|Tom Waits: Alice (Anti-) Rating: 16/20
Originally composed in 1992 for a Robert Wilson-directed stage production, these morose ballads are packed with exquisitely visual images of death, dessication and nature, adding up to Waits' most downbeat album ever. Flush with unraveling melodies and woozy landscapes of pawnshop instruments, this 15-track suite drops his trademark growl into haunting songs like the drunken bark of "Everything You Can Think," the plaintive "No One Knows I'm Gone," the Vegas sleaze of "Table Top Joe" and the heartbreaking "Flower's Grave."
|Beck: Sea Change (Geffen) Rating: 15/20
Minus all of his usual irony and in-jokes, the romantically stricken Beck plunges hardcore into melancholy-songwriter mode with the surprisingly powerful Sea Change. Tapping producer Nigel Godrich and keyboardist Roger Manning to expand morose folk ballads into arty landscapes, Beck wields his best vocal performances ever on sorrowful reflections like "The Golden Age," "Already Dead," "Lonesome Tears" (echoes of his recent collaboration with Air?), the bittersweet "Lost Cause" and the incredible "Sunday Sun."
|Cornelius: Point (Matador) Rating: 14/20
Keigo Oyamada's second major release is another brilliantly distinctive collage of beats, blurred harmony and melodic fragments, taking elements from pop and techno yet not sitting comfortably in either realm. Incidental vocal riffs decorate a balance of traditional and electronic instruments, as the crafty moods span lounge-like grooves ("Nowhere"), flashes of hard rock ("I Hate Hate"), a surprise "Brazil" cover, the art-funk of "Smoke," New Age contemplation ("Tone Twilight Zone") and a virtual banquet of skittish brain food.
|Paul Westerberg: Stereo (Vagrant) Rating: 14/20
Finally shrugging off his long (and futile) bid for commercial stardom, Westerberg strips down to the basics for these raw ballads, coming up with his warmest, most affecting work since his classic Replacements days. "Mr. Rabbit" and a hidden bonus song are the only tracks even close to rock 'n' roll, but his vulnerable reflections on tarnished relationships ("Only Lie Worth Telling," "Call That Gone?") and graying disillusion ("Boring Enormous," "No Place for You") signal a surprise renaissance for an artist whose magic seemed exhausted over a decade ago.
|Tom Waits: Blood Money (Anti-) Rating: 14/20
Composed for the stage production Woyzeck, this grizzled suite boasts all of Waits' usual trademarks -- his astounding guttural croak, his dessicated imagery, the ramshackle junkyard of rustic instruments -- but the songs come off a bit slight and underwritten. Too willing to recycle his standard templates (the Salvation Army ballad, the staggered waltz, the carnivalesque lurch, the bluesy clank), Waits wearily seeks love in a corrupted world, hitting his most affecting notes on the romantic "Coney Island Baby," the mournful "The Part You Throw Away," the harsh stomp of "God's Away on Business" and the rollicking swagger of "Starving in the Belly of a Whale."
|Super Furry Animals: Rings Around the World (Beggars Banquet) Rating: 14/20
The latest (and best) album from these deviant Welsh popsters reels in their indulgent electronic experiments, and sticks with '60s-descended arrangements and hooks (imagine a midpoint between Oasis' grandiose plod and "Good Vibrations"). While the group's lyrics have yet to establish a cogent personality, the sleek lines of cosmic tracks like "Sidewalk Serfer Girl," "It's Not the End of the World?" and the title song rank with Britain's finest contemporary pop.
|Interpol: Turn On the Bright Lights (Matador) Rating: 14/20
A disciplined drone of even-tempered guitar, bass and vocal lines surges over crunching drums on this New York quartet's amazingly poised debut album. Try not to let the group's derivative, gloom-rock trappings discourage you, and just wallow in the commanding vocals and dark, harmonic landscapes of these shrewdly crafted pieces ("Obstacle 1," "NYC," "Untitled" and "Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down" are especially dramatic).
|Sonic Youth: Murray Street (Geffen) Rating: 14/20
Remarkably, these guitar-noise veterans show the verve of musicians half their age on this refreshing comeback, as Thurston Moore's boyish voice (unusually melodic, here) and the band's revitalized guitar weavings blend in perfectly with the new generation's jamming indie-rockers. Produced with a lighter pop touch, this somewhat brief disc has only seven tracks, but includes both bite-sized blasts ("The Empty Page," Kim Gordon's deliciously bitchy "Plastic Sun") and extended, artfully paced guitar burns (just check the tense dynamics of "Rain on Tin" and the 11-minute "Karen Revisited").
