|The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (Matador) Rating: 14/20
Given the instant attraction of the New Porns' barreling energy, clarion voices and geometric melodies, it's irksome that their third album isn't even better than it is. Sprinkle a few more catchphrases (or graspable emotions) into A.C. Newman's recondite lyrics and restrain the drummer so his monolithic pounding doesn't consistently overshadow the vocals, and inventive tracks like "Sing Me Spanish Techno," the title song, "Use It" and "Star Bodies" could be pop classics.
|Paul McCartney: Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (Capitol) Rating: 14/20
This gentle album isn't McCartney's best post-Beatles release, but it stands up to repeated listens better than almost any other McCartney disc, thanks to unusually intricate melodies packed with dark harmonic twists and odd minor/major key shifts. Essentially a one-man-band effort except for some string charts and a perfectly placed dudek part on "Jenny Wren," this would-be McCartney III falls short in its pursuit of lyrical introspection but, given the intriguing arrangements, great tunes and McCartney's still-intact charisma, this hardly matters.
Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock & Roll (Downtown) Rating: 13/20
Eddie Argos, the speak-singing mouthpiece for these brash London boys, is a one-of-a-kind character, tossing out quotable, first-person tales with a self-aware wit that draws genuine laughs. His limited range could doom an album to tuneless monotony (and indeed, the disc's second half loses steam), except that his bandmates are also a joy, pounding through sharp Mod/punk riffs on barreling tracks like "Formed a Band," "My Little Brother," "Good Weekend" ("I've seen her naked twice!") and the surprisingly sentimental "Emily Kane."
50 Foot Wave: Golden Ocean (Throwing Music) Rating: 13/20
The album debut of Kristin Hersh's new power trio is a stunning, balls-out assault, with Hersh's fuzzy guitar lines pushed into the red and drummer Rob Ahlers bashing out ferocious beats that sharply reject the intricate, hippety-hoppety grooves of Throwing Muses' David Narcizo. Hersh's elliptical, stream-of-conscious anxieties and gnarled melodies lead a set of uniformly solid, if somewhat monotonous, tracks (the moshing "Clara Bow" stands out slightly), but the major handicap here is her sadly blown-out voice, which is so hoarse that you wish Swan from Phantom of the Paradise would step in to remix her.
Hal: Hal (Rough Trade) Rating: 13/20
Like a more sugary version of their kinfolk the Thrills, this Irish pop quartet pastes together delicate vocal harmonies and a roomful of borrowed musicians into a feel-good roar which falls somewhere between early-'70s Beach Boys and the Jayhawks' sweetly melodic plods. The wall-of-sound arrangements eventually turn a bit numbing (sometimes less is more, fellas!), but wonderfully sunny tracks like "What a Lovely Dance," "Don't Come Running" and the exhilarating "Play the Hits" did not deserve their bargain-bin sentence.
Kate Bush: Aerial (Columbia) Rating: 13/20
After a 12-year-break for motherhood and (let's face it) aging, the eccentric songstress returns with an elaborate, classy, introspective double-disc which also happens to be crushingly tuneless and conservative. Crooning about sedate matters such as birdwatching, painting and housekeeping while eschewing the bold dissonances of her best work, Bush is too often content to improvise melodies over stale, sluggish vamps (most tracks stretch past five minutes), and "Bertie," "Nocturn," "Somewhere In Between" and "Sunset" are the only songs which don't wear out their welcome before they're through.
Tom Zé: Estudando o Pagode (Luaka Bop) Rating: 13/20
This self-described "unfinished operetta" isn't as approachable as the Tropicalia pioneer's other Luaka Bop discs, unless you're someone who is instantly enticed by a surreal, multi-perspective look at the institutionalized subjugation of women in their relationships (hot stuff, huh?). With plenty of guest female vocals and a larger dose of acoustic pieces (less of those buzzing, angular guitar licks means less crossover appeal), the disc is hard to follow as storytelling even with the booklet's translated lyrics, but "Ave Dor Maria," "Elaeu," "O Amor é Um Rock" and the beautiful "Prazer Carnal" can stand alone as zesty Brazilian pop.
