Iceland's favorite yelping pixie does the new romantic—and it's a beautiful thing.
Bj�is in love—that much is obvious on her latest release, and it's not only the cascading, string-laden outro on "Pagan Poetry" of "I love him I love him I love him I love him I love him I love him I love him I love him" that tells us so. The vibrating tension wires and drastic emotional spikes of her previous releases have been replaced by a dreamy, creamy coolness, an internal world swathed in white cotton wool. Gone are the strident anthems of Post and Telegram, the flights of cartoonish fancy and banshee wailing. In their place, airy synths and docile drum machines keep thoughtful time behind vocals that swirl like tiny, glinting snowflakes through a cool Icelandic sky. Sounds fanciful and almost too precious in print, but in audio, that's just what it is. The influence of collaborators Matmos—a San Francisco duo whose obsession with the electronic manipulation of squishy operating-room sounds so oddly augmented their recent debut, A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure—is hard to pin down. The only sure thing is that Bj�herself has entered a new creative period—one into which not all her fans may follow her. This is not the sing-into-your-hairbrush, jump-around-the-living-room stuff of "Big Time Sensuality" or "Army of Me." It's both vaguely disappointing and somehow heartening to see our shrieking, eternally childlike little pixie so subtle, so discreet, and so, well, grown-up. Leah Greenblatt
Love and Theft
The Bard bats two for two.
If anyone else released an album as acclaimed as Bob Dylan's haunted Time Out of Mind (1997), they'd shoulder a world of pressure to craft a follow-up that matched its brilliance. But Dylan himself has been shooting so far below expectations for so long that few fans dreamed he'd hit another home run. Love and Theft, happily, is over the fence. While Time Out of Mind uncovered mortality in its immediacy, the new album locates spry passion in the past. Rogues, lovers, vaudevillians, and Big Joe Turner inhabit smart songs that guide us through jump blues, rockabilly, blues, and pre-rock pop. Where Sinatra's creative phrasing eventually receded into parody, Dylan still revels in his own mastery. In a single lyric that might naturally contain a dozen or so syllables, he conversationally crams four sentences: "She says, 'You can't repeat the past.' I say, 'You can't? What do you mean you can't? Of course you can.' "Tucked amid the jokes and crack musicianship from his touring band, there is a certain gravity. These songs are embroidered with baptism and apocalypse, preaching and blessing. Still, this is Dylan's most alive album in years, as if he'd followed John Wesley Harding with Blonde on Blonde, rather than vice versa. Do we dare wish for a Highway 61 Revisited around the corner? Chris Nelson. See also Music Calendar.
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE
The Photo Album
They've come a long way, baby.
Don't be fooled by the first song: Frontman Ben Gibbard's sparse short story unfolds over hollow organ and guitar notes, but from there, the remaining nine songs reveal themselves like participants in one of those makeover shows. Stepping out from behind the curtain, metamorphosis exposes itself with new and improved bravado. Once your eyes and ears adjust, familiarity shoves past the unrecognizable. And with Death Cab's third full-length (if not the made-over housewife), the two combine to create a wonderful new identity. Duality cuts through the entire album; the ability to exist in both the remembered and the imagined colors all the songs. "We Laugh Indoors" displays plenty of familiar DCFC rhetoric and restrained movements before busting into a foray of straightforward rock and unbridled bash that is unlike any of the hushed, loud/soft progressions that hallmark the band's earlier work. If you were to play "Blacking Out the Friction" for a friend and tell him or her that the song is actually Quasi's Sam Coomes joining Superchunk and creating the theme song for this winter, your friend would likely accept the white lie as gospel truth and run out looking for the album. The third time's a charm, and these charms just happen to be a little less indie pop and a little more indie rock. But The Photo Album is exactly what it intends to be: a collected edition of images featuring snapshots of shared cigarettes and pictures of love as leaves you. Laura Learmonth
Buffalo Tom frontman flies solo, but not far from his band's familiar alt-rock format.
My So-Called Life buffs certainly remember the episode where Angela Chase finally makes out with her crush, the brooding and blank-eyed Jordan Catalano, only to have him coldly tell her afterward at the Buffalo Tom concert that she's "kinda crowding" him when she says hello. It would've been easy to dismiss such cruelty simply as callous immaturity if it weren't for the impassioned vocals of Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz in the background: "I'd do it if I could, I hope you know I would." Whether or not those lyrics were intended to represent Jordan's frustrating inability to articulate his true feelings, the song nonetheless offered the scene a deeper emotional resonance and insight into the complexity of romance that's, thankfully, captured on Janovitz's second solo album. Recorded at Fort Apache Studios, the countrified and folk-flaired Up Here is an understated acoustic affair that often recalls Tom Waits as the Bostonian sings about the joys and regrets of relationships past and present ("Atlantic," "Half a Heart"). Despite its stripped-down sound, however, the album still (understandably) has a distinctly Buffalo Tom vibe and—at least for those of us who found bittersweet solace in that band's "I'm Allowed" and "Late at Night"—provides poignant insight into our so-called love lives. Jimmy Draper