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December 31, 2002

Brendan Benson: Lapalco
StarTime, 2002
Rating: 3.8
The spazzy exuberance gifted pop-rock tunesmith Brendan Benson exhibited on his 1996 debut, One Mississippi, is mostly absent half-a-decade and one too many bruising encounters with bottom-line record industry executives later. More sober and self-possessed, Benson’s follow-up, Lapalco, marries an impeccable Beatle-esque ear with Alex Chilton-worthy miserablism to create a familiar collection of “upbeat downer” songs that will have you taping your foot while paradoxically crying in your beer. Begging a girl to stay while getting out of a depressive funk has rarely sounded as infectiously appealing as it does on “Eventually.” The endearing “Metarie” is a sad-sack anthem about an underdog who doesn’t get the girl and winds up home alone, his collection of skin mags offering cold comfort. Benson manages to take recognizable hooks and lyrically well-trodden material and imbue his songs with a personal sense of despair shot through with an admirable, Job-like optimism. As on One Mississippi, Jason Falkner lends a songwriting hand, collaborating with Benson on the more rock-oriented tracks, like the deliriously resolute, adversity-quashing “Tiny Spark” and the multi-tracked, swirling psychedelia of “Folk Singer.” The biggest misstep belongs to Benson alone, however, with the weak New Wave plastic soul of “You're Quiet” falling well below the standards established by the surrounding material. On the whole, Lapalco is a triumph of smart popcraft and hummable choruses. It may not take Benson to the top of the charts, but it should guarantee him the opportunity to continue plugging away with Sisyphean-like endurance until a larger, more appreciate audience validates just how wrong those industry suits were.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2002

Mclusky: Mclusky Do Dallas
Too Pure, 2002
Rating: 4.3
Welsh trio Mclusky leaves its homeland for Chicago, entrusting the sound of its sophomore release to stripped-to-the-bone producer (and indie-rock godhead) Steve Albini. The move pays off handsomely. Mclusky Do Dallas is a tight, catchy-in-spite-of-itself collection of punk-fueled, anti-commercial anthems. The band's 2000 debut, My Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful Than Yours, revealed promise (particularly on the bruising "Problems Posing As Solutions" and softer cut "Flysmoke"), but it didn't hold together particularly well. Albini remedies this dilemma by removing any sense of indulgence from Mclusky's repertoire. Most tracks pack up and get out of town around the two-minute mark, with the longer exceptions, like the more patiently crafted (though still manically executed) "Alan Is A Cowboy Killer," adding welcome gravity to the proceedings. Vocalist and guitarist Andy Falkous sets the tone early on opener "Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues," announcing "The gun's in my hand and I know it looks bad / But believe me I'm innocent." Titles like "To Hell With Good Intentions" and "The World Loves Us And Is Our Bitch" are fairly self-explanatory, with Mclusky championing a fiercely confrontational, take-no-shit attitude that certainly sounds genuine. (It's unlikely the group will license its music to a car company anytime soon.) Mclusky Do Dallas is a relentless assault to the senses, a sock between the eyes, and post-millennial rock can certainly use more of that.

::: Laurence Station

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December 31, 2002

Jay Farrar: ThirdShiftGrottoSlack [EP]
Artemis, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Despite being recorded at the same time as Sebastopol, the four originals on the five-track ThirdShiftGrottoSlack EP arrive nearly a year later. Bundling the tracks on a bonus disc with Sebastopol seems a more suitable option, but we're stuck with separate packaging and a retail outlet price tag instead. Producer Tom Rothrock's parenthetically denoted "Memphis Mix" of "Damn Shame" adds a little more spice to the Sebastopol original, but does nothing particularly revelatory with the source material. "Greenwich Time" falls in line with the previous album's locked-down paranoia ("The ballot box open / The flowing information / The temperature warming / And all of this cloning nonchalance"). "Station to Station" is the best of the castoffs, with Farrar stretching his sandpapery coarse vocal range. The amusing "Kind of Madness" strings news-of-the-weird headlines together ("Trash fell on man while sleeping;" "Dead man prop in holdup") while "Dues" offers some fierce Neil Young-esque guitar bravado to close things out. ThirdShiftGrottoSlack is a prime candidate for online download fodder; overpriced, to be sure, but definitely worth hearing for the Farrar faithful.

::: Laurence Station

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December 27, 2002

Out Hud: Street Dad
Kranky, 2002
Rating: 4.0
Out Hud's record label Kranky offers the following definition of the band's incredibly scattershot sound "... recalling the dry, brittle funk of early 80s UK post-punk ... and even acid house and hip hop." Indeed, Sacramento-born, now Brooklyn-based Out Hud does run the gamut on its debut, moving from moody post-rock ("Story of the Whole Thing") to ass-shaking funk ("Hair Dude, You're Stepping On My Mystique"), even tossing in a meandering electronic opus with the shamelessly artsy title "The L Train is a Swell Train and I Don't Want to Hear You Indies Complain." Out Hud, then, is neither electroclash nor punk rock, but rather an amalgamation of styles (mostly deriving from the '80s), which ends up sounding both original and retro at the same time. Being hard to pigeonhole isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when the resulting mishmash makes for a solid album from start to finish, but there's quite a gap between blurring genre lines, as Street Dad does, and being (as several hyperbolically-inclined critics have proclaimed) the "future sound of music." Such taglines are unfair to musician and listener alike, both ambiguous and ridiculously overblown. Out Hud is an unquestionably talented group that has yet to completely synthesize its disparate influences into a wholly unique and groundbreaking sound. Street Dad is definitely worth seeking out, for sure, but fans looking for a glimpse of tomorrow's music today may be disappointed. Don't be: What Out Hud's doing right now is just fine.

::: Laurence Station

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December 26, 2002

Joseph Arthur: Redemption's Son
Universal, 2002
Rating: 3.3
Singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur's third full-length album is his most challenging to date, mostly because of its epic girth (the 16 tracks span 75 minutes). Fans of his prior release, 2000's critically lauded Come to Where I'm From, will note a slightly sunnier tone to the proceedings here, though most of the themes (death, despair, lack of a backing band) remain unchanged. Arthur's gimmick, as his detractors would call it, is that on most recorded tracks (and in live performance) he uses a fairly intricate system of loops and pedals to create songs from the ground up, using only his voice and guitar. On stage, this can be captivating to watch, but on record many songs don't have the rich, full feel only a backing band can give. Nevertheless, Arthur trudges on here, seemingly unable to pare down this shambolic collection of songs (it's telling that this, his debut release for Universal, is the longest and most amoebic of his albums). Upon first glance, it's hard to believe that the artist offering a convincing Ryan Adams impersonation (circa Heartbreaker) on "Dear Lord" is the same one taking over nine minutes to go absolutely nowhere on the middling "Termite Song." (Even the album's press notes admit to this collection of songs as being "occasionally frazzled.") Still, Arthur can be proud of "Honey and the Moon", a catchy, mellotron-laden love song that manages to pull off the line "I wish that I could follow through; I know that your love is true, and deep, as the sea" and make it sound earnest. It's a testament to Arthur's versatility that he's often mentioned in the same breath as Joe Henry, Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen. However, after repeated listens to Redemption's Son, one wishes Arthur could pick a sound and stick with it.

::: Eric Grossman

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December 14, 2002

Josh Rouse: Under Cold Blue Stars
Slow River/Rykodisc, 2002
Rating: 4.2
Josh Rouse's Under Cold Blue Stars, which (like so many albums) documents the ups and downs of married life and relationships in general, achieves far more than a rote song cycle about courtship, wedded bliss, conflict and reconciliation. Instead, singer-songwriter Rouse, backed by a crackerjack band, imbues Stars' 11 tracks with an emotional depth -- from utter despair to intoxicated joy -- that is truly wondrous to hear. Loosely based on his own family history (concisely detailed, for those so voyeuristically inclined, on the artist's web site), the album tracks the progress of a couple starting a new life together ("Nothing Gives Me Pleasure"), struggling to make a farm work (the title track), dealing with infidelity ("Ugly Stories") and ultimately arriving at a (relatively) peaceful state of grace ("Women and Men"). Rouse dexterously navigates this series of matrimonial triumphs and travails, his limited but emotionally dedicated voice perfectly serving up evocatively accomplished lines as "Sat in the kitchen with an asthma cigarette/ out the window with an inch of regret" (on the mournful "Summer Kitchen Ballad"). Under Cold Blue Stars finds Rouse at the peak of his songwriting powers, in total command of the language, conveying more with less ("Abuse my heart for it's all I've left/ leading me on this is what I get," from "Ears to the Ground") and even penning a genuinely radio-friendly potential hit ("Feelin' No Pain"). His use of the tired highway-as-journey-of-life metaphor is more than a little trite, but when the songcraft and musicianship are this tight, a little slack is allowed.

::: Laurence Station

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December 10, 2002

Rilo Kiley: Execution of All Things
Saddle Creek, 2002
Rating: 3.3
Less precious than last year's critically well-received Take-Offs & Landings, Rilo Kiley's sophomore effort, Execution of All Things, rocks harder and boasts a noticeably cleaner production. What it lacks, however, especially in comparison to the debut, is memorable songs. The simmering, rising-to-a-boil "The Good That Won't Come Out" and the acoustically spare, emotionally vulnerable "With Arms Outstretched" are the best of the bunch. Tracks like "Paint's Peeling," while catchy in a way reminiscent of Kay Hanley belting it out for '90s power popsters Letters to Cleo, sport less-than-innovative guitar hooks. "So Long," meanwhile, offers some nice accordion work, but is undone by incredibly bland vocals. The songwriting team of guitarist Blake Sennett and singer Jenny Lewis can put a song together, but it's ultimately all about the presentation, and that's where Execution regrettably lacks distinction -- especially when it comes to setting the album apart from the countless other indie pop efforts swamping record store bins. File this one under: Execution of A Few Things Pretty Well.

::: Laurence Station

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December 08, 2002

Ours: Precious
Dreamworks, 2002
Rating: 2.0
Ours mastermind Jimmy Gnecco takes a lot of heat for aping the late Jeff Buckley, and given Gnecco's tender-boy falsetto swoon, there's merit to that complaint. But the problem with Precious, Ours' second album, lies not in the chilling echoes of Buckley's voice, but in the contexts in which Gnecco engages in his faerie-king mimicry. It's obvious Gnecco's aiming for rock-god iconography, from his earnest, Bono-esque pleas for peace all the way down to his appearance (although to be fair, it's not his fault that he resembles the love child of Trent Reznor and Creed's Scott Stapp). But there's (forgive the pun) precious little backing up the idol aspirations. Buckley's power came from the palpable clash of sexual and spiritual yearnings his voice conveyed; as with Kurt Cobain, his work engages the listener because you can't help but feel his pain. Not so with Precious, which makes clear that Gnecco's aiming outside of his league. The embarrassing lyricism of "Leaves" ("Why do so many races/ fight while our children play?") and the elegiac "Broken" ("Fate comes, and fate heals all the worst of our debts....if I could find a way/ I'd suffer all of your pain") proves his skill set isn't nearly sturdy enough to buy him a seat at the grown-up rock stars' table. It doesn't help that Precious further hobbles its grand ambitions with halting attempts at urgent, "important" rock ("Realize") and distressingly poor decision-making (an ill-conceived cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" -- or is it a cover of R.E.M.'s cover?). For every game, little-engine-that-could rocker like "Kill the Band" or musical change-of-pace like the Police-tinged "In A Minute," there's a plodding "Places" to dilute its effectiveness. Precious aims for a state of Grace, but in the end it's mired in all-too Human Clay.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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November 27, 2002

My Computer: Vulnerabilia
13 Amp, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Fittingly, My Computer (Manchester duo Andy Chester and Dave Luke) created Vulnerabilia on a computer, using samplers, guitars and a (way overused) vocoder to build 11 sound collages that range in style from druggy electronica to acoustic mope-rock, often within the same song. The genre-splatter effect is arresting upon first listen, but closer attention reveals a decided lack of both focus and, critically, the discipline to know when a song's finished. With the exception of the nine-and-a-half minute opener, "All I Ever Really Wanted Was a Good Time," longer cuts like "Majic Flat" and "I Don't Care How You Treat Me" simply overstay their welcome, while trite lines like "Dreamers are rewarded/ When the dream is coming true" from the otherwise rhythmically solid "Rope" threaten to expose Vulnerabilia's reckless adventurousness for what it truly is: sloppy execution. Granted, at its heart, Vulnerabilia is a club record. Forget the lyrics; forget the length of the cuts, and the oft-shoddy production, because if you can dance to it, all is forgiven. Unfortunately, this review isn't being written during an ecstasy-fueled after-midnight rave, thus making Vulnerabilia's shortcomings all the more glaring in the harsh light of the post-party morning.

::: Laurence Station

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November 22, 2002

Matchbox Twenty: More Than You Think You Are
Atlantic, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Is More Than You Think You Are little more than another liberal dose of polished, post-Alternative MOR bliss courtesy of Matchbox Twenty? Well, yes and no. The band's third album certainly contains its fair share of radio-friendly pap ("Hand Me Down," "Could I Be You," "Downfall," "The Difference"), but the group does exhibit a greater willingness to stretch its creative legs a bit. Opener "Feel" is a laudably muscular rocker, and "Soul" sports an accomplished guitar break. Pedal-steel master Greg Leisz shines on two lyrically-challenged, but musically solid, cuts ("Bright Lights," "Unwell"), while "Cold" serves as a nice bridge between the country and rock elements at play throughout the record. The most grating track, "Disease," will undoubtedly also be the biggest hit. Originally offered to Mick Jagger, but never used for his Goddess in the Doorway album, "Disease" bears a disturbing structural similarity to "Smooth," singer Rob Thomas' outside-Matchbox 20 smash hit with Carlos Santana from 1999's Supernatural. Such artistic cannibalization not only brings into question the integrity of the band, but also undermines the progressive strides attempted throughout the rest of the album. Whereas 1996's Yourself or Someone Like You seemed custom built for the singles charts and 2000's Mad Season added a little dark shading to the template, More Than You Think You Are winds up justifying its title by revealing a band desiring to be taken seriously, yet still catering to those who demand to hear the same dreck repeatedly. On "All I Need," Thomas sings, "You can still lose/ Even if you really try." That pretty much sums up the missed opportunity of More Than You Think You Are.

::: Laurence Station

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November 22, 2002

Talib Kweli: Quality
Rawkus/MCA, 2002
Rating: 3.3
On Reflection Eternal, his 2000 collaboration with DJ Hi-Tek, rapper Talib Kweli seemed to receive a shout-out from Nelson Mandela -- it was actually comedian Dave Chappelle, but many fans had no problem believing that Mandela would have dropped by the studio to show Kweli some mad love. Chappelle has a bit of fun with this fact in the opening moments of Quality, Kweli's first full-bore solo effort, cheekily introducing him as a three-time Nobel Peace Prize winner and "the nigga that invented the Nike swoosh." This drollery proves more fitting perhaps than was intended, given that Quality is a remarkably lightweight offering from the talent that paired with Mos Def on 1998's seminal Black Star. Not that Kweli (pronounce it like the first and final syllables of the album's title, helpfully enough) doesn't display some respectable lyrical flow on tracks like "Waitin' for the DJ." But the topics addressed throughout are as feathery as Kweli's distinctly welterweight voice: "Joy," a duet with Def, is a saccharine ode to the joys of fatherhood, less grating than Will Smith's "Just the Two of Us," but only because it doesn't lean on an older song to prop up its cavity-inducing subject matter. What's more, most of the tracks, most notably "Waitin' on a DJ" and "Talk to You," bop along on peppery, summertime rhythms that further belie Kweli's established status as a substantive, thought-provoking artist. The one exception is "Gun Music," a decidedly energized track that ironically may deter fans who don't listen closely enough to discern its true message. Quality proves a likable lark, but one wishes it bore more heft, both thematically and musically, enough so to warrant changing its title to High Quality.

