Plaid, Double Figure (Warp): The Black Dog were among the earliest groups to espouse the form loosely known, for lack of a better term, as "intelligent techno." Beginning with the coveted "Virtual" EP on their own imprint in 1989, Ken Downie, Ed Handley and Andy Turner spent the better part of the next decade crafting jewel-toned breakbeat techno that broke away from the dance-floor haze of acid house. As Black Dog Productions, Balil, Parasight and other aliases, they released a stream of recordings for labels like Warp and GPR that seemed like fragments of some sonic Rosetta Stone, coded hints to an otherworldly musical language of analog squelch, tribal folk songs, and chamber arrangements.

The trio split after 1996's Music for Adverts, but Handley and Turner wasted no time in reviving their Plaid identity, which had entered BDP's collective identity with 1991's Mbuki Mvuki. On 1998's Not for Threes and 1999's Rest Proof Clockwork, the duo carried on the classic Black Dog sound, bringing to it a predilection for vibrant, glistening tones — Caribbean steel drums maintained an incongruous presence — and tracks cut so short they seemed almost like preludes.

But where those two records experimented with vocals and more pop-oriented songs (including contributions from Björk and Nicolette), Double Figure moves back toward more ambiguous terrain, one strewn with unfamiliar plants that don't readily reveal the buds hidden behind prickles and spines. It doesn't have anywhere near the complexity of Autechre's Confield — an album to which it's related in legacy, if not form — and it may take longer to appreciate Double Figure than Autechre's new album. There's something maddening in the way Plaid pairs an intricate, off-kilter rhythmic figure with fairly straight four-bar chord changes and synth tones that often sound like presets. Certainly, there are moments where they perfectly blend pop structure, rhythmic innovation and a keen ear for texture, as in the nostalgic refrain of "Assault on Precinct Zero." And the chattering, percussive rush of "Ooh Be Do" demonstrates that there are still remarkable organisms hiding along the overgrown, neglected paths in Autechre's backyard. But are the climbing arpeggios of the chiming "New Family" the most interesting melodic conceit they can come up with?

As it turns out, that's the wrong question to ask. For all their surface simplicity, the duo demand patience; they require a willingness to wait for the predictable forms to shift, subtly, just when your attention is about to slip. Plaid excel at the little moments where the music breathes — moments all too rare within the regularized patterns of most beat-oriented electronic music. Just consider the point a little past the four-minute mark in "New Family," when everything stops for the space of a pulse (there's a reason they call it a "beat" in acting). It's not so much a breakdown as a feint, a half-step to the side, marked by a single measure of percussive hesitation, before the song takes a headlong spin into a dizzy cascade of faraway vocals and goes spiraling deep into your consciousness. Such a little thing, but it's enough to color everything in a different light, and to show you a whole new way of listening. — Philip Sherburne

Various, Greatest Spits! (Mr.Lady): Going under the very full title Sister Spit's Ramblin' Road Show Presents: Greatest Spits! A Spoken Word Compilation, this collection of live-recorded outings and sly on-the-phone interludes from a collective of spoken-word sisters spends much of its time with particular familiarity, from smart-ass (Michelle Tea on "The Beautiful"), to funny (Beth Lisick on "Credit Card Test"), to angry (Sara Seinberg on "Fuck You I'm Wonderwoman"). Then, in what was no doubt sequenced to be the "emotional" climax, the comp takes a turn — down a few notches — for a stirring, stirry, heart-breaking finale: the can of worms opened up by Cooper Lee Bombardir's gutted, guttural, dynamic, demanding eulogy "Exhume," followed by a gorgeously low-key marriage of clipped verse and gentle banjo playing by Miranda Mellis and Alicia McCarthy, who spin yarns of down-the-years yearning, thick with glistening imagery and heavy with childhood nostalgia. — Anthony Carew

Hefner, We Love the City (Beggars Banquet): Though We Love the City's effete folk-pop suggests Darren Hayman's as much a 'burb-dwelling Neil Young as he is a low-rent Fran Healy, his commingling of social criticism and social anxiety evokes Morrissey at his most self-pitying. Ironic title in tow, Hefner's frontman sets out to gibe his native London and all its spiritual bankruptcy, but his sharp tongue usually ends up licking his own wounds. Which is understandable: When you're so busy trying to come up with pretty melodies and totally satiric conceits, it's easy to conflate sexual frustration and the slow decline of the British Empire. If, however, this kind of fagged-out shtick would seem to make for icky singer-songwriter fare or shambling lo-fi, you should know that although Hayman's nasal croon dominates, he's got a big bag of tricks for a guy so down on himself. Mellotron, synths, piano, horns and satiny harmonies (with help from Amelia Fletcher of Talulah Gosh/ Heavenly/ Marine Research fame) accompany the flavorless strum-to-skronk of his guitar; attention to detail particularly benefits the lush and endearing "Good Fruit," the rare track wherein lovelorn earnestness replaces self-conscious repartee. "The Greedy Ugly People" and "The Day That Thatcher Dies" are par for City's (dis)course, each trafficking in the sort of acerbity that comes way too easy to Hayman (in case you couldn't tell from the titles). "Thatcher" sports a kiddie choir chanting "Ding, dong, the witch is dead," and if that's not Pink Floyd enough for you, Hayman borrows Roger Waters' wicked schoolmaster's yawp for "Painting and Kissing," which recounts a doomed fling by way of a cheap metaphor, transposing a map of London over a map of the heart (both of which plot a course for grief, misery, etc.). "This is Sixth Form poetry," Hayman confides on the title track. But since his hooks are more interesting than his disaffection, it ain't so bad as pop music. — Christian David Hoard

Mouse on Mars, Idiology (Thrill Jockey): "I am convinced that the term 'I the self' is idiological and can be dispensed with," the defiant vocoder-voice sings on the first track of Idiology, the new Mouse on Mars longplayer. From the very beginning, it's clear that preconceived notions of electronic music may also be dispensed with. The closest to a fuck-you anthem the German explorers have embarked upon, this smells a lot like punk (albeit digitalized). Idiology's scope and diversity prove my long-held theory that Andi Toma and Jan St.Werner have more in common with visitors from outer space than with other electronic musicians. Given their burgeoning relationship with instruments of the orchestral kind — which continues to develop since the cordial introductions of Niun Niggung — I am also loath to define their music as "electronic." Idiology is a feast of pianos and French horns, trumpets, violins and bass clarinets. There is no absence of vocals, nor of guitar-infused tunesmithery. There is no fear, no abidance whatsoever of electronic boundaries. The record spans time and genre, reinterpreting everything from ska to country-tinged folk as if it were the product of a whimsically inaccurate translation device from another planet, and in the process creates a new musical language altogether. — Emme Stone

