Yo La Tengo -- Prisoners of Love (Matador): Yo La Tengo CDs sound like an expression of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew's lives, as much as watching television, walking the dogs or hanging out in a bar with friends swapping stories serve that function for the rest of us. Partially it's a result of their fairly prolific output -- this two-disc greatest-hits collection is packaged with a third disc of rarities, the second such disc the band has put out -- but it's also a result of the group's musical cool-headedness. Even when Kaplan's in the middle of a guitar freak-out, there's a sense that it is no more dramatic for him than grocery shopping.
This CD would be a greatest-hits collection if Yo La Tengo had any hits. Perhaps 'From a Motel 6' and 'Autumn Sweater' grazed the skull of popular consciousness during the early days of the alternative radio format. Instead, call it a collection of many of the band's most popular songs. Prisoners of Love is also a good representation of Yo La Tengo's range, going from campfire strum-alongs to pop songs to Sun Ra covers to krautrock rave-ups, sometimes in the same song. The band's success comes from never forgetting each mode's purpose, so the songs are sweet, the rave-ups adventurous and the campfire songs memorable.
Stereolab -- Oscillations From the Anti-Sun (Too Pure): It's sad that the highest profile moment in Stereolab's career came when multi-instrumentalist Mary Hansen died in a bicycle accident Dec. 9, 2002, and a Chicago DJ garnered nationwide publicity by announcing it, tastelessly accompanying the announcement with a car crash sound effect and the pronouncement that her band sucked anyway. As this three-CD set amply illustrates, Stereolab certainly didn't suck and made far more interesting music than the DJ played on his station.
The budget-priced collection presents material from the prolific band's hard-to-find EPs, so most of the tracks here are previously unreleased in America. Frequently, a band's stray songs are stray for a reason, and listening to rare material isn't as much fun as it sounds. Here, though, you can hear what made the band interesting: the tension created by static rhythms balanced with lovely melodic passages, avant-garde drones matched with ornate, Bacharach-ian moments, and political lyrics (often sung in French) connected to cheerful pop hooks.
Unlike many such compilations, there's never a sense of being adrift in a sea of unfamiliarity; the 'hits' that defined the EPs are here too. 'Wow and Flutter,' 'Ping Pong,' 'Jenny Ondioline' and 'Transona Five' sound so good here that they remind you not only how good the band can be, but what a crime it was that alternative radio never picked up on Stereolab.
Monade -- A Few Steps More (Too Pure): This is the second album from Monade, a side project for Stereolab's Laeticia Sadier. It's hard to hear what Stereolab fans wouldn't like about it because, well, it sounds like Stereolab, and not just in her vocals. Her breathy voice is still front and center, but the horns in 'Becoming' sound like the parts High Llama Sean O'Hagan wrote when he was a member of the group. As is the case on much of the album, Sadier leaves space for the rest of the band on the title cut. It begins like an opening theme from a movie, then shifts to a spy movie organ sound, then, halfway through, she finally sings. It's not bad; in fact, it's a very entertaining piece. It just feels like a Stereolab piece, down to the structure.
Garbage -- Bleed Like Me (Geffen): Did anybody miss Garbage? Wonder what happened to them? Are they anybody's favorite band? The laws of probability say they must be, but I've never heard people talking about the band unless one of its songs was playing on the radio or in a bar. That isn't necessarily a reflection on the quality of the band's music. More likely, it's related to the band's mastery of shiny, hard-edged bubble-gum music, a sound people enjoy, but one that almost by definition lacks the personal fingerprints that give fans something human to bond to.
Like bubble-gum music, this is all catchy, particularly the first handful of songs. 'Bad Boyfriend' and 'Run Baby Run' are great Garbage songs, with Shirley Manson singing as the tough girl looking for a guy tough enough to push her around. Still, that stance sounds like a persona, not a real person, so you don't feel like you can connect to her, and the music is excellent pastiche. Compositions borrow from the Beach Boys, T. Rex, the Pretenders, girl groups and British punk-pop, all played with arena-rock guitar sounds. That guarantees hooks, but the band's musical signature is only evident in whom it lifts from and what it lifts.
Bleed Like Me is a good Garbage album, but six months from now, you'll see the CD in your collection, pull it out, put on a couple of songs, enjoy them and wonder why you ever stopped listening to the album. Then you'll put it away confident you'll listen to it again soon and promptly forget it.
Scott H. Biram -- The Dirty Old One Man Band (Bloodshot): I guess if you've been in a head-on collision with an 18-wheeler and lived to tell the story, you've earned the right to sing all the car, road and truck songs you want. The album title suggests Scott H. Biram's a wild man, and recorded evidence seems to back the title's claim up. He strums his guitar as if he's trying to rip the strings off, and he shouts into the mic like the audience is across the street. With that lack of concern for sonic niceties, the album is as raw as you'd expect.
Does raw equal real in this case? Hard to know, though the details in the songs sound like details we've encountered in stereotypical depictions of white-trash life. Still, there's enough energy in Biram's performance that it wouldn't take more than three or so beers to overcome whatever doubts you'd have that it's all an act. It'll take a six-pack, though, to get around the general lack of distinctive songs. The album is fun, but it's fun you can't remember after you've had it.
Iggy Pop -- Live San Francisco 1981 (MVD DVD): You can transfer video to DVD and you can give it 5.1 surround sound, but the technology can't hide the reality that this is essentially a bootleg video. A handful of cameras in the audience catch Iggy with a good band -- Blondie's Clem Burke on drums, Mike Page on bass, and Carlos Alomar, Gary Valentine and Rob Duprey and guitars -- capable of making a very heavy noise.
Unfortunately, video technology at the time wasn't capable of recording sound that dense, so a lot is lost, and the amateur camera operators periodically lose track of the unpredictable Iggy, whipping quickly across stage to find him. The quality of live footage since then makes this DVD seem amateurish, and not in the good way. For those faults, though, there's still a lot to recommend this DVD to Iggy fans. Like a bootleg, it documents a moment, and if the artist matters to you, that matters. In this case, Iggy performs the set in a mini-skirt and stockings -- interesting, though not really worth the cost of a DVD -- and it catches him at the end of his tenure on Arista Records in the late '70s, when he made surprisingly reliable rock 'n' roll records. Shortly after this, he'd lose his bearings, with albums that chased trends, each more irrelevantly than the one before. That may sound like no big deal, but for bootleg fans, transitional moments like that are indispensable.