|The Thrills: So Much for the City (Virgin) Rating: 16/20
This remarkable debut is the story of a young Dublin group staying in San Diego, and falling in love with the California sun (and accompanying influences like the Byrds, Beach Boys and Gram Parsons). The sublime delicacy of the balletic arrangements and Conor Deasy's vulnerable whisper (why does everyone want to sound like Wayne Coyne nowadays?) is breathtaking, and the addictive mix of breezy pop ("One Horse Town," "Big Sur") and graceful ballads ("Hollywood Kids," "Old Friends, New Lovers") scarcely falters throughout the entire disc.
|The Fiery Furnaces: Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade) Rating: 15/20
The Fiery Furnaces -- an unusual group led by a nomadic brother and sister whose pasts span Chicago, Austin, London and Brooklyn -- communicate the joy of musical discovery like few other artists can. Mixing goofy synthesizers, shaggy-dog lyrics and clattering blues (imagine Quasi joining the Elephant 6 collective to cover "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"), the Friedbergers ramble through snapshot travelogues and surreal sights with a driven fervor that never fails to be delightfully personal and offbeat.
|David Bowie: Reality (ISO/Columbia) Rating: 14/20
This surprisingly good disc recalls the ageless icon's glory days, when he had a knack for edgy, tightly written background parts which posed a perfect melodic counterpoint to his vocals (think of "Heroes" and "Beauty & the Beast," for instance, then play "New Killer Star," "Looking for Water" or "She'll Drive the Big Car" from the new album). Reality's 11 tracks are impressively solid -- even Bowie's established weakness for "charity covers" bears fruit with a radical take on the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso."
|Tall Dwarfs: The Sky Above the Mud Below (Carrot Top) Rating: 14/20
The ever-underrated New Zealand duo rattles through one of its most subdued releases, though the songs still brim with typical rubberband melodies, sardonic wordplay and dimestore arrangements. With only a few tracks lasting over three minutes, the album starts slowly and rambles like an uneven set of experiments, but fully realized tunes like "OK Forever," the Beach Boys-influenced "The Beautiful Invader," the class-conscious "We Are the Chosen Few," the growling "Deodorant" and the circular pop of "Baby It's Over" are wonderful additions to an already mindboggling catalog (note: the 69-minute disc also attaches a terrific eight-song EP).
|Rufus Wainwright: Want One (DreamWorks) Rating: 14/20
The production values of this operatic extravaganza are so enormous and dazzling that the shortage of memorable songs is almost forgivable (unfortunately, Wainwright often confuses mere "flow" with melody). Too many pieces seem shapeless due to the flamboyant singer's elongated phrasing and overzealous love for build-to-a-climax repetition (it's no coincidence that the first track quotes Ravel's "Bolero"), so it's a relief when fine songs like "Go or Go Ahead," "11:11," "14th Street" and "I Don't Know What It Is" lurk beneath the sprawl of the bloated arrangements.
|The Kingsbury Manx: Aztec Discipline (Overcoat) Rating: 14/20
This criminally overlooked ensemble slightly beefs up its sound for the third album, adding more keyboards, buzzing guitar leads, upbeat tempos and pedal-steel licks to move toward a place somewhere between the Feelies, the Grateful Dead and (still) early-'70s Pink Floyd. Subtly elegant chord changes, hushed vocal harmonies and acoustic-guitar pickings (often in waltz time) remain the band's arty hallmarks, best displayed on "Pelz Komet," "Creature of Habit," "Hunting Trips" and the gorgeous "Dinner Bell."
|Firewater: The Man on the Burning Tightrope (Jetset) Rating: 14/20
Firewater's pungent hybrid of carnivalesque lurch, Yiddish music, tango slink, gypsy celebration and Salvation Army oompah has never been so enthralling as on this charismatic disc, a kitchen-sink collection stuffed with a bewildering roomful of instruments (trumpet, mellotron, saxophone, glockenspiel, recorder, flugelhorn, celeste, accordion, trombone, tuba, bazouki, marimba...the list goes on). Singer Tod A.'s knack for metaphor and imagery -- check the album title -- keeps his relentless nihilism from turning stale, and top tracks like "Don't Make It Stop," "Secret," the frisky "Too Much (Is Never Enough)," the devilish "Anything at All" and the woozy waltz of "Too Many Angels" burst with vibrant color.
