Now Hear This 

Review of new releases by A.C. Newman, One Ring Zero, Black Dice and Johnnie & The Lowdowns.

A.C. Newman "The Slow Wonder" (Matador)

Only time will tell if A.C. Newman's decision to take a sabbatical from the Vancouver indie-pop band the New Pornographers was a wise one. But it was a boon to his fans. His debut expands his musical palette and manages to be as well-produced as his work with the Pornographers.

What is surprising is that "The Slow Wonder" is spare and simple, despite the long studio hours and eclectic instruments Newman picked up along the way. The album goes from the driving, piano-driven "On the Table" to the stripped-down guitar-and-drum punch of "Most of Us Prizefighters." At the album's midpoint, the beach rock of "Secretarial" stands back-to-back with "Come Crash," a love song with a lonely trumpet. As diverse as the songs are, none seem out of place.

There's something whimsical illuminating this album, an upbeat and playful spirit that contrasts with the sad-boys-singing-sad-songs approach that bogs down a lot of young indie-rock solo artists. Newman's unpretentious style is refreshing. ***1/2 — Brandon Reynolds

One Ring Zero "As Smart As We Are" (Soft Skull Press)

Richmonders Joshua Camp and Michael Hearst transplanted One Ring Zero to New York three years ago, landing in a city with the rare means to alchemize quirky brilliance into avant-garde genius. "As Smart as We Are" is immaculately hip, from the exquisitely designed packaging to the roster of intellectually respectable authors who penned the lyrics to the literate humor of the liner notes. (And the shrink-wrap for "Smart" is slathered with rapturous reviews, from the Village Voice to the New Yorker.)

The cauldron of the band's transformation is a microscopic Brooklyn bookstore, owned by "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" author Dave Eggers and called simply Store. One Ring Zero became the house band, playing at literary readings. And an elite group of authors contributed the lyrics to this CD, released by an indie publishing house. Notables include "A Handmaid's Tale" author Margaret Atwood, "Sandman" graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and "Fortress of Solitude" author Jonathan Lethem. The songs range from cabaret to country, full-length to a mere 17 syllables (Aaron Naparstek's "Honku").

The accompanying music is an easily acquired taste. Former harmonica and accordion tuners, Camp and Hearst constructed the band around a shared love of unconventional instruments. Claviola, toy piano and Theremin share billing with guitar and drums. They also have a taste for the distortions of analog electronic effects. Folklike melodies shine through the clear and shifting textures.

The duo's singing starts with early-Zappa wiseguy harmonizing. Then the voices diverge into distinctive art-rock species: a high nasal Flaming Lips archness and a deeper, Leonard Cohen baritone profundity. (Atwood's "Frankenstein Monster Song" eerily recalls fellow Canadian Cohen's early songbook.) Sonic variety is ensured by guest singers — notably Alyssa Lamb on the hermaphro-ditty "Half and Half," and the wonderful, long-missing Syd Straw on "Golem."

This is anti-pop at its best, appealingly approachable with just enough edginess and obscure references to scare off the masses. The inscrutable lyrics of Lethem's "Water," from which the CD title is drawn, were impenetrable even to the band — until the author explained they're about cockroaches. **** — Peter McElhinney

Black Dice "Creature Comforts" (DFA)

The second full-length release by the noise-rock group Black Dice commits the cardinal sin of experimental musicmaking: It's boring. Painfully boring.

"Creature Comforts" is the follow-up to 2002's "Beaches and Canyons," which received critical praise in a diverse array of publications, from Rolling Stone to The New York Times. Such music is not a huge phenomenon, but it has become about as popular as can be expected of a rock-derived genre with no vocals.

This latest work is an even more drastic departure from the norm, as the band decided not to use a percussionist. The quartet of former Rhode Island School of Design students took its cue from the pure sound investigations of Brian Eno, Can and This Heat.

The album starts off promising enough with some mildly interesting keyboard abstractions and guitar work. But then after the initial curiosity wears thin, nothing much happens - unless you consider what sounds like early video-game music played backwards to be fascinating.

"Creature Comforts" is the discomforting epitome of self-indulgence. Instead of engaging the listener by probing music's outer limits, Black Dice opts for a thoroughly masturbatory exercise with no rhyme or reason, much less rhythm. 1/2* — Chris Bopst

Local Bin

Johnnie & The Lowdowns "Johnnie & The Lowdowns" (Digitone Records)

For a group that focuses on postwar Chicago blues, this record kicks off in fine fashion, with a shuffle beat and some dirty-blues harp on the double-entendre workout "Brakeman." The benchmark for Chicago blues was the work of guitarist Muddy Waters with harp player Little Walter Jacobs. In Johnnie & The Lowdowns, guitar and vocals are handled by John Morgan and harp is performed by Buddy Hensley.

In the group's favor is Morgan's versatility on guitar, whether evoking T-Bone Walker or ripping a Dick Dale-styled surf solo. Easily outshining the rest of the record is the Muddy Waters staple "Long Distance Call," where Morgan's slide work brings to mind Waters' stinging tone. Hensley is a strong player and brings excitement to some otherwise bland cuts. While his "dirty" sound works well, varying his distortion would make for more interesting listening.

Working against this band are mediocre vocals, awkward time signature changes, a muddy sound mix and song endings that miss either the note or the beat. While their heart's in the right place, a little more time in the woodshed is needed. ** — Andy Garrigue

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