Beef Terminal
Anger Do Not Enter
(Noise Factory)

Canadian guitar manipulator MD Matheson has recorded four albums as Beef Terminal, and while that name implies images of girth and groin, Anger Do Not Enter is more like the sound of seagulls spawning, turtles migrating south and David Gilmour meeting up with Tears for Fears. A paid-in -full member of the 'serious guitarist meets effects' school, Matheson lays down delicate, sweetly upturned guitar loops like he owns the franchise, sometimes spinning them over chunky big beats, other times layering them in rustic arrangements without explicit rhythms. This formula remains pretty constant throughout, and slowly grows on you. All in all, Matheson's unique warblings offer safe haven from the hard-headed dance idiocy and heavy metal hilarity that dots the downloadable landscape.



Smadj
Take It and Drive
(Rasa)

Performance ****
Sound ***

Once the domain of nose-hairy collectors who polished their Folkways records while smoking a pipe full of British Windjammer, today's world music is as likely to be an indigenous person from some faraway island as one sampled and looped into a plastic palette created in an LA studio. Paris-based Tunisian musician Smadj makes music that falls somewhere between those opposite poles. Take It and Drive is a shameless mix of native vocals and electronics, acoustic instruments and samplers bulleting a blue sky. An oud player by profession, Smadj brings more than simple sample theft to bear in these dense, rapid-fire collage pieces. Entirely improvised (with the help of Talvin Singh, tablas; Deirdre Dubois and Amit Chatterjee, vocals; and Mehdi Haddab, oud), Take It and Drive is ambitious and at times, breathtaking. This music pulses and explodes, live instruments resonating as electronics soar while vocals, often looped on the fly, fill in the gaps like machine gun fire in a riot zone. - Outstanding.
Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid
The Exchange Sessions Vols 1 & 2
(Domino)

Performance *** ½
Sound ***

In his sampling jockey guise as Four Tet, Kieran Hebden is one of the most fertile and expansive minds in show biz, using freaky sounds and warped instrumental textures to create music that falls somewhere between the Beatles' "Revolution #9" and the lulling soundwash of a Yosemite waterfall at dusk. Paired up with free drummer Steve Reid (who provided the rhythmic thunder behind Martha and the Vandella's "Dancing in the Street", along with sessions that included Miles Davis, Fela Kuti and James Brown), Hebden's music takes on added dimension, as if a jet crash, crushed metal and mangled bodies were suddenly added to his formerly blissful waterfall state. In live performance as on these discs, the pair simply jam for extended periods, Reid on drums and Hebden on sampler and computer. The resultant sound is initially hard to take, much less understand, but repeated listenings reveal a previously buried form, a long logic that is similar to a garrulous free jazz improvisation. The improvs chase illusive ghosts, shoot down blind alleyways only to suddenly burst out into the light – and down that dark waterfall. This is not for everyone but for those with ears to hear, let them hear.

Tool
10,000 Days
(Jive)

Performance ***
Sound ** ½

10,000 Days is the most tension-filled, dynamic and undoubtedly complex album of Tool's 13-year career. Playing more like a multi-limbed single organism than four heavy metal heads crashing the same mammoth riff (as with their last metal prog epic, 2001's Lateralus), Tool used time off between records to experiment and learn, resulting in an album of winding instrumental pieces, cyclical themes and multiple drum solos. And the heavy heroics that made the band famous are as obvious, pretentious and masterful as ever. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and Carey pursued various paths of self exploration to create their most jaw-dropping work to date.

"The theme of the album is growth and communication'," Carey has said. "But we are more cynical this time than on our last couple of records. We are angrier about the state of affairs worldwide. The threat that you can't escape is running through all our lives."

"Carey is rumored to have recorded his drums in a room filled with helium and he's joked that when his new Sonor drums arrived, he smoked whatever it was that was lying in the bottom of the shells. This typically bizarre behavior for Tool, reflected in a series of overly long, extended songs that take up to 12 minutes in some cases to find ultimate release. The guitar riffs are galvanic and weighty, recalling Tony Iommi and Robert Fripp. Carey's use of his own Mandala pads create everything from sitars to tablas and Maynard's vocals are perhaps more up-front than ever as he intones madness like "damn, Sudafed, shit the bed" in the turbulent space jam "Rosetta Stoned". "Jambi", "The Pot", "Vicarious" - this is a band for whom rumored devil worship, Masonic leanings and esoteric stoner séances only add to the creative fervor that should challenge lesser bands. And aren't they all?


