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Kranky Music for Cranky People 

Not long ago, I thought I was just writing about weird records no one cares about. Now that I know CSPD Intelligence is keeping notes on those who "collect esoteric music," jeez, it has an element of danger to it. Last week, I even transported a copy of John Coltrane's Ascension LP across state lines! Yesterday a geek, today a dangerous subversive.

Chicago's Kranky label has been a fount of post-rock drift for eight years or so now, some of it quite good, some of it quite bad. They just coughed out five new releases in two weeks, and the music is all over the map. Well, all over the overeducated urban hipster map, anyway.

Model 91
Christmas Decorations
Kranky

They're calling themselves "ambient punk," but I find their music a bit gutless and eggheaded to be punk -- maybe they have leather jackets or something. The ambient bits are nice enough, with crude electronics tastefully burbling over slow bass lines. The second part of the album -- I'm guessing it'd be Side Two if you got the LP -- is what grabs me, 'cause they start singing and the combination of their stripped-down pop and zero-affect baritone vocals reminds me of ridiculously obscure Brit DIY bands of the late '70s, as documented on the Messthetics CD-R compilations, but without your having to sit through any horrid New Wave. Other listeners have hated the subCalvin Johnson vocals, so buyer beware.

Playthroughs
Keith Fullerton Whitman
Kranky

Mr. Whitman may be most "famous" as experimental techno guy Hrvatski, but this time out he's tackling the Great Experimental Guitar Record, kinda like the Great American Novel but open to foreigners and theoretically achievable in less than an hour. Whitman namedrops a lot of process-based composers, but the results are less academic sounding than the French guys and less aggressively weird than the '60s American minimalists. Laptops are seen but not heard, like a good dog. Whitman builds rich, shimmering guitar textures worthy of a long, slow backstroke, and varies his sound enough to keep your eyes from glazing over.

S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D.
Out Hud
Kranky

Um, funny song titles. Indie rock goes through phases where the tastemakers remind everyone that disco is OK, and here we go again -- bloodless instrumental disco -- oh, excuse me, "art funk" -- capturing the hearts and minds of Kinko's employees across the land. If you're pining for the golden era when Tortoise really mattered, your ship has come in.

Style Drift
Fontanelle
Kranky

Fontanelle's stab at art funk works a lot better on both the art and funk levels than Out Hud's, with great drumming anchoring the jazz-fusion-lovin' whole. As proper 21st-century artsy muso types, they're sucking their sound through a laptop for some technoid monkeying, but it's never obtrusive. The keyboardist's choices leave something to be desired, lots of very synthy synthing marring their otherwise agreeable sound, and my fear of a Casio Planet gives me mixed feelings about Style Drift.

Jessica Bailiff
Jessica Bailiff
Kranky

Hey, I forgot to include Bailiff in my list of 100 Female Musicians Better Than the Indigo Girls! 101. Bailiff's blessed with a fine set of pipes, and backs up her whispery vox with fine, if unspectacular, acoustic guitar. It's all minor-key mope, not quite a window into her inner torment but the closest sonic approximation of melancholia made outside New Zealand, and subtly adorned with a battery of noisemakers by Noel Keesee and Jesse Edwards. The only poor choice on the whole record is the use of the violin-uke on "Hour of the Traces," as it sounds like the worst of both the violin and the ukulele. If you could do with a few more Nico-Cale albums than actually exist, Bailiff might help you through a snowy day or two.

-- Chris Selvig

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