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.

-- Adam St. James

Wurster
Wurster
(Black Janet Music)

Former Black Janet vocalist-guitarist Jim Wurster's second solo release serves as a showcase for his melancholy, Dylanesqe voice and compelling storytelling on twelve well-crafted original songs and a cover of Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand." The Fort Lauderdale high school history teacher is accompanied by guitarist Peit Campbell, guitarist/mandolinist/producer Bob Wlos, bassist Dave Thompson, and drummer Frank Binger.

On "Angelique," a love ballad, Wurster's voice goes from a slight quiver to a subtle soar as he sings, "Oh Angelique/Won't you come to me/You'd be wise/To enter my dream/And in the morning/When we rise/Watch me fall/Into your eyes," while Wlos coaxes a hypnotic wah-wah effect from his guitar that could touch even the most hardened soul. Wurster moves from the countrified "Yellow Rose" to the dark folk of "Gray Sky Day," but it comes across best on the ghostly, genteel rock of "Big Surprise," "Loping Vampire Blues," and "Black Widow."

Support from topnotch guests -- vocalist Amy Baxter on "Big Surprise," singers Kristi Boswell and Kelly Christy on "The Sun and the Moon," and Silver Nightingale flutist Laura Sue Wilansky on "Black Widow" -- helps flesh out the sound on this wide-ranging disc. (2861 N. Oakland Forest Dr., suite 105, Oakland Park, FL 33309)

-- Larry Boytano

Pan*American
Pan*American
(Kranky)

Close followers of the ambient underground might know Mark Nelson as guitarist-singer for the trio Labradford. When not working that gig, he moonlights as the one-man "band" Pan*American, exploring somewhat dubbier territory. This self-titled release constitutes the first official album, although Nelson has recorded cassettes in the past as Pan*American and swapped them with chums on the subterranean ambient/dub/ electronica scene. On these nine tracks (only one, "Lake Supplies," can properly be described as a "song"), he constructs loping, minimalist soundscapes, building his compositions on a foundation of teeth-rattling bass throbs. He then erects a sonic exoskeleton with sampled percussion, guitar washes, and keyboard manipulations, plus some occasional whispered vocals, the latter giving the proceedings a somewhat unfortunate gothic tinge, notably on "Lent" (think of the spooky-ooky voice of Frank Booth in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet).

Mostly, though, Nelson forgoes singing to create dark, haunting instrumental mood pieces, particularly on the white-noisy, album-closing "Part One." Overall his tracks exude an organic feel, unlike the more clinical work undertaken by ambient-dub lab techs such as Fila Brazillia and Heights of Abraham. Nelson escorts Italian soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone though the West Indies on "Lake Supplies," fleshing out the cut with electric piano, real drums, metallic junkyard percussion, and a thereminlike effect, while on "First Position" he fashions a deep-space sci-fi electronic environment that he interrupts with some cosmic static. And "Tract," with its snippet of beamed-in-from-another-galaxy conversation, recalls studio whizbangers Cabaret Voltaire.

Elastic enough to function equally as postrave chill-out balm or, if home alone, ghostly bathtub music. (P.O. Box 578743, Chicago, IL 60657)

-- Michael Yockel

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