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JULY 31, 2000: 

*1/2 Étienne Charry 36 ERREURS (Kindercore)

Free for the moment from soundtracking French animation films and commercials, Étienne Charry has opted to express himself on his own full-length by adhering to the same abbreviated structure that characterizes his other compositional callings. So these 36 cutesy whatchamacallits average 1:47 and add up to the latest advertisement for hip from the continent (the French apparently still feel they have a lot to prove). The tracks command a generous sonic spectrum, with surf-guitar runs, hebephrenic sing-alongs, and just enough lo-fi to fool listeners into taking them as something deeper than kitschy kicks.

Charry thinks he's being modest when he calls these numbers erreurs ("errors") -- as he puts it in the liner notes, "I know it doesn't conform to today's market." But when he admits that "the songs could have lasted longer but I was afraid of taking up your time," he doesn't realize that slamming each one into the next to create one 53-minute station break is not just taking up our time but wasting it. The impression that remains is of a cumulatively annoying and self-satisfied whole. Which may suit hipsters just fine -- no use in being moved by individual song forms. The rest of us will wait for a cooler friend to wow us by tagging one of these tatters onto the end of a mix tape. -- Kevin John

*** Departure Lounge OUT OF THERE (Flydaddy)

"No more pressure, no more pain/I want to feel like I'm alive again, older and wiser/Musical for pleasure," sings Tim Keegan in "Music for Pleasure," Out of There's opening number. His sweet resonant voice has an undertow of weary mournfulness, suggesting that music as fun is a concept he's inadvertently lost.

Formed from the loose collective the Homer Lounge, which guitarist and frontman Keegan (Robin Hitchcock's sideman and collaborator and a one-time Blue Aeroplanes member) put together in 1998, Departure Lounge create delicately psychedelic indie pop. Covering Kirsty MacColl's sugar-pop ode "They Don't Know," they slow the pace to a tiptoe and strip the song down to an ethereal wisp. They ditch feyness and polite introspection with a strung-out version of the Homer Lounge clubland single "Disconnected" that's remixed by French DJ Kid Loco; they get more electronically experimental with the tattered and nervy "Starport," which is graced by keyboard player and multi-instrumentalist Chris Anderson's plaintive oboe. Out of There acknowledges life's sadness without losing sight of the hope and the glory. -- Linda Laban

*** Janis Ian GOD AND THE FBI (Windham Hill)

Ian was winning Grammys with her combination of folk, country, and popular music before most of today's "chick singers" were born. Thirteen years ago, she relocated to Nashville, an unexpected move for a cerebral Jewish lesbian from New York with an FBI dossier five inches thick, but it proved to be productive. Ian's been writing mainstream country tunes of late, and her coming-out album, Breaking Silence, produced unexpected hits for other artists -- "What About Love" for Amy Grant and "Some People's Lives" for Bette Midler.

God and the FBI, her 17th recording, is packed with a dark humor that she's seldom exhibited before. The funky title track, which could be a club hit with a slight remix, details her life under the microscope of the FBI. Her sin? Parents who had African-American friends, which was considered subversive in the 1950s. There's also "Memphis," a love letter to Southern living delivered as a duet with Willie Nelson, and the Dixie-fried grit of "Joline" (not the Dolly Parton hit but an Ian original) and "Play like a Girl," both of which owe as much to Memphis as they do to Nashville. -- J. Poet

**1/2 k.d. Lang INVINCIBLE SUMMER (Warner Bros.)

In concert, k.d. lang sometimes introduces "Constant Craving" by saying, "Now I'd like to sing a medley of my hit," ruefully acknowledging that such recent albums as the neurotic All You Can Eat and the nicophilic cover set Drag weren't the stuff of radio programmers' dreams. At times, her first album of original material in five years seems a concerted effort to rectify this situation. "The Consequences of Falling" is Ingenue redux, from its atmosphere of might-be-requited longing to the opening phoneme of its hook. But the centerpieces are two singles-in-waiting that comb beaches from Malibu to Bahia for sun-dappled sounds. "Summerfling" opens with Surfaris-style drumming, touches on bossa nova and Greek-restaurant music, then lands on a brief chorus of vocal interplay à la "Good Vibrations." The slighter "It's Happening with You," with its cheesy organ and classic disco strings, splits the difference between '60s and '90s discothèquerie.

