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Trans Am, Surrender to the Night (Thrill Jockey)

The Sea and Cake, The Fawn (Thrill Jockey)

Beck was the one on all the magazine covers, but a strong case could be made for John McEntire as 1996’s “Artist of the Year.” His production of Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup gave that combo a new palette of sounds to play with and landed them on a plethora of year-end “best-of” lists. Simultaneously, McEntire’s own Tortoise—a Chicago-based instrumental group that emphasizes musical textures and polyrhythms over traditional melodic leads—released Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a seminal album that has been stirring talk of a new wave of alternative fusion.

Maryland’s Trans Am is part of that wave of instrumental bands swimming in Tortoise’s wake, though the group is hardly jazzy. What the two bands have in common is a desire to draw evocative sonic designs that roll and curve and serve the same function as abstract art. The listener comes to appreciate form for its own sake, and to shade the gaps between the straight lines.

Drawing on the spirit of Kraftwerk—and driven to find a clear, American path through the noisy flood of modern European electronica—Trans Am have dedicated their second album to simple synthesizer grooves, echoing drums, and hard, distorted guitar signatures. The effect is similar to Tortoise’s spooky rhythms, but not as warm or pretty.

The 11 instrumentals that make up Surrender to the Night also aren’t as busy or as rushed as most electronic music, and they each have distinct melodies that never get buried by extraneous noise. Like Tortoise, Trans Am’s music tends to play better in the background, where the subtle shifts in sound can seep into the subconscious and spark the imagination. The cover of the CD depicts a sun setting over a flat landscape, and that’s the sound Trans Am evokes—driving through empty space, to an uncertain future.

Of course, driving through empty space is John McEntire’s raison d’&234;tre, and he has inspired contemporaries such as Trans Am with his ability to revive dormant grooves with attention-grabbing sounds. When he’s not reinventing the wheel, McEntire sits behind a drum kit and twiddles knobs for The Sea and Cake, a jaunty pop band led by eccentric, David Byrne-esque frontman Sam Prekop (formerly of the semi-legendary Shrimp Boat).

The Fawn is The Sea and Cake’s fourth album, and its slightest. The inspired genre explorations of Shrimp Boat and the off-the-cuff multi-instrumentation of S&C’s classic Nassau have given way to muted, stripped-down grooves that could almost pass for lite rock. Tracks like “Rossignol,” “Civilise,” and “Black Tree in the Bee Yard” are downright somnambulant, while even catchy numbers like “The Ravine” and “There You Are” seem barely there.

Oddly, much of the fault for this new temerity can be placed on McEntire. For all his sonic invention, McEntire relies on tight, mechanical arrangements that appeal more to the brain than the heart. But at the same time, his evocation of Brian Eno often yields new dimensions to Prekop’s jittery jangle. “Bird and Flag” sounds like a wonderful outtake from Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and “Sporting Life” floats by as easy and complex as a cloud.

For a true demonstration of what Prekop and McEntire can do together, listen to “The Argument.” The song opens with a click-track rhythm and electronic beeps as a series of percussion attacks advance and retreat from speaker to speaker. After a couple of minutes, the percussion fades, the guitar rises, and Prekop croons a light ditty about summertime. The tug between McEntire’s mathematical precision and Prekop’s passion produces the element that enlivens all great pop music—sweet, sweet tension.

Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen (Sony/550 Music) This Chapel Hill trio’s sophomore release, like its debut, features music-hall melodies that ripple along the back of Ben Folds’ propulsive piano playing. Without a single guitar in the mix (bass notwithstanding), Folds and company create a surprisingly full, timeless harmonic sound. The songs pop and bounce with a pleasant, chiming quality that makes a compelling case for the piano as an underrated rock ’n’ roll instrument.

Pianists, though, I can take or leave. Folds, like both Billy Joel and Joe Jackson before him, compensates for the nerdy patina of his instrument by pushing an aggressively snide attitude. On Whatever and Ever Amen, the bandleader continually undercuts his sweet tunes with acid observations about trendies and poseurs. “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” kicks things off with a fantasy sequence in which Folds is a celebrity performing for all the jerks who used to pick on him in school. From that sour beginning, Folds proceeds through three straight slams at his ex-girlfriend—the toe-tapping “Fair,” the impressionistic “Brick,” and the execrable “Song for the Dumped” (with its charming chorus, “Give me my money back, you bitch”).

What’s missing from these songs, except in small doses, is any sense of self-awareness or self-criticism. Folds takes potshots at the people who bug him, but he refuses to acknowledge that his incessant ranting makes him an insufferable jerk too. The few encouraging moments on the album arise when Folds admits that the reason he obsesses over fashionably bored scene-makers is because he finds them strangely attractive. (This observation pops up twice—on “Kate” and on the single, “Battle of Who Could Care Less”)

Ultimately, its hard to know what to do with Ben Folds Five. The band’s music is just too good to ignore, as it bridges old and new styles with a refreshing effortlessness. And it’s difficult to deny that Folds has a distinct worldview; at least he’s singing about something, even if that something is troubling. But it’s hard to handle the urge to join in on the choruses of his songs when those choruses tend to stick in your throat. These are sing-alongs you don’t want to sing along with.

Placebo (Caroline) There’s a speed at which rock ’n’ roll music is no longer toe-tapping, or even head-banging. It just rushes, and the only feasible physical response is a kind of manic quiver. Placebo get there on the first track of their eponymous debut—the arresting “Come Home”—and the impact of that one song sends vibrations through the next four songs of this 10-song set. The Irish band’s sound—halfway between Fugazi and Smashing Pumpkins, with a little Rush mixed in—comes alive on this opening number, which highlights singer Brian Molko’s high, quavering start-stop vocals, as well as his stunray guitar.

The trio then proceeds to accent its rhythmic attack with shades of organ; warm, round bass lines; and shuffling melodies. “Teenage Angst,” “Bionic,” “36 Degrees,” and “Hang on to Your IQ” are all remarkably direct, with unstudied progressions and enigmatic yet strangely personal lyrics. For five songs, at least, Placebo make an impression; they seem fully in command of their songs and their sound. They set the blood to racing.

The second half of the record overstays its welcome, even before the attention-sapping 14-minute instrumental that closes the proceedings. But in these days of flux, even half an album of good guitar-based rock is better than nothing. We fans of the guitar are fast becoming cultists, clinging to whatever obscure band can satisfy our desire before that band inevitably cashes in on electronica. So here’s to Placebo, for working however briefly in a medium that, with a little practice and a little faith, they could master.

Hooverphonic, A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular (Epic) Like “alternative,” the word “electronica” gets bandied about so much these days that it sometimes gets applied to bands that don’t quite fit the bill. The true sound of electronic music (the sound that has everybody excited) comes from plugged-in technicians like Chemical Brothers, whose acclaimed new album, Dig Your Own Hole, demonstrates both the high-energy best and the numbingly repetitive worst of the genre. The “electronica” label is applied less successfully, however, to cutting-edge dance bands like Belgium’s Hooverphonic, who are really just pop musicians with a jones for synthesizers.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. At its best—the pulsating “Plus Profound,” the dance-happy “Revolver”—A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular brings layers of rhythm and twittery melodies to a traditional pop framework, dressing up an old doll in stylish clothes. And when everything clicks, as it does on “2Wicky” (featured on last year’s Stealing Beauty soundtrack), the funky beats, twangy guitar, and feathery alto of Liesje Sadonius combine to make a cool, refreshing addition to the atmosphere.

What’s the difference between this kind of pop music and the supple tones of a Sade or Julee Cruse? Not much—and I mean that as a compliment.

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