CHARLATANS UK
Wonderland
(MCA)
*** 1/2

Support The Stranger

Has Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess become a bit too fond of his copy of Emotional Rescue? You might think so, given that "You're So Pretty--We're So Pretty," the opening track of the band's latest album, Wonderland, is pure Jagger faux-funk. But then strains of the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancin'" dominate track two, "Judas." Burgess' falsetto, the thick bass lines and slinky percussion--it all reeks of sweaty polyester greasiness. Now firmly into their second decade, this band is not the Charlatans of the '90s; the Hammond doesn't blare so much as it shakes its ass in the background. Burgess has traded his adolescent whine in for a purely false holler, and he's clearly having fun testing its limits. You'll need a couple of tracks' worth of stubborn listening before falling deeply into Wonderland's groove. It's a complete change in direction from the sound the band has become known for; but change is good, especially for a band that was known far more for its instrumentation (and troubled keyboard players--the first one did time in prison for armed robbery before dying in car wreck, the current one battled testicular cancer) than its vocals. Burgess has been a resident of Los Angeles for years now, and that city's seamy influences--as well as his side stint as a DJ--come through loud and clear on songs like "I Just Can't Get Over Losing You" and "The Bell and the Butterfly," the latter a sex-blown instrumental that places the singer far in the background. Wonderland showcases an altogether different Charlatans, a fine complement to the former incarnation, and proof that the Hammond is capable of singing soulfully in the shadows. KATHLEEN WILSON

VARNALINE
Songs in a Northern Key

(Artemis)
**1/2

Following in the footsteps of Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump, Varnaline's Anders Parker slows time down. Songs in a Northern Key moves at its own pace and forces you to fall either into step or into sleep. Songs like "Difference" and "Blackbird Fields" rely more on random, ambient noise than on the actual music to capture your interest. Under the acoustic guitars and drums you can hear the squeaking of an old reel-to-reel four-track and the sounds of Parker moving around. Parker's monotone vocals bring down every song on the album. With any other singer, "Let it Come Down" would be a much-needed adrenaline rush midway through the album, but Parker finds a way to make it just as sleepy as the rest of Songs in a Northern Key. The best thing about this album is the assortment of performances by supporting musicians. On "Broken Song," it's Dean Jones' trombone work that moves you; on "Still Dream," Parker's brother John on stand-up bass and pump organ makes the song worth listening to. Kendall Meade's guest vocals on "Broken Song" and "Green Eyed Stars" just show how much potential the songs actually have. It's a disappointment that these musicians play on only five of Songs in a Northern Key's 15 tracks. BRYAN BINGOLD

TENACIOUS D
Tenacious D

(Sony/Epic)
***

Tenacious D's Jack Black has frequently stated that the guitar-based duo gets "zero chicks." I'm not buying that. Anyone who's seen Tenacious D's comedy sketches will tell you the band's shtick is the shit. But it wouldn't stick if Black didn't have such a handsomely expressive voice (irrefutably verified by his rendition of "Let's Get It On" in the movie High Fidelity). Black and his partner, Kyle Glass, take this strength, judiciously beer-bong it with influences like Black Sabbath and the Smothers Brothers, and reel out a stoner-friendly satire crafty enough to lure plenty of backstage Betties their way. Previously available only in its acoustic, heavily bootlegged format through the group's HBO series, the D's catalog is almost all here, inexplicably produced by the Dust Brothers (their presence is undetectable--it could've easily been Bob Rock), and blown out with every illegitimate arena-rock flourish possible. "Tribute," an homage to "the greatest song in the world," is all melodramatic butt-rock bombast, while thoughtful lessons in sexual prowess ("Fuck Her Gently" and "Cock Push-Ups") are contrasted snidely with Sebadoh-esque heart-stompers like "Kyle Quit the Band" and "Wonderboy." Cerebral subterfuge it ain't, but it's enough to get me comedically aroused. HANNAH LEVIN

TREMBLING BLUE STARS
Alive to Every Smile
(Sub Pop)
***1/2

At one time or another every band experiments with noise, but it's rare when a band shows a mastery of noise. On Trembling Blue Stars' fourth release, the band shows the world that they are true noisesmiths. They take what other bands can easily lose control of, bend it, shape it, and forges it to their will. The noise is so gentle and loving that it never violates or destroys a song. "Under Lock and Key" and "Ammunition" live up to the band's notoriety for being "sad," but Bob Wratten's vocals on "Here All Day" and "Maybe After All" seem more comforting than depressing. He's the lover who quietly whispers in your ear to calm you, to make everything all right again. His vocals, if not his lyrics, evoke all the quiet times in a relationship; the times when the two of you were just falling asleep, wrapped in each other's arms... I gotta call my girlfriend now. BRYAN BINGOLD