Consumer Guide

LOS AMIGOS INVISIBLES: The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) Inglés, español, japonés, lo que sea—as members of the international brotherhood of bored middle-class collegians, their specialty is crappy music with a concept. And the concept is—crappy music! See Combustible Edison, Pizzicato Five, lo que sea. C PLUS

THE LOX: Money, Power and Respect (Bad Boy) As a statement of principle, the title track is scary-good and creatively derivative; put into practice it's scary-stupid and oppressively ordinary. How do we get MPR? By play-acting bully-boy scenarios that sound petty enough to be from life and making up others we'd never have the guts for—one production number climaxes with, eek, a hand grenade! And by showing an endless profusion of imaginary bitches who the man is—the other production number climaxes when three gold-digging skeezers, as they were called in the good old days, end up with their blood all over the tracks. C PLUS

MARILYN MANSON: Mechanical Animals (Nothing) If only the absurd aura of artistic respectability surrounding this arrant self-promoter would teach us that not every icon deserves a think piece, that it's no big deal to be smarter than Ozzy Osbourne, that the Road of Excess leads to the Palace Theater. Instead, his banned-in-Wal-Mart slipcase job will fade into the haze of records people found interesting at the time. Its strategy is to camouflage the feebleness of La Manson's vocal affect by pretending it's deliberate—one more depersonalizing production device with which to flatten willing cerebellums whilst confronting humankind's alienation, amorality, and failure to have a good time on Saturday night. Catchiest songs: "The Dope Show" and "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)." Duh. C PLUS

MUST TO AVOID: Brian Setzer
MUST TO AVOID: Brian Setzer

AUDRA MCDONALD: Way Back to Paradise (Nonesuch) Compared to Streisand, Garland, and Callas, said to augur a New Era of Popular Song, this two-time Tony winner proudly situates her big range and Juilliard technique on the far side of the chasm now separating Broadway theater from American music. Aficionados may follow the (satiric?) logic of, for instance, the sudden high note that punctuates the Adam Guettel–William Makepeace Thackeray trifle "A Tragic Story." But we who prefer our singing speech like will figure she's just showing off again, which given the songs is perfectly appropriate. Ignorant of groove, eschewing verse-chorus-bridge, orchestrated to suggest the demon jazz only insofar as 20th-century European composition mooched off it, these are not tunes playgoers will hum as they flag cabs on West 45th Street. They are the sterile spawn of Stephen Sondheim and Ned Rorem, and although they signify little when sundered from their paltry dramatic contexts, serious they remain—what few comic moments they countenance duck their heads as McDonald prepares for her next octave leap. C PLUS

MOMUS: Ping Pong (Le Grand Magistery) In one of his many clever songs, Nick Currie compares his quest for fame to God's and wonders why the big fella gets all the coverage. The answer is that God is a nicer guy. Performers like Currie believe "all interesting behaviors, whether moral or not, are salable in our culture" because they don't have much choice—it's that or a day job. But no matter how well-turned the lyric, very few listeners actually enjoy songs in which snobbish dandies trot out their sexual egomania and baby envy. Deep down, most people have some cornball in them. And this is a good thing. B MINUS

PLUSH: More You Becomes You (Drag City) Feature: "The lonely, ever uncool, always corny piano man." Bio: "Liam Hayes's new record is not just about pop, it IS pop in the classic (circa 1973) sense of the term." Wha? Has Chicago moved to another planet? (Again?) Hayes's closest relative by far is Palace Inc. CEO Will Oldham whittling mountain music down to a doleful whisper. If he's anything, and his aesthetic is so attenuated you have to wonder, he's cool, and if his aesthetic is about anything it's about being about. Hayes's snaillike, lachrymose presongs resemble no pop in history, much less 1973. (1973?) And while it's possible to imagine a piano man this anonymously self-absorbed, no cocktail lounge would permit him to sing—unless he owned it, I guess. C PLUS

THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA: The Dirty Boogie (Interscope) Big bands still can't rock, Setzer still can't sing, and that's only the beginning. There is for instance chief arranger Ray Herrmann, Bernard's black-sheep grandnephew, whose dad was 86'd from Stan Kenton's band because he didn't have any soul. There's the hyperactive desecration visited upon Rosemary Clooney's perky "This Ole House," the croakin' belt an' croon of "Since I Don't Have You," Leiber & Stoller's obscure "You're the Boss" retouched so heavy-handedly you'd think Setzer wrote the thing himself. But no, that was—dig these titles!—"This Cat's on a Hot Tin Roof," "Hollywood Nocturne," the Elmer Bernstein–influenced "Switchblade 372." With its Doc Severinsen blare and Paul Schaffer beats, its gross secondhand nostalgia and show-off guitar, the most preeningly stupid record to mount SoundScan all year. C MINUS

MIKE WATT: Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia) Credwise, Watt's got it all. He was the fulcrum of a great band, he's serious with a sense of humor about it, he's got not just politics but class consciousness, he talks a great game, and, oh yeah, he networks like crazy. The only thing he isn't is a compelling artist. He can't sing at all, can't write much, and still pretends the bass solo is a viable musical form. Like fIREHOSE (sic), like his name-dropping solo debut, this "punk rock opera" ("I just hate the words ‘concept record.' That's fucking tired-ass, where opera's funny") looks great on paper and hasn't been played for a year by anyone it impressed. It will prove a valuable resource for the numerous forthcoming doctoral dissertations on the alternative rock subculture. C PLUS

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