|The Decemberists: Her Majesty (Kill Rock Stars) Rating: 14/20
The Decemberists' Colin Meloy bares himself so fearlessly in his sparse, quavering shanties that it's easy to forgive the fey affectations of his false British accent and Olde English syntax (surely, this will be the decade's finest disc to include talk of corncrakes, bosuns, pantaloons and stevedores). The group's second album sags in the middle (particularly with the seven-minute "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground"), but "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," the prancing pop of "Billy Liar" and the climactic "I Was Meant for the Stage" are just three of the tracks which mark Meloy as a major songwriting talent on the rise.
|Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham: L'Avventura (Jetset) Rating: 14/20
When Luna's Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips decided to branch out with this romantic side project, did they know the disc would surpass most of their core band's releases? Apparently inspired by the Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin model of audio foreplay, this sensuous collection revisits favorite songs by the Doors, Madonna, Opal, Buffy Sainte-Marie and others, while showcasing five erotic originals which legendary producer Tony Visconti drapes with luscious strings and tinkling bells.
|Grandaddy: Sumday (V2) Rating: 14/20
With their second major-label album, these wistful Northern California eccentrics craft a fine compromise between art and the marketplace, again mixing serenely disaffected vocals, old-school synthesizers and a seductive sense of cruising momentum. The simplistic beat of poppier songs like "The Go in the Go-For-It" and "The Group Who Couldn't Say" seems a little banal at times (you can practically hear the click tracks), but the drama really soars in the disc's second half with "The Warming Sun," the swirling "Saddest Vacant Lot in the All the World" and the baroque "Final Push to the Sum."
The Essex Green: The Long Goodbye (Merge) Rating: 13/20
This shy offshoot of the Ladybug Transistor steps forward with its second album, a refreshingly unironic set of lovely, delicate pop. Flute, electric piano, acoustic guitars and strings highlight the beautifully crafted arrangements, while songs like "By the Sea," "The Late Great Cassiopia," "Lazy May" and "Sorry River" combine sweet melodies with the plain but affecting vocals of singers Sasha Bell and Jeff Baron.
Eels: Shootenanny! (DreamWorks) Rating: 13/20
Like 2002's Souljacker, Shootenanny! avoids the infectious sampling quirks of the early Eels albums, instead sticking with a grittier, guitar-based sound. This disc is an improvement, though -- singer/songwriter Mark "E" Everett manages a gruff charm on bittersweet tracks like "Saturday Morning," "The Good Old Days," the chiming "Rock Hard Times" and the bouncy pop of "Dirty Girl," then plunges into the dark side with the eerie "Restraining Order Blues."
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Pig Lib (Matador) Rating: 13/20
After a self-titled album which came off overly cautious and bland, indie-rock icon Malkmus stretches his legs on his second post-Pavement disc, leading his new band through an adventurous set which includes touches of space-rock, prog-like jamming and, on the nine-minute "1% of One," even madrigals. Highlights such as "Water and a Seat," "(Do Not Feed the) Oyster" and "Sheets" dwell on lumbering, Beefheart-like rhythms with abrupt stops and starts, while Malkmus' skewed lyrics seem a bit more human and approachable ("Vanessa from Queens" is actually romantic, for heaven's sake).
Throwing Muses: Throwing Muses (4AD) Rating: 13/20
The initial excitement of this raw, hard-rocking Muses reunion (including backing vocals by the long-departed Tanya Donelly) somewhat thins as the album's textural monotony wears out its welcome. Kristin Hersh's hoarse vocals, sadly weakened with age, have trouble rising above the poorly mixed din of the music, even if the group's galloping rhythms, abrupt tempo changes and unconventional songwriting remain remarkably distinctive on barnburners like "Civil Disobedience," "Flying" and "Pandora's Box."
Saves the Day: In Reverie (DreamWorks) Rating: 13/20
Emo darlings Saves the Day take a sharp turn toward crafty power pop on this surprisingly distinctive (if all too brief) album, arriving at a spot halfway between Big Star's unravelled guitar riffs and Of Montreal's wide-eyed innocence. Chris Conley's fey, pubeless vocals and "girl with the sun in her hair" lyrics are sizeable hurdles to overcome, but tunes like "What Went Wrong," "Anywhere with You" and the blissful "She" have marvelously creative melodies, dwelling on peculiar diminished chords and staggered phrasing.
