That Which Didn't Sink, 2001

cover Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: No More Shall We Part (Reprise) Rating: 16/20
Nick Cave knows he'll become a self-parody if he spends his life mining the same ferocious depths of depravity, death and corruption, and his switch to a more dignified, reflective outlook is perfectly timed. His finest album in years, No More Shall We Part uses stately piano and strings rather than slashing rhythms and feedback, but masterful compositions like "God Is in the House," "Oh My Lord," "Darker with the Day" and "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow" have an intensity which transcends their muted dynamics.
cover Bob Dylan: Love and Theft (Columbia) Rating: 16/20
Riding a phenomenal career resurgence at an age when most musicians are quietly tending their gardens, Dylan has even topped 1997's Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind with this warm exploration of rustic American styles. Resurrecting the delightful humor and rambling stanzas of his classic '60s albums, the ever-evolving songsmith hits typical themes (disillusion, romance, corruption, rural storytelling) with an anything-but-typical mix of sounds spanning rock ("Honest With Me"), folk ("High Water"), blues ("Cry A While"), a sock-hop rave ("Summer Days") and an almost unprecedented set of pre-rock 'n' roll crooners ("Bye and Bye," "Moonlight," "Floater," "Po' Boy").
cover Ed Harcourt: Here Be Monsters (Capitol) Rating: 15/20
Here Be Monsters is a shockingly accomplished debut, an airtight songwriter's dream which also happens to be exquisitely arranged and produced. Equally comfortable with guitar and piano, this starry-eyed Brit croons through a lover's suite of indescribable sensuality, baring his romantic heart in flowing pop ("She Fell Into My Arms," "Shanghai"), ghostly weepiness ("Wind Through the Trees," "Something in My Eye") and near-gothic gloom ("Beneath the Heart of Darkness," "Those Crimson Tears").
cover Foetus: Flow (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 14/20
Trent Reznor prays every night that someday he'll match Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell's intimidating precedent, and this virtuoso epic is Thirlwell's best work in years. Pulverizing big-band splendor, cool jazz and industrial crunch into a unified, bludgeoning assault, this one-man orchestra couches scalding urban cynicism in merciless grooves like "Quick Fix," "The Need Machine," the cinematic "Suspect" and the hepcat swing of "Heuldoch #7B."
cover Ben Folds: Rockin' the Suburbs (Epic) Rating: 14/20
Folds' solo debut is a remarkable rebound from the erratic decay of Ben Folds Five -- he cuts the indulgent razzle-dazzle, tightens his melodies and even writes some of his best lyrics (check the melancholy characterizations of "Carrying Cathy" and "Fred Jones Part 2"). Playing most of the instruments himself, he powers through an impressively consistent set of well-written tunes, spanning exuberant pop ("Zak and Sara"), sweet ballads ("The Luckiest") and a funky novelty (the Limp Bizkit-parodying title track).
cover Björk: Vespertine (Elektra) Rating: 14/20
Björk's brave new disc is a frosty blur of dreamy soundscapes, deriving its allure not from dance beats or explosive vocals, but an eerie collage of music boxes, harps, strings, choral voices and samples. Strikingly intimate and boldly uncommercial, Vespertine finds Björk tenderly musing about love and motherhood via drowsy, impressionistic grooves which are shapeless at times, but gorgeously evocative when heard as a conceptual suite.
cover The Strokes: Is This It (RCA) Rating: 14/20
Drawing freely from the Velvet Underground's rattling pop and the classic CBGB's scene, these New Yorkers transcend their obvious borrowings with surefire hooks and rhythms -- amazingly, this brief but powerful disc lives up to its hype. The filtering on Julian Casablancas' Reed-meets-Morrissey vocals can be monotonous (not to mention destructive to his lyrics), but the band's wiry energy never sags in tense, catchy rockers like "Someday," "The Modern Age" and the title song.
cover The Minus 5: Let the War Against Music Begin (Malt) Rating: 14/20
Who would have guessed the side project of Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) would produce an album better than their primary bands' concurrent discs? This cleverly arranged set of good-time pop also features Robyn Hitchcock, Sean O'Hagan (the High Llamas), two Posies and more, but McCaughey's warm songwriting is the centerpiece, highlighted by "You Don't Mean It," the irresistible "Got You," "Your Day Will Come" and the Pet Sounds-like "Great News Around You."
cover The Kingsbury Manx: Let You Down (Overcoat) Rating: 14/20
This arty Chapel Hill quartet's more unified second album offers placid, contrapuntal pieces which recall Pink Floyd (circa 1969-71) and Swell, but these layered compositions have a pastoral allure which transcends any influences. The vocals drift by in a conversational murmur, while methodical rolls of picked guitars (often acoustic) carry beautifully harmonic tunes like "Porchlight," "Simplify," the title track and "Baby You're a Dead Man."
cover Quasi: The Sword of God (Touch and Go) Rating: 13/20
The fifth album by this Northwest duo (lead singer/keyboardist/guitarist Sam Coomes, with ubiquitous drummer Janet Weiss) has enough overdubs that the group's two-person attack is barely a novelty anymore. The disc is mildly handicapped by its stress on sluggish ballad tempos, but Coomes' yearning voice, cynical lyrics and gnarled chord structures still elevate powerful tracks like "Genetic Silence," the Lennon-esque "It's Raining," "From a Hole in the Ground" and the dreamy "A Case of No Way Out."

Guided by Voices: Isolation Drills (TVT) Rating: 13/20
Robert Pollard and his ephemeral bandmates have dropped most of the lo-fi fragmentation which won GBV its initial acclaim, but the more conventional melodies of Isolation Drills (a clear improvement over the group's first TVT release, Do the Collapse) have a soulful, Byrdsy appeal. Pollard's ever-obscure lyrics are more frustrating than intriguing, but with songs as catchy as "Fair Touching," "Chasing Heather Crazy" and "Glad Girls," it doesn't really matter.