If its other songs placed lang's voice in such playful settings, Invincible Summer might live up to its name. But on the album's mostly mid-tempo second half, producer/William Orbit henchman Damaian Le Gassick grafts Ray of Light-lite electroburbles onto the singer's customary strings and pedal steels -- a compromise that will please neither classicists nor trip-hoppers. Lang herself contributes to the overload with lugubrious, love-positive lyrics that find her either overwhelmed by bliss ("Pull me under, eternal wave") or addled into flaky philosophizing ("To know of love, sacrifice/Is a truth of living life"). The best moments of Invincible Summer are buoyant, but too many of these drowned-torch songs sound merely waterlogged. -- Franklin Bruno

*** Kottonmouth Kings HIGH SOCIETY (Capitol)

Orange County's Kottonmouth Kings are six suburban white boys doing hip-hop, but on the group's second disc their race is a conspicuous non-issue. That's because with these guys, smoking pot is the only issue. They get more mileage out of the subject than most: "Coffee Shop" is a love letter to Amsterdam; "King's Blend" and "Size of an Ant" are aural fantasies about, respectively, winning the Cannabis Cup and living inside a marijuana plant. The group's beatmaster, Brad Daddy X, is adept at laying down sleek, mechanized grooves that borrow from early-'90s G-funk while evoking the alternating bliss and paranoia of pot smoking.

The highlights here are party anthems like "First Class" and "Good As Gold," but the Kings also show an activist streak on the utopian "Peace Not Greed," which features a shouted guest vocal from TSOL frontman Jack Grisham. Their finest MC, Jonny Richter, stands out on the narrative "The Lottery," the one low-class fantasy on the disc that's not about weed. This is a band with their heads in the clouds in every sense of the phrase, and an album with more than enough blunted-out choruses and swaying rhythms to sustain their high. -- Sean Richardson

*** Sarah Dougher THE WALLS ABLAZE (Mr. Lady)

The world spins on a perpetually uncertain axis in Sarah Dougher's universe. Friendships wax and wane; conflict between lovers goes unresolved; connections are severed by distance and demons that transform their hosts into strangers.

Building on the themes of addiction, denial, and recovery she first explored on Day One, her '99 solo debut, Dougher -- who also plays organ with the Crabs and Cadallaca (the latter of which she founded with Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker) -- again investigates the often painful divide that resides between the lines of what people say to each other. Or, as in the case of the subject who's locked in an emotional prison ("The Old Way"), what they tell themselves. With a direct, guilelessly expressive voice and a compact melodic disposition that closely resembles Liz Phair's way with pungent mini-drama, Dougher places her lean, fitful narratives in a spare musical setting that's well suited to conjuring a sustained mood of prickly, post-punk restlessness.

Issued by the Durham label that's also home to feminist punks Le Tigre and the Butchies, Walls is the kind of sinewy, Matadorian indie pop we haven't heard in a while. In fact, if you didn't know that was guitarist Jon Reuter and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss supplying the chunky riffs and rhythm on "The Scales," you'd swear Brad Wood was on the premises. -- Jonathan Perry

*** Toni Braxton THE HEAT (LaFace)

No longer arranged (but still produced) by Babyface, who wrote her hits "Unbreak My Heart" and "Never Breathe Again," Toni Braxton presents a younger, less pre-packaged version of her romantic self on The Heat. By drawing her lyrics and melodies from other sources, she frees her voice from over-reliance on showy drama as well as from the breathless characterizations imposed on her by the success of "Never Breathe Again." Here is a younger ("Gimme Some"), flirtier ("He Wasn't Man Enough"), more plaintive ("Spanish Guitar," "I'm Still Breathing"), quietly consoling ("Speaking in Tongues," an Isleys-like ballad) Braxton. Acoustic-guitar accompaniment in "Fairy Tale" and (of course) "Spanish Guitar" allows her to sing softly and delicately as she addresses her lover. A different kind of surprise is "The Art of Love," in which Braxton breathes sultry à la Donna Summer over a track drawn directly from Kool & the Gang's 1975 spaced-out "Summer Love." You can definitely hear (and almost taste) the mischievous grin in her voice as she whispers sweaty sex into the music's wisps. -- Michael Freedberg

*** Wendo Kolosoy MARIE LOUISE (Indigo)

At 75, Congolese singer Wendo Kolosoy is the great-grandfather of the music we know as soukous. With his group Victoria Kin, he hit the scene in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in 1946 and soon thereafter had a 78-rpm hit with the song "Marie Louise," which is reprised here nearly a half-century later. Wendo languished in obscurity as Congo music went international in the 1970s and '80s. But now, wonder of wonders, he's back. The voice is big, a tad rough and wavy with age, but still capable of a clear yodel-like falsetto, as on the humorous "Youyou Aleli Veka."

This set of 10 swinging numbers invests the gentle, seductive sound of classic Congolese rumba with the clarity of modern recording techniques. Before the pummeling bass drum of soukous arrived, rumba singers crooned over lively, open shaker-and-conga accompaniment, a stripped-down version of the old Cuban son percussion, and that's what we get here. Lilting, melodious guitar playing has always been a mark of Congo music, and Vulu Missy's picking here is gorgeous throughout, whether she's chunking out low accompaniment passages or crafting lively soukous leads as on "Soki Olingi Ngai." Wendo's improvised vocal duet with Cameroonian veteran Anne-Marie N'zié, "Tokutani," is particularly choice. -- Banning Eyre

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