LEONARD COHEN
Ten New Songs
(Columbia)
***1/2

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At age 67, Leonard Cohen is a respected elder statesman of rock's fringe: a songwriter who has penned some classic, brilliant, and much-covered numbers, with a voice that's instantly recognizable. He is also discontented and searching, which is no small feat at any age. In recent years, Cohen lived at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California, but it certainly hasn't mellowed him. On Ten New Songs his sepulchral croak breaks a nine-year silence from the music business with the same sense of foreboding intelligence and flashes of dark humor that have illuminated his best work. "In My Secret Life" etches out the hard lines and self-told lies we create when we ignore our conscience and lard our lives with destructive good intentions. Futility and cruelty are presented matter-of-factly, and on the album's finale, Cohen's words chill as he talk-croons: "For what's left of our religion/I lift my voice and pray... May the lights in the Land of Plenty/Shine on the truth someday." NATE LIPPENS

LES SAVY FAV
Go Forth
(French Kiss)
***

Sometimes it's hard to remember that music is invisible. Listening to Les Savy Fav's records I can feel, if not see, the enveloping presence of an ornate but tattered theater. Strange, complex stories are acted out on the stage, and I try to pay attention but I am distracted by the summoned theater itself: the architectural exactitude, the cunning blueprint, the rich materials, the structural sturdiness. Shouts from the stage wind around door frames and catwalks and rows of empty seats; every detail in the filigree explains a detail in the play's narrative. But "you know who built this house," Les Savy Fav warned on Rome, its last release, "and You Know Who will tear it down." Go Forth is an ambitious new composition with a new producer, and the difference is huge. With Phil Ek at the controls, what was arid has become florid. Go Forth sounds much more like a Built to Spill record: the jagged Dischord-y punk of earlier albums is subsumed by densely layered guitar parts and cymbal crashes. The album's convoluted song structures form a teeming mansion rather than an abandoned theater. Though Les Savy Fav is still one of the most brilliant bands playing today, I confess I miss the spirit of its previous haunts. EVAN SULT

DICTATORS
DFFD
(Norton)
**1/2

The Dictators were cool enough to get snagged on the fringe of punk during the '70s. Easy... they were in NYC circa '75, and they stood out by solid, rockin', CHEEKY albeit Kiss-like action (sans Kiss' "wet dream" attitude). In fact, they won't too far offa POP ART, as they were fulla wit without gettin' "novel." Anyway, DFFD is the first Dictators full-length in 20-odd years, which is cool... but it's kinda weird. At first, I figgered it was weird 'cause I missed Mark "the Animal" Mendoza's giant fuckin' AFRO!! Then I realized it WAS the record. Tho' the Dictators are still relatively, uh, "effective"... overall, in the contemporary context where explicit "biting social commentary" is common, their pisstakes seem to be lacking. And the production coulda been thicker. DFFD sounds vacant... it sounds "new"... which slights their virulent punch. Now, I AIN'T sayin' DFFD is suckass... but the "kids" have since caught up to the Dictators of "20 years ago," and now them Dictators gotta work to get past the kids. MIKE NIPPER

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JAY FARRAR
Sebastopol
(Fellow Guard/Artemis)
***

I like him sad and acoustic. At his melancholic best, former Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar bends his voice perfectly into the hurt, keeps his head down, and presses on. It's a mixture of resolve and emotionalism that lights most of the 14 songs on his solo debut, Sebastopol, from within. Farrar doesn't stray all that far from the signature sound of his former band here, but the ways in which he does are crucial. They show a musician who understands his strengths and knows how to play to them while still challenging himself. While Son Volt's last album, 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo, leaned harder into rock, it also seemed to drown out the scrappy-hearted sadness that the band's two former albums, Trace and Straightaways, displayed on more stripped-down acoustic numbers. Sebastopol finds Farrar joined by Flaming Lips' Steve Drozd, fleshing out "Prelude (Make It Alright)" with sitar and "Clear Day Thunder" with bells. The odd touches add character and chiaroscuro to the folk-based numbers, but it's ultimately Farrar's grainy voice and guitar strumming that carry the songs. NATE LIPPENS

FUGAZI
The Argument
Dischord Records
***1/2

Fans wanting a regressive, pogo-plagued angst-fest abandoned the pit years ago. But those who stuck around for the band's maturation (beginning with the gorgeous, angular clamor of Red Medicine) have been rewarded with adventurous instrumentation and thoughtful, non-linear arrangements. The Argument does tread on some well-worn subject matter (urban gentrification, the myopic vision of corporate culture), but a second set of drums, a cello player, and a highly unexpected pair of female backing vocals insure that the discipline of exploration still propels the band forward. There are pop touches here that may leave even the most loyal, open-minded listener a bit perplexed: the jubilant "Full Disclosure" is overflowing with two-part harmonies and cheery "oohs" and "ahs." In less purposeful hands, such detours would sound weak, but Fugazi's innate sense of intellectual abrasiveness, and the mixing skills of engineer Don Zientara make sure no one sounds like a punk-rock dinosaur. HANNAH LEVIN

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