Graeme Downes: Hammers and Anvils (Matador) Rating: 13/20
This New Zealander's first solo album after a long (and horribly underappreciated) career with the Verlaines is mostly self-performed, and a bit rawer than his past work as a result. "Alright by Me" and "Day of the Dead" sound closest to his old band's gnarled pop, while his romantic agonies stretch into new musical realms with the complex groove of "Cattle, Cars and Chainsaws" (could Downes be a King Crimson fan?), the wildly dynamic "Rock 'n' Roll Hero," the Tin Pan Alley piano of "Mastercontrol" and a few endearing detours into cocktail campiness ("Cole Porter," "January Song," "Getting Out of It").

Soundtrack: Moulin Rouge (Interscope) Rating: 13/20
A guilty pleasure if ever there was one, this swooning collage is such a hilariously overblown spectacle that you can't help being swept away by its glitzy exuberance. Operatic, wildly overarranged covers of campy oldies are the disc's dominant feature, sung by both powerhouse professionals (David Bowie, Beck, Christina Aguilera, Bono, Rufus Wainwright) and the film's eager-to-please stars (Ewan MacGregor and Nicole Kidman, who sound half adorable, half ludicrous in romantic "dialogues" based around wailed quotes from '70s bubblegum hits).

The Ladybug Transistor: Argyle Heir (Merge) Rating: 13/20
This Brooklyn ensemble infuses each release with its own distinct character, and Argyle Heir -- the group's best work yet -- darkens the sugary arrangements of 1999's The Albemarle Sound into a more mature, somber ambience which lands somewhere between Nicks Drake and Cave (with a splash of the Go-Betweens). With its lovely flute, oboe, trumpet and strings, this rich collection flows through a solid set of gentle tunes -- the main drawback is Jeff Baron's inexpressive voice, which seems more concerned with careful intonation than emotion.

Of Montreal: Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (Kindercore) Rating: 13/20
Both wildly imaginative and wildly indulgent, Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes goes further out on a limb than almost anyone else in music, and his latest bewildering epic has everything: a host of nerdy instruments, every chord on Earth, spoken storytelling and even a 18-minute piano solo (try watching a Charlie Chaplin short as it plays). The dense construction of Barnes' uniquely lurching melodies and wordy character portraits can stray toward schizophrenic chaos, but his child-like genius comes through on more surefooted tunes like "Good Morning Mr. Edminton," "Let's Do Everything for the First Time Forever," the jaunty "Rose Robert," "It's Just So," "Penelope" and the atypically graceful "It's a Very Starry Night."

Stephen Malkmus: Stephen Malkmus (Matador) Rating: 13/20
Malkmus leaves Pavement behind with this promising yet somewhat lackluster solo disc, which duplicates his old band's floppy hooks and ironic lyrics but comes up short on tenacious power. The album starts wonderfully with the gritty "Black Book," the tropical goofiness of "Phantasies" and the rumbling "Jo Jo's Jacket" (an unlikely Yul Brynner tribute?), but wanders through a lengthy dry patch before finally hitting the exquisite "Jenny & the Ess-Dog" (perhaps the most emotionally touching song he has written).

Mouse on Mars: Idiology (Thrill Jockey) Rating: 13/20
This German electronic act continues to expand its range in fascinating ways -- Idiology is the group's most surprising, eclectic release yet, incorporating piano, strings, trumpet, clarinet, French horn and even vocals. This time, the way-out mix includes spoken word ("Unity Concepts"), a funky jam ("Subsequence"), orchestrated mood music ("The Illking"), a Robert Wyatt-like song ("Presence"), hyperrhythmic abstraction ("First: Break") and a hilariously in-your-face novelty ("Actionist Respoke").

Kristin Hersh: Sunny Border Blue (4AD) Rating: 13/20
Less a solo act than a one-woman band, Hersh overlays her own guitars, keyboards, trumpet (!) and drums on her fifth solo album away from the defunct Throwing Muses. Her distinctive voice sounds scratchier than usual, but the elusive confessions (particularly "Candyland," "Ruby" and "Flipside") are more graceful and melodically focused than on her other recent releases.

Spiritualized: Let It Come Down (Arista) Rating: 13/20
Jason Pierce edges his conceptual psychedelia toward a more commercial sound with Spiritualized's disappointing fourth studio album, as uptempo tunes like "The Twelve Steps," "On Fire" and "Do It All Over Again" are just ordinary Britrock disguised with his usual walls of guitars, strings and horns. The 11 tracks stress Pierce's vocals and songwriting as much as his arrangements and production -- big mistake -- and "Don't Just Do Something," "Out of Sight," "Stop Your Crying" and the extended "Won't Get to Heaven" are the only pieces which sustain the group's trademark hypnotic roar.

Stereolab: Sound-Dust (Elektra) Rating: 13/20
The latest release from this innovative, staggeringly prolific ensemble continues in the abstract, tightly composed style of 1999's Cobra and Phases Group..., but comes off a bit subdued and juiceless in comparison. "Les Bons Bons des Raisons," "Captain Easychord" (what's this, pedal-steel guitar?) and the delightful "Space Moth" best display the group's sleek mix of surface catchiness and theoretical complexity, but too many tracks fade into arty background music.

David Thomas & Two Pale Boys: Surf's Up! (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 13/20
The Pere Ubu leader's newest solo album shows an unexpected electronic influence with looping riffs, cleaner production values and sampled horns (yet no drums). Due to his heavily processed voice, Thomas -- always an acquired taste as a singer -- is even harder to understand than usual, but these eight narrative pieces can be quite dramatic (particularly "Night Driving," the banjo-laden "Runaway" and a daring cover of the titular Brian Wilson epic).