The Ladybug Transistor: The Ladybug Transistor (Merge) Rating: 13/20
The most interesting thing about these somber Brooklyn craftsmen is that their '60s influences aren't so much the British Invasion, Beach Boys, Dylan and/or Motown, but unhip, less travelled sounds like Jimmy Webb, Lee Hazlewood, Herb Alpert and mainstream country-western (or even Jackie DeShannon, whose "Splendor in the Grass" is covered here). Their fourth Merge album has a little more twang than past discs -- probably due to producer Craig Schumacher, who has worked with Calexico, Giant Sand and Neko Case -- but the group's fundamental handicap remains Jeff Baron's low, stodgy voice, which just can't breathe the proper emotional life into otherwise beautiful compositions like "These Days in Flames" and "Please Don't Be Long" (whenever co-leader Sasha Bell adds her own voice, the energy immediately picks up).
The Long Winters: When I Pretend to Fall (Barsuk) Rating: 13/20
The huge ensemble (26 musicians, including Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and two Posies) contributing to the Long Winters' second album is so masterfully integrated and arranged that it's hard to believe the disc comes from a small-scale label like Barsuk. Leader John Roderick addresses relationships in an elusive, intriguing way ("Rice won't grow at home, and the Moon doesn't favor girls"...huh?), and memorable pop jewels like "Blue Diamonds," "Cinnamon" and especially "Shapes" deserve a much wider audience.
Super Furry Animals: Phantom Power (XL/Beggars Banquet) Rating: 13/20
The Furries' sixth album is mellower and less widescreen than 2002's splashy Rings Around the World, but the gang sustains a polished mix of British Invasion, the Beach Boys, a touch of electronics and their native Welsh folk. Featuring a recurrent anti-war motif, Phantom Power is sometimes too mainstream ("Liberty Belle," the "Spirit in the Sky"-like "Golden Retriever") and often too subdued, but the throbbing "Out of Control," "Venus & Serena" (about two pet turtles, not the tennis stars), the near-Brazilian lope of "Valet Parking" and the spooky psychedelia of "The Piccolo Snare" are all fantastic.
Ed Harcourt: From Every Sphere (Astralwerks) Rating: 13/20
Predictably falling short of the remarkable Here Be Monsters, Harcourt's experimental second album is a more atmospheric, diffuse collection, seemingly more preoccupied with texture and airy arrangements than solid songwriting. These longer, wafting pieces -- centered around piano and Harcourt's sensitive, double-tracked sob -- add random elements like pump organ, bells, harmonica, trumpet, electronics and even full orchestration, but most of the album's glories come within the first four songs.
Lou Reed: The Raven (Reprise) Rating: 13/20
This recording of a commissioned Edgar Allan Poe stage show is strikingly diverse by Reed standards, and the dense arrangements (horns, strings, sax, backing singers) and abundant guest stars (David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Laurie Anderson, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, the Blind Boys of Alabama...had enough?) add up to his most ambitious production ever. Unfortunately, many of these theatrical pieces (a few of them, spoken) don't hold up so well on CD, even if Reed fans won't want to miss "Change," "Call on Me," the slashing "Blind Rage," Bowie's "Hop Frog" and the dramatic "Who Am I? (Tripitena's Song)."
Placebo: Sleeping with Ghosts (Astralwerks) Rating: 13/20
It's often a doomed stab of creative desperation when an established group adds electronics to its sound, but the gambit works beautifully in the case of this UK trio's fourth (and best) album. Reversing a trend of diminishing returns, Sleeping with Monsters couches Brian Molko's nagging nursery rhymes -- usually anxious pleas to friends and lovers -- in attractive, sparkling landscapes which breathe life into otherwise average songs like "This Picture," "Special Needs," "Second Sight" and the rippling "Protect Me from What I Want."
The Wrens: The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher) Rating: 13/20
The Wrens' incredible second album Secaucus (released in 1996!) was perhaps the overlooked CD of the past decade, but the joys of that indie masterpiece are watered down on this ridiculously overdue and hugely frustrating disc. The group's inventive, contrapuntal pop is intact on stronger cuts like "She Sends Kisses" and "Ex-Girl Collection," but other tracks are steadily undermined by two nagging problems: a mix which buries the vocals and prevents the listener from connecting with the lyrics, and the band's peculiar insistence on looping certain slow-build ideas over and over, without ever reaching a natural payoff.
