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The Specials
Guilty 'Til Proved Innocent!
(MCA)

Go figure: After returning to the revivalist ska scene in 1996 with the listless Today's Specials, the reunited Specials -- the Coventry outfit that started the whole ska-punk thing back in 1979 -- have rebounded with an album that recaptures much of the boundless, rhythmic enthusiasm of their vintage material. Guilty 'Til Proved Innocent!, the group's MCA debut, offers both a skillful updating of the Specials' hyperactive and choppy grooves and relief from the style-conscious drones that litter the nuevo ska front (where aquiring the right suit and porkpie hat seems more important than doing something different with the innovations introduced by the original Specials on genre classics such as "Gangsters," "Stereotype," and "Ghost Town").

True, this new lineup suffers from the absence of Terry Hall's vocals (he washed his hands of the band back in 1981); witness the weak whining of new guy Mark Adams and old Special Roddy Byers on a remake of "Gangsters," one of three live tracks tacked on to the end of Guilty. And there's little here that approaches the politically charged lyrics of departed Specials founder Jerry Dammers (although "Call Me Names" and "Fearful," a toast to paranoia featuring back-up yelps from Rancid's Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen, both come kind of close). Mostly, Guilty succeeds on the sheer force of its music -- the rollicking swing of the horn section on "It's You"; the manic drumming and borrowed Munsters riff that propel "Bonediggin'"; and the furious ebb-and-flow dynamics of the incessantly catchy "Leave It Out." Is it all as satisfying as the breakneck punky ska presented on 1979's The Specials or the cool-jazz pop of 1980's More Specials? No way. Is it better than the facile pop dribblings of the current groups who owe everything they know to the Specials? Um, no doubt.

-- John Floyd

Komeda
What Makes It Go?
(Minty Fresh)

Forget Brit-pop. There's a seriousness that plagues many English practitioners of the genre: Radiohead's themes of self-loathing, Pulp's obsession with the seamy side of sex, and Stereolab's philosophical blathering. When it comes to perky, truly lighthearted indie pop, look no further than Sweden.

In recent years that nation has churned out one critically acclaimed band after another: Komeda, the Cardigans, the Wannadies, and Cinnamon. Komeda's new What Makes It Go? refines the postpunk-meets-lounge sound the quartet created on its 1996 U.S. debut The Genius of Komeda. In the new songs, time signatures often shift and melodies grow more intricate as each song progresses.

The band's soul lies in the kinetic chemistry between brothers Jonas (keyboards/drums) and Marcus Holmberg (keyboards/bass). Guitarist Mattias Norlander augments the Holmbergs' electronic noodlings, providing rhythmic chords or an added layer of sound. Lena Karlsson's voice is a flexible tool that complements the melodies. She moves from dreamy "daba-daba-dums" on the electronic orgy "Our Hospitality" to a varied delivery on the album-opening "Binario," switching from curt and robotic on the verses to wistful and breezy on the choruses. Her lyrics are somewhat simplistic ("I am curious/I am curious/You are curious/You are curious/He is curious/She is curious," she sings on "Curious"), but at least they aren't as cliched as the ones on The Genius of Komeda, the band's first all-English album. (They have been writing and recording music in their native tongue since 1993.)

Komeda's songs come across as delicately detailed confections for the ear -- pop music that's tasty and aesthetically pleasing. (Minty Fresh, P.O. Box 577400, Chicago, IL 60657)

-- Hans Morgenstern

Fuel
Sunburn
(Sony/550 Music)

Sunburn bursts open with an industrial flourish that might lead to quick pigeonholing of Fuel alongside angry folks such as Trent Reznor of nine inch nails and the guys in Filter. But then something happens: The band eclipses that already-getting-rusty sound with melody and much welcome diversity, revealing how a modern-rock band can be both noisy and pissed off and sweetly musical on the same disc -- and make it work.

Fuel was conceived by guitarist Carl Bell and bassist Jeff Abercrombie in rural western Tennessee. After recruiting vocalist Brett Scallions and drummer Kevin Miller and selling 5000 copies of a demo tape, the group relocated to the big city -- sort of. Actually, they landed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, from where they felt they could more easily infiltrate the metropoli lining the eastern seaboard. After selling 10,000 copies of the independent CD Porcelain, Fuel signed with Sony/550 Music. Sunburn is the result of that association.

Clear, concise production by Steven Haigler (the Pixies, Local H) and the band's solid playing propel Sunburn. Scallions sings with confidence, whether rocking full tilt on "Ozone" or employing classic power-ballad technique on "Hideaway." Lyrically, songwriter Bell leans toward familiar tales of confusion and lost love so prevalent among songwriters in their early- to mid-twenties, as on the lazily named lead track "Untitled" or stylistically psychotic "It's Come to This." On the latter Bell has Scallions lamenting "I fear I've wasted all my sun/I fear I've wasted all my time/Held my eyes closed for too long" over a background of changing tempos and grooves.

Label execs picked "Shimmer" as the album's first single, but a more adventurous choice -- the rollicking, socially poignant "Jesus or a Gun" or stop-timed "Bittersweet" -- might give potential fans a higher octane injection.

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