A Secret History... The Best of Divine Comedy

(Setanta Records)****

Some would argue the biggest price Americans paid for the Boston Tea Party was losing European citizenship. I, however, maintain that our cross to bear is the fact that all but the most devoted record shop geeks have missed out on U.K. bands like Divine Comedy. They're part Jarvis Cocker, part musical theater, part Momus; if you've spent any significant amount of time with the Smiths or Belle and Sebastian, you must buy this album immediately. Trust me, as soon as it's blaring from the car stereo you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

Speaking of the Smiths, listening to this CD is sure to trigger your own first Smiths memory: a summer evening, an impressionable young lad's head in your lap, and "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side" playing softly in the distance. Until recently, this touching moment was no doubt lost somewhere behind the memory of your first concert T-shirt and the last person you slept with. Thank God we've found Divine Comedy before those gems were committed to the murky waters of your subconscious forever!

It was the melody in "Summerhouse" on A Secret History that brought the Smiths rushing in; but all Smiths nostalgia was soon trumped by the track "Becoming More Like Alfie," the definitive essay on the English male's psyche. Who can resist men who are able to pull off effete Wordsworth quotes, yet still retain every ounce of their virility: "I traveled among unknown men/In lands beyond the sea/Nor England did I know 'till then/What love I bore to thee." In short, if you're one of those anglophile types who find pale, gaunt people automatically interesting, Divine Comedy is for you. TANYA RICHARDSON



(Le Grand Magistery)***

It's official now: We Westerners have to secede cuteness to the East. Cuteness, that catalyst of teenage girl culture and Jennifer- Love-Hewitt-sexuality, has been taken up across the sea and expertly cultivated. It's been thrown through the logo mill of Tokyo's sweatshops, bannerized by fast food, quickly stitched into T-shirts, and sent back to us again as an agglomeration of U.S. marketing taken to its wide-eyed extreme.

The procedure is fascinating. Witness 30-odd young men and half as many women, in front of the small stage at ARO.space, melting -- nearly weeping -- as Japan's number one pop star sings breathily into a breast-high microphone. Tiny, mop-headed, she sings sometimes in Japanese, sometimes French, sometimes English, sometimes Italian. In a display fluffy enough to impress Marilyn Monroe, she never seems to understand a word she's saying in any language. She sings standards from her last album such as Good Morning World -- It's So Nice to Be a Beautiful Girl, and new songs off the just-released K.K.K.K.K. (that's five Ks), including track number four, "Clip Clop," which I promise will wrap itself around you like a feather boa with a big, sticky price tag.

People who fail to appreciate Kahimi Karie's charisma are the people for whom cuteness is equated with all style and no substance. But those people are missing the point -- Karie takes cuteness so far that it becomes a statement about cuteness, just like Marilyn Monroe's sexuality became a statement about all sexuality. Songs like "What Are You Wearing?" -- which overlays a male computer voice intoning the favored question of phone perverts on top of Karie's bright recitation of her wardrobe -- disarm listeners because consumer malevolence is dismissed as superficial. What I love about Karie is the way she twists this predatory sexuality into her own little baton of pop power.

True, it's hard to know how much credit to give Karie, since many of her songs are written by reported boyfriend Momus. Regardless, it works, and the pop magnificence that is K.K.K.K.K. can come to my Japanese fetish party any old time. TRACI VOGEL


Midnite Vultures


*I never needed to hear Beck's postmodern, processed, and reconstituted libido put to music. And Beck's "sex album" is doing really well with skinny white boys whose own postmodern libidos stand to attention at lyrics like "She's all right... on my computer." Beck has never made good on the promise of his non-sequitur lyrics the way Pavement or the Pixies did. He now writes either complete nonsense or a linear narrative, but in both cases, he's mercurial -- so quick and changeable that he never lingers long enough to create meaning. And I don't buy the Beck Genius Defense, wherein anytime Beck contributes to the execrable side of mainstream music, critics leap to point out that he meant to do that. With or without the fashionable veneer of irony, I don't see how meaning to do it makes it better. Beck has not elevated discourse.

And even worse, with Midnite Vultures, Beck has provided a simple flow chart for making the mocking of black culture look cool. If you like the kind of funk and soul Beck has unfaithfully recreated, go listen to the real thing. It's way better. Mainstream music critics have characteristically and conveniently ignored the race politics of this album, but ever since Beck adopted the James Brown pose, he's been encouraging a condescending kind of suburban racism: "I've never been the only white person in a room full of African Americans, but I listen to Beck and Ben Harper!"

Think about this for a minute: Beck's "sex-themed" album art consists of dancing black people.

That's right, I'm calling Beck a racist. I sincerely hope nobody's surprised. ERIN FRANZMAN

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