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Edwyn Collins
I'm Not Following You

As long as we're being forced to relive the Seventies, why not let Edwyn Collins score the soundtrack? His darkly reedy voice, pop-culture fetishism, and cheesy synthesizers make for an appropriate, end-of-the-millennium update on that never-ending decade. On this, his fourth solo release, Collins (once part of the little-known pop band Orange Juice) manages to sound both modern and retro, both familiar and foreign. And as the album title states, this Scottish singer/songwriter/keyboardist stands quite apart from any current trend.

None of these tracks sound anything alike. On the buoyant "The Magic Piper (of Love)," a horn section and some lowery flutes accompany Collins as he sings, "My girlfriend she got blotto/Half cut in Santa's grotto." On the stomping "Seventies Night," Mark E. Smith of the Fall makes a gurgling guest appearance, ranting against disco to a pounding beat. Only "Downer," with its droning rock guitar, echoes a previous Collins song: the two-million-selling single "A Girl Like You" (from his 1994 release Gorgeous George).

Collins might best be described as a cynical Tom Jones or an Anglophilic Willie Nelson. "Keep on Burning" is an overwrought soul song, the kind of thing heard in any late-Sixties movie starring Elliott Gould. Yet Collins is equally adept with bittersweet numbers: "I'm going back to my old school/'Cause to tell you truth/All those songs of my youth/Move this old fool," he sighs on the nostalgic "Running Away With Myself."

Collins always maintains a sense of humor ("Women may love me, but Idon't love women/At least not collectively"), but he can also get away with maudlin sentiment thanks to his throaty growl. Regardless of his chronological influences, Collins sounds refreshingly unlike anything else on the market.

-- Liesa Goins

Ley de Hielo
Frontera Azul

It's no new thing for Hispanic Americans to rock. Contributions by musicians of Spanish-language heritage are as old as rock itself. It is a new thing, however, to see so many bands muscling their way on-stage to sing en espanol. In the last several years, the number of Spanish-language rock groups in the U.S. has jumped tremendously and, interestingly, people who do not speak Spanish are becoming fans. The biggest bridges supporting this cross-cultural traffic have been the San Francisco-based label Aztlan and its flagship group Ley de Hielo.

Roughly translated as "Rule of Ice," Ley de Hielo consists of Pino Yllescas on guitar, Jose Montes de Oca on bass and lead vocals, and Jimmy Velazquez on drums and percussion. The trio hails from Mexico but has lived in Los Angeles since 1991. Like many (though by no means all) rock en espanol bands, Ley de Hielo is as likely to address the theme of immigrant struggle as to sing the praises of a fine booty.

The band's second album on Aztlan, Frontera Azul ("Blue Frontier") is loud and layered, a musical ceviche spiced with everything from the Fixx to Dylan to the Stooges to Rush. Hooks are plentiful and memorable, and occasionally de Oca's grandiloquent, full-throated voice creates the impression of a young Mel Torme as he might have sounded fronting the Rollins Band. One imagines that Ley de Hielo's material sounds rougher and sharper in a live setting than on this recording, which suffers from a few too many midtempo songs and overly smooth production.

But the record is certainly worth wading through. Even Spanish-language-challenged listeners will find themselves humming and yammering along to the lyrics "No tengas miedo y suena ya" (from the tuneful "Suenos"). Harder numbers such as "No Intentes" and "Lapida" hint that Ley de Hielo is best when it cuts loose and turns up the amps to once.

-- Curt Hopkins

The Vents
Venus Again
(MCA/Way Cool Music)

Benign rock geekdom persists. Control freaks (exclusively guys, incidentally) who oversee every facet of the recording process -- songwriting, production, playing virtually all instruments -- come and go, usually registering only a blip on the music-scene radar screen before disappearing, frequently unheralded and, sadly, too often unheard. (Okay, Prince excepted.) Others who fit this profile: Adam Schmitt, Jim Basnight, Melvin James, Kurt Ralske, and many others whose names you've forgotten (if you ever knew them in the first place). Add a new one to the list: Devin Powers.

Venus Again may be attributed to the Vents, but in fact it belongs to singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer Powers, responsible for everything on the album except the drumming, for which his chum Jimmy Sage takes credit. About half of its dozen tracks -- notably the buzzing hookfest "One Way Ticket," the bump-and-grind-y "Form in the Line," the oddly Church-like "Undeniable True," and the singsongy take-responsibility-for-yourself anthem "Wash Your Own Soul" -- wrestle successfully with pop-rock conventions: reverberating guitar chords, a frisky beat, sighing overdubbed harmonies, jack-in-the-box choruses, and relentlessly engaging melodies. Those songs conjure up the best work of Tommy Keene and the aforementioned Schmitt, while less memorable moments ("The Fence," "Way of the World," "Things She Does") retrace similar ground with a connect-the-dots familiarity, not so much unlistenable as unremarkable. Maybe Three Dog Night had it all wrong: One is not the loneliest number.