Kristin Hersh: The Grotto (4AD) Rating: 13/20
The mad genius of Throwing Muses releases another solo album of elliptical acoustic pieces, helped out this time by guest stars Howe Gelb (piano) and Andrew Bird (violin). The first three tracks suggest more narrative focus and a fresh, bluesier edge (the exquisite "Deep Wilson" is one of Hersh's finest tunes, period) but the rest of the disc settles into familiar territory, where her roaming melodies are too often short on dynamic shape.
Fruit Bats: Mouthfuls (Sub Pop) Rating: 13/20
The second album from this acoustic Chicago group wonderfully recaptures the gentle beauty of the Beach Boys' Friends (especially on "A Bit of Wind"), before its relaxed gait fades into lethargy during the later tracks. Singers Eric Johnson and Gillian Lisee croon some of the year's warmest, prettiest harmonies, while "Rainbow Sign," "The Little Acorn" (with its sublime diminished chord change), "Magic Hour" and the thumping "When U Love Somebody" shimmer like spring-morning dew.
Spiritualized: Amazing Grace (Spaceman/Sanctuary) Rating: 13/20
Spiritualized's latest disc has a simple problem: The songs (averaging just four minutes) are too short to deliver Jason Pierce's central talent for deliberately paced, whisper-to-a-scream, acid-rock buildups. Otherwise, the usual orchestrations are cut back on this more raucous collection, which shifts between bludgeoning garage-rock ("This Little Life of Mine"), some Dylanesque word-salad ("Cheapster"), a jazzier instrumental ("The Power and the Glory") and the expected wall-of-sound hymns ("Hold On," "Lord Let It Rain on Me").
The High Llamas: Beet, Maize & Corn (Drag City) Rating: 13/20
The High Llamas come full circle with this surprising return to form, as auteur Sean O'Hagan finally gets Stereolab and Tortoise out of his system and revisits the pastoral, orchestrated pop of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks (the latter is even namechecked in "The Holly Hills"). Reversing a years-long decline, O'Hagan is still hampered by his wan voice and a somewhat back-door approach to melody, but "The Walworth River," "Leaf and Lime," the time-shifting "Calloway" and the exotic "The Click and the Fizz" lead a suite of lovely, elusive portraits centered on acoustic guitar, vibes, horns and violins.
The Jayhawks: Rainy Day Music (American) Rating: 13/20
After two disappointing albums which awkwardly strained for crossover success, the Jayhawks return to their gentle country roots with this farewell release. "Stumbling Through the Dark," "Tailspin," "Save It for a Rainy Day" and "Come to the River" are among the undeniably seductive tunes, but the relaxed tempos turn dull and the fatal lack of top-notch songwriting still leaves the group sounding like an expert tribute band without an identity of its own.
The Delays: Faded Seaside Glamour (Rough Trade) Rating: 13/20
This U.K. quartet's debut has some beautifully produced, glistening pop songs, but its biggest strength is Greg Gilbert's voice, a dazzling instrument which is half boyish yearn, half androgynous falsetto. The tightly crafted arrangements quiver and float, while sweet melodies like "Wanderlust," "Nearer Than Heaven," "You Wear the Sun" and "Long Time Coming" poke happily (did someone say gaily?) into the atmosphere.
The Strokes: Room on Fire (RCA) Rating: 13/20
Yup, all the same elements are here: Julian Casablancas' bored snarl, the nervous guitar licks, the ferociously squashed mix and lyrics which sound like conversations overheard at trendy Manhattan loft parties. It was a foregone conclusion that the Strokes' second disc wouldn't equal their smashing debut, but about half the new songs (especially "You Talk Way Too Much," "Meet Me in the Bathroom" and "12:51") still manage to churn out a catchy hook or two.
Matthew Sweet: Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu (RCAM) Rating: 13/20
The classic-pop ace wrote and recorded this unusual, homemade album within a week, especially as a gesture to his beloved Japanese audience. Accordingly, a few songs feel undercooked and the production values are somewhat shabby, but Television's Richard Lloyd contributes some fiery guitar work and several tunes (including "The Ocean In-Between," "Hear This," "Tonight We Ride" and the Who-like power of "Dead Smile") outclass tracks on Sweet's more big-budget discs.
Beulah: Yoko (Velocette) Rating: 13/20
Clearly influenced by Wilco's recent makeover, Beulah takes an ambitious step toward maturity with the sober Yoko, but sacrifices its bubblegum joys in the process. Replacing perky Elephant 6 horns with moaning strings and growling ambient noise, the group adopts a more melancholy, three-dimensional perspective on fine tracks like "A Man Like Me" and "My Side of the City," but drab moods and overlong songs undercut the album's strengths.
