Record Guide Reviews

Pop/Rock


Rating: NNNNN


AUDIOSLAVE (Sony) Rating: NN

Choosing the blandest name possible for their hard rock supergroup is actually quite fitting for Audioslave. The wildly anticipated fusion of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Rage Against the Machine’s rhythm section is devoid of invention and sounds exactly like what you’d expect — plenty of robotic, muscular funk and clenched-fist wailing. It was hardly a perfect formula, but at least former MC Zack de la Rocha’s political shrieking added some fire to Rage’s pedestrian thudding. Fancy new spiked hairdo or not, Cornell is at best a one-note yeller, and his brooding, New Agey babble about cities in the clouds and cyclone-chasing does little to lift Audioslave above the mundane. You’d like to say that somewhere de la Rocha is laughing, but he’s far too grumpy for that.MG

BJORK Greatest Hits (Elektra/Warner) Rating: NNN

Letting her fans vote for the songs to be included on Greatest Hits is a very Björk thing to do. The only problem is that with a remix-friendly artist like Björk, the popular album or single edits of her songs may not be the definitive versions. So instead of merely repackaging available tracks, Björk’s personal selection of the most exciting revisions of her songs — or even her home demo takes — would’ve made for a more intriguing disc, possibly even a better selling one.TP

DAVID BOWIE Best Of Bowie (EMI) Rating: NN

Not quite the definitive compendium of David Bowie’s finest moments, as the title suggests, the two-disc Best Of Bowie is really a 38-track career overview that offers both his irrefutably great tunes from the 70s and the least distasteful track from each of his horrible recent releases. In trying for balance, they’ve produced a set choked with mediocrity. Surely, even Bowie wouldn’t claim that Jump They Say, off the abysmal Black Tie White Noise, deserves inclusion on musical merit over John, I’m Only Dancing or Velvet Goldmine. Those seeking Bowie’s best would be much better off with the neatly packaged 30th anniversary two-CD edition of Ziggy Stardust.TP

Jon Brion Punch-Drunk Love (Nonesuch/Warner) Rating: NNNN

In an era when soundtracks are typically just label-driven collections of hit songs strung together out of context, producer Jon Brion’s soundtrack work clearly stands out. It’s with director Paul Thomas Anderson that Brion does his best work (he all but dictated the mood of Magnolia with his brooding pop score), creating grandiose scores based on original material that, most importantly, stands on its own free of the film. Brion’s score to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love has the typical string-drenched themes from the film, but it’s his incidental music that’s most interesting. With a battery of wheezing organs, rubbery guitars, oddball singers and a full orchestra at his disposal, Brion has created an unsettling, extremely unusual piece of hazy pop music that staggers, shimmies and occasionally sways — it’s actually better than the movie.MG

CUFF THE DUKE Life Stories For Minimum Wage (Three Gut) Rating: NNNN

Grandiose but not pretentious, Cuff the Duke’s debut disc is a whisky-soaked daydream. It’s hard to believe this foursome of country-lovin’ indie punks grew up in Oshawa — Life Stories For Minimum Wage sounds like they suckled at the teat of heartbreak cowboy Hank Williams, shot BB guns with Loretta Lynn and learned to read from Stephen Malkmus. Mournful melodies couched in cryptically poetic lyrics tell tales of betrayal and lost souls, while washes of pedal steel and Moog synths flesh out twangy, old-timey tunes with lush atmosphere. And the variety is impressive. These boys can pull off a New Wave take on bluegrass (the awesome Andy Magoffin-produced Hobo Night Stalker) and turn around and throw a blissed-out epic pseudo-shoe-gaze jam in yer face. Raw and right-on.SL

The Dears Protest (independent) Rating: NNNN

Having been accused since their first live shows of making “art rock, Montreal’s the Dears go all the way with this limited-edition EP. The 17 minutes of music here are decidedly over the top, featuring chanting choirs, wailing sirens, robotic bass lines, Murray Lightburn’s deadpan vocals and talk of revolution barked through a megaphone. Protest couldn’t be further from the arch pop music of the Dears’ two previous releases, but that’s clearly the point. It’s hard to tell whether the Dears are really serious, but I wouldn’t bet against it.MG