|Hot Hot Heat: Make Up the Breakdown (Sub Pop) Rating: 14/20
At an airtight 32 minutes, the Stateside debut of this Victoria, BC quartet whirls through 10 punchy tracks which all sound like potential singles. The band's nostalgic, New Wave sound (yelping vocals, scratchy guitars, rickety organs, neurotic syncopation, skittish rhythms) is bound to be lumped with today's trendy garage-rockers, but the inventive ways in which their words and beats collide have an unusual flair.
|Sleater-Kinney: One Beat (Kill Rock Stars) Rating: 14/20
Portland's queens of noise steamroll through another thrilling blast of angular punk-rock, this time flavoring their guitar attack with isolated dabs of strings, horns and even Theremin. The music's mathematical grind and somewhat predictable restrained-verse/explosive-chorus structure -- with echoes of the Go-Go's, B-52's and Throwing Muses -- aren't so remarkable, but the shocking power of Corin Tucker's high-voltage squeal ("Oh!" and "Step Aside" are this disc's knockouts) is uniquely exhilarating.
Neil Young: Are You Passionate? (Reprise) Rating: 14/20
Here, the mercurial troubadour recruits Booker T. & the MGs as a backing band, and steers his sound toward downbeat soul-rock grooves which (unfortunately) emphasize the weakness of his thin voice. With somewhat impersonal lyrics centered on love and family -- we're talking soul music, after all -- and the notable lack of a killer tune, this won't be one of Young's enduring classics, but plenty of tracks (including the much-hyped 9/11 tribute, "Let's Roll") are darkly memorable.
Queens of the Stone Age: Songs for the Deaf (Interscope) Rating: 14/20
Queens of the Stone Age's third album polishes the group's evocative contrast between churning riff-rock and Josh Homme's delicately creamy (or is that Cream-y?) vocals. The muscular grooves aren't exactly brimming with variety -- thank heavens for the psychedelic "Another Love Song" and the acoustic "Mosquito Song," arriving late in the disc -- but the visceral allure of tracks like "First It Giveth," "God Is in the Radio" and especially "No One Knows" is eerily magnetic.
Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel (Island) Rating: 13/20
It's remarkable how this legendary songwriter continues to find new stylistic paths to explore, but this disc -- centered around a belated trip-hop influence and subdued, drum-machine experiments -- has a spotty success rate. The plod of sluggish tedium like "Alibi" and "Soul for Hire" dominates the album's mood, though the tracks do include "Episode of Blonde" (an explosive, half-spoken spew of femme fatale images, laid over a teasing tango), "When I Was Cruel No. 2" (an edgy narrative about a dysfunctional wedding reception, and the one half-speed groove which works), the squealing polyrhythms of "15 Petals" and the vintage punk roar of "Tear Off Your Own Head."
Jurassic 5: Power in Numbers (Interscope) Rating: 13/20
The Los Angeles-based rap/DJ collective's second album doesn't quite measure up to 2000's irresistible Quality Control, but it's another refreshing mix of positive lyrics and rootsy samples. This time, the quality control fades during the disc's second half, but the fat soul/jazz grooves of "What's Golden," the flute-laced "If You Only Knew," the double-time "A Day at the Races" and especially "Thin Line" (with guest vocals by Nelly Furtado) are as seductive as ever.
Badly Drawn Boy: About a Boy (ARTISTdirect) Rating: 13/20
British wunderkind Damon Gough grabbed this soundtrack assignment somewhat prematurely in his career, but it's a lovely piece of work, sounding as much like a new Badly Drawn Boy album as a mere score. While the disc is almost a third instrumental (including the beautiful "I Love N.Y.E."...and the painfully dreary "S.P.A.T." and "Delta"), sweet reflections like "Something to Talk About," "River-Sea-Ocean," the all-acoustic "A Minor Incident" and the rolling "Above You, Below Me" have the same creamy folk appeal found on Gough's more acclaimed debut.
Enon: High Society (Touch and Go) Rating: 13/20
Enon's second album is a huge improvement over the plodding Believo, with stronger vocals, more colorful arrangements and much catchier songs. John Schmersal (ex-Brainiac) directs a charismatic blend of inventive hooks, rattling rhythms and synthetic clamor, balancing New Wave quirkiness ("Shoulder," "Carbonation") with spirited rock ("Old Dominion," "Window Display").
Of Montreal: Aldhil's Arboretum (Kindercore) Rating: 13/20
After a series of releases which grew more and more impossibly baroque, these Athens, GA eccentrics turn back to relatively simple guitar-and-keyboard tunes for this album. Ingenuous singer/songwriter Kevin Barnes daydreams about himself, girls and other sympathetic local characters, while his unique, colliding melodies span the ragtime ditty "Natalie and Effie in the Park," the languid acoustics of "Predictably Sulking Sara" and a surprisingly focused dose of bright, bouncy pop ("Doing Nothing," "Jennifer Louise," "Death Dance of Omipapas and Sons for You").