Nebula, Charged (Sub Pop): These heavy, fuzzed-out guitar-driven sounds really take you back to the late-'60s daze of confusion — that interim period between acid trip-outs (i.e. Grateful Dead) and coke freak-outs (i.e. Abba) — don't they? OK, OK, so I wasn't actually there (and you probably weren't either) — that's just how I envision it. The major movement was fading. People were getting tired of peace and politics (though not of sex or drugs), but they weren't quite ready for the synthesized music to come. They put their shoes back on, but they were still dirty. They removed the braids and dreads from their hair, but they didn't cut it. They still wanted to jam — just harder. Metal hadn't fully arrived, but they could smell it in the air — its roots were sprouting in psychedelic hard rock. Kind of like where we are right now, post-grunge and pre- ... well, who knows? All of which, I think, explains Nebula: music to revert to while waiting for the next revolution (which won't be this big comeback of hard rock and metal you keep hearing about. The next revolution in music won't be a return to the past, but likely a twist on it). John Agnello, who's known for his work with Screaming Trees and Dinosaur Jr., produced Charged, the second full-length from the Los Angeles trio. It's cool and droning, the type of music that gets you to feel cool too, half-closing your eyes, leaning back in your chair, curling your lip Mick Jagger-style and, chin up, nodding your head slowly. Offsetting heavy bass lines with twangy acoustic guitar, the bluesy, roots-rock "Travelin' Man Blues" has a Black Crowes vibe. Laced with riffs so heavy they feel like an engine's burning roar, the semi-static "Ignition" offers wiry guitar lines and mean singing with loads of attitude. Closing track "All the Way" reverberates with spacey guitar lines, echoing choruses and floating psychedelic rhythms. It recalls hallucinogenic experiences where reality falls away and the warped, out-of-this-world ("but who cares, man?") visions set in. Traveling back in time can be fun. In Nebula's case, it certainly is. Especially when it means introducing a bygone genre to the folks who weren't around the first time. Including me. — Jenny Tatone

B.R.M.C., Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Virgin): This San Fran trio are the Jesus & Mary Chain reincarnated, right down to the black Velvets garb, fucked-up hair and stupid band name (you have to concentrate in order not to say "PMRC" instead). Somehow, though (because they're 2/3 American, 1/3 British?), they don't come across as poseurs — a neat trick when your forefathers struck the most shameless pose of the '80s. The more you listen to this dazzling debut, the less it seems their Cathedral of Feedback is concealing something — an ironic sneer, say, or a smarmy new-wave come-on. They're merely using Psychocandy as a workaday aesthetic strategy and, despite loads of melodrama, they never sound pretentious about it either. How did they pull off such a delicate balance? My guess is through their devotion to the guitar as supreme noisemaker. You can hear it gushing forth on every cut here, especially the brief psychotic reaction that happens 3:06 into "As Sure As the Sun." — Kevin John

Appendix Out, The Night Is Advancing (Drag City): This third longplaying turn from Appendix Out, the straggling folkies hailing from somewhere in the misty Scottish hinterlands (like, Glasgow or something), has two pretty obvious influences, one being Ali Roberts' recent dalliances with passed-down folksongs, the other Tom Crossley's experimentations with his wonky-pop collective International Airport (featuring Roberts). The first comes across largely in the lyrics (e.g. the galling "your hair is like a royal tapestry," on "The Groves of Lebanon"); the second appears only subtly, audible in slight shifts in tone, arrangement, and production (the latter by Rian Murphy and Sean O'Hagan). Despite some awkward moments — like when the band tries to "go Movietone," and fails badly, on "Fortified Jackdaw Grove" — the set works well for the most part, redolent rhythms stirred gently by Roberts' heart-achey vocals. — AC

Weezer, Weezer (Geffen/ Interscope): Listening to "Undone (The Sweater Song)" back in altern-a-riffic 1994 was like sucking nitrous oxide at an indie-rock show: Nerdy disaffection set to an arena-rock chorus and spiced up with a sly sex joke, it was as much a reason as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for everyteens to pogo about their bedrooms, only it sounded a lot more like a novelty one-off than a (purported) Gen-X landmark. Where "Undone" might well have relegated Weezer to the alt-rock scrap heap, '96's Pinkerton managed to amass a tidy little cult of mopey teens and college kids, though its darker set of bad love/ worse sex songs didn't come close to matching the sales of the '94 record. Judging by their latest LP, Weezer (AKA "The Green Album"), Weezer would rather court the black-framed-glasses crowd than the unconverted, even if Interscope's moderately extravagant PR campaign (for a guitar band that hasn't released a record in five years, at least) would suggest otherwise. Sure to be touted as their "mature" record, Weezer casts aside the earlier albums' pubescent jokeyness in favor of a guitar sound that's even more darkly crunchy than Pinkerton. An ample supply of hooks makes Weezer terrific for a night of indie-rock karaoke sometime soon, but those hooks are less of the tart-pop or charmingly-plaintive variety than Cheap Trick-y melodies clad in thrift-store sweaters. As for Rivers Cuomo, he still looks like Buddy Holly, but nowadays when he searches for his mainline, he can only hit it, y'know, sideways — which means that although his tunes are more refined than ever, there's less of an intoxicating effect to 'em (even on the one called "Hash Pipe"). "Island in the Sun" and "Photograph," two of the most subtly polished (and just plain subtle) numbers he's ever turned out, don't reach anthem-hood à la oldies like "Undone" or "El Scorcho." That's too bad for anyone who's indulged in Weezer's music rather than admired it, but even with Cuomo waxing hazily melancholic rather than stoopidly anthemic, Weezer's sure to be a hit with those who still buy into his main stock-in-trade: adolescent catharsis made hummable. — CDH

