ambience of the original item.
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