Belle and Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
(Rough Trade)

Produced by Trevor Horn, the Glaswegian group’s new effort, their first for the revived classic-punk British label Rough Trade, is less quirky and analog-retro than previous affairs. But if the production sounds more space age, the songs remain the same: Beatlesesque pop-rock hooks that cling in your head and startling arrangements that this time include echoes of everything from some rare Steely Dan b-side to a bunch of Philly Soul sessions to Belle and Sebastian’s patented Zombies-like baroque orchestral-rock symphonies. Plus, lyrics that summon into being a whole wry, bohemian world of sardonic hipsters and cool geeks. “I want to give you the job,” a female boss tells the singer of “Step Into My Office, Baby,” in a playful tale of workplace sexual harassment. “A chance of overtime/ Say, my place at nine?” Or the instant-cult-classic sea chantey ballad of a Scottish traveler in America called, of all things, “Piazza, New York Catcher”: “San Francisco’s calling us, the Giants and Mets will play/ Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?” Or the wizened music fan’s dream of his ex-girlfriend in “I’m A Cuckoo”: “You were wearing funny shoes/ You were going to a dance/ You were dressed like a punk but you are too young to remember.” This followed by the singer’s coy reflection on the end of their relationship: “Breaking off is misery/ I see a wilderness for you and me / Punctuated by philosophy.”

The Shins
Chutes Too Narrow
(Sub Pop)

The Shins’ music quietly creeps into your consciousness on strummed acoustic guitars and James Mercer’s subliminal lyrics, then lodges itself there for good. The band–which started out in Albuquerque, and is now based in Portland, Oregon–has similarly crept onto the national scene through licensing tunes to commercials, model-girlfriends wearing their t-shirts, and most of all, through catchy, haunting songs such as 2001’s “New Slang,” with its sad, spooky, hummed falsetto melody. Chutes Too Narrow faces the dangers of any follow-up record: will it be as good as the fabulous Oh, Inverted World, but will it also be new and surprising, not just a retread? Fortunately, the new album is stuffed with goodness: folksy anthems from the gut, such as “Young Pilgrims” (“This rather simple epitaph can save your hide, your falling mind/ Fate isn’t what we’re up against/ There’s no design, no flaws to find”), and rockers that pulsate with intellect, such as “So Says I” (“We’ve got rules and maps and guns in our backs/ But we still can’t just behave ourselves/ Even if to save our own lives”). The secret weapon for the Shins is the interplay between Mercer’s voice, a high warble that can leap all over the register, and his guitar, which responds with little licks and hooks that catch and hold you and reel you in.

The Love Below/Speakerboxxx

A double album of love and hate, assembled like the famous fist rings of Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing. Andre3000 brings the freaknik funk; Big Boi brings the playa cool. Affirmation and negation, heating it up and keeping it ice cold, love and hate, all mixed up until the respect and the suspect are intermingled beyond separation. The two discs are a sprawling affair, but the hit single alone is worth the double-CD price tag. Heard one way, Andre’s “Hey Ya!” is the sound of hip-hop gone Casio-keyboard indie-rock. Heard another, it’s a three-feet-high-and-rising summer vacation rump-shake bash for the fall. Plus, 3000 gets credit for one of the best come-on lines heard in a long time: “Alright ladies…Now I wanna see y’all on your baddest behavior/ Lend me some sugar!/ I am your neighbor, aaaah!”

Basement Jaxx
Kish Kash

Tell me, tell me, is life just a playground?” Lisa Kekaula sings to open duo Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe’s latest assemblage of dance music pleasures. She joins Siouxsie Sioux, Totlyn Jackson, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, and others for the guest vocal appearances. But it’s the driving, snare-snap digital beats and swelling strings that spin you right ’round, baby, right ’round. Until the doubts start creeping down from your soul to your extremities: Is this disco as bodily liberation or as a soundtrack to shop at The Gap? Maybe that’s a false dichotomy in this playground. Maybe it’s the essential choice as you groove around the ring-around-a-rosy circle to sensual delights. Hard to know for sure where you end up. Maybe right back at the beginning. “Round and round we go,” Disco Rascal raps on the song “Lucky Star.”