The Minus 5: Down with Wilco (Yep Roc) Rating: 13/20
Much thornier than 2001's irresistible Let the War Against Music Begin, the ironically titled Down with Wilco dwells on downbeat tempos and off-center, vaguely psychedelic arrangements which rely on woozy keyboards and violins over guitars. Guiding hand Scott McCaughey turns in another set of witty, rueful songs ("Retrieval of You" especially stands out), but stirring ballads like "That's Not the Way That It's Done" and "Daggers Drawn" don't compensate for the lack of spirit elsewhere.
Zwan: Mary Star of the Sea (Martha's Music/Reprise) Rating: 13/20
One might expect Billy Corgan's new band to be an experimental departure, but instead, the group's uniform, radio-ready rock sounds like a calculated bid to regain his squandered commercial momentum. Less explosive dynamics, a less pretentious mystique and a drier mix (good news for those who cringe at Corgan's overprocessed, cat-scratch vocals) distinguish Zwan from the Smashing Pumpkins, but Corgan's ill-advised move away from metallic riff-rock continues to yield frustrating results (and, crucially, no killer single).
Wire: Send (Pink Flag) Rating: 12/20
The pure sound of Wire's years-overdue reunion album is stunning -- the coldly shredding guitar is so lean, mean and crystalline that the album almost gets by on textural sensuality alone. But fans hoping for a return to the group's art-punk roots may be disappointed -- this overpraised disc has more in common with the Ministry school or Wire's own "Drill," building tracks on single, bludgeoning riffs and deadpan vocals which lack Colin Newman's old arched-eyebrow saltiness ("You Can't Leave Now" is arguably the only song which banks on melodic development rather than grinding momentum).
Ween: Quebec (Sanctuary) Rating: 12/20
Now resigned to cult-following status after a modestly successful run on Elektra, this druggy Pennsylvania duo (typically) sounds like several different bands on this mysteriously titled, 15-track sampler (the contradictory comparisons could start with Tenacious D, 10cc, the Residents, America, Pink Floyd...). The classic-rock grind of "Transdermal Celebration," the gaily demented "Happy Coloured Marbles" and the jaunty, '20s-style "Hey There Fancypants" are offbeat fun, but three other tracks ("Captain," "The F**ked Jam," "Alcan Road") are disposable filler and an unwelcome helping of mellow ballads again exposes the drawbacks of the Weens' fundamental insincerity.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Nocturama (Anti-) Rating: 12/20
Possibly Cave's dullest album ever, Nocturama is leaden with weakly played piano ballads, uninvolving love-song themes and clumsy melodies which are neither graceful nor fiery. "Bring It On" has a stately surge, "Dead Man in My Bed" rocks hard in 15/8 time (!) and "Still in Love" almost succeeds as a touching standard, but the 15-minute climax "Babe, I'm on Fire" is a maddening endurance test (wasn't there a more ecological way for Cave to dump his leftover character snapshots?).
Enon: Hocus Pocus (Touch and Go) Rating: 12/20
With the uneven Hocus Pocus, Enon essentially splinters into two bands: the funky electronic-pop group led by Japanese bassist Toko Yasuda, and a more standard indie-rock group led by guitarist John Schmersal (the exciting "Starcastic" is the one song where both sounds finally collide). Yasuda's wispy presence is too weak to cast her as a lead singer/songwriter, so Schmersal's lagging, post-Pavement romps ("Candy," "The Power of Yawning," "Spanish Boots," the deliciously slashing "Utz") are the disc's most solid tracks.
Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (Matador) Rating: 12/20
More drizzly than sunny, this downbeat disc drops Ira Kaplan's bristling guitar licks in favor of murky piano, organ and drum machines (Antonio Jobim and Stereolab seem like prime inspirations here). However, the quiet moods just emphasize the group's irritatingly weak voices, and even the sweetest melodies ("Little Eyes," "Tiny Birds," "Season of the Shark," "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float") lose their spark amid the album's numbing uniformity.
MC Honky: I Am the Messiah (spinART) Rating: 12/20
The Eels' Mark Everett goes undercover for this fun (if trivial) indulgence, a collection of experiments and sample-laced party grooves which leave behind his usual melodic narratives. "Hung Up," "My Bad Seed" and "What a Bringdown" sound like Eels songs disguised behind vocal filters and other tomfoolery, while "The Baby That Was You" and the zesty soul breakdown of "Sonnet No. 3 (Like a Duck)" are the most interesting beat-based tracks.
