The Essential Radio Birdman (1974-1978)
(Sub Pop)

It's sayin' a LOT... but Radio Birdman may arguably be the BEST fucking punk ROCK band... ever. Seriously. The members of RB took the "coolest" from alla them now considered punk's "godfathers," and combined them bits perfectly, while STILL retaining an HONEST fucking "band" identity! How many other bands, from ANY time, could testify to THAT?? And they made it sound like it came easy. DAMN... they have the most varied and clever songs, the writing is as sinister and angry as it's FUN ("Steve and Danno"... C'MON!!), and the arrangements, the unified LAYERED playing of the band, is flat-out stunning... you get all the sounds as they add up, which is always more than just "punk noise," not that THAT don't have a place. Anyhoo... have I gushed enough? There you go... this is grade "A" reissue action... the track-listing, sound, and packaging are flawless... nice! MIKE NIPPER

Long Distance
(Nettwerk America)

New York trio Ivy has impeccable taste and has displayed a discerning ear for how to add texture and depth to each of its successive three albums, without overwhelming the delicate balance in the music. On the band's latest album, Long Distance, French-born singer Dominique Durrand is again the focus of the songs, with her sophisticated deadpan that recalls Belgian chanteuse Anna Domino with lazier pitch. But that pitch and the other small imperfections are what make Ivy so charming--the fingerprints in the clay that make the bittersweet pop all the more touching and real. Adam Schlesinger's elegantly textured guitar-playing and Andy Chase's pillowy and lush keyboards are more accomplished than on 1997's Apartment Life, adding gathering clouds and undertow around the corners of the compositions. The punchy melodies and fuzzed-out ambience are strong throughout, hinting at Everything but the Girl and Saint Etienne. Durrand's enigmatic approach pulls the listener in, closing with understated glory on the Blow Monkeys cover "Digging Your Scene," as she sings, "I'm like a boy among men." NATE LIPPENS

Fan Dance
(Nonesuch Records)

"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be," Sam Phillips deadpans with wry dread on "Taking Pictures." The exquisitely crafted pop jangle that Phillips explored on her quintet of Virgin records pitted her purring Cheshire cat alto against perfectionist soundscapes, sculpted by her producer-husband T-Bone Burnett. They were great confectionary songs with counter-cutting lyrics that questioned materialism, belief, and pop culture. Phillips used the culture's tools to tear down its house, or at least slyly undermine it to reveal its fault lines. By Omnipop, both the lyrics and the music had grown insular and self-satisfied. Her latest, Fan Dance, finds her loosening up her sound and leaning toward spare acoustic chamber pop. Featuring Tom Waits' sideman Marc Ribot playing guitar and banjo, Burnett on guitar, Gillian Welch on background vocals (on "Love Is Everywhere I Go"), and Van Dyke Parks playing harpsichord on "Taking Pictures," Fan Dance is whittled down to the essentials, highlighting Phillips' vocal dime-turns from honeyed to steely. It's her best and most consistent album to date. NATE LIPPENS

Beat Em Up
(Virgin Records)

I'm a big Iggy Pop fan, and that's not always easy. He tests my love. Remember that Reebok ad, with his leathery torso looking like something parked out on Broadway in the summer? And the snakeskin pants showing his equine endowment? (Put it away, iguana.) I forgave, and with a little more therapy I think I can forget. Iggy is a legend, after all. He invented punk, exploding out of shithole '60s Detroit with the Stooges. He was a true anarchist: You knew he couldn't spell it. He was the best body artist, performance artist, and frontman around; a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm, rolling in broken glass and vomiting on request. Over a 30-year career, Iggy has made some great music and some real crap, but I always buy it. Iggy now lives in Miami (God's waiting room and gay mating-room) and has said that Beat Em Up was a return of sorts to '70s-style balls-out rock, inspired by a cherry-red 1968 Cadillac Deville he bought. Unfortunately, it's not that kind of sexed-up fun. It's one fucked-up ride that smells of a postponed mid-life crisis, punk-style. "You're wearing a mask/you look better that way," Pop sings to open the album, on the appropriately titled "Mask." The song wants to be garage, but it comes across like bad metal. On "L.O.S.T." and "Savior" it sounds as if the Rollins Band were backing him, and his social criticism is about as incisive as good ol' Hank's. The slapstick nihilism of "The Jerk," "It's All Sh*t," and "Go for the Throat" grows tiresome after the first chorus in each song. (Remember that tantrum you had when you tried to quit coffee and went through withdrawal? Silly, you should have recorded an album.) The title track features a chugging groove even the Red Hot Chili Peppers would have rejected. The closing song ("V.I.P.") is a flat-out embarrassing spoken-word number, inspired by an incident when Iggy was doing some work for Donatella Versace and her assistant insisted he use the celebrity toilet! Naturally that led him to write a screed that excoriates celebrity-worship and status. Iggy can spot a phony even better than Holden Caulfield. That is 72 minutes of my life I'll never get back. NATE LIPPENS