Firewater: Psychopharmacology (Jetset) Rating: 13/20
Tod A.'s cynical harangues grew tedious amidst the mechanical clamor of Cop Shoot Cop, but his subsequent group's earthier sound gives him some badly needed humanity and warmth. Psychopharmacology prunes back the gypsy eclecticism of Firewater's previous two albums, but the rhythmic snap of "Woke Up Down," "Get Out of My Head" and "The Man with a Blurry Face" is instantly magnetic, while the shuffling "Fell Off the Face of the Earth" has a descending chorus hook which might even attract a few Oasis fans.

Matmos: A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (Matador) Rating: 13/20
The San Francisco-based experimental duo comes up with a remarkably original concept: basing an album around musique concrète samples from the medical world, whether the sources are rhinoplasty, liposuction, laser eye surgery, galvanic skin-response testing or even human bones. The results are a bit dry when conventional instruments are held to a minimum (as with the bone and LASIK tracks, or another focused on "playing" the cage of a laboratory rat), but when the snippets are integrated with the group's usual contemplative, scuttling beats (as on "Lipostudio...And So On," "Spondee" or "Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi"), the rhythms and textures are engrossing even without knowing the backstory.

Tricky: Blowback (Hollywood) Rating: 13/20
No longer a vanguard trendsetter, Tricky strains to boost his commercial stability with these steady, easily digested grooves, in which he shies away from the microphone (we all know how unpallatable his froggy, accented voice is) and mostly hides in the production booth. As with Santana's Supernatural, the album is all about its guest stars -- melodic tunes with soul singer Ambersunshower don't even sound like Tricky material, but charismatic cameos by Alanis Morissette ("Excess"), Live's Ed Kowalczyk ("Evolution Revolution Love"), Cyndi Lauper ("Five Days") and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers ("Girls," the sample-based "#1 Da Woman") add a pop appeal which Tricky's gruff rapping couldn't have managed on its own.

Tipsy: Uh-Oh! (Asphodel) Rating: 13/20
San Francisco-based Tipsy (essentially David Gardner and Tim Digulla, plus a roomful of guest musicians) offers its second witty take on mood-music kitsch, following 1996's Trip Tease: The Seductive Sounds of Tipsy. These new tracks (a bit more frantic and non-linear, this time) have a similar sense of ambient whimsy, darting between Martin Denny-style exotica ("Papaya Freeway"), cartoonish fun ("Hey!"), country-western pastiche ("Reverse Cowgirl"), Middle-Eastern wiggle ("Suez Motel"), soul ("Hard Petting"), orchestrated grandeur ("Swallowtail") and more.

Cowboy Junkies: Open (Latent) Rating: 13/20
The Junkies' latest album has an extra dose of San Francisco psychedelia with a couple of hypnotic jams ("Dark Hole Again," the almost Doors-like "Dragging Hooks") and some additional fuzz in Michael Timmins' guitar leads. "Bread and Wine" is another gem in that druggy style, but tighter tracks like "Small Swift Birds," "I'm So Open" and the haunting "Thousand Year Prayer" are the best examples of Timmins' understated, morally weary songwriting.

Rufus Wainwright: Poses (DreamWorks) Rating: 13/20
Wainwright's torchy first album was one of the top debuts of the 1990s, but his overdue, overproduced, overcalculated second disc is tragically inferior. Over half the tracks are leadened with ponderous melodies and Wainwright's love for elongated vowels (not to mention his disastrous experiments with electronic beats on "Shadows" and "The Tower of Learning"), while "Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk," "Grey Gardens" and the title track are the only songs which match the debut's baroque beauty.

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci: How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart (Beggars Banquet) Rating: 13/20
This Welsh ensemble's increasingly pastoral releases lack the alien, jigsaw-puzzle intrigue of earlier discs, but the sweet folk melodies and strings are lovely (if somewhat listless and predictable). Gentle, acoustic tunes like "Your Hair Hangs Long," "How I Long" and "Where Does Yer Go Now?" sustain a relaxing mood, though Euros Childs' wispy voice fails to make his yearning lyrics come alive.

Beulah: The Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette) Rating: 13/20
Beulah's third album marks time from 1999's When Your Heartstrings Break -- sure, it's a catchy blast of bubblegum pop, but no new ground is broken (OK, the lyrics are a bit more concrete and substantial). Dressing up familiar '60s riffs with Elephant 6's usual flowery arrangements, these frisky tunes threaten to lock into formula, but their surface charms are hard to resist.

David Byrne: Look into the Eyeball (Luaka Bop) Rating: 13/20
The primary wrinkle of Byrne's latest solo album is its generous dollop of string arrangements, which sweetens his now-expected rattle of South American percussion. Byrne's nerdy moan has aged remarkably well, but his recent vocals tend to lie back and ride the groove, rather than accent a rhythmic edge -- too many tracks are just mild and unobtrusive, though "Like Humans Do" and "The Moment of Conception" are infectiously funky, while "The Revolution" and "Everyone's in Love with You" are cute, McCartney-esque tunes.

Mark Lanegan: Field Songs (Sub Pop) Rating: 13/20
The ex-Screaming Trees singer's fifth solo album dips further into the subdued, bluesy territory he has mined since his band's demise. "No Easy Action," a surging rumble of mellotron and keening melisma, is the only true rocker -- otherwise, Lanegan croons world-weary laments over simple lines of acoustic guitar and piano, typified by "Pill Hill Serenade," "Kimiko's Dream House" (co-written with the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce) and the haunting "One Way Street."

Ken Stringfellow: Touched (Manifesto) Rating: 13/20
The Posies co-founder's second solo album offers sober, exploratory tunes with less of his band's sugary allure -- here, the arrangements have more of a classic-rock feel with church-style organ lines, reduced vocal harmonies, some pedal-steel guitar and a drier mix. The whole album seems overly restrained and downbeat, but the country-tinged "Down Like Me," the baroque "This One's on You," "Sparrow" and the acoustic "One Morning" lead a typically intelligent set of well-crafted melodies.