::: The Gentleman

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November 22, 2002

Buddy Miller: Midnight and Lonesome
Hightone, 2002
Rating: 2.6
Seasoned honky-tonk troubadour Buddy Miller has released a handful of sturdy records that exist in a warm nether region between the spheres of alt-country, rock and folk. They're authentic, heartfelt records, distinctive for the stamp of a pedigreed performer and songwriter (Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale) going his own way. Sadly, Midnight and Lonesome doesn't quite live up to its estimable Hightone predecessors. Miller takes a couple of stylistic chances here, especially on the sprightly "Little Bitty Kiss," and the Cajun-infused "Oh Fait Pitie d'Amour," but that's not the problem. Midnight simply feels more forced, less genuine than exemplary efforts like 1995's Your Love and Other Lies and 2000's memorable Cruel Moon. Miller's insistent reliance on lyrical clichés grows unwieldy on "Wild Card," and his cover of the Everly Brothers' "The Price of Love" further grates on that front. Additionally, the above-mentioned departures feel distinctly contrived, musically and lyrically -- as does a labored rendition of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love." Miller's strong Christian beliefs, while laudable, bog down the topical "Quecreek," written by wife and songwriting partner Julie Miller for the rescued workers of the Quecreek mine, with soggy sentimentality. All of which unfortunately distracts from more substantial moments, like the somber "I Can't Get Over You" (also written by Julie Miller) and "Water When the Well Is Dry." That's too bad; Miller's gravel-flecked voice is in fine form, particularly in duets with Harris and Miller, and his songwriting and interpretive skills are well-documented elsewhere. Fans of Lauderdale, Earle, Harris or Lucinda Williams should seek out any of his earlier releases, including 1997's Poison Love, and skip this minor but disappointing misstep.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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November 21, 2002

Missy Elliott: Under Construction
Elektra, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Hot sex with the right person, mid-'80s battle raps and old school turntablist beats are the uniting themes of Missy Elliott's fourth release, Under Construction. Elliott, along with top-flight collaborator Timbaland, further refines the bouncing, futuristic beats heard since Elliott's formidable 1997 debut Supa Dupa Fly. While not as consistently excellent as last year's Miss E... So Addictive, Under Construction does offer a handful of standout tracks. "Work It" sports an infectious hook on par with So Addictive's "Get Ur Freak On," while "Gossip Folks" shows off Timbaland's penchant for under-the-radar, subtly progressive mixes that sound two steps ahead of everyone else. Under Construction's main conceits: The best sex comes with finding the right partner and hip-hop has veered too far from the comparatively peaceful '80s, when it was all about "British Knights and gold chains," not bi-coastal-fueled drive by shootings, elevate the album beyond the dance floor, asking serious questions (albeit in an often intentionally humorous vein) and wrestling with what constitutes long-term happiness -- trying out as many partners as one can or settling into a monogamous relationship. It's when Elliott goes it alone, sans Timbaland, and produces several R&B-flavored cuts, that Under Construction loses its edge. "P***ycat" comes off as a lightweight retread of "Work It," reiterating Elliott's stance on female sexual empowerment, but without as strong a beat or nearly as clever lyrics, while "Can You Hear Me," performed with TLC, offers an undoubtedly heartfelt, but thematically incongruous, tribute to fallen artists Aaliyah and Left Eye. Under Construction manages to live up to its title, a work in progress from one of hip-hop's brightest, if not always most consistent, stars.

::: Laurence Station

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November 21, 2002

Thalia Zedek: You're a Big Girl Now [EP]
Kimchee, 2002
Rating: 4.0
You're a Big Girl Now, Thalia Zedek's follow-up to 2001's excellent Been Here and Gone, curbs the singer's dark vocal theatrics with a more laid-back, yet no less cheery outlook on dating prospects in the big city. Finding the ideal relationship is still Zedek's primary lyrical focus, and her emotively careworn voice remains the strongest aspect of her music. The disc offers four original compositions, of which the regretful "Everything Unkind" and "JJ85," possessed of a deliberatively insistent backbeat, resonate most effectively. But Zedek really scores with a pair of covers: The Velvet Underground's "Candy Says," about Andy Warhol hanger-on transvestite Candy Darling, is imbued with a devastating sadness and longing for a better life. The title track, Bob Dylan's broken-hearted lament for lost love, sidesteps self-pity for a resigned acceptance that although things don't always work out the way one hopes, one shouldn't keep looking for happiness in a cold, indifferent world. Based on this tight collection, it seems a safe bet Zedek will never give up the search.

::: Laurence Station

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November 08, 2002

Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed the Fish?
Artist Direct, 2002
Rating: 3.6
Damon Gough, under the guise of his professional moniker Badly Drawn Boy, announced his arrival on the indie-pop scene with Britain's 2000 Mercury Music Prize-winner The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Fans and critics had to sate themselves with the solid About A Boy soundtrack from earlier this year before getting a listen to a proper follow-up. On the upside, Have You Fed the Fish? reinforces Gough's standing as one of the finest pop craftsmen working today. Standout tracks include the breezy, horn-drenched "All Possibilities," the Sgt. Pepper-era Beatlesque "Tickets to What You Need," and the fantastic "You Were Right," in which Gough proves his love for another by rejecting the advances of Madonna (albeit in a dream where he's married to the Queen and Mrs. Guy Ritchie conveniently lives next door). The main problem with Fish, however, is padding, or, the sense that Gough decided to keep all of the material composed for the album, even songs that run a minute or less, simply because he had them lying around. "I Was Wrong" shows enormous promise, but at a minute and ten seconds, there's very little to hold on to. And "Imaginary Lines" simply comes across as unnecessary filler. Where Bewilderbeast was all over the map, stylistically, yet still possessed of a cohesive, if incredibly quirky, flow, Fish will get a good run of three or four songs going, only to stutter or stumble, throwing off the entire rhythm of the set. If one wants to equate the fish in the album's title with Gough's fans, then, yes, they've been fed. But too many cut-rate ingredients are tossed into the mix to make for a whole and completely satisfying meal.

::: Laurence Station

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November 07, 2002

The Mountain Goats: Tallahassee
4AD, 2002
Rating: 3.5
With Tallahassee, head Mountain Goat John Darnielle puts aside his reliable Panasonic tape recorder, whose churning wheel-grind added a unique ambience to his past work, and enters a real studio (Tarbox, which has hosted such sonic experimentalists as the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev) to lay down the cleanest, sharpest, and most polished tracks of his prolific and (till now) stridently no-fi career. The downside is that the songs -- a cycle about a married couple on the cusp of divorce -- simply aren't very compelling. When Darnielle sang of desperate relationships on his earlier effort from this year, All Hail West Texas, there was an urgency in his voice that added a powerful emotional weight to the words. Tallahassee sounds like nothing so much as the product of a man whose lyrics are dwarfed by the professional environment in which he's operating. The closest Darnielle comes to breaking free of the glossy mix comes in the album's middle: the drunken pessimistic rant "No Children" and the rousing, punked-out "See America Right." Ultimately, the story of Darnielle's couple (who have appeared in previous Goats' songs with Alpha in the title) is simply too muted to elevate Tallahassee above a sturdy but ultimately flat collection. Darnielle should save his money and go back to his trusty boombox.

::: Laurence Station

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November 07, 2002

John Vanderslice: Life & Death of an American Fourtracker
Barsuk, 2002
Rating: 3.7
Gearhead love takes center stage on John Vanderslice's third solo outing. Life & Death of an American Fourtracker concerns exactly what the title says, following an artist who's suffered creative burnout at the ripe old age of 19 and winds up drowning himself in the ocean. Thematic story arc aside, what makes Life & Death so interesting is Vanderslice's obsession with studio tinkering. Visualize a junkbox of discarded audio equipment pressed into service with spontaneous joy, and you've got an idea of the obvious affection that permeates these tracks. Apparently, anyone who dropped by the studio was allowed to contribute to the disc. From Spoon drummer Jim Eno to Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard, Life & Death is like a collaborative indie rock sandbox, with Vanderslice keeping the tape rolling throughout. The standout cuts come early ("Fiend in a Cloud," "Me and My 424," "Mansion"), with the weaker material pushed to the back end. Recommended for those into noise for noise's sake or gearheads in search of new ideas when tinkering around the home studio.

::: Laurence Station

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November 04, 2002

Peter Gabriel: Up
Geffen, 2002
Rating: 3.0
It's unsurprising that Peter Gabriel's latest studio album, Up, has been in the works for a decade (his last effort, Us, was released in 1992). That's because as musically dense and intriguing as moments of Up prove to be, it bears all the marks of a work that's been both an afterthought and over-thought. Key portions of Up sound as if they've been tinkered with and worried over for far too long while at the same time, paradoxically, remaining in dire need of serious editing. The album's first half is particularly tough terrain, as "Darkness," "Growing Up" and "Sky Blue" build a solid and impenetrable wall of mood devoid of the sharper pop touches with which Gabriel usually undercuts such solemnity; think So or even Security without their respective pop instincts or edgier excursions, burdened with twice the lyrical gravity of the emotional ruminations of Us. It's not that there aren't moments of interest here, just that they're embedded deep, deep within a tableau of sonic monotony and thematic heaviness that will likely deter any but the most dedicated or patient fans. (It doesn't help matters, either, that the songs all run much longer than needed; most could trim a minute or so easily to much greater effect.) Up is pretty, but morosely so, and far too languid to even hope to live up to its title.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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October 30, 2002

Santana: Shaman
Arista, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Guitarist Carlos Santana has been around since the mid-'60s, often creating seminal work of real merit. So it's incredibly incongruous that he should persist in collaborating with the ephemeral Now That's What I Call Music! set. Supernatural, Santana's 1999 comeback, sported the megahit "Smooth" and served to introduce the group to a whole new and much younger generation, thanks to an array of demographically desirable guest stars including Rob Thomas and Everlast. For better or worse, it worked. But to blatantly replicate the formula with Shaman seems at best cynical, and at worst, desperate. Having gained a wider audience, Santana has a golden opportunity to offer a full set of the intricate jam instrumentals he's best known for. But instead of playing to his strengths, Shaman further loads up the guest stars, including Michelle Branch, Seal and Macy Gray. Aside from the obvious titular connection and packaging similarities, Shaman apes Supernatural in its content by offering Santana-only tracks haphazardly sequenced with a parade of wannabe hits featuring various pop stars. As on Supernatural, the disc opens with a patented Santana jam, shortly followed by a hoped-for smash hit: "The Game of Love," with Michelle Branch (stepping in for Rob Thomas this time out). Obviously Shaman shines when Santana goes it alone ("Adouma," "Foo Foo," "Victory Is Won"), and stumbles badly with the mixed bag of Top 40 regulars. This must be the only time in history P.O.D., Placido Domingo, and Dido have appeared on the same record together, and this amazingly scattershot approach reveals just how overeager Arista was to push Shaman across all markets, tastes and sensibilities. That there's no artistic rhyme or reason behind such a diverse blend of performers only reinforces the greedy, shallow and embarrassingly obvious aspects of this missed opportunity.

::: Laurence Station

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October 28, 2002

Ron Sexsmith: Cobblestone Runway
Nettwerk, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Eschewing the "twangtrust" production of Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy on last year's solid Blue Boy, Toronto-based singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith veers into electronic territory for his sixth full-length release, Cobblestone Runway. Utilizing the synthesized-based production talents of Martin Terefe, Sexsmith adds what would seem an incongruous element to his normally stripped down, emotionally direct tunes: buzzes, hums, and other digitally-treated samples. Surprisingly, though, the relatively unobtrusive artificial touches add a nice subtext to Sexsmith's nakedly honest approach to songcraft. The techno jam at the end of "Heart's Desire" leads effortlessly into the upbeat "Dragonfly on Bay Street," while "These Days" and "Disappearing Act" enjoy a much-needed kick in the pants thanks to Terefe's deft studio techniques. The passionate, piano-driven "Gold in Them Hills" (one of Sexsmith's finest compositions) stands head and shoulders above the rest, so much so that a pulse-oriented duet remix with Coldplay's Chris Martin is tacked onto the end of the album. On the downside, "God Loves Everyone" takes an annoyingly simplistic, childlike view toward solving all the world's Post-9/11 problems, and Cobblestone suffers from a rather slow first third. But Sexsmith has never seemed more optimistic (all the more notable, given that Cobblestone Runway comes on the heels of the painful dissolution of his marriage), and his voice has never sounded better.

::: Laurence Station

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October 24, 2002

Faith Hill: Cry
Warner Brothers, 2002
Rating: 2.5
Moving from the upbeat, shimmering-pop love balladry that defined 1999's breakout success Breathe into more moody, urban soul-oriented territory, Nashville chanteuse Faith Hill delivers Cry, an overlong, overproduced work that reinforces the idea of an enormous machine rather than a sincere artist operating behind such blatantly mainstream efforts. Imagine Diana Ross, sans the soul, and one gets a good idea of where Cry is coming from. Hill has a strong, if at times too-shrieking voice, and articulates the carefully couched words penned by a phalanx of songwriters with savvy, adult-contemporary-marketed passion, but that's all it is. Granted, the music business is out to make money, but so are the people who sell shoes and vacuum cleaners. At least in the music business, one has a chance to make art as well as a decent living. Sadly, Cry offers up a rote list of power ballads ("Baby You Belong," "When the Lights Go Down," "Unsaveable") with more bluesy fare ("One," "Free") and the requisite pop-country numbers so as to not completely alienate her home base ("If This Is the End," "Stronger"). The album even finds time to toss in some Middle Eastern strings on the closing "You're Still Here." That it all feels prepackaged and contrived is beyond question. But a person in Hill's position should be able to demand a little more Faith Hill be included in the final product. On Cry's best track, "This Is Me" (which features a nice guitar break), Hill urges the listener to "celebrate who you are." It's a shame she didn't bother to take her own advice and do just that on this latest effort, bean counters be damned.

::: Laurence Station

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October 24, 2002

The Notwist: Neon Golden
City Slang, 2002
Rating: 3.8
The Notwist's Neon Golden offers Markus Acher's affectless vocals over a warm, electro-pop sound filled with intricate arrangements and subdued yet glitchy breakbeats. When the German band's decidedly non-aggressive, laidback approach works (as it does on the sinuously propulsive "Pilot" and "Pick Up the Phone," which starts out like a mournful dirge before slowly percolating to life, revealing a skillfully catchy rhythm) Neon Golden has an entrancing, hypnotic effect that perfectly captures the image of the album's title. The danger of lowering the pulse to such a casual degree, however, runs the risk of long stretches where the drone factor sets in and all life is drained from the proceedings ("This Room" and "Solitaire"). Fortunately, these moments are infrequent, and the overall effect of Neon Golden is one of dense orchestration and noteworthy samples, with special mention going to programmer/keyboardist Martin Gretschmann and drummer Martin Messerschmidt, who manage stellar work.

::: Laurence Station

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October 23, 2002

Supergrass: Life on Other Planets
Parlophone, 2002
Rating: 3.4
Supergrass has always been one of those talented, near-miss bands possessed of enormous potential when it bothers to focus long enough to make a complete and artistically credible album. Its latest, Life on Other Planets, further proves the notion that this bastard offspring (musically speaking) of T-Rex and the Buzzcocks is capable of fine songs. But the true realization of the lackadaisical British trio's breakout potential has yet to occur. Guitarist/vocalist Gaz Coombes offers his best Marc Bolan imitation on T-Rex odes "Za" and "Seen the Light," and there are a few gems sprinkled amongst the lesser efforts (the spiky, guitar-driven "Brecon Beacons" and the effervescent pop sparkle of "Grace") but throwaways like "Funniest Thing" and the lame closer "Run" dampen the album's overall impact. Such songs reduce the odds that you'll want to play Life on Other Planets over again; it's the kind of album for which the "skip" feature on CD players was made. Given the genuine talent glimpsed in frustratingly brief flashes here, that's a real shame.

::: Laurence Station

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October 12, 2002

Mr. Lif: I Phantom
Definitive Jux, 2002
Rating: 3.7
Mr. Lif's debut LP is a concept album. We know this because Lif goes to great lengths in the liner notes to explain what said concept is. In a nutshell: Life sucks, and we're all going to die in a fiery nuclear holocaust. There's even a song-by-song key explaining what each track's about and how it relates to the others. It's a shame Lif didn't have more confidence in his ability to convey the themes solely through the music, without having to spell everything out for us. (Have some faith, Lif; your audience is smarter than you think.) The sound of the album -- no doubt thanks to the signature production techniques of El-P and appearances by Vast Aire and Aesop Rock -- falls in line with the stridently underground rap Definitive Jux approach: heavy beats, futuristic tones and an unremittingly bleak outlook regarding humanity's future. "Return of the B-Boy" and "New Man Theme" are the standout tracks, as Lif's clever verbosity meshes seamlessly with the smartly sequenced samples and dense beats of the respective producers. The main knock against I Phantom is its lack of subtlety, and its overly depressing take on the state of worldly affairs, made worse by a lack of any new insights as to how to cure said ills or even justify just how things got so bad.

::: Laurence Station

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October 11, 2002

Dixie Chicks: Home
Open Wide/Sony, 2002
Rating: 3.3
Before singer Natalie Maines joined the Dixie Chicks for 1998's Wide Open Spaces, original Chicks Martie Seidel Maguire and Emily Robison slowly and steadily evolved beyond their original, more traditional approach, adding increasingly poppy elements into a standard country mix. Post-Maines, the makeover was complete, moving the band from casual, rural musicians to hip, contemporary urban cowgirls: sassy, fun and willfully pre-packaged. After back-to-back country-pop smashes (Spaces and 1999's Fly), the Dixie Chicks gesture back to their roots, in particular to the pop-bluegrass leanings of their 1992 debut Thank Heavens for Dale Evans. Home struggles mightily to live up to its name, reaching back to the group's less affected beginnings, with mixed results; the album proves a generally pleasing but conflicted mix of traditional numbers and the kind of bland MOR fare that has become the trio's highly lucrative calling card. The Darrell Scott-penned opener "Long Time Gone" employs some clever wordplay in addressing the artificiality of modern country music: "Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard/ They got money but they don't have Cash." As harmonized by the Chicks, however, it sounds slightly hypocritical. After all, the Chicks haven't exactly hidden the fact that they went for the brass ring, and unashamedly enjoy their success. And a cover of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide," while pretty, doesn't exactly conjure images of honky tonk Saturday nights. The more raucous, bluegrass numbers -- "Tortured, Tangled Hearts" and the fiery instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade" -- are stirring highlights, in painfully sharp contrast to the pop-friendly efforts that drain all energy from the middle of the album ("A Home," "I Believe in Love"). Home offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the Chicks can accomplish when they put aside the need for a safe, radio-friendly hit and recognize their roots.