Delicate AWOL Heart Drops From The Great Space (Fire Records) Rating: NNN

The likes of Stereolab and Mogwai spring to mind listening to Heart Drops From The Great Space (how Floydian) as Delicate AWOL explore a sonic tapestry woven from both fine and coarse threads. Beginning slowly with electronic exploration and ethereal female vocals, this record builds, moving into spacey, then pop territory, adding rock guitars, dipping into jazzy turf, lingering a while, then pulling itself back up again. Tracks that are at times sparse and at others densely layered move into each other, giving Heart Drops From The Great Space that flowing feeling of the concept album. Gotta admit, though, that I don’t know what that concept is. Nice.EB

Ben Folds Ben Folds Live (Epic) Rating: NNNN

Stripped of the other four and on his own in front of an obviously enraptured audience, Ben Folds comes to us with a live CD that proves he’s a songwriter and performer who ranks among the best. This guy knows how to talk to people in the way many songwriters wish they could but just can’t. And his piano work is technically impressive, as usual. This live album features new solo songs as well as Ben Folds Five tunes like Philosophy and Army. Elton John’s Tiny Dancer is included, which is fitting, since Folds is a Billy Joel or Elton John for the modern era.EB

future bIBLE HEROES Eternal Youth (Instinct) Rating: NNNN

Don’t be put off by the Future Bible Heroes’ moniker. Like the 6ths, this is merely another incarnation of Magnetic Fields warped pop mastermind Stephin Merritt, one of the queerest and cleverest men in indie rock. The Bible Heroes mask their fey, caustic sensibilities in catchy electro-pop melodies, lush layers of romantic keyboards and campy disco beats. Perennial Merritteer Claudia Gonson is on-board again, adding her sweet but sardonic pipes to the mix. Merritt writes wry and brilliant lyrics, from the hysterical Doris Daytheearthstoodstill to Smash The Beauty Machine, an oblique critique of the homo obsession with eternal youth and beauty. The Future Bible Heroes are here to save the day in an oh-so-gay way.SL

GENTLEMAN REG Make Me Pretty (Three Gut) Rating: NNNN

Reg Vermue’s coming-out album blushes like a bashful chiffon-skirted debutante, smiling shyly through 13 sweet, pastel-frosted cupcakes of songs. Vermue’s frail, quavering warble is complemented beautifully by spare piano fills that add light to shadowy fingerpicked guitar, organs that create a haunting rec-room carnival vibe. Make Me Pretty bears the Three Gut stamp of intelligent, quirkily artsy indie pop. It should its fabulous lineup of Constantines and Royal City dwellers flesh out Vermue’s sometimes soaring, sometimes shivering ripped-up-and-scotch-taped-together musical sonnets.SL

Go-Betweens Spring Hill Fair (Circus/Jetset) Rating: NNNNN

Send Me A Lullaby (Circus/Jetset) Rating: NNNN

Before Hollywood (Circus/Jetset) Rating: NNNN

The digital debut of the Go-Betweens’ pop conundrum Newton Told Me on the bonus disc of oddities and outtakes packaged with this stellar reissue of their underappreciated third album brings to mind the hilarious look of shocked horror on singer/songwriter Grant McLennan’s face when he was told that a Toronto group called the Lawn was known to cover the obscure B-side. “My god,” gasped McLennan, “I don’t even remember how that goes, and I wrote it!” It’s the inclusion of such unjustly overlooked curios along with eloquent alt-pop dramas like Part Company, Bachelor Kisses and You’ve Never Lived that makes this reissue of the Gobs’ grand Spring Hill Fair the definitive version. Similarly, the new re-releases of their first two classic albums, Send Me A Lullaby and Before Hollywood, come loaded with extra songs and video clips that you need. TP

GEORGE HARRISON Brainwashed (EMI) Rating: NNNN

Wow, this is a surprise. It’s just about a year since quiet Beatle George Harrison died, and his final album, Brainwashed, turns out not to be the embarrassing assortment of studio outtakes and pieced-together fragments we’ve come to expect from posthumous rock-star albums. The first thing you notice is the strength of his voice. This isn’t the frail gasp that might be expected, knowing how weak Harrison sounded in 2000. But, then, he’d been working on this material since 97. The lyrics are sharp, even cynically cutting at times, though upbeat, while the pop arrangements are tight and have an unmistakable Traveling Wilburys vibe due to Jeff Lynne’s production participation. Brainwashed stands proudly alongside Harrison’s best post-Beatles work and pisses all over Paul McCartney’s recent releases.TP