Autechre, Confield (Warp): Very likely the most highly anticipated electronic album of the year, Autechre's Confield is also one of the most hotly contested. Even before its release, tracks available via Napster — some real, some fake — spurred ample debate on Internet newsgroups regarding the album's merits, and critics' response has proved no less varied (or vehement). For many listeners, Autechre have lost the script; they've left behind the emotive terrain for which they were once known, and ventured into the cold confines of the blasted, post-humanist world. Their early releases like Incunabula and Amber were marked by syncopated variations on techno and electro, shot through with keening, melancholic synthesizer leads. They paved the way for a generation of post-techno producers including Funkstörung, Arovane and Markant, who worked Autechre's early blueprints into a formulaic version of IDM ("Intelligent Dance Music"). But the Manchester duo's recent offerings, such as LP and EP, find them eschewing predictable four-bar melodies and moving toward increasingly complex configurations of rhythmic clatter. Confield, with its dense thickets of evolving beats and open-ended melodies that seem more Schönberg than Chopin, is the logical extension of this progression. As David Toop profiles them in the current issue of The Wire, Autechre are part of a movement of artists exploring generative composition, harnessing algorithms and complex programming to create tracks that warp and morph independent of the producer's will. To whatever extent that method was used in creating Confield, the album certainly sounds like an automaton's creation. "VI scose poise" opens the album with a skittering cadence of ball-bearing rattle, seemingly without logic or repetition; this is as far from dance music's regular thud as beat-driven music gets. Over these prickly rhythms, a thin melody trickles down, but if it at first resembles the sustained ambient tones of Amber, it lacks the resolution of Autechre's early sentimental leanings. Tracks like "Cfern" and "Pen Expers" follow suit, teasing listeners with recognizable scraps of the old sound — electro beatboxing, organ swell — before freezing them with a blast of dry ice and smashing them to bits. The glistening timbres are familiar, but there's little to hold on to here; Confield's lithe processes slip nimbly from measure to measure, creating themselves anew at every turn. The detractors are right, in one sense — Confield is cold, forbidding music. There's nothing catchy about it — indeed, very little "pleasant" at all. Lacking the pathos that makes even self-consciously gloomy music sound reassuring, Confield presents one of the purest approximations of "machine music" we've heard yet. It's profoundly unsettling, but that's half its beauty; it's a sonic Frankenstein that refuses to let its plug be pulled. For this very reason, ironically, Confield is the most accurate take on "Intelligent Dance Music" yet to be released. The genre's name, the source of much contention, derives from Warp's early-'90s Artificial Intelligence compilations, so named because their synthetic funk was meant to evoke the antics of machines blessed with AI. In moving even closer to creating a music of sentient computers, Autechre have stood the genre on its head, stripping it of its four-bar certainties and patching it directly — ominously — into the unreadable soul of the machine. — Philip Sherburne

Mark Lanegan, Field Songs (Sub Pop) With the warm breeze caressing your temple, you float high across a summer's night sky dotted by the galaxies and their reflections. You stream peacefully through the soft mix of oxygen, condensation and darkness. Detached but inquisitive, you watch from above as the world's story passes by as if in slow motion. Feeling your separation from it, you simultaneously smile and cry. You have no desire to return. And, with this, you feel strangely at ease — and at peace. Listening to the intensely dreamlike Field Songs feels much the same. Like an opportunity to escape life's trivial qualities and see them from a place where they've lost meaning (Ha!). Like a magic carpet, the album whisks the listener to a carefree land far, far away, where your emotions are centered and understood. Former Screaming Trees frontman Lanegan's singing is evocative and moving. The music is intricate and exotic, delicate and soothing. The inventive arrangements keep the sound fresh from song to song. "No Easy Action" is made ghostly with the beautiful Indian-influenced cries of a woman layered in the background. The lullaby "Pill Hill Serenade" soothes with a music box-like melody and whistling organ. With dueling acoustic guitars and a heart-wrenching solo, "Low" is dark and repentant: "Too dark for finding my ground/ Now trees shiver and sway/ Have you ever seen something go down?/ To keep in mind all of your days/ Tell her I want to say goodbye/ For I was dead and gone/ Tell her I didn't want to lie/ Left you well enough alone." This dark, glum-folk collection feels like the most alluring opportunity for escape, like it's carving out a black hole in the wall of reality and inviting you through, — Jenny Tatone

lowsunday, elegisum (Projekt Records): I don't know when I've heard an album run out of gas more conspicuously, but for its first six songs, lowsunday's elegisum is glorious. Steve Albini once remarked that the problem with a lot of bands is that they're slavishly imitating bands everybody's already heard instead of copying interesting but obscure bands whose moves deserve to be copped. lowsunday, perversely but without even a flicker of self-referential humor, owe their most significant debt to Modern English, whose fame unfairly rests on their somewhat uncharacteristic hit single "I Melt With You." In the '80s, odd little bands like Modern English thought they could change the world, and (like New Order, another clear point of reference here) sometimes even tried to. It's 2001 now, though, and lowsunday have no illusions about their prospects for aboveground success, so the songs on elegisum average about five minutes in length and make no concessions to post-Talk Talk (or post-Talk Talk Talk) production techniques. Their guitars conjure visions of ripples spreading from a pebble's point of impact at the center of a pond, while their vocalist wholeheartedly rejects the self-defeating irony that made the '90s such a crashing bore and reaches for portentously huge, grandly echoing notes as ride-cymbals crash over and over against the one and three beats of each measure in the mix's high end. "Darkwave" is the unfortunate term applied to the sort of ongoing investigation of a few particular subcultural core values that's been undertaken by lowsunday's label, Projekt. Projekt deserves a closer look by anybody who's interested in questions of genre or style, and lowsunday are at least worthy of a listen or two. For six songs, they're practically evangelists of a musical approach that replaces practicality with passion and feigned abandon with closely considered indulgence. The first two minutes of the sixth song, right before the album veers off into self-indulgence, are as transcendent as anything you're likely to hear between now and the next Jean-Luc Guillonet album. Since sales figures indicate that there aren't many of you holding your breath for Guillonet's next move, you'd do well to look into this one. — John Darnielle