Various Artists: Listen to What the Man Said (Oglio) Rating: 13/20
This tribute to Paul McCartney's post-Beatles material has a fine selection of power-pop acts (Matthew Sweet, Sloan, Robyn Hitchcock, World Party, They Might Be Giants, the Minus 5), but erratic song choices and, more importantly, overly copycat arrangements make the disc insignificant in the end (perhaps its financial contribution to breast cancer research is what's most important). Owsley ("Band on the Run") and Semisonic ("Jet") contrive the sharpest Wings simulations, while the Finn Brothers' rattling "Too Many People" is the best mix of quality songwriting and personal interpretation.

Les Claypool's Frog Brigade: Live Frogs Set 2 (Prawn Song) Rating: 13/20
The vacationing Primus leader's second concert disc of the year is a strange indulgence: a complete version of Pink Floyd's 1977 album, Animals. The original wasn't one of Floyd's better releases anyway, and these renditions of its five songs are so note-for-note similar that they're artistically pointless -- the 12-minute "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" is the only track which clearly bears Claypool's own quirky spin.

Natalie Merchant: Motherland (Elektra) Rating: 13/20
The subtly rewarding Motherland is Merchant's most rootsy, undecorated album since her pre-Elektra days, and its hints of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"-style folk nicely accent the traditional resonances of her voice. These sluggish, minor-key songs will only further her commercial decline, but the earthy virtues of "Build a Levee," "Not in This Life," the gospel-flavored "Saint Judas" and the rustic title track may prove more durable than her slicker, radio-ready tunes.

Mull Historical Society: Loss (Beggars Banquet) Rating: 13/20
Scotland's Colin MacIntyre is a Brian Wilson-style whiz kid, playing most of the instruments himself on these boyish, splendidly arranged hymns. The upbeat "Watching Xanadu" and "This Is Not Who We Were" are sunny pop classics, but steady ballads like "I Tried" and the exquisite "Public Service Announcer" are more typical of MacIntyre's baroque craftsmanship and social unease.

Oysterhead: The Grand Pecking Order (Elektra) Rating: 13/20
The musicianship of this temporary supergroup (Primus' Les Claypool, Phish's Trey Anastasio and ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland) is impeccably sharp, while the grooves hit closer to Claypool's twisted funk than Anastasio's fluid jazz/rock wanderings. The songwriting doesn't match the band's instrumental prowess, but Claypool's bubbling bass lines and wry lyrics are typically charismatic on the best tracks (the paranoid "Little Faces," the crunchy "Pseudo Suicide," the effervescent jam of "Rubberneck Lions," the rocking "Owner of the World").

Suzanne Vega: Songs in Red and Gray (A & M) Rating: 13/20
Vega's bitter split from husband/producer Mitchell Froom hangs heavy over this belated disc, both in its more conservative arrangements (not necessarily a bad thing) and in the angrier lyrics. Despite the memorable folk-pop of "Song in Red and Gray," "Penitent" and the jaunty "Last Year's Troubles," Vega's thoughts on romantic disillusion seem rather ordinary -- the austere symbolism which originally made her stand out from the singer-songwriter pack is missed.

Tortoise: Standards (Thrill Jockey) Rating: 13/20
This subtle instrumental quintet has an unclassifiable sound which borrows elements from rock, jazz, techno and the avant-garde, while ingeniously blurring the line between composition and improvisation. The group's fourth album has a more growling, earthy ambience than usual, with 10 blended tracks led by the percolating "Six Pack," the tightly melodic "Blackjack" and the muted funk of "Monica."

Sam Phillips: Fan Dance (Nonesuch) Rating: 13/20
At a scant 33 minutes, this intimate morsel (Phillips' overdue fifth album, and her first for Nonesuch) sounds like a late-night rehearsal for a major work to come...or maybe a strained audition for the cabaret circuit. Guest guitarist Marc Ribot dominates the sparse instrumentation, muting his trademark ornery style, while Phillips strips down her usually buoyant pop with mixed results (try "Five Colors," the piano-powered "Edge of the World," "Incinerator" or the ambient dissonance of "Soul Eclipse."

Laurie Anderson: Life on a String (Nonesuch) Rating: 13/20
The performance artist's first album in six years is a placid, flowing work with few of her early discs' novel quirks (the tracks are usually sung rather than spoken, and their simple blend of strings, bass and drums isn't so far from traditional jazz). Incorporating material from her stage production "Moby Dick," these ethereal portraits are uninvolving at first, but the subtle eloquence of "Slip Away," "Washington Street" and the Van Dyke Parks-arranged "Dark Angel" blooms with further listens.

Bill Janovitz: Up Here (spinART) Rating: 13/20
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 with little instrumentation beyond his own acoustic guitar. The melodies can be somewhat rote, but Janovitz's raw, emotional vocals -- embellished with occasional piano, lap steel and electronic color -- intensify the downbeat reflections of better tracks like "Atlantic," "Best Kept Secret," "Like Shadows" and the eerily floating "Your Stranger's Face."

Air: 10,000 Hz Legend (Astralwerks) Rating: 12/20
The French duo's latest album updates the quaint, '70s-synth ambience which was both the charm and handicap of 1998's Moon Safari, and steers toward more immediate, song-based material. These placid tracks can seem overlong and unfocused (the awful lyrics don't help, either), but the group's serene beauty comes through on "Sex Born Poison" (with guest vocals from the Buffalo Daughter gals), "People in the City," the Beck-dominated "The Vagabond" and the caressing "How Does It Make You Feel?"

Frank Black & the Catholics: Dog in the Sand (What Are Records?) Rating: 12/20
The ex-Pixies mouthpiece again sticks with a purist, live-in-the-studio ethic for his third Catholics album. Most tracks are faint echoes of his best work (Pixies fans will smile at "Robert Onion," which even adds a Joey Santiago cameo), but the disc does have some interesting, traditionalist nods toward old-fashioned rock ("Hermaphroditos," "If It Takes All Night") and Western balladry ("St. Francis Dam Disaster," "Bullet," "Llano del Rio").

