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AUGUST 16, 1999: 

***1/2 Superchunk COME PICK ME UP (Merge)

Born out of a desire to bridge the gap between American hardcore punk and the melancholy chime of New Zealand indie pop, Superchunk have always been about balancing poignant emotions and powerful noise. "It is my life, it is my voice/It is stupid, it is my noise," proclaimed singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan on the band's Superchunk debut, back in '89, with an immediacy that suggested he'd found his mission in life. Come Pick Me Up, the Chapel Hill foursome's seventh full-length, coincides with the 10th anniversary of Superchunk and the indie label he runs with the band's bassist, Laura Balance (Merge). And it finds Superchunk -- McCaughan, Balance, guitarist Jim Wilbur, and drummer Jon Wurster -- still building their version of punk pop on a foundation of bittersweet sentiments and well-crafted songwriting. The band have never worked with the same producer or engineer twice, and this time they've brought in Chicago avant-gardist Jim O'Rourke of Gastr del Soul. He encourages them to add strings and horns to tracks like "June Showers," "Pink Clouds," and "Hello Hawk," helping to frame Superchunk as the mature, subtle, occasionally elegant band they've become. Come Pick Me Up is also punctuated with sparkling, energetic, occasionally even optimistic gems like "Good Dreams," "June Showers," and "Pulled Muscle." And on "Tiny Bombs," a song that could easily be referring to "My Noise," McCaughan ponders, "What's it worth for a stupid song?/Well, this is what haunts me." Me too, in the best possible way. -- Mark Woodlief

**1/2 Octant SHOCK-NO-PAR (Up)

The computer-controlled, mechanically operated drum set that is central to Octant's existence may be a gimmick or an exercise in indulgent performance art, but it's also a functioning member of a band composed of inventor/programmer and songwriter/vocalist Matthew Steinke and vocalist/button pusher Tassany Zimmerman. The "automated acoustic" drums -- Steinke's creation -- would fit right in with the space suits and flickering B&W TV sets of Man . . . or Astroman?'s retro-futurist stage shtick. Although less frenetic and more melodic than the Astromen, Octant have the same penchant for melding the random and the outmoded. Instead of surf, however, Steinke pinches pop from the '60s and '80s, favoring concise, keyboard-driven tunes with the occasional extended experimental bridge. The songs seem to spoof Brit-pop and new wave, but taken uncynically they sound well-constructed and serious. Stiff, spare beats anchor hooky Moog bleats and stream-of-consciousness lyrics sung quietly in an affected English accent. The irony is earnest; Steinke, in search of musical maturity, incorporates the absurd. And once you've chuckled at the R2-D2 bleeps and the more-Damon-than-Damon-Albarn vocals of "Revert," the album's airy melodies and fanciful breaks will charm you. -- Nick Catucci

*** Kristin Hersh SKY MOTEL (4AD)

Such was Kristin Hersh's situation after two years of muselessness: the musician who once admitted "My mouth is full of demons/I swear to God" found her mouth empty. A funny thing happens when you're possessed and then, suddenly, whoever's in control just up and vacates; you're forced to figure out how to speak in your own words. And so, Hersh explains, she made herself write. And write she did! And play she did -- all instruments except the drum parts on four tracks. Voilà! -- Sky Motel, the happiest medium imaginable between the alterna-rock of the Throwing Muses and the acoustic quality of her solo work. Skip straight to the "Dizzy"-like "San Francisco": muffled vocals and slightly off guitar chords stick in a molasses groove as she sincerely sings "God bless the hard way." Later, on the super-slow "Husk": "When you're smoke, how do you speak? . . . c'mon out, c'mon out, write with me." What these carefully penned lyrics lack is the bittersweet obscurity that marked Muses' stories, but what they gain is intent. Hersh now knows exactly what she's saying. She's aware, and she seems happy that way. "This is no time to fuck up," she sings on "Clay Feet." And she hasn't. -- Robin A. Rothman

*** Guided by Voices DO THE COLLAPSE (TVT)

Half the kick of seeing Guided by Voices is watching former-grade-school-teacher-turned-rock-and-roll savior Robert Pollard make like Roger Daltrey with the mike cord and Jackie Chan with his feet. The rest comes from hearing all those hissy, home-recorded nuggets that Pollard and his Dayton pals have been four-tracking for the past 20 years recast as proud-to-be-loud rock tunes. So anyone familiar with the stage version of GBV won't be entirely surprised by the big rock production of Do the Collapse, the first full-on studio recording by the "band," who now count Pollard as the only founding member with former Cobra Verde guitarist Doug Gillard, ex-Breeder drummer Jim MacPherson, and former Amp/Breeder bassist Nate Farley. And now that you know Ric Ocasek produced the disc, there's no reason to be blindsided by the Cars-y synths that pop up on the opening number.

