Genius in a Jewel Case 

Recommendations from a young contrarian

While the music industry is slobbering all over the commercially crafted revival of nostalgia rock la The Strokes, White Stripes, etc., a steady stream of far greater music has slipped quietly beneath the radar of a media obviously desperate for a new target market. Some commercial, some not. These are they:

Concubine Rice
Lone Pigeon

Domino Recording Co.

With the same deceptively naive lyric writing style and willowy voice of Harry Nillson and a dreamy vaudevillian musicianship that at times teleports you to the far, dark corners of an unsettling inner space, Lone Pigeon has brought forth a masterpiece. Low on production, but high on sparkle and good ol' feeling, Lone Pigeon (aka Gordon Anderson, a founding member of the Beta Band) has struck a vein of solid gold. Ugh! Heartbreakingly beautiful. Lone Pigeon joins fellow Scotsmen Arab Strap and Belle & Sebastian in my pantheon of freak pop.

Rating: 5 diamonds

Kissin Time
Marianne Faithfull

Virgin Records

Known most unfortunately as Mick Jagger's former girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull has just released an album at least as great as Nico's Chelsea Girl, and better by a few light-years than any of the Rolling Stones' efforts in the past 20 years.

From the first beats of the Beck-produced, electro-funk opening track "Sex with Strangers," this album seduces with its wit, insight, cameos and, of course, Faithfull's sandpaper-siren voice.

With appearances and collaborations by Beck, former Pumpkin-man Billy Corgan, the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart and Pulp, it's hard to imagine how this record could go wrong. And it doesn't.

With Beck plucking out an acoustic tip-of-the-hat to Leonard Cohen, Faithfull sinks the dagger into the heart of her memories, retrieving a tale of parenthood as universal as they come on "Like Being Born."

On "Sliding Through Life on Charm," the track produced by Pulp with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker, and "Song for Nico" (with Dave Stewart) Faithfull lets loose with the brass of a bad Madame. Lines like "She's in the shit/ Though she's innocent/ Yesterday is gone/ There's just today -- No tomorrow" let you know definitively that Marianne's still got her cred in check.

This one has my vote for album of the year.

Rating: 5 diamonds

Crashing Through
Beat Happening

K Records

While it may seem a bit pricey at first glance (about $65), this box set from Olympia, Washington's Beat Happening is an invaluable guide to the band who put the apple pie back in D.I.Y. punk during the '80s and early '90s.

Refusing to be hampered by their near inability to play musical instruments or sing in any formal sense, Beat Happening paved the road for lo-fi geniuses and girl punk bands like Half Japanese, Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Built to Spill, Beck (on his early albums, one of which, One Foot in the Grave, was also on K Records), and, more recently, The Moldy Peaches.

What was truly incredible about Beat Happening was their ability to make the catchiest, stripped-down songs like "Bad Seeds," "Foggy Eyes," "I Spy," "Bewitched" and "Jamboree" while band member Calvin Johnson also created and ran K Records -- the label that became instrumental in forming the Northwest music scene that spawned Nirvana.

Constantly taking turns singing and playing different instruments, Heather Lewis, Bret Lunsford and Calvin Johnson redefined punk for sensitive kids tired of the exclusivity, posturing and aggression of the punk scenes so prevalent at the time.

If you've ever wanted to start a band but thought you couldn't because you suck, think again and pick up this box set that includes their eponymous debut, Jamboree, Black Candy, You Turn Me On, Music to Climb the Apple Tree By, a disc with four videos, and a fat little book of pictures and interviews.

Rating: 5 diamonds

Now You Know
Doub Martsch

Warner Bros.

Somehow, someway, Doug Martsch (Built to Spill's frontman with the lovely whine who also used to be on K Records) has found a way to make the blues sound new. Inspired by country blues slide legend Fred McDowell's The First Recordings, Martsch dared to go where all-too-many white men have gone before. The result, much to my bemusement, is so astonishingly great that a friend of mine who absolutely despises the blues actually ran out and bought it. With Martsch's creepy voice screeching over the all-too-complementary slinking sounds of the slide with plenty-poetic lyrics ("I hung around like another pronoun/ familiar but lacking a name") from the vault of his indie imagination, this album will take you back to the kind of original folkster sounds only to be found on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. This is Martsch's first solo effort, and his greatest work to date.

Rating: 5 diamonds

Musique Automatique
Stereo Total

Kill Rock Stars

Cabaret electro punk? Serge Gainsbourg, Mark Mothersbaugh and Nina Haagen have a three-way avatar thing in Kraftwerk's chat room? Whatever. Stereo Total, based out of Berlin, is one of the greatest international underground kook pop acts ever. Lucky for you, Kill Rock Stars just reissued Musique Automatique (originally released by Bobsled Records) in support of their upcoming U.S. tour.

Singing in French, German and English, Brezel Gring and Franoise Cactus will take your pants off.

Rating: 5 diamonds

Short Careers: Original Score for the Film Ball of Wax
Marianne Faithfull
Virgin Records

Purely instrumental and improbably gorgeous throughout, this score to the as-yet-unreleased film Ball of Wax from former Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann defies all expectations and genres.

Using cellos, violins, guitars, pianos, samples and loops, this album's timeless composite temporality and haunting post-millennial introspection rings true at every note and could just as well be the soundtrack to our collective cultural thoughts in this spooky new culture of invisible war.

Rating: 5 diamonds

The ratings are on a scale of one to five diamonds.



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