Various, Bridget Jones's Diary (Island): Shelby Lynne's "Killin' Kind" kicks off this soundtrack with a baroque complexity that keeps the pleasures comin': quirky phrasing, two middle sections (one of which is nine measures of crunchy power pop), strings, wah-wah, ad-lib belting that'll suck the breath out of you. Plus it gets to its killin' khorus nine seconds quicker than The Raspberries' "Go All the Way" does. Country? Adult Contemporary? Alternative? Singer/songwriter? It's all these and none, a delightful sludge that could only be pure pop, whatever the song's actual chart action proves to be. It's such a great song that, unsurprisingly, it eclipses everything else here, confirming that Sheryl Crow ("Kiss That Girl") still needs a heapin' helpin' of some pomo detachment, that Robbie Williams' ("Have You Met Miss Jones?") wit in interviews has yet to travel to his music, and that Tracy Bonham ("Just Perfect") and Gabrielle ("Out of Reach") will probably never rise above their celebrated competence. In short, this is a classic single with a whole lot of b-sides. Since Island obviously isn't pricing it as a single like they should, spring for the entire disc only if you don't already own Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" and/or you crave a terrible rendition of "It's Raining Men" by Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. — Kevin John

Dakota Oak, Am Deister (Twisted Nerve): Am Deister, a one-man-in-his-bedroom outing by Dave Tyack under the name Dakota Oak, spends an hour of transient instrumentalism recalling his growing-up-on-the-edges-of-a-German-forest childhood. Over 26 fairly coy pieces on his debut longplayer, released on the Badly-Drawn-Boy/Votel-helmed Twisted Nerve records, Tyack plays a slew of "organic" instruments, including plenty of tuned percussion instruments and plenty of detuned guitars. The set finds him sashaying between gentle acoustic-guitar ruminations, bizarre clattering interludes, gay invocations of a summery backing-Astrud-Gilberto sort of sound, woven guitar/bass/kit/keys pieces with an almost post-rock air, and sombre piano-born moments that suggest Tyack's hazy recollection of hours spent practicing piano in his childhood. It's softly sweet, subtly stirring stuff. — AC

Janet Jackson, All for You (Virgin): While it includes some grudging concessions to new R&B — the dirty gluebuzz shuffle-beats of "You Ain't Right," provocative and profanity-laced lyrics (including some near-comic simulated sexual moaning), and a naff tell-it-like-it-is-sister collaboration with Carly Simon that borrows liberally from "You're So Vain" — All for You is, for the most part, signature Janet. It even goes so far as to rework ideas already delivered in the past. Through a slew of those natty Janet-in-the-studio interludes, the set strides with suitably slick production work from Jam & Lewis, the pair so self-conscious of their skills they cut-in the word "edit" as a cute cut-up gimmick on both singles: the surgically clean "Doesn't Really Matter" and the fine neo-disco/ '80s-retro collage title track. Elsewhere, in its best moments, the record steps through faux-Eastern synthesized tuned-percussion on the slyly syncopated "China Love," and finds pop heaven amid flush acoustic guitars, twee keyboards and skittery beats on "Someone to Call My Lover." — AC

W.A.S.P., Unholy Terror (Metal-Is/BMG): You're probably going to be a little skeptical of what I'm about to tell you, but it's true: I will go into shock and die if anybody releases an album this year with a stronger opening number than "Let It Roar," which kicks off Unholy Terror, the new album from '80s metal survivors W.A.S.P. You heard me: W.A.S.P. If you remember them at all, it's probably because you recall Tipper Gore singling them out by name at the infamous PMRC hearings, citing their circular-saw-coming-through-a-codpiece 7-inch picture-disc "Animal (I F*ck Like A Beast)" as a sure sign that society was going to hell in a handbasket. And while it's true that a little notoriety sells a few records — in the short run, W.A.S.P. gained more from the PMRC's wrath than they lost — the other side of that coin is that it's hard to get yourself taken seriously if your first taste of public notice comes in on a wave of unmerited hysteria. W.A.S.P. made a few great metal albums in the 1980s, including a masterpiece called The Headless Children that featured the best cover of a Who song by anyone ever, a blistering rendition of "The Real Me" blazing with an incandescent rage hotter than Pete Townshend had ever imagined. Nobody noticed, though, outside of people who'd liked W.A.S.P. all along, and nobody listens to us anyway because they assume we're all being ironic or something. Whatever. Anyhow, Unholy Terror is one of the best rock albums you're going to hear this year, if you'll only go out of your way to hear it. Lead man Blackie Lawless is still pissed off about all that PMRC business, and he levels his semi-coherent aim mainly at flag-waving patriots and self-righteous Christians; true, most of his lyrics are fairly lame, but when he fuses a great hook with a sing-along line, as he does in "Loco-Motive Man," he puts his finger on the dark, frightening pulse that beats in the heart of all great rock 'n' roll. "I've gone to meet my maker," he howls in triple-tracked splendor, his band chugging away alongside him like Golden Earring grooving behind a case of Night Train and a whole lot of Kool-Aid. Its guitars are like self-contained hurricanes. Mercifully free of power ballads, "Unholy Terror" makes a person say "Wow!" on a whole bunch of different levels. — JD

Old 97's, Satellite Rides (Elektra): After Fight Songs by Old 97's made nearly all the "Best Albums of 1999" lists, I had to rush out and get it — I needed to know what all the hype surrounding the practically unknown Texas four-piece was about. To tell the truth, I wasn't all that impressed by the record, or for that matter, the band — that is , until I read a review of their 2000 EP Early Tracks and thought, "Now, that's more up my alley." Right away, I fell in love with each drunken, poor-me country song. I just loved it — and laughed — that all this Hank Williams-type country music was coming out of a Brit-Invasion looking group. So with two opposing views of the band, I felt hesitant about buying their new album Satellite Rides. Well, about two and half seconds into lead track "King of All the World," the ongoing battle was put to rest: I love this band. Even more, I love their new crafty record. Satellite Rides is happy, light and catchy. Without grave politics or deep, heart-wrenching topics, it's the kind of jangly record that makes you smile. Not because it lacks depth, but because the depth isn't taken so seriously. Like when you're living your life day to day, lost in all the stress and anxiety, but then you step back for a moment and think it's really not so bad at all, and you smile — you get that same weightless, content feeling from listening to this album. With "Am I Too Late" and "Up the Devil's Pay" you'll find the same old-style country feel that you got from Early Tracks. But the rest of the record, albeit country-tinged, is infectious, musically complex pop led by Rhett Miller's distinctly desperate singing. "Rollerskate Skinny" is perhaps the most fun, with its contagious beats and witty, sometimes bizarre lyrics: "Love feels good when it sits right down/ Puts its feet up on the table and it sends a bowl around / I believe in love but it don't believe in me." The beautiful "Weightless" is one of the album's softer songs. Amid underwater guitar riffs and tambourine jingles, Miller sings of a better, easier existence: "All the bad things are gone/ All the good things are here/ Almost exactly like this place where you and I are fighting yeah/ I'm so sick and tired of fighting yeah/ Up there we'll never fight at all." Dabbling in pop, country and rock, the band can't be categorized. They're sappy, serious and sarcastic all at once. That's what makes them so different, so great. — JT

