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The Cardigans
Gran Turismo
(Mercury)

This disc has been getting a lot of negative reviews, all undeserved. The Cardigans are from Sweden, have a cute, blond female singer, and scored a big international hit with the airy "Lovefool," included on the teenybopper soundtrack to 1996's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. So the tendency to think of the quintet as mass-market lightweights from the school of ABBA and Ace of Bass is understandable. In this context, the lush and languid Gran Turismo makes no sense.

But the Cardigans have already expressed their allegiance to a completely different musical tradition. On the same album as "Lovefool" (1996's First Band on the Moon) appears a straight-faced cover of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." On Life, the 1995 release that compiles material from the Cardigans' first two albums, there's a similarly dignified take on the seminal heavy metal act's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath." Although neither Black Sabbath cover revives the originals' guitar effects or screaming vocals, both employ the same orchestral value system. The primary aim is to create a three-dimensional listening experience, a song in which you can perceive shadows, intertwining structures, and deep diagonals. That Cardigans' vocalist Nina Persson has a sweet, gentle voice, or that the band favors placid tones, should not distract listeners from the fact that this pop band guns for power.

Gran Turismo achieves it. Main songwriter and guitarist Peter Svensson's melodies remain exquisite -- the acoustic-driven "Junk of the Hearts" boasts the uncalculated precision of a hand-crafted antique. "Paralyzed" introduces the album's themes of immersion and heaviness. With Tore Johansson's production -- drums dry and sharp, bass extremely viscous -- underscoring the musicians' knack for dramatic friction, the cut demands more volume and attention than radio can offer. "This is where your sanity gives in/ And love begins," sings Persson, likely referring to the love of music as much as the intrigue of dating.

Some songs include sampled loops, but Gran Turismo never departs from traditional notions of musicality; the digital studio is used as a tool for emphasis. Though "Erase/Rewind" and "My Favorite Game" recall the upbeat urgency of Eighties European new-wavers Berlin, and "Explode" and "Higher" are as dense and hypnotic as Tricky's best, the Cardigans vibe buzzes closer to the band-driven frequency of Blondie or Portishead. And in "Do You Believe" when the Cardigans slip in a full-fledged Sabbath-style riff without any hint of a seam, you can almost taste its triumph.

-- Adam Heimlich

Outkast
Aquemini
(La Face Records)

Like its Northeastern counterpart, Southern rap has been enjoying a growing complexity. Between the poles of New Orleans rapper Master P and Atlanta's Outkast and Goody Mob, the sub-genre has become something more than the "Bass" sound of Miami's Luke Skywalker and his former 2 Live Crew.

With its latest LP, Aquemini, Outkast continues to show the world that its brand of hip-hop is more than the country cousin of gangsta rap. Aquemini's tracks are built on mesmerizing grooves and harmonies, but the music is only the backdrop. Rappers Big Boi and Dre are determined to provide a lyrical portrait of what the world looks like to a Southern, urban, politically disenfranchised black man.

"West Savannah" reads like a Southern player's soliloquy, while "SpootieOttieDopalicious" opens with a Curtis Mayfield-like vocal and a two-verse rumination about life in what Big Boi and Dre refer to as the "Dirty South," the underside of Dixie. While Outkast's frontmen insist that black Southern life provides grounds for social commentary just as valid as the Bronx, or South Central Los Angeles, they fall prey to the same poses as their Northern brethren. Indeed, far too much of Aquemini is spent attempting to establish the duo's street credibility, their ability to "keep it real" in the eyes of the players.

Keep it real? How about keeping it on track? Outkast does best when it drops the hectoring slogans, pumps up the grooves, and provides rhymes that allow us a window onto the realities of the Dirty South.

-- Charles Peterson

Portishead
PNYC
(London)

On PNYC Bristol, England's Portishead indulges its interest in film; this is the soundtrack to a concert film shot at New York's Roseland Ballroom (only two tracks were recorded elsewhere). The notion of releasing a live record is a bit strange, given that Portishead has only two full-length records. Stranger still is the fact that all of the eleven tracks on PNYC are nearly note-for-note replications of the album versions culled from their last two releases. What lends the release spice, though, is the inclusion of a 30-piece orchestra, which allows the band a chance to organically produce sounds it normally uses machines to generate.

What makes Portishead interesting is its combination of slow beats, cinematic soundscapes and closed-in paranoia. Usually its adventurousness is of a vertical kind, piling weirdness on top of weirdness. The added instrumentation takes up sonic space differently, and instead of sounding claustrophobic, on PNYC Portishead sounds positively agoraphobic. That is, the members rarely explore their new-found room.

When the band does manage to get twisted around itself, the results are rewarding. With subtle strings swelling behind a simple acoustic guitar, "Over" takes its time getting into gear, but when the drums kick in and DJ Andy Smith burns a needle scratching, the track instantly switches from baroque pop to ominously dark trip hop. On "Only You," the ensemble channels the eeriness of blaxploitation soundtracks (think the climactic music of Superfly) but with a reserved air, before a loungey electric piano solo provides the outro. Instead of creepiness heaped on top of itself, it's the sound of one thing running into another: the way the dizzy guitars hit the horns of "Strangers," or the crisp brass of "All Mine" smacks into an orchestral passage.

Singer Beth Gibbons provides a point of focus during all of this, sounding as if she were unable to stop the voices within her from coming out. Her over-the-top, unearthly presence wavers between the drugged-out chanteuse of "All Mine" and the banshee showcased on the blistering version of "Sour Times." When, toward the end of this track, she howls, "Nobody loves me, it's true," the listener is inclined to believe her.

-- David Simutis

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