The Sounds, Dying To Say This To You (New Line Records)

The Sounds - Dying To Say This To You The Sounds
Dying To Say This To You
New Line Records
By: Eric Greenwood

The Hives are to The Rolling Stones as The Sounds are to Blondie- not exactly replicas, but the level of influence is perfectly obvious in less substantive ways. The Sounds dress themselves like new wave punks, too, which means calculatedly tough yet self-consciously fashionable. It might not be today's fashion, but, hey, they're from Sweden. Trends might travel a little more slowly over there.

The Sounds' make no bones about their retro-tinged pop. They're not trying to pass this off as original, and it's not by any means. But it is clearly catchy as hell, if almost annoyingly so. Dying to Say This to You kicks off with one of the finest singles of the year so far, "Song with a Mission." It's a feisty, retro-rocker with pummeling bass and jerky, panicky guitars, but what makes it is lead singer Maja Ivarsson's impudent delivery. It's totally affected, but in all the right ways, stretching out her syllables with exaggerated punk charm. It's a rare indie anthem that makes you want to jump around and fist-pump along to its brazen, arrogant fury: "without me you're nothing at all."

No other song on the album even hints at that level of tension or power. There are still plenty of hooks, but they sound so packaged and formulaic that it's often difficult to stomach it all, even with the album's short 35 minute running time. Ivarsson's scratchy yet punchy voice saves most songs from sugar pop overload, but her lyrics often fail to carry their weight. Example chorus: "Hey, hey, hey, hey/that's what I say." Suffice it to say The Sounds have next to nothing to say. They just want to look and sound good saying it.

Stereolab, Fab Four Suture (Too Pure)

Stereolab - Fab Four Suture Stereolab
Fab Four Suture
Too Pure
By: Eric Greenwood

Every time Stereolab releases an album, the same arguments and justifications are bandied about, all of which revolve around the complaint that each new Stereolab album sounds exactly like the last one. It's an ignorant assertion, but it's easy to understand why it's become an issue over the years. Evolving out of an obsession with kraut-rock, repetitive instrumental breaks, monotone vocals, and, of course, the moog, Stereolab has absorbed all of its varied influences into an insular world, where nuance reigns over big ideas.

As much as the band's sound, compositional skill, complexity of arrangement, and layered vocal harmonies have grown over the years, Stereolab still sounds like, well, Stereolab. Critics of the band could conceivably have a hard time distinguishing what makes one Stereolab album better or worse than another, but it's the discerning listener that reaps the rewards. To my ear, Stereolab has never released a bad album. Sure, I like the undercurrent of '60's pop inflected stylings on Dots and Loops better than, say, the multi-layered skronking jazz bursts of Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, but there's never been a Stereolab record that I felt lowered the bar set by the experimental brilliance of 1993's Transient Random Noisebursts with Announcements.

Being as outrageously prolific as Stereolab has been in its 14-year existence has lent further credence to the naysayers, who dismiss the band's syncopated, euro-lounge as repetitive and dull. I argue just the opposite. No other band has had the power to transport its listener to another world as effortlessly and consistently as Stereolab has and does. Fab Four Suture is no exception in the band's unerring mission, despite its semi-album status (it's technically a collection of recent 7-inch singles). It is a little more scattered than the last few proper Stereolab albums in terms of musical threads, but the urbane electro-funk of "Interlock" as well as the jittery disco pomp of "Eye of the Volcano" prove that Stereolab is still tweaking the formula with one foot in Esquivel's grave and the other several light years away.

David Gilmour, On An Island (Sony)

David Gilmour - On An Island David Gilmour
On An Island
Sony
By: Eric Greenwood

Following the reverently elegiac reunion of Pink Floyd with Roger Waters at last summer's Live 8 benefit, (which incidentally sparked an increase in Pink Floyd's album sales by 3000%!), guitarist David Gilmour has released his third solo record, On an Island. It's been 22 years since Gilmour's last solo outing, during which time Pink Floyd has released two less than mediocre studio albums, most likely due to the absence of bassist and lyricist Roger Waters (and the fact that the band has to hire extra songwriters to eek out the tunes). Those albums automatically have asterisks beside them in the Pink Floyd cannon because of Gilmour's stubborn and egomaniacal decision to resurrect the Pink Floyd brand name without its unmistakable leader.

Granted, Gilmour's contribution to Pink Floyd is unquestioned and irreplaceable, as his voice and transcendental guitar playing shaped the color of so many classic Pink Floyd albums. However, it was Roger Waters behind the curtain pulling practically every string after the departure of Syd Barrett, whom Gilmour replaced after Barrett's mental breakdown in the late 1960's. The Waters/Gilmour feud, sparked by a struggle for power, which culminated in Waters' colossal masterwork, The Wall, is one of the longest-running and bitterest in all of rock history. For the two of them to have shared a stage last summer at Hyde Park was inconceivable for decades. But despite the charitable contribution and unified façade, Pink Floyd has no immediate or future plans, much to the chagrin of stoners everywhere.

