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By Stewart Mason

JUNE 28, 1999: 

Splendid Have You Got a Name for It (Mammoth)

Extra-adorable Australian pixie Angie Hart was singer, lyricist and wildly appealing visual focal point for the acoustic-pop combo Frente!, whose 1994 debut Marvin: The Album was an entertaining tour through 14 slight variations on one catchy folk-pop song, a minor hit titled "Labour of Love." When a second album disappeared without a trace, Frente! split and Hart formed the new duo Splendid with husband Jesse Tobias, who amazingly is not too ashamed to mention in his bio that he used to play guitar for Alanis Morrissette.

Hart's voice, slightly less helium-filled than it used to be, sounds terrific in Tobias' settings, which are considerably meatier than any the wispy Frente! ever managed. The single, "Better Things," is a near-classic pop song that would be radio fodder in a less marketing-directed world, with "Come Clean" (written by Parthenon Huxley!) and the downright rocking "You and Me" close behind. The band name is just plain asking for it from snarky rock critics with no original ideas, but, luckily, it also happens to be truth in advertising. Birdy Supernominal Paraphernalia (Cropduster)

Ten or 15 years ago, Hoboken was the coolest town on the map, with residents ranging from local heroes the Feelies to fledgling drone-popsters Yo La Tengo to children's author Daniel Pinkwater. The debut by Hoboken's Birdy recalls these glory days of Coyote Records and Maxwell's with a minimum of nostalgia but enough caffeinated janglebuzz guitars, likeably plain vocals and compressed production (courtesy of Hoboken legend Gene Holder, formerly of the dB's) to make you think it's 1986 all over again.

Singer/songwriter Stephanie Seymour (not the model/actress but the ex-drummer for the much-missed, all-girl, garage-pop Aquanettas) specializes in unpretentious guitar pop somewhere between late dB's and Paul Westerberg's lightest tunes. But where many bands on this side of the pop street forget to write actual songs, Seymour has a knack for vaguely familiar but instantly memorable choruses. They're the type that unexpectedly pops into your head a few days after you listen ("My Brave Face" and the closing raveup, "Perfect Hand," in particular). Meanwhile, her bandmates do the Hoboken thing with grace and dexterity. Supernominal Paraphernalia proves that it's not always an insult to say of a record that you've heard this sort of thing before.



Black Box Recorder England Made Me (Jetset)

The best part of my job's gotta be the press releases. The easiest way to explain this is to simply reprint the last paragraph of the page that accompanies Black Box Recorder's debut: "Only England, with its lame Cool Brittania campaign, its useless Tory/Labour party ruler, its stupid and boring obsession with an outdated monarchy, its irrelevant religious leaders and its worthless industrial economy could have fueled this record." Makes you wanna rush right out and snap this album up, don't it? The only thing more amusing is track six, the unintentionally hilarious spoken-word whine, "Child Psychology." By the time singer Sarah Nixey finishes obsessively repeating the chorus/mantra "Life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it," even the kindest-hearted listener will be secretly hoping she goes for what's behind Door Number One.

But if you can successfully ignore the uniformly wretched, mewling lyrics (which I usually can), England Made Me is an appealing, substantial record. Nixey's breathy voice is quite alluring in a deadpan Beth Gibbons/Beth Orton way, and collaborators John Moore (Expressway, Jesus and Mary Chain) and Luke Haines (The Auteurs) have fashioned a spacious, keyboard-based sonic landscape somewhere between David Sylvian and the quietest musings of Massive Attack. If they'd only bring in a less whiny lyricist -- and better taste in covers than yet another swipe at "Seasons in the Sun" -- then Black Box Recorder could be something special. Or maybe they should just emigrate.


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