HOWE
Confluence
(Thrill Jockey)
***1/2

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Howe Gelb released his first solo cassette, Incidental Music, in 1983, two years prior to his band Giant Sand's debut, Valley of Rain. Since then, either solo, with Giant Sand, or with OP8, Howe has put out at minimum one album annually: Followers of his work have been witness to a prolific and impressive career. With Confluence, Howe offers up 16 originals, as well as a haunting, Grandaddy-assisted version of "Can't Help Falling in Love." Consistent with Howe's other solo work, the record is smart and atmospheric, centered in acoustic guitar and intimately reverberant vocals, and then textured by additional instrumentation to include "warbling Casio," pedal steel, and Wurlitzer piano. The production on Confluence is less lo-fi than much of Howe's past work, more in the vein of Giant Sand's Chore of Enchantment, but, as with that record, none of Howe's eccentric off-handedness is missing. Nor is his cracked lyricism. On "Hatch," a standout among standouts, Howe asks, "Are we just ghosts here, waiting to hatch? Are we thrilled to death here with details of dispatch?" His voice is wet, and it pushes gently through a lonely space just above a whisper. Several of the songs begin with snatches of field-recorded conversation that lend a sense of isolation to the listening experience. "Vex (Paris)" starts out in such a manner, and moves into "Vex (Tucson)," which opens with two French women singing the first half of the lyrics in unison, to no musical accompaniment. There is a chilling, Twin Peaks quality to the performance. When Howe's actual studio recording begins to play, the listener is pleased to once again hear his understatedly gorgeous voice. The record ends with "Slide Away," a slide-guitar-driven track bookended with dramatic riffage, which plays itself out quietly at the center. Confluence is a cool, gratifying record. JEFF DeROCHE

NEIL MICHAEL HAGERTY
Neil Michael Hagerty
(Drag City Records)
**

Neil Hagerty is half of the musical magpies known as Royal Trux, which has spent its career borrowing musical idioms and reconstituting and contextualizing the scuzzier aspects of rock's past. Hagerty engendered a Lower East Side primitivist slum aesthetic with his former band, the brilliant Pussy Galore. With Royal Trux bandmate Jennifer Herrema, Hagerty has unleashed records that startle, boggle, and boogie. Starting as a garbled, howling pisstake on Captain Beefheart surrealisms, Royal Trux evolved and greased its sound until influences as diverse as Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and Grand Funk Railroad showed through the junkie-outsider pouts and poses. On his self-titled debut solo album, Hagerty strips his sound down to guitar, bass, keyboards, and drum beats, all played by Hagerty himself. The intimate feel is immediately appealing. The first three songs begin promisingly, but by "Kali, the Carpenter," the lo-fi approach and Hagerty's tendency to constantly push his voice into falsetto begin to tire. Each song follows a similar template: off-hand pastiche lyrics, a smattering of percussion, sustained keyboards, and a guitar solo. While noodling and meandering are no strangers to Hagerty's palette, the self-indulgence on this album lacks the creative dissonance and bratty inventiveness that Hagerty mines with Royal Trux. Instead of burrowing under the listener's skin, the music simply drags. NATE LIPPENS

THE SOFT BOYS
Underwater Moonlight
(Matador Records)
***

The reissue of the Soft Boys' 1980 Underwater Moonlight is reason enough for jubilation among fans of skewed pop. That it includes a bonus disc of excellent live recordings and precedes a reunion tour is the news that ratchets up the anticipatory glee. The Soft Boys featured eccentric genius Robyn Hitchcock, with Kimberly Rew on guitar, Matthew Seligman on bass, and Morris Windsor on drums for this album. The quintet drew on the Byrds' melodic psychedelia and surreal lyrics that mixed equal parts humor and alienation. "Kingdom of Love" and "The Queen of Eyes" demonstrate Hitchcock at the peak of his songwriting powers. The harmonies on the latter feel as if the band time-traveled from the '60s to the new-wave era without losing an ounce of infectiousness. Hitchcock's Syd Barrett hero-worship wafts through the album, but with his own tough whimsy snapping its tart tongue. The stunning musicianship throughout shows the band at its prime, though at the time, the album sold no better than previous efforts and spurred the discouragement that led to the band's 1981 breakup. Underwater Moonlight doesn't feel like a new-wave archive because it drew on a past that eluded its present and maintains its smart-hearted pop sensibility even today. NATE LIPPENS

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MATMOS
The Chance to Cut Is A Chance to Cure
(Matador)
***

San Francisco's indie-techno Matmos has been causing quite a stir (recent work has pinned them with Björk), but the real news is the group's debut Matador release, The Chance to Cut Is A Chance to Cure. The record initially plays like a treatment of textured beats, bleeps, bloops, and other odd sounds, mostly familiar to fans of Mouse on Mars fare. But with a little digging, one finds that these aren't just funny sounds made on laptops. The giveaway is in the title of the record, an indication that this is the work of mad beat scientists, let loose with high-frequency microphones during actual operating-room procedures, which are sampled, cut, and pasted into a stunning collage. Cuts like "California Rhinoplasty" take nose jobs to a whole new level. "Lipostudio (And So On...)" is actually recorded liposuction, which includes the conversations being had while the procedure is taking place. Disgusting, yes--the record is totally perverse, but breathtaking nonetheless. Matmos' achievement here is not only a bold statement, but a testament to how far electronic music has come. F. VENTURA-PENA

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