Science Park, Disinformation (Obscure-Disk): If you can imagine an earnest Stephin Merritt, you'll get an idea of what Boston boy Myke Weiskopf is up to on his third album. Even though two members of Weiskopf's live band appear here, it all sounds like the man alone with his keyboard, reminiscent of Holiday-era Magnetic Fields. But Weiskopf plays his programming for new-wave gush rather than robotic detachment, and his self-expression risks the ridicule of pop theoreticians (I was quite surprised to see the name of Merritt associate ld beghtol in the Thank Yous). These nine modest songs are reports from the frontline of the gay bar scene, accurately rendered via bellicose imagery including satellites, U-boats, radar and — that most important piece of queer survival gear — code-breakers. The lyrics suggest Weiskopf's done his time there and moved on, but 1998's Futurama sounded jauntier somehow — there's nothing here as radio-ready as that album's "Lay You Out in Lavender." Here's hoping he'll be able to make not wanting what he hasn't got sound interesting when we hear from him next. — KJ

Manitoba, Start Breaking My Heart (Leaf): It's such a sign o' the times when a record as utterly glorious as this — the kind of record that turns you into a carnival barker of gooey praise — is the product of a 22-year-old Canadian mathematician. That said, the organicky, downbeat, polyrhythmic saunters of the delightfully dubbed Start Breaking My Heart have much more in common with the post-rock disco dalliances of the Fridge/Four Tet family than they do with the icy, humorless precision of ye olde laptop lords. Mr. Manitoba, Dan Snaith, allays his tonal emotions through established idioms of the warm-'n'-friendly un-electro set, weaving guitars, hand percussion, human-beatboxing and sampled children in a set that moves amiably through rhythm-and-counter-rhythm rundowns of almost "rock"-like dynamics. — AC

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Sigur Rós, Englar Alheimsins (Krúnk): Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson's soundtrack to the Icelandic film "Englar Alheimsins" ("Angels of the Universe") makes a fitting companion piece to Björk's Selmasongs, harnessing darkly flowing strings to create an appropriately cinematic atmosphere of longing and regret. Hilmarsson's score gets most interesting when bastard influences flit into the mix — like the flickering percussion of "Yfirum," the feedback washes of "Litbri>i" and the digital gurgles that close out "Bakslag" — and the density of the strings breaks up into something less stultifying. But the real attraction for most listeners here will be the two songs contributed by Iceland's post-rock darlings Sigur Rós. Recorded for FatCat's "Ny Batterí" single (a title that always conjures Master of Puppets-era Metallica for me, no matter how incongruous the reference), both tracks are well known to the band's countrymen: "Bíum Bíum Bambaló" is an old Icelandic lullaby, while "Dánarfregnir og Jar>arfarir" is the culture's classic marche funébre. Those tracks open up yawning chasms of yearning as only these northern sculptors of feedback can. I don't know what Iceland is like, aside from scenes from films, but Sigur Rós inhabit a land of wasted beauty and blasted desire. It may well be a world of their own making, but it's one I'm happy to visit, whatever the season. — PS

C Average, Second Rekoning (Kill Rock Stars) WARNING: The new album from C Average, Second Rekoning, is almost entirely instrumental (I figured you'd want to know that right off the bat), and very, very heavy. When I say this is hard-rock slash metal, though, don't start thinking about Guns N' Roses or Metallica or your old Mötley Crüe albums. C Average have a hard-rock slash metal sound all their own, with some punk attitude in there too. Now, I don't love it, but I haven't heard anything like it, and it feels so refreshing. Not because C Average, a two-piece from Olympia, have some outrageous, experimental sound, but because they take the sound of metal and hard rock — and then add some more. Where some rock bands sound like 60 or 70 percent, C Average sound like 150! At a time when the typical human's attention span is getting shorter, C Average go for broke with six-plus-minute-long songs (no, don't worry, no boring drum solos). The songs contain enough variations to prevent that feeling of being caught inagaddadavida (baby). Headphones should definitely be used to listen to this album — intently. This is hard, brutal rock, sometimes fast, sometimes slowed down. Some bands don't wanna slow down — you might catch their unintentional slip-ups. Not C Average. They'll play 'em fast and they'll play 'em slow. Lead-off track "Starhok" incorporates racing guitar lines reminiscent of The Who; their cover of the Sonics classic "The Witch," with creepy vocals, is one of the few non-instrumentals. There's also a cover of Mose Alison's classic "Parchmens Farm" — only, as the liner notes observe, with "arrangement by Blue Cheer" (a very noisy '60s proto-metal band that did a version of "Parchmens Farm"). Constant throughout is a sound that feels like metal: cold, hard, dark and kind of scary. C Average make music you can't ignore. This is not an album to play in the background at a dinner party, nor road-trip music you can sing along to. There is very minimal singing and it's not fun — it's serious. The band thanks "Maria Juana" in the liner notes, which would explain that elusive stoner quality. But don't jump to conclusions now and think this is stoner rock — it's not. Where stoner rock is hazy, Second Rekoning is crisp and clear (well, most of the time). So when you're going through your record/CD collection thinking "I'm so tired of the same ol' thing," think of C Average because their new album is anything but tired and certainly not more of the same ol' thing. — JT

