In 2003, singer-songwriters Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge, and Shawn Mullins realized that to fight back against the encroaching forces of hip-hop, teen pop, and rap-rock would require more strength than any one of them could muster on his own. So they pooled their resources and formed the Thorns, a sort of Traveling Wilburys for harmony-heavy middlebrow power-poppers, and hip-hop, teen pop, and rap-rock won. Raleigh, N.C.'s Tres Chicas are a similar proposition from three talented alt-country ladies whose names always come attached to those of bands they used to play in: Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown, Lynn Blakey of Let's Active, and Tonya Lamm of Hazeldine. (If you're keeping score, Cary is the Sweet of the group, Blakey's the Droge, and Lamm's the Mullins. North Carolina power-pop heavyweight Chris Stamey, whose name often comes attached to that of the dB's, also plays with the band; since Stamey played on Sweet's debut, I like to think of him as the Chicas' Chris Stamey.) Sweetwater, Tres Chicas' first CD, is, like the Thorns' album, chock full of good intentions: choice covers of tunes by George Jones, Lucinda Williams, and Loretta Lynn; a sensible ratio of ballads to up-tempo numbers, as well as electric guitars to old-timey string instruments; Stamey's crisp but organic production job. And, of course, Cary, Blakey, and Lamm's assured harmonies, which give everything an indelible sense of sweet backyard nostalgia. But there's no fight to it—just contented knitting-circle neoclassicism. Gimme Ashlee Simpson harmonizing with a robot for now, thanks. MIKAEL WOOD
Tres Chicas play Tractor Tavern, opening for Tift Merritt, at 9 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 3. $15.
Six Organs of Admittance
School of the Flower
When Ben Chasny, aka Six Organs of Admittance, plays live, there is almost always a moment when a song ceases to be a song and starts to feel like some sort of séance or spell. The last time I witnessed this was at Chop Suey, when Chasny spent about eight minutes coaxing moaning, meowing, menacing feedback from his plugged-in acoustic while rocking back and forth, chanting, and looking not unlike Linda Blair in her most famous role. At first I was actually frightened and said so out loud to my friends, but then I realized that if Chasny has a connection to some sort of otherworld and wants to take us there, it can only mean that we're in for a hell of a trip. While previous Six Organs albums have been evocative, provocative, and downright strange, School of the Flower marks the first time that Chasny has truly transferred his spiritual tour guiding onto record. With their circular chanting, violently plucked and picked guitar strings, nonlinear rhythms, and grounding neo-folk storytelling, the songs on Flower speak our language, but they know things that we don't. On the title track, Chasny's guitars could be reciting verses on a string of prayer beads, and the scatter-step free-jazz percussion only gives more weight to the idea that we need this fervent recitation. Here, Chasny is as much like Max von Sydow's character as Blair's. LAURA CASSIDY
Among the artists covered on Justus Köhncke's 1999 Spiralen der Erinnerung: Janis Ian, Carole King, Carly Simon, and Wings. This, interestingly, from a guy who now records for Kompakt, the Cologne label whose watercolored house and elegant techno teeter somewhere around the cutting edge of German electronics. But maybe it's really not so strange; Doppelleben, Köhncke's third album, exposes ultrastylish dance music and Breck-haired retro crooning as some of the most natural bedfellows imaginable. The highlights here—say, last year's great 12-inch "Timecode," which winds its way from light funk to heavy drama—offer up the kind of soft-edged ticktock disco the man made half his name on, but the bulk of this record casts so much of a fruity '70s spell that you might not even notice his latest Carly Simon cover—in German!—until midway through the second chorus. The results, on nü-German compu-soul classics like "Wo Bist Du," capture just what you want from a dance maker's pop move: luscious texture and understated groove, all mega-modern in spite of the soft-focus synths and complete absence of glitch or click. When Köhncke puts on his game face and settles into a digital-disco stride, it's just as gorgeous— something like a bag of fog with a laser light inside. Doppelleben may not pack all the glory of Kompakt's highest heights, but it's as welcoming and accessible—and as purely pop—as the label's offered yet. NITSUH ABEBE
This Right Here Is Buck 65
