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JULY 26, 1999: 

*** Spain SHE HAUNTS MY DREAMS (Restless)

This trio's second album of songs for star-crossed lovers is definitive mope rock -- tortoise-paced with burdened-shouldered singing and lyrics along the lines of "I couldn't leave her if I tried/For I have touched her deep inside/Why can't these people understand/Why I am so sad, so sad." But singer/songwriter/bassist Josh Hayden (son of jazzman Charlie) isn't just another hopeless romantic. The beauty of Spain is, in fact, that Hayden's breathy, labile vocals often give voice to hope and extol the joy of human connection. Even if his lovers are star-crossed, they at least understand what it's like to love. Sparkling glimmers of hope and faith also come in the unhurried piano-and-guitar melodies that occasionally shimmer into the mix. I can't imagine Spain's bittersweet molasses delivery is terribly exciting live, but some music is meant to be heard alone -- or maybe with just one other person.

-- Ted Drozdowski

**1/2 To Rococo Rot THE AMATEUR VIEW (Mute)

Among the many electronic-minded Germans cruising the musical autobahn in the post-Kraftwerk landscape, To Rococo Rot offer the smoothest ride. The artful Berlin trio's two full-lengths and an EP (which are about as easy to find stateside as authentic sauerbraten) spread out subtly melodic backdrops sprinkled over with resonant notes -- a sort of Teutonic precursor to the similar-minded French duo Air.

The Amateur View rides in the same stylistic lane, but To Rococo Rot's new compositions sound sluggish whenever it's time to accelerate. "Tomorrow" stacks up sounds one by one, starting with a mechanical drumbeat, then flowering into a collection of loops and buzzing synthetic wisps that spiral lackadaisically. If the track's meant to evoke procrastination -- as in, "I'll do it tomorrow and spend the rest of today plodding" -- then it's brilliant in a way. But like many of the other pieces here, it lacks dynamism. Still, the disc maintains a steely and maybe even naturalistic surface akin to Eno's Another Green World, yielding to the occasional pop melody when necessary. In the three-minute "Cars," To Rococo Rot parade electronic minimalism's charms, erecting a memorable little tune out of overlapping two- and three-note beats and intersecting guitar and keyboard parts. It's a non-vocal cousin of Trio's cult hit cum Volkswagen commercial "Da Da Da," and a reminder of the Germans' ability to tiptoe on the fine line between high art and pop cultcha.

-- Richard Martin

*** Thievery Corporation DJ KICKS (!K7)

DC club DJs Rob Garzan and Eric Hilton, a/k/a Thievery Corporation, are caffeinated beatmasters who share a love of jazz, bossa nova, and other dance lounge exotica. DJ Kicks, a summer-cocktail compilation of works by Corporation-approved acts and the men themselves, represents what a typical martini-soaked night in DC's 18th Street Global Lounge might sound like, ambient lulls and all. Corporation's transcontinental lovefest takes us to Brazil, London, India, and Jamaica, bringing back head-turning if not head-spinning sounds while avoiding new-agey condescension.

The opening track, Les Baxter's "Tropicando," sets the tone -- a slice of cannily timed flute-punctuated bossa nova moist enough to steal Austin Powers's mojo. Further pleasures are provided by the shuffling Middle Eastern lines of Up, Bustle & Out's "Emerald Alley" and the Corporation's own "Coming from the Top," a horn-fueled suite that places Chemical Brothers iceboxed funk on the mainstage of an African drum-banging competition. Unfortunately, Garzan and Hilton assume the party's stalled at a 9 if the Punjabs and Brits aren't tapping along together; too many tracks flow from chill London syncopation to "exotic" Indian flourishes and back again. Despite these occasional snoozers, however, Kicks is a breezy Saturday-night disc.

-- Joseph Manera

*** The Herbaliser VERY MERCENARY (Ninja Tune)

London-based collective the Herbaliser stand out from their peers on London's Ninja Tune label because along with turntable wizardry they regularly employ MCs, horn riffs, and live bass. Their latest continues the Herbaliser tradition of subtle beat chemistry, fusing big-band jazz, spacious string arrangements, and chilled-out rapping from Bahamadia, the Dream Warriors, and Roots Manuva into an album that grooves like the lost Lalo Shifrin soundtrack to a b-boy James Bond flick. The spy-noir theme holds the album together until the Herbaliser's attempt at a disjointed, cut-and-paste, old-school hip-hop number ("Wall Crawling Giant Insect Breaks"), which is merely an exercise in scratching and beat juggling, or an argument in favor of finally proroguing the current '80s hip-hop nostalgia fad.