Roto, The Low Power Hour (Resin Records): One of the most interesting times for music was back in the early '80s in Southern California, when alienation and disconnectedness were more common tropes than the notions of wild abandon and immersion-in-the-moment favored by rock music until post-punk came along with its wonderful and pretentious ideas about performance. Listen to "Strip Club" by 100 Flowers, for example — when you really engage with the song, the experience is so radically different from that of pumping your fist to "Smoke on the Water" that the two songs hardly seem to be from the same galaxy, though in the final analysis they're both just rock songs. So it is with The Low Power Hour, an album by a strange band consisting of a two guys named David Arbury and Carlton Ingram and a permanently floating drummer. (In the interest of disclosure: John Davis of Holiday Matinee, who did publicity for my band's last album, plays drums on three tracks here, and was probably the guy who got a copy of the record sent to me for review.) These songs are recognizably indie rock songs — post-Fugazi, post-Slint clean-guitar abstract-lyric meditations on nothing identifiable — but they chase an elusive nexus between involvement and the total lack thereof. One moment (the opening "Trickster") they're so passionate that heat seems to rise from them, and the next ("Glass") they're engaged in interesting but ultimately bloodless exercises in melodic and linguistic phraseology. Like lots of ambitious things, The Low Power Hour isn't without its hey-ouch moments — on "Wrecking Ball," one of the two singers mispronounces both "philanthropy" and "misanthropy," and regardless of whether he's doing it to make the words fit into his rhythm or because he doesn't know how to pronounce them, it's embarrassing to hear. There's a number called "Stasis" that's just plain dreadful, and one called "Time Trial" that isn't much better. But the album's brighter spots are moments of profoundly realized discomfort, marrying elegantly flowing rhythmic and melodic exercises to nervous meditations on self and other, like the pained questions peppering the softly terrifying "Pipeline": "Is this a friendship, or is it just a matter of time?" and "Can you hear me when I tell you that I'm talking to you?" I suspect that Roto will quickly shuffle off into history, but they've got at least one great album somewhere in them. The Low Power Hour isn't it, but a bracing step toward that possibility. — JD

Jürgen de Blonde, Hidden Rabbit (Tom): It took me a few listens to realize that "Reincarnary (for the dead birds)" damn near reprises Sunny Day Real Estate's "Friday," which came as something of a shock, given the context. Tom, the Cologne label responsible for de Blonde's debut under his own name, has been known until now for burbly, baubly electronica, by turns austere and childishly oddball. De Blonde himself is better known as Köhn, whose greyscale soundwashes, while not exactly glum, were none too chirpy. But Hidden Rabbit roots about in Jim O'Rourke's toy chest of zithers, chimes and deadpan vocals, dragging out the musical watercolors to paint an inspired landscape that captures the wide-eyed wonderment of its maker. This is pop at its purest (hell, he even dedicates a track to Meredith Brooks), where the rules of genre fall to the winds. From a city better known for stern-faced, monochrome dub, de Blonde produces a shimmering mixture of horns, guitars, organ and indie-pop vocal stylings. Swollen with harmony and sweet tension, at moments it spills over into MBV-inspired feedback excess — a remarkable moment of candor from a maker of German electronica who's not afraid to let his hair down. — PS

Cursive, Cursive's Domestica (Saddle Creek): Just what your teen-pop-addled ears have been craving — an indie-rock soap opera. Tim Kasher married too goddamn early, and the subsequent break-up provides the narrative backdrop to titles like "The Martyr," "The Game of Who Needs Who the Most" and the tune-in-next-week "The Night I Lost the Will to Fight." Insensitive clod that I am, I'm inclined to ridicule such self-absorbed emo-tion. But everything is so winningly legible, right down to the Sebadoh Fans in Love cover art, that it actually has more outreach (and less passive-aggression) than most sensitive-boy records of late. What helps is the sensual weave of guitars that introduces each cut with a primitive, childlike charm — not exactly Sleater-Kinney territory, but enough to wash the corn down. Next step: releasing the gal's side of the story, and then bringing the two together on Broadway (or Omaha's equivalent thereof). — KJ

Life Without Buildings, Any Other City (Tugboat): Some people are just commanding performers. Across the breadth of Any Other City, Sue Tompkins' inspired vocal performance lifts Life Without Buildings' deftly played, distortion-free, gently aggressive Velvets/Television-styled rock to inspired highs. In a deceptively sweet English voice, Tompkins lets words loose like torrents of emotion, rambling with sighing, slurring delivery through strung-out exercises in associative free thought. Tompkins fumbles the phonetics of her free-form flows, drawing attention to her deft deconstruction of syllables and frayed, haphazard word assemblies. Her delivery often includes repeated words and phrases, spat out over and over to define their poetic simplicity, as in "The Leanover." Stuttering out each simple turn of phrase, her vocal here seems the musical equivalent of verbal abuse. — AC

The Black Halos, The Violent Years (Sub Pop) Just like the New York Dolls? The return of the Stiv Bators sneer? The rebirth of mid-'70s punk rock? Wha?! C'mon people, who you tryin' to kid? This isn't the mean streets of New York City, 1977. This is the sunny skate parks of SoCal 1990 (sort of). Some critics seem to spend more time studying the press photo than listening to the new album. Sure, the guys in the Black Halos have those black shaggy hairdos, wear nothing but black, and sport those worn-out Converse shoes. But they aren't the new New York Dolls — they sound like a cross between The Ramones, Rancid and The Queers, and they aren't pathetically trying to be something they're not. The critics are just trying to sell them to you by suggesting they're a throwback to '70s punk. Anyway, even if the The Violent Years isn't quite as gritty, dirty and outrageous as punk was in the '70s, it's still a great record. You'll like it! (Unless you're bothered by punk that's been cleaned up with infectious melodies and anthem-led choruses.) The Vancouver, B.C. five-piece sure can write excellent, passion-fueled hooks. Like the power chord-driven "Some Things Never Fall," contagiously uplifting in a "People unite!" sort of way: "And I say yes/ We'll show them all/ Some things never fall." Made catchy by this great spiraling guitar line, "Jane Doe" feels like a danceable version of The Descendents' classic "Bikeage," mostly because of its similar theme: "'Cause you're sinkin' so low you're/ Going down/ You can't be found/ You're going down/ Sorry baby I can't save you," cries lead singer Billy Hopeless. With snotty, slurred vocals, drumming that actually changes its beats, and some pretty mean guitar solos throughout, the Black Halos aren't obnoxiously bubble-gum or pretty-boy Blink 182. But when Hopeless sneers: "'Cause the underground ain't underground no more" in "Underground" you can't help smirking to yourself, "As if they've got nothing to do with it." Although "Capt. Moody" is harder and faster than what most consider a ballad, it acts as the only low-key song on the record. Over a melody that, in a better world, would get this one on the radio, Hopeless feels sorry for himself: "These tides are the best I've ever known/ Drinkin' all the time/ Never knowing if I'm sick/ Or if I'm feelin' fine." The Violent Years doesn't offer a new sound or attitude in music, and that's just fine with me. It's an exciting, high-energy punk-rock-with-a-touch-of-pop album, one I think is worth having around when you need to cheer up, get hyper and forget your problems. — JT

