Alt Lives!!

Alt-rock dead? Only if your ears are. Most of the indie and postindie artists who get the big reviews below are veterans coming into their own. But in Honorable Mention you'll find younger bands I bet have better in them.

Ass Ponys
Some Stupid With a Flare Gun
(Checkered Past)
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Chuck Cleaver has always been in it for the vignettes—for situations evoked or described in words, pithy words. But as he declares himself a lifer—his first album in four years and fifth overall brings him to age 40—he reveals himself a bandleader. His seasoned rhythm section and strapping guitarist get so far into the guts of the songs you wish they hadn't wasted Electric Rock Music on the last one even though they had a sillier title ready. Cleaver's corkscrew falsetto bores into the high-strung music to transform lots of death and a third nipple into the stuff of noisy desperation, desperate celebration, etc. It's alt-country only insofar as it favors forms and farms. But if shit shovelers can convince Cleaver the cosmos has a niche for him, I'm ready to forgive all the fiddle fills. A MINUS

Chumbawamba
Uneasy Listening
(EMI import)

This "Collection of Stuff From 1986–1998" establishes that their sloganeering gift for the catchy long preceded "Tubthumping," and also that it's not in them to write apolitically—"This Girl," described as one of "a series of jangly love songs" they tried because they weren't supposed to, concerns a nonconformist who throws bricks from the top of a parking garage. Their music and their anarchism combine the programmatic and the quirky. Despite the trumpets, many arrangements reduce to rock readymades with a march pulse, yet despite the guitar chords and drumbeats the enunciated lyrics evoke music hall. Really, they're that funny. You say that when they barf to cap each infinitely repeated "Your ugly houses look so . . . " there's no way to know they were inspired by Sting's country mansion as opposed to row-house ticky-tacky? I say the notes are worth reading. A MINUS

Chumbawamba
WYSIWYG
(Republic)
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Waddaya know, the money's been good for them—22 songs in 47 minutes, an unslackening stream of infectious invective and simplistic satire, too jolly to accuse of contempt. "I'm With Stupid" isn't about ordinary people even if "Dumbing Down" is, and for the most part the tunes are so cheerful and the mood so up that the songs feel like jokes the whole world has been waiting for a chance to laugh at. Really, wasn't it about time for one called "Hey Hey We're the Junkies"? Even if the junkies in question are addicted to media? A MINUS

Fatboy Slim
On the Floor at the Boutique
(Astralwerks)
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The stupid album he's not genius enough to make himself is a live mix tape segueing many dance records unknown to me and a few I've long loved, most crucially the Jungle Brothers' groove-setting "Because I Got It Like That." All are speeded up so that the vocalists, let's call them, sound less like cartoons—except on "Michael Jackson," which samples the J5's Saturday-morning show—than like they've just huffed helium. Jumping jack laugh, it's a gas gas gas. A MINUS

The Folk Implosion
One Part Lullaby
(Interscope)
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"I didn't leave my room till I learned how to drive," Lou Barlow recalls about being 17, which is probably why he seems retarded to this day. He's not a thug or a dolt, God knows. But he has the awkward aura of someone whose social IQ is 100 points below his math-and-verbal, and I wouldn't bet his socks always match. This is so pretty it's almost a poem about quiet lyricism—and so passive you want to put crystal meth in its apple juice. B PLUS

High Fidelity
(Hollywood)
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The best mix tapes are made by guys with good ears, crammed shelves, and tastes that don't quite match up with yours, so they're full of surprises. Roky Erikson's greatest hit undiminished by Ray Davies's lesser one, say. Classic Costello from a subclassic album, classic Dylan ditto, Doug Yule as Lou Reed (twice), Arthur Lee on earth. Eight minutes of obscure Stereolab just when you need a change of pace. Memorable Smog and notable Royal Trux and intriguing Beta Band and acceptable John Wesley Harding and now they can all go back where they came from. Stevie Wonder pledging his obvious love. Cinematic compromises that almost fit in. We want more movies about record geeks because we want more soundtracks like this one. A MINUS

Mary Lou Lord/Sean Na Na
(Kill Rock Stars)
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Two born buskers split a six-song EP that contains, the very idea, at least four identifiable songs. Pioneering Courtney-basher Lord covers Lucinda Williams and follows Kelly Willis and Two Nice Girls to a Janis Martin rockabilly number. Sean Tillmann deserts the one-man punk band Calvin Krime to wax sardonic about his funeral and his misspent youth, both of which I hope he lives to enjoy. B PLUS

M2M
Shades of Purple
(Atlantic)
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Believe it or not, there are three impossibly touching songs on this record, all at least cocomposed by 15-year-old Norwegian Marion Raven. "Don't Say You Love Me," a minor hit from the Pokémonsoundtrack, sets the standard. He's "cute and all that," but she's not ready to get kissed or, for that matter, hear he loves her—after all, "It's not like we're gonna get married." Conceivably "Girl in Your Dreams," which is all Raven's—"Maybe I don't have the blonde hair you like/Or maybe I don't have eyes like the sky"—gets me because my daughter's a brunette, or maybe it's the way the melody meshes with the childish, just barely presexual burr in Raven's voice. And when "Don't Mess With My Love" takes her and 16-year-old Marit Larsen to where they have a love to defend, it's as if they've grown up right in front of your ears. But even when the writing is ordinary, the quality teenpop, some assembly-line and some personalized, is transfigured by the duo's singing. If the result isn't brazen or fizzy enough to suit the marketplace, then nuts to the marketplace. This is the kind of left-field gift crazes make possible. A MINUS

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