-- Michael Endelman

*** John Blair Party VOLUME 1: DJ DAVID KNAPP (Logic)

At present, John Blair is New York City's hottest club-life event promoter, and DJ David Knapp, Blair's first presentation on CD, is fast becoming a major house-music spinner. If his live DJing is anything like the flamboyant screaming diva music, luscious beats, and high-stepping synthesizer bursts he programs in these 12 tracks, then he merits this reputation. Knapp is an uncompromising house stylist; electronica, trip-hop, and alterna-rock fans get no chance at all amid his disco happiness. The sonic glamor, flaunted drama, and oratorical ecstasies never let up, from the opening outcries of his and Angee Renee's "Calling Back," Ruff Rivers' "Dreaming," and Plasmic Honey's "Take It to the Top" all the way to fiery, woman-love hits like Cevin Fisher's "You Got Me Burning Up" and Blondie's "Maria." There's also a deep-house remix of Regina Belle's "Had Enough" that's as sultry as this primmest of supper-club stylists has ever allowed herself to be.

-- Michael Freedberg

** David Thomas and the Pale Orchestra MIRROR MAN: ACT ONE: JACK & THE GENERAL (Cooking Vinyl import)

In a more perfect world, every Cuyahoga County schoolkid would know that Cleveland native David Thomas is the eccentric leader of Pere Ubu, the most inspired and original postpunk band ever to come out of northeast Ohio. Their late-'70s caterwaul was as definitive of that post-industrial wasteland as Jim Jarmusch's deader-than-deadpan movies or Harvey Pekar's down-but-never-out comics. By 1985, however, the world's continued imperfection led Thomas to move to England, the green and pleasant retirement home of all frustrated art-rockers. Although he has since revived Pere Ubu, this behemoth "solo" album is a tribute to and from his foreign hosts, commissioned for a four-day London festival entitled "David Thomas: Disastrodome!" and recorded live at that 1998 celebration.

Mirror Man serves up a modulating but unbroken tone poem in which seven different "singers" step forward in rotation to recite new pieces or highly modified versions of recent Ubu compositions. Behind them, a six-member band supply slow, undulating waves of simple chord changes electronically distorted into strange timbres. Thomas does well by his one featured lead in "Nowheresville," and Linda Thompson throws a loose Western swagger into her comely British accent, but many others just over-emote, underscoring the occasional clumsiness of the poetry and reminding you that better examples of this stuff abound, from Allen Ginsberg's famous "Howl" to Michael Hall's obscure "Frank Slade's 29th Dream."

-- Franklin Soults

**1/2 Cake Like GOODBYE, SO WHAT (Vapor)

Sweet, messy, fragile -- they're Cake Like all right. The all-female trio known for their latter-day punk/DIY success story -- they picked up their boyfriends' instruments on a whim, banged out postpunk as if they'd invented it themselves, and had barely learned how to play when they were discovered and signed by John Zorn -- have acquired some inevitable polish over six years and three records but are no less endearing for their mix of trailer-park kitsch and downtown Manhattan irony. Singer Kerri Kenney can't quite balance the sarcasm with the earnestness her music requires (she's better-known for her TV sketch-comedy work on The State and Viva Variety), but as a comic, she does know timing. The CD's 12 tunes clock in at a punklike 33:35; they're more ideas for songs than songs, and when they run out, Cake Like know when to stop. With Jody Seifert's shambling drums, Nina Hellman's feedback-squealing guitars, and Kenney's nimble fuzztone bass and whisper-to-a-scream vocals (backed by sugary la-la harmonies from her bandmates), Cake Like resemble no one so much as the Breeders (remember them?). In 1993, this album would have sounded like genius; now, it's merely an almost classical-sounding noise-pop record.

-- Gary Susman

** Add N to (X) AVANT HARD (Mute)

Add N to (X) are a London synth trio (augmented by two drummers) who have a penchant for antique analog synthesizers. In recent years, myriad artists have embraced the vintage sound of analog to create everything from bubbly pop (Stereolab) to feedback-drenched drones (Swirlies) to textural instrumentals (Tortoise). The best moments on Avant Hard, Add N to (X)'s third CD, come when the band combine all three approaches, composing largely instrumental songs with pop structures and lengths while overloading their synths to provide noise and texture. "Robot New York," for example, layers a coruscating synth melody over a repetitive rhythmic figure. "Metal Fingers in My Body" is an insistently catchy headbanging keyboard exercise with a robotic vocoder vocal.

Too often, though, Add N to (X) merely experiment with sound effects. "Barry 7's Contraption," which amounts to electronic carnival music, and "Ann's Everready Equestrian," a formless blend of dreary organs and what sound like galloping horses, may be interesting as art projects. But as songs they have little to offer.

--Alec Hanley Bemis

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