Undervalued Gems from Recent Years

Most folks prefer Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast debut or his songs for the About a Boy soundtrack, but one-man-band Damon Gough’s third record, Have You Fed the Fish?, seems to me his most accomplished. It starts with a joking acknowledgment of his sudden ubiquity in the indie-pop world and then kicks into pop music of the sort Pee-Wee Herman might enjoy — fast, loose, and more than a touch demented. It sounds on first listen like an over-produced concept album — and it is — but its sparkling Brit pop mingles effortlessly and effectively with ’80s cheese, earnestness, and symphonic swells. “Born Again” is as clear-voiced and -headed upbeat rock ditty as you’re ever likely to hear.

Using the simplest settings imaginable, Chan Marshall — the woman who records under the name Cat Power — crafts some of the most poignant music I’ve ever heard. The minor-key lead track on You Are Free is simple voice and simpler piano, and it’s so laid-back that you expect it to be tired singer-songwriter dull. But it’s not. It’s sleepy but alive, goosed by a chorus line that pops into the song brightly and fades quickly like fireworks. The second song, “Free,” has more going on — there’s a robotic drum, an electric guitar, and a shouted chorus — and the album has a striking stylistic diversity. Still, You Are Free is consistently sedate and spare, no matter the idiom; there are few if any wasted notes — each musical and vocal choice carries a big load, and you strain to make sure you’re catching everything — and Marshall’s overlapping, carefully phrased singing is a finely calibrated instrument, conveying as much as the lyrics.

Desert Sessions Volumes 9 and 10 sounds something like Queens of the Stone Age crossed with early PJ Harvey, which isn’t surprising considering that it’s the latest fruit of the regular sessions led by Queens’ Josh Homme, this time featuring Polly Jean. (The recording also includes Dean Ween of Ween, Chris Goss of Masters of Reality, and Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson.) It’s got the looseness of the early PJ Harvey records (particularly “Crawl Home”), the occasional heaviness of Queens (“Covered in Punks Blood”), a tossed-off, goofy charm, the freedom of performers unconstrained by their regular bands, and the draw of some supremely talented musicians working well together. The album was recorded in a week with a “see what sticks” method, so there’s a roughness to it, but it’s very nearly transcendent.

Politically obvious and lyrically a bit off (“We’ll take your wealth / You’ll have much less” and “Going to carve up your wealth / Like pumpkin pie” have the unintentional humor of a Spinal Tap song), Killing Joke’s self-titled album from 2003 succeeds because of its combination of pummeling force and startling sonic richness. The group has been around for more than two decades, a pioneer in industrial dance music, but this record is firmly in the metal camp. The band (including guest drummer Dave Grohl) and producer Andy Gill have miraculously turned the band’s thick, measured aggression into one of the clearest-sounding hard-rock records you’ve ever heard, and the musical settings are inspired and brutal. The vocals are surprisingly expressive, ranging from creepy subdued growls to marble-mouthed roars that more than make up for the band being knee-jerk contrary.

A Canadian indie-pop supergroup whose most famous member — the country torch singer Neko Case — is relegated to background vocals, The New Pornographers on Electric Version deliver a platter full of sweet, hooky power pop that’s so insistent that it simply will not be denied. These aren’t songs that grab you immediately; they burrow slowly into your brain and take up permanent residence there. The second record from this six-person occasional outfit is sunny, perky, detailed, and fun, a perfect accompaniment to the salty sea air of a drive along the ocean but rich enough to reward endless “repeat” cycles. Of special note are “The Laws Have Changed” (distinguished by Case’s singing and a propulsive keyboard line that seems to have taken refuge from the ’80s), “The End of Medicine” (with its impossibly catchy introduction and solo), and “It’s Only Divine Right” (with its deft balance between cheesy pop and rock, and its quirky vocal phrasings).

The singer-songwriter Bree Sharp is biding her time before she becomes the next Sheryl Crow. She scored a cult hit in 1999 with the hilarious “David Duchovny,” but she hasn’t gotten her due for two terrific records, including More B.S. from the summer of 2002. Sharp’s honeyed voice isn’t terribly distinctive, but her delivery and songwriting are pop-perfect and worthy of her last name. Sharp is also fearless, kicking the ass of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and also showing a keen understanding of need on the easily misunderstood roadhouse twang of “Dirty Magazine.”

Although dubbed the best rock band in the world by Time a while back, Sleater-Kinney is still looking for a wide audience. After years of polishing a distinctive blend of harmonized vocals and a precise, bordering-on-delicate twin-guitar attack, Sleater-Kinney returned in 2002 after a two-year break with One Beat — an angry, ferocious record, and its loudest since 1997’s Dig Me Out. The sweet girl-band pop of “Oh” is the exception rather than the rule this time out, and although some post-September 11 politics make for some wince-worthy lyrics, the band has never sounded better or rocked harder.

Art-rock pioneers Sonic Youth haven’t gone anywhere; they just slipped seriously under the radar after grunge threatened to turn them into rock stars in the early ’90s. Murray Street is nothing less than the culmination of a career, a focused, rock-solid record full of tension between delicate textures and squealing noise, structure and chaos. There is no better example than “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style,” which starts as twisted, strangely tuned pop before exploding into a wall of patented Sonic Youth discord. With only seven songs, the album clocks in at just over 45 minutes, and I wish it would go on forever. Murray Street might be the group’s best effort ever, perhaps even topping Dirty.

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