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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

*** STIGMATA (Virgin)

By composing the Stigmata soundtrack with veteran LA studio guy Mike Garson, Billy Corgan proposes that Trent Reznor isn't the only alterna-rock prince who can craft movie-spook sound and enlist the services of the ever more doppelgänger-ish David Bowie, and he throws an electro dream-pop hissy fit to prove it. The result is a fine corollary to Corgan's increasingly heart-shaped agenda these days. The original instrumental music is all burbling, hymn-like loveliness, so organic in execution that it sounds as if Corgan had grown it in his backyard. Although the fresh air suits him well, mawkish subtitles like "tree whispers" and "reflect (purity)" suggest something drove him out of LA and into the enchanted forest. Further grounding in un-reality is provided by primo cuts from otherworldly acts: Björk's whacked showtune "All Is Full of Love," Massive Attack's viscous "Inertia Creeps," Remy Zero's Queen-ly "Gramarye," plus Bowie, Chumbawamba, and Afro Celt Sound System with Sinéad O'Connor. Fortunately, between Adore and Stigmata Corgan actually seems to be embracing life beyond self-perpetuating misery. He goes so far as to risk bad-natured ribbing by assigning Natalie Imbruglia lead vocals on his and Garson's "Identify," the album's smoky centerpiece. She's fine. And Stigmata seems to suggest that Billy is too.

-- Joseph Manera


*** Stereophonics PERFORMANCE AND COCKTAILS (V2)

With the conquest of Europe under their belts, England's Stereophonics have set their sights on winning over audiences stateside, and they've brought along potent ammunition with this, their second release. It's loaded with punchy, full-bodied songs, but the shape comes from singer/guitarist Kelly Jones, whose soulful rasp of a voice brings to mind the young Rod Stewart. What's more, Jones, like Stewart, is an intuitive communicator: singing a song for him is as much about telling a story as it is belting out a tune. The swinging, acoustic "I Wouldn't Believe Your Radio" is the first single V2 is offering up from the disc, but the album opener, "Roll Up and Shine," might have been a better choice -- it's a killer piece of riff-rock, a song Bush's Gavin Rossdale would give his left arm to write. And Stereophonics tear through it (as well as the next track, "The Bartender and the Thief") with all the intensity you could want.

-- Ben Auburn


*** Stereolab COBRA AND PHASES GROUP PLAY VOLTAGE IN THE MILKY NIGHT (Elektra)

Stereolab's 1993 single "Jenny Ondioline (Part 1)" -- four minutes of glimmering krautrock locomotion holding hands with "I Get Around" -- is both the loveliest song about fascism ever written and the early Lab's conceptual peak. The band cruised on that triumphant framework for a few more years, grooving as deeply on pure repetition as James Brown or the Ramones. Then they beelined for the lounge, and though their "jazzy" period yielded the pop fromage of 1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup, everything since has been aquarium-unit music to watch pulsars by: pretty but low-impact.

The "songs" on Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night are really just elegant paraphrases floating in meringue: "Infinity Girl" evokes Astrud Gilberto's funk foray Gilberto with Turrentine, Steve McGarrett casing a suspect's crib, and Sammy Johns's 1973 AM-radio hit "Chevy Van." After a while, the change-ups start to suggest indecision, not innovation. But the Moog-mad mix still makes every instrument sound as bubblicious as the Nuggets logo, and affectless singers Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen still croon their bilingual lullabies for the working class as rapturously as Teletubbies hooked on phonics. Cereal-box prize: "Hip Op Detonation," which alludes to hip-hop (in a French accent), mid-'60s op art, electronic-pop pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, and DJ Premier's use of Perrey's "E.V.A." on Gang Starr's "Just To Get a Rep," casually leaping broad traditions in a single drum break.

-- Alex Pappademas


*** Paul Rishell & Annie Raines MOVING TO THE COUNTRY (Tone-Cool)

Singer/guitarist Paul Rishell makes a sweet knot out of overdubbed National steel guitars and his bone-marrow-deep voice to tackle Memphis Minnie & Joe McCoy's 1930 guitar duet "My Washerwoman's Gone" as a solo piece. That's one sign of the vigor and imagination he brings to the oldest strain of blues. It's also a kick to hear the easy way he peals out such intricate picking and sliding. Likewise with his take on Blind Blake's tricky "Sweet Jivin' Mama." After more than 30 years of collecting, inspecting, and dissecting country blues, he's become the tradition's most graceful champion, with a gift for harmonizing his rich-toned slide playing and singing.

On this album, Rishell and his harmonica foil, Annie Raines, do their usual diversifications, adding bass and drums and even guitarist Troy Gonyea to deliver some electric-band swinging and stomping, Chicago style. But it's their acoustic and duet pieces that make this CD special. This Cambridge duo have achieved a level of sparse and crafty intimacy that allows their music to whisper the blues' simple truths. Relative youngster Raines also continues to grow as a musician. She co-wrote five songs and sings lead on two, and her rhythm mandolin brings a new texture to their sound while drawing directly on the music's legacy.