::: Laurence Station

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October 03, 2002

Ladytron: Light & Magic
Emperor Norton, 2002
Rating: 3.2
Electronic music works best when it plays the icy disconnect of its manufactured effects off of the primal imperative to dance encoded in its rhythms. On its second full-length album, cosmopolitan quartet Ladytron does just that. Shading in the breezier moments of its previous work, 2001's 604, Ladytron opts to paint in darker, more opaque colors. Gone, for the most part, is the peppery chill of past glories like "Paco!," traded in for denser textures and chirping detachment, as on the Abba-versus-Kraftwerk '80s vibe of "Re:Agents" and the whip-slash robotic groove of the opening "True Mathematics." Light & Magic isn't all attractive indifference; the transcendent "Blue Jeans" employs a fairly traditional arrangement -- '80s dance-floor percussion, a compelling verse-chorus structure and an actual hummable melody -- to excellent effect, buoyed by the perfect balance of faraway immediacy in Helen Marnie's vocal. The disc's other standout, "Startup Chime," embeds a commanding percussion track into the background, garnishing its indelible authority with spectral staccato keyboards and absorbing vocals. Other tracks like "Flicking Your Switch" and "Cracked LCD" also leave favorable, if more fleeting, impressions, while "Seventeen"'s chilly sexuality is more off-putting than engaging. If much of its impact dissolves immediately after listening, the gritty, effects-laden tableau painted on Light & Magic exerts a magnetic, industrial pull.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 30, 2002

Neko Case: Blacklisted
Bloodshot, 2002
Rating: 3.4
Neko Case's bold carillon voice is a magnificent instrument, capable of bridging the gap between Reba McEntire and Patsy Cline in one fell swoop. But that's not necessarily the best use of her gift, as Blacklisted, her third solo effort, demonstrates. On covers of "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)" and "Runnin' Out of Fools," Case opts for more torch than twang, with an overwrought, over-the-top Reba-esque delivery on the latter than pummels the song into whimpering submission. Blacklisted also proves that while Case is wise to avoid covers, she's better off writing with collaborators: Only a handful of songs here ("Deep Red Bells," "Tightly," "I Missed the Point" and "Things That Scare Me," the latter co-written with upright bassist Tom V. Ray) achieve the same marriage of powerful belting and intriguing chamber-country arrangements that marked 2000's superlative Furnace Room Lullaby. Most of the other original compositions feel underdeveloped, all the more frustrating given the hints of emotional payoff and adventurous arrangement lurking within "Outro With Bees" and "Lady Pilot." Case's crackerjack band (including Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, the Sadies' brilliantly named Dallas Good and Kelly Hogan, who contributes "sexy background vocals" to "Runnin' Out of Fools") crafts elegantly ringing tableaus for Case to accent with her chiming velvet pipes. But Blacklisted works best when she reigns in the leveling power of her lungs, as on the quietly sharp and poignant "Tightly" and "Stinging Velvet." Here's hoping she's smart enough not to eschew the subtle impact of such moments for the larger mainstream success she might achieve if she relied more on the sledgehammer approach that mars parts of an otherwise artful record.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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September 26, 2002

Iron & Wine: The Creek Drank the Cradle
Sub Pop, 2002
Rating: 3.7
Iron & Wine (a.k.a. Samuel Beam, cinematography teacher at a college in Miami, FL) recorded his debut release The Creek Drank the Cradle all by his lonesome, with only a four-track, acoustic guitar and some banjo: the eleven tracks that make up Creek are culled from two CDs worth of material that made their way to Sub Pop's Seattle headquarters. Beam overdubs his voice to add weight to the tracks, but there's no mistaking that this is a one-man operation from start to finish, with an unavoidably stripped-down, lo-fi aesthetic that adds a touch of genuine sincerity to the songs. Beam plays old-time American Gothic music, the kind heard throughout the rural South and up through the Appalachians during the 1800s -- lost love ("Bird Stealing Bread," "Promising Light"), isolation ("Angry Blade"), and grief ("Weary Memory") are all welcome here. The most up-tempo cut, "The Rooster Moans," is a high point, as Beam shakes free from his sleepy reverie to allow a little rhythm into the proceedings. On "Upward Over the Mountain," he sings of a son's attempt to allay his mother's fears over the boy's seemingly hopeless future, and it's in the palpable sense of regret -- a thread that runs throughout Creek -- that Beam's true gift shines: it's his ability to tap into the universal nature of family, the highs and lows, that merit Creek well-deserved praise. Hopefully on his next release, Bean will have the opportunity to take advantage of a professional studio. Based on the promise shown on his debut, the results should be worth the wait.

::: Laurence Station

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September 25, 2002

Farben: Textstar
Klang, 2002
Rating: 4.2
Farben (German for colors) is the name used by electronic producer Jan Jelinek on this compilation of nine tracks culled from four EPs originally released from 1999 to early 2002. The EPs, all based on the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) color scheme, and collected in their entirety on the Starbox box set, take the skeletal structure of microhouse and infuse it with a tonal warmth that transforms the overall vibe from one of spare, detached dance music to organically-linked, brightly rhythmic dub patterns. "Farben Says: Love to Love You Baby" adds a jazzy flavor to its smoothed-out beats, while the grainer "Suntouch Edit" features bursts of horns arising from an outer nothingness. "Beautone" offers the most obvious danceable groove, will a fuller sound than the other tracks, filling in the normally expansive gaps with a cool, radiant flow. The processed micro-funk beat of "FF" reveals Farben at his most relaxed, yet still in control of the carefully sequenced palette. The scratchy, jumpy "Silikon" is the only cut that breaks the mood, but it doesn't mar the album's overall conveyance of concentrated abstraction; music for dancing to, or for sitting down to dissect every precisely layered note.

::: Laurence Station

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September 25, 2002

Sixteen Horsepower: Folklore
Jetset, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Much like Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992, Sixteen Horsepower's Folklore blends traditional covers with original compositions to produce an effect of accomplished reinterpretation and -- at times -- spare, doom-laden beauty. "It is no mystery/I know my way from here," leader David Eugene Edwards affirms on the opening "Hutterite Mile," a stripped down, acoustic number that sets the tone for the rest of the album, like a comforting hand gesturing from the darkness to guide the listener safely through the oft-violent material. Backed by the reserved percussion of Jean-Yves Tola and the subtly effective bass of Pascal Humbert, Edwards utilizes his voluble, careworn voice and an array of instruments ranging from banjo to bazuki to add much needed weight to the bare bone structures comprising Folklore's four originals and six covers. Thus, the Hank Williams classic "Alone and Forsaken" is recast as a British folk tune, complete with slightly affected English accent. Though the band doesn't need to resort to such genre-switching trickery in order to get at a song's emotional core. In "Horse Head Fiddle (Lament of the Igil)," a traditional number from Tuva (a country in south Siberia), Edwards infuses the cryptically gothic lines "Hang my skull on the old larch tree/Carve from its wood a two string fiddle/Cover over with the skin of my face/String my hair down the neck in place," with just the right amount of grim resolve. On the closing old time mazurka dance number (popular in South Louisiana's Cajun country) "La Robe A Parasol," Sixteen Horsepower adds a welcome lighthearted touch, helping to offset the earlier gloom, thus preventing the album from tumbling into an inextricable Murder Ballad morass.

::: Laurence Station

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September 20, 2002

Conjure One: Conjure One
Nettwerk, 2002
Rating: 2.8
For this not-nearly-diverting enough dose of ambient pop, Rhys Fulber (one-half of moody dance music duo Delerium) -- working here under the nom de guerre Conjure One -- creates a tapestry of lush, Middle Eastern-flavored dance music with an unfortunate tendency to fade into the background if one's not paying close attention. Beats are all but washed out of the mix, smoothed over and blended in so as to make as modest an impression as possible. What's left is an inoffensive, slickly-produced effort, whose main selling point is the utilization of the vocal and lyrical talents of noteworthy female artists from around the globe. There's Poe, representing the United States; Ireland's favorite Pope-baiter Sinead O'Connor; Israeli vocalist Chemda; Argentinean pop star Marie-Claire D'Ubaldo; and from the UK, punk band Tabitha Zu's Melanie Garside. Interestingly, the strongest tracks are those that concentrate on Fulber's production wizardry, rather than the formidable stable of female talent at his disposal -- in particular, "Tidal Pool" and "Premonition (Reprise)." Clearly, the globally recognizable artists were brought in to help bolster sales, especially in light of Fulber's earlier success (while working under the Delerium banner) with "Silence," a smash single featuring vocals by Canadian songbird Sarah McLachlan. And that's the main problem with Conjure One: It feels more like manufactured product, targeted toward the New Age, Deepak Chopra crowd, than a personal artistic statement. Given that Fulber spent three years traveling the world, recording interesting sounds and exploring new music and cultures prior to making this record, one wishes the end result were less pre-packaged and more open to the endless possibilities of ambient exploration. Conjure 1, innovation nil.

::: Laurence Station

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September 15, 2002

The Fire Show: Saint the Fire Show
Perishable, 2002
Rating: 4.3
The final statement by recently disbanded Chicago-based art punk collective The Fire Show is a powerful testament to the distinctive and arresting sounds the duo has been crafting over the past decade. While The Fire Show -- M. Resplendent (Michael Lenzi) and Olias Nil (Seth Cohen) -- has always used its music as a vessel to release pent-up aggression against what it perceives as a soulless, ruthlessly capitalistic and commerce-over-art-driven world, rarely has the energy behind such rebellion been as intense and focused as found on Saint the Fire Show. Utilizing Resplendent's sing-speak wavering falsetto and Nil's manic-to-subdued guitar playing, The Fire Show delivers an abrasive yet bizarrely listenable collection of spontaneously combustible, experimental tracks that range from the chant-based, skeletal percussion of "The Making of Dead Hollow" to a cryptically grim reinterpretation of the Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell standard "You Are My Sunshine." In between, The Fire Show explores escaping a master-slave work environment for the bottom of the ocean ("Dollar and Cent Supplicants"), questions the mystery of death ("The Rabbit of My Soul Is the King of His Ghost"), and makes the curiously left-field accusation that "Magellan Was a Felon." Saint the Fire Show is challenging, aggressively outré music; it's certainly not everyone's cup of tea. Then again, The Fire Show didn't exist for the masses. Rather, like the Dadaist, Surrealist and Situationist International movements that inspired the group, The Fire Show clearly followed a different goal: to alarm more than ingratiate. Mission accomplished.

::: Laurence Station

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September 15, 2002

Radar Brothers: And the Surrounding Mountains
Merge, 2002
Rating: 3.2
Family discord lays at the heart of the Radar Brothers' third release, And the Surrounding Mountains. The title, like a good portion the lyrical content, comes off as a fragment from an overheard conversation or random thread from an unfinished thought. Building on the slow, pensive desert-folk sound found on their first two releases, the Radar Brothers (and especially guitarist/chief lyricist Jim Putnam) reach a crescendo of sorts with Mountains. An organ's been added to the usually stripped-down proceedings, and even a trumpet pops up on a few tracks. The end result: And the Surrounding Mountains is a somber, brooding effort. The overall effect is like that of spectators specializing in identifying dysfunctional relationships worthy of the family unit from Ordinary People. Tellingly-titled songs such as "You and the Father," "Sisters," "Uncles" and "Mothers" explore issues ranging from lack of communication in an emotionally bottled-up household to breaking free of an abusive home life. Rather than direct stories, however, Putnam is fascinated by half-sentences and silences that convey more than emotional vocal outbursts ever could. "Still Evil," which for some odd reason plays its chorus backwards before the song begins, threatens "You are still evil/In my sword you'll be caught." The downside to And the Surrounding Mountains is that, despite thoughtful, mature observations, the songs themselves aren't particularly memorable, blending together at points and canceling out whatever emotional impact might have been conveyed. The most resonant tune, "Morning Song," arrives at the end, offering the foreboding line "Sleep remains your friend forevermore." It's not difficult to imagine the narrator reaching for a bottle of pills, downing them, and then turning out the lights. The song's impact lingers. Unfortunately, such praise cannot be laid at the feet of the rest of the album.

::: Laurence Station

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September 12, 2002

Doug Martsch: Now You Know
Warner Bros., 2002
Rating: 3.5
On his first solo effort, Now You Know, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch pays tribute to the Delta blues -- and specifically Delta bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell. Recorded primarily at his home in Boise, Idaho in 1999, Now You Know sports an appealingly stripped-down, back porch feel, utilizing unadorned slide guitar and spare arrangements, coupled with Martsch's distinctive nasally pitch. The momentum builds on slow simmering tunes ("Offer," "Dream," and "Gone") before picking up steam with the spirited "Window," followed by two energetic standouts, "Heart (Things Never Shared)," and the traditional "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Jesus" -- also noteworthy for offering the first discernible beat heard on the album. Beats aren't the only thing in short supply: those searching for patented Built to Spill electric guitar breakouts will have to settle for the free-ranging, elastic "Impossible." Though Now You Know fails to tap into the raw elemental power of genuine Delta blues, it's still an earnest interpretation of the form by an artist known more for twenty-minute indie rock guitar solos than Alan Lomax-worthy roots rock explorations. If nothing else, Martsch's willingness to move beyond the expectations of his core audience proves an appreciably laudable endeavor.

::: Laurence Station

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September 12, 2002

Pulp: We Love Life
Sanctuary/Rough Trade, 2002
Rating: 3.7
Pulp's We Love Life (finally reaching American shores after being released overseas last October) suggests retreating to the country for a bit of fresh air, only to discover the meadows have been turned into landfills and the streams run thick with castoff sludge from the not-so remote cities. Leave it to Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker to take music with a surface sheen of bright, spaciously pastoral splendor and undercut it with biting critiques on the disingenuousness of finding true love ("Roadkill"), social injustice against the poor and disenfranchised ("Weeds" and "Weeds II (The Origin of the Species)"), assault upon innocence ("The Night That Minnie Timperley Died") and fond memories of early, doomed romance spoiled by environmental degradation (the excellent "Wickerman"). Here, Cocker's exploring similar terrain as that unearthed in Robin Hardy's disquieting 1974 cult film The Wicker Man: the resistance of the natural world to burgeoning industrialization. On "I Love Life," Cocker rails "You've got to fight to the death for the right to live your life," while urging, "Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe out," to a world he sees as gasping for air with such urgency that it's practically choking to death. While there are a few duds (the sappy, aggravated love ballad "The Trees" and the lyrically uneven "Bob Lind (The Only Way Is Down)"), We Love Life stands as one of the veteran British rockers' most cohesive and innervating releases.

::: Laurence Station

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August 31, 2002

The Reindeer Section: Son of Evil Reindeer
Bright Star/PIAS, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Gary Lightbody, of Irish/Scottish band Snow Patrol, has a prophetic surname. The Reindeer Section, the Scottish rock supergroup side project he oversees, is an impressive assemblage of talent and craft (the sturdy "body") employed in the service of low-key, atmospheric pop that sports an unmistakably ephemeral air (the "light"). Which isn't to suggest that Son of Evil Reindeer, the follow-up to the Section's 2001 lark Y'all Get Scared Now, Ya Hear?, lacks substance; it certainly doesn't. But though the meaty instrumentation -- provided by an expanded lineup including Aidan Moffat (Arab Strap), Richard Colburn and Mick Cooke (Belle and Sebastian), John Cummings (Mogwai), Eugene Kelly (Eugenius, the Vaselines), Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) and Neil Payne (Astrid), to name a few -- builds a solid foundation, the songs they propel can't escape a certain gossamer quality. That's partly because of the instrumentation itself -- guitar, piano, brass, violin, moog, flute and cello -- and also partly because of Lightbody's drowsily introspective and wistful lyricism. "Grand Parade," "Where I Fall," "Cartwheels" and the achingly melancholic "Your Sweet Voice" sport undeniably pretty melodies, but their Hallmark sentiments (far too many hearts breaking), coupled with Lightbody's whispery delivery (occasionally reminiscent of a more sanguine Lou Barlow), render the songs feather-light. Even a vocal turn from Idlewild's Roddy Woomble doesn't rev things up -- that falls to the stridently low-key infectiousness of the insistent "You Are My Joy," the closest Son of Evil Reindeer comes to a rousing singalong. The gauzy, Sunday morning mood is no doubt exactly what Lightbody intended, and it's beautifully executed -- make no mistake, Son of is a pristine, radiantly atmospheric record. But there's enough raw talent buzzing beneath the stately musicianship to make one wish for an album with slightly more gravity.

 

:: Kevin Forest Moreau

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August 31, 2002

Los Lobos: Good Morning Aztlan
Mammoth, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Los Lobos' lack of breakthrough commercial success (save for its 1987 La Bamba soundtrack) and subsequent label hopscotch are both frustrating and frustratingly common; it's practically a cliché that bands of Los Lobos' talent and stature have to endure such travails. Not that the gifted and eclectic combo seems worried about such things; after all, the band enjoys a substantial following, widespread critical acclaim and some uneven, if chartable, artistic growth. Which is what allows such a talented outfit, almost 30 years into its career, to record as solid and carefree a record as Good Morning Aztlan. Aztlan doesn't scale any new heights, forsaking the forced adventurousness of earlier albums for straight-ahead, roots-soaked rock, which proves revelatory in itself. Indeed, the easy confidence and offhand virtuosity with which the East L.A.-bred ensemble runs through this assortment of Latin-inflected grooves ("Luz de Mi Veda," "Malaque," "Tony y Maria"), funk-and-soul numbers (the glorious "Get to This," "Hearts of Stone") and roof-rattling roots-rock cannonballs (the opening "Done Gone Blue" and the blistering dance-floor workout of the title track) is inspiring: This is one veteran band for whom "seasoned" isn't a back-handed, kiss-of-death compliment. Sure, it'd be great if the material soared instead of simply, and engagingly, mining beloved familiar terrain. But the artistry on Good Morning Aztlan is in Los Lobos' ability to scale back and let the music, as Aerosmith once said, do the talking. It may not be a masterpiece, but its assured grace keeps the hope and potential for future masterpieces very much alive.