Hell City Love (Brobdingnagian) Rating: NNNN

Is somebody putting rock ‘n’ roll pills in Halifax’s drinking water? This very promising debut EP from Hell City Love rocks somethin’ fierce, with totally sing-along choruses, catchy melodies, hard-ass riffage and those cheese-grater lead vocals obviously directly inspired by the Kilmeister. Gotta love the oft off-key backup chick belting out, “I know my baby likes forced entry” and the tongue-in-cheek attitude. Yer basic hard rockers like After Midnight Cowboy and The Hunter can only serve to brighten up a room. A full-length release from these Maritimers is anxiously awaited.EB

VEDA HILLE Auditorium (Independent) Rating: NNN

Veda Hille has an easy onstage energy that brings her often difficult, twisty art rock tunes to life, and this well-crafted compendium — part live album, part career retrospective — shows her at her best. Recorded over the course of several 10th- anniversary gigs in BC, Auditorium offers sometimes inane, often witty onstage banter about novelties like Russian toothpaste and the barely perceptible calls of rabbits and moments of audience interaction alongside Hille’s highlights. A cover of Brecht’s anti-fascist fable The Ballad Of Marie Sanders is potent, and the all-instrumental Boat Ride To Skidegate shows off Hille’s tremendous talents as a contemporary-classical songwriter. The ambitious structure of her chamber pop can be intriguing, with crags of melody that jut out into nothingness. The only annoying part is the crowds’ roars and applause, the bane of any live package.SL

HIS NAME IS ALIVE Last Night (4AD) Rating: NNN His Name Is Alive mainman Warren Defever seems to take delight in confounding his fans. Over the past decade, each album has veered off in a different direction from the one before, adding new vocalists, new musicians and new genres to conquer and subvert. This time around, the most surprising thing is that he’s continued on the R&B and blues path from the group’s last album, Someday My Blues Will Inherit The Earth. As on that album, the featured vocalist is Lovetta Sharie Pippen, whose talented, understated singing is really the focus here. The music is similarly earthy and rich, stripped down to its essentials but still unpredictable and lush enough to elevate it beyond typical rootsy R&B. BB

Junkyard Dogs Bow Wow (TR Mafia) Rating: NNNN

Many people have an ingrained phobia of blues bands from Quebec. This is understandable. But don’t let past mistakes put you off Montreal’s Junkyard Dogs. Bow Wow opens with Marvin Pontiac’s I’m A Doggy. (The band has listed the tune’s writer as “unknown.” Hey, guys! It’s Marvin Pontiac, aka John Lurie! Bloody Quebecers.) A stellar beginning, after which the Dogs proceed to growl their way through a roots-heavy rock pile of authentic blues, the draggin’, hurtin’ kind. Especially good are the smoke ‘n’ bourbon vocals on Vegas Slut Machine. Junkyard Dogs carve out a lazy, comfortable groove somewhere between the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Howlin’ Wolf.EB

LUNA Close Cover Before Striking (Jetset) Rating: NNNN

For an EP of extras and cast-offs, Luna’s Close Cover Before Striking EP hangs together remarkably well. A companion piece to the group’s recent Romantica disc, the seven songs here again find Dean Wareham refining the hazy, deadpan pop he’s been making since the Galaxie days. A falsetto-driven cover of Waiting On A Friend is pleasant enough, and while the handful of new originals add little to Luna’s already etched-in-stone sound, that’s fine. Wareham is freakishly able to continue churning out the same four-minute song album after album without its sounding dull or repetitive, and he remains one of the few lyricists who can slip a reference to Tamil Tigers into a love song and make it work. MG

LAS KETCHUP Hijas Del Tomate (Columbia) Rating: NN

Hey, kids! If you’re still gettin’ your groove thing on to the inane robotic pop of that ancient Macarena shit, you’d better get with the program. The newest dance sensation is The Ketchup Song, a Shakira-lite-meets-Spanish-rap number by a trio of Andalusian sisters. The predictably skinny, sexy ladies — daughters of a classical flamenco guitarist — ride their one-hit wonder all the way to the bank on this debut disc, with four different varieties of Ketchup (Spanglish, karaoke, “Hippy” and Spanish) sprinkled in among 11 Gipsy Kings-type tracks. At least they don’t make any bones about it — they’ve even dubbed themselves “daughters of the tomato.” Sheesh.SL

King Crimson Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With (Sanctuary) Rating: NNNN