-- Michael Yockel

Smoking Popes
Destination Failure

The whole notion of indie credibility is pretty silly at this point. But it's worth noting that Smoking Popes came of age in the Chicago punk scene, played garage shows for years, and released their debut on the ultracool Johann's Face imprint. Then a funny thing happened: Frontman Josh Caterer discovered his inner pop star. The result is a second record that rocks hard and eschews gimmickry but contains enough juicy riffs and creamy crooning to make young hearts go pitter-patter. Where else can you hear a cover of Anthony Newley's "Imagination" that bops along on bursts of chunky punk guitar? Or listen to lovesick rants such as "They Lied" and "Megan" while snapping your fingers? (Answer: nowhere.)

It's easy to get lost in the current glut of punk-popsters. But the Popes are impossible to forget -- from the syncopated drum lines of Mike Felumlee to the surprisingly textured leads of guitarist Eli Caterer to the swaying bass of Matt Caterer. Most astonishing is the vocal work of Josh Caterer, whose tenor is an instrument of soaring beauty. His songs are unabashed examinations of love and its discontents, bloody valentines along the lines of "Let's Hear It for Love," in which he exhorts "Let's hear it for heartbreak/Let's hear it for pain/Let's hear it for poison tears that wash your dreams down the drain."

Caterer's voice is so startling in this era of angst-driven screamers that it's impossible to think of a suitable comparison. Morrissey is the only one who comes close -- and, not surprisingly, he's an ardent fan of the Popes -- but whereas Morrissey's moping can get pretentious, Caterer's whining is balanced by whimsy. On "Pretty Pathetic," for instance, he sings the lines "I miss what we had/I need you so badly" over and over before murmuring "Why don't I just shut up?" At which point the song clatters to a halt.

Those listeners put off by an endorsement from Morrissey should note that the members of Green Day also gush about Smoking Popes and helped the band secure its major-label deal with Capitol. To draw praise from quarters that broad, they have to be doing something right. As Destination Failure's sixteen sterling tracks attest, Smoking Popes are doing plenty.

-- Steven Almond

The Verve
Urban Hymns
(Virgin Records America)

When the Verve appeared in 1992, neo-psychedelia seemed like a good idea. Especially this shaggy British band's version of it, which drew not from the op-art pop of Strawberry Alarm Clock's "Incense and Peppermints" but from the hallucinatory rock of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." The Verve made its first big noise in the U.S. with A Northern Soul (1995), a murky, druggy, and ambitious album. It had no focus whatsoever -- a not uncommon side effect of drugs and decadence, two of the band's favorite pastimes -- but it established the Verve as bona fide hippies at a time when Britpop, power-pop, and punk-pop composed the prevailing musical gestalt.

The band then broke up, leaving a rather small hole that was easily filled by Oasis' semi-Sixties pop sound. Now, two years later, the Verve has returned, only to find itself trying to beat Oasis at its own game.

Granted, the Verve is still the genuine article. Oasis' calculated pop songs sound as if they were written with a spreadsheet, but the Verve has passion and conviction on its side. Richard Ashcroft is the band's leading light: a skinny, intense, fiery-eyed frontman. On Urban Hymns, Ashcroft pretty much carries the rest of the anonymous group. The earnest groove of "The Rolling People," the dusky strains of "The Drugs Don't Work," and the lilting strings of the album's single, "Bittersweet Symphony," would feel fairly soulless without Ashcroft's earnest vocals.

But the Verve also possess some of the fatal flaws of psychedelia, namely wandering guitar solos, nodding melodies, and dippy lyrics ("Come alive with the rolling people/Don't ask why, we just go"). Aside from "Bittersweet Symphony," which is a transcendent piece of orchestral pop, the rest of Urban Hymns lacks originality. Ashcroft has his sights set on re-creating the unfettered spirit of '67, but he's come up with the same results as Oasis, the Black Crowes, and many others: a reasonable facsimile, but a facsimile nonetheless.

-- Rafer Guzman

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Liesa Goins
Rafer Guzman
Curt Hopkins
Michael Yockel

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