 

:: Kevin Forest Moreau

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August 29, 2002

Aimee Mann: Lost in Space
Superego, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Aimee Mann's fourth solo album (not counting the Magnolia soundtrack, which included four songs from her last release, 2000's Bachelor No. 2, as well as the Oscar-nominated "Save Me"), finds the talented singer-songwriter exploring many of the same concerns (isolation, thorny relationships, and the addictive drug called love) that defined her earlier work. The album's relatively subdued tone is set by the opening "Humpty Dumpty," highlighted by a sad guitar moan and the telling line "All the perfect drugs and superheroes/ Wouldn't be enough to bring me up to zero." Mann cleverly juxtaposes heroine and heroin on "High On Sunday 51," and navigates the emotional pitfalls of breaking off a close relationship on "This Is How It Goes," complimented by dour horns and sad strings. The sturdy, mid-tempo guitar rocker "Pavlov's Bell" adds a much-needed shot of adrenaline, just as things are slipping away into a wash of pills and forget-me-not dead romance tombstone engravings. All is not mirthless doubt, however. On "The Moth," Mann cannily observes, "don't care when he sees the flame/ He might get burned but he's in the game." Aimee Mann’s keen observations into the mysteries of the human heart and artful translation of such insights into well-crafted songs serve her well on Lost in Space, where finding that delicate balance between faith and disappointment is a tricky yet rewarding proposition.

::: Laurence Station

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August 27, 2002

Liars: They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top
Mute, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Originally released on the Gern Blandsten label in 2001, Liars' debut -- the strikingly titled They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top -- possesses great energy, an always-welcome willingness to experiment with the standard guitar-bass-drums-shriek format of punk rock, and a slew of peculiar, defiantly ungrammatical song tiles. Alas, something's amiss; one can't help but ponder just what the method is behind all this overtly calculated madness. Are Liars protesting more commercial-oriented music? Is it a pure rebellion thing? Angst? Good old fashioned goofing off? Few clues are available in the scattershot sounds liberally dispersed throughout Monument. "Grown Men Don't Fall in the River, Just Like That" sports an aggressive beat and slashing guitars, while asking the question "Can you hear us?" and urging people to "Wake up." "Mr your on fire Mr" manages a moderately effective stop-start approach, its nervy, unhinged tempo aided along by programmed samples and an intriguing array of blips, pings and squiggles. "Tumbling Walls Buried Me in the Debris" arrives just in time to change direction, veering off from the aforementioned frenetic spasms with a solid drum and bass focus that allows the band to better show off its reasonably competent rhythm skills. Thirty minutes pass and there's still little rhyme or reason to be found. By the time the closing "This Dust Makes That Mud" arrives -- a true Attack of the Drones number full of bland repetitive samples that go on for almost all of the non-song's absurd half-hour length -- all finally becomes clear: It's all a goof. Liars are having fun at the expense of their listeners. This would be frustrating coming from any run-of-the-mill bunch of Blink-182 pranksters, but it's particularly galling and unnecessary given that Liars do sport some interesting ideas, if not polished musical ability.

::: Laurence Station

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August 27, 2002

Dave Matthews Band: Busted Stuff
RCA, 2002
Rating: 3.4
Reacting to persistent fan and media buzz over the Lillywhite Sessions, a batch of unreleased songs from a scrapped recording session with famed producer Steve Lillywhite that were widely traded over the Internet, Dave Matthews and company have followed up 2001's Everyday by finally revisiting most of the Lillywhite material. The resulting Busted Stuff proves, at least by Dave Matthews' standards, the moodiest work of his career. Exploring broken relationships ("Grace Is Gone" and the title track), issues of faith ("You Never Know") and mortality ("Bartender"), Matthews stretches himself thematically and lyrically. Unfortunately, the unpolished Lillywhite Sessions contain evidence that the material was even darker and, comparatively, more intriguing than the studio-polished finished product. Case in point: "Digging A Ditch," the original of which contained the distressed lines "Digging a ditch/ Where I can hide my soul." With all darkness scrubbed from the song, what was a fascinating glimpse into self-doubt and cathartic revitalization has become a Tony Robbins motivational tripe: the ditch of the title now refers to a safe place to tuck away burdens, to hide depression and rise above one's problems. "Where Are You Going," one of two new, non-Lillywhite songs on Busted Stuff, sports the bitingly cynical line "I am no Superman/ I have no answers for you," but that's about as close as Matthews gets to opening himself up. Apparently, with the cat out the bag thanks to rampant MP3 swapping, Matthews no doubt figured his core audience had already gotten its fill of his deep well of pain. Busted Stuff, then, is more like a cover band doing a ramped-up take on the original material; edgy, but in a pat, decidedly more noncommittal way. The Lillywhite Sessions may have been broken, in the sense that they were unfinished and rough versions of Matthews' ultimate vision of the songs, but it's a shame he had to go back and fix them to such an impersonally inoffensive degree.

::: Laurence Station

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August 24, 2002

Interpol: Turn On the Bright Lights
Matador, 2002
Rating: 2.8
Break out those skinny ties and long dark coats: Interpol's debut Turn On the Bright Lights brings back the moody post-punk of the early '80s, when doom 'n' gloom outfits like Bauhaus and Joy Division made noise people could bob and mope out to. Lead singer Paul Banks' downcast delivery backed with dramatic flair veers between the vocal desperation reminiscent of Ian Curtis and an affected, hangdog attitude that suggests a poor man's Morrissey. On a positive note, "NYC" sports a lilting, theatrical bent, while "Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down" offers a shambling, sad tale of hyper-romanticized urban woe. The musicianship is tight and polished throughout, and it's obvious these four New York hipsters are flying defiantly in the face of the current stripped-to-the-bone garage rock revival, as if their ultimate goal was a battle of the bands versus the Strokes with David Bowie refereeing. Unfortunately, Turn On the Bright Lights neither comments on its inspirations nor enhances the sonic blueprint it so liberally draws from, resulting in a competent effort that fails, unlike the works of the groups it ardently apes, to leave more than a fleeting impression.

::: Laurence Station

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August 18, 2002

Nickel Creek: This Side
Sugar Hill, 2002
Rating: 2.9
Bluegrass/ "new grass" trio Nickel Creek stretches its collective legs a little on its slickly produced second album, with decidedly mixed if promising results. The band (Chris Thile on mandolin and brother-and-sister act, guitarist Sean and fiddler Sara Watkins) veers between traditional-sounding numbers ("House Carpenter" and "Sabra Girl") to more offbeat and unexpected fare (a stripped down cover of indie band Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger" and a smoky rendition of folk singer Carrie Newcomer's "I Should've Known Better"). Sara Watkins concentrates more on her vocals here than on the group's self-titled debut release, infusing "Seven Wonders" with a winsome longing. Conversely, Thile's "Green and Gray" grates more than it engages. Alison Krauss's production is squeaky-clean and radio-ready, and indeed, these early-twenty-somethings shouldn't have much trouble finding their way onto easy listening and country playlists across the nation. There's not much edge to Nickel Creek's sound, but the instrumentation is top notch, and its target market should welcome the band with eager and open arms.

::: Laurence Station

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August 18, 2002

Anti-Pop Consortium: Arrhythmia
Warp, 2002
Rating: 3.8
After a brief electronic introduction, Anti-Pop Consortium's Arrhythmia lays out the basic formula for its hip-hop meets IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) approach on the second track, "Bubblz," which marries a sequence of digital beeps and power-surging effects to clever rap hooks from the Consortium's undeniably gifted "verbal contortionists." That techno vibe is also utilized to great effect on standout tracks "Dead in Motion" and the brilliant "We Kill Soap Scum," which places a skeletal, cyclic beat behind its memorably bizarre lyrical content. Another gem is the amusing "Tron Man Speaks," relating a testy conversation between a fill-in radio DJ and a robot caller eager to get its unique brand of music played. Other than the lack of any noticeable unifying theme, the main problem with Arrhythmia is the inclusion of several tracks in the middle that simply don't measure up to those around them. "Mega" mixes uninspired programming with an ineffective choral harmony, while "Ghostlawns" uses repetitive, tired vocal samples that detract from its clever, rapid-fire raps. Earl Blaize handles the majority of the production duties and does steady work, while the MCs, Priest, Beans, and M. Sayyid, play off of one another effortlessly, all with unique and literate styles. If nothing else, Arrhythmia deserves credit for advancing the integration of hip-hop with the oft-impersonal world of IDM. That fact alone makes it an album worth picking up for those partial to either genre.

::: Laurence Station

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August 18, 2002

Autechre: Gantz Graf [EP]
Warp, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Following up last year's detached, challenging, and almost too-experimental Confield, electronic boundary-exploders Autechre return to some semblance of humanly-comprehensible noise with Gantz Graf, a three-song, twenty-minute EP that offers a little something for everyone familiar with the group's ever-mutating aesthetic. Sounding like an automated assembly plant mechanism gone haywire, the opening title track sports a manic drill 'n' bass approach that infuses jungle rhythms with its intentionally discordant beat. "Dial" mines a fairly straightforward techno dance groove -- edgy, frenetically paced and pulsing with life -- that builds steadily toward a climax that regrettably never pays off. The real prize here, and, perhaps a preview of the next full-length Autechre release, is the closing "Cap.IV," a moody organic piece, complete with piano accompaniment, that uses distorted vocal samplings to create a disquieting and claustrophobic mood, evoking mental images of snaking corridors and hidden compartments. The track provides an excellent example of Autechre's main strength; the ability to fashion detailed aural constructs in a listener's mind. Gantz Graf is clearly a stopgap work, but it nonetheless confidently assures listeners that the duo hasn't abandoned its relentless pursuit of pushing the electronica envelope into eccentric, fresh, and sonically rewarding directions.

::: Laurence Station

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August 11, 2002

Dave Pirner: Faces & Names
Ultimatum Music, 2002
Rating: 3.1
Dave Pirner's first solo album outside the agreeably shaggy, slightly shopworn confines of Soul Asylum naturally finds the scruffy rocker stretching his wings stylistically, adapting much of the energy and musical atmosphere of his new adopted hometown of New Orleans. As a result, sprightly, melodic slices of pop-rock like the opening "Teach Me to Breathe" and the tuneful "Never Recover" alternate with slightly experimental tunes incorporating light funk and soul flourishes ("Levitation," "Tea"). On the whole, Pirner retains his flair for uplifting pop ("Feel the Need," "364," "I'll Have My Day"), but ultimately Faces & Names is an intriguing but disappointingly light affair; the closing ballad "Start Treating People Right" lags due to a critical lack of heft, while the title track, which continues his occasional penchant for free-wheeling, nonsensical Dylan-esque narratives, trips over its own self-consciousness. Faces & Names is an admirable diversion, and it's fun to hear Pirner push at the edges of the meat-and-potatoes rock that has become Soul Asylum's bread and butter. But a diversion is all it proves, a briefly engaging side trip before the next Soul Asylum record.

 

:: Kevin Forest Moreau

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August 11, 2002

Linda Thompson: Fashionably Late
Rounder, 2002
Rating: 4.0
After being diagnosed with hysterical dysphonia (a paralyzing condition of the vocal chords) in 1989, Linda Thompson effectively dropped off the musical radar. Fashionably Late, then, marks a stirring and triumphant return for one of the great voices in popular music. Produced by Edward Haber in a spare, clear manner, Fashionably Late bears a timeless quality, offering up ten British folk-based tunes that wisely concentrate on Ms. Thompson's formidable vocal skills rather than adding the unnecessary keyboards other synthesized gimmickry that dated and doomed her last release, 1985's One Clear Moment. Highlights include "Nine Stone Rig," a faux-Scottish murder ballad with added lyrics by Thompson; "The Banks of the Clyde," a bittersweet number about a wayward woman longing for home; and "Paint and Powder Beauty," co-written with Rufus Wainwright, which examines the life of an aging prostitute. More than anything, though, Fashionably Late is a family affair. Thompson's primary collaborator on the album is son Teddy (the two perform a sterling duet of Lal Waterson's "Evona Darling"). Also appearing are daughter Kamila (backing vocals and harmony on "Dear Mary" and "Dear Old Man of Mine") and ex-husband Richard (guitar on "Dear Mary"). The overall feeling imparted on Fashionably Late is one of rebirth, reconciliation and the promise of future material from Linda Thompson (not to mention her talented offspring). Welcome back.

::: Laurence Station

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August 11, 2002

The Coral: The Coral
Deltasonic, 2002
Rating: 3.3
Hoylake, Merseyside's the Coral describes its musical style, according to the band's website, as "minor key sea ballads infused with the spirit of the Wild West under moonlit bayou." And indeed, the band's debut album does sport an abundance of sailors-on-the-high-seas lyrical content and an exuberant spirit that one could conceivably graft to some idealized concept of the American Old West (not sure about the moonlit bayou part, though). But what's certain is that the sextet is clearly enamored with 1960s British and American-era psychedelic pop ("Simon Diamond" and "Goodbye," respectively), Russian Cossack music ("Shadows Fall") and ska ("Dreaming of You"). Highlights include the raucously freewheeling, beat heavy "Skeleton Key" and rollicking singalong opener "Spanish Main." A pair of duds ("Wild Fire" and "Bad Man") are prudently pushed to the back of the disc. The Coral is currently getting tons of hype across the pond, and the group's debut has even been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. While the album isn't as astonishing as the gushing UK trades would lead one to believe, it is still an audacious, undeniably fun album that wears its myriad influences unabashedly on its sleeve. Providing the Merseysiders settle down and discover a sound to call their own, the Coral might well be a band worth following in the coming years.

::: Laurence Station

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August 08, 2002

Coppé: Peppermint
Mango & Sweet Rice, 2002
Rating: 3.7
Clocking in at nearly an hour and twenty minutes, Japanese pop electronica maven Coppé's Peppermint (originally released in Japan in 2000) is an unstintingly gleeful work, the aural equivalent of dropping X and raving until dawn. Collaborating with some of the more notable names in the ambient music world (DJ Vadim, Mark B, Plaid), Coppé utilizes English and Japanese lyrics to convey the diverse array of moods spanning this unabashedly schizophrenic collection. After two energetic, if not particularly invigorating, opening numbers, "Jelly Omelette" provides a nice tempo break, offering the intriguingly sinister line "Basically I'll kill you." "VAD" possesses a scratchy, drowsily subdued beat that contrasts nicely with the subsequent "Orange City Mix," a nervier version of "VAD" peppered with breathless vocalizations, odd blips and curious radio squiggles. "Sea Anemone," while a bit overlong, effectively utilizes a progressive beat to convey the urgency of vehicles (human transports and otherwise) in motion. "Jelly Dub" shows off Coppé's friskier side, with a smooth flow and appealingly sexy vibe. On the downside, "240" utilizes processed beats that do little to excite or involve, while the playful "Miso" feels insubstantial and unfocused. The expansive, liberating "Nocturne of the Butterfly" closes Peppermint with the optimistic, confident line "I can fly anywhere," which perfectly sums up Coppé's enthusiasm for exploring the outer boundaries of the techno genre and life itself.

::: Laurence Station

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August 08, 2002

Darius Rucker: Back to Then
Hidden Beach, 2002
Rating: 2.8
Warning to Hootie & the Blowfish devotees: This is not your father's cracked rear view. Darius Rucker sheds the jam-oriented, folksy blues-rock that made his fortune in favor of a neo-soul, jazzy R&B brew that may not dramatically broaden his fan base but still deserves credit for challenging the constrictive limits of corporate-ized target-market demographics. Jill Scott's production team, A Touch of Jazz, aides Rucker on the disc's first half, with decidedly mixed results. The opening "Wild One," a pop-polished soul number involving a player questing for that special someone to settle down with, is promising, but undermined by restrained horns and lyrically average content. In fact, generic lyrics prevent Back to Then from plumbing more than surface depth, offering sharp production but little else to hold on to. "Sometimes I Wonder," a buttery-smooth duet with Scott, stands out on the strength of the singers' complimentary vocal styles, while the gospel-flavored "Exodus" contains some nice choral harmonizing. Other highlights include a solid, if not revelatory, take on Al Green's "I'm Glad You're Mine," snatches of the John Newton standard "Amazing Grace," and the funky, rhythmically strong "Butterfly," which Rucker aggressively sinks his teeth into. Those looking for a taste of Hootie will have to settle for "Hold On," a likeable enough countrified pop number that regrettably breaks the overall soulful mood -- as does "Sleeping in My Bed," an ill-conceived rap duet (of sorts) with Snoop Dogg. Back to Then is a slickly produced, if not artistically adventurous, debut from Rucker, commendable for (if nothing else) his willingness to challenge the expectations of his core audience.

