A shock to his 'System

LCD Soundsystem

Sound of Silver (DFA/EMI)

****

JAMES MURPHY, foreman of the New York electro wrecking crew LCD Soundsystem, is a kind of clubland Lenny Bruce. In songs concocted from whatever's been spilled on the dirty dance floor since punk first went nightclubbing around 1980, Murphy yelps in the voice of a late-night party crasher, smacking the "in" crowd -- post-post-punks, aging club kids, jaded Brooklynites -- with observations that entice and insult. He seems as if he's going off the rails, but the balance he maintains between arrogance and chagrin is as tight as a good punch line.

The satirist's challenge is to stay on that window ledge without plunging into irrelevance or reckless crudity. On "Sound of Silver," the follow-up to LCD's 2004 breakthrough, Murphy succeeds by stretching in two directions -- finding a new musical center, and showing his humanity beyond the laughs.

Brian Eno currently is Murphy's favorite sonic muse. The shiny-headed genius of hybrid pop has long factored into the LCD soundscape, but here his influence abounds.

The first track, "Get Innocuous," is practically a tribute to the Talking Heads-Eno collaboration "I Zimbra" -- it updates that polyrhythmic wake-up call with a snotty, electro-clash female voice chanting, "You can't normalize / Don't it make you feel alive," a phrase equally applicable to sound and nervous systems.

On this cut and throughout "Sound of Silver," Murphy taps into Eno's deep tranquillity, the whimsical calm at the center of his songs, organizing their strange surfaces.

Eno-esque cool comes from understanding that the artist's fatal motivation to play God will always be flummoxed by chance. Murphy, wedding rock roughness to the smoother palette of dance music, invokes this insight by seeking out elements that aggravate as much as they please.

The processed piano that holds "All My Friends" hostage before a kick drum declares this a normal pop song; the off-kilter falsetto that battles with Murphy's flatter intonations in "Time to Get Away"; the title track's queasy dynamics: They startle enough to force a dancer to misstep, or make a listener squirm in her seat.

Murphy uses this subtle, jarring effect to keep his songs from being just one thing; the funny ones always have a dark edge, and the downers gleam with beauty. Wisecracks still abound -- "North American Scum," the fist-pumping rant about cultural tensions on the international dance scene, makes fun of the mimes of Europe and the uptight parents of the USA.

But there's also the tenderness of "Someone Great," a detailed account of grieving over a dead friend. The keyboard line that starts this elegy throbs like a hard fact that can't be reversed, and as Murphy sings about his regrets -- that the sky weren't so blue, that he will move on -- other elements build, every one slightly abrasive, adding up to something beautiful. It's a perfect metaphor for the off-kilter daze we call consciousness, carrying us through this cruel, wonderful life.

Ann Powers

*

Some folks are already calling for an encore

Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard

& Ray Price

"Last of the Breed" (Lost Highway)

** 1/2

THE thinking here seems to be that if two classic voices together are better than one, three must be triple the fun. And that is indeed the case -- at times -- on this two-CD summit meeting of three of country music's most venerated stars, who've placed a combined 338 records on the country singles chart and logged nearly as much collective time on the planet as the Constitution.

A duet outing can offer disparate singers the opportunity to contrast and blend their way to a transcendent new level, but the reality of finding space in 22 songs for each of three voices often becomes a game of "Whose Turn Is It Anyway?"

As much fun as the members of this trio probably had trading verses on the country standards that make up about half this set (in stores Tuesday), those tunes -- "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," "Mom and Dad's Waltz," "Heartaches by the Number," "I Love You Because," etc. -- have been recorded so frequently it's well nigh impossible to inject much freshness, short of Jack White-style radical reinvention. But that's not the aim here: Veteran producer Fred Foster elicits top-notch playing out of a first-rate studio band, plus the Jordanaires, in instrumental and vocal arrangements that are as tastefully efficient as they are respectful to country tradition.

The sheer humility Nelson, Haggard and Price bring to Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me" overcomes the burden of familiarity, but revelations largely reside in the more obscure numbers: Cindy Walker's heartbreaking "Going Away Party," Floyd Tillman's existentially painful "Some Other World" and a couple of recent-vintage Nelson and Haggard compositions.

Indeed, the wizened gravity they bring to Nelson's acquiescent "Back to Earth" and Haggard's wistfully romantic "If I Ever Get Lucky" raises the question of "What if?" as in, "What if they'd done a full session of material by these two singers who also happen to be two of country's greatest songwriters? Or boiled this one down to a single album of the less tried-and-true songs?" Is it too much to hope for "Last of the Breed -- The Afterlife"?

Randy Lewis

*

The silver-lining crew

is back with more

Modest Mouse

"We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" (Epic)

***

SINGER-guitarist Isaac Brock and crew have a new guitarist -- the Smiths' Johnny Marr -- but they still have that same old weird way of looking on the bright side of bad turns. This album's title sounds grim indeed, but there's a happy punch line inside: "We were lucky."

This wry, consider-the-alternative approach to gratefulness hit the mainstream with Modest Mouse's 2004 single "Float On," from the album "Good News for People Who Love Bad News." That sensibility is here in numbers such as the exuberant, ska-flavored "Dashboard," as is the band's obsessive jumble of styles. Brock's yelping, clipped delivery guides every shift, from expansive to punky sunshine-pop to defiant bluesy rock, and validates the complex underlying emotions. But, at 62 minutes, this album feels self-indulgent, and some of the 14 songs leave little impression. Still, there's "Float On"-esque sing-along potential in, among others, the elastic, sardonic "We've Got Everything."

Such sonic elements as the sea-shanty touches on "March Into the Sea" reflect the nautical theme, but the push-pull of ocean waves is the perfect metaphor for MM's way of veering between melody and discord, calmness and distress, silence and loud, loud volume. Marr slips into this mode easily, expertly lending clean, delicate or noisy lines as required, and making the most of such occasional spotlights as "Little Motel," in which his sweet, soaring lines recall the more lyrical tendencies of Jeff Beck.

-- Natalie Nichols

*

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed will be released Tuesday.

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