BJORK: VESPERTINE (WEA/Elektra) Somehow, the Icelandic nymph creates the perfect record for the times.

I bought Bjork's new album, Vespertine, at a record store in lower Manhattan a few weeks ago. On first listen, I was disappointed--the record seemed to go in frustratingly somber directions. Much of Bjork's best work, particularly 1997's Homogenic and the remix album Telegram, has consisted of dense layer-cakes of buoyant dance music. After last year's Selmasongs, her beautiful but wrenchingly sorrowful soundtrack to Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, many of her fans, myself included, hoped Bjork would pick up the pace again. We hoped she would get happy.

After our black September, though, Vespertine seems eerily well-timed. At heart, it's a collection of modern hymns, easily the most spiritual record of the former Sugarcube singer's career. Along with the Icelander's ever-stunning voice and a smattering of samples come a backing choir, strings and an organ.

But the ethereal quality on Vespertine is not a mere matter of sonic artifice, fine as the production on Bjork records always is. Rather, this is simply the right album at the right time. No album can make truly dark times bright, but the soothing harmony of Vespertine is desperately welcome. Who knows whether it's luck, skill or both? Might as well sit back and enjoy the solace. (BL)

San Francisco retro-rockers find themselves missing the X factor.

It. "It" is ineffable, and some bands have It, and some bands don't. You can't predict who's going to get It, and you can't attain It through some sort of calculating chemistry, no matter how hard that fool in Florida, who pops boy bands out of a pod in his basement, may try. To be good, you have to have It--and if you want to make your way in rock and roll by blatantly ripping off the greats, you'd better have It in spades.

And, sorry, the Vue does not. This is not to say the members of this swaggering San Francisco five-piece are bad musicians or make disappointing music. They're a talented bunch, and so good-looking! They just weren't blessed with It, at least not to the degree that they can pull off the blatant thievery from the Rolling Stones on their latest, Find Your Home.

The Vue makes sultry rock dripping with R&B's seductive flavor, led with Jagger-esque thrusting, trashy vocal stylings. Frequently backed by tambourine slaps, the blues-influenced '70s rock drive of Find Your Home is like punk's slower, sluttier cousin--dirty but fun. And it's not that the songwriting here isn't skilled and even somewhat passionate. "We've Already Got Our Minds Made Up For You" sways in emphatic tones, while the lead track, "Hitchhiking," opens with intensity, lit up by the Old West moan of a harmonica and sloppy guitar.

Overall, the infectiously trashy feel here is pleasing in a bad-is-good way, making for cool, thunderous rock. It's just that, without the all-powerful It, some imitations never beat the original. Sounds like a commercial, doesn't it? But there it is. (JT)

The champions of hip eclecticism pull it all together.

Just when Stereolab's mixture of electronica, bossa nova and vintage French pop was beginning to show cracks, the band makes its best album in years. Ever since achieving the syrupy excellence of 1997's Dots and Loops, arranger Sean O'Hagan and company have put forth an overwhelming array of sounds that made their incredible palette of musical influences seem almost like a liability.

But Sound-Dust reveals a band that's regained its focus. Here the soothing monotony of modern classical and electronica are enlivened--yet not trampled--by a chorus of woodwinds. The syrupy glee of Brazilian Tropicalia rounds the edges of Velvet Underground clamor. Easy listening and disco hold hands in an effortless way they rarely did back in the '70s.

O'Hagan's gift for orchestration has always produced a dense, eclectic sound, and his production partnership with Tortoise's John McEntire gives Sound-Dust, like many albums on Chicago's Thrill Jockey label, the flexibility to reimagine the intersection of vintage jazz, electronica and international pop while creating something wholly new. To put it another way, Stereolab sounds as if it's distilled the world's coolest record collection into one CD, without descending into chaos. (BL)

(Barsuk Records)
Bellingham indie champs deal a winner.

With its first two critically acclaimed, successful albums, Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie proved that indie rock in the spirit of Built to Spill and other '90s underdog faves is alive and well. The contemplative four-piece delivers a fresh batch of well-crafted, honest tunes to sate college-radio fans (past and present) on its third full-length release, The Photo Album. The band's music is still far from happy-go-lucky, but DCFC has moved beyond its most restrained and somber material. The sound is looser, more confident, as if the members have grown increasingly comfortable in their collective skin. Some of the melodies are downright buoyant. The tracks here make the most of singer Benjamin Gibbard's stellar vocals, ranging from a vulnerable falsetto to an acerbic rant aimed at a dead(beat) father (the latter in "Styrofoam Plates"). Lyrically, Gibbard favors concrete sensory details--the smell of jet fuel, teeth-chattering rhythms, roller-coaster screams--over the sometimes lofty, esoteric images of past efforts. His morose, emotionally charged observations haven't lost their poetic charm, though, as evidenced in "Information Travels Faster," in which he recalls "dance-hall hips, pretentious quips, a boxer's bob and weave." Meditative guitar lines remain, but the best songs here feature deliberate piano and organ layers and fine percussive nuances. Like San Diego's superbly understated Pinback, DCFC has picked up where its predecessors left off, exploring and defining what comes next. The future looks bright, indeed. (LB)

Death Cab for Cutie plays Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 233-1994. Swords Project and The Prom also appear. 9 pm. $8+ advance (Ticketmaster).

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