::: Laurence Station

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August 06, 2002

Pretty Girls Make Graves: Good Health
Lookout Records, 2002
Rating: 4.0
Clocking in at less than thirty minutes, Pretty Girls Make Graves' full-length debut, Good Health, wastes nothing as it slams through nine well-crafted rock songs with irrepressible exuberance and an infectious abundance of energy. In the tradition of erstwhile and current Pacific Northwest outfits like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and Unwound, Pretty Girls favor substance over style, craft over calculation. Vocalist Andrea Zollo, backed by an incredibly tight rhythm section, manages controlled rage on "Sad Girls Por Vida" and a genuine sense of longing cut with despair on "The Get Away." "Bring It On Golden Pond" utilizes great percussive technique to enhance its anti-authoritarian lyrics, while the lead track, "Speakers Push The Air," reaches near-arena rock heights with its booming drums and ringing guitars. Pretty Girls Make Graves have made an auspicious statement with Good Health, one that carries the promise of even stronger material in the not too distant future.

::: Laurence Station

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August 06, 2002

Allison Moorer: Miss Fortune
Universal South, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Allison Moorer's Miss Fortune is a study in contrasts. The first half of the album is filled with straightforward country-pop tunes that, while pretty, do little to progress either the form or content of the genre. Bland backing music coupled with safe arrangements that rarely venture outside the cozy, mid-tempo range doesn't help matters, either. The second half is defined by more adventurous musical forays that spice matters up considerably, despite being incredibly derivative. Miss Fortune opens with "Tumbling Down," a reasonably pleasant piano ballad, marked by Moorer's gifted voice and languorously casual approach. "Ruby Jewel Was Here" adds much-needed energy to the proceedings and "Up This High," while lyrically generic, is agreeably hummable. The raucous, unmannered "Hey Jezebel" winningly kicks off Miss Fortune's more engaging second half, highlighted by the soulful "No Place For A Heart," a perfect showcase for Moorer's expansive emotional range, and "Dying Breed," a moody, doom-haunted ballad that proves an effective closer. Still, originality suffers a bit: The opening of "Yessirree" sounds borrowed straight from the Band, while the country-blues rocker "Going Down" offers up a Stonesy, Exile on Main Street-era rhythm that admittedly fits the tune to a T. Miss Fortune is a conflicted album, frontloaded with Nashville-friendly hits and rounded out by more non-traditional Music City influences on the back end, which makes for an inconsistent but moderately engaging listen.

::: Laurence Station

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August 06, 2002

Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel
Universal, 2002
Rating: 3.2
Elvis Costello and the Attractions are back! Actually, that's a bit misleading. Costello never really went away, and there are only two Attractions (Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve) present on When I Was Cruel. The album hearkens back to early-to-mid-'80s near-triumphs Blood & Chocolate and Imperial Bedroom, ranging from fiery rockers to pissed-off ballads. Unlike those relatively straightforward, unaffected offerings however, When I Was Cruel feels labored and overproduced. The opening "45" coyly plays on Costello's middle-age, as well as the 45 rpm singles he grew up on, backed by classic guitar work and a moderately upbeat tempo. "Tart" is a highlight, thanks to its soulful yearning and careful arrangement -- as is "15 Petals," elevated by punchy horns and passionate rhythms. The appropriately titled, groove-oriented "Spooky Girlfriend" tips the scales toward Costello's more experimental side, while "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution)" proves a classic pop-rock gem. "When I Was Cruel No. 2" (apparently the first version of the song is only available as a limited-edition vinyl release) is a sinister sounding, noirish tale that cleverly evokes imagery of smoky hallways and chance meetings. Despite great bass work by Davey Faragher (Camper Van Beethoven, John Hiatt), "Dust 2..." is most notable for connecting to the song "...Dust," sequenced a few tracks later. Such obvious gimmickry illustrates the major flaw of When I Was Cruel: It's the antithesis of effortless, trying too hard and not reining in Costello's more self-indulgent tendencies. Case in point: "Alibi," a near seven-minute examination of excuse-makers that could have worked just as effectively at half the length. When I Was Cruel's hour-plus running time validates the dark side of self-producing one's album: the temptation to indulge simply proves too strong and, in this case, such indulgences detract from what should have been a fine return to form for Elvis and his fellow star Attractions.

::: Laurence Station

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August 02, 2002

The Red Hot Chili Peppers: By the Way

WEA/Warner Bros., 2002

Rating: 2.0

Perfect clarity can be a very bad thing. Prime example: the Red Hot Chili Peppers' By the Way. The spaz-funk-rap-metal that predominated on 1989's Mother's Milk and 1991's high-water mark, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, has given way to a kinder, gentler, and (painfully so) more lyrically accessible light-funk balladry. Call it Peppers' Californication: the mellowing of rockers hitting their forties. By any name, however, the results make one pine for the inarticulate vocal rants and potent rhythmic aggression of the Peppers at their early '90s height. By the Way opens with the promising title track -- an engaging, albeit schizophrenic combination of affected harmony and slap-funk that works simply because of its audacious approach. But then the band starts playing it safe. "Universally Speaking" comes off as a failed Beach Boys-Britpop experimental hybrid, while "Dosed" utilizes a gratingly polished soft-rock tempo to offer the deep insight that love is the Peppers' drug of choice these days. "The Zephyr Song" is pure adult contemporary formula, peppered with a dash of uninspiring pseudo-rap. And "I Could Die for You" is a made-to-order, radio-friendly ballad whose content is as generic as its title. The Peppers have never been great wordsmiths, and their saving grace has been that they've never really aspired to be such. Until now. Unfortunately, By the Way strives mightily to emphasize the group's weakest aspect, by slowing down the songs to allow Anthony Kiedis to enunciate each and every syllable. "This Is the Place" ("I saw you out there yesterday/ What did you want to say/ A master piece of DNA") and "Don't Forget Me" ("I'm an inbred and a pothead/ Two legs that you spread/ Inside the tool shed") are two of the most egregious offenders. "Throw Away Your Television" may not have anything particularly original to say, but at least the song has a nice rhythm and solid guitar work, and scales back the incessant verbosity. The Spanish-flavored "Cabron" proves a nice change of pace, as well. Alas, at nearly 70 minutes, By the Way is overlong and simply too restrained, and too wrong-headedly earnest, to leave more than a marginal impression.

::: Laurence Station

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July 28, 2002

Solomon Burke: Don't Give Up on Me

Fat Possum, 2002

Rating: 3.7

Instruments take a backseat to the 4-octave vocal range of legendary soulman Solomon Burke on this masterfully assembled -- if not wholly rewarding -- release. Marrying Burke's formidable pipes with lyrics penned by such stellar songwriters as Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello (to name a few) certainly looks good on paper. And Burke doesn't disappoint, infusing a track written by album producer Joe Henry ("Flesh And Blood") -- as well as a bluesy number courtesy of Bob Dylan ("Stepchild") -- with an impassioned vitality that feels committed and sincere. The backing musicians are kept in check, allowing Burke's voice to soar above the proceedings. Which isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but it does take away from any sense of spontaneity Don't Give Up on Me might have offered by seeming overly perfunctory in its assemblage and execution.

::: Laurence Station

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July 28, 2002

David Baerwald: Here Comes the New Folk Underground

Universal, 2002

Rating: 3.9

In the decade since David Baerwald's last solo album, Triage, the noted songwriter has kept busy; he collaborated on Sheryl Crow's hugely successful Tuesday Night Music Club and was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for "Come What May," from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. And now there's Here Comes the New Folk Underground, on which he proves to be stylistically busy as well. It's a musically interesting work, brimming with a diverse amount of styles, from the country-folk found on the opener "Why," to the rollicking, freewheeling rock served up on "Hellbound Train." In between, Baerwald tackles a tougher urban-based beat on "Compassion," wondering what's become of humanity when "rage is the rage in this barbarous age." He also gets soulful with an ode to serial monogamy, "Love #29," and downright funky on the oddball "Bozo Weirdo Wacko Creep." Not surprisingly, then, the disc lacks cohesion. While the songs share a theme of finding understanding in the face of adversity, sonically, Underground is all over the place, and distractingly so. As a songwriter's showcase, though, New Folk Underground shines, making it one of the more notable efforts heard this year.

::: Laurence Station

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July 28, 2002

Counting Crows: Hard Candy

Universal, 2002

Rating: 3.4

Since the band's 1993 debut, August and Everything After, Counting Crows have been perfecting the radio-friendly MOR formula that reaches its zenith on the extremely well-executed, if not particularly invigorating, Hard Candy. Lead Crow Adam Duritz offers up introspective mid-tempo rockers about relationships, old friends, travel and the miseries associated with surviving one's own success. "American Girls" is the best of the batch, thanks to a strong chorus and propulsive beat, while "Miami" sounds the most emotionally committed. But throughout Hard Candy, Duritz comes across as himself -- which is to say, a bored, Hollywood-based musician who takes off for Miami, Mexico or Spain whenever the spirit moves him. While such a life might be enviable for most, it's certainly hard for a listener to relate to, which dampens one's emotional connection to the music, especially given the less than formidable trials and tribulations regarding love and loss Duritz's lyrics address. As a band, Counting Crows are remarkably proficient for what they do, and if one is a fan of the group's music, Hard Candy might well be the Crows' Abbey Road; a summation of all that the band has learned over the years, and, aside from Duritz's poor-me rock star persona, a generally likeable outfit to boot.

::: Laurence Station

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July 25, 2002

Oasis: Heathen Chemistry
Epic, 2002

Rating: 2.5

Some seven years after the peak of its career, Oasis still exhibits a bit of king-of-the-hill cockiness on Heathen Chemistry. The most concise blast of swaggering bravado is the opening "The Hindu Times," one of chief songwriter Noel Gallagher's most bracing and melodic guitar anthems, strong enough to withstand hanging its vocal hook on the weak lyric "you're my sunshine/you're my rain." Noel also scores with the ruminative power ballad "Little by Little," but fails to yield classic-rock gold from such straw as the singalong "Force of Nature," the overwrought (strings and all) ballad "Stop Crying Your Heart Out" or the cliché-ridden "She is Love." On a democratic front, Gem Archer's "Hung in a Bad Place" proves a competent diversion, as does Andy Bell's brief instrumental "A Quick Peep." Even sneering singer Liam Gallagher pitches in, with the slight "Songbird" and the workmanlike bookend closers "Born on a Different Cloud" and "Better Man." Chemistry doesn't reach the heights of the band's high-water mark, 1995's (What's The Story) Morning Glory?, but it struts along on a suitably sturdy groove. However, the album gets docked a point for the obligatory "bonus" track, a featherweight bit of incidental instrumental play sequenced a good half-hour past the end of "Better Man." It's an aggravating stunt, indicative of an arrogance the band hasn't earned in a good number of years, and sadly, aside from the raucous "The Hindu Times," it's probably the ballsiest moment of the record.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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July 21, 2002

Pixies: Pixies
Sonic Unyon, 2002

Rating: 2.7

The Pixies had already crossed over into the murky netherworld of alt-rock "legend" status long before releasing their final album, Trompe Le Monde, in 1991. So the release of Pixies -- basically, an abridged version of the band's inaugural batch of demos, known in Pixies lore as "The Purple Tape" -- is bound to draw a cross-section of the curious and the completists. The latter group will doubtless find this sparse offering (19 minutes long) somewhat more substantive than the former, which is likely to wonder just what the fuss was about. The nine songs collected here do offer a glimpse of the band's nascent, off-kilter style, and there's a certain undeniable novelty to the notion that these are among the band's first-ever recorded songs; the bracing oddity of Black Francis's absurdist lyrics and the band's skeletal thrash still sound fresh. Yes, it's interesting to hear early, faltering versions of songs that would later flower on other releases, such as Trompe's "Subbacultcha" and Doolittle's "Here Comes Your Man." But that sense of academic anthropology isn't enough to justify asking fans to pay (admittedly, a reduced price) for so few songs. Better that the "Purple Tape" had been released in its entirety (including the eight that comprised the Pixies' first album, Come on Pilgrim) as a way of commemorating the band's 15th anniversary, offering a full look at the band's experimental infancy. Pixies is an intriguing document of an influential band's confident first steps. Whether it's essential listening depends on the depth of your fanaticism and your willingness to overlook a lesser rate of return on your investment than even a Weezer album.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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July 16, 2002

Jim Lauderdale: The Hummingbirds

Dualtone, 2002

Rating: 4.0

A little too country for rock and too rock for country, Jim Lauderdale has carved out a place in the vast middle ground, thanks to an ability to pen catchy, insightful lyrics and move between a diverse blend of musical styles. The Hummingbirds perfectly encapsulates these strengths; it's as impressive a set of country-based originals as he's yet released. The lilting, spiritual "Midnight Will Become Day" and "Morning" are positive, upbeat tunes, both sporting deeper layers of belief beneath straightforward lyrics that paint simple, naturalistic images about man's place in the grander scheme of things. The slow, folksy "I'm Happiest When I'm Moving" and the hangdog ballad "I Know Better Now" are wisely offset by the harder rocking, honky-tonk numbers "There and Back Again" and "Rollin' the Dice." The intriguing "It's a Trap," with its faux-jazzy vibe, feels out of place; it and the comparatively pedestrian closer "New Cascade" knock the album down a few pegs. But such minor infractions shouldn't dissuade serious fans of country music; Lauderdale's voice -- gruff yet vulnerable, questing in its inflections, seeking answers to unanswerable questions -- marks him as the real deal, and The Hummingbirds as among his showcase efforts.

::: Laurence Station

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July 16, 2002

Jim Lauderdale/Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys: Lost in the Lonesome Pines

Dualtone, 2002

Rating: 3.8

Lost in the Lonesome Pines reunites singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale with hot septuagenarian Ralph Stanley (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and his Clinch Mountain Boys, with whom he first collaborated on 1999's I Feel Like Singing Today. Aside from the Bill Monroe classic "Boat of Love," the fourteen cuts are Lauderdale originals (along with various co-writers), informed by Stanley and the Boys' crack bluegrass musicianship. Album opener "Deep Well of Sadness" and the catchy toe-tapper "Redbird" are highlights, as is the title track and the short, punchy "I Should Have Listened to Good Advice." Lost in the Lonesome Pines is a comfortable, easy record that improves on the tentative, oft-forced vocal interplay between its two principals on their previous collaboration, and is well worth seeking out for fans of either artist or bluegrass in general.

::: Laurence Station

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July 08, 2002

Songs: Ohia: Didn't It Rain

Secretly Canadian, 2002

Rating: 3.0

Industrial fires, burning deep into the Lake Erie night, figure prominently throughout the somber, spare Didn't It Rain, serving as a capable metaphor for this seven-song cycle of reflection and nearly moribund acoustic meanderings. Jason Molina -- the one-man band behind Songs: Ohia -- is a gifted songwriter, who capably conveys an affecting sense of longing and disaffected malaise on such tracks as "Steve Albini's Blues" and "Cross the Road, Molina." But the overall weight of his lyrical explorations -- around the subject of either leaving or returning home -- grows ponderous. Especially toward the end, when it becomes obvious that Molina has no great revelations or deeper truths to show for his struggle, leaving a lingering sadness with no hint of better days to come. "Blue Factory Flame" sums up the album best, as Molina confesses to be "paralyzed by emptiness." The standout track "Ring the Bell" manages to kick the tempo up a bit, and guests Jim Krewson and Jennie Benford (of neo-bluegrass outfit Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops) make a favorable impression. Unfortunately, however, Didn't It Rain never quite wrestles free of its own unremittingly morose mood to cure its narrator's distinctly Midwestern blues.

