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Timeless Passages

Frank Bango
The Unstudied Sea (Sincere Recording Company)

Frank Bango tends bar at a club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But by night—or day, I guess—he is a pop songwriter of the highest order. The 12 songs that comprise his latest record, The Unstudied Sea, supposedly were written underwater, perhaps as a result of watching strangers through the bottoms of empty glasses every night. Hopefully this will pique your curiosity, because, sadly, this stuff just ain’t gonna get played on the radio. Bango’s songs have what critics often call a “timeless” quality, meaning they could have been hits 30 years ago, but don’t stand a chance in the age of nü-metal. So the kids probably won’t go crazy over this record, but fans of the recent Burt Bacharach-Elvis Costello collaboration—anyone who appreciates strong pop songcraft, really—should leave themselves a Post-it Note to check it out first thing in the morning.

As on 2000’s excellent Fugitive Girls, Bango cowrote all 12 of Unstudied’s tracks with lyricist Richy Vesecky. Vesecky writes from an original point of view while tackling unusual subject matter, for instance, objects in a young girl’s bedroom (“A Clear Eye for Daisy”), and a fish that wanted to be a pet but ended up a meal (“Out of the Water”). His lyrics are sharp and concise, and his knack for vivid imagery is second to none.

As for the music, melody is job one for Frank Bango, and he delivers service with a smile. The songs are built around acoustic guitar or piano, with Bango’s voice mixed front-and-center, and gorgeous string arrangements woven into several tracks. “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” employs an aggressive strum, à la Billy Bragg, with just an occasional electric guitar flourish, and manages to rock without the benefit of bass or drums. When the rhythm section does kick in on “The Ugly Version,” it serves to complement rather than propel the song. Augmented by Beach Boys harmonies and analog synthesizers, “Ugly” evokes Costello circa Imperial Bedroom, complete with sarcasm worthy of Mr. MacManus himself (“You once told me that you couldn’t live without me/Now I can’t help noticing that you’re still breathing”). “Ugly” also contains one of this record’s many wonderful bridges—have we forgotten about the concept of a bridge, people? Check out the stunning middle section on “Museums” for another example.

Like a collection of great short stories, each song on The Unstudied Sea follows a very unique narrative path, and the music ebbs and flows accordingly. The underlying aquatic theme (don’t ask me, I just work here) ties the record together, lending a—ahem—timeless feel to this work. Don’t expect to see Frank Bango shooting up the charts anytime soon, but take my word for it: This is near-perfect pop, folks.

—John Brodeur

The Haunted
One Kill Wonder (Earache)

There’s something about Swedish metal that’s just downright scary. I think it’s because the bands don’t actually say much in the metal magazines or any other forum. Silence scares us Americans, especially when accompanied by a kind of glowering countenance through stringy hair and yellow eyes, a ghostly demeanor indicative of centuries of shitty weather and strong ale. A natural environment, of course, for the Haunted, whose third release on Earache swoops down upon you like a condor who keeps a naked head to prevent the rotting flesh from spoiling its plumage.

These guys sprang up in 1996 after brothers Jonas and Anders Björler left the unbelievable At the Gates, who some argue created the greatest thrash album of the 1990s with Slaughter of the Soul. I happen to be one of those people. Who cares if every single song was about offing yourself? I was hard-pressed to think of a band who could match At the Gates’ over-the-top progressions, seamless breakdowns and hypnotic melodies. That is, until their fury was reshaped into the Haunted’s debut in 1998. With each new Haunted release I tell myself that they will never top the one that came before, that it is inconceivable to be any more goddamn heavy. Wrong again.

One Kill Wonder is evil even further transfigured, seeming slightly more experimental in respect to tempo and layering (“Privation of Faith” for example) than previous releases, but thankfully with full retention of what is certainly their greatest asset: absolutely searing riffage, by which all elements of each tune are driven. In fact, the songwriting boggles the mind as it reaches for the throat—Marco Aro’s throat to be exact, his death wail a pain wave crashing through impossible drumming. “Everlasting” and “Downward Spiral” come to mind in particular, but listen for your own bad self. This disc is particularly useful for clearing out bad parties and keeping the dogs in check—plusses in my book.

—Bill Ketzer

Elvis Costello
North (Deutsche Grammophon)

Last year, Elvis Costello re- leased When I Was Cruel, one of his best recordings since the ’80s. This year, the mercurial, pop-besotted Costello seems to want to be taken seriously, and North is serious, indeed. It also sounds like a collection of love songs memorializing his engagement to Diana Krall, the Canadian chanteuse (and Universal Music colleague) who’s made jazz sexy all over again.

Paced—make that rolled out—by the pretty, string-drenched “You Left Me in the Dark,” North boasts ornate arrangements and unusually careful vocals by Costello. This album sounds like money; if nothing else, it attests to the clout befitting an artist in his third decade of genre-hopping and -influencing.

“Someone Took the Words Away,” the coy “Let Me Tell You About Her” and the unexpectedly dramatic (or is it bombastic?) “Can You Be True” speak to Costello’s maturity. Wordplay, a Costello signature, defers to direct expression here. If North is a love letter, it’s plain-spoken and decidedly well-tempered.

Unfortunately, North is monochromatic. Even though the instrumentation spans solo piano and a 48-piece ensemble, the tunes blend into one another and are resolutely slow. Perhaps that’s part of Costello’s strategy: Corral “serious” music lovers with albums like North and collaborations with Burt Bacharach, classical singer Anne Sofie von Otter and the Brodsky Quartet, then cater to an audience that used to be new-wave like he was with albums like Cruel.

Maybe next year, Costello will choose invention over craft, and grace his patient fans with an album that’s serious and playful at the same time.

—Carlo Wolff

The Powerpuff Girls
Power Pop (Rhino)

Plop a song by Shonen Knife onto a CD and drop it into my mailbox, and I’ll check it out, OK? Though Rhino most likely knew not of my personal directive, the end result is the same. Powerpuff Girls: Power Pop is a 13-song collection that mirrors the feisty bright colors of the world-saving animated trio. It’s full of contemporary pop laced with hiphop, girl-group and soul vocal styles, and the tunes, with the exception of the show’s end theme, are inspired by the cartoon heroes. Shonen Knife’s punkish “Buttercup (I’m a Super Girl)” is the rawest tune on board. What it has in common with the rest of the set are hooks, hooks, hooks. From the opening “That’s What Girls Do” by No Secrets, to the harder-rocking “Baby I Don’t Care” by Jennifer Ellison and the pop smarts of Leslie Mills’ “Rocket Candy,” the songs are, for the most part, catchy at the outset, though the cloy factor lurks around the corner on much of this. But hey, I’m not the target market for this disc. As music for the family goes, this is actually a fine entry, appealing to the young without repelling their parents out of hand. It can actually promote dancing in the family room, and head-bobbing sing-alongs in the car.

—David Greenberger

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