Since the 1998 debut, "Northern Star," the London dance duo of Tom Findlay and Andy Cato has been perfecting the slick, stylish dance sound of that record. By 2001's "Goodbye, Country (Hello, Nightclub)," the music practically glistened. Having perfected the style, though, Groove Armada finds itself at the proverbial crossroads. Do the two continue in the same direction or somehow challenge themselves?
Thankfully, they've chosen the latter option. Although "Lovebox" (due in stores Tuesday) still oozes cool, the sheen has given way to a more substantive and at times soulful sound.
The change is established from the beginning with "Purple Haze," an effective clattering of blues, techno and rap highlighted by a guest turn from Southern rap group Nappy Roots. Urban music, both American and English, plays a major role throughout the album, with Jamaican dancehall rapper Red Rat appearing on two tracks as well as the underutilized Neneh Cherry.
As producers, Cato and Findlay are particularly adept at complementing their vocalists, whether it be the down-tempo "Remember," which features a heavy sample of Fairport Convention's "Autopsy" (and vocals by the British folk group's late singer Sandy Denny); "Hands of Time," a gospel-tinged folk number with Richie Havens; or Sunshine Anderson's appearance amid the disco shine of "Easy."
In bringing so much fresh blood into their world, Groove Armada has also given itself a healthy transfusion of soul and humanity.
Nerd rock with lyrics that float
"Long Knives Drawn" (Polyvinyl)
Naming yourself after a German poet haunted by the complexities of elusive love is probably a warning sign in rock 'n' roll, and at its least compelling Rainer Maria does get as smarty-pants as ever on "Long Knives Drawn" (in stores Tuesday). But singer Caithlin De Marrais has backed off quite a bit from the shouted vocals of earlier albums, and the band has revisited its arch dissonance, daring to address melody and even softer emotions without getting mushy.
"The Double Life" channels the irresistible, forced-harmony chime of Sonic Youth-style guitars, but now they're nicely tamped down and pushing light hooks that float the lyrics instead of shoving them. "CT Catholic," the only song to prominently feature the backing vocals of guitarist Kyle Fischer, sounds like the long-lost R.E.M. of art-school days. The closer, "Situation: Relation," is downright navel-gazing. But for those longing to hear De Marrais unleash one of her earnest, railing love analyses, "Mystery and Misery" makes it perfectly clear this is still self-conscious -- if better-sounding -- nerd rock.
The Mountain Goats
For a decade, Iowa-based John Darnielle has impressed an indie following with lo-fi but highly literate slices of life recorded largely on a boombox. Here he embraces higher-fi sound for an involving song cycle chronicling a couple that has fallen out of love, addressing the complex emotions with the spare, sharp poetry of a John Updike or an Anne Tyler and the deceptively understated melancholy of latter-day Phil Ochs.
-- Steve Hochman
"Stories Often Told" (Yep Roc)
The Morricone twang of the instrumental "Lay Down Your Arms" that opens this Toronto band's fourth album might set your ears for country cheese. While that tone provides a thread, brothers Dallas and Travis Good wind it through Byrds-ish country rock ("Such a Little Word"), country-billy ("Tiger, Tiger") and high-plains psychedelia ("Of Our Land") with equal authority. Jayhawks and Beachwood Sparks fans take note.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are released unless otherwise noted.