::: Laurence Station

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July 08, 2002

Papa Roach: lovehatetragedy
Dreamworks, 2002

Rating: 3.0

Listen to enough of what the mainstream music press dubs "nu metal," and you begin to wonder just what kind of grown men can churn out such rageful, adolescent tantrum-rock without feeling at least vaguely unfulfilled. For instance, it's hard to imagine that the members of Papa Roach can listen to their 2000 debut, Infest, without wincing. But the sins of that rap-metal low-water-mark, responsible for the laughably awful singles "Last Resort" and "Broken Home," are somewhat redeemed by lovehatetragedy, which finds Papa Roach approaching, if not maturity, then at least a definite refinement of sound and purpose. Vocalist Jacoby Shaddix (in a woefully misguided stab at respectability, the former Coby Dick has ill-advisedly reverted to his birth name) eschews Limp Bizkit-style rapping (save for the lead single "She Loves Me Not"), and the band in return reins in its sloppier instincts. Rigidly "non-conformist" teens are always going to need soundtracks to reflect the distressingly common pain of adolescence, and they could do (and very often have done) far worse than such lean, mean manifestoes of unfocused angst as "M-80 (Explosive Energy Movement") and "Singular Indestructible Droid." Shaddix remains an alarmingly mediocre lyricist: "Decompression Period," with its refrain of "I need some space," looks poised to do for "Why don't we take a break?" break-ups what the execrable "Broken Home" did for divorce, while "Walking Thru Barbed Wire" and most especially "Black Clouds" sport a junkyard of cliches ("tears fall just like rain...black clouds/they rain down/ but they can't kill the son inside") even unimaginative Ozzfesters will know to find embarrassing. But the pain of such insights is lessened by Papa Roach's entirely competent brand of post-metal brawn (guitarist/bassist Tobin Esperance proves adept at mixing Living Colour stomp with tight Sevendust crunch). And the inclusion of the Pixies' "Gouge Away," although a bit too controlled, goes a long way: If Shaddix and company lead large numbers of the Korn generation to Doolittle, well, surely that balances out a "Broken Home" or two.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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July 08, 2002

Otep: Sevas Tra
Capitol, 2002

Rating: 2.8

There's something altogether forced about the disturbing mix of flayed-skin lyricism and bone-rattling metal thunder on Sevas Tra, the unabashedly pretentious full-length debut from California quartet Otep. Dripping with pseudo-Egyptian imagery and torturous lyrics about incestuous child abuse and some sort of "poetic revolution," Sevas Tra ("Art Saves" backwards) proves exponentially more unsettling than any contrived Marilyn Manson spectacle, but not perhaps for the reasons that Otep, the band's namesake female singer/lyricist, intends. We're not shocked so much by the brutally frank content (although that's certainly off-putting) as by two inescapable conclusions: One, Otep invests every line with enough over-the-top urgency to make us think she's serious -- at least no one with half a cerebellum ever took Manson's calculated showmanship seriously, including Manson himself; and Two, no one seems to have stopped to consider just how amazingly ridiculous it all sounds. To the credit of Otep's bandmates, Sevas Tra stampedes and convulses with an impressive, barbarous intensity. But while that heavy metal thunder saves this album from a much lower ranking, it does little to alleviate the pomposity and affectation that infects Sevas Tra like an old-school Egyptian plague of locusts.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 30, 2002

DJ Shadow: The Private Press
Mo' Wax/Island, 2002

Rating: 4.0

Like Moby, Fatboy Slim and countless other artists, DJ Shadow has found fertile creative soil in the cut-out bins, mixing esoteric samples with genre-spanning grooves that function on several levels; as challenging trip-hop/jazz/funk experimentation, romantic mood music and dance floor fodder, often simultaneously. Unlike most of those others, however, Shadow's been a bit lax in flying the flag of turntablism, ambient breakbeat, electronica or what have you. Scores of well-marketed colleagues have risen to the status of unlikely pop-music hero in the six years since Shadow's Endtroducing... set the standard for applying hip-hop's cut-and-paste aesthetic across ever-broader canvasses. Given the short memory of today's marketplace, The Private Press, Shadow's second proper solo effort, serves as a sort of Re-Endtroducing..., its similar textures at times evoking that earlier record's majesty while elbowing a place for its reclusive creator in the now-crowded firmament of like-minded artists. Which isn't to say that Press merely mimics its predecessor; while it sets a familiar mood throughout, tracks like "Fixed Income" and the album highlight "Giving Up the Ghost" float and stutter with an ethereal authority all their own. That Shadow falters here and there is perhaps inevitable --  "Right Thing" quickly grates before segueing into the free-for-all melee of "GDMFSOB," while "Six Days" leans too heavily on a wearisome female vocal, borrowing an already well-marked page from Moby's book of tricks. But the inventive flourishes of "Mongrel Meets His Maker" and the electro-gauzy "Monosylabik" affirm that DJ Shadow's long absence from the spotlight hasn't dimmed his keen instincts or his ability to craft spirited and spiriting tableaus.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 30, 2002

Sonic Youth: Murray Street

DGC, 2002

Rating: 3.7

Last year, an engine from one of the planes that struck the Twin Towers on September 11 crashed near the Murray Street recording studio where Sonic Youth was working on its latest album. Clearly, the September 11 attacks had a profound influence on the band, and not just because city officials cordoned off the area around the studio, delaying the completion of Murray Street until this past March. Opening track "The Empty Page," which features a great bassline by ubiquitous indie-rock figurehead Jim O'Rourke (now a full-fledged member of the group after assisting on 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers), turns on Thurston Moore's conflicted declaration: "These are the words/ But not the truth/ God bless them all/ When they speak to you." The wounded, disoriented "Disconnection Notice" and "Rain on Tin" (the latter with its defensive, defiant "Never fear/ Never again" closing verse) come across as cathartic attempts at reconciliation with those tragic events; a band struggling to make sense of the unimaginable horror that occurred within its hometown. Not that the entire album dwells on overcoming adversity/tragedy. Guitarist Lee Ranaldo's "Karen Revisited," with Michael Stipe-like vocalizations and unexpected noise bleats that give way to a protracted jam, is intriguing yet ultimately feels overworked and top heavy, while Kim Gordon's brief, playfully caustic "Plastic Sun" sticks out like, well, a plastic sun, jarringly out of sync with the record's overall tempo. The closing, sonically adventurous "Sympathy for the Strawberry" builds nicely on guitar-driven art noise for art noise's sake, reinforcing the notion that Sonic Youth will indeed eventually remake the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat for a whole new generation of NYC's culturally hip underground elite. Regardless of what the future holds for the band, it's clear Murray Street will still be a place known for and marked by the creation of music, rather than the fallout from devastation wrought by misguided terrorists.

::: Laurence Station

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June 23, 2002

Alejandro Escovedo: By the Hand of the Father

Texas Music Group, 2002

Rating: 4.0

On By the Hand of the Father, acclaimed alt-country singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo explores the 20th-century Mexican-American experience, using music and dialogue from a theater project of the same name. Songs that originally appeared on earlier Escovedo albums (the standout "Wave" and passionate "Rosalie" from 2001's A Man Under the Influence, in particular) are revisited, not simply re-recorded for this effort: They're reinterpreted as well, the better to fit into the larger theme of first generation immigrants entering a new country in hopes of finding a better life. From the joy of young lovers ("Inside This Dance") to the pain of a father's inability to communicate with his children ("Silence"), Escovedo weaves a complex and compelling tapestry of experiences, informed by personal family history and an obvious desire to reconcile the American Dream with the oft-harsh reality encountered by those first arriving in this country. By the Hand of the Father possesses a depth of thought and feeling that speaks volumes not only about Escovedo's talents, but also his willingness to confront his heritage and the thorny issue of Mexican-American relations, one still as divisive and volatile now as it was when Escovedo's father made his initial journey into the States so many years ago.

::: Laurence Station

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June 15, 2002

Bill Frisell: The Willies

Nonesuch, 2002

Rating: 3.8

Having laid down jazz-informed tracks with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Elvin Jones on his last release, accomplished composer, guitarist and bandleader Frisell returns to the county and bluegrass territory of 1995's sterling Nashville. Comfortably working within the confines of the trio format, Frisell, banjo/guitarist Danny Barnes (Bad Livers) and bassist Keith Lowe (Fiona Apple) tackle old standards and Frisell originals in a spaciously loose yet artfully cogent manner. The Willies opens with two proficient, if a tad too understated traditional numbers ("Sittin' on Top of the World" and "Cluck Old Hen"). The optimistic, stirringly played third cut, "Everybody Loves Everybody," livens matters up considerably, while "Get Along" and "Sugar Baby" allow Barnes to show off his deft skills with the banjo and the A.P. Carter classic "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man" accentuates Lowe's reserved but steady bass work. But the star of the show, naturally, is Frisell, who remains capable of coaxing emotion from his instrument with deceptive ease. "I Know You Care" perfectly showcases this talent, conjuring a genuine sense of longing and distance adroitly colored by a hint of initial doubt before picking up much welcomed steam by song's end. The penultimate cut, "Big Shoe," is the disc's edgiest moment, and underlines The Willies' main drawback: It's a masterfully executed album that plays it far too safe, taking few chances and coasting on the formidable talents of its participants. Those looking for surprises will be hard pressed to find many here. But the ferociously talented Frisell is still demonstrably at the top of his game, and that fact alone makes The Willies a pleasure music lovers of any musical persuasion shouldn't shy away from.

::: Laurence Station

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June 13, 2002

Korn: Untouchables
Epic, 2002

Rating: 2.8

Korn albums are generally good for one or two good moments apiece, and Untouchables, the band's hotly-anticipated follow-up to 1999's smash Issues, is no different. The behemoth opener "Here to Stay" moshes with a muddy Wagnerian authority, vocalist Jonathan Davis leavening his inner Trent Reznor with a familiar blend of "dear diary"-bad teen-angst pathos and burning-marionette jerkiness. The band continues to drag Lake Melvins for a fuzzy soundscape that's all distorted bottom-end-feeding and lurching, loping bass tones, and it does so with a proficiency that's always set it apart from the rest of the tats-and-piercings whiplash contingent. But Korn does nothing new or even particularly exciting with its signature sound, churning out rumbling manifestos of high school alienation that, on "Hollow Life" and "Alone I Break" (which conjures a death-metal recasting of Creed's "My Own Prison"), flirt with moments of true "gee, this rich rock star really gets my adolescent pain" catharsis. The band's shambling, shuddering rhythms are just too well-worn here, that familiarity lessening the visceral impact. Which doesn't make Untouchables unlistenable -- just uninspiring.

::: The Gentleman

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June 9, 2002

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood  (Official Soundtrack)

Columbia, 2002

Rating: 3.8

Super-producer T-Bone Burnett, who won a Grammy for the astonishingly successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, takes another crack at traditional Southern-flavored music with the soundtrack to the über-chick flick Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Coming way down the mountain to the low-lying Louisiana bayous, Burnett assembles an interesting mix of traditional blues and Cajun numbers (compliments of the great Jimmy Reed and the talented Ann Savoy, respectively), thrown together with a Billie Holliday-inspired take on "I Want to be Your Mother's Son-in-Law" by Macy Gray and Tony Bennett's cover of the Nat "King" Cole standard "If Yesterday Could Only Be Tomorrow." Richard & Linda Thompson's ethereal "Dimming of the Day," Lauryn Hill's acoustically spiritual "Selah" and Bob Dylan's rough-hewn "Waitin' for You" round out a list of highlights, but overall the album lacks the musical unity of O Brother. Still, it does offer a uniformly strong array of cuts from an intriguingly diverse roster of artists, offering old and new compositions that might not jibe together perfectly but make for a winning cultural gumbo, one which cannily suits the region and people featured in the film.

::: Laurence Station

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May 27, 2002

Mary Timony: The Golden Dove

Matador, 2002

Rating: 2.7

On her second solo release, the Golden Dove, erstwhile Helium front person Mary Timony offers up a dozen songs that examine romantic longing colored by fantastic imagery. On the best tracks, such as "Blood Tree," "The Owl's Escape" and "Magic Power," Timony mostly succeeds in pulling off this somewhat tricky proposition, correlating unrequited or (to be more precise) unsatisfying love with elaborate and imaginative symbolism. Unfortunately, such flights of fancy often give way to heavy-handed lyrics and, on several tracks ("Musik And Charming Melodee" and "14 Horses," to single out two particularly egregious offenders) the studio production is bloated and unnecessarily intrusive. There's a sense that too many cooks were in the kitchen during the recording process (Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, stand up and take a bow), and Golden Dove might have worked better if Timony and company had stripped down the arrangements, or better yet pursued a production-free acoustic approach.

::: Laurence Station

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May 20, 2002

Nina Nastasia: The Blackened Air

Touch and Go, 2002

Rating: 3.6

Hopefully, singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia's sophomore effort will reach a broader audience than her modestly distributed 2000 debut Dogs. Steve Albini manned the boards for both efforts, evident in the pair's uniform tonality, although Blackened Air is clearly the more expansive of the two, offering up Nastasia's personalized take on lonesome country ballads tinctured by a near palpable sense of dread. Presented in two eight-song cycles, themes of troubled homes, abusive relationships, and secret meeting places in the dimness of ghost-haunted woods permeate the album, while jointly conveying a mood akin to summer passing into autumn. As with Dogs, the key is Nastasia's voice, which can sound like a curious little girl's one moment ("Run, All You...") and vindictive lover's the next ("This Is What It Is"). Both "All For You" and "In The Graveyard" possess a loose, lived in back porch vibe that one wishes had been expanded to some of the other overly studio-polished cuts. "Ocean," the album's epic centerpiece, lurches with elemental fury, building from slow simmer to thunderous finish that perfectly illustrates the control and power of Nastasia's vocal range. The back half of the album slows to a crawl, revived slightly by the affecting "Little Angel." Blackened Air feels frontloaded, with the less impressive tracks pushed to the end, yet still presented as key patterns in a much larger quilt. Regardless, Nastasia is an artist worth following, possessing the chops and songwriting skills to justify a long and fruitful career.

::: Laurence Station

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May 19, 2002

Moby: 18
V2, 2002

Rating: 3.4

On his perhaps too-eagerly anticipated follow-up to 1999's career-making Play, techno/dance-rock maven Moby follows the dictates of his ADD-afflicted muse, wisely refraining from too many trips to the well of gospel, blues and field recordings that formed Play's galvanizing core. 18 certainly mines some of Play's transcendent terrain, as on the stirring "In This World" and "One of These Mornings." On such tracks, Moby wrings occasional moments of uplift while hewing closely to the tried-and-true repetitive formula of Play's "Find My Baby." But it's when he takes his hand off the wheel and gives in to whatever notions come to his mind that 18 takes on its own shape: The engaging guitar lick softly snaking through the new-wave anthem "We Are All Made of Stars," the moody and atmospheric singing on "Signs of Love" and "Extreme Ways" and the hip-hop attitude of "Jam For the Ladies," in particular, all bristle (in a decidedly low-key way) with, if not invention, then certainly a refreshing "roll with it" sensibility. Too often, however, 18 gets mired in drowsy familiarity, as one pretty-sounding song washes inexorably after another, each sporting differing and inconsistent degrees of needed heft. As a result, 18 feels more like a lazy, Sunday morning kind of album, rather than one that further pushes the boundaries of Saturday night. That's clearly not the effect Moby intended, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. And 18 isn't necessarily a bad record; just a bit out of balance, a tip of the scales away from being a truly successful combo platter tailor-made for sleeping in, getting stoned, making out or dancing the night away.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 9, 2002

Badly Drawn Boy: About a Boy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Universal, 2002

Rating: 3.7

No one would have faulted Damon Gough -- a.k.a. eccentric Brit-pop composer Badly Drawn Boy -- had he simply cashed the check for this film soundtrack assignment and unloaded his junk drawer of a few incomplete ideas or future b-sides. But About A Boy is no cynical hack job: Instead, it's a lively and often vibrant collection of tunes that improve (at least in terms of maturity, if not sheer musical inventiveness) upon BDB's widely hailed debut The Hour Of Bewilderbeast. Although occasional instrumental interludes forcibly remind us of this disc's origins, on the whole it could almost stand as a fully-realized work, separate from its film-inspired origins. "A Peak You Reach," "Silent Sigh" and "Something to Talk About" in particular are impressive tracks wherein Gough's warped sense of musical ambition enhances the proceedings, rather than miring them in the kind of aren't-I-clever? tricks that often hobbled Bewilderbeast. Not all of the offerings here are out-and-out gems, but even the merely decent tracks crackle with a combination of freshness and restraint (even when Gough breaks out the string section). A welcome and very pleasant surprise, About A Boy augurs good things for BDB's next proper release.

::: The Gentleman

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May 7, 2002

Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow

MCA, 2002

Rating: 3.8

Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab, key players in the San Francisco hip-hop scene, return with their follow up to 2000's well-received NIA. Blazing Arrow expands on the sound of that earlier record, adding a wealth of guest stars (a few too many, actually) and more interesting and diverse beats. The chant-oriented, sinuous "Sky Is Falling" glides seamlessly into the confident, positive flow of "First In Flight." "Make You Feel That Way," with its smooth, unforced thump and fast, but controlled raps, and the soulful "Day One" bolster the number of highlights. "Chemical Calisthenics," artfully rendered by Jurassic 5's Cut Chemist, offers Blazing Arrow's finest moment, a loopy periodic table of clever raps and stop-start tempo-altering beats. Xcel and Gab pull out all the stops in an effort to present all that is good about West Coast hip-hop, but ultimately they offer too much filler and not enough true gems. "Green Light: Now Begin" drains the initial upbeat mood the album works so diligently to establish, while cuts like "Nowhere Fast" and "Paragraph President" simply fall flat in an attempt to appear too clever and/or progressive. But the tracks that work hit their targets quite well, and that makes Blackalicious' sophomore effort a disc worth seeking out.

::: Laurence Station

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May 7, 2002

Moth: Provisions, Fiction and Gear

Virgin, 2002

Rating: 2.5

Moth's debut hints at the promise of better material to come. The quartet has clearly put in the practice time, but has yet to brand its music with a unique, clearly identifiable sound. Guitarist Brad Stenz sings about broken and struggling relationships with earnest gusto, but his lyrics are far too generic to make more than a marginal impression. Annoying pleas for true love's return ("Hearing Things"), the seductive lure of drugs ("Cocaine Star") and a quest for physical perfection "Plastics Campaign" are regrettably the norm. Standout tracks, like the geeky, bouncy opener "I See Sound" to the Talking Heads-style "Burning Down My Sanity" give a glimpse of what Moth might evolve into, provided the group can shed the burden of its many musical and lyrical influences and find a few tales worth telling from a more personal, less derivative perspective.

::: Laurence Station

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May 7, 2002

Medeski, Martin & Wood: Uninvisible

Blue Note, 2002

Rating: 3.8

The latest release from this inventive post-jazz trio opens with a dense, declarative title track, coming across as an energized statement of purpose-slash-freeway rush. Uninvisible is a night album; an improvisational, after-midnight ode to night owls and club hoppers, traveling musicians and narcotic loners. "I Wanna Ride You" utilizes organist/keyboardist John Medeski's skills to perfection, conjuring a smoky, sexy mood enhanced by percussionist Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood's upbeat rhythm section. Col. Bruce Hampton lends his voice to "Your Name Is Snake Anthony," a wonderfully free associative mediation on road life, replete with nervous horns and a colorful cast of nightcrawlers. The masterful "Nocturnal Transmission" artfully captures the sounds of a chaotic downtown traffic jam as Antibalas horns, trumpets and clarinets clash mightily with Medeski's signature organ work. Other notables on this highly collaborative, genre-busting disc include turntabalist DJ P Love and guitarist Danny Blume (ratcheting up the deep funk quotient on "Pappy Check"). Producer Scotty Hard holds things together fairly well, but there's a decided lack of cohesiveness overall, particularly on the too-subdued, too early sequenced "Take Me Nowhere" and the appealing but noticeably out-of-place "Off the Table," which draws the album to a close amidst the sounds of a casually competitive ping pong game.

