THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH Superbi (Sony BMG) Rating: NNN
Here are some twangy country stylings from the UK. This is the Beautiful South's 11th album, and despite the name, they haven't always been this country. Listen for sardonic, wry, dark subject matter like murderers, philanderers, lost friendships and dead romance from Paul Heaton, atop fairly upbeat melodies. (Heaton and vocal partner Dave Hemmingway are formerly of the Housemartins.) There are nice sometimes clever duets and ballads, and pretty vocals by Alison Wheeler. Bed Of Nails is a sad little song with spacious phrasing and lilting acoustics. Superbi is a little underwhelming overall at first listen, but it gets better after a couple of tries. If you're not already a fan (fans mostly live in the UK), you probably won't fall head over heels.
BRAZILIAN GIRLS Talk To La Bomb (Verve Forecast/Universal) Rating: NN
NYC electro-pop foursome Brazilian Girls pulled out all the stops with this one. They reeled in acclaimed producer Mark Plati (David Bowie's collaborative crush in the 90s), and Ric Ocasek jumped on board for the track Last Call. Sabina Sciubba's seductive vox effortlessly mashes five languages ? English, German, French, Italian and Spanish ? while beats stutter and surge and synth fuzz blazes. Lyrical subjects range from the apocalypse, as in "I always have an orgasm when the tanks are rolling, crashing through the borders" to resort-goer ridicule ("Vacationers piss in the ocean, pass out at the disco, throw up at the casino"), a combo that should be deadly but turns out dull. The throbbing emergency groove of lead track Jique is outweighed by techno-house-elevator injections that make this album feel like a day with the Sims... in Monte Carlo.
SHAWN COLVIN These Four Walls (Nonesuch/Warner) Rating: NNN
Shawn Colvin's post-mid-life-crisis album contains enough brazen rough-edged folk to declare These Four Walls a quality offering. Moments of toughness burst through the mire of sleepy-sombre acoustic ditties, like moving-on anthem The Bird. Let it Slide, a song that began as an idea 20 years ago, is hopeful, infectious and radio-ready. Admirable covers of Paul Westerberg and the BeeGees round it out. But overall, the album is like a sweet kiss when you'd hoped for a desperate, raw embrace. It's got solid structure, no doubt the result of a 25-year partnership with producer and co-songwriter John Leventhal, but it seems as though we're waiting for the triumphant musical breakthrough that never quite materializes. Perfect for a rainy day of contemplation, but it's not the soundtrack to your next door-slamming breakup or the Colvin-inspired heartfelt revelation of yore.
ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA All Over The World (Epic/Sony BMG) Rating: NNNN
There's really no other way to listen to ELO than a greatest-hits record. Their proper albums have plenty of throwaways, but the hits, and there are a lot of them, are often genius. This is the prime reason ELO have so many best-of records. Their latest, All Over The World, includes some of Jeff Lynne's most memorable tunes, including Livin' Thing, Turn To Stone, Sweet Talkin' Woman, and the list goes on. Sadly, some of their best tracks, like Can't Get It Out Of My Head and Calling America, are missing. Still, if you want ELO in all their flamboyant and often ridiculous Scissor Sisters-meet-the-Beatles glory, this record is the one to get.
EVANESCENCE The Open Door (Wind-Up) Rating: NNN
Evanescence took the world by storm with their debut album, Fallen, a melodramatic mixture of nu-metallic bombast and feminine, Tori Amos-style whimsy, chock full of angst, searing pain and theatrics. Fans will be thrilled to know that, despite the replacement of main guitarist and co-songwriter Ben Moody, Evanescence's sophomore album is at least as unsubtle as its predecessor. Frankly, the band could be just about any band. Amy Lee's vocals make Evanescence. She's still upset about silly things like boys and more serious things like the death of her younger sister in 1987. On Like You she sings, "I long to be like you / Lie cold in the ground like you." Add the pressures of fame to her grievances and the goth queen's minions should continue to worship at her altar.