The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.) Rating: 13/20
Oklahoma's favorite acid-rockers-turned-sci-fi-mystics return with a merely adequate sequel to their masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, thinning the music's allure with an overly synthetic feel, relentlessly mellow moods (save one loopy instrumental), grating keyboard burps, incongruously crunching drums and a solid 10 minutes of filler. Wayne Coyne's spacy philosophizing is beautifully ethereal when the melodies hold up (as on "Fight Test," "In the Morning of the Magicians," "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1" and "Do You Realize?"), but elsewhere, he comes off like an overindulged producer fiddling with his mixer board.
Guided by Voices: Universal Truths & Cycles (Matador) Rating: 13/20
The grainy, workmanlike guitars of Universal Truths & Cycles seem drab after the bright sheen of GBV's previous two albums on TVT, but Robert Pollard's charismatic vocals and typically off-center lyrics save this uneven but likeable disc. The 19 tracks include a few half-written tossoffs (surprise, surprise), but the garage-rocking "Everywhere with Helicopter," the Who-like "Eureka Signs," the lovely fragment "Zap" and the classic pop of "Cheyenne" are more brilliant, post-British Invasion miniatures to squeeze into this band's staggering canon.
Beth Orton: Daybreaker (Astralwerks) Rating: 13/20
The UK singer's third album of attractive folk-pop has notable cameos by Ryan Adams, Johnny Marr and Emmylou Harris, but it might be more powerful with fewer contributors -- the creamy whirl of the extra instruments tends to obscure Orton's own heartbreaking voice and thoughtful lyrics. She still has some trouble lifting her craft above "pretty tunes" to "songwriting with a point of view," but the dreamy "Paris Train," the haunting "This One's Gonna Bruise," the languid "God Song" and the warmly accessible "Concrete Sky" are all gorgeous.
Bryan Ferry: Frantic (Virgin) Rating: 13/20
Perhaps Roxy Music's recent reunion tour awoke Ferry's creative juices, because Frantic is easily his best solo album since the '70s. Finally leaving behind the torpid make-out mush which nullifies most of his recent work, the influential crooner leads an impressive cast (Dave Stewart, Brian Eno, Robin Trower, Alison Goldfrapp, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) through an organic set of tunes featuring "Cruel," "Goddess of Love," the alluring "San Simeon" and two superb Bob Dylan covers.
Weezer: Maladroit (Geffen) Rating: 13/20
History repeats itself with Maladroit, which, like 1996's Pinkerton, is a looser, grittier answer to the more accessible, Ric Ocasek-produced album which precedes it. The formulaic uniformity of last year's self-titled album is replaced with live-in-the-studio immediacy, raw guitar solos and more emotional lyrics (so who's complaining?), while Rivers Cuomo's songs are another sharp mix of hooks ("Dope Nose," "Keep Fishin'") and power ("American Gigolo," "Possibilities").
Kristian Hoffman: & (eggBERT) Rating: 13/20
The singer/keyboardist/arranger's third album is an ambitious collection of duets, tapping famous friends like Rufus Wainwright, Van Dyke Parks, Maria McKee, Lydia Lunch and Sparks' Russell Mael. Fond of metaphorical looks at troubled romance, Hoffman can be precious at times, but complex pop tunes like "Devil May Care," "Scarecrow" and "Palace of Corn" are both instantly catchy and intellectually elusive.
David Bowie: Heathen (Columbia) Rating: 13/20
With its Tony Visconti-produced strings and acoustic guitars, Heathen promises a nostalgic return to Bowie's '70s glories. The passive vocals and often shapeless melodies quickly deflate any such hopes, but "Afraid," "Slow Burn" (check the "Heroes"-like bass line), "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship" and the majestic "Slip Away" have enough drama to balance the other tracks' underwhelming blandness.
Ben Folds: Ben Folds Live (Epic) Rating: 13/20
It takes admirable nerve to release a live, voice-and-solo-piano record in today's high-concept music world, but apart from "One Angry Dwarf" and "Philosophy," these carefully selected performances fail to showcase Folds' virtuoso improvisations (a crucial oversight). Absent support parts and a glut of ballads sap some of the disc's energy, but you do get an Elton John cover and two non-LP tunes ("Silver Street," "One Down"), plus raw versions of terrific songs like "Brick," "The Last Polka" and "Fred Jones Part 2."
Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed the Fish? (ARTISTdirect) Rating: 13/20
Damon Gough's second proper Badly Drawn Boy album fixes two chief problems with 2000's The Hour of Bewilderbeast (muddy arrangements and pointlessly extended jams), but goofs slightly in aiming for a poppier sound. With the previous disc's folk balladry reduced to transitional song fragments, the terminally romantic Gough shows a brighter outlook on well-produced tunes like "40 Days, 40 Nights," the hummable "You Were Right," the circular shuffle of "Born Again" and the ragtime-like "Tickets to What You Need."