Canadian MC Rich Terfry, aka Buck 65, had devoted the better part of a decade to cobbling together a manifesto on the state of hip-hop before he finally gave up with 2001's Man Overboard. On "You Know the Science," he snuffed out his prior aspirations like Kool Keith killing off one of his own aliases, putting to bed a wealth of underground material and—if recent performances are any indication—the dizzying turntable technique that characterized his earliest work. Now he's all cheap suits and cowboy hats, with a codeine flow that rivals Jim White, the latest turn in a bizarre self-improvement project that started on 2003's Talkin' Honky Blues, in which he outscored fellow pupil Everlast on the Harry M. Smith appreciation exam. A few reworked oldies—including a version of "The Centaur" that omits a reference to the protagonist's "cock" to make the song safe for parallel-universe radio play—have been added for the sake of continuity, but this midcareer retrospective provides an incomplete window to the contents of his scrambled noggin. Consider it an opportunity to extend the shelf life of some of his more recent songs, avoid sample-related lawsuits, and engage latent obsessive-compulsive tendencies by reworking the backing tracks. "4-6-3," the baseball obsessive's superlative ode to turning a double play, dives headfirst over home plate, but why not break into the American market with an album of new material instead? And where's the guy who covered Roxy Music just to spite his detractors? Buck 65 spent forever trying to succeed; now he's poised to succeed without even trying. NICK GREEN
Robert Downey Jr.
The title of this album is misleading—there are no Intonarumori, Italo-disco, or Trevor Horn collaborations here, although Jon Anderson appears on a version of Yes' "Your Move." Instead of finishing with that band's "I've Seen All Good People," though, Anderson sings "Give Peace a Chance." (So much for "war—the world's only hygiene"!) Musically, Robert Downey Jr.'s singing debut is Darkness on the Edge of 52nd Street, though the actor's Springsteen ("I spit gravel, the 20s roll around in muh hay-und") is better than his Dave (or Eric) Matthews, and surprisingly, his chord changes are better than his lyrics. "Kimberly Glide" has a hippie vibe somewhere between Psi-Com and Porno for Pyros, Jerry Garcia–like guitar in the outro, and the line "It's love-hate in L.A.tely." Downey is credited with percussion as well as piano and voice, and Modern Drummer readers will recognize the names of contributing musicians Vinnie Colaiuta, Chad Wackerman, and Gregg Bissonette, but an adult-jazz lack of pulse predominates. I was hoping this CD was going to be better than it is—film-star singer-songwriters are like actors playing addicts playing narcs in films adapted from semiautobiographical sci-fi about detectives with split personalities playing druggies posing as informers, or like watching TV and constantly suspecting there's somebody just off-camera, which is disturbing until you realize that the missing person is you. But unfortunately, only the Serenity Prayer of "Broken" and Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" are as good as Julian's death scene in Less Than Zero. DAVE QUEEN
Ol' Dirty Bastard
The Osirus Mixtape
There was always a bit of schadenfreude in enjoying Ol' Dirty Bastard. If you bought into the public persona, then you had to admit you were enjoying stuff—drugs, shooting, jail time, public disorder—that eventually deprived children of their father. If you didn't, it was arguable whether or not the music in itself was enough. So if you smell the whiff of those who steal from pensioners and traffic in human organs in this pieced-together postmortem cash-in, you're not wrong. Real ODB records always had an odds-and-ends feel, and if The Osirus Mixtape isn't quite as cynical-unto-evil as the quickie comps rushed out while he was locked up, it's still plenty problematic. It's not really possible for DJ Premier to make a bad beat, but genius can breed laziness, which is what "Pop Shots" is here. The rest— from the Lil Jon rip to the "minimalist" RZA-biting drum loops—range from mediocre to my-first-Casio, which means your enjoyment of Osirus will be proportional to how much endless scatological free association, parodic soul-man grunting, and ball-scratching non sequiturs you can take. (Hey, you might ask, isn't that why Eminem's Encore sucked so badly? Well, yes, which leads us right back to the beginning of this review.) Dirty's still-forthcoming Roc-a-Fella debut may prove more lasting as legacy and art, but in the meantime, I'll just recall seeing the Wu-Tang Clan live in another lifetime, when the place damn near turned into Fallujah the minute he stepped on stage. JESS HARVELL