FOO FIGHTERS Skin And Bones (RCA/Sony BMG) Rating: NNNN
As most big commercial bands know, the general retail rule come the holiday season is "crank out a record even if it's a half-assed best-of or a live album that'll hold over the fans and put some extra cash in our pockets." Thankfully, Dave Grohl has managed to keep his band's integrity intact with the Foos' first live effort, which successfully reinvents 15 songs, including standard fare like My Hero, Big Me and Everlong, into unrecognizably lush acoustic arrangements complete with accordions, strings, harmonicas and vibes. The most appealing aspect of Bones is the new life Foo Fighters breathe into their songs; with the layers of distortion stripped down, it's easy to hear just how talented a songwriter Grohl is.
THE FRATELLIS Costello Music (Universal) Rating: NNN
Trio the Fratellis are not brothers and apparently didn't derive their name from the villainous familia in Spielberg's The Goonies. They are, rather, a Glaswegian guitar band, barely over a year old, who've been charting upwardly in the UK with parochial pop somewhere between Supergrass and the Arctic Monkeys. The titles of tracks like Cuntry Boys & City Girls or Got Ma Nuts From A Hippy are wittier than their song structures, which are mainly rambunctious (and catchy) three-chord pop loaded with ba-da-da-das in the background. Jon F.'s boozy tales of the city, e.g., Chelsea Dagger and Whistle For The Choir, have that Libertines feel: the clever, downtrodden lad trying his luck (mostly unsuccessfully) with the London beauties.
GREENSKEEPERS Polo Club (Om) Rating: NNNN
Chicago's Greenskeepers' previous two albums sounded like house heads doing lighthearted and often silly impressions of other genres. On this offering, though, Greenskeepers, after two years of touring, sound like a rock band, albeit a rock band doing versions of various styles, including some Ramones-flavoured pop punk, some odd Morrissey-like moments, angular Talking Heads funk and a gleefully sleazy cover of Huey Lewis's I Want A New Drug. If you're worried they've forsaken their dance music roots, there's also a bonus disc of James Curd DJing Greenskeeper-related remixes, but the party-rock stuff is much more fun.
EMM GRYNER The Summer Of High Hopes (Dead Daisy/Outside) Rating: NNN
Though Maple, Ontario-bred Emm Gryner's made a point of following the most unpredictable career path ? moving from Lilith Fair side stages to backing Bowie to releasing an album entirely of covers of Irish artists ? her latest disc makes a lot of sense. Sensitively produced by Shudder to Think's Nathan Larson, The Summer Of High Hopes sets Gryner's moody girl's-gotta-survive songwriting into backdrops that range from stark acoustic guitar strumming to mercurial piano pounding reminiscent of early (read superior) Tori Amos to some strikingly sophisticated string swells that transform the modest singer/songwriter fare into expansive, large-venue anthems. Gryner's toned down the compressed, distorted vowels that used to weigh down her vocals, and the enjoyably dark tone and concrete imagery of tracks like Girls Are Murder and Blackwinged Bird stand as the finest writing she's done to date.
Emm Gryner brings Summer to the Mod Club tonight (Thursday, November 16).
INDIGO GIRLS Despite Our Differences (Hollywood) Rating: NNN
Banged out in six weeks with a new record label, the Indigo Girls' 10th studio album is a solid offering of what they're best at ? emotive ballads, folk-rock harmonies and leftist anthems. Their distinctive differences as songwriters (Emily Saliers is soft and spiritual, Amy Ray punk rock and raw) are often complementary, but sometimes the songs cry out for more input from the other. The track list features an Saliers song followed by a Ray song, with no blending, which makes it seem as if they're accompanying each other on tiny solo albums. Pink makes an appearance on highlight track Rock And Roll Heaven's Gate, a song Ray wrote about her sadness over the recent disbanding of the Butchies and Le Tigre. Saliers is at her best when she gives us straight-up love songs, with heartbreak ballad Last Tears closing out the album on a strong note. Despite Our Differences seems like an oddly appropriate title not just for its wider political implications but for the music as well.