Frank Black & the Catholics: Devil's Workshop (spinART) Rating: 13/20
Frank Black's solo albums haven't broken any new ground in years, but Devil's Workshop is a tight, rocking set of enjoyable tunes from the Pixies frontman. Full of elusive travel tales with a mythical air, this short disc (released on the same day as Black Letter Days) continues the faintly Western flavor of Black's recent albums, attractively mixing acoustic and electric guitars in offbeat vignettes like "Velvety" (a remake of an old Pixies b-side), "Out of State," "Bartholomew" and "San Antonio, TX."
Steroid Maximus: Ectopia (Ipecac) Rating: 13/20
Foetus mastermind Jim Thirlwell saves the Steroid Maximus handle for his imaginary film scores, sculpting splashy instrumental tableaux which seem destined for a futuristic spy thriller. The absence of Thirlwell's usual sneering vulgarity is somewhat of a relief, while the neurotic momentum of "Seventy Cops," "L'Espion Qui a Pleuré," "Aclectasis" and "Chaiste" mixes traditional horns, saxes flutes and congas with Thirlwell's synthetic studio magic.
Kronos Quartet: Nuevo (Nonesuch) Rating: 13/20
For its next stunt, the alarmingly versatile string ensemble dives into Mexican music and concocts this delightfully spicy, entertaining collection. Adding numerous found samples and regional musicians for authenticity, Kronos veers between comical novelty (Esquivel's "Mini Skirt," the transistor-radio squawk of "El Sinaloense"), dramatic sensuality ("Se Me Hizo Facil," the ominous march of "Sensemaya"), an unlikely dance mix and several pieces embracing a daring stress on environmental ambience over linear melody.
Peter Gabriel: Up (Geffen) Rating: 13/20
Gabriel's ridiculously overdue epic is elegant, heartfelt and skillfully arranged as expected, but its downcast pallor and unrelenting murkiness leave the album nearly as colorless as its sleeve. "More than This" and "I Grieve" achieve the brooding soulfulness which Gabriel intends, but without strong melodies or even much world-beat intrigue, other overlong pieces drag on in a monotonous sea of fruitless introspection.
J Mascis & the Fog: Free So Free (Ultimatum) Rating: 13/20
Dinosaur Jr.'s influential guitar hero bruises onward with his second Fog album, an assured, likeable disc which has no surprises but powerfully extends Mascis' Neil-Young-gone-slacker legacy. His croaking vocals remain an acquired taste, but his gristly guitar lines and warm melodies stand out on tracks like "Set Us Free," the frisky "Freedom," the acoustic "If That's How It's Gotta Be" and the upright pop of "Tell the Truth."
Various Artists: This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies & the Kinks (Rykodisc) Rating: 13/20
This charming tribute to an often underrated band skips most of the Kinks' obvious hits, instead of focusing on second-tier tunes which are the artists' personal favorites. Rootsier acts such as Jonathan Richman ("Stop Your Sobbing"), Tim O'Brien ("Muswell Hillbilly") and Steve Forbert ("Starstruck") come off a bit dry, but there are several wonderful tracks, including Fountains of Wayne's "Better Things," Queens of the Stone Age's "Who'll Be the Next in Line," Yo La Tengo's hypnotic "Fancy" and the Minus 5's transcendent reading of "Get Back in Line."
Cracker: Forever (Virgin) Rating: 13/20
Cracker's fifth album is another intelligent combination of sardonic lyrics and classic-rock hooks, this time with slightly more of a psychedelic, studio-constructed feel (especially on "Superfan" and the Sparklehorse-like "Brides of Neptune," two of the best tracks). "Don't Bring Us Down" and the catchy "Merry Christmas Emily" are equally charismatic, but other songs are weighed down with leaden tempos and woefully overextended vamping.
The Long Winters: The Worst You Can Do Is Harm (Barsuk) Rating: 13/20
The tiny Barsuk label is all that makes this gentle Seattle act "underground" -- the group's intelligent, cleanly arranged songs are fairly mainstream in style, beyond some deviant keyboard colors and the unnatural stress on austere, box-like drum parts. John Roderick's resigned cynicism puts a dark spin on the tracks' relaxed tempos, while "Government Loans," the relatively upbeat "Carparts" and the growling plod of "Medicine Cabinet Pirate" are pleasing showcases of sweet harmonies, creamy melody and a faint country influence.