-- Ted Drozdowski


**1/2 KNOXVILLE GIRLS (In the Red)

The players -- former Honeymoon Killer Jerry Teel, Jack Martin, and Bob Bert (also formerly of Sonic Youth), along with Cramps/Gun Club alumnus Kid Congo Powers and organist Barry London -- are the Lower East Side equivalent of session musicians, the kind of guys who have been showing up in recombinant downtown ensembles for the past 20 years. The debut by this group, who take their name from an epic traditional murder ballad, feels like the CBGB's version of one of those albums that occasionally gets made down in Nashville when a bunch of grizzled old studio vets plug in while the star is in the bathroom.

Knoxville Girls' taste is impeccable and the execution is flawless (which in Lower East Side lingo means "invitingly flawed"), but there's not much in the way of personality, apart from the Drugstore-Cowboy-as-American-Gothic atmosphere. A third of the tracks are covers: Ray Charles's "I Had a Dream," Charlie Feathers' "Have You Ever," Kenny Rogers' "I Feel Better All Over," and the George Jones-popularized "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Of the originals, "Low Cut Apron/Sugar Fix" sounds like a third-gen rewrite of Speedball Baby's "Black Eyed Girl," and "One Sided Love" is Jon Spencer's "Two Kindsa Love" with a better hook. Still, when you consider what these guys were up to before this (hands: anyone pay cash for the last Chrome Cranks record?), a vast improvement.

-- Carly Carioli


*** Jimmie's Chicken Shack BRING YOUR OWN STEREO (Rocket)

Last heard peddling a wretched funk-metal hit by the name of "High" a couple years ago, Jimmie's Chicken Shack make a welcome foray into power-pop territory on their second major-label release. Tracks like "Fill In the Blank" and "Silence Again" marry grunge to new wave like grade-A Foo Fighters and Local H, and the album's first single, "Do Right," features some surprisingly smooth background vocal embellishments. Singer Jimi Haha might be overdoing it by nicking Cheap Trick lyrics for the perky "Trash," and his tales of love gone wrong occasionally veer close to Matchbox 20-style self-absorption. But the rest of the band never let Haha get stuck in a frat-house rut. In fact, they reveal an admirable versatility by pulling off everything from emo-punk ("Waiting") to swing ("Lazy Boy Dash"). The title Bring Your Own Stereo, by the way, refers to the entertainment policy at the "farm parties" the band sometimes play back home in Maryland.

-- Sean Richardson


*** Isotope 217 UTONIAN_AUTOMATIC (Thrill Jockey)

Bristling with the energetic improvisations of Chicago's free-jazz/post-rock finest, the second release by this Tortoise spinoff also pulses with the presence of a more covert quantity -- the cut-and-paste editing of Bundy K. Brown and John McEntire's dubby post-production. Without warning, they drop us into the leadoff track, "LUH," Bitches Brew-style -- smack dab in the middle of a ferocious jazzy organ-led vamp that suddenly decomposes into soothing static and fuzz. Entire songs -- at least the organic foundations of them -- are subtly reworked into inventive studio creations. The somber trip-hop of "New Beyond," for example, shape-shifts into an ambient-dub vista where distant hi-hats sizzle and snare hits take on a life of their own. And the coda of "Looking After Life on Mars" reconfigures the choppy funk groove of the song into a dark-house drum-machine-and-synthesizer workout. The result is an unclassifiable fusion that owes as much to Miles Davis jazz as it does to Brian Eno atmospherics and the electro-collages of the Ninja Tune techno-turntablists.

-- Michael Endelman


**1/2 Freakwater ENDTIME (Thrill Jockey)

Led by singer-writers Cathy Irwin and Janet Bean, and featuring multi-instrumentalist David Wayne Gay, Freakwater were playing their own special brand of skewed alterna-country before that particular industry pigeonhole was invented. On Endtime the trio continue to marry their union of Carter Family harmonies, country-blues despondency, and raw emotion to a rather desolate world view. The band's sound remains as stark as ever: ghostly banjos, lonesome fiddles, and drumming from guest artist Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Richard Buckner) that sounds like an undertaker pounding nails into a coffin (or a cross). The tunes are crammed with unsettling characters like women who'll suck the fillings out of your mouth when you kiss them and bartenders who take half an hour to get you a beer. Unlike most country songsmiths, Bean and Irwin don't avoid ambiguities and contradictions -- things rarely play out in the linear fashion of most popular country tunes. The murky production adds a low-rent charm to the proceedings, but often it also makes the lyrics hard to understand, and since a major part of the Irwin-and-Bean charm is their witty wordplay, that's the album's one drawback.

-- J. Poet


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