JOSEF K Entomology (Domino) Rating: NNNN
Because Franz Ferdinand repeatedly cited them as an influence, there's revived interest in obscure and short-lived Scottish band Josef K. These spastic dance-rock beats aren't particularly danceable, and there's a shortage of accessible pop hooks. Once you get over that, though, Josef K turn out to be an interesting little art band. This compilation gathers most of what they released, along with songs from the aborted album Sorry For Laughing, stretched over 22 tracks. It's gloomy, sometimes ugly, the guitars clang away and never quite sound in tune, but there's an undeniable urgency here that makes you love them for taking themselves so seriously.
KEITH Red Thread (Lucky Number) Rating: NNN
This is the debut album from a young Manchester-based four-piece who've been enjoying a fair degree of hype due to their integration of a wide array of influences into a very familiar UK indie pop package. Indeed, much of it is reminiscent of the Smiths, or rather a much more contemporary and eclectic band covering old Smiths tunes. Mainly it's the collision between folk, indie, shoegazer and dance music that you notice most, but there are enough musical references to Krautrock, Afrobeat and psychedelic to keep you playing spot-the-influence for a while. In the end, it's pretty easy to put that aside and hear it as straightforward contemporary pop made by a bunch of music nerds. They've got a lot of talent and potential and it's an enjoyable album, but it feels like they're thinking too much about the sounds rather than the songs.
KLAXONS Xan Valleys EP (Modular) Rating: NNNN
Ah, so this is what the Brits are calling "neo-rave." Bollocks, I say! The term's a conspiratorial joke propagated by Klaxons themselves, having a chuckle on fools buying glow sticks and colouring everything neon pink. Nevertheless, you can't doubt the sincerity in their music, a jamtastic bit of high-energy fun, these Klaxons. Along with their amphetamine disco bass lines, helicopter drumbeats and suspect titles, songs like Atlantis To Interzone and Gravity's Rainbow have maddeningly wicked hooks and grooves deeper than anything the DFA label dropped this year. Bonus: a throbbing and screeching Atari 2600 remix by obscenely overlooked local duo Crystal Castles. Don't worry, you'll know their name soon enough.
JERRY LEE LEWIS Last Man Standing (Artists First) Rating: NNN
When Jerry Lee Lewis last played the Docks, he looked like a ghost, so what a shock it is to hear him belting out tunes with gusto on this celebrity duets album. The Killer actually sounds much more vital on Last Man Standing than many of his younger guest stars ? in fact, Neil Young, Keith Richards and Rod Stewart could be confused for Jerry Lee's dad. Finding the right songs to perform is always the challenge with this sort of project, and it probably would've been wiser to find some more age-appropriate material. Hearing Jerry Lee sing Sweet Little Sixteen with Ringo and I Saw Her Standing There with Little Richard just comes off creepy. On the upside, the marquee stars (Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Don Henley, Kris Kristofferson, John Fogerty Eric Clapton, etc) keep their huge egos in check and don't try to steal the spotlight from the still wiry piano pounder, so at least Last Man Standing maintains the feel of a Jerry Lee Lewis album. Disaster averted.
MATT MAYS When The Angels Make Contact (Sonic/Warner) Rating: NNN
The soundtrack to a film that, for the moment, exists only in the mind of Matt Mays, When The Angels Make Contact is the stylistically diverse solo offering from the El Torpedo frontman who was never too keen on being cast as a conventional country rocker and so he wrote his own script and music to match. This time out he's starring in his own motorbike-riding road epic that appears to have called for some triphop tweakery, Floydian proggish jams, a little black metal menace and a couple of those heartbroke ballads at which Mays excels. Not every track is a winner, but who knows? Maybe it'll all make sense when the film comes out.
