Calling Out of Context
The words typically used to describe the late disco don and avant-bubblegum artist Arthur Russell—beatific, diffident, difficult—draw a picture of a man slightly out of step. The man himself spells it out on "Arm Around You": "I need to be told what to do/I'm in a world of my own." Calling Out of Context, recorded in the mid-to-late '80s but until now unreleased, plots the first dot in a quavering line that drifts from AR Kane's 1989 i all the way to Junior Boys' 2004 Last Exit. As with those albums, there was a vague context for Russell's work of the time—the beats of Davy DMX, the melancholy of the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Neu!-meets-James-Taylor lope of late-period Talking Heads (a band Russell almost joined in the '70s)—but nothing else really like it. Russell could write "proper" songs, like the updated Beach Boys of "That's Us/Wild Combination," detailing a simple litany of simpler pleasures (walking, swimming, kissing, surfing). But Russell's songs often seem nearly autistic, deep in private conversation, like the songs children make up to entertain themselves. Occasionally his fatigued voice will flare up into an awkward sharp above his register or drop to a cartoonish frog croak. The beat will burble endlessly, funk bass popping, while his distorted, overdriven cello drones and squeals. A beautiful melody will disappear at the flick of a switch for a reverb-soaked percussion break. Lyrical profundities will sit next to utter banalities, which might sound like wordless scat anyway. Or as Russell himself says, "Calling all kids/Adults are crazy"—to say nothing of beautiful, weird, heartrending, funny. JESS HARVELL
THE BLACK HEART PROCESSION + SOLBAKKEN
In the Fishtank 11
First, the concept: Dutch record label Konkurrent invites a touring band to pick a partner and spend two days in the studio throwing tracks together ad hoc. Some of the participants thus far: NoMeansNo, Tortoise, Dirty Three, Sonic Youth, and poli-sci punks the Ex. This year's experiment: San Diego's darkly seductive orchestral indie rockers the Black Heart Procession mix it up with Dutch prog rockers Solbakken. The resulting sound: not unlike Nick Cave practicing long division—but you knew that was coming. Cave is often cited as a touchstone for the Black Heart Procession's sound, and In the Fishtank 11 insists that his, and their, epic darkness is indelible; no matter what you add to the BHP, they will sound like a carnival of longing and regret. The rolling, Britpoppy "A Taste of You and Me" and the deep, heavy, 10-minute "Things Go On With Mistakes" are the disc's most mathy and Solbakken-like tracks. The first's florid piano melody competes with the shuffling, building, combative drumbeat like two kids solving equations on a blackboard, while the latter's insistent bass notes are an infinity theorem set in stone against reverberating vocals and an escalating beat. Guest vocalist Rachael Rose, singing in breathy French, lends a lush dynamic to the BHP's Paulo Zappoli's solid, Bono-like timbre on lead track "Voiture en Rouge," and the closer, "Your Cave," serves to punctuate the disc with a stick-to-your-ribs souvenir of bad seeds and the people who sow them. Throughout, BHP pianist Tobias Nathaniel tethers imagery, stutter-step percussion, and strange melodies with his gorgeous, resonant playing. LAURA CASSIDY
VARIOUS ARTISTS/MIXED BY THE OUTERNATIONALISTS
The Outernationalists Present Ethnomixology
The line between world music and plain old music gets thinner every year. Cheap air travel, immigration, and the Internet are making obsolete notions of "the exotic," and modern pop consistently reeks of global influences. There's no such thing as a local music scene anymore: Some of the best Jamaican dancehall comes from New York and Toronto; East Asian bhangra-rap star Panjabi MC lives in England; Seattle's best electronic musicians have their strongest fan base in Germany, a country whose homegrown producers make excellent Detroit techno; and you can buy it all on Amazon.com. DJ culture's constant sampling, relentless turnover, and no-boundaries attitude ensure this week's hottest dance records will draw from influences far and wide—Fela's Afro-funk, Eastern European folk music, '80s Europop, Bollywood film scores, Midwestern butt-rock. Ethnomixology, selected by Afro Celt Sound System's Simon Emmerson and music journalist Phil Meadley, offers a snapshot of an omni-genre at the top of its game, combining and recombining influences so stealthily that you'd have a hard time picking out what comes from where. The liner notes can fill you in on which Londoner sampled what Indian record over whose Motown beat, but after a few minutes you won't care about that, because the Outernationalists make "world music" into a playground, not a museum. MATT CORWINE