Great Lakes: The Distance Between (Orange Twin) Rating: 13/20
Sheer numbers (only 30 minutes of music, including three cover songs and three instrumental snippets) prevent this disc from being a major artistic statement, but these second-generation Elephant Sixers have crafted another alluring dash of homespun psychedelia. Distinguised from the group's 2000 debut by its stronger tastes of electronics and Brian Wilson-like experimentation, this expertly paced suite is blessed with a creamy, unified sound and scattered knockout tracks (the darling piano bounce of "Now Is When," the baroque elegance of "Ever So Over," the buzzing rock grooves of "Sister City" and "Conquistadors").
Tanya Donelly: Beautysleep (4AD) Rating: 13/20
After a four-year baby break, the ex-Belly leader is back with her second solo album, an oddly sluggish collection which never kicks into the spirited gear expected from someone with her past pop success. Donelly's versatility as a singer continues to improve, especially in the sparser tracks which leave room for embellishment, but "The Night You Saved My Life" and "Keeping You" are the only tunes which fully deliver her usual knack for sugary seduction.
Moby: 18 (V2) Rating: 12/20
Having conquered the mainstream with 1999's inescapable Play, Moby greedily mines the same vein with this depressing clone, which reduces the previous album's clever traditional/modern alchemy to self-parody and cliché. Guest vocalists allow him to write a few more pop melodies, but tracks like "In This World," "In My Heart" and "One of These Mornings" are just weak rehashes of Play's soul-diva snippets and cruising electronic grooves.
The Eels: Souljacker (DreamWorks) Rating: 12/20
The Eels' disappointing fourth album is burdened with swampy guitar distortion that undercuts E.'s craft as an polished, affecting songwriter. Look past trashy riff-rockers like "Dog-Faced Boy" and the title cut, and you'll find sharply etched characters ("Bus Stop Boxer"), some catchy use of samples ("Fresh Feeling," the roaring exotica of "That's Not Really Funny") and a few surprisingly unguarded love songs ("World of Shit," "What Is This Note?").
Tori Amos: Scarlet's Walk (Epic) Rating: 12/20
This ambiguous concept album about emotional tension on America's highways is Amos' most earthbound, restrained disc ever, but the conservative arrangements and less flashy musicianship are a mixed blessing. Having never shown much talent for writing a hook, the self-involved singer-pianist drops some of her usual fussy preciousness, but only comes up with a few first-rate songs which can stand alone.
Midnight Oil: Capricornia (Liquid 8) Rating: 12/20
After a couple of lackluster albums and a four-year break, the veteran Aussie rockers sound somewhat revitalized in these surging, brightly produced anthems. As ever, some of the lyrics' elusive, regional issues call for a set of Cliff's Notes, but "Golden Age," "World That I See," "Mosquito March" and the title track have the same wiry vocals and careening momentum which powered the group's '80s heyday.
Grandpaboy: Mono (Vagrant) Rating: 12/20
Paul Westerberg's slapdash alterego doesn't have the rowdy punk spirit which you might expect -- instead, the songs are based around lumbering, boogie-rock riffs which (unfortunately) are formulaic enough to turn stale by the end of this brief, 35-minute disc. However, between the trashy trifles and half-developed ideas, the album does have a few lovable shots of scruffy pop, namely "Let's Not Belong," "2 Days 'Til Tomorrow," "Between Love & Like" and especially the sardonic "Silent Film Star."
Soundtrack: I Am Sam (V2) Rating: 12/20
Given its legendary material and impressive talent roster, this collection of Beatles covers is disappointing -- in most cases, the artist's own personality fades into a bland, copycat retread (check the performances of Sarah McLachlan, Nick Cave, Ben Folds and the Wallflowers, for instance). Rufus Wainwright ("Across the Universe") and Sheryl Crow ("Mother's Nature Son") most successfully add their own spin while staying faithful to the original tracks, while Grandaddy delivers the sharpest reinterpretation with a neat, swirling take on "Revolution."
The Les Claypool Frog Brigade: Purple Onion (Prawn Song) Rating: 12/20
As shown by the dazzling rhythmic interplay of "Cosmic Highway" and the instrumental "Whamola," the Primus founder is a lot more interesting as a bassist/bandleader than a songwriter nowadays. "David Makalaster" and especially "Up on the Roof" are sharp reminders of Claypool's signature goony thrashings, but the jazzy "Ding Dang," a few Residents-like slinks and the expanded arrangements (cello, violin, sitar, loads of vibraphone) are much fresher ingredients.
Neil Finn: One All (Nettwerk) Rating: 12/20
On the surface, Finn's second solo album has an inviting, well-produced sound -- less experimental than 1998's Try Whistling This, and loaded with guest talent including Sheryl Crow, Wendy & Lisa, Mitchell Froom and Lisa Germano -- but the album's relentlessly downbeat, melancholy tone is wearying. Avoiding the bright pop which made his fortune with Crowded House, Finn is alienated, lonely and frustrated (not to mention mourning his mother's death), and only the opening "The Climber" (striking use of E-bow guitar) and the light/dark contrasts of "Hole in the Ice" transcend his doldrums.