Les Claypool's Frog Brigade: Live Frogs Set 1 (Prawn Song) Rating: 12/20
Claypool/Primus fans will have a ball with this casual, ultimately inessential concert disc, which stresses flashy musicianship and grossly elongated jams. Saxophone and keyboards play a greater role than usual as Claypool's crack squad rumbles through five songs from his Sausage and Holy Mackerel projects, plus funky covers of King Crimson's "Thela Hun Ginjeet" (excellent) and Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (not so good).

They Might Be Giants: Mink Car (Restless) Rating: 12/20
TMBG's first true studio album since 1996's Factory Showroom is typically eclectic, stretching between spunky aggression ("Cyclops Rock"), thumping dance beats ("Man, It's So Loud in Here"), spicy exotica ("Yeah Yeah"), Bacharach-esque pop ("Mink Car"), a surprisingly straightforward love song ("Another First Kiss") and a rapping cameo by former Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty. The backing tracks add an awkward techno element at times, but "Finished with Lies," "Bangs" and "Hovering Sombrero" update the band's classic style with their hyperactive chord changes, whimsically obsessed lyrics and, yes, those infamous nasal harmonies.

Brave Captain: Nothing Lives Long, He Sang, Only the Earth and the Mountains (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 12/20
Ex-Boo Radleys leader Martin Carr takes an experimental turn with Brave Captain, assembling relaxed, monolithic pieces loaded with plush major-seventh chords and hypnotic repetition. More influenced by Bacharach than Britpop, the tracks pile on trumpet, piano, sax and strings, sometimes reaching a baroque splendor ("Assembly of the Unrepresented," "Reuben," "Hermit vs the World," the highlight "Raining Stones"), sometimes plodding toward tedium.

The Reindeer Section: Y'all Get Scared Now, Ya Hear! (PIAS America) Rating: 12/20
A side project of Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody (with guest-star help from members of Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian and Arab Strap), this gentle disc sounds like a cleaner, spaciously arranged version of his prime group's melancholy grooves. Lightbody's looped melodies can be stiff and plodding, but his lovelorn, caressing voice (sounding more like Lou Barlow than ever) is affecting on stronger tunes like "The Opening Taste," "If Everything Fell Quiet" and "If There Is, I Haven't Found It Yet."

Various Artists: Give the People What We Want: The Songs of the Kinks (Sub Pop) Rating: 12/20
This Kinks tribute has two strikes against it -- a perverse avoidance of hits ("Sunny Afternoon," "Waterloo Sunset" and "Come Dancing" are the only widely recognized tunes) and a thin artist roster -- but these scruffy covers capture the early Kinks' garage-pop spirit surprisingly well. Obscure names turn in some of the sweetest readings (the Congratulators' "Session Man," the Model Rockets' "Ring the Bells," Larry Barrett's "Act Nice and Gentle"), while indie stalwarts like Mudhoney ("Who Will Be the Next in Line"), the Young Fresh Fellows ("Gotta Get the First Plane Home"), the Minus 5 ("Wicked Annabella"), the Posies' Jon Auer (a brilliantly acidic "Fancy") and the Fastbacks ("Waterloo Sunset") are predictably solid.

Superchunk: Here's to Shutting Up (Merge) Rating: 12/20
In recent years, indie-rock magnate Mac McCaughan has blurred the once-distinct line between Superchunk's twin-guitar rock and Portastatic's arty pop. "Rainy Streets" is this album's only signature barnburner, while violin and organ lines overshadow guitar leads in gentler cuts like "Out on the Wing," "Act Surprised" and the Yo La Tengo-like epic "What Do You Look Forward To?"

Luna: Live (Arena Rock) Rating: 12/20
The potency of Dean Wareham's deadpan, post-Velvet Underground pop has been fading steadily for years, and now his band is reduced to a pointless live album for another unproven label (Jericho, which released 1999's The Days of Our Nights after Elektra abruptly bailed out, has already folded). Surprisingly centered around songs from 1995's Penthouse, these performances don't deviate much from the studio versions beyond an extra dose of guitar grit, and the disc's peripheral value as a best-of anthology is countered by the shakiness of Wareham's onstage vocals and the lack of interesting rarities (the encores, Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde" and Galaxie 500's "4th of July," are easily found in Wareham's existing catalog).

The Young Fresh Fellows: Because We Hate You (Malt) Rating: 12/20
It would be nice to say this sadly underrated band's first album in nine years is a rousing comeback, but the witty, spirited rock of the past has lapsed into an uneven blend of weak novelties and mild, mid-tempo pop. Too many of these 14 tracks are trivial or uninspired, though "Lonely Spartanburg Flower Stall" and "The Ballad of Only You and the Can Prevent Forest Fires" show Scott McCaughey's knack for sweet storytelling, while "Barky's Spiritual Store," "Little Bell" (an ode to tinnitus?) and a cover of "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonite" are catchy fun.

R.E.M.: Reveal (Warner Bros.) Rating: 12/20
Sorry to say, R.E.M. has polished off its weakest album ever, as the remaining trio strains for a commercial resurgence with pared-down melodies, glossy keyboard textures, sluggish tempos and an unusually polite performance by singer Michael Stipe. The shortage of vocal harmonies and guitar licks is hard to accept, and "The Lifting," "Imitation of Life" and "I'll Take the Rain" are practically the only tracks which hint at the group's past magic.

Weezer: Weezer (Geffen) Rating: 12/20
Weezer's long-delayed third album feels too much like assembly-line pop, with its less personal lyrics, unvarying beat and dependable churn of roaring power chords. The disc's self-conscious brevity (10 tunes, 28 minutes) and formulaic sound aim for a disciplined, Ramones-style economy, but beyond the capable hooks of "Don't Let Go," "Photograph" and the more subdued "Island in the Sun," the songs whisk by without making much impression.

Mark Eitzel: The Invisible Man (Matador) Rating: 12/20
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.

