PERNICE BROTHERS
Discover a Lovelier You
(Ashmont Records)
★★★

With each Pernice Brothers album it becomes glaringly apparent that songwriter Joe Pernice is extravagantly gifted at crafting pop songs. Ever since his days a decade ago with the countrified outfit Scud Mountain Boys, it's obvious that he is a standout talent with the ability to capture longing, frustration, and the further reaches of emotional life in pared down epigrams and asides. With the Pernice Brothers he changed it up, dropped the twang, and found orchestral pop à la the Left Banke. The sound has suited Joe well, playing melancholic lyrics against lovely melodies and swelling pop perfection. Discover a Lovelier You continues in the same vein, although the production is more polished, with an emphasis toward '80s power-pop sheen. Longtime producer Thom Monahan has added reverb, keyboards, and programmed drums. Monahan's work doesn't detract from the songs but it rarely adds anything either. NATE LIPPENS

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FRUIT BATS
Spelled in Bones
(Sub Pop)
★★★

Chicago singer/guitarist Eric Johnson has a knack for creating sweeping melodic songs that stick in your head, which is the very definition of great pop. With a rotating cast of Chicago music luminaries he has generated a soaring songbook of dreamy indie pop over the course of three albums. The latest addition is Spelled in Bones, which finds Johnson and company leaving the twangier elements of earlier outings behind (Johnson toured with rootsy avant-folksters Califone before the Fruit Bats). It's a wise choice that lets his pure pop sensibilities free reign. The album title sounds dark, but the music belies it with it with sunny, sweeping compositions that will remind many of a folkier strain of labelmates the Shins. And while the music has a similar cast to the Sub Pop golden boys, Johnson also seems beholden to classic pop from the Beach Boys and the Beatles as strained through jangly '80s New Zealand indie rock (but with much better production values). The album zips by in a sunny burst—11 songs in just over a half hour—encouraging you to play it again and again. NATE LIPPENS

THE DIRTBOMBS
If You Don't Already Have a Look
(In the Red)
★★★★

The Dirtbombs have been a kooky collective with at least 16 saps coming and going, the only constant being gutter garage guru Mick Collins who, once the suave-suited Gories gave out around 1992, has pretty much settled into the role of unapologetic-record-collector-nerd-as-rock-n-roll-savior. Yup, since "cool" now means owning a bunch of electronic equipment, rock-n-roll must be defibrillated by aging cats with great vinyl stacks, and that's this singles/rarities double compilation album all over.

First off, CD 2 features all covers of a dizzying array of influences, masterfully malted by Collins's Detroit roots of oil-slicked streets. "I'll Be in Trouble" and "Natural Man" are R&B debts paid, but the ace Flipper and Cheater Slicks remakes fit in fine.

Since doing originals is a litmus test for most though, CD 1 proves the band's own can equal the tributes. Trashy written-in-sleepers like "Theme from the Dirtbombs," "I'm Saving Myself for Nichelle Nichols," and " High Octane Salvation" give way to the scuzz soul sound of "Cedar Point '76" and "Sharpest Claws." And Collins can go poppy with the pipes like on the creepy "Never Licking You Again" or "Encrypted"—which could've been a hit had the world been alright with gooey layers of fuzz all over its Top 40s. And it ain't. None of which has stopped the Dirtbombs from continuing as the kings of the garage resurgence. ERIC DAVIDSON

LOST BOYZ
Forever (10th Anniversary)
(Contango Records)
★★★

Those who don't know the epilogue of the Jamaica, Queens rap group Lost Boyz might find this album commemorating their 10-year anniversary (featuring new, unreleased, and most popular cuts such as "Renee" and "Jeep, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz") to be really positive. At 19 songs, it's only barely too lengthy (suffering a common hiphop pitfall of long-windedness) and even the decade-old material would not be laughed out of a latter-day East Coast cipher.

