"Silent Alarm" (Vice)
This London quartet doesn't go down as easily as some of the other new British bands, such as the Kaiser Chiefs and the Futureheads, but that just might be a measure of its more challenging reach.
Taut and lean, allocating its hooks sparingly and strategically, Bloc Party's debut album evokes some early post-punk models, recalling Gang of Four in the angular interlocking of guitars and rhythm section, suggesting a little Buzzcocks in the briskness that gusts through the music from time to time. Guitars whine, snarl and ring as they form sinewy webs, and drummer Matt Tong slices and dices the beats with his jittery attack.
It's an ideal vehicle for lyrics born of youthful frustration, discontent and desire, and Kele Okereke's plaintive, wounded voice is the right one to sing them. His high, echo-laden yelp brings a focused urgency to the opening "Like Eating Glass," a sketch of a family whose life together is grinding to a halt, and he brings a natural poignancy to his gentler crooning on the atmospheric ballads.
"Silent Alarm" sometimes lapses into facelessness, but at its best it combines dynamic record-making and underlying passion with a rare focus.
-- Richard Cromelin
Meet the new Carey, same as the old Carey
"The Emancipation of Mimi" (Island/Def Jam)
Carey isn't known for wild innovation, but the pop diva could have done something more daring with her 10th studio album, purportedly her musical declaration of independence and an intimate glimpse at her life. (Only her closest associates, she says, call her by the nickname "Mimi.") Instead, this collection is utterly generic.
Her recent history certainly has enough drama to create a revealing, even moving, portrait of an artist reborn in her own image. But Carey and her collaborators just plug the required variables into the modern-R&B-album; formula: guest rappers/vocalists (including Nelly, Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri) + tributes to the genre's betters (the wistful "We Belong Together" cribs from Bobby Womack and Babyface) = a mood veering from hip-hop-flavored dance-floor banging to old-school heart's-desire warbling.
Her sadly depleted voice is again propped up by multi-tracking, and the occasional dog-deafening shriek hardly proves she's recaptured her early acrobatic power.
A barrage of product name-dropping only enhances the sense that you're channel-surfing rather than viewing her depths. Still, the meet-cute fantasy "Say Somethin' " stands out among the pumping, sexy numbers, and the '70s bedroom-soul touches, as on the second-chance plea "Mine Again," are charming. But Carey's pingponging between her search for Mr. Right and her need for Mr. Right Now robs the former of its sincerity and the latter of its urgency.
-- Natalie Nichols
Poignantly upfront down on the dark side
"Martha Wainwright" (Zoe/Rounder)
It's a safe bet this album won't be the soundtrack for MTV's next "Spring Break" special -- unless it's one about youths taking a break from mindless escapism. The younger sister of Rufus and the daughter of veteran singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle demonstrates observations and talent to burn, and burn she does.
Like the other members of her family, Martha looks at relationships with blood relatives and significant others, few of them providing much to celebrate. But her walk down the dark side of life and love is often heartbreakingly upfront.
"I have no children, I have no husband/ I have no reason to be alive/ Oh give me one," she sings with desperation in "Far Away." She leaves it ambiguous whether the plea "Oh give me one" refers to one or all of the things she feels she's missing.
She has inherited her dad's willingness to lay her life open for scrutiny, but at 29 she shows less of the absurdist humor that characterizes his work. She also has her mother's skill at projecting vulnerability to the point of fragility, as well as a good dose of her brother's romantic fatalism. ("I don't care if you love me tomorrow," she sings in "When the Day Is Short," "just love me tonight and I will be all right ... until tomorrow night.")
At the same time, Martha is the strongest pure singer of them all. She can channel anger, resignation and self-determination to rival any punks' -- batten down the hatches for the fury she lets fly in "B.M.F.A." -- yet keeps things melodically seductive in the classic singer-songwriter tradition into which she was born.
-- Randy Lewis
After a false start, the Chiefs ring true
"Everyday I Love You Less and Less," the opening song on this British band's debut album, is the kind of snarky new-wave novelty you could have heard any night of the week at Madame Wong's in 1979. The next song, the peppy and catchy single "I Predict a Riot," fails to do more than merely evoke an aura of the conflict and danger that, say, the Clash's "White Riot" sought to incite.
So what a pleasant surprise to find the richer turf on the rest of this album. The tone turns more contemplative, personal and substantive both musically and lyrically, with enough panache to raise thoughts that Kaiser Chiefs could become to the current wave of Britpop what Blur was to the '90s crop.
Singer Ricky Wilson's gruff air of vague dissatisfaction and restlessness actually works best on the most subdued songs of busted romance and broken dreams ("Modern Way," "Oh My God"), culminating in "Caroline, Yes," an hommage in spirit if not sound to Brian Wilson at his most melancholy.
It's also a nice change of pace that the Chiefs avoid the '80s post-punk cliches so much in fashion with their peers, though you have to wonder about the instincts of a band that leads off with its most gimmicky and least involving songs and buries its best toward the end.
-- Steve Hochman
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.