Matt Elliott: The Mess We Made (Merge) Rating: 12/20
Elliott celebrates (or mourns?) the retirement of his Third Eye Foundation moniker with eight dour, meditative pieces which draw more from chamber music, European folk and Tin Pan Alley than the contemporary electronic world. A few water-logged vocals, some druggy backmasking and a couple of short percussive sections are the only nods to trendy accessibility, while the indulgent track lengths and sparse, piano-dominated arrangements make the disc best suited for background listening.
Black Box Recorder: Passionoia (One Little Indian) Rating: 12/20
Sarah Nixey's seductive persona slips into formula and self-parody on the trio's disappointing third album, which shifts the group's sound toward dance music with awkward results. The intrusive synthetic beats clash with the wordy lyrics and Nixey's whispered vocals ("These Are the Things" is the only club tune with a smooth groove), and the pop-culture references (Andrew Ridgley, Princess Diana) and sexual provocation ("The School Song," a weak rehash of "The Facts of Life") seem more calculated than before.
Swell: Whenever You're Ready (Beggars Banquet) Rating: 12/20
Ever the impenetrable auteurs of moody acoustic shuffles, Swell's remaining two members go for broke with this overlong disc (the move didn't work -- the band is now off the label). The vocal-heavy mix and CD booklet betray the group's overestimation of their vague, world-weary lyrics, and it's too bad that the rich psychedelic guitars of "Convince Us," "Words Gift" and "Always Everything" are in short supply elsewhere.
Portastatic: The Summer of the Shark (Merge) Rating: 12/20
Mac McCaughan's latest sojourn away from Superchunk yields frustrating results -- the tracks are likeably performed and produced with an interesting mix of acoustic and electric sounds, but those efforts are wasted on spotty songwriting. Apparently feeling a bit lonely nowadays, McCaughan mopes through a few sharp tunes (the crashing "Chesapeake," the pleasing flow of "Noisy Night," the fuzzed-out "Drill Me" and a plaintive duet with Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss), but the more downbeat tracks just seem overlong and shapeless.
Buzzcocks: Buzzcocks (Merge) Rating: 12/20
The Buzzcocks' latest comeback album is a lot like its flat title and black-and-white artwork: spartan, uniform and straight-ahead. "Keep On," "Friends" and two songs written with original leader Howard DeVoto are sharp additions to the group's punk-pop legacy, but it was a major goof to sacrifice the group's identity by hiding Pete Shelley's trademark vocals behind doubletracking and a bulldozing guitar sound.
Mosquitos: Mosquitos (Bar/None) Rating: 12/20
This Manhattan-by-way-of-Brazil trio serves up disarming bossa nova morsels, minimally arranged for guitar, organ and drums plus an appropriately doe-eyed couple sharing lead vocals (just try not to be charmed by their traded lines in "Next to Me"). The 14 sketchy tunes will never make anyone forget Antonio Carlos Jobim, but the unpretentious joys of "Forever Song," "Love Stew" and the anthemic "Mosquito" are breezily refreshing.
The Sugarplastic: Will (TallBoy) Rating: 12/20
Sugarplastic maestro Ben Eshbach walks a lonely path, too nerdy for the indie-rock crowd but far too quirky and distinctive for the nostalgic power-popsters. However, Eshbach the producer undoes Eshbach the performer on this highly experimental disc (eerily reminiscient of the Beach Boys' fragmented Smiley Smile), wherein even the first-rate songs ("The Runaround," "Autumn All the Time," the sublime "Underwater") are sabotaged by frustratingly excessive filtering, effects, multi-tracking and trickery.
The Go-Betweens: Bright Yellow Bright Orange (Jetset) Rating: 12/20
For once, an album's production should be slicker -- minus the Go-Betweens' typical gloss and sweetening, these 10 unadorned tracks just come off like two aging songwriters trading tunes, with average guitar skills and below-average voices. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan reassert their gift for tight, refined imagery in these wistful songs, but "Poison in the Walls," "Old Mexico" and the Western-flavored "Too Much of One Thing" are the only ones which don't drift into sedate lethargy.
Quasi: Hot Shit (Touch and Go) Rating: 12/20
Quasi tosses out most of what made the duo special on this highly disappointing disc, which switches the group's instrumental emphasis from buzzing analog keyboards to bluesy electric guitar. Poorly recorded and scratchily sung, the album has too much pointless jamming, too many hamfisted swipes at right-wing politics and too few solid songs ("Drunken Tears" and the back-porch ditty "Master & Dog" are as good as it gets).
