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By Michael Henningsen

JULY 19, 1999: 

Girlfrendo Surprise! Surprise! It's Girlfrendo (March)

It's not that there's nothing of worth on the debut full-length by Sweden's Girlfrendo; it's just that you have to wade through a lot to get to the good stuff. First, there's the opening "Homework," which is just plain moronic, but at least it's short. Then you realize that you'd probably enjoy the extremely catchy songs a lot more were it not for the inappropriately harsh voices of female singers J. Frendo and Safari. These two would be great in front of a noisy guitar band in the Sleater-Kinney (or even Kenickie) tradition, but their yowling clashes messily with the creamy bubblegum arrangements, which in and of themselves are quite nice.

Then there's the lyrics. "Hey there supermarket superboy/Please come and be my instant joy." Oh, for Godsakes.

So what's good? "Make-Up" and "Sad Birthday Song" tone down the vocal stridency, and "Air" has a kicky Pizzicato 5-meets-the-Apples In Stereo retro feel, allowing you to overlook the lyrics, which are still screamingly bad. "Kisses in the Nursery" is an unaccompanied schoolyard chant short enough to be cute, and the dubby instrumental "Girlfrendo Sound System" benefits immensely from the lack of vocals. Otherwise, a new pair of singers (guitarist Golden Boy, who sings a little, can stay) and a decent lyricist might be enough to make Girlfrendo's next album something special. Until then, it's mostly just impressive that at last there's a Swedish pop band that's not brilliant.



Amp Stenorette (Kranky)

Expanding upon the ideas of such atmospheric-pop predecessors as My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins, San Francisco-based trio Amp (singer Karine Charff, multi-instrumentalist Richard Amp and programmer Olivier Gauthier) represent some sort of last outpost of pop music: Their albums near-obsessively examine the point at which pop songs cease to exist as such and become pure ambient waves of sound.

What creates Amp's peculiar tension is that the songs are never allowed to dissolve into formless soundscapes in the manner of many current post-ambient artists (witness just about every release in Darla Records' Bliss Out Series and pretty much everything ever put out by Trance Syndicate), but retain a structural integrity rooted in classic pop-song forms. Stenorette, the band's third full album -- they've also released a number of EPs and singles -- is actually the group's most overtly song-oriented work yet. Its 12 relatively concise tracks feature larger doses of Karine's ghostly, barely audible vocals and Richard's piano-based melodies, both of which made only sporadic appearances on the band's earlier full-lengths, Sirenes and Astralmoonbeamprojections. Until Kevin Shields gets off his ass and produces a follow-up to MBV's Loveless -- eight years, two record deals and several million dollars later, we're still waiting -- Stenorette will do more than nicely.



Terence Blanchard Jazz in Film (Columbia)

New Orleans-born, New York-based composer, performer and instructor Terence Blanchard has scored several films, most often in collaboration with director Spike Lee. For his new collection, Jazz in Film, Blanchard reinterprets nine film themes, from Alex North's 1951 "A Streetcar Named Desire" to Blanchard's own 1995 theme from Clockers. Freed from the constraints of soundtrack composition, Blanchard begins each piece with a statement of the main theme and goes from there into new melodic improvisations, handled equally by Blanchard's trumpet, tenor Joe Henderson and alto Donald Harrison. Henderson is the set's real star, delivering two stunning solos on Bernard Herrman's "Taxi Driver" and Elmer Bernstein's "The Man with the Golden Arm." The rhythm section, led by the great pianist Kenny Kirkland (who died shortly after these sessions), is supple and sympathetic, following the soloists with ease and skill. Despite the somewhat dry instructional title, Jazz in Film is a most satisfying new interpretation of film music.

-- Stewart Mason


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