::: Laurence Station

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May 7, 2002

The Mooney Suzuki: Electric Sweat

Gammon, 2002

Rating: 3.3

Ironically, only the band's name is pretentious on this unaffected, no gimmicks rocker. Sammy James Jr. wastes no time on Mooney Suzuki's sophomore effort, laying down the album's mantra on the titular lead track: "Get ready/Get set/What you get is electric sweat." Taking its name from '70s avant-garde rock group Can's first two vocalists, Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki, this New York-born outfit owes far mores to Detroit rockers the Stooges and MC5 and just about anything found on the recently released Nuggets and Nuggets II box sets than it does to influential but relatively obscure German-based experimentalists. This band is all about straight-ahead power rock, as evidenced by the title track, and the ass kicking jam session "It's Showtime Pt. II." Sex makes a requisite appearance on the hormonally-charged "In a Young Man's Mind" and the occasional psychedelic melody appears courtesy of the Summer of Love worthy "Oh Sweet Susanna". James' lyrics are earnest, if unoriginal, and the group is tight in an intentionally sloppy way, which actually detracts from the primal spontaneity of the music. One doesn't want to imagine the quartet practicing too much, just bounding onstage and cutting loose with an unpolished, New York Dolls-like fury.

::: Laurence Station

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May 7, 2002

Martin Sexton: Live Wide Open

Kitchen Table Records, 2002

Rating: 4.0

Live Wide Open, the first official live release from Martin Sexton, draws from his 2001 U.S. tour, showcasing the vocally gifted troubadour doing what he does best: Playing to the crowd and reinterpreting his material with each new venue conquered. Armed with only a guitar, simulating bass lines with his thumb against the foundations of drummer Joe Bonadio, Sexton creates a full-bodied sound equal to that of more traditional trios or quartets. The 2-CD set is divided between more story-song oriented live favorites, like "In the Journey" and "Things You Do To Me," and longer, jam session cuts like "Gypsy Woman" and "Black Sheep." The first disc exemplifies Sexton at his best, using his distinct vocal range to revel in the temptations of L.A. nightlife (the boogie-woogie "Beast in Me"), ruminate on choosing the life of a traveling musician over settling down with a family ("Freedom of the Road") and reflecting on the dangerous combination of "Women and Wine" that has too often proven to be his Achilles' heel. "Hallelujah," a sublime examination of the duality within man's nature proves the most effective moment, while "Where Did I Go Wrong" captures Sexton's soaring, soulful voice in top form. The second disc doesn't measure up, primarily because the focus shifts from Sexton's singing to his guitar playing, which, while strong, isn't nearly as compelling as his multi-octave range.

::: Laurence Station

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April 18, 2002

Sheryl Crow: C'mon, C'mon

A&M Records, 2002
Rating: 2.9

Sheryl Crow has almost come across as a reliable middle-weight talent who struck it big and bought into her own hype, and C'mon, C'mon is the surest sign yet that she suffers from a puzzlingly warped view of her place in the pecking order. Most of C'mon, C'mon is bright and sunny California pop-rock, sturdily constructed and perfectly tailored for cruising down the highway with the top down on a breezy Summer afternoon. But Crow's penchant for hummable, superficial radio fodder is at increasing odds with her ambition to be taken seriously, as guest appearances by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Don Henley make clear. Crow is never less effective here than when she goes for the serious moment. Songs like "Abilene" and "Weather Channel" do carry some weight, and show Crow stretching as a songwriter, perhaps looking to position herself as the modern-day, estrogen-enhanced version of Tom Petty. And granted, she has a way with charming story-songs ("Soak Up the Sun" nicely reflects "All I Wanna Do" in this sense). But Crow's best moments come when she doesn't take herself so seriously, as on the hilariously-titled "You're an Original," a duet with fellow classic-rock recycler Lenny Kravitz. Actually, it's a pairing that makes perfect sense: From her often hideous wardrobe and hidebound reliance on '70s rock tropes (a little Steve Miller creeps into "Steve McQueen") to her painfully simple sentiments ("With broken wings we'll learn to fly"), Crow has more or less become Kravitz's female doppleganger. When she learns to give in to that fact, her slickly-produced ballads and infectious, feel-good anthems will be the better for it.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 14, 2002

The Goo Goo Dolls: Gutterflower

Warner Brothers, 2002
Rating: 3.0

What do you get when you take two scruffy Buffalo rockers with a serious jones for the Replacements and team them with a guy who used to play drums in the seminal punk band Minor Threat? To judge from Gutterflower, the latest release from the Goo Goo Dolls, you get three guys with no use for the idea of starving for your art as a romantic notion. D.I.Y. is cool and all, you know, but my family's gotta eat! (Tell that to former Minor Threat frontman and current Fugazi snarler Ian MacKaye.) On Gutterflower, as on 1998's less enchanting Dizzy Up The Girl, alt-rock vets and their too-old-for-Justin-Timberlake little sisters are treated to the sound of a band trying to reconcile its love for raw rock power with its knack for bubble-grunge melodicism and a desire to maintain the fat bank accounts afforded by the mega-hits "Iris" and "Name." There are some genuine moments of guilty-pleasure power-punk-pop on Gutterflower, especially for those who enjoy singing along to A Boy Named Goo or anything by Third Eye Blind when no one's around. But chief songwriter/heartthrob Johnny Rzeznik spends too much time trying to strike a balance between wave-those-lighters power balladry and hook-filled guitar rock (a la latter-day Soul Asylum), and ultimately fails to achieve either plane. Ultimately Gutterflower sounds like the album that guy who played Ray Pruitt on Beverly Hills, 90210 would have made had he ever gotten successful. These former New York-based Dolls are capable of better, and when they realize they've made enough money already, maybe they'll prove it.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 14, 2002

Ol' Dirty Bastard: The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones

D3 Entertainment, 2002

Rating: 1.5

Anyone following Ol' Dirty Bastard's seemingly never-ending soap opera in the music press the last couple of years should already know what Trials and Tribulations makes abundantly clear: The guy has flipped. Trials is an unlistenable mess from start to finish, the product of a pot-addled id run wild and believing too much of its own hype. It's true that record label D3 is partly to blame, having put this makeshift album together out of preliminary tracks Bastard laid down before serving his current prison sentence and padding it with we-were-never-in-the-same-room collaborations. (No Limit Soldier C-Murder, who's also run afoul of the law recently, and the execrable Insane Clown Posse both make appearances here -- birds of a feather, indeed.) But the label couldn't have churned out something as tasteless, dissonant and flat-out painful without ODB's help. It's him, after all, mercilessly murdering the Peaches and Herb hit "Reunited" and defecating gleefully in the "skit" "Taking a Shit." (And did we mention Insane Clown Posse?) Since notoriety sells, doubtless the acclaimed Wu Tang Clan will keep ODB on rather than disinherit him. And that's a real shame when you consider that countless hopefuls with actual talent are struggling in hopes of a big break while the by-now talent-free ODB will continue to reap unearned critical and financial rewards. The real trials and tribulations befall any soul unfortunate enough to listen to Trials. "Taking a Shit," indeed.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 14, 2002

R. Kelly and Jay-Z: The Best of Both Worlds

Jive/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2002
Rating: 2.0

This collaboration between two controversial figures is weighted down by the arrogant strutting of two egos eager to remind you (and each other) of just how historic such a meeting of the minds is. What's historic about it is how fast the album sank without a trace, even before R. Kelly's most recent controversy surrounding sex with a minor broke as big news. Make it a meeting of the groins: Both Kelly and the stunningly over praised Jay-Z lead with their sexual organs, and it's only because they're so wrapped up in how great it is to be involved in such an historic undertaking that this doesn't devolve into a pissing contest. Kelly manages to embarrass himself (no mean feat) on "Naked," whose sappy lyrics drag modern-day R&B's sorry track record with romantic balladry to appalling new depths. And Jay-Z reveals himself for the arrogant, sullen bully he really is, rapping about stealing other guys' girlfriends and in one song ("Break Up to Make Up") referring to his partner's act of turning her head away from him as a "cute little sex game." Hey, Z, ever heard of date rape? (Memo to the Roots: Why are you guys so eager to be associated with this thug?) In the same song, Kelly again lays bare his shamelessness by crooning the awful lines "You and me/ having sex/ after an argument/ it's the best..." (Memo to underage girls everywhere: Why do you want to sleep with this guy?) The production is contemporary-urban-sleek, and a couple of moments (notably "It Ain't Personal" and "The Streets") are actually relatively pleasant. But overall, Best of Both Worlds is exactly the opposite of what its title implies, exhibiting the worst that hip-hop and modern R&B have to offer.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 9, 2002

Andrew W.K.: I Get Wet

Island, 2002
Rating: 3.1

In many ways, Andrew W.K.'s I Get Wet is the pinnacle of '80s synth-metal, delivered a decade and a half too late to take its rightful place at the top of a heap that includes Judas Priest's Turbo and the entire catalog of Europe (of "Final Countdown" infamy). That's because the straight-ahead, hell-bent-for-leather guitar riffs of "Party Hard," "She is Beautiful" and the other songs here are constantly undercut by populist keyboards that would have garnered Wet a place alongside bands like Autograph and Journey in the record stores of yesteryear. The almost cartoonish keyboard tinkling that opens "Ready to Die" may grate, but when the Night Ranger-on-steroids crunch of the main riff kicks in, you can't help but know that it would have set thousands of mullets to whipsawing in headbanging frenzy back in the day. Those irritating keyboards aside, however, I Get Wet still registers as a success, mainly due to the sheer audacity of its Zen approach to hard rock, which does away with such unnecessary frills as, well, lyrics. W.K.'s less-is-more approach elevates the sophomoric double-entendres of AC/DC to the level of Kierkegaard, as on "I Love NYC," whose chorus follows up that defiant yell with a profound "Awww, yeah! New York City!" And damned if it doesn't work. Titles like "It's Time to Party," "Party 'Til You Puke" and "Don't Stop Living in the Red" pretty much sum up W.K.'s philosophy: Party hard (as evidenced by "Party Hard"), and never stop. I Get Wet, with its multi-tracked, over-produced sheen, is a triumph of style over substance, to be sure, but for its brief and galvanizing running time, at least, you won't doubt the "triumph" part of that statement. Afterwards? Well, that's another matter. But it's fun while it lasts.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 9, 2002

Clinic: Walking With Thee

Domino, 2002

Rating: 4.0

Saddled with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke's Most Favored Band status, Liverpool quartet Clinic has to be wary of going out of fashion before it has a chance to break big outside the group's native UK and select parts of the Continent. Clinic's 2000 debut, Internal Wrangler, had a nice retro arty-punk edge to it; marrying Velvet Underground lyrical detachment with early-'80s Suicide beats. The follow-up, Walking With Thee, improves not only on the production of its predecessor, but the consistency of the sonic structures as well. "Harmony" opens the record with an eerie synth-powered groove that's as tight as it is disquieting. "The Equaliser" changes gears to a pounding rattlesnake drumbeat, injecting an amphetamine-fueled urgency into the proceedings. "Pet Eunoch,” a punk powered two-minute assault, comes closest to the band's earlier work, providing a nice middle break. But it's on the latter half of Walking With Thee that things truly get interesting. "Mr. Moonlight" sports a clean, nervy expectation lurking beneath its restrained beat and singer Ade Blackburn's twitchy, barely-holding-on-to-sanity vocals. "Come Into Our Room" is peak Clinic, looping the title vocal as if it were an frantic plea into a dangerous, but intoxicatingly inviting sanctuary. The propulsive exigency running through the album proves to be its strongest suit, while the weak link is the same as on the band's earlier releases: A creeping sense of foreboding that the group will recycle itself rather than move forward. Undoubtedly Clinic does moody, synthesized trance tunes quite well. The danger is that such clever, if limited, noise will be the sum of an outfit with so much more to offer. Providing the band can sustain the momentum it's already generated, Clinic clearly has a masterpiece within it.

::: Laurence Station

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April 8, 2002

Bruce Arnold: Give 'Em Some

Muse-Eek, 2002
Rating: 3.0

Jazz fusion is one of those forms whose entertainment value increases in relation to the listener's level of expertise. Which is to say, musically trained, serious jazz fans get a lot more out of the form's conventions, and are able to deconstruct the performers' methods in precise, mathematical terms -- while those with little or no understanding of its intricacies judge it solely on whether or not it sounds good. Which makes commenting on Give 'Em Some, by New York-based guitarist Bruce Arnold, a particularly subjective experience. There's certainly much for serious fans of this particular offshoot of modern jazz to appreciate: Arnold's technical expertise is evident throughout, from his digital dexterity to the various tones and effects he coaxes from his instrument. But those listeners completely uneducated as to the complexities of 12-tone composition will have less to work with. Luckily for them, Give 'Em Some delivers the promise inherent in its title, producing 47 minutes' worth of easily digestible fusion that evokes the pleasanter moments of Pat Metheney, Camel or the more experimental works of Allan Holdsworth. If Arnold's egghead tendencies occasionally get the better of him (as on the aptly titled, way-too-long "Timeline"), he nonetheless leads his competent trio through interesting structures and textures ("Techtonic," "Rush") without descending into the somnambulant detours that often derail groups like Spyro Gyra. Arnold's no Frisell-style visionary, but Give 'Em Some proves he can more than hold his own among the jazz-rock set.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 3, 2002

Kinky: Kinky

Sonic360/Nettwerk, 2002

Rating: 3.5

The self-titled debut from Monterey, Mexico-based Kinky sports a heterogeneous, transatlantic electronica meets Mexican nortenos vibe. The production (courtesy of Chris Allison, who's also manned the boards for Coldplay and the Beta Band) is bright and energetic throughout, exemplified by incredibly loose and funky tracks like the opener "Mas" and "Mirando de Lado." "Soun Tha Primer Amor" introduces big horns over a heavy beat confidently navigated by a silver-tongued lover as filtered through a vocoder. "Great Spot" pushes a frenetic beat tailor-made for an upscale Parisian discothèque, while "San Antonio" utilizes keyboard effects and snaking guitar lines to effectively convey a carefree Southwest Texas mood. Beat programmer and keyboardist Ulises Lozano proves the key ingredient, aurally binding these incredibly dissimilar musical styles together with a Latin-inflected array of samples and peppery tones. The main critique here regards the solidly constructed but too party-oriented song structures. With the exception of the bizarre "Anorexic Freaks," the band doggedly avoids commenting on anything deeper than standard dance-and-romance, joie de vivre encounters. While there's nothing wrong with enjoying the moment, the lack of subtlety and blithely noninvasive emotional explorations dampens Kinky's play-it-again factor, rendering it a fun but decidedly short-term affair.

::: Laurence Station

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April 2, 2002

The Walkmen: Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone

Star Time, 2002

Rating: 3.0

The Walkmen, comprised of three former Jonathan Fire*Eater members (drummer Matt Barrick, guitarist Paul Maroon and keyboardist Walter Martin) and a pair of ex-Recoys (bassist Peter Bauer and vocalist Hamilton Leithauser), clearly possess the chops to make interesting music. The craftsmanship evident throughout the band's full-length debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, is laudable. Unfortunately, it's also maddeningly laconic in approach. Could-be rockers like the title track and "Revenge Wears No Wristwatch" lack that vital urgency that a) captures the frantic urban pace of New York City (the group's home base) and b) gets one excited at the sound of the incredibly well-played, but utterly subdued beats. "Wake Up" perfectly encapsulates the overall feel of the record, as Leithauser does his best to rouse himself from a slumber, hoping, perhaps, to reach the cabaret for an evening show: He just can't get out of bed. "I'm Never Bored" comes closest to picking up the pace, but it's also the last track on the record, arriving too late to justify the previous dozen cuts. Television capably pulled off the whole indifferent-cool thing in the mid-'70s, but the Walkmen just seem to be going through the same well-practiced, but uninspiring, motions.

::: Laurence Station

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March 26, 2002

Hayden: Skyscraper National Park

Hardwood/BadMan, 2002

Rating: 3.8

Toronto-based singer/songwriter Hayden Desser returns with the follow-up to 1998's The Closer I Get, which bore a too striking-resemblance to his impressive 1996 debut, Everything I Long For. Skyscraper National Park takes a different approach than prior throaty growl to haunted whisper confessional offerings, acting as a low-key travelogue for a narrator in search of a place to call home. "Street Car" opens the album with a distracted lonely heart in an accidental encounter with, well, a streetcar. The driver of the brilliant "Dynamite Walls" considers the modernization of the great outdoors while struggling to stay awake at the wheel. "Steps to Miles," "I Should Have Been Watching You," and "Long Way Down" bring matters to a dispiriting crawl -- that point on your journey where the scenery looks the same for hundreds of miles and there's nary another vehicle in sight. Fortunately, the funky, emboldened "Tea Pad" accelerates into more dynamic sonic territory, catching the driver just before he drifts off the highway into oblivion. "Bass Song" introduces violin and cello accompaniment, adding to the moody dread of a character caught unawares as intruders break into his home. "Lullaby" proves an effective closer, with trumpet and French horn imparting a dreamy, drowsy feel as the record fades out. Hayden has crafted a dense, weighty work that feels longer than its sub-40 minute playing time. Fortunately the highlights of the trip outweigh the overly somnambulistic detours, proving that it's the journey, not the destination that matters most.