The handsome family
Last Days of Wonder
(Carrot Top)

Performance *** ½
Sound ***

Herald lyrics of death, fire and Appalachian inbreeding: "We tied [the captain] to a tree/We stared into the fire and tried not to hear his screams." Or consider this mini tale of cannibalism and thievery: "We shot and ate the horses/We marched through deadly swamps/Inside a limestone cave I found a human skull/Yes, Mary, I found a human skull." Smart indie rock lovers will rapidly know that these could only be the twisted commentaries of Albuquerque's husband-and-wife musical team, The Handsome Family. Thoughtfully plucked banjos and acoustic guitars and the ghost of the Hank Williams, Brett and Rennie Sparks create "love songs" about "airports, garbage dumps, drive-thru windows and shark-infested waters" (as the liner notes explain). If the lyrics weren't so fantastic, you could envision yourself dining with June Carter and Johnny Cash before an early 60s Grand Ole Opry performance but the duo's endless absurdist imagery derails any chance of friendly feelings. Brett's deep baritone is gentle even when singing "Nicola Tesla dreamed of a death ray to disintegrate matter" or "shopping carts of garbage overturn in silver ponds". By linking the typically romanticized past to the dreadful present (and what seems to be an increasingly unsure future), The Handsome Family's seventh album casts a messy life somewhere between Boris Karloff and Porter Wagoner - and the jokes only get better.
The Wreckers
Stand Still - Look Pretty
(Maverick)

Performance ***
Sound ***

Tweny-two year old Michelle Branch has grown weary of alterna-rock success. Just check out her website rant of a few years ago where she complained of having to "suck *** to get her music heard". Ouch. The Wreckers is Branch's stab at mainstream country success and judging by the country drool and cowboy fools that fill American Idol, Branch is probably into something. Joined by former session singer Jessica Harp,who contributes more material here than does Branch, The Wreckers are a perfectly innocuous summer confection like Sheryl Crow without the internal grit or the Dixie Chicks without the intimate harmonies and gut-punching tunes. To be fair, The Wreckers debut doesn't live up to their live performances, which rock harder and show the girls' immense stage presence to much better effect. Stand Still – Look Pretty works all the new country clichés: banjos, fiddle, yee haw two-beat rhythms but the sound is essentially alterna rock lite - pouty lips, polished cheeks and all.
Raconteurs
Broken Boy Soldiers
(V2)

Performance ****
Sound **1/2

Ever seen that bumpersticker "If you aren't disgusted yet, you haven't been paying attention?" Much the same could be said for Jack White's claim to fame, the terminally overrated White Stripes. With his wife/sister/lover (I never could figure out which) playing pedestrian and maddeningly out-of-time drums, White used the White Stripes to spreads his alterna blues gospel, conning much of the UK into believing that he was the second coming of Muddy Waters. Many thought if only White could get a proper band to give his caterwauling vocals and guitar direction, the sky would be the limit. Well, settle for Mt. Everest. The Raconteurs, which includes another overrated boy toy in Brendan Benson, turn in a shockingly good if derivative album that delivers on all the promise White only hinted at before. Broken Boy Soldiers is riotous good fun, from the '60s British blues rock howl of the title track (complete with devilish guitar swirls and Zeppelin allusions) to the stumbling noise rock of "Intimate Recovery", the bluesy New Wave of "Steady As She Goes" and the hyper, near Deep Purple Hammond B3 derangement of "Store Bought Bones'. The Raconteurs is everything fans of Jack White, if not the White Stripes, could hope for: a retro rock record with one foot in the early '60s and the other up alterna-rock's soggy big butt
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Toots Thielemans
One More For The Road
(Verve)