So now with some closure to the Pink Floyd saga, Gilmour is able to concentrate on his sporadic solo work. On an Island was co-written with Gilmour's wife, Polly Samson, who also shared much of the writing credits on Pink Floyd's lackluster Division Bell in 1994. Together they weave a thick sonic gauze. Melodies are slow to ripen, as Gilmour's distinct, bluesy note-bending lords over the soft atmosphere. The album is moody but hopeful yet sorely lacking any sort of edge or dark trigger. Gilmour and Samson have little to say lyrically, cashing in on trite rhymes and soulless ambiguities more often than not.

In small doses casual, uninformed listeners could mistake this for vintage Pink Floyd, but it lacks the tension of Pink Floyd's passive aggressive rumble. Despite a few cringe-worthy passages of borderline new-age nonsense, Gilmour succeeds in protecting the shell of his mystique as he enters the twilight of his musical career.

Voxtrot, Raised By Wolves (Cult Hero Records)

Voxtrot - Raised By Wolves Voxtrot
Raised By Wolves
Cult Hero Records
By: Michael Jones

You can certainly add Voxtrot to that ever-growing list of intriguing Texas bands. This quintet from Austin defies easy categorization. Its press release throws about all sorts of comparisons, and most of them seem fair enough: Gang of Four, The Smiths, early R.E.M., and Belle and Sebastian. It's easy to read these comparisons into the band's sound, but you'd be hard-pressed to accuse it of ripping any of them off directly. And therein lies the beauty of Voxtrot- it knows the difference between being influenced by a band and outright mimicry. Listening to the Voxtrot's new EP becomes less a game of "Name That Influence" and more an experience of hearing a unique band for the first time.

The title track opens the EP with a brilliant sequencing move, as its epic stature perfectly encapsulates Voxtrot's sound with its perky down-stroked guitar jabs, bouncy bass line, dynamic drumming, and Ramesh Srivastava's instantaneously catchy vocals, which have that Morrissey-esque ability to maintain their melodic flow over long, wordy passages. Such versatility enables him to work more of his clever lyrics into the songs without compromising the verse/chorus dynamic.

"The Start of Something" will likely garner immediate comparisons to The Strokes, what with its tersely strummed guitars and muffled vocals but with spirited playfulness substituted for calculated detachment. The song is an anachronism, as it could have been written at any time in the last five decades, seamlessly incorporating into the mix a surf guitar solo and a gorgeous cello breakdown. The vocal line of "Missing Pieces" is so upbeat and catchy you'll find yourself trying to sing along before you've had the chance to memorize any of the lyrics. The propulsive lockstep of the rhythm section and jittery guitars may recall Joy Division's ubiquitous presence in modern rock, but that current common denominator doesn't detract from the song's powerful presence.

Providing a much-needed respite after the hectic pace thus far is "Long Haul," a future mix-tape staple, which could almost guarantee an easy lay. It masterfully showcases the band's arranging skills, solid performances, and Srivastava's beautifully written and sung vocals. "Wrecking Force" closes this EP a shade darker and denser and with just as many hooks, but it shrouds them in an appropriately claustrophobic mix. And, as the final act of the EP, it sets the stage for further ventures into murky waters.

Elvis Costello Live With The Metropole Orkest, My Flame Burns Blue (Deutsche Grammophon)

Elvis Costello Live With The Metropole Orkest - My Flame Burns Blue Elvis Costello Live With The Metropole Orkest
My Flame Burns Blue
Deutsche Grammophon
By: Eric Greenwood

In nearly thirty years of making records, Elvis Costello has never released a proper live album. Fanatics know that Live at El Mocambo doesn't count because it was only released as a promotional item back in 1978 (and then again in 1993 as part of the Rykodisc box set, 2 ½ Years). So, for his first celebrated, official live album does Costello storm through the predictable hits with his Imposters in tow? Of course not.

To start with, My Flame Burns Blue is released through Deutsche Grammophon, which is known for its classical releases, but before you stop reading at the thought of another dilettantish, self-serving, musical whimsy by Costello, just know that it's astonishingly good. Yes, Costello dons his frighteningly inconsistent artistic hat here (remember The Juliet Letters?), backing himself with a 52-piece orchestra from the Netherlands, plucking obscurities from his back catalogue, and reinventing classics by other composers, but he marries the pomp with his typically egomaniacal persona in a tensely personal rendering of each moody piece.

For the opener, Costello tackles Charles Mingus' "Hora Decubitus", adding vocals with lyrics penned by Mingus' widow, Sue. That's a pretty risky step to take, but the man who once called Ray Charles a blind n-word (albeit in a drunken rant) isn't exactly shy. The hubris pays off, as Costello bellows his way through jazzy re-workings of classics like "Clubland", "Almost Blue", and even "Watching the Detectives." Latter period Costello, like the Burt Bacharach collaboration "God Give Me Strength", benefits from the added grandeur of the Metropole Orkest's filmic strings.

The artwork mimics the famed poster for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, cementing its place in calculated retro-coolness. The slick, brassy horns that syncopate with Costello's brash vocal stylings sound surprisingly seamless. The cinematic sweep of "Favorite Hour" languishes in epic ostentation, but Costello's voice cuts the ice-cold strings with less trilling than usual and certainly more sentimentality but not without a twist. "Speak Darkly My Angel" is serenely majestic in Costello's epiphany as the song climaxes: "I look so good in black."

The jazzy sway suites Costello's powerful pipes, especially when he's in pining mode. And everyone knows that Costello is at his best when he's either pissed off or yearning.