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By Michael Henningsen

MAY 17, 1999: 

The Ladybug Transistor, The Albemarle Sound (Merge)

When I heard this band's name and its derivation (they're named after a '70s kiddie radio the guitarist owns), I cringed. I'm getting pretty damned sick of cutesy, amateurish, '70s-pop-culture-obsessed bands who couldn't write a solid hook or a memorable lyric for all the Stretch Armstrong dolls in China. Happily, that lengthy list doesn't include the Ladybug Transistor. From the half-cartoon/half-pastoral artwork to the quirky, heavily orchestrated tunes within, The Albemarle Sound strongly recalls the late-'60s work of the Bee Gees. A gorgeous, reverent cover of Gary Zekley's classic "Like a Summer Rain" (originally written for Jan and Dean in 1966) acknowledges another obvious influence. These 12 brief songs are all small gems, packed with lovely minor-key melodies, melancholy lyrics, elaborate string arrangements by Joe McGinty (who's done the same for the very similar Richard Davies as well as for his own band, Baby Steps), and artless but not amateurish vocals, so much so that picking out highlights is next to impossible. Fans of Cardinal, the Apples in Stereo and '60s orchestral pop are strongly urged to seek out this little wonder. ¡¡¡¡¡

Various Artists, Pop Romantique (Emperor Norton)

After spending most of the '90s as an under-noticed influence, '60s French pop is poised for full Next Big Thing status, as evidenced by this compilation of indie poppers covering classics of the genre.

It's a great idea. The only problem is that while the bands (Ivy, Luna, Heavenly, Lloyd Cole) are uniformly excellent and the artists covered (Serge Gainsbourg, France Gall, Francis Lai, Brigitte Bardot and Francoise Hardy) are indisputably great, the combination often doesn't gel. For example, the Magnetic Fields' busy cover of Jeanne Moreau's beautiful "Le Tourbillon" can't touch the original's spartan acoustic simplicity, nor is Godzuki's cover of Bardot's "Contact" anywhere near as trippy as the bizarre original.

However, there's some wonderful stuff on Pop Romantique. The ageless Hardy sings beautifully on Air's gorgeous, acoustic guitar-based "Jeanne," and Heavenly's super-perky cover of Gall's "Nous ne Sommes pas des Anges" is a classic. (Unfortunately, these and other tracks have previously been released elsewhere.) Pop Romantique is a must if you're a fan of these bands, but if you're unfamiliar with the joys of real French pop, inexpensive import copies of Gall, Hardy and Gainsbourg's own '60s hits are easy to find and a much better starting place. ¡¡¡¡

John P. Strohm, Vestavia (Flat Earth)

After half a decade as Juliana Hatfield's foil in the Blake Babies, John Strohm bounced around a bit, fronting the excellent Antenna for two albums, forming the short-lived and disappointing Velo-Deluxe and spending several years pitching in with his pals Polara and the Lemonheads before settling in Birmingham, Ala., and starting his solo career in earnest. Vestavia, his second solo album (following 1996's little-heard Caledonia), bears all the marks of this stylistic wandering, recalling the Blake Babies' jangly, hook-filled indie pop ("In Your Dreams"), Antenna's Television-influenced neo-psychedelia ("Edison Medicine"), loopy Evan Dando-esque countryish detours ("Jesus Let Me In") and, unfortunately, a little bit of Velo-Deluxe's by-the-numbers alterna-pop in the politely-distorted guitar riffs that needlessly embroider a few of the songs.

You'd think the album would sound a little scattershot as a result. However, Strohm's in prime lyrical shape, using suburban carlessness as a metaphor for dislocation in "Drive-Thru," namechecking footballer- turned-preacher Rosey Grier in "Eva Braun" and in the chilling "Ballad of Lobster Boy" (based on the real-life murder of a sideshow performer by his own family), returning to the detached anomie that made Strohm's first great song, the Blake Babies' similarly true-crime "Girl in a Box" (from 1990's magnificent Sunburn) so disturbingly compelling. As a result, Vestavia sounds less like a hodgepodge and more like the work of a talented songwriter who prefers to work in a variety of styles. ¡¡¡¡

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