Performance ** ½
Sound ***

The great chromatic harmonica player Toots Thielemans -- who made memorable such tracks as the closing sequence to The Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, his own Bluesette and literally hundreds of other songs -- has met the infamous duets format and come up the loser. Toots plays as beautifully as ever, his soulful moan somewhere between the exuberant howl of Stevie Wonder and the mournful cry of Lester Young. But he is no match for the cast of characters assembled here who sound like they didn't know Toots was in the room. But then, maybe he was'nt. Lizz Wright offers a banal "Come Rain or Come Shine"; Silje Nergaard, who sounds like she may be 12 does her best to sound adult on "Last Night When We Were Young"; annoying punk Jamie Cullum goes hammy for "One For My Baby (and One More For The Road)"; and even Beth Hart and Oleta Adams get called up from career extinction for a couple standards. Oh yeah, Toots toots near the end of every track, just so they can put his name on the album. He does offer a glorious (non-vocal) version of "Ill Wind" and a sublime reading of "Over The Rainbow". That's it. Two solo tracks for the finest harmonica man of this or any generation.
Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere
(Atlantic)

Performance ****
Sound ***

The barmy mad duo of soul crooner Cee-Lo and Gorillaz beat-blender Danger Mouse create a new wrinkle on the urban landscape: R&B with a twist of sweet soul dementia. On a recent Conan O'Brien performance, the entire band -- singers, brass and rhythm section, and the Gnarly duo front and center -- dressed to a man in hospital fatigues, towels and shower caps. So it's no surprise that as the album unfolds, the music grows increasingly bizarre and alternately sweet and nauseous. Like Curtis Mayfield wandering blind amid a trash dump of sampled Motown and Stax artifacts, the songs cover a lot of ground: a beatbox cover of Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone"; a disco send-up in album closer "The Last Time" and the harmonica shout and juggling juke beat of opening track "Go-Go Gadget Gospel", which is both joyous and insane, like Al Green praising sweet Jesus in a full-throttle voodoo ceremony.











Cassandra Wilson
Thunderbird
(Blue Note)

Performance ****
Sound *** ½

Cassandra Wilson's voice is the perfect accompaniment to the sizzling heat of middle summer. An instrument that can be alternately sweet, husky, dry, sexy, liquid, pungent and mysterious, Wilson's voice has a life of its own, one that has provided a point of total immersion for 15 albums of weathered, often experimental and largely acoustic blues, pop, folk and jazz. On Thunderbird, the music is as daringly experimental and uncanny as the singer herself.

Joined by producer T Bone Burnett (who releases his own very fine solo album next month), Wilson is also accompanied by a stellar cast in guitarists Marc Ribot and Keb Mo, keyboardist Keefus Ciancia, bassist Reginald Veal and drummers Jim Keltner and Bill Maxwell - among other musicians. But what these musicians play results in something far from simple performances. Instead, much of the action is in the realm of Pro Tools technology, Burnett surrounding the singer's mighty pipes in humid loops and nearly impenetrable samples borne of studio trickery, the currency of all modern music. Thankfully, it doesn't overshadow Wilson's vocals - and in some cases, it allows her to stretch as never before.

Thunderbird begins with a sample of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a legendary tribe of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. The sample, which introduces "Go To Mexico", has a righteous bump, dancing-in-the-street joy, all shaky piano, bubbling vocals and choogling rhythm. Wilson adds inscrutable lyrics about "itchy hands" and "a helicopter too close to me", resulting in a spooky jaunt that is the perfect starter to this album of sensual swelter.

Amid a menu of covers and original tracks, Wilson interprets Jakob Dylan's "Closer to You", Willie Dixon's "II Want to Be Loved", Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Easy Rider" and the traditional song "Red River Valley", the only outright dud among the album's ten tracks. Wilson riffs on "Closer to You" over twinkling studio polka dots and a deep-gutted Reginald Veal bass solo. The drums and keyboards buck like a jittery horse, making the song gallop with a frenetic gate that gives the song even greater uncertainty.

Wilson's "It Would Be So Easy" rides a rolling groove, with chicken scratch guitar and woozy bass that seems to spring from a bed of static and heat like some Talking Heads-meets-Curtis Mayfield mistake. And it works. The song is an anthem that rocks in circles, impossible to resist. "Poet" has the percussive suicide hit of a Kip Hanrahan track, desolate urban overload saved by vocals of grace. Jim Keltner's drunken drumming props up a lazy reading of "I Want to be Loved", and Wilson's voice is at its most serene and beautiful on "Lost". "Strike A Match" posits Wilson as sultry voodoo priestess, entrancing all who listen as looped and effected sounds wrap you in some freak hypnotic gauze. Strings circle, pianos puzzle, this is delirious terrain.

