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The Courier
Cinnamon
(Island/Soap)

The Cardigans are the obvious frame of reference for this Swedish outfit's blend of indie and lounge pop. The guitar-driven Courier also has some of the charm of the Sundays and Altered Images, though without the former's amused resignation or the latter's occasional sense of utter hopelessness. Ringing guitars, strings, horns, and offbeat keyboard flourishes fill the otherwise spare spaces around Frida Diesen's vocals. Her delivery veers from the pretty pensiveness of "Me As Helen of Troy" to the girlish eagerness and nonsense syllables of "Missing Persons File." Diesen seems incapable of going deep, even when delivering vaguely threatening promises to "wash you clean out of my mind."

The sonically denser "I Wanted It, but Now I'm Not So Sure" manages little more than exhortation ("reach the sky ... look up and get alive") while the details of a friend's apparent death in "The Promenade" seem to make as much impression on Diesen as a run in her stockings. If you're one of those people who got sick of hearing "Lovefool" on the radio two months ago, steer clear of Cinnamon: The band is likely to register as little more than clouds in your coffee. At the same time, partner Jiri Novak's inviting combination of (polite) noise and Bacharach-esque touches make the record hard to hate.

-- Rickey Wright

End of the Summer
Dar Williams
(Razor & Tie)

Here's a disc with a major case of split personality. Half of this set consists of up-tempo rock with character and charm. The other half is made up of listless, cliched ballads. For Williams, End of the Summer marks an attempt to step up from college radio airplay and Internet fan clubs to a wider audience. Two previous releases were critically well received and made enough splash to land her a couple of dates on this summer's ballyhooed Lilith Tour (featuring Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, et cetera).

The future looks bright for Dar Williams, in other words, and she's certainly done nothing to ruin her chances with this release. No one track stands out as a commercial breakthrough, but there's enough pleasing stuff here to keep drawing new listeners.

As a vocalist, Williams does better with the power punch than with her occasional attempts at finesse; the spare instrumentation, leisurely guitar chords, and distinctive lyrics of "Party Generation" are perfectly tailored to her strengths. The instrumentation has backbone, the harmonies are catchy, and both support a strong vocal line. Williams lays her words down the way Raymond Carver did his fiction: plainly, honestly, and with a conversational quality that manages to find its own rhythm: "When he turned 34, but who's counting/He couldn't find anyone who wanted to party/So he walked around a playground with a bag of Mickey's tallboys/And he heard the sound of laughter/And he followed it for fifteen blocks."

Strangely enough (and I swear I mean this strictly as a compliment), the best tracks on Summer call to mind idiosyncratic Paul Simon songs like "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and "You Can Call Me Al." They have the same playful wit and lively musical texture.

When Williams slows the tempo, however, the results are shallow Gen X folktunes, musically unadventurous and lyrically immature -- the kind of thing you'd expect from an overly sincere coed scribbling on a napkin in some coffee shop: "The summer ends and we wonder where we are/And there you go my friends, with your boxes in the car." Heavy. Very heavy.

Keep the remote handy to zap past the weaker material, but make sure not to miss the sterling cover of the Kinks' "Better Things." This toe-tapping rendition is a testament to Ray Davies' knack for melody, a talent especially apparent when someone else is singing his songs.

-- Keith Morris

Malcolm Arnold
Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4
(Conifer)

Now in his late seventies and in ill health, English musician Malcolm Arnold is approaching the end of a long career, first as a trumpeter, later as a composer of everything from film scores (Bridge on the River Kwai) to ambitious works for the concert hall. His senses of both humor and pleasure are well-developed, and he's not afraid to entertain, nor to write tunes that would be more at home in an English music hall than on a concert stage. At times he's even vulgar, much to the displeasure of the musical establishment. There are moments, though, in which Arnold appears more subdued. Indeed, as a composer he can swoop from high spirits to disappointment, cynicism, and despair in the wave of a baton. In a century characterized by manic-depressive classical music, Arnold's contribution is a prominent one.

