MARK LANEGAN

I'll Take Care of You

(Sub Pop)

****

Mark Lanegan's voice is a thing unto itself, a certain cursed something spun of good substance then dragged like a dog through its own shit; a gorgeous, growling, tortured beast, drawn and quartered by the four components of a badass, pitch-black personal grief: longing, loss, hypocrisy, self-immolating abuse. The voice tells tales beyond, or despite, the spooky lyrics; the songs' sad stories are almost peripheral to what's really going on. It's the pure, majestic, battered, disembodied rumble and snarl of Lanegan's voice, the gravely refrain, the surrendered crescendo, the furious whisper, that haunts and chills and amazes.

Lanegan's fourth solo album, I'll Take Care of You, is comprised entirely of other people's songs. The 11 covers -- which range from the Gun Club's "Carry Me Home" to Buck Owens' "Together Again" to the traditional number "Little Sadie" -- are well chosen and fitting, with each song stripped down lovingly to its barest arrangement. These skeletalized selections provide the perfect soundscape for Lanegan's beautiful, heartbroken baritone. The instrumentation, sometimes nothing more than a strummed six-string acoustic, is brilliantly restrained (especially the subtle, intricate guitar work of Mark Hoyt), and the crisp production brings Lanegan's incredible vocals to the fore, without any detriment to the integrity or urgency of the material as a whole. These covers are performed with an obvious sense of reverence, even awe, and yet Lanegan manages at the same time to take complete possession of each one, by virtue of the maturity, balance, and emotional depth of his singing. Because of this, the album is surprisingly coherent. His previous solo efforts have much to recommend them; this one, though, has the feel of a classic. RICK LEVIN

STEREOLAB

Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night

(Elektra)

*

What the fuck is a "cobra and phases group"? (Or, "Why You Don't Care About Stereolab's New Album.") I used to be very fond of the 'lab, a fact I'm sure to be hiding in shame a few years from now. 1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup, an album that rocked the dorm rooms of sensitive, aspiring Euro-trash boys at good schools everywhere, was really the last time the aggressively artsy Laetitia Sadler and Tim Gane could be bothered with anything so banal and American as song structure. Cobra finds Stereolab jamming on two chords for an astounding 11 minutes and 28 seconds on "Blue Milk," a display of musical self indulgence rivaled only by the Grateful Dead. The CD prominently features the trademark mumbled Frenglish and bursts of feedback, but whereas these signatures were originally built as a tweak on classical French pop structures, they're now hollow bleeps and multilingual non sequiturs.

Clearly, Stereolab no longer has any interest in entertaining you. That laziness galls me more than the boring music. All this would play differently if Stereolab seemed to be risking a new direction, but they're not. Stereolab is one of the few bands that has developed away from pop as they gained popularity. That puts them in a category with some of the most lauded and respected musicians in history: Tricky, Alex Chilton, the Beatles. Generally a band's early work is messy, the result of struggling to play and record. As they gain fans, they learn to play their instruments well, get more time in the studio, and mainstream their sound. This has been the path of R.E.M., the Rolling Stones, et al., and explains why fans disown a group once they get a radio hit. We're conditioned to expect this kind of career arc from our musicians. So when a band emerges fully formed with its first album, like Stereolab did, expectations are confounded.

The early stuff was preachy pop, like "Ping Pong," from 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet: "There's only millions that lose their jobs and homes and sometimes accents/there's only millions that die in their bloody wars, it's alright/it's only their lives and the lives of their next of kin that they are losing." What sounds heavy-handed on paper, though, came off as groovy with a synthesizer. And Sadler's breathy ironic understatement was parsed to downplay the "message."

There's no such effort or meaning on Cobra. Stereolab has moved into the realm of wanky, wacky concept albums with no commercial or artistic appeal. They've made themselves irrelevant except as palatable Muzak for your next long elevator ride. ERIN FRANZMAN


IN STORES SEPTEMBER 28

Marc Almond, Open All Night (Instinct Records). Solo drama from former Soft Cell singer, the mind that brought us the classics "Tainted Love" and "Sex Dwarf."

Marc Anthony, Marc Anthony (Columbia). The English-language debut from the number-one-selling tropical-salsa singer in the world.

Ash, Nu-Clear Sound (Dreamworks). A hotly awaited album that came out a goddamn year ago in Europe.

Tony Bennett, Sings Ellington/Hot & Cool (Columbia). The title pretty much sums it up.

Black Rob, Life Story (Bad Boy/ Arista). Puffy protégé warns, "I'm the hardest act on the label since Biggie." Hmm, that bodes well.

Garth Brooks, Garth Brooks in... the Life of Chris Gaines (Capitol). Garth Brooks reinvents himself as an eyeliner-wearing rock 'n' roller.

Meredith Brooks, Deconstruction (Capitol). Bitch, bitch, bitch. Old, old, old.

Lori Carson, Stars (Restless). The latest from the former Golden Palominos singer.

Paula Cole, Amen (Warner Bros.). With the help of TLC's T-Boz and DJ Premier, Paula raps. Let's see if this one wins a Grammy.

Creed, Human Clay (Wind Up). On this follow-up to their triple-platinum selling debut, My Own Prison, lyricist Scott Stapp goes the Art Alexakis route and writes songs about growing up and betrayal.

Everything but the Girl, Temperamental (Atlantic). A long time coming, the second electronica album from reformed folkies Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn is expected to cross over bigger than Fatboy Slim.

Ghost Face Killah, Supreme Clientele (Epic). Oh look! Another Wu-Tang member releases a solo album.

The Hang Ups, Second Story (Restless). Skinny-tie pop.

Indigo Girls, Come on Now Social (Epic). For their seventh album, Amy and Emily refuse to let the spirit of Lilith Fair die by teaming up with Sinead O'Connor, Kate Schellenbach, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, and Sheryl Crow.

The Long Beach Dub Allstars, Right Back (Skunk/Dreamworks). Debut album from the members of Sublime who did not die of an overdose. Pennywise's Fletcher Dragge and HR of Bad Brains guest.

Method Man and Redman, America's Most Blunted (Island/Def Jam). Even blunted, they rip on the mic. Produced by RZA, so it's got to be good.

Muse, Showbiz (Maverick). Former goth band goes grunge.

Radar Bros., The Singing Hatchet (SeeThru Broadcasting). Big hairy guys who sing it sadder than Acetone.

Smokey Robinson, Intimate (Motown). After seven years, more tunes for smooching from this crooner.

Sting, Brand New Day (A&M/Interscope). Sting goes world music. The world goes "ugh."

Wheat, Hope and Adams (Sugar Free). Mid-tempo, emotional indie rock.

Yes, The Ladder (Beyond). Final album from producer Bruce Fairbairn (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi), who died before finishing the disc.

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