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For the Record

Friday, October 31, 2003

THE STROKES

'ROOM ON FIRE' (RCA)

So was that it?

Or have the Strokes found something new to show us?

Neither, really.

If the whole appeal of "Is This It" was that it sounded fresh (if firmly based in cool old records most kids sporting Julian haircuts wouldn't hear until after the fact, if at all), the whole appeal of "Room On Fire" may be that it sounds like "Is This It, Pt. 2."

But there's no shame in that. How much artistic growth was there between the first two Beatles albums? Or those first two albums by the Stones?

If anything, they're at their best here when they sound the most like they're just shamelessly repeating every move that made them famous in the first place -- shy or re-cribbing Tom Petty's "American Girl." I never expected, for instance, to hear this kind of band begin an album with a riff that comes on like a cross between "Eye of the Tiger" and "Edge of Seventeen." But I was more excited when, 10 seconds in, those churning New York cool guitars and Julian's yearning, sleepy-headed rasp (as distorted as ever) returned the band to more familiar territory.

And they stay there for the most part, offering subtle variations on a timeless-in-the-short-haul theme while stretching out enough to put a quirky New Wave spin on reggae ("Automatic Stop," a blend that Albert Hammond Jr. says they stole from Cyndi Lauper), push the synthesized ear-Candy-o guitar riff of "12:51" to the foreground and incorporate some vintage Memphis soul bass into "Meet Me in the Bathroom."

Ultimately, though, it's still the singer and the song (each one with readily apparent hooks) that make the hype seem almost like an understatement in this album's better moments, from "Reptilia," which sounds like they still haven't given Elastica their Wire records back, to "Under Control," a gorgeous, scuffed-up ballad that at once recalls the Velvet Underground and '60s soul.

-- Ed Masley

THE HIGH LLAMAS

'BEET, MAIZE & CORN' (DRAG CITY)

It's entirely within the realm of possibility that Sean O'Hagan's only goal here was to revel in the easy-listening chamber pop of "Pet Sounds"-era Brian Wilson. But of all the young bands worshipping the master, few have come as close to capturing the magic as O'Hagan, fleshing out his wistful melodies with not just strings and brass but with vibes and flute and even banjo on occasion. The writing is gorgeous (if posing no imminent threat to "Pet Sounds"), the arrangements even better -- lush yet pastoral, at times (as on the album's finest hour, "The Click and The Fizz") recalling XTC's best Brian Wilson imitations. But that could just be O'Hagan's thick Welsh accent talking.

-- Ed Masley

THE TWILIGHT SINGERS

'BLACKBERRY BELLE' (BIRDMAN)

Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs, among the better vocalists of his or any generation, is back with his second release at the helm of a new side project. And the better moments here recapture all the soulful drama of the Whigs at the top of their game. It may not rock with the explosive force the Whigs could muster in their prime, but nuance suits the ache in Dulli's vocals, from the sad piano melody that underscores his rasping invitation to "black out the window/it's party time" in the opening song to the sampled dial tone running percussively under "Esta Noche." There are missteps here. The piano that opens "Teenage Wristband," for example, has the distinct smell of warmed-over Meat Loaf. And the backing vocals and electronic window dressing on "Follow You Down" are distracting at best. But even then, you've still got Dulli's vocals to carry you through.

There is one other quality that holds it all together. Atmosphere. The bummed-out twilight mood is so firmly entrenched that even when he hands the mike off to Mark Lanegan of Screaming Tree fame to do the honors Leonard Cohen-style (before the gospel singers kick in "Gimme Shelter"-style) on the album-closing epic, "No. 9," the Twilight Singers somehow stay in character.

-- Ed Masley

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