The Thorns: The Thorns (Aware/Columbia) Rating: 12/20
Underappreciated songwriters Pete Droge, Matthew Sweet and Shawn Mullins (DSM, CSN...whatever) have pooled their roots-pop talents in this semi-supergroup, obviously with an eye on the mainstream marketplace. With facilely crafted melodies and slick vanilla harmonies, these Byrdsy jingles squander their potential for folksy intimacy, instead offering pleasing but hollow pastiches such as "Runaway Feeling," "I Can't Remember" and "No Blue Sky."
Blur: Think Tank (Virgin) Rating: 11/20
Now without founding guitarist Graham Coxon, Blur dares its eroding fanbase to enjoy the dark moods of Think Tank, a terminally sluggish affair of muddy grooves and weary ballads, which calculatingly tacks on the otherwise frisky "Crazy Beat" in the hopes of landing another stoopid riff-rocker on American radio. Damon Albarn's artless voice isn't well-suited for potentially pretty ballads like "Out of Time," "Sweet Song" and "Gene by Gene," and the druggy trance of "Brothers and Sisters" is the only beat-based track which doesn't turn tedious.
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic: The Iridium Controversy (Cuneiform) Rating: 11/20
The Massachusetts quartet's chamber-rock formula sounds exhausted on this slack disc, which even recycles two '80s-era pieces (and original member Roger Miller) in an effort to recapture the group's past vigor. The intricate instrumentals, dominated by airy saxophone and rippling piano, pick up some heat when guitarist Michael Bierylo is the composer (see "Make the Camera Dance" and "Sherpas on Parade"), but the more sedate tracks suggest the Birdsongs' roaming melodies are too diffuse to hold up when the propulsive rhythms and colliding time signatures are dropped.
The Pastels: The Last Great Wilderness (Geographic) Rating: 11/20
This snack of a disc (just 24 minutes) collects the twee-pop stalwarts' wistful contributions to a film centered around a mysterious Scottish village. Dominated by soft female vocals, murmuring trumpet, lullaby bells and simple strums of acoustic chords, the instrumentals recall the soundtrack work of old progsters like Popul Vuh and Pink Floyd, while the best reasons to grab the disc are a hushed transformation of Sly Stone's "Everybody Is a Star" and the climactic "I Picked a Flower" (a one-time collaboration with Jarvis Cocker which, ironically, is a lot funkier than the Sly cover).
Polara: Jetpack Blues (Susstones) Rating: 11/20
Ed Ackerson's poppy, post-shoegaze assemblages of effects and guitar noise are about 10 years out of date (Medicine and Swervedriver, anyone?), but his obvious energy and enthusiasm are enough to forgive this D.I.Y. comeback. Sounding surprisingly big-budget despite the loss of Interscope funding, this densely layered disc leads off with three captivating tracks (including the roaring wall of "Can't Get Over You" and the chunky, gospel-flavored title tune) before dull lyrics and a formulaic sound dissipate the momentum.
Owsley: The Hard Way (Lakeview) Rating: 11/20
After his irresistible debut was unjustly buried in the cut-out bins, pop hero Owsley decides to woo the mainstream with this overdue sequel (held up by an extended legal battle with Warner Brothers). The disc's dreary first half finally yields to some brighter sounds during the last five tracks ("Undone" and "Rainy Day People" are especially good, recalling Jason Falkner's baroque power ballads), but anonymous lyrics, dragging tempos and calculated commercial polish drain away most of the fun.
Elvis Costello: North (Deutsche Grammophon) Rating: 11/20
And for his next trick, our favorite eclectic songwriter crafts his most unlikable album ever, an agonizingly slow-paced set of piano-centered torch songs presumably inspired by his new love for jazz chanteuse Diana Krall. The brief "Still" benefits from its tighter melody (and a Brodsky Quartet cameo), but the rest of these bids at writing old-school "standards" have an uncomfortably restrained, portentous manner which all the expert musicianship in the world can't fix.
Mull Historical Society: Us (XL/Beggars Banquet) Rating: 11/20
Multi-instrumentalist studio rat Colin MacIntyre is so expert at layering attractive production montages that it's maddening that the work's underlying bedrock -- his songwriting -- is so spotty. Moaning about abandonment in track after track with repetitive lyrics and flat, anthemic melodies, MacIntyre drops most of Loss's social commentary to plod through an overlong disc which starts off great with "The Final Arrears," then drops into tedium.