Eyes Adrift: Eyes Adrift (spinART) Rating: 12/20
If heard with realistic expectations (don't demand magic, just because the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood and Nirvana's Krist Novoselic are the principals), this low-key collaboration comes off much more natural and relaxed than the Puppets' last album. The ripsnorting "Dottie Dawn & Julie Jewel" and an overlong final jam are the only spots where Kirkwood cuts loose with his typical picking wizardry, but "Alaska," the Latin-flavored "Sleight of Hand" and "Inquiring Minds" (a peculiar tribute to Jon Benet Ramsey) are full of pleasing guitar texture and earthy melody.
Sigur Rós: () (PIAS America) Rating: 12/20
Having deftly reclaimed the Cocteau Twins' dormant audience, these mysterious Icelanders up the ante with their first big-budget release, an untitled album of untitled tracks which boldly robs the listener of any traditional reference points. Unfortunately, the building blocks of these repetitive hymns aren't as compelling as those found on 1999's Agætis Byrjun, and more often than not, the band's dreamy blend of atmospheric organs and cooing vocals is just dull rather than hypnotic.
Foo Fighters: One by One (Roswell) Rating: 12/20
The Foo Fighters' fourth album has a thick, satisfying mix and a clutch of radio-ready rockers, but therein lies the problem: Dave Grohl's songs hinge so totally on their hooks that the less catchy moments just feel like filler. Amidst facile tunes, characterless musicianship and overlong track times, "All My Life" and "Have It All" stand out with their sharp dynamics and melodies.
Luna: Romantica (Jetset) Rating: 12/20
Luna's seventh album offers more of Dean Wareham's dry, easy-going pop, as his detached vocals and jaded lyrics slink around his usual circular, VU-influenced melodies. While clumsily produced and sometimes monotonous, the songs have a subtle charm, best heard in "Lovedust," "Mermaid Eyes," the lushly arranged "Black Champagne" and the unexpectedly rocking "1995."
Mummydogs: Mummydogs (Frontier) Rating: 12/20
Thin White Rope was one of the eighties' most underrated bands, but the comeback album by ex-Rope leader Guy Kyser (his first studio release in 12 years) suffers without his past group's psychedelic gnaw. Kyser's aging rasp leads earthier songs mixing blues, rock and country influences (and some nice backing vocals from his wife Johanna), but "Fly Away" and "Red Bandana" are the only tracks which recapture his guttural magnetism.
Marianne Faithfull: Kissin Time (Virgin) Rating: 12/20
Young collaborators (Beck, Blur, Billy Corgan, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker) and trendy electronics make the craggy chanteuse sound remarkably contemporary, but her own distant presence casts her as an outsider on her own album. "Song for Nico" and the explicit "Sliding Through Life on Charm" fit her frank, take-no-prisoners persona well, but bland lyrics and passive vocals rob her music of its usual hard-nosed character.
Lambchop: Is a Woman (Merge) Rating: 12/20
Soul/country alchemist Kurt Wagner goofed in letting his weak voice take precedence over his band's plush arrangements, because this glacial collection of minimal piano-and-guitar ballads is a chore to endure. If the quavery vocals, padded track lengths (just four songs under five minutes?) and dragging tempos don't discourage you, the diffuse meandering of Wagner's lyrics will -- this classy ensemble has done far better in the past.
Wondermints: Mind If We Make Love to You (Smile) Rating: 12/20
With its easy-going tempos, plush harmonies and conservative string arrangements, the Wondermints' third album sounds more like the vintage muzak of the Association and the Fifth Dimension than the psychedelic pop we would prefer. Keyboardist Darian Sahanaja crafts some fine baroque melodies ("Shine on Me," "Another Way," the obvious Beach Boys tribute "Ride"), but the sappy, flower-power lyrics and the other members' more generic writing steer the disc toward flavorless pastiche.
Laurie Anderson: Live in New York: September 19-20, 2001 (Nonesuch) Rating: 12/20
Somewhat short for a two-disc package (95 minutes), this concert album didn't really need to exist -- its timely setting (check the title and cover art, which unsubtly insure that you won't miss the point) seems like the prime reason for its release. The avant-garde legend's growing preference for New Age smoothness over abrasive austerity neutralizes mild versions of her classics ("Let X = X," "Sweaters," "O Superman"), but more recent pieces like "Washington Street," "Broken" and the chilling "Statue of Liberty" (in which her voice audibly cracks with a New Yorker's grief) show her matured musicality.
