RAINER MARIA, A Better Version of Me (Polyvinyl) It's crucial in these jaded times to feign indifference when discussing the music that really moves us. The rationale: better to keep our exaggerating, air-guitaring inner teenager in the privacy of locked bedrooms than to look foolish. A Better Version of Me is the kind of juggernaut that annihilates those reservations, making "it's just . . . awesome" a wholly acceptable intellectual appraisal. Rainer Maria have trumped everything good about their previously acclaimed LP, Look Now Look Again, by creating nine impeccably crafted romantic visions that pulse with indelible imagery. Bassist Caithlin DeMarrais has diversified her vocal approach without sacrificing the fortitude that complemented guitarist Kyle Fischer's primal wailing so well on past efforts. The disc's defining moment is the chorus of "Seven Sisters," in which DeMarrais belts, "Do you ever hear what the stars are saying to you?" over a piercing squall of feedback, just before drummer Bill Kuehn reins the song violently back into orbit. The bouncier side of Better Version ("Hell and High Water," "The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets") is far removed from the wrought agony of 1997's Past Worn Searching, but that's precisely what Rainer Maria are about: the intersection of overwhelming elation and crippling melancholy in a complex, ongoing relationship.—Andrew Bonazelli
Rainer Maria play Graceland Sunday, February 25.
BRIGHT EYES/SON, AMBULANCE, Oh, Holy Fools (Saddle Creek) In a recent interview with an online 'zine, Joe Knapp of Son, Ambulance surmised that his forefathers moved to Omaha, Neb., in order to find security. Knapp suggested that the landlocked, flat geography implied safety from the elements, a place of refuge from the uneven coasts. But this split CD features eight tracks that belie the idea of sanctuary. Nebraskans Knapp and Conor Oberst, the creative force behind the critically acclaimed Bright Eyes, wallow in emotional danger. The two skate on thin ice, their songs illustrating a burning sense of unrest. Oberst, who has three full-length releases as Bright Eyes, uses melancholy, plucked guitar notes, lamenting flutes, and pained caterwauling as the rocks in the pocket of his drowning songs. "No Lies, Just Love," the story of a contemplated suicide and a boy embarrassed by the honesty of a wilting flower, may be difficult for Bright Eyes fans to sit through. Although he insists his songs are fiction, Oberst's personal frailty is increasingly evident. By comparison, Knapp's lyrics are more reserved, his vocals even and less urgent. But taken alone, the Son, Ambulance songs uncover a heart that is every bit as openly disenchanted as Oberst's. Knapp, a former Bright Eyes drummer, often supplements his lyrics with Elvis Costello-like bouncing piano lines, polarizing and isolating the sadness of his stories with the contrasting bright keys. Fans of Bright Eyes are accustomed to fielding his vulnerability and acute anxiety, and it's a good bet—and a keen marketing move—that Knapp will find an accepting audience among Oberst's admirers.—Laura Learmonth
Bright Eyes play the Paradox on February 27.
P'TAAH, Decompressed (Ubiquity) P'Taah's Compressed Light, a left-field side project from Wamdue Kid Chris Brann, was easily one of last year's best electronic albums. Bored with house's regimented forms, Brann took a swerve from club-friendly productions in favor of deconstructed beats, jazz samples, and truly bizarre arrangements. It turns out he wasn't alone: Decompressed is a collection of unreleased tracks and P'Taah re-deconstructions from like-minded artists bent on taking dance music to a different level. On the one hand, Kirk Degiorgio's Offworld Ensemble applies his deep breakbeats and modal chords to "No One, No How, Never," while on the other, 2000 Black's Opaque turns "The Crossing" into a jerky, slightly damaged jazz-funk tune. Add solid remixes by DJ Gilb'r, Ashley Beedle, and DJ Venom, plus a few unreleased gems from Brann himself, and you end up with a remix album that, amazingly enough, is just as engaging as the original.—Matt Corwine
TRICKY, Mission Accomplished EP (Anti-) Finally an answer to that burning question: What do Tricky and Merle Haggard have in common? Both musical outlaws left behind major label woes to join Anti-, an offshoot of the indie-punk imprint Epitaph. But where country legend Haggard turned in a phenomenal, brooding full-length debut for his new bosses last year, our ragtag hero from Bristol merely threw together four tracks for a sort of "I'm set free" EP, and gave it the deeply meaningful title Mission Accomplished. The problem is that Tricky hasn't accomplished much since carving out his own hip-hop niche in the mid-'90s. His fourth and last album, Juxtapose, furthered his reputation as a musical kineticist, but it sounded as murky and plodding as the soundtrack to a cautionary driver's ed film. On Juxtapose's "For Real," he grumbled about his battles with Island/Polygram; on Tricky's current mission, he's more blunt: "Divine Comedy" is a scathing assessment of his old label, complete with accusations about slavery and racism. Of course, Prince already covered this ground, and a lot more flamboyantly. But then, originality's not the main goal here. The title track revolves around a line borrowed from a Peter Gabriel song, "Big Time," and while that in itself might sound intriguing, the resulting morass of clanging percussion and squealing guitars reveals the track as a weak punk-rock ploy. Tricky's capable of much more; hopefully, this once-dynamic artist can resurface with a new album that's focused on pioneering sounds rather than label rants and ill- advised samples.—Richard A. Martin