NELLIE MCKAY Pretty Little Head (Hungry Mouse) Rating: NNNN
At the risk of empathizing with an obviously evil corporation, it's not hard to see why a label interested in efficiency would struggle with a hyper-hypo pianist who insists on soy ink liner notes. Indeed, even when Nellie McKay cuts the quirk, as she does here on her post-Sony sophomore record, she's bewildering. Wonderfully bewildering, but bewildering, with showtunes, hiphop, synth pop and rhymes like "Since I was an embryo, never had Nintendo, saw a lot of Brecht though, I only known you since Jewel went techno." On duets with Cyndi Lauper (Beecharmer) and k.d. lang (We Had It Right), she charms most and maybe goes farthest toward defining herself and her place.
THE MOONEY SUZUKI The Maximum Black EP (V2) Rating: NN
Suzuki (the automobile manufacturer) loves the Mooneys so much that it's signed 'em as exclusive soundtrackers for all Suzuki commercials. Jack Black loves 'em, too. He appears in the Mooneys' In A Young Man's Mind video (from 2002's Electric Sweat), and the NYC four-piece delivers a cameo and the title track in Black's movie School Of Rock. Maybe that's why the garage rockers felt that Maximum Black ? a reissue of their 1999 Black EP plus five unreleased tracks from the same studio heyday ? was worth releasing. Yep, the rock's amped-up and fuzzed out. And, yep, the unreleased tracks showcase a bit more melodic prowess and pop panache, replete with vocal harmonies. But when I'm in the mood for generic, I'd rather watch Julia Roberts guffaw.
MY MORNING JACKET Okonokos (ATO/Sony BMG) Rating: NNNN
Kentucky psych-alt-country rockers My Morning Jacket have always sounded on their records like they'd be better live. Maybe it's in the rock-out potential that a studio recording just can't capture, but on Okonokos, a treat of a double live album, MMJ make it clear that to hear them on stage is way more exciting than anything else. Flexing a huge, warm and reverb-drenched sound, they seductively wind their way through a generous collection of favourites and more recent island-vibey material from their last proper album, Z. While their performance is expansive and parts are definitely stretched out and rocked out, like on I Will Sing You Songs and Mahgeetah, this is just solid performing, not lame jam band shit.
OK GO Oh No (EMI) Rating: NNN
OK Go, widely known as that band with the treadmill video on YouTube, are currently nominated alongside Lonely Girl for big web hit at VH1's Big In 06 Awards. Seems about right. Ten years from now, we'll probably remember OK Go the way we now remember the Hamster Dance. Or dial-up. This is not necessarily their fault. They're an above-average guitar pop band with, as this entertaining video collection demonstrates, an above-average sense of humour. But their choreographic genius, detailed here in several videos, archival footage and a Behind The Treadmills exposé, is a great burden.
SERENA RYDER If Your Memory Serves You Well (EMI) Rating: NNN
Critics have noted Serena Ryder's supposed "three-octave range," specifically in the context of her version of Leonard Cohen's Sisters Of Mercy from this album of mostly covers. It's a weird comment, since the local songstress is far from all over the tonal map in general; she actually sticks within the confines of a few limited notes throughout the entire song. That said, Ryder has a good strong voice. She's a bit of a belter, almost always loud, pushing and trying very hard; when she pulls back, she reveals a slight tendency toward Alanis-style throatiness. But at 23, she's still got time to learn vocal control and utilize nuance and dynamics. Ryder does a good job on the covers here, showing particular skill with the Grateful Dead and the Lovin' Spoonful, though her chops aren't quite up to tackle Paul Anka's It Doesn't Matter Anymore just yet. Three originals round off the record, including Out Of The Blue, written with Randy Bachman. It's nice.
DANI SICILIANO Slappers (K7) Rating: NNNN
It's hard to talk about Dani Siciliano without mentioning experimental house producer Matthew Herbert, whose slivers of sound and understated pop melodies have been arranged around her voice. While Herbert's ghost still hovers over Siciliano's second album (he lends a production hand here and there), her own voice is starting to emerge. There's almost a Tom Waits vibe to her clattering rhythms and jazz, blues and country phrasings, except with weird, dissonant electronic noises floating around the background and slight R&B overtones. It's actually the less Herberty moments that work best: the giddy country electro stomp of Why Can't I Make You High and the 100 per cent Siciliano-produced Be My Producer. It's a mellow album, but definitely quirky, and with enough rawness to offset her soft, pretty vocals.
