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By Stewart Mason

JULY 5, 1999: 

The Apples in Stereo Her Wallpaper Reverie (SpinArt)

Not quite the Apples' third album, Her Wallpaper Reverie is a 27-minute EP featuring seven brilliant pop songs surrounded by eight peculiar bridges and sound collages, most of them featuring one of those little toy xylophones where you hit a key and a hammer strikes the bar from underneath. Like Stereolab's similarly brief The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music, Her Wallpaper Reverie is simultaneously the Apples' most and least experimental release in that it separates the two sides of their musical personality. There's the sunny '60s-inspired pop songs featuring the multi-tracked harmonies of Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney, and the more outside sonic experiments, which the band previously combined into one intoxicating whole. The result is that the proper songs sound more than ever like perfect '60s pop classics, and the experiments sound even stranger than before. So in some ways, Her Wallpaper Reverie is also the Apples' response to Olivia Tremor Control's Black Foliage. This EP is a delight, but as always, it gets docked half a cute li'l doggie for being under 30 minutes long.

Those Bastard Souls Debt and Departure (V2)

With The Grifters apparently falling onto the scrapheap of progress after a string of Sun Records-meets-Pavement albums -- which reminded listeners that maybe not everything in the "alternative" universe was an overhyped and undercooked '70s-rock ripoff -- head Grifter David Shouse has turned his one-man side project, Those Bastard Souls, into a kind of indie supergroup. Accompanied by ex-Dambuilders Joan Wasser (violin) and Kevin March (drums), former Jeff Buckley sideman Michael Tighe (guitar) and Red Red Meat's Matt Fields (bass), Shouse has moved away from the deliberate art-rock weirdness of TBS' 1996 debut, Twentieth Century Chemical. The four tracks from that album re-recorded here -- especially the vastly improved "Remembering Sophie Rhodes" -- are harder-edged, more straightforward and dynamic, with Wasser's violin a particularly satisfying new element.

The album's closer, a stunning deconstruction of the Grifters' "Spaced Out," strips the song down to its barest essentials, with Shouse and Tighe creating a spooky miasma of ambient guitar textures as backdrop for Wasser's gyroscopic violin. It's better than the Grifters' original to the extent that the Beatles are better than Oasis. Debt and Departure is a moody, beautiful, noisy album that bodes well for Shouse's post-Grifters' future.

The Negro Problem Joys and Concerns (Aerial Flipout)

The Negro Problem's second album, Joys and Concerns, comes after a major personnel shakeup, with keyboardist Jill Blair and bassist Gwynne Kahn replaced by ex-Wednesday Week bassist Heidi Rodewald. Happily, the damage is both minor and balanced by new strengths: Blair's accordion is sorely missed, but Rodewald is a much better singer than either Blair or Kahn, and so Joys and Concerns is at least the equal of TNP's phenomenal debut, 1997's Post-Minstrel Syndrome.

TNP's focal point remains the tension between singer/guitarist Mark "Stew" Stewart's provocative lyrics, delivered in his raspy, soul-influenced voice, and the baroque pop melodies and lush production favored by Stew, Rodewald and drummer Charles Pagano. Described by Stew as "a hidden concept album," Joys and Concerns even revives the old prog-pop trick of multi-part songs: "Comikbuchland" and "The Rain in Leimert Park Last Tuesday" are basically two halves of the same song, as are the quieter, more emotionally direct "Bleed" and "Come Down Now." Other songs concern the sexual preferences of toys ("Ken," in which Barbie's would-be beau announces his attraction to G.I. Joe and pleads for recognition that he needs "someone to love since I am not equipped to screw"); the appeal of degradation (the opening "Repulsion," possibly TNP's smartest and catchiest song yet); and Stew's usual favorite media targets ("Peter Jennings," "Mahnsanto"). Post-Minstrel Syndrome's Jimmy Webb, Arthur Lee and Stephen Sondheim influences are still here, but Joys and Concerns sounds like no one but The Negro Problem.

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