But even the bare surface of the Lost Boyz story would make for a good episode of Behind the Music or E! True Hollywood Story. It makes this more-than-competent release spiced with a bittersweet flavor. Their story isn't that startling in the context of the violent environment in which they were raised; Jamaica was also home to 50 "I Was Shot Nine Times" Cent. Ten years since its inception, though, only one member of the Lost Boyz remains an actively contributing part of hiphop (the charismatic Mr. Cheeks). One member was murdered before the group's third album was completed (Freaky Tah), another is incarcerated for robbing banks (Spigg Nice), and another is currently a fugitive (Pretty Lou). In a collection with a lot of strong songs, "Hard Workin" is the disc's most amazing showcase for Freaky Tah's distinctive minor key-favoring gravel throat—it's there where his subsequent loss can be felt most profoundly. TAMARA PALMER

THE POSIES
Every Kind of Light
(Rykodisc)
★★★ 1/2

When they bid bittersweet farewell with 1998's sublime swansong, Success, it was a given that Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer would eventually find each other again: Cue occasional, unforgettable, tequila-driven reunion shows peppered between solo releases that never got the appreciation they deserved (Stringfellow's masterpiece, 2001's Touched, in particular). Harder to predict was that when they finally recorded their first set of post-split songs, they would exit the studio with a clutch of protest material.

But that's exactly what happened with Every Kind of Light. The Posies' trademark, exquisitely vulnerable love songs are entirely absent—the mournful, resigned "Anything and Everything" and "Conversations" (its choruses like glances of sunshine in the dark) are as precious as lost album tracks from AOR masters. But if there's a bleakness that dominates the album, that's because much of it was written in direct response to current political strife and the war in Iraq in particular. The songs that bookend the album speak the message explicitly, but Stringfellow's wracked piano ballad "That Don't Fly" doubles as a not-so-fond farewell to Myth America, as he pack his bags to go live with the cheese-eating surrender-monkeys in Paris, France.

The giddy ecstasies of 1993's Frosting on the Beater have been replaced by a darker, more complex mood that offers a less immediate hit. But it well suits men who've known struggle and disappointment, who feel at odds with more than their own hearts. STEVIE CHICK

CHOKLATE
Sound Sessions Vol. 1
(Seattle Legends/Jasiri)
★★★

Choklate is the real deal. She is a local soul singer whose recent release, Sound Sessions Volume One, is nothing less than the resurrection of a kind of R&B that has been dead for almost two decades. She recalls the SOS Band, Evelyn "Champagne" King, 52nd Street, and, my personal favorite, Loose Ends. This was the period of Black Elegance; a time when men wore sharp suits and women were ladies. (In our present rap era, men wear tracksuits and women are hos). Choklate not only brings back the sound of Black Elegance but also pushes it into the future. Anyone can revisit the lost splendor of the '80s; only a few can actually improve and expand its initial limits. Choklate is also an exceptional song arranger, though this is not immediately apparent on Sound Sessions Vol. 1, which is mostly easy music for slow dancing, or for fine dinning black American style, or for a day in the park with a lover. Her soon-to-be released material with producer Bean One, however, is pure dynamite. If she can't change the musical image of Seattle then no one can. CHARLES MUDEDE

THE 101ERS
Elgin Avenue Breakdown (Revisited)
★★★

JOE STRUMMER
Walker
★★
(Both on Astralwerks)

Tackling a posthumous release by a beloved artist is always a treacherous position, but when you're analyzing two significant career bookends from the godfather of punk, things get even stickier. Elgin Avenue Breakdown (Revisited) is an expanded version of the singular release by Joe Strummer's pre-Clash band, the 101ers; Walker is the soundtrack to cult director Alex Cox's 1986 movie and by default, Strummer's first solo release when the Clash disbanded that same year.

It's a tad puzzling why Astralwerks went out of its way to release Walker, since outside of a cinematic context, there's not much to appreciate, even for devout Strummer disciples. The bulk of the 17-track disc comprises bright-toned Latin instrumentals, which undoubtedly work suitably as a backdrop for a film about 19th-century Nicaragua, but on their own are only mildly engaging, classically structured strains of flamenco guitar and piano. Other than the intriguing, raw-sounding banjo and violin on "Smash Everything" and a handful of down-tempo ballads sprinkled with husky Strummer vocals, this is strictly "for completists only" material.