Franz Ferdinand's brand of stylish, jaunty rock is well into its "Zone of Fruitless Intensification"—a term coined by critic Simon Reynolds to describe music that's lost the ability it once had to be exciting and vital. If you read the British pop weekly NME (don't worry; no one else does, either), these Scottish rockers will "change your life." They've already stormed the U.K. charts (roughly the equivalent of storming Massachusetts) with the smart, sexy stomper "Take Me Out." Like N.Y.C. mope-rockers Interpol, Franz Ferdinand push all the right latent-Anglophile buttons—you know, that part of you that digs Joy Division and dressed like Morrissey in high school. Franz Ferdinand are much more fun than Interpol, which isn't difficult, and when their rhythm engine kicks into high gear and nattily dressed lead singer Alex Kapranos moans like Pulp's Jarvis Cocker at the top of his game, you'd swear you were listening to . . . well . . . Pulp. Part of the band's instant appeal is that it sounds like all of your favorite bands. But where retro lovers like the Strokes sound like everyone at once but no one in particular, Franz Ferdinand wear their influences like a series of corsages. Does part of you just want to dance around to Pulp's "Common People" in your bedroom? Then Franz Ferdinand are your band—and they make the world a (slightly) better place for it. GEETA DAYAL
Franz Ferdinand play the Crocodile Cafe at 8:30 p.m. Tues., March 23. $10 adv. They also play an in-store at the Queen Anne Easy Street Records, 20 Mercer St., 206-691-3279, 6 p.m. Tues., March 23. Free.
LESSER BIRDS OF PARADISE
String of Bees
Mark Janka's carefully metered, cleverly told song-stories don't, by themselves, merit Chicago's Lesser Birds of Paradise special mention; ditto his band's uncommon instrumentation. Rather, it's the combination and synthesis of the two—the way the stories echo the sounds and the way the sounds accentuate the stories. On the Lesser Birds' third album, a musical saw bends eerie notes into a pretty warble, the guitars are rhythmic and bold, and accordions, dulcimers, and tape manipulations don't sound like gimmicks or dramatic attention grabbers but like naturally occurring variations in the landscape. And with songs like "You Snooze, You Lose" and "When the Devil Does a Drive-By," Janka saves the album from becoming too sentimental and woozy. Sure, his heart is perpetually broken or in danger of being stepped on—why be an indie folk singer if not?—but he manages to crack jokes, keeping the ache in check. As the album begins, "A Magnet in You" has Janka singing, "There's a magnet in me/But unfortunately/All it seems to do is repel," over a banjo lead. The thump of a tape sliding backward fills up empty spaces, and meandering piano plinks lend a sympathetic naïveté. Like the Shins or Fruit Bats, Lesser Birds are a textural compound little concerned with experimentation for its own sake, but absolute and organic in their honesty. L.C.
I don't hate Jem because she's beautiful; I'm just bummed that her debut album fails to deliver completely on the promise of "They," the hypnotic first track. After a tongue-in-cheek choral intro, creepy in that too-perfect, Stepford Wives way, we pick up a thumping beat, then Jem's cool, almost transparent voice fomenting rebellion: "Who made up all the rules?/We follow them like fools." Then there's the chorus, whose enigmatic apology ("I'm sorry, so sorry/I'm sorry it's like this") makes some kind of perfect sense above the saccharine backing vocals, the hand claps, the mandolin ripple, and that fragile voice. You can't accuse Jem of refusing to vary her attack on Finally Woken, though that scattered approach is part of the problem. Loud stutter-synth guitars and a seductive schoolgirl lilt ("Come On Closer"), a hint of reggae ("Save Me"), vulnerable acoustic balladry (the lovely "Flying High"), and a bruising take on suicide ("24") all add up to a young pop artist still in search of a style that sticks. The style that most obviously misses is Jem's fun-in-the-sun persona on "Wish I" and "Just a Ride"—both worthy top-down summertime ear candy, but out of place on a record that dabbles in paranoia, camp, and danceable death rattles. Like Dido, another one-named pop thrush with the face of a dream come true, Jem makes a few memorable strides on her first full-length, but we'll have to wait until the sophomore set to see if the chops within can match the beauty without. NEAL SCHINDLER