RED SNAPPER Making Bones (Matador) KRISPY From the Country (Bomb Hip Hop) Sometimes the import bins yield treasures that are worth the extra price. The Brits in Red Snapper and Krispy have been making music for years—Red Snapper since '94, Krispy since '89—but they're just now releasing their American full-length debuts. Hip-hop duo Krispy revels in the hazy air of dub and reggae, but producer Mr. Whiz adds a hard, clean edge with his minimalist beats. The overall feel of the 16 songs on From the Country is aerodynamic—as though the DJ and his partner, Microphone D.O.N., wasted no energy turning them out. Not a single track seems gratuitous, even a remix of the clever, boasting '98 single "Kick Up Dust" (with its dissing rhyme about "puzzling like Rubik's" and "your girlfriend's pubics"). It's not just the Brit accent that makes D.O.N.'s lyrical flow resemble that of jungle scenester MC Det, who adds stellar raps to the new Red Snapper record. Drummer Richard Thair, double bassist Ali Friend, and guitarist David Ayers remain at the core of the group, which formed on the dark, dubbed-out carcass of acid jazz. After an EP that flirted with rock, the trio have returned to their dance floor origins on Making Bones. Slinky bass lines, reverberating through precisely warped loops of trumpet or snare, are custom-made for DJ spins. Singer Alison David rounds out the record's emotional gamut with pristine vocals full of melancholy and longing—Eros to the music's Thanatos. Here's hoping these two groups remain duty-free.—Jackie McCarthy
THE FLAMING LIPS The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) Upon releasing the experimental Zaireeka in 1997, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne pledged that he'd never again frolic in the traditional rock sandbox. He'd just made the headiest concept album of the '90s, requiring that four CDs be played simultaneously on different stereo systems. Coyne softens his stance on The Soft Bulletin, but not without subtle stylistic jabs at the status quo. For one, he and his pop band have recorded what is essentially a percussion album; listeners can focus on Coyne's perpetually warbling voice, but Steven Drozd's drumming dominates the mix. This technique challenges perception, as in the hook-filled, melodic pop song "Buggin," where a pretty piano figure and heartily strummed guitar become background media in a busy percussive collage. In the woozy ballad "The Spiderbite Song," Drozd sounds like he's working off a different script, fluctuating from stiff drumroll to syncopated burst in the midst of reverbed piano, synthesized choruses, and Coyne's moon-eyed tribute to the wonders of love. On the downside, drums and production tricks can only distract and fascinate for so long, leaving the Flaming Lips' songs open to deeper scrutiny. In that sense, it's a typical batch from the veteran Oklahoma music man, with oddball, verbose narratives and the occasional catchy bit. Single-worthy material like "Race for the Prize" and "Superman" are welcome additions to the band's repertoire, especially given the threat of exclusively experimental fare, but The Soft Bulletin succeeds on more of a philosophical level than a visceral one. It's a slap in the face to lazy rock songwriting and recording methods, but it's tough to dance to.—Richard A. Martin
THE BETA BAND The Beta Band (Astralwerks) Before the world came knocking, the Beta Band wore their eccentricities very much on their sleeves, rarely making themselves available to the press, and even then insisting on wearing costumes to interviews and photo shoots. Early pieces on the band in Sleaze Nation and Time Out were duly trying, as journos struggled to glean pre-formed gems of pop wisdom from the green rock stars. Yet somehow, what started as four young Scots noodling about with guitars, drums, samplers, and whatever else they could get their hands on has turned into The Big Hype '99, replete with the requisite imprimaturs of approval from Rolling Stone and Spin. Suddenly, the lads have to take themselves, and their music, seriously—which kind of defeats the point. The Three EPs, released in January, brought the Beta's pastiche styling to American ears for the first time; this eponymous second effort only continues the tomfoolery, weaving together echoes of damn near every genre imaginable with threads of loose psychedelia. "The Beta Band Rap" is only one-third that, and instead closes with what can only be described as a drunken rockabilly Elvis impersonation. "It's Not Too Beautiful" imposes with Star Warslike majesty, while "Dance o'er the Border" embraces the electro that the British kids dig so much. It's all utterly charming, trainspotting pop with a shrug, coming soon to a magazine cover near you.—Jon Caramanica
The Beta Band will play ARO.space, Monday, June 28.