On this New King Crimson EP, a collection of new tunes and musical poetic snippets from Adrian Belew, the precision chaos that is King Crimson rears its head right at the start with the title track. Robert Fripp alternates betweensinging guitar lines and a barrage of maddeningly complex noise. Other new tunes include the sweetly introspective Eyes Wide Open and a blues entitled Potato Pie. A live instalment of the Larks’ Tongues In Aspic series is also included, and rounding out the disc is a hidden mix track of recording session dialogue. This disc is an active listen rather than a passive one.EB

Kottonmouth Kings Rollin’ Stoned (Capitol) Rating: NNN

Hiphop-metal-punk outfit the Kottonmouth Kings look like the unfortunate result of a genetic accident involving Slipknot, the Backstreet Boys, a tube of hair gel and a tattoo gun. But they’re not quite that scary. On this fourth full-length release, the Kings continue to rail against The Man and espouse the virtues of smokin’ dope, having good times with friends and spreading positive vibes. A step above previous lacklustre efforts, Rollin’ Stoned gets some dense funky grooves going but remains one-dimensional. It’s all pot all the time. But if you’re going to have a cause, this one’s as good as any, and I’ve little doubt that there are some wake ‘n’ bake rap metal fans out there who will find these cuts to their liking.EB

CHANTAL KREVIAZUK What If It All Means Something? (Columbia) Rating: NN

Winnipeg belter Kreviazuk’s biggest strength is that she eschews the vocal acrobatics of peers like Sarah McLachlan, wrapping her simple, hooky melodies in a voice that stays earthy and warm. It suits her particular brand of lush, semi-sophisticated womanly pop with adult contemporary leanings, but in the end it’s really aural comfort food that tastes bland after after the first bite. On What If It All Means Something? Kreviazuk briefly tries channeling Björk but soon returns to the crooning piano ballad form. The swingy, loungey Ready For Your Love is as good as it gets, breaking away from her characteristic plodding tempos and overly dramatic chords.SL

matchbox twenty More Than You Think You Are (Warner) Rating: NN

The first thing you notice about the new Matchbox Twenty disc is the all-pervasive 70s vibe. From the overblown guitar wanking to the spurts of disco drumming and the sappy Elton John-inspired piano balladry, More Than You Think You Are turns the clock back 25 years to the heady times of Christian rock operas and Supertramp lunch boxes. The throwback concept is not entirely a shock coming from Rob Thomas, considering his success with Santana, but the epic bluster seems strangely out of context outside a football stadium filled with 50,000 shirtless lighter-wavers.TP

MIA DOI TODD The Golden State (Columbia) Rating: NNNN

Mia Doi Todd is like Cat Power under plexiglas. The classically trained singer’s concentrated, keening vocals cut like a laser beam to the heart, and, like Chan Marshall, she layers them in threadbare sheathes of art-rock acoustic guitars, hesitant piano chords and baroque orchestral accents. But although her hyper-literate lyrics are less oblique, Todd’s tunes lack the searing rawness of a morose Marshall track instead, she evokes a chilling distance that’s oddly affecting. Pop mastermind Mitchell Froom, who made sense of Soul Coughing’s pretentious beatnik bluster, brings the artiness of Todd’s earlier albums into intense focus here — the gorgeous Autumn could be a minimalist Motown track. Skeletal and stunning.SL

JONI MITCHELL Travelogue (Nonesuch/Warner) Rating: NNNN

Even though avant-pop diva Joni Mitchell and musical director Larry Klein are claiming that Travelogue is not a “greatest hits with orchestra” project, that’s essentially what it is. But since Mitchell doesn’t have enough bona fide chart smashes to fill up the two discs, she revisits many of her less familiar compositions from the past. Yet it’s not merely a matter of adding a bit of string embellishment. The songs are actually completely overhauled — not overblown — with the assistance of impeccably tasteful arranger Vince Mendoza, reflecting Mitchell’s reinterpretation of her sometimes strangely prescient lyrics with the benefit of some 30 years’ worth of hindsight. As Travelogue unfolds, you soon realize it’s an immense piece of work that Mitchell pulls off with typical panache. TP