SPARTA Threes (Hollywood/Universal) Rating: NNN
It's been a long time since anyone gave a damn about Jim Ward and Tony Hajjar, ex-guitarist and former drummer of the once revered emo band At the Drive-In. After the band split, the two formed Sparta and ditched their former band's aggressive emo for more melodic post-hardcore. That combo didn't work too well for Sparta ? their last two records were lacklustre ? so it's a welcome surprise to hear that they've returned to their upbeat emo antics on Threes. The record starts strong with Untreatable Disease, a loud, aggressive rocker that screams return to form. Most of the songs continue along the same intense lines. There are a few flops ? Without A Sound sounds like U2 doing emo ? but it's clear Sparta have finally come into their own.
STING Songs From The Labyrinth (Deutsche Grammophon) Rating: NNN
Omigod. Could Sting get any gayer? This is really gay. And I mean that in the most un-PC way possible, while intending no offence to gay people, including my supergay best friend. On Songs From The Labyrinth, Sting, who once fronted one of the coolest bands in the universe, and Edin Karamazov perform lute pieces written by John Dowland, Elizabethan songwriter and court lutenist to James I. Dowland was, according to Sting, the first English pop songwriter. Lilting love songs and melancholy poetry atop excellent string work interspersed with readings of Dowland's letters, along with some very pretty harmonies, make this record. It's quite lovely and certainly interesting from a historical point of view. And, uh... fans of Elizabethan songwriting will surely be extremely pleased. Gay, though. Hey nonny, men in tights and all that.
THE WALKMEN Pussy Cats (Record Collection) Rating: NNNNN
When the Walkmen announced they'd be covering Pussy Cats, an album originally recorded in 1974 during John Lennon and Harry Nilsson's "lost weekend," eyebrows were understandably raised. The original, a collection of covers and originals, was a drugged-up collaboration between Nilsson, who sang on the disc, and Lennon, who produced it. It's an odd record to cover, considering it's more of a novelty than a bona fide release, but that's precisely why this note-for-note version is so good. The Walkmen are generally pretty serious, so hearing them tackle Rock Around The Clock or the kids' song Loop De Loop is real laugh. While not as drunken as the original, the disc retains some haphazard charm. Throw in the band's intensity and Hamilton Leithauser's scratchy wails and you've got one of the more interesting ? and fun ? cover albums out there.
ROBBIE WILLIAMS Rudebox (EMI) Rating: NNN
Halfway through the first song and title track on pop jokester and former boy band member Robbie Williams's latest, you get a good idea of what you're in for ? a shaky balancing act between slickly produced dance pop and the devil-may-care attitude that sees the singer laying on his smarmy charm a little too thick. It's quite clear that Williams doesn't take himself too seriously and really doesn't give a shit what people think, which is definitely part of the draw. But after 16 songs ranging from electro-country to the parody-heavy We're The Pet Shop Boys and various quasi-conversational raps à la the Streets' Mike Skinner about losing his virginity, I felt the man should rope things in.
NEIL YOUNG Crazy Horse At The Fillmore East 1970 (Reprise/Warner) Rating: NNN
Given the numerous live recordings gathering dust in the Neil Young archives, it's hard to figure why a relatively unspectacular Fillmore East show from 1970 was chosen to launch the Performance Series of live recording reissues. The playing is rough around the edges, but period classics like Down By The River and Cowgirl In The Sand are knocked out with verve. It's the late, great Danny Whitten who steals the spotlight, shouting out spirited renditions of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and his own Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown, which was maybe Young's reason for putting this out ? a reminder that Whitten was much more than a rhythm guitarist with a heroin habit. The show is also notable for an early appearance of Wonderin', which Young introduces as being "from our new record... whenever we record it." A very different version of the song would appear 13 years later on the much-maligned Everybody's Rockin'.