The Kingsbury Manx: The Fast Rise and Fall of the South (Yep Roc) Rating: 13/20
On its fourth album, this North Carolina ensemble unfortunately turns away from its atmospheric strengths (dreamy vocal harmonies, chiming guitar textures, aching chord changes) toward more straightforward, folksy "songwriting." Frontman Bill Taylor is not strongly talented as either a solo singer or a lyricist (printing the words in the CD booklet was an ill-advised stroke of vanity) and more painterly pieces like "Harness and Wheel," "And What Fallout!" and the near-psychedelic "Ol' Mountainsides" just emphasize the frustrating tone of the other tracks.
Hot Hot Heat: Elevator (Sire) Rating: 13/20
British Columbia's audacious pups move up to the majors without sacrificing their garage charm, dashing through another brief set of tight, well-written pop tunes. Scratchy guitars, nostalgic organ tones and Steve Bays' post-Cure yelp drive the band's sound, while crafty chord changes and above-average lyrics (clearly, new show-biz contacts have Bays thinking plenty about who's "real" and who isn't) make tracks like "Running Out of Time," "Goodnight Goodnight," "You Owe Me an IOU" and "Middle of Nowhere" more durable than first impressions might suggest.
Eric Matthews: Six Kinds of Passion Looking for an Exit (Empyrean) Rating: 13/20
Given the nearly eight years since The Lateness of the Hour, this seven-song, 34-minute morsel is anticlimactic, to say the least -- Matthews may be sitting on a backlog of material and using this disc to audition for a better record deal. The Portland-based pop craftsman plays practically all the instruments himself (mostly guitars, trumpet and keyboards), and again drips his multi-tracked murmur amidst unusual melodies, progressive chords and intimate dialogues.
The Posies: Every Kind of Light (Rykodisc) Rating: 13/20
The Seattle pop heroes' first studio album in seven years has the same flaw as several other Posies records: poor production ideas undermining quality songwriting. Thick with a baroque, hard-rocking sound that includes some unsettling flashes of Tom Scholz and Boston (see "Second Time Around" or "I Finally Found a Jungle I Like"), Every Kind of Light deserves credit for pushing beyond the power-pop envelope, but "It's Great to Be Here Again" (their audition for a James Bond soundtrack?), "Conversations," the piano ballad "That Don't Fly" and the breezily catchy "Love Comes" are the only tracks where all the pieces fit together smoothly.
Foetus: Love (Birdman) Rating: 13/20
As its title sardonically suggests, Love is a relatively mellow affair (at least by Foetus standards) that's less about industrial thunder than low symphonic moans and clockwork tinklings of bells and harpsichords. Unfortunately, the more restrained, cinematic passages reveal the limitations of Jim Thirlwell's voice, melodic sense and monotonously bleak lyrics, and the brutal moments in tracks like "Not Adam," "Aladdin Reverse" and "Time Marches On" makes one long for the terrifying power of his best work.
The Knitters: The Modern Sounds of the Knitters (Zoë) Rating: 13/20
Twenty years after the first Knitters album (and 12 years since X's last studio disc), four erstwhile X members and upright bassist Jonny Ray Bartel are back with another set of brightly colored (some will say cartoonish) hillbilly tunes, including a few choice originals, old folk/country standards, two revamped X classics and a too-kitschy cover of "Born to Be Wild." The giddyup tempos don't leave much room for emotional depth, but the inimitable John Doe/Exene harmonies, Dave Alvin's righteous guitar licks and the perverse wit of tracks like "Give Me Flowers While I'm Living," "Try Anymore (Why Don't We Even)" and "The New Call of the Wreckin' Ball" are more than enough to carry the album.
The Wedding Present: Take Fountain (Manifesto) Rating: 12/20
The first Wedding Present album in nine years reflects David Gedge's mellower sojourn with Cinerama, as -- unfortunately -- the Weddoes' scabrous guitars and Gedge's hacking growl are smoothed over in a collection more likely to tempt the dreamy-eyed Morrissey crowd. A few longer tracks have strange, subdued denouements (sometimes with a Western soundtrack feel), while Gedge's romantic miseries are most affecting on "Always the Quiet One," "It's for You," "Ringway to Seatac" and the wryly bittersweet "I'm from Further North than You."
Elf Power: Back to the Web (Rykodisc) Rating: 12/20
Having left most of its Elephant 6 eccentricities behind, Elf Power lacks a distinctive sound nowadays, simply giving us a pleasant brand of folk-rock flavored with raga-like melodies, background smears of school-band instruments and the liability of Andrew Rieger's inexpressive, pitch-shaky whine. "An Old Familiar Scene," "All the World Is Waiting" (which thankfully revisits the group's early, yowling lurch) and the thumping "King of Earth" have an atmospheric, late-'60s appeal, but the dull, dreamy-thoughts-by-the-riverbank lyrics are so unvarying that they're almost interchangeable between songs.