OPERATION MAKEOUT Hang Loose (Mint) Rating: NNNN

Hot damn! The debut album by this fabulously named BC art-punk trio is as much fun as, well, a dizzily drunk makeout session in the backseat of a K-car. Hang Loose is crazy New Wave-punk-pop-jazz fusion with skronky, dissonant guitars, awesome driving bass, sudden bursts of cheesy 80s synths and snotty boy-girl vocals. The melodies are weird and angular but surprisingly hooky and singable, and lead singer Katie effortlessly out-yelps Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker in a way that makes you want to push her up against a block of lockers and kiss her. Breezy pop number Tune Out is campy fun that recalls George Michael’s Faith, but the real gem here is the hidden 11th track, pseudo-hardcore techno with squelchy samples, stuttering bass and great lyrics.SL

The Outsiders Strange Things Are Happening The Complete Singles 1965-69 (RPM) Rating: NNNNN

Amsterdam’s Outsiders have been called “the finest 60s rock group from a non-English-speaking country,” but I’d rank them right alongside the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones and, yes, the Beatles. Unlike their more popular British contemporaries, the longer-haired Outsiders never had to resort to covering American R&B hits of the day, because they wrote more than enough brilliant freakbeat rave-ups and spellbinding ballads of their own, as this collection of singles sides demonstrates. From the haunting Sun’s Going Down to the snotty, harp-wailing That’s Your Problem through the hip-shaking charge of Touch and the boisterous belter Do You Feel Alright, the Outsiders never put a foot wrong. All hail the kings of Nederbeat.TP

ALICE PEACOCK (Columbia) Rating: NN

On her major-label debut, Alice Peacock makes like a younger, cuter Indigo Girl. She serves up insipid Lilith-friendly folkie pop with a shot of country, but between the suffocatingly sugary melodies and the slick production, any shred of rootsy authenticity is wiped out. Peacock’s impressive list of collaborators includes Jon Brion, buzz-boy John Mayer and Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, but they all contribute to the artificial quality of the record. I’m sure she means well with lyrics that seek to untangle the eternal knot of boy-girl relations and grave world issues, but they’re so painfully sincere, you can’t take her seriously.SL

THE PRETENDERS Loose Screw (Artemis) Rating: NNN Now that everyone else is rockin’ out in leather and studs, garage-pop goddess Chrissie Hynde try injecting a hit of clubby beats and dubby reggae fusion into their typical punk-New Wave guitar rock. It may sound like they’ve, well, got a screw loose, but the mélange is oddly successful. The reggae-style stab at Clean Up Woman is a low point, but the bulk of the album stays pretty true to gritty form.The sex kitten from Akron, Ohio, has tempered her spiky edge over the years, trading the aggressive swagger of Middle Of The Road for the sentimental balladry of I’ll Stand By You, but she’s still one of the sexiest stand-up babes in the biz.SL

PRIMAL SCREAM Evil Heat (Sony) Rating: NNN

Fighting his own private revolution in his mind is a tiring battle for Bobby Gillespie. After waging war on rock complacency with Primal Scream’s obliterating XTRMNTR and boldly titling a song Bomb The Pentagon, Gillespie seems out of tricks on the lacklustre Evil Heat. Reduced to recycling ideas and spouting clichés against the man, Primal Scream manage little of the fire that was so devastating on their last album. Old pal Andrew Weatherall and current guitarist Kevin Shields seem to be fighting for space on Evil Heat, so the set alternates between white-hot blasts of rock aggression and mellower, Screamadelica-era trance tunes. Neither are particularly enthralling, while the novelty of Kate Moss cooing on a cover of Some Velvet Morning wears off shortly after the song begins.MG

Queen Greatest Hits I, II & III: The Platinum Collection (Hollywood) Rating: NNNN

Doesn’t every Queen fan out there already own every single track on the first two CDs of this three-disc Platinum Collection? It features every hit from 1974 on. CD three offers solo recordings by Brian May and Freddie Mercury, live performances with guests like Elton John on The Show Must Go On and Wyclef Jean on Another One Bites The Dust. Still, it’s nice to have ’em all together so you can marvel at just how amazingly versatile/talented/cheesy Queen were and also, so you can make a game of recalling the Freddie Mercury fashion crime on the video for each song. Oh, yeah! That was the red-and-white striped spandex jumpsuit! If you don’t already have it all, this is the perfect collection by a band that created some of the best rock of all time.EB

Chris Robinson New Earth Mud (Redline Entertainment) Rating: NN

Stripped of the Black Crowes, Chris Robinson sounds like a guy who lost all his rock and was left with nothing but roll. Still deeply entrenched in his Southern roots, Robinson indulges his softer, introspective side, at times descending into nauseatingly syrupy territory, as with Katie Dear, the ode to his wife. It doesn’t take long for these long-winded tracks to get irritating, as Robinson’s drawl turns into a grating whine at the dragging pace. Occasionally, glimmers of the old Chris shine through — as on the funky Ride — but not often enough to save this record.EB

THE SHINING True Skies (Epic) Rating: NN

With ties to the Verve and the Stone Roses, the Shining rehash muscular, guitar-drenched Manchester psych-rock. True Skies is 12 tracks of epic but nondescript spacey dirges that move at a glacial pace, with massive waves of testosterone-heavy guitars that build to a dull roar. At times the tunes sound like second-rate Moist — vast, rough-around-the-edges melodies sung in a nasal Gallagher-referencing whine by laddish weed Duncan Baxter over muddy background vocals. Moments are bearable — the doo-woppy Find A Reason picks up a few tricks from Motown — but other attempts at adding variety, like the cheesy Rasputinish fiddle loop that kicks off Crest Of An Ocean, suck.SL

SLEATER-KINNEY One Beat (Kill Rock Stars) Rating: NNNN

Washington state’s finest femmes, Sleater-Kinney, continue to hold their activist torches high even after everyone else’s arms have got tired. With lyrics that mix gender inequity rants with cries against rabid “bombs not compassion” U.S. patriots, One Beat is more thoughtful and sombre than 2000’s All Hands On The Bad One. It’s also considerably more challenging and musically accomplished. This time around they beef up Corin Tucker’s frightened-animal yelp with nifty retro flourishes like quirky synths and even a horn section, along with a hit of girly-boy charm courtesy of Hedwig And The Angry Inch’s Stephen Trask. It’s nice to see that the ladies haven’t abandoned their commitment to dissident social critiques. SL

Songs In the Key OF Z Volume 1 (Gammon) Rating: NNNN

Volume 2 (Gammon) Rating: NNN

Even as the record industry sinks more money into pushing more perfect pop confections, the interest in proudly imperfect outsider music continues to soar. Fringe music maven Irwin Chusid complements his Songs In The Key Of Z study of the warped universe of musical misfits with two separate volumes of weirdly wondrous creations. Volume 1 touches on the work of better-known cult stars the Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, Jandek, Joe Meek and the “Swedish Elvis” Eilert Pilarm, while the second volume spotlights lesser-known, er, visionaries like Bingo Gazingo, Tangela Tricoli and Buddy Max. With just one track apiece, it’s difficult to get a feel for the alternate universe in which each artist dwells, but it’s a worthwhile introduction that’s simultaneously entertaining and unsettling.TP

SPACE ELEVATOR (Rocket to Rock) Rating: NNN

Space Elevator’s Scott Kaija insists his band’s manifesto is to write super-catchy pop tunes, and the local trio’s self-titled debut is brimming with ’em. A lovely marriage of the bright, sugary harmonies of 60s girl groups and the raucous boy energy of the Ramones, the disc is a somersaulting hit of fizzy power pop highlighted by hooky, solid song structures, layered, bubbly guitars and satisfying, pogo-worthy bass. But while Kaija and bassist Julia Madill play up their boy-girl back ‘n’ forth vocals to good effect, after a while the songs blend into a carbonated blur. There are no real standout tracks here, just a ton of catchy riffs and snippets of sweet melody that stick in your head like pink Double Bubble on the sole of a sneaker.SL

SUICIDE American Supreme (Blast First) Rating: N

If you take 10 years between albums, it’s best to poke your head out of the ground once in a while just to see what the kids today are up to. Perhaps a decade ago Martin Rev’s idea of plinking out hiphop-inspired beats on his keyboard would have sounded revolutionary, but on Suicide’s grand comeback album the results are shockingly bad. There was a time when Suicide’s confrontational art noise was groundbreaking and revolutionary. Now, it’s hard to tell which is funnier — Rev’s painfully out-of-date synth blurts or Vega’s out-of-tune beat poetry. Both beggar belief, while Vega’s peculiar decision to drench his rants in reverb and echo doesn’t make him sound profound, just lost.MG

Taproot Welcome (Atlantic) Rating: NN

Oh, boy. Yet another release from a band with talent who ruin everything by taking perfectly good melodic song ideas and throwing in those pounding, predictable choruses that render the tunes totally generic. This trend, followed by the likes of Filter and Sparta, among others, is so tired, it’s like a toddler who just won’t go to fucking sleep and let the grown-ups have a drink and listen to some decent music. As Taproot has an obviously vast array of influences, from 80s electronic to rock, metal, hiphop, punk and pop, as well as decent songwriting sensibilities, this trite, generic second record is even more inexcusable. EB

30 Seconds To Mars (Immortal/Sony) Rating: NNN

Movie star Jared Leto’s bid for rock stardom on this first release of his project 30 Seconds to Mars is slick, so slick it’s hard to tell if its any good, what with the groovy packaging and eerily streamlined production. Leto’s vocals are perfect rock-star quality on this spacey synth-based concoction of 80s electro, industrial, rock and nu metal with a heavy dose of prog rock. Despite the range of styles, the track-to-track variation is limited, since Leto — who does all the writing — lumps it all into every tune. Everyone tries to be the loudest so there’s little room for mood changes. EB

SHANIA TWAIN Up! (Mercury/Universal) Rating: NN

Torn between whether to continue moulding Shania Twain in the sonic image of Def Leppard or to stick to the pop-country formula, her producer/co-writer Mutt Lange has arranged and recorded two equally dull versions of Up! The two-disc set has a red disc with 80s hair-metal guitar riffs and synth fills and a green disc with fiddles and pedal steel, yet the booming drums, vocals and hooks — right down to the “let’s go” and “oh yeah” tags — are essentially the same. The songwriting, done on relaxing trips between Milan, Vienna and the Grenadine Islands, is every bit as banal as you might expect. Yawn.TP

U2 The Best Of 1990-2000 (Universal) Rating: NNN

Your enjoyment of U2’s second decade depends largely on your tolerance for irony. These were the years when U2 abandoned their earnest roots, embraced being leather-pants-wearing rock stars and finally went back again, minus the feathered hair. Embarrassing missteps toward clubland are amply documented with remixes and Discotheque, as is the unfortunate decision to let the Edge sing, while the two new tracks here, Electrical Storm and The Hands That Built America, sound like the outtakes they are. Little thought appears to have gone into sequencing or putting the set together inventively most of the energy was seemingly spent on the set’s bonus DVD featuring videos, commentary, extra tracks and a mini-documentary.MG

Vampire Beach Babes Attack Of The Killer Bikinis (Reclamation) Rating: NNNN

In these giddy days of musical mix-and-match, new genrenauts are trying out ever more exotic sonic cocktails. Take Toronto’s own gang of undead, the Vampire Beach Babes, who’ve been riding the retro trash wave as a gothic surf band. Combining the best aspects of retro horror kitsch with a dark undercurrent of goth, the babes draw on the self-parodying humour used to such advantage by the Cramps and make it their own. Shemale Murphyesque vocals give heft to pleasant-ly inane and sinister tunes like Hawaii Shirt From Hell and (Surfing Swamp Monster From The Planet) Zon (cue gong splash). Imagine Sisters of Mercy collaborating with Link Wray and Martin Denny. Now get yourself a margarita and shake that money-maker.EB

VARISTOR 07.28.02 (Hey Frankie) Rating: NNN Varistor are a duo from Queens who gave up on bass players a few years back and instead strapped a bass string on guitarist Patrick Walsh’s guitar. This might seem like an odd solution, but it works fairly well for their Replacements-esque stripped-down rock. Nothing terribly revolutionary about this disc, but the songwriting is strong and the musicianship solid. What more do you really need from a ragged, back-to-basics punk-pop band? Amidst all the hype about revivalist rock and roll bands over the past couple of years, the lack of gimmicks here is refreshing.BB

THE VELVET CRUSH Melody Freaks (Action Musik/Parasol) Rating: NNNN

Soft Sounds (Action Musik/Parasol) Rating: NNN

Veering even further from their power pop origins, the Velvet Crush take the “quiet is the new loud” concept to whispering extremes on their new Soft Sounds CD, which is the most placid music they could produce without having their disc filed in the New Age section. Sweet and gentle, yes, but dead boring. On the other hand, the Melody Freaks compilation of alternate takes and demos is an exhilarating reminder of past glories, evoking the inspiration of Big Star, Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. The spirited Hold Me Up still sounds like a million-seller.TP

THE VERMICIOUS KNID Days That Stand Still (Anti-Antenna) Rating: NNN

The tunes on this debut EP by Brantford quartet the Vermicious Knid (it’s a reference to the squishy, greyish leech-beings in Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator) dislodge themselves from somewhere in the collective emo-indie rock consciousness, conjuring up early-90s images of J. Mascis and thrift-store cardigans. That’s not a bad thing: the Knid know emo and they do it well, keeping the whining to a minimum and emphasizing the dialectic interplay between soft and loud, sweet boy harmonies and anguished screams. Like a less morose Modest Mouse, the Knid are post-emo boys with a knack for catchy hooks.SL

Viva Death (Vagrant) Rating: NNN

Riding the ever waxing, waning and resurging tide of mortuary chic, Viva Death, featuring members of Face to Face and a Foo Fighter, have created a dark mesh of rock, metal and goth with just three baritone guitars and drums. The bluesy Rigor Mortis Shake recalls the Damned while the catchy rhythms of Murder By Proxy make it a dead ringer for Bela Lugosi’s Dead but there’s nothing terribly brilliant here. This is one of those records you might want to burn the good tracks off of so you don’t have to keep getting up and pressing skip.EB

Paul Weller Illumination (Independiente) Rating: NNNN

It’s rare to catch Paul Weller in a good mood, which is what makes Illumination such a welcome surprise. Up for it and apparently in love, the Modfather makes a sudden pop turn, strumming cheerily through a handful of soul- and blues-inflected power pop and folk tunes, including a horn- and sample-driven It’s Written In The Stars that’s shockingly modern and the best of the bunch. There’s nothing particularly forced here, and nothing that different from the soul pop Weller’s been making for years. What sets Illumination apart from his spotty past few records is his upbeat mood, which translates into a looser, warmer vibe throughout. A songwriter growing old gracefully.MG

DENISON WITMER Philadelphia Songs (Burnt Toast Vinyl) Rating: NNN

Philadelphia Songs is a fragile collection of bittersweet love songs that flow in a graceful narrative arc. It’s not what you think: in this case, Elliott Smith-in-waiting Denison Witmer lost his bashful-boy heart to a city. Sure, unnamed girls float in and out of these hushed ballads, but Witmer’s stories evoke cityscapes seen through raindrop-spattered windows. His voice is pleasant, if a bit flat and nasal at times, and the tunes are lovely. But more variety, please — standout Stations, which breaks away from the Damien Jurado boy-with-guitar formula, is a haunting Red House Painters-ish number that hints at Witmer’s unrealized potential. SL

YOHIMBE BROTHERS Front End Lifter (Rykodisc) Rating: NNN The Yohimbe Brothers are Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and Medeski, Martin and Wood’s unofficial fourth member, DJ Logic. With this project they aim to redefine rock-rap and reclaim the term from jock-metal bands like Korn. You need a taste for eclecticism to get into this album — it veers from punky rock and roll to psychedelic funk to dubby roots reggae to spastic drum ‘n’ bass-inspired beats. All the ex-Living Colour members make appearances here, as do Prince Paul and Slick Rick, among others. At heart, this is a funk project in the vein of Parliament during their more rock moments, but fused with contemporary touches of IDM-style mangled samples and electronic drums.BB

YO LA TENGO Nuclear War EP (Matador) Rating: NN

As a rule, rock bands dabbling in free jazz should be outlawed. But what saves Yo La Tengo’s peculiar stab at Sun Ra’s Cold War funk jam Nuclear War is their sense of humour. Ra’s meditation on the apocalypse, with its classic “It’s a motherfucker” refrain, isn’t particularly serious to begin with. In the four different versions here, the trio play it relatively straight the first time out, then bring in a kids’ choir, then an all-star jazz band including Susie Ibarra and Daniel Carter and finally turn it over to Mike Ladd to remix. Hardly worth spreading over 37 minutes.MG

Warren Zevon Genius: The Best Of Warren Zevon (Rhino) Rating: NNNNN

Soulful and prolific Warren Zevon never quite made it into the hearts and minds of the majority, mainly because he was a drunken fuck-up. But he laughed. He’s laughed in his dry, satirical manner for over 30 years. Now fighting lung cancer at the age of 55, Zevon begins his best-of collection with Poor Poor Pitiful Me, yet another choking chuckle that leads into 22 honest folk-rock-country tracks full of wry humour. Complete with a skull wearing sunglasses as the cover artwork, Genius showcases all the years of Zevon’s work right up to the Hindu Love Gods and God. He’s always been one of those artists who has to say very little to say a lot. These are songs that deserve to live on.EB

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