As with all Wilson albums, there are moments of bliss and moments that miss, all the stuff of an artist willing to take chances, damn the hobgoblin of little minds. Only, Thunderbird seems more of a piece than some earlier albums, whether fueled by sonic textures, inspiration or simply the unified majesty of Cassandra Wilson's intoxicating delivery.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Show Your Bones
(Interscope)

Performance *** ½
Sound ***

When singer Karen O, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase hit the ground running in 2003, the world took notice and the New York band worked it for all its worth. Only, they forgot to add the songs. Sure, Fever To Tell's collective squeal, led by O's giraffe-on-dopamine stage antics and Zinner's stone-faced fury, packed a punch but the punch was all in one riff, repeated ad infinitum until it resembled a song. Happily, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have more vision than most (think Interpol, Franz Ferdinand). Show Your Bones reveals a band that intends to put up and make you shut up. Their thoughts are fully organized in songs that wail and contort, defame and inflame, the sound of three punk-prone players intent on demolishing their first album with fusillades of energy and pop melody. Show Your Bones builds on textures not present on 2003's Fever To Tell, yet manages to retain all of O's glorious caterwauling intoxication, sexual frustration and the band's heady Yeah-thought. Opener "Gold Lion" starts acoustic oddly enough but is soon overcome by Zinner's guitar and O's larynx-strobing thrill. That is the template for Show Your Bones, nearly every song a manic good pop trash treat, complete with the kind of instrumental detail only a great band in the making could muster. "Way Out", "Fancy" and "The Sweets", it's a noisy Phil Spectorized wall-of-noise soundtrack for the summer.
Pat Martino
Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery
(Blue Note)

Performance *** ½
Sound *** ½

On this, his second tribute disc to '60s master guitarist Wes Montgomery, current generation master guitarist Pat Martino performs five songs by Wes, one by Carl Perkins (!), another by bassist Sam Jones, two by Milt Jackson,and even a standard. But one thing is clear: this is all about Montgomery, from its super-chunk chordal work and simmering swing to ballads as deep as the Grand Canyon. Every player from Pat Metheny to George Benson to Charlie Hunter claims Montgomery as an influence but Martino seems more indebted than most. His pure touch and intricate fingering are easily traceable to Montgomery but more importantly, his soul is connected, sounding out in blue tones and dark chordal work. The consummate Montgomery vehicle "Four on Six" opens the album, a brisk piano/guitar line leading to pert solos from Martino and drummer Scott Robinson. Ringers Dave Kikoski (piano) and John Patitiucci (bass) are also spitting fire throughout. Montgomery's "Full House" gets the barnyard Latin treatment, comfortably kicking from mambo to swing, followed by Jackson's lush ballad "Heartstring" where Martino plies fat chords against thick single-note phrasing. "Twisted Blues" and "Road Song" have a 1960s' small club feel, no doubt reminding Martino of his many years spent playing organ joints with saxophonist Willis Jackson. A joyous deep- grooved soul permeates Remember - the sound of like minded masters meeting in the intimate telepathy that is jazz.
Ane Brun
A Temporary Dive
(V2)

Performance *** ½
Sound ***

Spilling Bjork-sian vocal warbles accompanied by simple acoustic guitar, Scandinavian folkie Ane Brun is this year's saddest coffeehouse sweetheart - and she's got us all teared up in her wake. Already a superstar back home, Brun looks poised to be rushed into the world of Devendra Banhart and the like but her talent is more than surface deep. Hints of Beth Orton peek through Brun's emotionally gripping songs, eerie, aching (and often oddly playful) vehicles where the singer considers her love-life wounds and finds sustenance in self analysis. "To Let Myself Go" swirls with Elizabethan cadences as strings and disembodied voices circle like death angels. Doleful mini pop star Ron Sexsmith joins Brun for "Song No. 6", "a sobby pink song about you" that bounces with a good natured C&W twang before the dark clouds roll back in. Brun croons like Slim Whitman on the scary-in-the-desert aire "Balloon Ranger", rides over haunting strings worthy of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" in "My Lover Will Go" and recalls the solemnity of Joni Mitchell's Blue on the title track, an engaging song about "sitting on the cold dirt floor counting the panes on the wall" and "building a ladder from broken wishbones". If one of the hardest things is to share your soul with a lone guitar and voice, A Temporary Dive is an easy triumph
Hard-Fi
Stars of CCTV
(Atlantic)

