Robyn Hitchcock
Spooked
(Yep Roc)
****

The problem with institutions is that they seldom surprise you. Over the past quarter century, Robyn Hitchcock has unquestionably become an institution, not only to his faithful-to-reverent cult of hardcore admirers, but to the wider world of just-below-the-radar pop music, where he is regarded as the eccentric British singer-songwriter with psych leanings, and so many records that you don't know where to start. But unlike many a musical institution before him, Hitchcock remains plenty capable of pulling a surprise from his hat; witness Spooked, an LP produced in collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and frosted over with their trademark acoustic hush (even when the songs go electric), yielding an intimacy to the record that makes it seem almost inappropriate to hear through speakers. Even headphones feel intrusive. You almost want to just press the disc to your ear, or ingest it somehow. The music is spare and beautiful, with eerie, distant harmonies that manage to be both tasteful and rich. Hitchcock's singing has never been so direct and lovely. His songs maintain their cockeyed lyrical perspective (samples: "ghosts walk in the ambulations of hound dogs" and "guess what: I've spoken to Norm/we're gonna live in the trees!") while their folksome derivations are honored gloriously by the production. The surprise is that 25 years into an amazing career, Robyn Hitchcock may have only just made his best record. SEAN NELSON

Robyn Hitchcock performs Sat March 5 at the Crocodile, 9 pm, $15.

DÄLEK
Absence
(Ipecac)
****

From their mind-blitzing 1998 debut EP, Negro, Necro, Nekros, Dälek have exhibited a rare ability to harness finely wrought noise, redwood-heavy beats, and expansive Eastern instrumentation to an underground-hiphop framework. Listening to their powerful oeuvre, you intuit that Dälek are the only hiphoppers who could hold their own with Kraut-rock icons Faust, as they proved on the rugged soundclash Derbe Respect, Alder. Now with their third album, Absence, the New Jersey trio hit another peak. Opener "Distorted Prose" plunges you into the hardest, deepest hiphop extant, as MC Dälek spits unaccompanied bitter verbals before lumbering funk beats and a scrupulously modulated air-raid siren storm in. Never have heady metal and industrial been so well hitched to hiphop's chassis. Throughout Absence, Dälek rails against injustice and laments historical wrongdoing with withering accuracy. His band mates swathe his scathing words in swarming storm clouds of guitar feedback that locates the bittersweet spot between My Bloody Valentine and Glenn Branca. Dälek bring the noise Public Enemy wanted brought with a force that would make Flav somber. Absence is KRS-One's edutainment preached from the new school of hard knocks. DAVE SEGAL

LAURENT GARNIER
The Cloud Making Machine
(Mute)
****

French techno/house DJ/producer Laurent Garnier's latest release, The Cloud Making Machine, has only one dance track, "Controlling the House Pt. 2." The other songs are minimal and cinematic considerations of a de-industrialized urbanscape. The factories sonically described here still dominate the skyline but they now produce nothing; the capitalists have fired all of the workers and relocated operations to cheaper parts of the world. This workless world is cold, powered by decaying nuclear plants, and in the shadows of once-glorious factories. To express this post-Fordist mood musically, Garnier reprocesses early '80s electro sound effects and beats, and sets live performances in the foreground and sampled (or seemingly sampled) classical strings in the far background. Like Barry Adamson's Soul Murder, The Cloud Making Machine is the soundtrack for a movie that doesn't exist, and should never exist because the music shows us everything we need to see and feel. CHARLES MUDEDE

MATH AND PHYSICS CLUB
Weekends Away EP
(Matinee Recordings)
***

For a twee indie-pop group, local five-piece Math and Physics Club have all the correct components in place. Band name that invokes timeless yearbook snapshots of geeky, concave-chested academics whose quest for love will have more success in personal journals than in practice? Check. Touchstones from pop's precious past--the Smiths, Belle & Sebastian? Check. Earnest messages of shy admiration that no Myspace connection could ever break through? Check. By the time "Love, Again" rolls around on the Math and Science Club's debut four-song EP, you sense the narrator wouldn't dream of cheating on his unrequited crushes by eyeing the cute barista at the local coffee shop. These are sensitive songs of handholding, first kisses, road-tripping it with your head on the driver's (cardigan-clad) shoulder, and riding bikes. The delicate hand that pens the lyrics is also applied to the songwriting, as minimal instrumentation, handclaps, and heart-plucking strings are allowed to add only the faintest wisps of color around the prominent, weak-kneed vocals. Revenge of the nerds sounds too sweet. JENNIFER MAERZ

The Math and Physics Club's CD release is Sat March 5 at Chop Suey, $7, 5:30 pm (early show/all ages).

**** Woof
*** Bok-Bok
** Baah
* Na-a-ay

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