To the contrary, the 101ers' debut and swansong offers a fascinating preview of the fury and foundation that would launch the only band that matters. If you've seen Don Letts's documentary Westway to the World, you've heard snippets of this already. The album is definitely not punk—it's bare-bones pub rock that hints broadly at the beautiful storm to come, particularly during moments like Strummer's signature, impassioned howl at the end of "5 Star R 'n' R" and the locomotive, rockabilly groove on "Motor Boys Motor." There's a taste of his budding affection for reggae in a previously unreleased version of Jamaican rarity "Junco Partner," but what makes it all worthwhile is the waltzy, romantic croon of "Sweet Revenge," a song structured around a bittersweet melody and Strummer's rough-throated pleas that will leave listeners mourning for the man all over again. HANNAH LEVIN

XIU XIU
La Forêt
(5RC)
★★★1/2

Over the course of their three proper records to date, Xiu Xiu have gone to great lengths to defy sonic expectations—using unpredictability as a sort of structural center. With La Forêt, their fourth album, the weird thing is the band's unpredictability is becoming considerably more predictable. Which isn't to say that La Forêt is by any means a disappointment—on the contrary, the record features some of the band's most moving, complex, and beautiful songs to date. It's just that four albums in, we're beginning to have an idea of what to expect. The breakout, driving pop song ("Apistat Commander," "Crank Heart," and "I Luv the Valley OH!" are complemented by the masterful "Muppet Face"); the quiet, whispery, sad bastard numbers ("Mousey Toy"); and the relentless droning song ("Rose of Sharon") are all comfortably represented. The album holds a handful of surprises, but for the most part, La Forêt stays the course pretty consistently. As it comes from one of the greatest bands in the world, however, I'm not complaining. ZAC PENNINGTON

VARIOUS ARTISTS
PDX POP NOW! 2005
(Self-released)
★★★1/2

Compilations are, by their very nature, uneven affairs—meant more to showcase a variety of artists than offer a cohesive listen. That said, PDX Pop Now!'s sophomore offering is just as much a success as last year's debut. Sure, hiphop and klezmer are equally represented (one track apiece), and yes (surprise!), there's an overabundance of whiny dudes with four-tracks in their bedroom. But hey—that's Portland. The good folks who put out this comp and organize PDX Pop Now! have their hearts and ears in the right place. Listening to the standout contributions from such diverse artists as Dolorean, Desert City Soundtrack, the Gossip, Glass Candy, Point Line Plane, Viva Voce, the Snuggle Ups, M. Ward, Wet Confetti, Norfolk and Western, and the Helio Sequence, remind me what a fantastically creative and vibrant music scene we are lucky enough to have in our own backyard. KIP BERMAN

EXCEPTER
Throne
(Load)
★★★1/2

Songs used to be a dime a dozen, now they're not even a penny a dozen. By songs I mean those concise, predictable chunks of sound you've assiduously hoarded onto your iPod like so much comfort food. Now, I like songs. It's just that the ratio of great to mediocre ones has decreased alarmingly. Which is why I've long found greater sonic succor in music that deviates way off conventional songwriting's beaten path. And that's where bands like Excepter float in.

Excepter's 2003 debut album KA entered my headspace like a gas emanating from Charon. The tracks on KA mysteriously ululated like a hymn sung by stillborn gibbon fetuses—much like Black Dice's druggiest, most amorphous moments. KA was delightful bafflement at first listen. The follow-up, Throne, is Excepter in a holding pattern, but that's still more thrilling than 98.7 percent of the music you've downloaded, outlaw. The hallucinatory tone's set with opener "Jrone (Three)," as Caitlin Cook's heavily reverbed vocals diaphanously drift over a shredded bed of lo-fi electronics and distorted kalimbas. "Jrone (Two)" sounds like an evening with Marquis de Sade while an airplane idles outside the boudoir (yes, I know he's dead) and Tibetan monks utter guttural prayers. "(The Ass)" is a miasma of bestial howls and bleats and lysergic twitterings; think of it—and most of Throne—as an alternate soundtrack for that bit in 2001 where Dave travels through space to an awesome light show. Coming down ain't an option. DAVE SEGAL