The Bats: At the National Grid (Magic Marker) Rating: 12/20
The first album in 10 years from these veteran New Zealand janglers is sort of a modest, morning-coffee disc which pleasantly flows in the background without intruding on your newspaper. Wan, poorly enunciated vocals (both male and female) make mild observations about nature and local sights, while chiming, semi-acoustic pop like "Single File" and "Up to the Sky" occasionally veers into understated, VU/Feelies-style jams.
Caribou: The Milk of Human Kindness (Domino) Rating: 12/20
Perhaps the legal struggles which preceded this disc led to creative distraction (bedroom auteur Dan Snaith was forced to surrender the name "Manitoba" due to pressure from Handsome Dick Manitoba's estate), because Caribou/Manitoba's mild-mannered, somewhat trivial third album is more blandly listenable than actively exciting. Focused on a hybrid of inert motorik grooves, textural smears and wan vocal snatches (see "Yeti," "Barnowl" or "Hello Hammerheads"), the disc breaks the flow with four quirky fragments but peaks with "Brahminy Kite" and "Pelican Narrows," where varied moods and more jagged percussion tracks create intriguing tensions.
Foo Fighters: In Your Honor (Roswell) Rating: 12/20
The Foo Fighters' 84-minute, two-disc opus is hardly a career-defining masterpiece, as Dave Grohl still can't lift his band from solid, radio-ready rock to something deeper and more transcendent (yes, it's difficult not to mention the N-word here). The electric disc has two memorable songs ("No Way Back," "DOA") and an exhausting assault of one-note screaming, while the second disc's unplugged tracks are occasionally stirring (the manic classical picking of "Razor," a bossa nova duet with Norah Jones, the skyward chorus of "What If I Do?") but can't break free of their simple chords and circular repetition.
Bob Mould: Body of Song (Yep Roc) Rating: 12/20
After the failed experiment of 2002's Modulate, this comeback disc is a much improved -- but still dicey -- reconciliation of Mould's old punk-pop anthems with his new love for trendy electronic trickery. You'll cringe at the recurrent Vocoder treatments, especially on the horrendous "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope," and the best tracks ("Circles," "Paralyzed," "Missing You," the escalating tension of "Gauze of Friendship") still fall short with their overly familiar power-chord progressions and Mould's never-ending angst aimed at the same mythical, estranged partner.
The Fiery Furnaces: Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade) Rating: 12/20
Attempting a bizarre concept album which would make even the Residents' heads spin, the Friedberger siblings base Rehearsing My Choir around the recollections -- and dowdy voice -- of their 83-year-old grandmother, constructing theatrical pieces so discontinuous and modular that the CD's index seems almost irrelevant (indeed, the lyric booklet suggests that the same music was originally split into nine tracks instead of 11 -- and it might as well have been 40). "The Wayward Granddaughter" has an affecting story, some vaguely danceable sections and the benefit of being separate from the main narrative but, otherwise, the nostalgic pleasures of Matthew Friedberger's ragtime-era keyboard licks aren't enough to unify his frenetic, tuneless switching of ideas.
Field Music: Field Music (Memphis Industries) Rating: 12/20
Peers of the Futureheads (who gave this band its drummer) and Maxïmo Park, this horribly named British combo has a similar love for cross-cutting rhythms and stilted melodies, but wraps them in a much cleaner package -- almost like Jon Anderson's dainty conception of what a tight Britpop act should be. The immediate allure of the group's production values and vocal harmonies makes the shortage of catchy songs particularly frustrating -- beyond "It's Not the Only Way to Feel Happy," "You Can Decide" and especially "If Only the Moon Were Up," the tunes are just too arty and irregular to be memorable.
Big Star: In Space (Rykodisc) Rating: 11/20
Unworthy of the sacred Big Star moniker, this crass studio debut of the group's intermittent reunion lineup (Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, plus the Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow) pastes together a few decent simulations of Big Star's classic guitar pop ("Dony," "Best Chance," "February's Quiet"), a solid Auer tune ("Lady Sweet") and a load of appalling filler plagued with the same perverse self-sabotage that killed Chilton's solo career. The relaxed California pop of "Turn My Back on the Sun" and "Hung Up with Summer" is listenable (if not remotely Big Star-like), but other tracks are just instrumental fluff and more of Chilton's lazy frat-rock pastiches -- and the six-minute "Love Revolution" is so awful, you'll scarcely even accept that it exists.