Foetus: Blow (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 12/20
Flow (released earlier in the year) was one of Jim Thirlwell's most staggering works ever, but that doesn't mean a collection of remixed Flow tracks was necessary. Typically replacing the album's fiery collision of industrial, jazz and classical influences with bruising techno beats, the tracks only perk up with Jay Wasco's swanky take on "The Need Machine," Phylr's exotic "Mandelay" mix and the Kidney Thieves' relatively straightforward adaptation of "Grace of God."

Paul McCartney: Driving Rain (Capitol) Rating: 12/20
Driving Rain isn't the heart-tugging Linda McCartney memorial which we might have hoped for, but it's blessed with warm songwriting and an endearing air of homemade spontaneity. An abundance of slack tempos leaves a long dull patch in the middle, but Paul strikes gold with the effervescent "Lonely Road," the piano ballad "Your Loving Flame," the instrumental intrigue of "Heather" and the sweetly melodic "I Do."

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions: Bavarian Fruit Bread (Sanctuary) Rating: 12/20
Sandoval steps away from the dormant Mazzy Star with this gentle solo album, based around a similar blend of drowsy vocals, emotional remoteness and starkly picked guitar. Unfortunately, she sings much better than she writes -- most of these sluggish, folksy tracks are all atmosphere and no tune, with the mild exceptions of "Suzanne," "Charlotte" and "On the Low."

The Minders: Golden Street (spinART) Rating: 12/20
If the Minders' past records were overly indebted to the Kinks, the new album sounds more like a lo-fi throwback to Love's Forever Changes. With its double-tracked creaminess, experimental indulgences and downbeat observations, Golden Street lacks the sprightly edge of 1998's Hooray for Tuesday, though "Right as Rain," "Give Me Strength" and the title song are still powerfully catchy.

Butthole Surfers: Weird Revolution (Hollywood) Rating: 12/20
The Surfers' previous album and accompanying single "Pepper" were a miraculous hit, but the endlessly delayed Weird Revolution strains to duplicate that success. Overly synthetic and full of "Pepper"-style raps, this disappointing disc has two catchy novelties ("The Shame of Life" and "Dracula from Houston"), but its rawer side ("Intelligent Guy," "Jet Fighter," "They Came In") is far truer to the group's original splatter-punk spirit.

The Cranes: Future Songs (Instinct) Rating: 12/20
The Cranes' dense, gothic dirges are clearly an acquired taste, and this disc isn't the best introduction to the group's dreamy landscapes and Alison Shaw's uniquely wasted, baby-doll vocals. Too many tracks rely on similar two-chord droning, though "Driving in the Sun" and the prayer-like "Sunrise" stand out with their stronger melodic shape and anthemic resonances.

Money Mark: Change Is Coming (Emperor Norton) Rating: 12/20
Multi-instrumentalist Mark Ramos-Nishita is usually recognized for his keyboard work with the Beastie Boys, but he has also launched a diverting solo career with three fun collections of (mostly) instrumental grooves. Change Is Coming is less varied and sample-based than his first two albums, loping through nostalgic vamps flecked with jazz, funk, exotica and Latin music.

Iggy Pop: Beat Em Up (Virgin) Rating: 12/20
Leaving behind the mid-life introspection of 1999's Avenue B, the revitalized icon dives into a typically brutal salvo of metallic punk with this raw, uncompromised collection. Indifferently produced and overlong (16 tracks, 72 minutes), the album eventually turns monotonous, but some of its snarling anthems ("The Jerk," "Football," the title song, the ranting "Mask") are crudely magnetic in Iggy's classic style.

Swell: Everybody Wants to Know (Beggars Banquet) Rating: 12/20
Once a quartet, San Francisco's Swell has mutated into David Freel's one-man workshop, as a familiar blend of clockwork grooves and subtly brooding pop signals a good concept running out of steam. "This Story," "Someday Always Comes" and "East n West" have the band's usual hypnotic tension, but other pieces sag under drab melodies and aimless instrumental filler.

The Blake Babies: God Bless the Blake Babies (Zoë) Rating: 12/20
The first Blake Babies album in over 10 years has sentimental appeal, but these subdued, unimaginative tunes lack the feisty charisma of the previous Sunburn and Earwig (or even Juliana Hatfield's most recent solo discs). Surprisingly, guitarist John Strohm turns in the best songwriting (particularly "Picture Perfect," "Invisible World" and the co-credited "Disappear"), while the rest of the album includes two crummy Freda Love compositions, two filler tracks by outside writers and several facile Hatfield leftovers (her "Waiting for Heaven" is nice, however).

The Webb Brothers: Maroon (Atlantic) Rating: 12/20
Christiaan and Justin Webb (the sons of legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb) try to cast themselves in a bellbottomed, retro-pop guise, but plodding tempos, awkward vocals and poor lyrics undercut the promise of this major-label debut. "The Liar's Club" (one of several tunes with a jaded, life-in-the-fast-lane theme), "I Can't Believe You're Gone" and "Fluorescent Lights" have well-crafted, memorable melodies -- otherwise, all the strings and horns in the world can't breathe life into these tracks' drab sluggishness.

Marc Ribot: Saints (Division One) Rating: 12/20
The acclaimed guitarist takes a break from his recent Cuban records with this thoroughly uncompromised disc, a skeletal solo work which sounds like it was recorded with just Ribot, a stool and a lightly amplified guitar. Mostly covers, the material spans pet influences (Albert Ayler, John Zorn, the Beatles, John Lurie) and weathered standards ("I'm Getting Sentimental over You," "Somewhere," "St. James Infirmary"), but Ribot's scratchy, meandering lines are so free and spontaneous that the original melodies are awfully tough to decode.

Brian Eno & J. Peter Schwalm: Drawn from Life (Astralwerks) Rating: 12/20
Aging Brian Eno fell out of the electronic/ambient vanguard several years ago, but this easy-going collaboration with German DJ Peter Schwalm succeeds as a pleasant background groove. Occasional vocal cameos are ponderous and intrusive (especially Laurie Anderson's), but bits of live drums and strings humanize the standard-issue keyboard washes of "Persis," "Bloom" and "Night Traffic."

