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By Michael Henningsen

FEBRUARY 1, 1999: 

Orange Humble Band Assorted Creams (Half A Cow)

The Orange Humble Band is a one-off Aussie-American supergroup comprised of Ken Stringfellow (formerly of the Posies and currently R.E.M.'s deputy bassist), Darryl Mather (once of Australia's garage-rocking Lime Spiders and Someloves), Mitch Easter (Let's Active, Vinyl Devotion) and Anthony Bautovich (Lonely Hearts). Usually when a group of pals heads into the studio together, the results are formless, unstructured and profoundly dull to everyone but the participants' girlfriends and most uncriticial acolytes. Happily, that's far from the case here.

Recorded in late 1996 but only recently released, Assorted Creams is as strong as records come. Primary songwriter Mather has laid low since the Someloves' breakup some years back, giving him a large backlog of instantly memorable pop songs--there's not a dog to be found among the album's 15 tracks. Lead singer Stringfellow is in fine voice throughout, whether recalling the frailty of Big Star's Chris Bell on the gently expansive "Spinddizzy" or one-upping Mather's ex-bandmate Dom Mariani on a cover of the DM3's Easybeats-like "Can't Get What You Want." Mariani and Easter's multi-layered guitars are the band's groundwork, tastefully accented with strings, keyboards, sax and dobro as required.

"Little Picture Story Book" is the album's centerpiece, with a churchy piano underscoring the verses like something off of Carole King's Tapestry, leading through sections of acid-rock guitars into a delicate trumpet-accented chorus. It's a gorgeous song, one that neatly encapsulates the Orange Humble Band's many and varied charms. Assorted Creams is one of the most pleasant and unexpected surprises I've heard in a while. ¡¡¡¡ 1/2

Mark Bacino Pop Job: The Long Player (Parasol)

Unfortunately, the title of Mark Bacino's first album is slightly too apt. The New Yorker knows how to create catchy, smart power pop tunes ("Keep Me Awake" and the statement of purpose "Sugary" in particular are pound-the-dashboard-and-sing-along fantastic), but there's a faceless, workman-like quality to the somewhat too-slick production, and Bacino's somewhat gruff voice sounds jarring in this pristine environment. Pop Job is quite good, but with some rougher edges, Mark Bacino's next one could be great. ¡¡¡ 1/2

Eels Electro-Shock Blues (Dreamworks)

Singer/songwriter E (Mark Everett) has always had a dark, tortured streak. His two early-'90s solo records, A Man Called E and Broken Toy Shop, mixed

genuinely bleak and unpleasant lyrical concerns with somber but unfailingly inviting and often very catchy tunes. 1996's Beautiful Freak, by his new band the Eels, lightened the tone somewhat, and E was rewarded with massive airplay for the single

"Novocaine for the Soul" (still probably the oddest-sounding hit single of this decade) and the best sales and reviews of his career.

Then his sister Elizabeth killed herself. And then his father died. And then his mother was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Electro-Shock Blues concerns all of these events, starting with the chilling "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor" and continuing through the two-part "Going To Your Funeral" and the title track, based on a passage from Elizabeth's diary and perhaps the most honestly disturbing pop song since Lisa Germano (who contributes some heartbreaking violin to "Ant Farm") released "A Psychopath" four years ago.

However, where E's earlier work was sometimes monochromatic in its despair, Electro-Shock Blues is starkly beautiful ("Baby Genius"), often mordantly funny ("Hospital Food," "Cancer for the Cure") and, towards the end, redemptive and hopeful. The last two tracks in particular, "The Medication Is Wearing Off" and "P.S. You Rock My World," have an uplifting quality often absent in E's previous records.

Musically, Electro-Shock Blues runs the gamut from Odelay-like samples and beats to skeletal solo keyboards to fairly straightforward pop, each track having its own distinctive quality. Even without its cathartic lyrics, Electro-Shock Blues would be a remarkable musical achievement. With them, it approaches the level of masterpiece. ¡¡¡¡¡

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