::: Laurence Station

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March 24, 2002

Angélique Kidjo: Black Ivory Soul

Columbia, 2002

Rating: 3.7

World beat music is an annoyingly vague and broadly defined term, implying as it does that music recorded outside the US, the UK and parts of Europe, with primarily non-English lyrics, is somehow fundamentally different than so-called popular music, destined for shelving in the world beat/fusion/whatever catchall bins. With her latest release, Black Ivory Soul, Angélique Kidjo makes an earnest attempt at shattering such narrow-minded conventions. Bridging the exuberant sounds of her native Benin (strongly represented on the album highlight "Afrika") with the rhythm-heavy emphasis typical of northeastern Brazil (the stirring "Ominira"), Kidjo manages to narrow the Atlantic-sized gulf between the two countries and create a fine set of cross-pollinated, tightly crafted songs. Her duet with Dave Matthews (the bland "Iwoya") and mood-breaking closer (a cover of Serge Gainsbourg's "Ces Petits Riens") detract from the album's overall effectiveness. Those drawbacks aside, however, Black Ivory Soul is recommended for those interested in music without borders, where it's the sound, not the country of origin, that matters most.

::: Laurence Station

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March 17, 2002

Caitlin Cary: While You Weren't Looking

Yep Roc, 2002

Rating: 2.9

For an anticipated full-length debut from a woman often forced to stand in the shadow of her mercurial musical partner, While You Weren't Looking is a decidedly docile affair. You'd expect former Whiskeytown fiddler/chanteuse Cary to strike out on her own with a bold collection of memorable alt-country, folkish numbers, but the vast majority of Looking is given to unmemorable sonic tapestries supporting equally gauzy lyrics. Cary relies a bit heavily on grade-school clichés -- the first two songs both sport the word "heart" in the title, while "Pony" compares the narrator's lover to (what else?) a pony, declaring "He doesn't need a saddle/ I don't wear silver spurs/ I'll never tie him down/ He won't prance for other girls." These less-than-feminist leanings add to Looking's lightweight feel. Oddly enough, a bonus four-song mini-disc hints at the album Looking could have been. "The Battle," a moving duet with former Whiskeytown ringleader (and current alt-country poster boy) Ryan Adams, is subtly affecting, while Chip Robinson invests "Keys to the Fair" with a gravelly gravity worthy of Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen. Why Cary elected to remove these superior cuts from the album proper is a mystery, and Looking suffers it, standing as a document of unfulfilled promise.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 14, 2002

Eels: Souljacker

DreamWorks, 2001

Rating: 3.3

The Eels' Souljacker wrestles with a tonal middle ground somewhere between To Bring You My Love-era PJ Harvey and the latest Sparklehorse release. That John Parish produced or co-produced both of those works, and manned the boards on Souljacker as well, sheds some light on its familiar yet still unique sound, as if he took what he'd learned from both sessions and applied them to this latest excursion from head Eel E. The opening track, "Dog Faced Boy," uses crunchy guitars and thick basslines that establish a menacing mood not dissimilar from Harvey's Love, while "That's Not Really Funny" has a processed-yet-folksy vibe akin to "Comfort Me" or "Apple Bed" from Sparklehorse's It's a Wonderful Life. Despite Parish's usage of familiar studio tricks, E manages to push his personality through on several cuts, most notably the acoustic, reflective "Woman Driving, Man Sleeping" and "Jungle Telegraph," which successfully marries Parish's beat-heavy manipulations with E's pointedly absurdist lyrical imagery. While it doesn't measure up to the Eels' 1998 masterpiece Electro-Shock Blues, or possess the uniformly solid pop craftsmanship of 2000's Daisies of the Galaxy, Souljacker is an interesting detour, expanding the Eels' musical palette while remaining true to E's wonderfully idiosyncratic pop vision.

::: Laurence Station

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March 10, 2002

Phantom Planet: The Guest

Epic, 2002

Rating: 2.5

Executing lead singer/principal songwriter Alex Greenwald's tunes with accomplished skill (if not distinguished verve), Phantom Planet offers up a collection of moderately hummable, innocuous songs that lean closer to bubblegum pop than full-tilt rock and roll. The main problem with The Guest is the too-obvious studio sheen reflecting off each carefully constructed track. The opener, "California," is smart and fun, but too spotless to make a lasting impression, while the best cut, "Turn Smile Shift Repeat" possesses a dense, meditative beat that draws unflattering attention to the blandness of the tracks surrounding it. Any edge the band might have possessed has been buffed car-wax clean. While sanitary production might produce a pleasant melody, it all but guarantees the experience won't be a particularly memorable one. Phantom Planet has talent, but the group might want to get its collective elbows and knees dirtier next time out.

::: Laurence Station

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March 5, 2002

Alanis Morissette: Under Rug Swept

Maverick, 2002

Rating: 2.9

All appropriate respect to Alanis Morissette for working out her issues in song, and for apparently having a very clear and defined sense of self. But densely wordy self-help screeds do not engaging pop music make. From the opening "21 Things I Want in a Lover," Alanis tries hard to wed winsome vocal melodies and crisply-produced (if slightly generic) backing tracks with ungainly mouthfuls like "I'm amazed by your surrender in the face of threatening forces that I represent." While there are some laudable sentiments at work -- "A Man," "Surrendering" and "You Owe Me Nothing In Return" show a heartwarming empathetic side -- for the most part Under Rug Swept is the sound of a post-breakup poetry journal set to music, all unedited emotion and I-know-lots-of-words-so-I-must-be-deep emotional narcissism. Fan or foe, Swept is apt to make you wish Morissette could stop tripping over her own tongue.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 4, 2002

Explosions in the Sky: Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever

Temporary Residence, 2001

Rating: 4.0

Offered as a pair (Die and Live Forever) of three song compositions, Texas-based quartet Explosions in the Sky’s debut explores the transitory moment between life and death. Utilizing straightforward drum, bass, guitar arrangements, the band runs the gamut between full-on jackhammer metal and hushed, softly crashing melodies, often within the space of a few notes. Such technical virtuosity might ring hollow if the instrumentals didn’t convey a sense of struggling to answer what are essentially unanswerable questions about the Great Beyond. Considerably less political than Godspeed You Black Emperor! and more prone to volatile histrionics than early Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky should develop a sizeable following amongst the post-rock (whatever that means) set. Bottom line: these tracks rock, making the album worth seeking out.

::: Laurence Station

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March 3, 2002

Boards of Canada: Geogaddi

Warp, 2002

Rating: 4.3

Boards of Canada (comprised of Scottish cut and paste duo Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison) stay the course with Geogaddi, the follow-up to 1998's electronica landmark Music Has the Right to Children. Themes of kids at play and sinister, forbidding landscapes remain, processed through a computer and enhanced by found sounds and distorted, provocatively repetitive tone patterns. Such giddy, yet eerie tracks as "Beware the Friendly Stranger" and "The Devil is in the Details" establish an atmosphere of innocence teetering on the edge of oblivion. "Music Is Math" loops the line "The past is inside the present," as if probing for the answers behind some horrible childhood event. "Gyroscope," "Over the Horizon Radar" and the beautifully synthesized, beat-laden "Dawn Chorus" conjure images of violent geologic formations occurring just beneath the playground of our collective youths. While some might find fault with Boards of Canada for mining the same terrain as its earlier work, clearly the group has found a rich underground vein to explore. The result is one of the year's most musically intriguing, dense and satisfying creations.

::: Laurence Station

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February 23, 2002

Lambchop: Is a Woman

Merge, 2002

Rating: 3.0

Following up 2000's soulful, spiritedly upbeat release, Nixon (Merge), Nashville-based chamber-country torchbearers Lambchop unveil its latest effort, the intimately couched Is a Woman. Head 'Chop Kurt Wagner focuses his distinctively languorous baritone on how the animal kingdom has it made, in comparison to the emotional basket cases that define the majority of the human race. Wagner's lyrics remain defiantly abstruse, as if wary of being tied down to any specific locale, person or time, while the supporting players all carry out their roles in a perfunctorily competent manner. What the album lacks is a sense of spontaneity; that burst of the unexpected that makes rock and roll so special. Based primarily around piano and string arrangements, Is A Woman conjures images of Wagner chiseling every note and lyric into precise blocks of stone. The final product is a well-played but frustratingly ponderous affair that's never allowed to stammer, or at least cough out of place. "D. Scott Parsley" adds a dash of variation to the overall tapestry, quickening the pace ever so slightly. And the closing title track allows the backbeat more wiggle room, making it not only the best song on the album, but the most alive as well.

::: Laurence Station

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February 22, 2002

Tanya Donelly: Beautysleep

4AD, 2002

Rating: 3.4

The belated follow-up to 1997's Lovesongs for Underdogs finds Tanya Donnelly exploring themes (nocturnally-tinted ruminations on dreams, fantasy worlds, love and death) similar to those that have dominated the artist's music since her days with Throwing Muses. Backed by her husband, ex-Juliana Hatfield bassist Dean Fisher, and ex-Muses drummer David Narcizo, Donnelly displays an assertive confidence decidedly lacking on the more tentative Lovesongs. In "The Storm," she sings, "You have carbonated my bloodstream" to her lover, and the conviction in her voice is as undeniable as it is exuberantly passionate. The peak track, "Wrap-Around Skirt," looks back with a world-wise, rather than world-weary, gaze at lessons learned, while the declarative "Keeping You" is personal but universal in its celebration of finding the right partner. The opening track, "Life is But a Dream," and later cut, "Darkside," veer a little too close to preachy, redemptive spiritual territory. And "Moonbeam Monkey," (a duet with late Morphine singer Mark Sandman) jarringly alters the upbeat, yet ethereally somnambulistic mood of the album by introducing over-baked gothic melodramatics into an otherwise personal, self-consciously intimate affair. Beautysleep is a solid, if not overwhelming achievement from an artist who thankfully has not allowed the added responsibilities of marriage and motherhood to dampen her appealingly childlike approach to making music.

::: Laurence Station

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February 12, 2002

 

The Chemical Brothers: Come With Us
Astralwerks, 2002
Rating: 3.4

The title of the Brothers' 2002 effort begs the question: Where are you going, exactly? The answer: Nowhere they (or you, for that matter) haven't been before. Come With Us is undeniably engaging in its easy flow of African rhythms, suspended pop vocals (courtesy of Beth Orton and Richard Ashcroft) and adrenaline-coaxing mechanics. But as listenable and even likable as it is, Come With Us can't help but disappoint in its often-sublime retread of familiar themes; the explicit promise of the duo's classic Dig Your Own Hole goes unfulfilled. Still, an attractive listen.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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February 12, 2002

Nine Inch Nails: And All That Could Have Been
Nothing/Interscope, 2002
Rating: 2.9

In the primal scream therapy session of the 1990s, Trent Reznor clawed himself a spot alongside Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan for cringe-worthy journal entries set against stirringly bleak and disturbingly harsh soundscapes that accentuated his rage and pain. On record, it works. Live, it's a different story. In an arena setting, the spike-crunch march of "Terrible Lie" works fist-pumpingly well, but at the expense of the lyrics, whose melodrama is amped to a painful degree. The disconnect between Reznor's projected aura of bruised-yet-indifferent, menacing poise and his wounded-child lyrics is too great for even the competently-executed snarl of his tight backing band to bridge.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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February 12, 2002

The Church: After Everything Now This
Thirsty Ear, 2002
Rating: 3.8

Since 1992's Priest=Aura, the Church has moved farther from its early jangle-pop roots and the ethereal dynamics of 1998's watershed Starfish toward a dense melancholia that's equal parts moving and murky. Following in the footsteps of 1998's uneven Hologram of Baal, After Everything offers a handful of tracks that shimmer with the vibrant buoyancy and wistful spark of the band's best work, notably "Numbers" and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper's engaging, driving "Chromium." But for every such moment there are two or three languorous compositions that, while pretty, contribute to an overall effect of torpor. In its way, After Everything is much like mainlining heroin; it feels good, but the true high points are sparser than you expect.

::: The Gentleman

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February 10, 2002

 

De La Soul: AOI: Bionix
Tommy Boy, 2001
Rating: 4.0

When a group's resume includes a landmark like 1989's 3 Feet High and Rising, expectations are inevitably going to be high. So when De La Soul's hardcore Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Tommy Boy, 2000) -- the first installment of a proposed trilogy -- failed to live up to said expectations, fans had reason to worry. But with Bionix, the trio of Dave, Maseo and Pos have gone back to what they do best. With the aid of producer Dave West on a few tracks, De La Soul has returned to its more familiar positive, lighthearted and cagily observant vibe, and, as a result, Bionix is the group's finest work since 3 Feet. The infectious "Simply," which samples Wings' "Wonderful Christmas Time," is a highlight, as are the pro-female "Baby Phat" and the refreshingly non-preachy, anti-drug "Peer Pressure" (which features B-Real). Such tracks amply demonstrate that the group's lyrical skills -- intelligent and razor-sharp as ever -- are still very much intact. After the misfire of Mosaic Thump, Bionix proves a reaffirmation of the trio's talents and raises the stakes for a promising conclusion to the Art Official Intelligence trilogy (due in the second half of 2002).

::: Laurence Station

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February 10, 2002

 

Ted Leo/Pharmacists: The Tyranny of Distance
Lookout, 2001
Rating: 4.5

Combining punk aesthetics with a slavishly dedicated pop sensibility, Ted Leo and his backing band, the Pharmacists, have created one of the best pop rock records in years. This is one of those albums you can stick in your CD player and spin for weeks. It's infectious, manic, hyper-romantic and meticulously well crafted. From the jaunty opening track "Biomusicology" to the epic "Stove by a Whale," Leo and cohorts pay a huge debt to late '60s and early '70s pop influences while fashioning something wholly unique, disarming and utterly non-ironic. In a sane universe, the ridiculously bouncy "Squeaky Fingers" would hold sway at the top of the charts, rendering current disposable mainstays (insert interchangeable names here) utterly obsolete. On "The Great Communicator" Leo sings what could easily be the record's exuberantly playful rationale, "I'm not the great communicator that I used to be, apparently/But I know what it means when I hear screams/And it's the sonics, not the phonics/And it's all in the delivery." Here's hoping Leo's latest effort reaches the wide audience it clearly deserves.

::: Laurence Station

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February 10, 2002

 

Hood: Cold House
Aesthetics, 2001
Rating: 3.9

Dense, trippy and hypnotic are useful adjectives when describing the music of the Leeds-based experimentalists in Hood. With its sixth full-length, the appropriately titled Cold House, the band may be closer to the mainstream than ever before, but only because the mainstream has veered nearer the group, rather than the other way around. Using skittering beats and intercut, rap-tinged vocals, Cold House sets a gauzy mood, conveying a disorienting, fog-hazed sensation in which the intricacy of the music is buried beneath layers of indiscriminate samples and intricately overlaid drumbeats. The effect, disquieting at first, eventually rewards careful listening with a lyrically rich work that frustratingly proves too obstinate for its own good. Hopefully interested buyers won't abandon the opaque merits of Cold House before giving it enough rotations to get beneath the skin and penetrate the mind.

::: Laurence Station

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February 10, 2002

 

Elbow: Asleep in the Back
V2, 2001
Rating: 3.5

Elbow songwriter/vocalist Guy Garvey brings dark diary lyrics to the fore on Elbow's solid, if not overawing, debut. So-called "Manchester miserablism" appears in requisite order, with such tellingly fatalistic lyrics as "I'm proud to be the one you hold when the shakes begin" (from "Powder Blue") and the much-hyped, overwrought lead-in to the centerpiece track, "Newborn": "I'll be the corpse in your bathtub/Useless." despite such melodrama, Garvey does possess undeniable talent. "Bitten By The Tail-fly," an album highlight about a sexual predator, opens with the appropriately menacing verse: "You're a girl in this vicinity/I'm a dog without a collar on/This cattle-market cabaret/Is the Sabbath every Saturday." Elbow is a vehicle for Garvey's confessional/self-destructive lyrics and the band will ultimately be judged according to how adept Garvey becomes at translating his seemingly genuine pain into memorable, affecting songs. Asleep in the Back is a promising debut, but just that; a first attempt hinting at greater things to come.

::: Laurence Station

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January 6, 2002

Mogwai: My Father My King [EP]

Matador, 2001

Rating: 4.0

This EP contains one song, over twenty minutes long, taken from an ancient Jewish melody. Has Mogwai lost its mind? Hardly. Rather, the band has done nothing less than lay down the peak achievement of its career to date. With veteran producer Steve Albini at the controls, Mogwai captures the energy and scope of this tune, a recent live favorite. "My Father My King" is an epic construction that provides the sense of notes being created and destroyed with relentless intensity. Moving from patient dirge to thunderous cavalcade of sonic power, it achieves what the band's 2001 full-length release, ironically titled Rock Action, didn't: it actually rocks out. It's a shame the tune wasn't done during the Rock Action sessions, as it would have made a good record truly great. With My Father My King, Mogwai stakes its claim as one of the most creative and inspiring instrumental bands performing in rock today.

::: Laurence Station

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