Tori Amos: Strange Little Girls (Atlantic) Rating: 11/20
The queen of the self-involved smirk stumbles badly with this all-covers album, as her affected interpretations wreak havoc on seemingly indestructible classics by the Velvet Underground ("New Age"), the Boomtown Rats ("I Don't Like Mondays"), the Beatles (a deconstructured, 10-minute groove through "Happiness Is a Warm Gun") and Neil Young ("Heart of Gold," sung to the tune of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" for unfathomable reasons). Lesser compositions by Joe Jackson ("Real Men"), the Stranglers ("Strange Little Girl") and Depeche Mode ("Enjoy the Silence") are the only enjoyable cuts, while her belabored pacing and breathy theatrics spoil the rest.

Glenn Tilbrook: The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook (Quixotic) Rating: 11/20
Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook sounds like a middle-aged shlub on his first solo album, resignedly smiling about being too old for the contemporary music scene, dancing with the daughter of a first-generation fan, looking awkward in a conversation with Randy Newman and losing various romantic opportunities. His gift for catchy, sophisticated melody remains obvious on "This Is Where You Ain't," "Parallel World," "G.S.O.H. Essential" and "Morning," but even there, the relaxed tempos are too nice-guy conservative and punchless to be truly compelling.

The Clean: Getaway (Merge) Rating: 11/20
When the pivotal band of New Zealand's influential Flying Nun scene takes five years between albums, the resulting disc shouldn't sound like it was written in an hour. These poorly sung tracks sound like casual guitar jams with a few vocal lines overdubbed as an afterthought -- "E Motel" (in which bassist Robert Scott takes over the microphone) and "Poor Boy" are decent, but when the rattling pop of "Complications" concludes the disc with a bang, you wonder why the whole album couldn't have matched that excitement.

Robert Scott: The Creeping Unknown (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 11/20
NZ pop legend Robert Scott (the Bats, the Clean, the Magick Heads) unveils his first solo disc, a mostly instrumental set of somber moods which sounds like a modern response to Eno's Another Green World. A few decent songs surface ("Fog and Wind," "The Wick Effect," the harsher "When Shade Was Made") and some wordless tracks (the title piece, "2nd Hand Air," "Harmonic Deluxe") are darkly atmospheric, but amateurish noodling with keyboards renders much of the album utterly trivial.

Violet Indiana: Roulette (Instinct) Rating: 11/20
Violet Indiana, a collaboration between Robin Guthrie (ex-Cocteau Twins) and Siobhan de Maré (ex-Mono), blends the Twins' plodding spaciness with de Maré's wispy voice and more traditional phrasing. "Air Kissing" and "Rage Days" copy Portishead's jazzy slink with minor success, while "Busted," "Sundance" and "Poison Gorgeous" are tuneful enough to transcend the listlessness found elsewhere.

To Rococo Rot & I-Sound: Music Is a Hungry Ghost (Mute) Rating: 11/20
This intriguing German trio has a subtler touch than most electronic acts, stressing methodical pacing and precise economy rather than expansive landscapes or thumping grooves. Rhythmic but never danceable, the group's fourth album features collaborations with New York turntablist Craig Willingham (a.k.a. I-Sound), highlighted by "For a Moment," "The Trance of Travel" and two tracks which add violinist Alexander Balanescu.

Snow Patrol: When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear Up (Never) Rating: 11/20
This Irish group's debut (1998's Songs for Polar Bears) earned too many Sebadoh comparisons for comfort, and the second album plunges even further into Lou Barlow territory, upping the romantic melancholy, turning down the momentum and adding a familiar sense of casual melody to go with Gary Lightbody's naturally Barlow-esque voice. Unfortunately, these listless, underdeveloped tunes are a step backward -- the first album's propulsion is missed, and only a few tracks ("Ask Me How I Am," "One Night Is Not Enough," "Last Ever Lone Gunmen," "Chased by...I Don't Know What") don't seem awkward and self-consciously minimalist.

Portastatic: Looking for Leonard (Merge) Rating: 11/20
The versatile Mac McCaughan (Superchunk, Portastatic) recorded this score for an as-yet-undistributed Canadian film, sculpting the pieces around drones of scratchy organ and electric guitar. Half this 34-minute disc is fairly disposable without the accompanying visuals, but McCaughan collectors will be pleased with the rolling main theme, "The Chase," the nostalgic "Luka's Theme," the violin-flecked "Sweethearts of the World" and the shredding solo in "Funeral Music."

Bis: Return to Central (spinART) Rating: 10/20
Bis' original bratty punk-pop is completely wiped away with this dull disc of New Wave dance tunes, in which singer Manda Rin's formerly infectious yelps are replaced with slick, evenly intonated droning. The opening "What You're Afraid Of" is a sensual gem of hypnotic pace and slow-build dynamics, but none of the other tracks are anywhere near as compelling (maybe they wouldn't seem so stale if we were still back in 1983, awaiting new records from the Human League, O.M.D., Soft Cell, Berlin and the like).

Compilations & archival releases

Various Artists: Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond 1964-1969 (Rhino) Rating: 14/20
This brilliantly researched box of '60s pop, punk and psychedelia seems hampered by its willful exclusion of American acts -- generic imitators abound (Pete Townshend deserves complimentary royalties), and other bands are so scattershot that they never even released full albums. The more famous names (the Creation, the Move, the Pretty Things, Them, the Easybeats, the Small Faces) supply many of the indelible tunes, but the real fun is discovering should've-been-huge obscurities like Fire's "Father's Name Was Dad," the Marmalade's "I See the Rain," the Craig's "I Must Be Mad," Sands' "Listen to the Sky" and the Misunderstood's "Children of the Sun."

