Rainer Maria, A Better Version of Me (Polyvinyl): Rather-American earnest-rock trio Rainer Maria keep striding forward on their third longplayer, leaving their beginnings as a red-raw emo-combo further in the rearview mirror. Rainer Maria have never been more skillful in their playing or stronger in their singing than on the slickly recorded A Better Version of Me — which some may see as a problem. Sadly past are those moments of wonderful wailing in which Caithlin De Marrais and Kyle Fischer yelled in off-key coupling like fuck-you teenagers standing on the hill overlooking their hometown. Now, De Marrais handles most of the vocals in her worked-on voice, and the literary desires of the self-reflexive lyrics come to light in angular pop-rock numbers that recall the sounds of early-'90s-indie-crossover. Which is fine, except that this tuneful niceness is coming from a band whose urgency once steamed from the speakers. — AC

The Street Walkin' Cheetahs, Waiting for the Death of My Generation (Triple X Records): It's Saturday night — early evening. You're just beginning to clear your head of last night's hangover. Is it too early to crack one open?, you wonder. Nah. Grab a cold one. Slap on some tunes. Jack the knob. The Street Walkin' Cheetahs' "Right to Rock" should be blaring right about NOW — there's that extra oomph you were looking for. Being punished can feel oh so good: Here we go! Drums slam! Ow! Guitar grinds! Uh-huh! Solos wail! Fist up! Shrieks carry! Turn it up! More! A sweaty mess of head-bangs and devil salutes swirls around your head. Where's my beer?, you wonder. Grab another? What hangover? Please note: Waiting for the Death of My Generation is a bit more "pop" than previous Street Walkin' Cheetahs releases, having a few catchy melodies and hooks ("White Collar Money" and "Automatic"). Also note: Despite this, the Cheetahs still rock harder than most bands these days. — Jenny Tatone

Leonard Cohen, Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 (Sony/Columbia): This recently-unearthed live document will increase the nostalgia of those who lament a crass postmodern age — where someone like Eminem is labeled "a great poet" — for less obvious cultural times. Field Commander Cohen is a prime slice of existential ennui and bohemian rhapsody from a period when the Montreal-born poet and singer/songwriter had fallen out with his North American audience, yet still ruled in Europe, where beautiful Parisian women continued to fall at his feet (poor guy!). Highlights include exquisitely wrought versions of four songs from Cohen's then-current (and highly ace) Recent Songs album — songs that at times approach chamber music with an ethnic Greek flavor — and old faves such as "The Stranger Song," which finds Cohen in surprisingly melodious voice for a guy who would later mock his own singing abilities in "The Tower of Song." Indeed, this is prime Cohen; listening to this album, it's clear why then-young pups like Nick Cave and Andrew Eldritch (who would later name his band Sisters of Mercy after a Cohen tune) so badly wanted to cloak themselves in the man's mystique. Rivaled only by Renaissance man John Donne for his intensely poetic evocations of the two great interests of the human race — sex and spirituality — Leonard Cohen's mystic aura remains undiminished by the passage of time and cultural trends. — Johnny Walker (Black)

Low, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky): Low hail from Duluth, Minn., the mill town on the edge of a frozen lake that gave the world Bob Dylan. Their minimalist music draws heavily from that landscape: frigid night airs, sombre snowfalls, and home-fires kept burning. Always known for playing painfully slow and utterly quiet music, Low have slowed the cadence of the pop songs on their fifth album to the barest pulse. Strangely, though, the music has warmed as the pace has slowed. Things We Lost in the Fire finds Low enamoured with harmonies, drawing from such disparate sources as Swans, the Beatles, Wire, and Simon & Garfunkel. As always, the pure voices of husband-and-wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker hit the right notes, but this time, with plenty of piano, organs, and strings, considered songwriting brings harmonic focus, whether near-rock ("Dinosaur Act") or pallid ballad ("Embrace"). — AC

