Reviews of CDs by Air, David Via and Corn Tornado, The Blake Babies, R.E.M., Greg Trooper, and The Arrivals 

Now Hear This

Air, "10,000 Hz Legend" (Astralwerks) — The first thing everyone wants to know about the French duo Air's new CD, "10,000 Hz Legend," is whether it sounds like their beloved debut, "Moon Safari." No, the new album is different and shows that these are imaginative musicians willing to take huge risks. Does that automatically mean disappointment? Hardly.

On "Moon Safari," Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin made sugary electro-pop with the warm tones from dusted-off Moogs, Melotrons and Wurlitzers. The album hooks you by the first spacey melody. Air's dark and dreamy music on "The Virgin Suicides" soundtrack is different but just as accessible.

"10,000 Hz Legend" proves that Dunckel and Godin have moved beyond "Moon Safari," out into the galaxy, so to speak. You might notice the lack of French lyrics first, but the biggest surprise is the time given to acoustic and more traditional instruments; the guitar strumming and hand-clapping almost rivals the album's arcade of electronic noises.

Acoustic instruments are even given the foreground on many of the tracks. On "Vagabond," for instance, guest star Beck — with harmonica — sounds like a funky hobo riding a rail through the Milky Way. His rootsy tune is followed by "Radian," which allows voices to moan out of an aural darkness for more than two minutes before opening into a rich kaleidoscope of flutes, harp and guitar. "Sex Born Poison" places acoustic guitar, stings and multitracked vocals over an electronic beat that sounds like it's being knocked around a pinball game.

Alas, there's no single like "Sexy Boy," but the strength of this album is that Dunckel and Godin never repeat themselves — from the feel-good chorus on "Radio #1," to Beck's Princelike screams, to the humorous fellatio imagery on "Wonder Milky Bitch," there's never a dull or unimaginative moment. Air plays the 9:30 Club June 19. — Wayne Melton

David Via and Corn Tornado, "It All Comes Down to a Song" — These guys can pick. Mandolin man and leader David Via has been playing in various bands for more than 20 years while guitarist Danny Knicely and John Flower were original members of Magraw Gap with Larry Keel. Together with fiddler Dave Van Deventer the quartet can dish up a mess of bluegrass.

Performing 12 Via originals and two covers, the group takes a New Grass Revival/Seldom Scene approach that's alternately fired-up and laid-back. There are excellent vocals and tight harmonies throughout, from the opening "That Trumpet's Blowin'" to the closing "Mason's Song." In between there's plenty of variety, ranging from the New Grass instrumental take "For Pete's Sake," to the down-home country waltz "Hard Times," to the jazzy arrangement of "Ain't That the Blues." The Nashville Entertainment Association put Corn Tornado on its list of top 20 unsigned bands, and Via's songs have twice won awards at Merlefest. "Song" should delight fans of non-traditional bluegrass. Check out the band at Poe's Pub on June 14. — Ames Arnold

The Blake Babies, "God Bless The Blake Babies" (Rounder Records) — The reunion of singer/guitarist Juliana Hatfield, bassist John Strohm and drummer Freda Love Smith is a mixed blessing. "God Bless The Blake Babies" starts out promisingly enough, with a pair of solid midtempo rockers, "Disappear" and "Nothing Ever Happens." Unfortunately, the trio fails to maintain that same standard on many of the remaining 10 songs.

Part of the problem is the songwriting, which doesn't offer the same kind of crackling melodies and tension the Black Babies showed in their original run from 1986 to 1991, when it was a leading band on the indie rock scene. There's nothing as spirited as earlier tunes such as "Sanctify" (famous for the line "kick a boy and teach him how to cry") or "I'm Not Your Mother." Instead, much of the CD settles into a low-key largely acoustic tone and relaxed midtempo pace. "Until I Almost Died," "When I See His Face" and "What Did I Do" are decent, but unexceptional songs — and lack the inventive melodies or arrangements needed to stand out from each other.

The performances are another problem with "God Bless The Blake Babies." Even when the band shifts into a full-on plugged-in mode, the playing sounds surprisingly listless. Hatfield, Strohm and Smith just don't sound like they're that excited to be back together making music. The group displays all the passion and spark of a forced marriage. — Alan Sculley

R.E.M., "Reveal" (Warner Bros.) — The differences between R.E.M.'s previous release "Up" and its newest, "Reveal" are best shown in the album's first singles. "Up" saw the day "through newspaper gray." From "Reveal," the bubbling, sunny "Imitation of Life" evokes childhood innocence — lemonade, sugar cane and cinnamon. "This lightening storm/ This tidal wave/ This avalanche/ I'm not afraid," sings Michael Stipe.

Start to finish, "Reveal" is the most unabashedly upbeat R.E.M. record in years — maybe ever. "The weather's fine the sky is blue," Stipe sings on "The Lifting." The lilting "Pet Sounds" homage, "Summer Turns to High," layers gorgeous harmonies with lazy summer evening imagery.

The band carries the joy into its electronic experimentations. Synthesizers, horns and strings bubble beneath the surface of gorgeous melodies.

That may be a bit much for some to take from a band that built its reputation on the taut jangle-rock of "Document," the Southern-Gothic moodiness of "Automatic for the People" or the arena-filling distortion of "Monster."

But R.E.M. has always experimented and then moved on. "Reveal" is where they are now, and it's a lovely place. — David M. Putney, The Virginian-Pilot

Greg Trooper, "Straight Down Rain," (Eminent) — Greg Trooper is a veteran of the songwriting wars, and with his fourth release he's finding the wider recognition he's deserved since his days on the New York City music scene of the early '90s. Now based in Nashville, the New Jersey native wrote or co-wrote all of the 12 tracks and each tune tells its own tale of uncertain love or messy doings by honest men. Driven with firm percussion and electric guitars, Trooper sings his songs in a straightforward baritone that eases the sturdy songs into an immediate comfort zone. In "Real Like That," he tells of a love as real as "straight down rain" while country pedal steel and fiddles support, and Julie Miller adds loose and off-the-cuff-harmonies. "Staring Down the Night" is pure desperation told with conviction, and "You Love Your Broken Heart" pleas with a lover to move on. The waltz "Over the Moon" finds Trooper on a cloud in love, while "Damaged Eyes" tells a sad tale of the woman who refused to see the beauty of her soul. Trooper's songs convey basic, real emotions with simplicity and grace. By avoiding high-handed lyrical obscurity, this songwriter keeps it real and gets it right. Catch him at Poe's Pub Sunday, June 17 at 8 p.m.— A.A.

The Arrivals, "Goodbye New World" (Thick Records) — Shattering the mold of pop punk, "Goodbye New World," shows a group whose manic playing draws more from old-school punk and abrasive rock than from what's currently popular.

This Chicago-based four-piece has successfully consolidated the speed of Leatherface, the do-it-yourself feel of Gaunt, and the catchiness of Social Distortion to create a debut that is powerful and accessible in the same breath. Notable cuts are numerous, but the ode "Elise" is a real standout. The record's overall sound is clean, due to its producer, Lance Reynolds of The Blue Meanies. The Arrivals' style will appeal to fans of both traditional and more mainstream forms of punk music, something which is hard to do since enthusiasts of the genre are so polarized on the subject of new and old.

Likewise, "Goodbye New World" is an album that folks will enjoy if they like loud and well-written rock. — Angelo DeFranzo

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