PLAYLIST

R.E.M.
Monster
(Warner Bros.)

Anyone who assumed, after perusing the ink already spilled over this, that Monster would sound like a less accessible version of Metal Machine Music can be forgiven for being somewhat underwhelmed by the reputed noisiness of the twelve ditties contained herein. "Star 69," five numbers into the disc, comes closest to being a raveup, but it's not exactly a balls-to-the-wall scorcher--think mid-period Joan Jett and you'll be on the right track. The other material isn't much of a departure, either; the bandmembers seem to have penned the same types of tunes they've been producing since day one, then played them with their respective amplifiers set two notches higher than usual. By the same token, this approach recalls R.E.M.'s strong early work--say, the albums before Fables of the Reconstruction, when Michael Stipe's excessive attention to his notices led to the pretentious patina the group's displayed off and on ever since. Although "Tongue" is a big miss (on it, Stipe sounds like he's imitating Bono imitating Mick Jagger imitating Curtis Mayfield) and "Strange Currencies" is an excursion into seriositude that portends a video filled with subtitles and hangdog expressions, the majority of the other ditties have enough of a from-the-garage feel to remind you why these guys were worth listening to in the first place. Coming after a series of toweringly overrated discs, Monster's modesty and intermittent dopiness come as one hell of a relief.--Michael Roberts

Various Artists
One A.D. (Volume One Ambient Dub)
(Waveform Corporation)

Every hard, loud musical style that has aspired to the rude-crude-socially-unacceptable triple play has allowed an easy-listening subdivision to develop. Such is the case with ambient dub, which represents techno/jungle's soft side. Still, this solemn gathering of English singles collected beneath an Arizona label has its annoying aspects: It's so good that it'll only encourage the issue of lesser compilations. Few ambient-dub offerings could get across on these unflaggingly medium-fast tempos or unlikely hooks such as the lowdown chuckle that turns out to be a synthesized talking drum on Templeroy's "Dubometer." A couple of dance numbers occasionally up the speed without interrupting the music's flow; then again, nothing could detract from Banco de Gaia's "Desert Wind (Interstate 101 Mix)," in which an Islamic call to prayer repeats over grinding electronic cellos, or G.O.L.'s "Soma Holiday," highlighted by wafts of female la-la-las. As on most of the other cuts, these echoey sounds seem to glide in from some quiet place behind the rhythms, then turn away as serenely as the sweep of a planetarium's projector. Most techno seems spacey until you get to the beats beneath the effects. This stuff is spacey inside.--John Young

John Gorka
Out of the Valley
(Windsor Hill)

If Gorka's a folkie god, then I'm damn near a believer. While his laconic Midwestern croon suggests he could use an occasional goosing with a thumb pick, Gorka's about as good a writer as there is out there right now. To wit: "That's Why" offers a eulogy on the Elvis legend that's as reverent as it is unsentimental--which is quite a trick for a thirtysomething white guy from New Jersey. Likewise, "Carnival Knowledge (second hand face)" laments the lot of a circus clown with tenderness and wit. "Flying Red Horse" proves an unexpected treat, too. Other songs take us down too-familiar, new-age lyrical roads, but on the whole, Valley shows why Gorka himself is held in such high regard by decaf dribblers from Framingham to Frisco.--John Jesitus

Low
I Could Live in Hope
(Vernon Yard)

This trio from Duluth, Minnesota, plays at such a sluggish, hypnotic pace that it makes the slow-core pioneers in Codeine seem like German speed-metallers by comparison. Throughout I Could Live in Hope, the band's debut release for Vernon Yard Recordings, guitarist Alan Sparhawk, bassist John Nichols and percussionist Mimi Parker perform somnambulant numbers such as "Lullaby" (it is), "Lazy" (they are), "Down" and "Drag" (are you seeing a pattern here?) with all the dreamy forcefulness of Julee Cruise on elephant tranquilizers. By the time the album's closing number--a cool, melancholy rendition of "Sunshine"--oozes its way through the speakers, not even a popcorn box filled with Vivarin will be able to wrest you from your lethargic trance. And yet, for some reason, the album works. This spare flutter of a record may not be intense enough for fans of, say, Green Day, but for those of us who can appreciate the simpler (and slower) things in life, Hope is an unbeatable high.--Brad Jones

Big Head Todd and the Monsters
Strategem
(Giant)

From its ultrapretentious liner notes (Todd Park Mohr writes that Strategem is a "pastoral" named for a line in Don Quixote) to its eleven serviceable songs, this album recalls about 3,000 records released between 1970 and 1976. My prediction: platinum.--Michael Roberts

 
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