The Delays: You See Colours (Rough Trade) Rating: 10/20
The Delays wipe out on their second album, nullifying past 4AD/Cocteau Twins comparisons with thicker, keyboard-boosted arrangements that are nowhere near as seductive (no wonder the disc still doesn't have a US label). Greg Gilbert's delicate, girlish voice remains a distinctive trademark, but even the best tracks ("You and Me," "Too Much in Your Life," the possibly Yes-influenced "Winter's Memory of Summer") seem unsubtle and bludgeoning.
Moby: Hotel (V2) Rating: 10/20
After the commercial and creative breakthrough of 1999's inescapable Play, Moby has followed that landmark disc with two depressingly flat albums which just seem like calculated (and unsuccessful) attempts to further inflate his arena-level stardom. Still avoiding the samples which made him famous in favor of generic washes, dull lyrics and facile four-on-the-floor rhythms, the electronic mogul offers two bloated discs, one of banal rock anthems ("Spiders" and "Raining Again" are the most listenable) and a second of tepid, unimaginative ambient pieces.
Enon: Lost Marbles and Exploded Evidence (Touch and Go) Rating: 11/20
This flaky compilation of singles and rarities is barely substantial enough to warrant a release, though the accompanying DVD adds some heft to the package. Enon's inventive blend of indie rock, J-pop, funky beats and burping New Wave synthesizers is better sampled elsewhere (try 2002's High Society), and the material turns weedy and unfocused beyond the first three tracks.
The Hope Blister: Underarms and Sideways (4AD) Rating: 11/20
An ambient -- and markedly inferior -- companion to the original Hope Blister album (a 1998 supergroup collection of cover songs, patterned after the acclaimed This Mortal Coil trilogy which preceded it), Underarms essentially consists of single-pitch instrumental drones along with two strings-only mixes of previously released tracks. The set isn't a total loss because 4AD figurehead/producer Ivo Watts-Russell knows how to layer such material in a robust, textured fashion which doesn't just sound like someone leaning on a couple of synthesizer keys (though this virtue doesn't necessarily carry over to the needless remix disc, Sideways).
Grandaddy: Excerpts from the Diary of Todd Zilla (V2), Headlights: The Enemies EP (Polyvinyl), the Long Winters: Ultimatum (Barsuk), David Mead: Wherever You Are (Eleven Thirty)
Endorsed but still unreviewed
Tori Amos: The Beekeeper, Audioslave: Out of Exile, Lou Barlow: Emoh, Beck: Guero, Adrian Belew: Side Two, Frank Black: Honeycomb, the Books: Lost and Safe, Vic Chesnutt: Ghetto Bells, Elvis Costello: My Flame Burns Blue, the Decemberists: Picaresque, Deerhoof: The Runners Four, Eels: Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Brian Eno: Another Day on Earth, Ben Folds: Songs for Silverman, Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better, Fripp & Eno: The Equatorial Stars, the Fruit Bats: Spelled in Bones, Mick Harvey: One Man's Treasure, Juliana Hatfield: Made in China, Stephen Malkmus: Face the Truth, Monade: A Few Steps More, Nine Horses: Snow Borne Sorrow, Nine Inch Nails: With Teeth, Oasis: Don't Believe the Truth, Michael Penn: Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, Portastatic: Bright Ideas, Queens of the Stone Age: Lullabies to Paralyze, Sigur Rós: Takk, Sleater-Kinney: The Woods, Chris Stamey: A Question of Temperature, Super Furry Animals: Love Kraft, Supergrass: Road to Rouen, Teenage Fanclub: Man-Made, They Might Be Giants: Here Come the ABCs, Richard Thompson: Front Parlour Ballads, Weezer: Make Believe // Belle & Sebastian: Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: B-Sides & Rarities, Bob Dylan: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (The Bootleg Series Vol. 7), Brian Eno: More Music for Films, Stereolab: Oscillons from the Anti-Sun, They Might Be Giants: They Got Lost, Toy Love: Cuts, Ween: Shinola, Vol. 1