THE CRAMPS

Fiends of Dope Island

(Vengeance Records)****

My first introduction to the Cramps was pretty damn close to perfect. I was a teenager, visiting friends in Florida who were as involved in theater as they were with listening to Black Flag and Alien Sex Fiend. We'd drink their parents' liquor and drive around on muggy Orlando nights, the windows rolled down on Clay's old Dart as the swampy darkness invaded us from both the outdoors and the tape player. The self-proclaimed psychobilly of the Cramps' Stay Sick! leaked out of the staticky stereo, and for a night we were entombed in the campy horror show led by this exotic, gothic NYC act.
Five years after their last release (and a good decade-plus since that Florida summer) the Cramps are back in all their shiny latex glory. From the opening greeting of "Big Black Witchcraft Rock" ("Satan, baby, Satan"), through their cover of the Wailers' "Hang Up," the band still sounds like the same Technicolor punk outfit that's been making twisted rock 'n' roll since the late '70s. All you need is one look at the song titles--"Elvis Fucking Christ," "Oowee Baby," and "Mojo Man from Mars"--to know that Lux Interior and company are still living in a swampy, seedy world of their own creation, and for those who remember their own devious adventures at just the mention of this great theatrical act, Fiends of Dope Island is a true gem from an alternate universe. JENNIFER MAERZ

GOLDCARD

Goldcard

(Off Records)***
As grunge's tidal wave of controversial popularity was gathering speed, a handful of Portland bands shone as beacons for Northwest indie rock, three of which landed on Sub Pop's small roster. The label's stable had the volleying, combative energy of Hazel, featuring Jody Bleyle and Pete Krebs, and Sprinkler, a band that treaded murky indie rock water while singer Chris Slusarenko struggled vocally. Pond, however, was a true pop band with enough innovative guitar muscle to cross over to rock audiences. Singer Chris Brady churned out the emo tunes while co-frontman Charlie Campbell's songs were often sweetly playful. Ten years after Pond's debut, Campbell's Goldcard is an eccentric, wholly welcome collection of compositions and experiments that should gladden the hearts of both Pond fans and Quasi lovers. Released on Slusarenko's Off Records label, Goldcard sounds like a friendly backyard party: Sam Coomes is featured prominently on guitar and keyboard, while Brady plays sliding bass. Campbell's even dusted off Pond's Dave Triebwasser, who can be heard on drums along with Janet Weiss, who also lends her soft-toned harmonies to the disc. KATHLEEN WILSON

CONDOR

A Big One

(Narnack)***

With a vocal style that causes him to shake his voice like Katherine Hepburn, Condor's Kurt Keppler leads his trio into a vortex of robotic no wave punk. Keppler's synthesizer lays down beats like cyborg footfalls, explosions of echoing sound blasting out behind him or turning to short sirens as Joshua Richardson's bass is made barely audible under a force field of effects and drummer Wendy Farina delivers concise blows. Songs like "Delay" live up to their name, elongating the wall of sound while lyrics about "doom before the dawn" trickle in, while "Sound of Mystery" is pure psychedelic goth gloom. Listening to A Big One, the San Francisco band's new record, it's easy to hear that Wire's Pink Flag has taken another victim, and that Bay Area act Numbers have a distant peer in this ominous, elegant act. JENNIFER MAERZ

MONADE

Socialisme Ou Barbarie: The Bedroom Recordings

(Drag City/Duophonic)***
This collection from Stereolab vocalist/Moog tickler Laetitia Sadier proves there's more to her artistry than waxing Marxist in singsongy French while the 'lab go through their Kraut-rock/bossa-nova motions. From 1996-2002, Sadier's four-track recording hobby blossomed into 12 odd ditties of precious beauty and mellow elegance. Unfettered by Stereolab's increasingly narrow parameters, Sadier and her cohorts (including Pram's Rosie Cuckston and Matt Eaton, Stereolab's Tim Gane, and Jim O'Rourke) explore quirkier, more intimate realms on Socialisme Ou Barbarie. Sadier typically pitches her silky voice halfway between blasé and solemn, but despite this indeterminacy, these croissant-fluffy dirges somehow contain a sliver of hope. While ballads with subtly contoured melodies dominate the disc, some tracks squeeze in zany electronic bleeps ("Un Express"), whirling Farfisa organ drones ("Vol de Jour"), and exotic tropical ambience ("Ode to a Keyring"). Sure, you could call Socialisme "Stereolab lite," but these brief hypnotique reveries brighten your day more efficiently than do Stereolab's recent long-winded efforts. DAVE SEGAL

**** Don Caballero *** Don Ameche ** Don Ho * Don Johnson