SANFORD ARMS
Too Loud for the Snowman
(Pattern 25 Records)
***

A lifetime ago (or what seems like a lifetime ago), Sanford Arms was a mostly alt-country-influenced four-piece, alternately raving and crooning, replete with the open sob of a well-placed accordion, and one of the city's most wistful-sounding bands. Theirs was a beautiful, throbbing sadness, and the band induced the same kind of ache and longing that Carissa's Wierd would claim a devoted audience with years later. Whatever happened to Sanford Arms? I'd asked myself that question so many times over the years, hoping its members hadn't grown too old or responsible to soldier on with their pretty, blue-colored sound. Too Loud for the Snowman is the answer to that question. Any former twang has been replaced by a mature, fully realized collection of songs that cause the breath to catch in my lungs as single lines stand out, and the strum of a guitar sends a long-lost memory sailing forth from the murky depths of my subconscious. Save for perhaps the first track, Too Loud for the Snowman is a gorgeous album that, like Sanford Arms, gets better with every listen. KATHLEEN WILSON

LAURIE ANDERSON
Life on a String

(Nonesuch Records)
***

"I wanted to tell you so many things/But I lost my voice somewhere along the way," Laurie Anderson talk-sings on "Broken," from her latest album, Life on a String, sounding like herself as much as ever. Wurlitzer and Mellotron create the sonic bed over which she murmurs the songs, half-dreaming. Anderson has been performance art's emissary to pop culture for over two decades now. Beginning with 1980's Big Science, she has been wedding high and low with her mellifluous spoken delivery, electric violin, and minimalist keyboards. It's been five years since her last album, the live, spoken-word The Ugly One with the Jewels, which featured her at her best: stripped down and coolly insinuating. The best parts of Life on a String work on the same principle. "Statue of Liberty" and "Washington Street" carve intimate, luminous songs about loneliness and longing out of spare instrumentation and Anderson's voice. "One Beautiful Evening" returns Anderson to the Garden of Eden of "Langue d'Amour," but the sense of dislocation has only grown stronger over time, sharded with childhood rhymes and disappointments. The least successful tracks try to pile too much into her sound, destroying the fragile, haunted balancing act she achieves so effortlessly elsewhere. NATE LIPPENS

WALDECK
The Night Garden

(Dope Noir)
***

While in Vienna two years ago, I asked a man in a CD store to name 10 CDs he thought represented his city. After returning three CDs by Kruder & Dorfmeister--I already owned them--I was left with seven new CDs, one of which was by Waldeck. The CD is called Balance of the Force, and though it isn't great, it certainly has great moments, particularly a space-travel soul-dub song called "Moon." Waldeck's new CD, The Night Garden, is much the same. It's not great, but it has its moments, such as the final track, which is a delightful remix of Chet Baker's "This Isn't Maybe." If you miss the Vienna sound, which has been silent since last year's release of Suzuki by Tosca, The Night Garden will ease the longing for a few days. But sooner or later, Kruder & Dorfmeister must drop something new, or else we will give up on that city whose name sounds like our favorite intoxicant. CHARLES MUDEDE

HEAVENLY
Versus Satan

(K Records)
***

The bright, shimmering guitars and clear alto vocals of the British group Heavenly are the purest form of indie pop. Versus Satan was the band's debut and was released in England and Japan in 1990, but is only now seeing the light of day in the U.S., via K Records. I will confess that the songs on some Heavenly records, while leaving me with an overall pleasant sensation, have all merely merged into a pretty wash of peppy rhythms and bouncy guitar lines. Versus Satan has a plethora of standout tunes: "Wrap My Arms Around Him," "She Says" (added to the album from an out-of-print single), "Lemonhead Boy," and "It's You" are all bright little gems. It's hard to avoid sounding patronizing when talking about Heavenly: words like "adorable," "endearing," and even "cute" come to mind. And they're all true, but only in the best way. BRET FETZER

DEAR JOHN LETTERS
Rewriting the Wrongs

(Roam Records)
***

The hard-working and prolific Robb Benson is back with another incarnation for his deft and delicately written love songs. This project includes local producer Johnny Sangster, Radio Nationals guitarist Richard Davidson, and percussionist Cassady Laton. The foundation for success, however, lies in the collaboration between Benson and poet/lyricist Michelle Price, whose words mesh so intricately with these melodies it's hard to imagine they're not born of the same body. Rewriting the Wrongs moves effortlessly through lush vocal harmonies and sweetly persuasive song structures. Often gentle and wholesome, sometimes acrimonious, Benson's songwriting warmly refers to the Beatles, and incorporates a little alt-country flavor into his unique approach. Aside from a few ballsy Bachelors-style rock tunes, the album's instrumentation thankfully leans toward the sparse and delicate style developed in Benson's recent solo work, leaving room to breathe, and, most importantly, to let his soul-stirring voice shine as brightly as it wants to. "A Dear John Letter" is a heartbreaking internal dialogue over a severed relationship and the turmoil of self-doubt and regret, amplified by a Robert Pollard-esque muffled vocal effect and gentle string accompaniment. There are moments when the production sounds a bit thin, but the songs burst with skill, all minor technical imperfections more than made up for with sincerity, zeal, and wistful charm. CORIANTON HALE

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