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Down and Alt

Duty impels me to note that one of the alt-rock albums selected below retains a major-label connection—as does the alt-rock album toward the bottom of Honorable Mention now renowned for having lost one. Justice impels me to point out that the others do not.

BIG LAZY
New Everything (Tasankee)
From the Raybeats and Love Tractor and the Dixie Dregs to Tortoise and the Thinking Fellers Union and Frisell Feeling Frisky, guitar-based instrumental groups have long been a fact of the rock and roll life, and generally they split the difference between expert and professional. These three guys—headman Stephen Ulrich playing one guitar at a time, agile Paul Dugan dwarfed by his string bass, and show drummer Tamir Muskat doubling as chief producer—up the ante. They cross genres without making a thing of their eclecticism. They love melody, and they also write it. They seem through-composed even when they're improvising. They're virtuosic and interactive without speed runs or shows of collective sensitivity. Most endearingly, they don't think intelligence requires subtlety. Their last album was soundtrack in mood. This one's more program music—told that one track was called "Train Travel" and the other "Tavern Life," you'd know which was which. You might have more trouble distinguishing "Tavern Life" from "Homesick." But by then you won't care much. A MINUS

THE BREEDERS
Title TK (4AD/Elektra)
Skeletal, fragmented, stumblebum, Kim and Kelley retain their knack for righting themselves with a tuneburst just when you thought they'd never do the limbo again, and they've been away so long they still think alt is a sloppy lifestyle rather than an embattled ethos. Through the imagistic baffle of their lyrics, they leave the impression that they subsist off their modest royalties, scattered gig fees, and compromised advances—mostly on beer. A MINUS

CROOKED FINGERS
Reservoir Songs EP(Merge)
An excellent joke in which a man out of tunes, utilizing croaking vocals and some well-placed banjo, transforms Kristofferson, Springsteen, Prince, and even Neil Diamond ("Solitary Man," Johnny Cash named an album after it) into alt-country all-depressives. And when he does the same for Queen-Bowie, the dolor is too funny to laugh off. B PLUS

JOHN FORTÉ
i
, John(Transparent Music)
The way I read the news stories, Forté wasn't framed, he was stung—he probably did transport large quantities of cocaine for large sums of money. And the way I hear the music, this disregard for the social weal didn't destroy his empathy or his spirit. Nothing like a 14-year prison sentence to help you appreciate the simple life. But neither Slick Rick nor Chico DeBarge got the message, and lots of dull and/or overwrought art has come out of other musicians' ordeals. Forté has become a modest singer as opposed to an unremarkable rapper, echoing the eternal Marley, the collaborating Tricky, and his own onetime rabbi Wyclef Jean—whose absence from this project is as notable as the presence of Forté's Martha's Vineyard buddy and former employer Carly Simon, who also put up bail. Redemption songs meet kissoff songs and scores settled meet promises sworn as he sets his human-scale voice to human-scale tunes and his support network provides the comfort he so sorely needs. A MINUS

PET SHOP BOYS
Release(Sanctuary)
Eventually, the tunes fall into place. What never materialize in sufficient number are the billowing climaxes and cutting remarks that mark their best albums, meaning most of them. Continuing their tragically heartening journey into normality, they provide several highly serviceable straight love songs, and I hope someone explains to me whether "Birthday Boy" is really Jesus or somebody just thinks so. And then there's the Eminem track. The Eminem track is . . . wondrous, transcendent, a blow against rap homophobia, a great work of art. If buying this album is the only way you can hear it, don't hesitate. Form a pool if you have to. B PLUS

RAPHAEL SAADIQ
Instant Vintage(Universal)
Concentrate on it or fuck to it—anything in between and it'll seem too hookless for pop, too quiet for funk, too slight for words. The structural strategy draws on erotic strategy—start off indirect and bloom into arousal, mouthwork, song. Individual tracks work that way, and so does the album as a whole, which honors the sacred memory of Tony Toni Toné more supplely than Lucy Pearl and may be more woman-friendly to boot. With Lucy Pearl, I could never concentrate long enough to notice—which is why I suspect that, effectively, Saadiq's album may be more woman-friendly than Joi's, too. A MINUS

SILKWORM
Italian Platinum(Touch and Go)
Pavement for a diminished millennium, low-end in every way—fewer guitar coruscations, vocal twitters, obscure witticisms, flights of fancy, and cash receipts. Tempos plod meaningfully, lyrics survive and sometimes thrive on biographical detail, tunes poke their heads out of the ground when they're sure you mean no harm. Credo: "I will breathe that dirty air until I die." A MINUS

SOUTH AFRICAN FREEDOM SONGS
(Making Music import)
No nation on earth can claim a vocal tradition to equal South Africa's, and while Ladysmith are as gorgeous as it gets, their delicacy misrepresents the Nguni styles that germinated out of the makwaya choirs of a century ago. In this package, which comes with a bonus radio documentary, the artists are mostly politicos first, some long based in London or Angola—inauspicious details instantly overrun by the power, esprit, and musical commitment of the singing. Language usually Xhosa, not Zulu. Lots of women for once. Lyrics of defiance, exile, and armed struggle—translate the second track's gruff-sweet call-and-response and you get: "We shall shoot them with rocket launchers. They shall flee." But let me ask this: If South Africa's so righteous, why don't they free Mzwakhe Mbuli? A MINUS

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