Spoon, Girls Can Tell (Merge): Spoon's most ambitious album is also their best. Leader/singer/guitarist/co-producer Britt Daniel and his longtime partner/drummer/co-producer Jim Eno wanted to make a classic sounding, rubbersoulful rock 'n' roll album (thus the cover photograph of a vinyl 12-inch spinning). They succeeded, and then some. The opener, "Everything Hits At Once," is gorgeous pop with keyboards, vibes and mellotron setting up Daniel's blue-eyed-soul. The lyric "Don't say a word/ The last one's still stinging," says plenty, as does "I go to sleep but think you're next to me." Heartache dead ahead. The moody noir ballad "Chicago At Night" and the Big Starish "Anything You Want" are about one heart breaking in two. Then there's the sting of career disappointment and disillusionment. "Believing Is Art," "Lines in the Suit" and "Take A Walk" dig that hole. Wanna get out of this place? Try the now sound of anywhere but here. — MG

Various, Select Cuts From Blood & Fire (Select Cuts): I feel more decadent listening to dub than I do to such supposedly malnutritious slices of pop perfection as L'Trimm or M2M. For me, dub is the ultimate leisure music — as if listening to its verses get pushed down a well or whatnot couldn't be anything more than a waste of time or, at best, waiting for something else to happen. On paper, this CD seemed far from a corrective. Techno types like Stereo MCs and The Orb were set free to select any cut from the prestigious Blood & Fire reissue catalog and remix it, making the result versions of versions. Or, because who knows with dub, versions of versions of versions, on and on into increased abstraction and irrelevance. Surprisingly, though, many of these overhauls add blood and sometimes fire to the music's trippy exoskeleton. I doubt Yabby You has ever been treated to a more bangin' mix than the simple but potent backbeat Smith & Mighty provide for "Conquering Lion." In Sounds From the Ground's remix of Impact All Stars' (dig that title) "Just Another Dub," the hovering gauzy synth-pulse respects dub's edge-of-perception ocean song while still giving the track a sense of direction. It's all still quite leisurely, but this time I don't feel so guilty about it. — KJ

Boyz II Men, Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya (Universal): The other day I awoke to my clock radio playing the beautifully saccharine strains of Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You." I felt like I'd had a wet dream. If you remember, this was the group's second Babyface-penned über-smash; it solidified their reputation as crooning, confident ladies' men whose honey-dripping harmonies and satin-sheeted songs could massage the ears and stroke the libido. Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya finds them still giving it up for the honeys (check out "Beautiful Women"), but the boys are running out of steam because they've been revving their engines too fast. They've forgotten that they're at their best when they are playing the cool old-school R&B ballad card — when they're channeling the Chi-lites and the Dramatics — and not when they're trying to be funky-ass dance-floor whores. Most of the tracks on this album sound as if they've been slathered in Rodney Jerkins hand lotion, though the aforementioned R&B hit-maker didn't actually produce any of the songs. Typical is the utterly forgettable (and embarrassing) non-song "Bounce, Shake, Move, Swing," a piece of electro-booty detritus Afrika Bambaataa would have felt guilty pawning off even on Celine Dion. — KM

Pan sonic, Aaltopiiri (Blast First): Ilpo Vaisanen claims he can hardly listen to Pan sonic's music; the sounds he and Mika Vainio make are so filled with emotion, he says, it's like going through a wringer. In an experimental-electro climate in which many (Markus Popp, Toshimaru Nakamura, Farmer's Manual) claim to make music devoid of any emotion, the spiritual side of Pan sonic's provocative craft doesn't go unnoticed. The duo's outings of eerie ambience, rhythmic click patterns and pummeling, dehumanized beats elicit emotional reactions, too — when the listener is foolish enough to invest quality time in their meticulous, feckless, ruthless soulful clout music. Spending much of its time suspended in hollowed-out tones smudged only by desolate beats, Aaltopiiri is probably Pan sonic's most intense listening experience. Far from being thrust into the role of ecstatic victim, as was the case with such musical broadsides as Osasto, here the listener is lured by the spacious sound into its constructed environs, which is a pretty unsettling place to be. — AC

Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American Recordings): "Is it getting better or do you feel the same?" asks the Man In Black on a stripped-down version of U2's "One." Both: Cash moves while standing still. Johnny Cash's recordings can still stir the soul. His huge voice, the perfect tool for his storytelling, has only deepened with wisdom, and you can feel the pick between his graceful fingers sliding across the steel strings of his guitar. "I Won't Back Down," the lead track, sets the tone — Tom Petty sings back-ups to his own song, but Cash makes it his own. He uses his latest album, produced by Rick Rubin, to reinvent songs, including Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" and Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat," possibly the standout here. Mostly downbeat, the album feels, at times, as if it were created beneath a black cloud. "I See the Darkness" ("You know I have the drive / To live I won't let go/ But can you see its opposition comes rising up sometimes") is frank and confessional. "I realize that generally songs don't say anything that songs weren't saying a hundred years ago; the difference is we are saying it in a different way," writes Cash in the liner notes. He doesn't live in his past. He doesn't escape his past. He owns it. — JT

Loleatta Holloway, Queen of the Night (The Right Stuff):You don't turn to an "Ultimate Club Collection" for fidelity to history, but to revel in its in dissection, resurrection, reconstruction and restyling of it, as Michael Paoletta's liner notes suggest. In the end, this isn't about Loleatta Holloway the artist, much less the actual person, but rather about the premier disco diva's disembodied voice and, for the most part, one song — her 1980 "Love Sensation," shards of which have shown up in Marky Mark's "Good Vibrations," Black Box's "Ride on Time" and Cevin Fisher's "(You Got Me) Burnin' Up." The latter two appear here, as do two remixes of the original, which by the end of the disc has undergone so many permutations it becomes a magic incantation. Intensifying the alchemy are an arsenal of DJ tricks, particularly the feverishly repeated guitar figures that close off the disc in Hatiras' well-named Liquid Adrenaline Mix of "Dreamin'." Ugly, messy, disturbing, this is dance music's gift to history. And if you just unclench your body, take a deep breath and give yourself up to the invasion, it'll sting ya so good. — KJ

Six By Seven, The Closer You Get (Beggars Banquet): Are you (like me) an Anglophile depressed about the UK rock scene's current overall lack of inspiration? If so, Six By Seven may be the aural tonic you've been waiting for. The Closer You Get, the band's sophomore release, unites the various threads of the best British rock: forlorn Pink Floydian (by way of Spiritualized), guitar-and-keyboard-drenched grandeur ("Ten Places to Die," "New Year" ); the bristling punk attitude of The Fall ("Eat Junk Become Junk," "Sawn Off Metallica T-Shirt"); and a Brit-poppy way with a melodic ballad (though lines like singer-guitarist Chris Olley's "I'm not sad now/ Putting a gun to my head/ I feel hope now/ Pushing a knife through my chest" on the emotive "One Easy Ship Away" aren't likely to be heard from Liam Gallagher or Richard Ashcroft anytime soon). Overall, perhaps Six By Seven's true spiritual forebears are Joy Division — not since the days of Ian Curtis and company has a band conjured such a bleak-yet-beautiful vision of life on the razor's edge, in the psychic wasteland of contemporary Britain. The closer you listen, the better Six By Seven sound. — JW(B)

Vladislav Delay, Anima (Mille Plateaux): Of the most revered producers using the dub framework to make provocative electro-music — ranks that include Kit Clayton, Burnt Friedman and Stefan Betke — Finland's Vladislav Delay takes the greatest leaps into abstraction. His latest outing, Anima, is a direct response to his recent forays into click-house (Luomo) and glitch-techno (Uusitalo), its single 62-minute piece cutting rhythmic ties and exploring ghostly ambience. In Anima, Delay uses rhythm as a tease, pulling beats in and out of the mix before they can establish a mood, with the only constant the currents and rips running deep in his dense mix of treated digital tones. If this sounds like it makes for difficult listening, well, for much of the set it does. But Delay uses a precise sense of when to provoke and when to reassure, making this a fine study in tension and release. — AC

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