EUPHONE The Calendar of Unlucky Days (Jade Tree) The great machine that is Chicago spews out several bands a week into the post-rock sweepstakes; invariably, they sound like second-rate Tortoises or Sea and Cakes. It takes monumental patience to comb through and separate the chaff from the seed, the unlistenable from the groundbreaking. Euphone falls into the latter category. The band, formed in 1994 by ex-Gauge and current Heroic Doses drummer Ryan Rapsys, issued two Hefty Records efforts of rhythmic, textural, postmodern, instrumental sound-collages. Their Jade Tree debut, The Calendar of Unlucky Days, recorded by Poster Child Rick Valentin and mixed by the ubiquitous Casey Rice, moves from mood to mood; it feels more like a variegated but free-flowing whole, rather than just a collection of songs. The multi-instrumental Rapsys is joined by fellow Heroic Doses bandmate Nick Macri on bass, adding another brain to the eclectic stew. Unlike previous releases, the two freely expose their musical roots here, from the straight-out New Wave of "Wickedness" to the messed-up blaxploitation-flick feel of "SU 10 #1" and "Needle and Crate." "Broken Gourd" melds a robotic Teutonic beat with jazzy horn flourishes, while "Cindy You Hate to Eat" is Mouse on Mars through a morphine haze. With The Calendar of Unlucky Days, Euphone has progressed from a funky drummer's solo project to a multi-textured, genre-spanning soundscape machine, becoming yet another fine addition to Chicago's stable of musical talent.—Jacob McMurray
MANIC STREET PREACHERS This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (Virgin) To fully prepare yourself for the cornea-freezing depression that wins the Manic Street Preachers Brit Awards year after year, find the most dank movies in your video store's "British Isles" section. Try the murderous Welsh flick Twin Town, and any Mike Leigh film with mink-faced actor David Thewlis. There, that's the perfect setup: weepy scores, pasty characters with eternal inner battles, caustic one-liners that reverse the course of lives. In typical form, America never really noticed the Manics until tragedy struck: the group's unstable guitarist, Richey James, disappeared in 1995, right before their first planned tour of the States. Back then, the Manics were all cider and strife, with precocious anthems like "You Love Us" proving irresistible to flabbergasted critics. On This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours the Manics continue spewing sociopolitical venom, but now they can barely be bothered to lift their noses out of the medicine cabinet, hampered by a maudlin snarl of cellos and singer James Dean Bradfield's choir-boy whine. Attacking every rat bastard (save Tom Jones) in the history of Wales, the band's autumn hush works on "Ready for Drowning" and the stark closer, "S.Y.M.M.," which pays homage to the victims of Britain's worst football tragedy. Yet, there's not a rousing rhythm in the pack; even a tribute to the still-missing James, "Nobody Loved You," limps along like makeout music for activists. The powerful lyrics may sate the mind, but This Is My Truth's flaccid symphonics cannot a body move.—Kristy Ojala
MARC OLSEN Didn't Ever . . . Hasn't Since . . . (My Own Planet) The world is filled with earnest singer-songwriters, crooning to their broken-hearted content. Marc Olsen is, thankfully, slightly different. The former Sage frontman fuses whispery vocals with a simple electric guitar sound to create music that is beautiful, haunting, and emotion-filled on Didn't Ever . . . Hasn't Since . . . . "Your Day" is a tear-in-your-beer honky-tonk number; "Fly By" is entirely instrumental, a rock-steady beat and keyboard giving it a vintage sound; "Rosaleen," the album's closer, is as reflective as Olsen's love-sick voice gets. Ultimately, the sonics steal the show. Olsen's true craft is his mastery at shaping guitar tones. Influenced as much by jazz guitarist Grant Green as songsmith Elliott Smith, Olsen creates stark but powerful music. The highlight of his previous disc, Tunnel Songs, was "She's Leaving Tomorrow," a tune filled with heartache and a sound as eerie as a spaghetti Western soundtrack. With Didn't Ever, Olsen proves there's a lot more where that came from.—Edward Garabedian