Paul Westerberg: Come Feel Me Tremble (Vagrant) Rating: 11/20
Boy, Westerberg wasn't kidding with his Alex Chilton idolatry -- now he seems intent upon duplicating Chilton's maddening denouement of slapdash, rootsy knockoff albums which trash all expectations from the start. Come Feel Me Tremble has a few songs which could suit the Replacements' legacy if they were performed and produced with more care ("Making Me Go," "My Daydream," "Crackle & Drag," especially "Knockin' Em Back"), but Westerberg's lazy, undermixed vocals and crude, one-man-band antics sabotage any chance for a release of real merit.
The Lonesome Organist: Forms and Follies (Thrill Jockey) Rating: 11/20
On the first two Lonesome Organist records, one-man-band Jeremy Jacobsen managed to coalesce his diverse skills on drums, organ, steel pan and vibes into an intriguing vaudeville-meets-swamp-rat persona, but his third disc unravels into a series of disjointed genre stunts. A Butthole Surfers-like thrasher sits alongside two overdubbed a cappella pieces, two experiments in modal jazz, tape-reel madness ("No Place for My Kitten"), a track which sounds almost like lo-fi Björk ("The Victory of Sheila's Nap") and several peculiar stabs at classical minimalism (most notably, "Walking to Weston's").
The Minders: The Future's Always Perfect (Future Farmer) Rating: 10/20
Around the turn of the decade, this trio's spunky, post-British Invasion pop showed plenty of promise, but this trivial, 26-minute "album" suggests a defeated group resigned to casually recording on weekends. The eight, weakly produced tracks include a few blips of capable pop ("It's So Hard," "Tearaway," "Go Wave Your Wand"), but amateurish electronic flourishes and three clunky tunes sung by keyboardist Rebecca Cole make the brief disc seem like a seven-inch stretched out with filler.
Of Montreal: Then Who Will Protect Big Oil, Our Children? (Track and Field) Rating: 12/20
This modest odds-and-ends compilation (originally sold just at shows, before being reissued with slighter different tracks) barely adds up to a half-hour of material -- and that's including several song fragments which didn't really deserve a public release. Hardly the best introduction to Of Montreal's twisting, ingenuous psych-pop, the disc does include a charming cover of the Zombies' "Friends of Mine," the pretty dreaminess of "Cast in the Haze (Been There Four Days)," the cello-draped "An Ill-Treated Hiccup" and the generously titled "Inside a Room Full of Treasures a Black Pygmy Horse's Head Pops Up Like a Periscope."
Jon Auer/Ken Stringfellow: Private Sides (Arena Rock), the Decemberists: 5 Songs (Hush), the Flaming Lips: Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell (Warner Bros.), the Flaming Lips: Fight Test (Warner Bros.), the Kingsbury Manx: Afternoon Owls (Overcoat), Mark Lanegan: Here Comes the Weird Chill (Beggars Banquet), Portastatic: Autumn Was a Lark (Merge)
Endorsed but still unreviewed
Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Bettie Serveert: Log 22, Frank Black & the Catholics: Show Me Your Tears, the Books: The Lemon of Pink, David Byrne: Lead Us Not into Temptation, Vic Chesnutt: Silver Lake, Cracker: Countrysides, Deerhoof: Apple O', Gorky's Zygotic Mynci: Sleep/Holiday, Guided by Voices: Earthquake Glue, Imitation Electric Piano: Trinity Neon, Laika: Wherever I Am, I Am What Is Missing, Matmos: The Civil War, Natalie Merchant: The House Carpenter's Daughter, Mogwai: Happy Songs for Happy People, Monade: Socialisme ou Barbarie: The Bedroom Recordings, the New Pornographers: Electric Version, Parts & Labor/Tyondai Braxton: Rise, Rise, Rise, Some Girls: Feel It, Richard Thompson: Old Kit Bag, Tricky: Vulnerable, Robert Wyatt: Cuckooland, Soundtrack: A Mighty Wind // Cinerama: Cinerama Holiday, the Clean: Anthology, Led Zeppelin: How the West Was Won, Mouse on Mars: Rost Pocks: The EP Collection, Spiritualized: The Complete Works Volume 1, Superchunk: Cup of Sand