Performance *** ½
Sound ***

At first listen, multi-platinum selling British four-piece Hard-Fi sound like yet another Clash- ripping, bad-attitude-espousing band of loudmouths in need of a little restraint and perhaps a slap across the face. Jail time? Maybe in their future. Sure, the Clash/Specials comparisons are apt but by the end of Stars of CCTV, it is clear that Hard-Fi are retro punk, reggae, bittersweet blues, raging rock and more, with depth and insight galore. Introspective and inspired, Hard-Fi led by singer songwriter Richard Archer (who sings like a mad cross between Graham Parker and Damon Albarn), blew out of musty Staines and captured the UK consciousness to dominate #1. "Middle Eastern Holiday" storms over a noisy palette (this album is noisy) of blaring guitar bombs and frat-boy choruses but the melody and sense of remorse is anything but punch drunk. Opener "Cash Machine" begins with delicate upright bass and sad harmonica that crashes into verses about an ATM screen informing our hero that his account is once again, in the red. "What am I going to do," he asks, "my girlfriend's just turned blue? I can't afford to be a daddy." His feeling of hopelessness and angst is reflected throughout the album, but always with a riveting hook and a blast of bracing melody in tow. Raise your pint, light your ciggie and get hard!
Congotronics
(Crammed)

Billed as the "buzz'n'rumble from the urb'n'jungle", this nine track collection of Kinshasa's resourceful DIY percussion crews is traditional and modern, melodic and hypnotic. Following the success of Konono No 1, inveterate recorder Vincent Kenis returned to the Congolese city to capture even more far-out sounds. While press claims about these musicians being the missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Can are typical hyperbole, the music is nonetheless fascinating. Creating instruments from the detritus of the urban trash dump, groups like Kasai Allstars, Kisanzi Congo and Bolia We Ndenge show incredible incentive both mechanical and musical. Electric thumb pianos are made from telephone wire wrapped around crushed car alternators. Hubcaps suspended on axles stand in for high hats; salvaged parts turn into guitars; sardine cans and steel springs become rattles. Leave a dump unattended and these guys will build you an orchestra. Singing folk chants over these rattling, warbling syncopated percussion stews is a mindblower. The angular beats and resonant instruments sound like a minimalist off-Broadway troupe (Blue Man Group undressed?), accompanying a native folk crew. Or perhaps Stewart Copeland's Rumblefish driven back to its source material? Also included is a 41-minute DVD showing six of these bands filmed during the recordings in the Congo.
The Streets
The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living
(Interscope)

Performance **
Sound **

The Street's Mike Skinner is England's answer to Emimen, a mouthy (of course) rapper whose clipped cadences and simple backing sequences not only cleverly boast of London- centric living but with this, his third album, the downside of international success. Skinner's 2002 debut Original Pirate Material was a righteous slap to the skull, a liberal depiction of a day in the life of council flats and a dead-end London future, well articulated by a young rapper unafraid to flaunt rap cliché. Every track was bracing and insightful. The Hardest Way lacks the adolescent thrill of his debut but Skinner's worldview retains interest though he spends much of the album moaning about "flashing his flow at Saville Row",
"[being] off my face from 4 to 11pm", "unbearable headaches", doing lines, lawyers, meetings, global politics, everything but the life of the street. Skinner still has a riveting sense of humor, usually taking the piss out of himself (his attack on ATM fees in "Momento Mori" is a hoot) before attacking his external environment - but the real problem is a lack of inspiration. The backing tracks are more repetitive than rollicking, the tempos are similar throughout, and Skinner's endless critique of his own success, though meant as a cautionary tale, quickly wears thin.