GARY HIGGINS
Red Hash
(Drag City)
★★★★

With freaky folk bands blossoming like facial hair on today's youth, the time is ripe for Red Hash's reappearance. Brought back into circulation via Drag City employee Zach Cowie's Herculean efforts, this 1973 album is one of those works mostly heard by record-collecting royalty. Often, these reputedly legendary LPs fail to live up to the sky-high hype. Red Hash, however, is all that and a bag of kind bud.

The album begins with the gorgeously blissed folk number "Thicker Than a Smokey," which Six Organs of Admittance covered on School of the Flower. The song's hushed campfire glow and lilting, seesaw rhythm betoken the sonic grace that suffuses Higgins's compositions. If the country had heard this song throughout the '70s as often as it did James Taylor's output, we wouldn't be mired in our current mess.

"It Didn't Take Too Long" follows with a glorious dollop of sundowner folk rock, enhanced by a radiant peal of glass-fingered guitar. The peaceful, easy feeling (sorry) it instills gradually wanes, as Higgins and his sensitive band plunge into some dread-filled hymns and stately, solemn ballads. Paul Tierney's flute and mandolin and Maureen Wells's cello especially lend delicate shading to Higgins's durable meditations on angst and torment.

Red Hash should've shifted Cat Stevens–sized units, or at least have sold as well as David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, but, alas, it sank into obscurity. Drag City's benevolent resurrection of it—with two quality bonus tracks—is a major event. DAVE SEGAL

WENDY CARLOS
Rediscovering Lost Scores Vol. 1
(EastSide Digital)
★★★★

Switched-On synth pioneer Wendy Carlos has been cleaning out the archives with a series of hi-fi remasters—compiling her entire back catalog of film music and post-modern classical. The final two installments unearth her greatest unreleased film score, a heavy atmospheric body of work composed for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. According to Wendy's excellently nerdy liner notes, her compositions for The Shining—originally commissioned by Kubrick, and several years in the making—were eventually abandoned because Kubrick got so used to his temporary classical score. Combined with booming bass drums, live symphonic accompaniment, and even the voices of a few ghosties chanting "kill" and "redrum," there's a lot to like about Rediscovering's brassy Moog synth work—which also includes a few stunningly rare outtakes from the previous Kubrick/Carlos collaboration, her dark carnival soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. NATHAN CARSON

CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
(Self-released)
★★★

Brooklyn quintet Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have set the online indie community into a fervor last reserved for the Arcade Fire. Independently released and currently distributed exclusively through Insound.com, the band has received seemingly universal endorsement in a condensed period of time—which is only appropriate, because they condense universally acclaimed groups spanning '77 to '05.

CYHSY singer Alec Ounsworth joins a litany of agitated and intentionally amateurish vocalists: David Byrne, the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, Thom Yorke, and David Kilgour of the Clean being the glaringly obvious touchstones. What Ounsworth also shares with these examples is a persona of skewed, uncomfortable pitch. Drawing from post-punk's heritage of dissecting the more personal as political following punk's bullying rage-as-life elitism, Ounsworth exhibits a tendency toward obsessing over the interim and discredited alibis. A current indie rawk vogue is contemplating temporality and less-than-satisfying ends despite the means or memes, and Ounsworth's slurred and slouching syllables pertain to time, success, women, and wine—and the lack thereof.

All this boils over into music both jumpy and carefully measured. Percussion builds resolutely to a martial prance, while guitars and keyboards are more weary and woozy. And CYHSY's scratchy cryptography spans from the cathartic synchronicity of a Joy Division or U2 on "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" to Neutral Milk Hotel fuzz folk of "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood." All this doesn't equal 100 percent innovation or revelation, but it's indie rock's interim and CYHSY indicates anxiety gives way to epiphany. TONY WARE

★★★★ Sausage party
★★★ Pool party
★★ Pizza party
★ Frat party