Victoria Williams: Sings Some Ol' Songs (Dualtone) Rating: 12/20
With her primary career as a singer-songwriter apparently stalled, the sparrow-voiced Williams opts for a popular evasive move: the all-covers album (in her case, a set of torchy standards like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "My Funny Valentine," "As Time Goes By" and "Someone to Watch Over Me"). Recorded sporadically over a 10-year period, her folk-based versions are pleasant enough ("Keep Sweeping Cobwebs Off the Moon" is especially charming, in a nostalgic Squirrel Nut Zippers vein), but the overall concept is too gray-haired to carry much weight.
Robin Holcomb: The Big Time (Nonesuch) Rating: 12/20
Pianist/composer Holcomb's first album of vocal songs in a decade has a more ethereal, milky atmosphere than 1992's grievously overlooked Rockabye, and its shift away from earthy Americana is somewhat disappointing. Stressing husband Bill Frisell's vaporous guitar lines as much as Holcomb's own reedy voice, these elusive fables and ruminations are most appealing when her traditional influences come forward, as on "You Look So Much Better," "I Tried to Believe" (shades of the Band's horn charts and processional tempos), "Engine 143" (a chugging train song with a morbid twist) and the skittish hoedown of "A Lazy Farmer Boy."
The Beards: Funtown (Sympathy for the Record Industry) Rating: 12/20
Featuring Cub's Lisa Marr and the Muffs' Kim Shattuck, this raw female trio sticks to its proven strengths with this zippy 30-minute disc, bounding through alternately sweet and vicious pop/punk tunes loaded with sharp hooks and roaring guitar. The more famous Shattuck takes a back seat, grabbing the lead on just three songs and a cover of Frank Black's "Thalassocracy," while Marr (whose voice is much more soothing and well-enunciated than Shattuck's thick-tongued howl) makes a fine underdog showing with tunes like "This Girl," the poisonous "True Confessions," "All About You" and the chiming, keyboard-driven "Sidewalks."
The Sunshine Fix: Age of the Sun (Kindercore) Rating: 12/20
The Olivia Tremor Control's Bill Doss directs his new band toward a similar collision between classic bubblegum and instrumental doodles, but scales back the OTC's cut-and-splice experimentation in favor of simple program music. The heavenly vocal harmonies help to smooth over the uneven melodies, but the title song, "Digging to China" and the psychedelic "See Yourself" are the only compelling tunes.
Tuatara: Cinemathique (Fast Horse) Rating: 12/20
Unafraid to indulge, this instrumental supergroup featuring Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (the Young Fresh Fellows), Justin Harwood (ex-Luna) and guiding hand Barrett Martin (ex-Screaming Trees) has stretched the concept to a third album. A steady flow of bongos, congas, vibes and marimba sustains the easy-going Tiki atmosphere, while the energy picks up with the film-noir "A Thin Gray Pickpocket," the self-explanatory "Action Thriller" and the car-chase adrenaline of "In the Passing Lane."
Oasis: Heathen Chemistry (Epic) Rating: 11/20
The former kings of Britpop go back to basics with this tight set of radio-ready anthems, but generic melodies, dragging tempos and dull production make for another forgettable album. The creatively exhausted Noel Gallagher surrenders five of 11 tracks to other members' pallid writing efforts, and after the disc begins strongly with "The Hindu Times" and "Force of Nature," it's all downhill.
They Might Be Giants: No! (Idlewild) Rating: 11/20
A consciously targeted "children's album" is somewhat critic-proof, but it's hard to imagine many kids latching onto these wry ditties. Cramming 17 tracks into 33 minutes (plus marvelous, enhanced-CD animation), the songs appropriately mix whimsical fantasy, paternal advice, wordplay and sheer nonsense, but few tunes beyond "Fibber Island," "Where Do They Make Balloons?" and "In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle" have the intended addictive qualities.
Mudhoney: Since We've Become Translucent (Sub Pop) Rating: 11/20
The veteran Seattle garage-punks return with their first album in four years, and sound like they have been listening to a lot of Spiritualized and space-rock (along with the obligatory MC5). The typically snarling "Dyin' for It" and "The Straight Life" rise above the who-cares production values and Mark Arm's one-dimensional vocals, but the most interesting tracks are "Where the Flavor Is" and "Take It Like a Man," which add a new splash of raucous horn charts.
Billy Bragg & the Blokes: English, Half English (Elektra) Rating: 11/20
Swayed by the success of his recent Woody Guthrie/Wilco collaborations, Bragg aims for a more mainstream, Americanized sound on his latest album. Delegating the musical direction to his backing band (who's more instrumentally flashy than suits his style), the once-spartan folkie succumbs to overproduced vocals, oversweetened arrangements and lightweight lyrics -- a couple of decent pop songs ("St. Monday," "Another Kind of Judy") can't cover for the loss of human warmth or the horrible, smirking title track.