Civil War

A rootsy disc that reaches back into America’s past. Odd that it would do so as a techno-chic splatter of digitally manipulated blips and bleeps. But it works. M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, the San Francisco duo that comprises Matmos, made a previous album, A Chance to Cut Is A Chance to Cure, that only utilized sucking-sound samples from plastic surgery operations to make music. On their new disc they go historical, dissecting and reassembling folksy music harkening to the Civil War into a minimalist soundtrack of ethereal ooze: time and memory run through an electronic blender. Sometimes their CD positions a listener on a virtual Gettysburg computerscape of the future, where there’s a Civil War battle reenactment being staged, except everyone’s fighting through green night-vision goggles and with lasers instead of cannons. You can hear Tron’s rebel yell. Other times, Matmos seemingly references a present-day parable of civil war: the current struggle between the “red” and “blue” states, between conservatives and liberals, Bushies and Deanies, O’Reillys and Frankens. The best (or is it most depressing?) part is that Matmos’s remixed code of bits and bytes, their digital babble of military bands, acoustic guitars, bagpipes, cicadas on the hillside, and Fourth of July fireworks somehow seems like a clearer public discourse–more truthful, more honest, more emotionally valid, more patriotic–than anything actually said by politicians or media mavens these days.


A fter a five year hiatus, the mad-scientist minimalist techno-DJ Richie Hawtin returns to his alter-ego, Plastikman, to make a hypnotic album of dark swashes of synthesized gurgling. Let me try to give a sample of what it sounds like: blaaat, squish, squoosh, swiiiish, shhhhh, click, click, click, click, swaashh, blooop, blip, blip, bleeeep! This time our Plastikman speaks on disc, too, albeit in sonically altered form: “I hear everything,” our ominous superhero mutters in a distorted baritone, “Those aren’t voices in your head.” Yikes!! The digital textures flood into your headphones like some spirit possession ceremony among the primitives in Marshall McLuhan’s global village. You start to get lost in the circular matrix of their soothing flow. Then they grow louder, almost unbearably full of pressure. You want to turn your CD player off. You also want to giggle. But you’re not sure what the right thing is to do. Plus the wrong move might get you zapped into tidbits. Get close to “Closer”: the ether is alive with the sound of music. We log in and listen as medicine man Hawtin casts spells, rustles up mysteries, readies the laser guns in his Pro Tools-box of secrets.

Erase Errata
At Crystal Palace
(Troubleman Unlimited)

Lots of Gang of Four-like mock-alienation guitar clatter and deadpan vocals, but the passion and engagement–musically, politically, sensually, and otherwise–of this Bay Area quartet glows through, making the post-punk clatter kind of tuneful, actually. There’s a sweetness, a goodness, a soulfulness in the purring high-hat rustle of Biana Sparta’s drum playing, the rushed, urgent bass lines of Ellie Erickson, and the robot-funk guitar slashings of Sara Jaffe. “I am a bird of prey,” lead vocalist Jenny Holyston insists on “Owls,” but the best lyric is the semi-ironic “If I’m good, if I’m really really good” that the group chants at the end of the aptly titled “Let’s Be Active c/o Club Hott.” They are good, defiantly affirming hope and community in their effort to erase the world’s errata.