Jason Falkner: Necessity: The 4-Track Years (spinART) Rating: 14/20
One of power pop's biggest contemporary talents digs through his tape library, plucking out demos recorded circa his brilliant solo debut, 1996's Author Unknown. Five songs from that album appear here in rawer form ("I Live," "She Goes to Bed" and "Miracle Medicine" remain exquisite), but the previously unreleased tunes are the more important find -- in particular, "She's Not the Enemy," "His Train," "The Hard Way" and "My Home Is Not a House" are easily as good as the material on Falkner's proper Elektra discs.

Paul McCartney: Wingspan: Hits and History (Capitol) Rating: 14/20
For better or worse, this double disc collects most of McCartney's 1970-84 highlights in all their effortlessly catchy, lyrically trivial glory. His bland, top-40 arrangements (filtered vocals, dominant bass lines, minimized rhythm guitar, tacky lines of one-finger synthesizer and nary an ounce of convincing rock 'n' roll) prevent these tracks from aging as well as his Beatles classics, but look past the limp production values and you'll recall his less cloying hits ("Listen to What the Man Said," "Jet," "Band on the Run," the superb "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Live and Let Die," the still stirring "Mull of Kintyre") and some strong album cuts ("Junk," "Bluebird," "Every Night," "Tug of War," "Too Many People").

XTC: Homegrown (TVT) Rating: 14/20
The previous Homespun seemed like a pointless rehash of Apple Venus Vol. 1, but this set of Wasp Star demos actually surpasses the finished product. Sounding less compressed and homogenized, "Boarded Up," "We're All Light," "Wounded Horse" and "Church of Women" all outclass their completed versions, while "Everything Decays" (an acoustic fragment of "The Wheel and the Maypole") and an entirely different song titled "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love" have a beauty all their own.

Black Box Recorder: The Worst of Black Box Recorder (Jetset) Rating: 13/20
Though its material is strong, this B-sides compilation is overly redundant for American fans -- six of 12 songs appeared as bonus cuts on the trio's first two albums, and two other tracks are less-than-essential remixes. The blend of elegant arrangements, bleakly detached lyrics and Sarah Nixey's breathy vocals is as evocative as ever, but those who bought the Jetset issues of England Made Me and The Facts of Life really only need this disc for "Watch the Angel Not the Wire," the seductive "Soul Boy," a cover of Bowie's "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" and four enhanced-CD videos.

Lambchop: Tools in the Dryer (Merge) Rating: 12/20
This compilation of singles, live recordings and rarities is a mighty strange animal, since over half the tracks barely even sound like Lambchop. "Whitey," "Miss Prissy" (a Vic Chesnutt cover), "Or Thousands of Prizes" and "Moody Fucker" are fine examples of the group's plush arrangements, literate lyrics and wobbly speaksing, but the unpredictable material also spans uptempo rock ("Nine," "Scared Out of My Shoes"), reflective folk ("Each with a Bag of Fries"), the gothic gloom of "The Petrified Florist," three baffling remixes ("Give Me Your Love" is essentially disco) and some early tapes which are almost too raw to be worth releasing.

Vic Chesnutt: Left to His Own Devices(spinART) Rating: 12/20
With a performer as naturally idiosyncratic as folksinger Vic Chesnutt, a collection of four-track demos and outtakes is bound to be a rough listen. As expected, this mishmash of acoustic sketches is woefully inconsistent, undercutting a few polished efforts ("We Should Be So Brave," the sweetly melodic "Very Friendly Lighthouses," the dreamy waltz of "Fish") with spotty experiments, weakly structured ballads, ragged overdubs and slipshod vocals.

The Third Eye Foundation: I Poo Poo on Your Juju (Merge) Rating: 12/20
This isn't exactly a new Third Eye Foundation album, but eight of Matt Elliott's remixes and collaborations with other underground acts. Amidst some other dull tracks, TEF's typical watery moans and eerie female vocals enliven the waltzing piano of Yann Tiersen's "La Dispute," while Remote Viewer's "All of the WCKWC Want to Be Abstract" is a taut blend of picked acoustic guitar and chirping electronics (Blonde Redhead's "Four Damaged Lemons" is powerful on its own terms, but minimally altered).

Margo Guryan: 25 Demos (Franklin Castle) Rating: 12/20
Following the cult acclaim for last year's Take a Picture reissue (a likeable collection of sophisticated soft-pop, first released in 1968), Franklin Castle has compiled these rare Guryan demos, which span recordings from 1967 to 1978 plus one contemporary remake. Some of the best songs ("Think of Rain," "Sun," "What Can I Give You," "Sunday Morning") already appear with superior arrangements on Take a Picture, but several memorable obscurities -- including "Something's Wrong with the Morning," "Most of My Life," "The Hum" and "I'd Like to See the Bad Guys Win" -- are unique to this disc.

Of Montreal: The Early Four Track Recordings (Kindercore) Rating: 11/20
The title says it all: This disc collects 16 homemade tunes from the quirky popsters' younger days, with arrangements that rarely stretch beyond shuffling snare drum and a couple of acoustic guitars. The first six tracks (the "titles" are merely sequential lines from a silly fairy tale about Dustin Hoffman and a bathtub) have the same distinctive, topsy-turvy writing found on the group's other albums, but the quality tumbles downhill after those initial treasures.

Jon Auer: 6 1/2 (Pattern 25), Rebecca Gates: Ruby Series (Badman), Imitation Electric Piano: Imitation Electric Piano (Drag City), Matthew Jay: Four Minute Rebellion (Capitol), the Posies: Nice Cheekbones & a Ph.D. (Houston Party), They Might Be Giants: Holidayland (Restless), Tricky: Mission Accomplished (Anti-)

Endorsed but still unreviewed
Caribou: Start Breaking My Heart, The Circulatory System: The Circulatory System, Deerhoof: Halfbird, the Fruit Bats: echolocation, Mogwai: Rock Action // ABBA: The Definitive Collection, Einstürzende Neubauten: Strategies Against Architecture III, Pixies: Complete B-Sides
comments by Eric Broome

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