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NOVEMBER 15, 1999: 

Marine Research Sounds from the Gulf Stream (K)

After four peerless albums of clever, bouncy, insidiously catchy pop, Heavenly broke up in 1996 following drummer Mathew Fletcher's suicide. Three years later, Heavenly's remaining members have reformed as Marine Research, a more mature, thoughtful refinement of Heavenly in much the same way that Heavenly had been a more mature, thoughtful refinement of the members' mid-'80s indie band, Talulah Gosh.

Much less manic than the often-breathless Heavenly, but retaining their trademark swooping melodies and the intertwining vocals of Amelia Fletcher and Cathy Rogers, Sounds from the Gulf Stream is as brilliant as any Heavenly or Talulah Gosh release. Each song is a bittersweet gem, melding ironic, often dark lyrics to sunny pop tunes and complex harmonies in the Heavenly tradition, but with a new sophistication. This album sounds just incredible, with subtle, detailed arrangements and smart touches like the tape effects in the bitter "Glamour Gap" and the claves in the angry/wistful "End of the Affair." Interestingly, the way certain songs recall other current pop sophisticates -- "Queen B" and "Chucking Out Time" would not sound out of place on the most recent Cardigans and St. Etienne records -- illustrates just how influential this lot have been over the past 13 years. They're not only back, it feels like they never left. -- Stewart Mason

Michael Goodroe Flesh and Blood (Fellini Photon Records)

Forget for a moment that the main reason Michael Goodroe has gold records on his wall and you don't is that he was in the Motels and you weren't. If you can't quite get it out of your head, then Goodroe's solo debut will likely do the trick. Never one to rest on past glory, Goodroe has put together a batch of dense, haunting numbers that are about as far from the Motels end of the spectrum as you can get.

And while Goodroe's husky, Lou Reed-ish voice has long been the focal point of his occasional stage appearances over the past few years, the emphasis on Flesh and Blood is on visionary arrangements and songs that are, well, fully fleshed out. Goodroe has never suffered from a shortage of good songs or from the desire to take what are essentially solid pop songs and attempt to make them seem holier than thou. So it's no surprise, really, that Flesh and Blood has a carefree feel to it, despite having been nearly two years in the making.

Lyrically, Goodroe doesn't tackle anything new, staying pretty well focused on the things that matter in pop music: love won and love lost and any combination thereof. But where his lyrics may not be challenging in a philosophical sense, his melodies are inventive and inspired, his arrangements lush and calculated. And although Goodroe played all of the instruments on the album and made it while hunched over a computer in his small, digital home studio, Flesh and Blood sounds absolutely epic, as if several creative forces were in collaboration, not just one guy with a lot of talent and, above all, vision.

Flesh and Blood will likely startle some longtime fans of Goodroe's solo work who are used to hearing just the man and his guitar. But the album is full of rewards. These aren't just Goodroe's songs; these, indeed, are his flesh and blood. -- Michael Henningsen

The Stanley Brothers The Best of the Best of the Stanley Brothers (Federal)

Rarely are album titles so descriptive, but this 10-song compilation could just as easily be called The Best of the Best of Clinch Mountain Bluegrass. Coming from the same rural area of Virginia as the more famous Carter Family, Carter (lead vocals, guitar) and Ralph (heartstopping tenor harmonies, banjo) Stanley played traditional bluegrass as well as it has ever been played. Covering the cream of their 1958-63 work for Nashville's King Records, The Best of the Best of the Stanley Brothers opens with their classic "Rank Strangers To Me" and closes 25 perfect minutes later with the joyous dread of "Choo Choo Coming." In between come eight magnificent bluegrass classics, including the definitive versions of the traditional "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Let Me Rest," as well as the raucous "How Mountain Girls Can Love." A more concise introduction to traditional bluegrass cannot be imagined. However, as always, this release is docked half a doggie for being under half an hour long. -- Stewart Mason

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