Ty, Awkward (Big Dada): You have to restrain yourself from painting a portrait of Ty as hip-hop sweetheart — the soulful and doleful debut set from the Brit-hop MC finds the fiend talking with tongues foreign to the hip-hop community: shyness, humility, humor, etc. With nods to both Saul Williams and Sarah Jones, the musicality and self-awareness on display is hardly a surprise, but the context isn't poetic or political. Instead, it's Ty trying to find his feet in the established battlegrounds, working at working out where a guy fits in. He tells tales of being picked on at school, coughs out fragmented words about haphazard ideas, talks of being too scared to talk to a woman, and often expresses the awkwardness he feels about hip-hop's traditional ultra-macho notions (hence the rec's title). The album seems most at home on the appropriately-titled "Trippin' Over Words," with Ty's spitty lead-in verses buried deep within the mix, seemingly a mere pre-empt to a long and fluent wah-guitar/old-organ/hissy-hi-hat/cooing-vocal drugged-funk workout. — AC

The Band, Rock of Ages, Moondog Matinee, Northern Lights — Southern Cross, Islands (Capitol Records): Nobody wants to sound like a curmudgeon, and right-thinking people have a positive horror of being so typed. The last guy you want to be is the one standing by the stereo at a party, shaking his head in disapproval while he holds forth about how music isn't as good as it used to be. You don't want to be that guy because not only is he a crashing bore, he's wrong — music is permanently exciting. Even in the darkest times, there is always something cool going on somewhere. It's always only a question of knowing where to look. In your heart you know that this is true, anyhow. But then somebody goes and reissues a bunch of records by The Band, albums so blindingly excellent that listening to them makes even a wide-eyed optimist like myself start grousing about how there aren't any bands around any more who put this much love into what they do. All four of these records are just tremendous; even Moondog Matinee, an album of '50s covers, is a revelation, its version of "Mystery Train" seething and throbbing with the otherworldly, sexual threat that makes rock 'n' roll the unstoppable force it can be in its finer hours. Northern Lights — Southern Cross, perhaps the most pleasant surprise of these new reissues, isn't perfect, but what's remarkable is that four of its eight songs are. The opener, "Forbidden Fruit," lopes along like a well-trained dancing bear, its bass fat and chunky, its contrapuntal guitars quietly but wickedly clever, its rhythm as catchy as a cold. "Ophelia," too, elevates the good-time C&W-inflected lost-love ballad to unpretentious high art — its verses bearing down on themselves toward the chorus like John Henry out-hammering the steam engine, the timbre of Levon Helm's rich, magnificent voice resonating with good humor flecked with painterly shades of sadness and regret. "It Makes No Difference," despite a maudlin lyric or perhaps because of it, climbs several minor-key verses to a summit so high and lonesome that the postmodern high-lonesome poster child, Morrissey, would be proud to call it his own. Above all there's "Acadian Driftwood," as perfect a rock song as is ever likely to get made by anybody, which subtly incorporates a zydeco feel into a story of Canadian exiles (some of whose numbers eventually made their way down to Louisiana and became known as "Cajuns") traveling south. Its pacing, its orchestration, its lilting melody, the way everybody takes a verse or two without making it sound awkward — you can call me a bore if you want. When the Band really hit their stride, they made music that even the best modern artists can only hope to someday match. — JD

Guss, As Is (Louie): After hearing quite a few titles from the peculiar jazz label Louie, I can't figure out if any of them — including this mostly-live recording from a trio with Louie founder Dave Storrs on drums — are parodies or the swing itself. While the arch surf and country cuts apparently amused the audience, they make me doubt the conviction of the group's improvisations. Ditto for jokey titles like "Djangled" and "Over & In." But at its best, this sounds like a low-rent version of '70s Miles — friendly, inviting, opening up lots of spaces to trudge through the urban voodoo. Hero: Daniel Scollard and his swamp-thing bass. — KJ

Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus (Matador): Former frontman of perennial pin-ups Pavement, Mr. Malkmus fronts his solo vehicle handsomely, staring at the sun in true calendar-beau mode. He's spent most of the pre-pub time of his debut longplayer talking up the boogie-rock goodness of Lobby Loyde and Thin Lizzy, but guess what — the sounds within are (wait for the shock!) rather like Pavement, with a little more levity in the proceedings and a few more moments of musical mischief and laid-bare beauty. Throughout, there's little doubting Malkmus's charisma as a performer — even on compact disc, his vocal stylings and laissez-faire air on songs like, say, Church on White, turn the almost mundane into the almost magical. — AC

Hood, Home Is Where It Hurts (Aesthetics): I'll admit to having forgotten almost entirely about indie-pop a couple of years ago; I've still got a shelf stacked high with Slumberland singles, but they've been gathering dust for ages. So it's nice to find that Wetherby mopers Hood have done only good things to their fuzzy, jangly sound in the time I've been away. The title track has it all: radiant washes of guitar, a crickety click-track, and best of all a breathy, overdubbed vocal style that just screams (well, ever so softly) "shoegazer." The way all these elements swirl around each other like leaves in a wind eddy, on "Home" and the sparkling "Cold Fire Woods of Western Lanes," seems calculated to conjure a kind of tumbledown nostalgia, but damned if it doesn't work wonders. "The World Touches Too Hard" sees Hood trying their hand at a dubbier, less psychedelic version of Boards of Canada's brand of melancholy, while the muted "It's Been A Long Time Since I Was Last Here" inches back toward the pastoral broodings of later Talk Talk before blowing away in a swirl of cymbals. — Philip Sherburne