The prolific Pollard and his extended GBV family (including Tobin Sprout) have, under various guises, been flooding the market with their clever brand of homemade guitar pop ever since Bee Thousand turned their little drinking game into the hottest oddity to come out of Ohio since Pere Ubu's Datapanik -- and for those of you who prefer the old, unpolished GBV to the slick new one, there's Pollard's amusing new Lexo and the Leapers release Ask Them: #2 in the Fading Captain Series (Rockathon). So from a marketing perspective, a new band, label, and studio approach make a lot of sense. The results sound, well, a lot more like Oasis than most indie enthusiasts would probably like to admit. And that's not a bad thing at all. But it's hard not to come away with the sense that, as well as GBV's songs hold up to Ocasek's polishing, the time for Pollard to become the rock star he'd like to be has come and gone. -- Matt Ashare

*** Gordon Lightfoot SONGBOOK (Rhino)

Because his vocals are earnest even when he's gliding through ditties like "Cotton Jenny," Gordon Lightfoot has cast himself as one of our most solemn singer-songwriters. Nineteen albums to his credit and barely a smirk -- gotta be some kind of record. I'm pro-caprice, so how do I justify a three-decade regard for Gordo and his poker face? Pure melody. From early attempts at Jim Reeves C&W to late-career rewrites of earlier motifs, these 88 songs define coercive tunefulness. It resounds in the newly issued "A Message to the Wind." And it's there in "That Same Old Obsession," a gorgeous track from 1972. Time and again, melody helps regulate the preciousness that tries to swamp the Canadian vet's work. Songbook aptly connects the dots of a rounded career arc -- the well-regarded folkie of the '60s has a wistfulness similar to the lite-pop hitmaker of the '70s. And though I'm dubious about any compilation that forsakes "Minstrel of the Dawn" for trivia like "A Lesson in Love," this package has a sense of completeness about it. By the time it closes out, old Gordo seems more persuasive than ever. -- Jim Macnie

*** Ghost TUNE IN TURN ON FREE TIBET (Drag City)

*** Ghost SNUFFBOX IMMANENCE (Drag City)

With the 32 minutes of mood swings on Tune In's title cut, Ghost show why they're Japan's reigning schizo-delics. The track is a rush of white noise and swelling decay that buzzes like a power station. At one point it echoes like an outtake from Eno's Another Green World; at another it bubbles into a cacophony of sine waves as Masaki Batoh pounds the album's only drums into an organ-led march. Although largely atonal, the track does bring to mind the melodic peaks of a dozen symphonies filtered through shortwave interference. And just when you think Ghost are going to ride those peaks forever, they crash to calmer, prettier plateaux where Batoh's chiming acoustic guitar and deep vocals are pierced by guitarist Michio Kurihara's acid inventions and flute-like feedback, à la his heroes Quicksilver and Can.

The rest of Tune In and the simultaneously released Snuffbox Immanence are filled with sweet mantras, space-rock fairy dust, and wild-child balladry. Whereas the band churned out the thick, dark, incense-like tunes of the pro-Dalai Lama Tune In in just a month, it's reported they needed a year of overdubbing trumpets, glockenspiels, and weeping strings to construct Snuffbox's pastoral, folk-trance melodies. Snuffbox includes a surreal summer-of-love romp through the Stones' "Live with Me," but "Daggma" is the standout. Its cello constructions rub against vibes that are locked in Steve Reich-ian repetitions, yielding a beautiful yearning that deconstructs into a liberating unrest. -- Tristram Lozaw


Thank God for power pop -- it's one musical chasm that remains virtually unspoiled by critical acclaim or trend banging, so contemporary popsters don't have to feel self-conscious about playing melodic tunes that evoke the Beatles, Badfinger, and Big Star. Bill Lloyd, a former country songwriter with a career-long pop jones, explores the musical pros and cons of stoking pop's eternal flame in 1999 on his third full-length solo disc, which is aptly titled Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. "He was born just a little too late in the 20th century/Too late for a man to write a new page in history," he admits on the title track, but Lloyd's song craftsmanship is so good that it doesn't matter. The underlying twang of "(Who You Gonna) Run to Now" recalls his days in the Nashville duo Foster and Lloyd but ends in a Sgt. Pepper freakout; "Complaints" is a 1:41 noisy rock excursion. The rest of the disc is loaded with Badfinger/Beatles nods, from the "Ooh girl" chorus of "Sweet Virginia" to the Revolver-soaked "Dr. Robert's Second Opinion." -- Meredith Ochs

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