Arto Lindsay: Invoke (Righteous Babe) Rating: 11/20
The one-time Lounge Lizard and Ambitious Lover is back with yet another smooth serving of arty, mellow pop heavily shaped by his Brazilian roots. We've heard it all before -- the coolly abstracted lyrics, the feathery vocals, the relaxed tempos -- but his style can be evocative when the arrangements stir in some extra quirks, such as on "Perdigo" (where he resurrects the floating guitar noise he's best known for), the twittering "You Decide," the skittish "Clemency" and the regal drone of "Unseen."
The Breeders: Title TK (Elektra) Rating: 8/20
After nine years and a host of (sadly audible) personal problems, Kim Deal and what passes for the Breeders are back with this shocking disaster of aimless half-songs. Technically competent at best ("Son of Three," "Full On Idle," the three-year-old "Forced to Drive"), these stumbling tracks total only 38 minutes yet seem a third too long -- the lyrics are almost incoherent (one refrain: "Has anyone seen the iguana?"), and the music sounds like drunken, improvised basslines fleshed out with guitar and drums on the morning after.
Eels: Electro-Shock Blues Show (EWorks) Rating: 13/20
The Eels' second live collection stretches back to their 1998 tour, where the band's gristly, introspective pop takes on an old-school soul flavor. More organic and less sample-oriented than in the studio, the material primarily draws from the group's first two albums, including twists like a flamenco-ized "Novocaine for the Soul," a version of "My Beloved Monster" with quotes from the Stones' "Satisfaction," a 11-minute jam on "Not Ready Yet" and the rarity "Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas."
Grandaddy: Concrete Dunes (Lakeshore) Rating: 13/20
This rarities collection has uneven material and shaky performances, but Grandaddy's atmospheric blend of floating melodies, oozing tempos, tremulous vocals and sci-fi synthesizers comes through on the strongest tracks. Noisier tunes from 1996's A Pretty Mess by This One Band EP (especially "Kim You Bore Me to Death" and "Tastee") show an enigmatic Pixies influence, while the group's caressing ballad style shines on the more recent "Levitz," "12-PAK-599" and "Wretched Songs."
Smashing Pumpkins: Earphoria (Virgin) Rating: 11/20
Originally released on a promotional disc years ago, these mostly live, Siamese Dream-era tracks confront us with two ugly truths: Billy Corgan's spitting-cat voice is at least twice as abrasive outside the studio, and guitarist James Iha is prone to some truly tasteless, over-the-top soloing (see "Quiet," for starters). A few instrumental rarities (especially "French Movie Theme") and an acoustic version of "Cherub Rock" are worth collecting, but the rest of these overlong, poorly performed tunes are a chore to sit through (the absolute nadir is "I Am One," with its wretched vocal vamping).
Violet Indiana: Casino (Instinct) Rating: 11/20
Why does this hodgepodge compilation (nine EP tunes, three previously unreleased additions) hang together better than Violet Indiana's one proper album (last year's iffy Roulette)? The duo's slow-motion ballads are cleaner and less vaporous than Robin Guthrie's past work with the Cocteau Twins, while singer Siobhan de Maré's bedroom sensuality can be magnetic when the writing is tight (as on "Jailbird," "Torn Up," the vaguely flamenco "Chapter Three" and the macabre "Bang Bang").
Hot Hot Heat: Knock Knock Knock (Sub Pop), King Crimson: Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With (Sanctuary), Luna: Close Cover Before Striking (Jetset), the Steven McDonald Group: This Is Not a Rebellion (Five Foot Two), the Soft Boys: Side Three (Editions PAF!)
Endorsed but still unreviewed
Barry Adamson: The King of Nothing Hill, Aloha: Sugar, Audioslave: Audioslave, Frank Black & the Catholics: Black Letter Days, the Books: Thought for Food, Brute: Co-Balt, Camper Van Beethoven: Tusk, Neko Case: Blacklisted, Cinerama: Torino, the Decemberists: Castaways and Cutouts, Deerhoof: Reveille, Elf Power: Creatures, Calvin Johnson: What Was Me, Múm: Finally We Are No One, Nine Inch Nails: And All That Could Have Been, Pere Ubu: St. Arkansas, the Reindeer Section: Son of Evil Reindeer, Sonic Youth: SYR 6, Supergrass: Life on Other Planets, the Velvet Crush: Soft Sounds // Buffalo Tom: Besides, Bob Dylan: Live 1975 (The Bootleg Series Volume 5), Elf Power: Nothing's Going to Happen, Robyn Hitchcock: Robyn Sings, Pixies: Pixies, Stereolab: ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions