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The Aluminum Group, Patricia Barber, Schneider TM, The Souvenirs

The Aluminum Group
Pedals
(Minty Fresh)

Pedals, the latest release from Chicago's lounge-loving Aluminum Group, is populated by the kind of delicate little melodies that seem to peek at you from around a corner before coyly ducking away once you've noticed them. But the timidity is merely an act: These songs practically demand to be chased after. Bathed in the faded watercolor wash of generally agreeable vocal and harmonic arrangements, Pedals tries to move the achievements of last year's Plano into more ambitious, self-serious territory. Once again, sibling songwriters Frank and John Navin -- the Frasier and Niles Crane of indie pop -- color their fey, too-smart-for-their-own-good musings with a stylized palette of smooth-baby-smooth atmospherics. With the help of the High Llamas' lounge-core luminary Sean O'Hagan, Doug McCombs from Tortoise and the omnipresent Jim O'Rourke (who produced this effort with the band), they've added some noticeable depth to their work.

Lyrically, the brothers Hagan might want to not try so hard to impress their art-scene comrades; there is a ponderous ode to Marcel Duchamp's female alter ego on "Rrose Selavy's Valise [225K aiff]" and an odd, out-of-nowhere reference to a Calder sculpture in "Jinxed." Still, they've created an intriguing concoction of musical elements that moves beyond space-age makeout music: Jazzy horn tracks, for example, rest easily next to the skulking synth arrangements on other selections, such as the pretentiously titled "Two-Bit Faux Construction [218K aiff]." But the album's intellectual musical accomplishments seem to have come at the expense of the catchy hooks and over-the-top leanings found on Plano. So while " $35," a rather sad, vulgar portrait of hustler culture, is squeezed for every bit of bile it contains, the song remains needlessly sterile and delivers none of the expected pathos. It's strange to think that these performers -- who are noted for their ability to create music that's as easy as warm butter -- could stand to lighten up. -- Chris LaMorte

Patricia Barber
Companion
(Blue Note/Premonition)

The Chicago-based vocalist and pianist Patricia Barber is a phenomenon in two worlds. She has applied her impeccable jazz-singer credentials to postmodern pop irony with such hip assurance that listeners in both camps are paying rapt attention. Barber's timely fusion doesn't please everybody, of course, any more than Cassandra Wilson's does: Some jazz "purists" wonder why anyone would bother to cover the Doors anthem "Light My Fire" (which Barber did to spectacular effect on her breakout CD Modern Cool), while devotees of Joni Mitchell and her descendants complain that Barber doesn't rock.

The dissenters are shooting peas at a battleship. Barber's new live disc, Companion, so named because she means it to be a fraternal twin to Modern Cool, once again demonstrates her skill and nerve. She chills a nine-minute-and-44-second reinvention of "Black Magic Woman" down to icy perfection, lays playful wit on Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On" andpays homage to the fast-rising jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson with the sinuous "Like JT." Recorded in July at Chicago's Green Mill, the cozy NorthSide jazzery that remains Barber's home base, Companion combines the immediacy of live performance with the solid craftsmanship of a singer who doesn't miss.

The centerpiece of the new disc has to be "If This Isn't Jazz," a sly, down-tempo manifesto in which Barber tweaks her critics ("will the New York Times say I'm too white or too black?") and stakes out her musical territory, which has no apparent borders. When she winds her way to the punchline ("If this isn't jazz/It will have to do/Until the real thing comes along"), the Green Mill audience erupts, enthralled by this cheeky and poetic Barber-ism.

Barber's regular sidemen, bassist Michael Arnopol and percussionist John Mclean, contribute to her genre-bending efforts with both straight play and a variety of intriguing electronic effects, and Barber herself takes a turn at the Hammond B-3 organ as well as the piano. Those interested in sheer singer development will be edified by reprises of two Barber originals from Modern Cool: the mordant "Let It Rain" and the audience fave "Touch of Trash." Others may ask why she didn't open the songbook a little wider.

The battle over definitions should now draw to a close. That Patricia Barber, the daughter of a saxophonist with Glenn Miller's band, should draw upon, say, Bob Dylan as well as Billie Holiday is not evidence of impurity, but the mark of distinction. How will she startle us next? -- Bill Gallo

Schneider TM
Moist
(Mute)

As far as the mainstream is concerned, the electronica movement is useful when it comes to providing background sounds for car commercials, but that's about it. As a result, many domestic electro-musicians have returned to the club scene whence they came, chucking aside creative pretension in favor of the lowest common danceability denominator. But in Europe the scene continues to support oddballs whose music is good for something other than raving yourself to death -- and Moist, the latest from Germany's Dirk Dresselhaus, who hides behind the Schneider TM moniker, shows how much artsy fun this stuff can be.

At first the title track seems to be nothing special -- a synth wash here, skittering beats and a rudimentary bass progression there. But its chipper little melody snakes in and out of some quirky places before detonating a roar of sheer industrial noise. That's followed by "Moonboots [234K]," a three-minute dip into a pool of wah-wah; "Masters," in which a drum-and-bass track cuddles up to warm, Eno-esque noodling; and "Raum Im Ort [248K aiff]," an aural smorgasbord spread with simulated gas-passing, tinkling faux percussion and a generous serving of loungey minimalism that falls somewhere between Tortoise and Stereolab. Neither it nor "Eiweiß" will instantly propel you to the dance floor, but by ambient standards, they're practically tuneful. While Dresselhaus has enough of a pop sensibility to keep novices to the genre from raising the white flag, he's not nearly so cheesy as to give aficionados a case of the guilts for digging what he does.

Moist might seem dry at first, but as the title implies, give it a squeeze and the juice will start to flow. -- Michael Roberts

The Souvenirs
King of Heartache
(Will Records)

There's a reason for the endless appeal of the country weeper. The desperate strains of a pedal steel guitar, the restraint of a skilled band and an achy voice that speaks in simple terms to your pain -- they all combine to free the saltwater and the soul. Sure, it's just for a few minutes, but that's a lot of relief to a heart that breaks full-time. The Souvenirs fully understand this concept and play the crying game as though they owned stock in Kleenex.

Thankfully, they also understand the value of rockin' and the fact that without fresh touches, alt country ain't alternative. This remarkable debut clearly separates these young men from the good ol' boys. Though the foundation for the Seattle five-piece's sound is Bakersfield-style country, the Souvenirs juice it up with brainy pop touches and wagon-rocking energy. The result is a fresh sound that blends Dwight Yoakam's genius and Roy Orbison's wistfulness with the darker side of Chris Isaak. It's made especially appealing by the manly but sensitive voice of singer Lucky Lawrence and his whip-smart country gentlemen mates. They may smile pretty in their cowboy finery, but like true gunslingers, they're willing to forsake politeness for lethal firepower when the job requires it.

"One Less Fool [267K aiff]" starts things off nicely, a sunny honky-tonker marked by Lawrence's optimistic tenor and string-tie fills by lead guitarist Mo. The title track shifts a few degrees: Above a snappy snare and desert-breeze steel guitar, Lawrence cries in the wind to a long-gone love as the tune's sticky-sweet chorus disappears in the brain. It's crystalline country-and-Western, Buck Owens wrapped in shimmering satin. But the band is equally adept at cattle-punching. "1000 Miles Away" is a brooding after-dark highway anthem; "Cherry Lips [237K aiff]" is cranked-up Jerry Lee Lewis rollick perfect for the rock club and roadhouse. Like any respectable twangster act, the band also offers a couple of mid-tempo shufflers ("Shades of Blue," "Sentimental") with just enough clever wordplay to keep the mind busy while the boot scoots.

Oh, but when the Souvenirs go for the weak spot, they nail it. "So Tired of Missing You [281K aiff]" is the sort of dramatic stroller that makes Dwight the Man, and the Souvenirs play it as tightly and cinched-down as Yoakam's britches. As the singer laments one more lonely night among foolish friends, his mates deliver a lanky shuffle that slowly drips blood. "Hideaway" really opens up the tear ducts, as Lawrence's weary vocals and D.J. Pawlak's sobbing steel make sure your heart falls to pieces. When he sings "Strong are the drinks that I'm drinking up on this bar stool," it doesn't sound like cliche, but rather like a man crumbling. "Anna Marie" eases the hurt with accordion and a Tex-Mex snap, "Your Old Used to Be" lopes with bittersweet Ray Price sparkle, and "I Will Be With You" returns to wide-open spaces and Western wonder.

So much of today's y'allternative music is recast old gold, put forth by newcomers whose hearts seem to be in the wrong place. That's not the case with the Souvenirs. Their uncompromising take on country makes King of Heartacheworth taking home to treasure. -- Marty Jones

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