The BellRays, Grand Fury (Upper Cut): Fuse two of the most burning, raging and electrifying musical styles — punk and soul — and the result can be intoxicating. The intensified, soulful wail and jaded sexiness of lead singer Lisa Kekaula are what make the BellRays turn so many heads. Her passionate, Tina Turner-style singing defines the band. Kekaula manipulates the music's direction, steering from R&B-heavy speak-singing breakdowns to suddenly explosive, high-speed rock. The edgy music seems to blindly follow the dynamic singer's lead, somewhat like the musicians in The Stooges with singer Iggy Pop. Like The Stooges, The BellRays' music also incorporates some of that Doors-inspired, drug-induced sound. Guitarist Tony Fate, bassist Bob Vennum and drummer Ray Chin deserve much credit for creating a hard, loud, sometimes purposefully dissonant '60s-Detroit punk-rock 'n' soul sound. The new record's lyrics are as energetic, raw and raucous as the jamming, and also racially heavy. Consider this lyric from "Zero P.M.": "Know you're the devil/ Cause you ain't no man/ Witch ya super Nazi/ Ku Klux Klan/ With a gun at your side/ And a rope in your hand/ You must die by the soul/ Cause the world is a ghetto/ You are a ghetto/ And the ghetto must burn from within." With "Warhead" one gets the sense that the humor is there to make the pain bearable: "My daddy was a Nazi/ And my mama was a Jew/ I'm so fucked up/ I don't know what to do/ My great granddaddy was an anglophile/ And I'm just an agronomic juvenile." With such words delivered by Kekaula's mean, powerful vocals, The BellRays can't help being heard — loud, even if not (musically) clear. — JT

Art of Fighting, Wires (Trifekta): I was talking with an American rocker, herself in a band with her famous husband. She could barely believe me when I explained Art of Fighting's lineup: songwriter Ollie Browne seemingly embraces claustrophobia by surrounding himself with brother Miles and partner Peggy Frew. From such familiarity surely must come contempt. But it's also fertile territory for dangerous levels of openness and honesty, and, musically, Art of Fighting draw openly and honestly from this emotional well. After spending their early days toying with brazen Codeine-styled quiet/loud dynamics, on their debut longplayer Art of Fighting have found territories reminiscent of Red House Painters' Down Colourful Hill. Sprawling mid-paced ballads keep keeping along at a sombre pace, escalating tension until the eventual release at the song's conclusion. — AC

Destroyer, Streethawk: A Seduction (Misra): It's not every day that one gets to use the words "elegant" and "ballsy" in the same sentence, but what an elegant, ballsy little album this is! Its elegance lies in its sense of timing — the audible space between the first two words of the line "Go...or don't go," in shimmering opening number "Streethawk I," or the leisurely pace of lines like "Was it the movie or 'The Making of/ Fitzcarraldo'/ Where someone learned/ To love again?" — and in the smooth, milky wisp of a feeling on which the whole album floats by, sounding somewhat like the Sea and Cake, with way more guitar soloing and a more comprehensive, impressive knowledge of the history of North American songwriting. Lyricist Daniel Bejar has already spent two minutes daring you to notice his overt Ian Cutis reference by the end of the album's second song. Where, then, are the balls in all this? Only here: as a singer, Mr. Bejar is the most unabashed Bowie clone since Suede's Brett Anderson, and if you've heard Suede, then you know exactly how shameless Bejar must be. His fearlessness with regard to impending Bowie comparisons is positively intimidating. How can you fault a person who so clearly isn't concerned with what you have to say about his project? You can't. You can only wholeheartedly and unapologetically embrace an album whose languid melodies, Diamond-Dogs-via-Crooked-Rain guitars, and surprise-a-minute, genuinely intelligent lyrics ("Write your English music/ Though you know it will come to no good/ When brilliance has a taste for suffering/ And you're softer than the Western world") are as understandable in feeling as they are cryptic in sense ("Medium rotation/ The shock of the new/ And a memo from Feldman/ Saying everything was true"). It's intellectual! It's palatable! It's got a song that sounds exactly like an outtake from Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy! Plenty of records are either cool or good, but this one is both. — JD

Unwound, Leaves Turn Inside You (Kill Rock Stars): Eight records in, mighty uptighty trio Unwound are still winding their way to the pinnacle of rockband, beating a scraping-and-scratching wailing-and-assailing taught-rock path through the screaming fields of sonic love, eyes set on a summit in which the collective can communicate as a unit of pure musical intuition. Over the two-CD set Leaves Turn Inside You, the journey brings them to an autumnal clearing, finding few clean-shaven moments of Fugazi-like stop/start-ism. Instead, Lund/Rumsey/Trosper ditch the black-and-white to work in weary shades of withered grey; fraying and diffusing their sound, coloring it with softer emotion; the studio is on hand as an artistic tool, not a mere means of reproduction. Maybe this is just me, but even in the record's most strung-out moments of tension and distortion, Unwound sound nothing more than soft and sweet. Pretty, even. — AC

Abdullah Ibrahim, The Very Best of Abdullah Ibrahim (Music Club): The music of Cape Town-born pianist Ibrahim is like Thelonious Monk gone back to the motherland — elegant, small-combo jazz, bedecked with the kind of strutting melodies you can hear on the label's superb Township Jazz 'N' Jive collection. Perhaps this compilation, which starts with Ibrahim's second exile in 1979, should have been subtitled The Ambassador of Township Jazz. "Mandela"(1986) and "Chisa"(1989) showcase super-hummable tunes that are no doubt deeply embedded in the South African musical consciousness. The gut-wrenching "Zimbabwe" from 1983 lets forth the sadness of roots severed by Apartheid. In contrast, the five tracks from the post-Apartheid years are noticeably undernourished, a development I'd hate to blame on loss of purpose. If I'm misunderstanding this because I'm unfamiliar with this era of Ibrahim's forty year-plus career, it's unfortunate that the compilers of this collection weren't more forthcoming with the relevant information. — KJ

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