His nine symphonies are typical of his work. With this CD, conductor Vernon Handley has now recorded all nine. Although these are not his most popular symphonies, this is a good place to begin exploring Arnold's music. The Third Symphony is quirky; just when one mood has been established, Arnold changes it, keeping the listener vaguely unsettled.

The Fourth is even stranger. Written during a period of racial unrest in London, it's constructed largely from a deliberately cheesy tune and uses instruments not commonly found in a classical symphony orchestra, including bongos and a marimba. The symphony seems set to end in a violent flourish, until Arnold tacks on an ironically happy ending.

Both symphonies showcase Arnold's prowess as an orchestrator, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra performs them in a manner that makes his colors gleam. Conifer's recording features an "extended dynamic range" that, along with the composer's own mercurial touch, guarantees a workout for your speakers.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Raw Power
Iggy Pop and the Stooges
(Columbia)

What would it sound like if there was a two-car collision and, at the moment of impact, Kiss and the Sex Pistols were playing on the respective car stereos? Try Iggy Pop and the Stooges, circa 1972.

Back in 1972 glam king David Bowie assigned himself the task of producing his favorite singer's next album. It looked good on paper, but Iggy wanted to create his definitive artistic statement, and he knew precisely how the album should sound: He wanted his music to actually hurt you. The only problem was, Pop and Bowie didn't see eye to eye, and both parties were knee-deep in drug abuse. The resulting work, released in 1973, was a critical success but never measured up to Pop's over-the-top aims.

All of that changed last year, when a sober Pop was permitted to remix "Raw Power" to suit his original vision. Look out. The roaring opening track, "Search and Destroy," is an appropriate orientation, and the pace rarely flags. James Williamson's guitars are overly saturated, Scott Asheton's drumming primal, and his brother Ron's bass line an unrelenting pummel. Pop's own vocals range from soulful to snarled, more often the latter. But don't be intimidated. The songwriting is superb, and there are enough tender moments to relieve the thrashing. "Gimme Danger" is a bluesy ballad worthy of the Stones, and "Penetration" features the tinkling tones of a celesta, subtly complementing the blistering guitar riff.

Henry Rollins has said that everyone should own a copy of the Stooges' 1970 album, Funhouse. With his long-overdue remix, Iggy Pop makes a strong case for Raw Power as well. More than two decades later, he's rewriting the history of punk.

-- Greg Prato

Curtain
Tindersticks
(London/This Way Up)

Tindersticks lead singer Stuart Staples continues to sing from deep in his gut, where his obsessions take root. His languid croon, all quaver and seductive posturing, worms its way through the band's ornate arrangements with an air that bespeaks high society manners more than vocal training. As the band's resident musical arranger, Staples presides over a legion of backing musicians whose numbers continue to swell with each release. Their role, essentially, is to provide a film-noirish backdrop to Staples's eerie tones. The intended sound is more an explosion of color than the traditional trudge of verse-chorus-verse-chorus.

Curtain sprawls out, at well over an hour; the slack pace enables Staples to work through a spoken-word piece, "Ballad of Tindersticks," and two well-conceptualized duets: one with Ann Magnuson ("Buried Bones") and a second with actress-turned-chanteuse Isabella Rossellini ("Marriage Made in Heaven").

The orchestration is dominated by strings but includes accordions and other nontraditional rock instruments. Individual players are not given to individual flights of fancy. Instead, the ensemble marshals its power, allowing compositions to build a sense of paranoiac power. Think Wagner. Or, if you need a closer cognate, Pink Floyd's The Wall.

That Curtain sounds much like other Tindersticks releases should not be viewed as a drawback. The band is not prone to trends or mercurial fashion. The music is a carnival freak show, full of unbelievable twists that can exist only at the margins of the mainstream, where creative vision is given the space it needs to set down its strong, dark roots.

-- Rob O'Connor


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