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NOVEMBER 8, 1999: 

The Aluminum Group Pedals (Minty Fresh)

Produced by Chicago avant-rock godfather Jim O'Rourke, The Aluminum Group's third album moves far afield from its predecessors: the neo-Bacharach Wonder Boy, complete with muted trumpets, strings, brass, vibes and drums played with brushes, and last year's heavily Magnetic Fields- influenced Plano. Pedals smoothly integrates those elements with the sonic inventiveness of O'Rourke's band Tortoise, the impossible-to-hate slickness of vintage '70s Adult Contemporary singles like Melissa Manchester's "Midnight Blue," and a newfound experimentalism that connects songs like the multi-part nine-minute epic "Rrose [sic] Selavy's Valise" to obvious suite-like predecessors like Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park." While the album retains the Navins' trademark soft rock influences, the proceedings are considerably more complex than before, with weird sounds punctuating the arrangements and strange musical fragments popping up between the songs. Pedals is somewhat more difficult to get a handle on than The Aluminum Group's smoother, earlier albums, but it's ultimately much more satisfying. -- Stewart Mason

The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs (Merge)

Available as a box set or three separate CDs, 69 Love Songs is a sprawling masterpiece of alternately romantic and rueful tunes, the final decisive proof that Stephin Merritt is one of the '90's finest songwriters. Where each previous Magnetic Fields' album had its own specific musical identity, 69 Love Songs leaps casually through genres including show tunes, jazz, country, punk, techno and '80s-style synth pop, somehow managing throughout to sound like no one but the Magnetic Fields. This is largely due to Merritt's brilliant, wry lyrics, which owe at least as much to past masters as Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin as they do to any rock and rollers. Combining specific detail and deep-seated emotion with sarcastic humor and witty rhymes ("Reno Dakota/ I'm no Nino Rota/ I don't know the score"), Merritt is simply the best pop lyricist working today. No one else could deliver 69 songs in one go and not have a single dud in the bunch.

To oversimplify wildly, Volume One is the most accessible, recalling such previous Merritt gems as the Magnetic Fields' Holiday and the 6ths' Wasps Nests. Volume Two has the widest stylistic range, from the wild "Love Is Like Jazz" to the glorious '60s fuzz-pop "When My Boy Walks Down the Street" and the country weeper "Papa Was A Rodeo," where, as elsewhere, Merritt's deadpan baritone inches closer and closer to an instrument as expressive and endlessly fascinating as Johnny Cash's. Volume Three is the darkest, with a litany of jauntily bitter lost love songs like the howlingly funny "Yeah, Oh Yeah," a duet between Merritt and drummer/keyboardist Claudia Gonson, and the Costello-like verbal gymnastics of "The Night You Can't Remember." It really doesn't matter which you start with, because if you buy one, you'll eventually buy them all. -- Stewart Mason

John Southworth Sedona, Arizona (Water Street)

John Southworth's Mars, Pennsylvania was a surprising, brilliant debut, melding lush production, unconventional arrangements, unique lyrical humor and moments of spinetingling beauty. Though the Toronto-based singer songwriter's influences were unmistakable (Van Dyke Parks, 10cc, Wings-era McCartney), Mars, Pennsylvania sounded like nothing which had come before. Unfortunately, it didn't sell squat south of the Canadian border, so his excellent follow-up, Sedona, Arizona, is so far available in the U.S. only through his Web site, www.johnsouthworth.com.

Sedona, Arizona doesn't have the debut's sonic lushness. Southworth and producer Hawksley Workman recorded the album by themselves, giving the album a more live, stripped-down sound, emphasizing the genial oddity of songs like "Stand By Your Masses" or "Millionaires Everywhere." The power-pop "Cute Girls, Gay Guys" sounds almost like Fountains of Wayne, while the title track and "Claire Clairmont" brings his McCartneyesque tendencies to the fore. Though Southworth's slightly mannered, nasal voice might require something of a learning curve for those used to less distinctive singers, Sedona, Arizona is an adventurous delight. -- Stewart Mason

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