Jason Moran
The Bandwagon
(Blue Note)

This album by jazz pianist Jason Moran buzzes like a bee. Moran is a young up-and-comer on the jazz scene but also a heavyweight intellectual whose improvisations are crystalline treatises, honeycomb labyrinths that not only explore jazz itself, but the music’s connections to other arts, and to everyday life. Recorded live in the hallowed basement jazz shrine the Village Vanguard, where appearances tend to signify the full arrival of a new jazz master on the scene, Bandwagon features Moran, acoustic-electric bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits twisting and turning around their tunes at breakneck speed. Of special interest is their interpretation of Afrika Bambaataa’s hip-hop classic “Planet Rock,” which they manage to make both insanely grooving and deconstructively analytic. Overall, they flitter and fly, pausing to pollinate the flowers here; diving, darting, and stinging there. On the most daring song, “Ringing My Phone,” Moran plays along on piano with the patter of a recorded Turkish voice. At first, the voice leads the way, capturing the listener’s attention even if most of us cannot understand the words. But as Moran races along, catching the voice’s sudden pitch modulations, jaunty rhythms, and uneven cadences, his piano gradually seizes center stage, until the music starts to go places language only dreams of.

David S. Ware
String Ensemble, Threads
(Blue Series/Thirsty Ear)

Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware places his wailing sax in a noir-like setting of strings and ethereal synth sounds. As desolate as a deserted industrial neighborhood of warehouses on songs such as “Ananda Rotation,” with only Ware’s howl to keep you company. Insistent explorations, loose and wily, on “Weave I” and “Weave II.” Mournful, stirring blocks of strings moving in tandem like panoramic masses of storm clouds across blue skies on “Threads.” And always Ware’s huge sax sound, grounding and stabilizing even when it soars into high-pitched squawks. It’s like a flame extending from an open hearth: it can burn hot, but it also feeds.

Sounds of the Northeastern Freeform DJ

Those wacky freeform DJ’s from Jersey City’s WFMU radio station have become masters of what might be called the “avant-gag,” available 24-hours-a-day not only in the New York area, but on the internet at With this release, they have assembled a little box-set sampling of short DJ rants, spliced absurdist tape dubs, a bit of musique concrete, cheesy synthesizer drum-beat masterpieces, and other ephemera. Supposedly put out by the faux-label “Smith & Wessonian Folkways,” it’s a collection that would make Moe Asch proud! Gently parodying his Folkways Records releases, such as Sounds of North American Tree Frogs, the three 33 1/3 mini-phonograph records and extensive liner notes explore, “The Biological Significance of Those Voices in Your Head, Conceived, Narrated and Documented, with Field Recordings by WFMU, with the cooperation of Our Listeners.” It’s funny stuff, and ethnographically authentico!

Pretty Girls Make Graves, The New Romance (Matador): The new New Pornographers? Tim Berne, The Sublime And/ Sciencefrictionlive (Thirsty Ear): Double CD of adventurous live free-jazz improv. Beth Gibbons & Rustin Mann, Out of Season (Sanctuary): That haunting Portishead voice, as raw as always, but set in a softer sonic palette of strings and harpsichords. Reverend Charlie Jackson, God’s Got It (CaseQuarter/Aum Fidelity): Raw, direct, and utterly moving gospel singles from a Mississippi/Louisiana electric guitar player and preacher raising spirits in the studio and in the pulpit. Never before on CD. Grandpaboy, Dead Man Shake (Fat Possum/Epitaph): Paul Westerberg, under cover of pseudonym, makes an album of 12-bar blues shuffles–the stuff that always served as the architecture for the most brilliant Replacements rumbles. You can also get Paul Westerberg, Come Feel Me Tremble (Vagrant) if you’re feeling especially Westerbergian.

LOST IN THE MIX (Older releases making a comeback on the CD player):
Janet Bean and the Concertina Wire, Dragging Wonder Lake (Thrill Jockey): Joni Mitchell-esque concept album that is delightfully quirky, at once country gospel and jazzy 70s folk-rock. Think Cat Power gone Earth Mother. Michael Yonkers Band, Microminiature Love (Subpop): Supposedly a rescued avant-rocker’s Captain Beefheartian release from 1969. But how could it be? Sounds like what Subpop and Matador type bands have been releasing on the punky low fidelity end of things since circa 1990. Is this a gag? No, just a message from the time-machine basement workshop of the avant-soul.