"...a vibrant concoction..."

Rock 101 says it's better to burn out than fade away, but the 1998 breakup of D.C.'s Smart Went Crazy was more bummer than cliché. Through two albums, including the superlative Con Art, critics and a small but rabid audience thrived on SWC's marriage of raw underground energy with elaborate orchestration and singer-songwriter Chad Clark's clever Costello-esque lyrics.

Following a protracted hiatus that included two Dismemberment Plan albums, Clark has re-teamed with bandmate Abram Goodrich in Beauty Pill. The Cigarette Girl from the Future is a dense layer cake of sounds, recalling everything from slap-happy late Clash to the sober meanderings of Galaxie 500 and the meticulous craft of Tortoise.

Gone is SWC's fury, but in its place comes a more vibrant sonic concoction of samples and jazzy hooks. Clark's lyrical take on suburban sprawl, bad drugs and high fashion brings to mind the old adage that cynics are merely retired idealists. On "The Idiot Heart," though, when bassist Joanne Gholl sings, "Bad news is there is no hope / Good news is there never was / So it's not a question of surrender," one can't help but disagree. In today's Limp/Barenaked alterna-rock wasteland, this record feels like an antidote. (BL)

"...depraved desperation..."

When a vocalist as honest and as lethal as John Brannon of Easy Action steps up to bellow forth, the casual listener is forced to either make room or get moved over. Brannon's voice isn't of the run-of-the-mill shot-to-hell caliber. It is hell--unaugmented, natural hell.

Brannon rises out of the historical wreckage left steaming in the wake of the great Midwest bands he used to front, the Laughing Hyenas and '80s hardcore legends Negative FX. What he has always done, and continues to do in top form with Easy Action, is to bray, bellow and slur a massively coarse, throat-roar down one side and up the other of a Grand Canyon strewn with trash. It's not a pretty vocal style, and it's not an easy listen. To say the man sounds "tortured" would be silly. His is more a quintessential lost howl, railing forth as that last line of emotional defense cracks, when fitful, depraved desperation passes into the all-encompassing acceptance of ultimate failure, the floodgates are thrown open, and madness rushes in.

The man sings love songs.

Better put, they are love-gone-bad songs. Gone real bad. Dysfunctional, mentally destabilizing, murder-suicide bad. At least that's the impact these fairly straightforward lyrics of loss and regret have when you put them in the context of that voice. Brannon takes an apparently prosaic line like "You and me ain't no good together anymore," and just boils it through your ears.

Not to mention that band. Lots of bands try to sound like they're from Detroit; Easy Action actually is. Everybody apes the Motor City's muscular sound, but few play it with Easy Action's corroded intensity and rising sense of fringe drama. There's a rancorous drug haze consistently crawling through music's low end, waiting for the moment to burst forth in epic blasts of pure rock-and-roll loserism. Easy Action does justice to its name, copped from the work of a true Motor City madman, Alice Cooper. There are even brief, atmospheric moments that hark back to the days when Laughing Hyenas were America's answer to the Birthday Party.

Oh, this record rocks, all right.

Like a pail of snakes thrown against the wall. (SDS)

"...may be the most intimate yet..."

Ani DiFranco fans typically react to a new album like Christians might to a revised edition of the Bible. Ani provides her followers a fresh way to interpret the world with each disc, and the fans, in turn, have their faith renewed.

With Revelling/Reckoning, DiFranco goes a long way toward redefining how she makes music. Where previous albums have been brash, this one is tender. Where others lashed out, this album looks in. Seldom has this artist been so candid about her own weaknesses and faults: "But as bad as I am / I'm proud of the fact/ that I'm worse than I seem."

Beyond these self-examinations, lyrics either focus on DiFranco's own relationships or society at large. She unloads on modern America on tracks like "subdivision," which decries the Balkanization of the country into black cities and white suburbs: "And the old farm road's a four-lane that leads to the mall / And our dreams are all guillotines waiting to fall."

Personally, this album may be the most intimate yet, as DiFranco turns her recent marriage inside out. She sifts through what it means to be in a committed relationship and the challenges that come with it. Bravely, this woman who made her name, in part, by singing about romance with both men and women casts the marriage in a complex light, full of sacrifices, insecurity and confusion.

DiFranco delivers an album that reflects on the condition of the world and her own heart. Her vulnerable and no-nonsense style can be jarring, but this album adds new tenderness to her music. Revelling/Reckoning challenges fans to change their understanding of who Ani DiFranco is and what makes her work. (AH)

THOU: PUT US IN TUNE (SeeThru Broadcasting)
"...underconfident, humorless..."

The Belgian band Thou vociferously denies being part of "The Bristol Sound." That's partially correct. The 15 songs on the group's U.S. debut, Put Us In Tune, comprise a bloblike, aimless mishmash of any number of postpunk trends and bandwagons, only one of which is that Portishead thing. They also do a latter-day Blur thing and a successful yet tedious neo-jazz thing. This has the same underconfident, humorless, nattering quality popularized in the name of "modernity" and "eclecticism" by Kid A. The playing is proficient, the words are big, but it all just...sits there. Thou doesn't even sound like it's affecting boredom. The band just sounds bored. (CM)

MICROREVIEWS: Andrew Bird, a musician who claims he used to sprint through the lobby of his apartment building to avoid contamination from piped-in modern music, contemporizes a bit on The Swimming Hour (Ryko). A shame, because with a few exceptions these guitary pop songs lack the silky Leopold-'n'-Loeb viciousness of Bird's earlier "retro" stuff...Vancouver's New Pornographers largely waste a guest turn by delish country chanteuse Neko Case on Mass Romantic (Mint), an intermittently interesting disc that recalls '80s college rock jangle...Portland folk-types The Decemberists offer the accurately titled self-released EP "Five Songs," promising romantic cabaret shanties and melancholy. "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist," an epic of weird Euro-circus intrigue and international espionage, is a real good'un. (ZD)