The Hives, "The Black & White Album" (A&M/Octone)
Infectious and spastic as usual, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist and his fellow Swedes prove they've figured out the formula for perfect pop-punk songs without becoming predictable. While much of their fourth disc continues in the raucous, riff-heavy style of their most notable hit, "Hate to Say I Told You So," there are explorations in funk and a few slick breakbeats thanks to the help of hip-hop guru Pharrell Williams and Jacknife Lee. The 45-minute juggernaut of high-octane rock and hand claps pauses only for the instrumental oddity, "A Stroll Through the Hive Manor Corridors," and immediately recovers with the electro-infused "Won't Be Long" and grooving bass jam, "T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S." Above all else, The Hives remain purveyors of relentless fun. These are 15 cuts worthy of a dial spin to 10, blowing out your speakers. -- Hilary Langford
Puscifer, "V Is for Vagina" (Self-Released)
Maynard James Keenan, frontman for Tool and A Perfect Circle, has remained a weird sort of enigma: the brooding genius, the perverse satyr, the juvenile prankster. With Puscifer's debut, that last persona is immediately apparent. Keenan has said Puscifer allows him to give airtime to the other voices in his head, and while somewhat silly, those voices produce some mesmerizing sounds. Officially just Keenan, Puscifer's rotating lineup includes Tim Alexander (Primus drummer), Danny Lohner (Nine Inch Nails guitarist), Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave bassist) and, supposedly, Milla Jovavich (model and zombie-killer).
So it's Keenan to blame (or praise) for the snickering teenage humor of the album art (an illustrated airline seat insert that looks like it was created in a locker room). But it's also Keenan to praise (or blame) for the songs, sinister mixes of bass beats, heavy synth chords and the occasional acoustic-guitar strumming. Keenan's vocals shape the tracks here, though, distorted to a deep monotone hum with his characteristic fluty tenor as backup, rising out of the rumble, as in "Queen B" and "Momma Sed."
The atonal squawks and fuzz dotting the landscape sound transplanted from a lost Nine Inch Nails track, but it works here, especially with the droning, symphonic "Indigo Children." In fact, for all its strangeness, everything works here. It's sort of groovy and sort of heavy and sort of psychedelic, not much like either of his other projects. If A Perfect Circle is Keenan's feminine side, Puscifer is his stoned 14-year-old boy. Brandon Reynolds
No Age, "Weirdo Rippers" (Fat Cat)
Two art punks from Los Angeles, guitarist Randy Randall and vocalist/drummer Dean Spunt (both ex-Wives), are onto something if you read Internet accounts of their spastic, creative live shows. This 11-song compendium of former EP releases is the band's first proper full-length, and it impresses with a variety of lo-fi-sounding tunes that harness layers of white-fuzz noise with an intriguing pop-punk sensibility that will remind some people of early Ramones-style thrills sheer walls of sound that come crashing down.
Named after the 1987 SST compilation, the band often starts with feedback loops that slowly build into minimalist punk stompers ("Every Artist Needs a Tragedy"), with brief vocals that sound like they were recorded in a shallow cave think tribal elements of My Bloody Valentine mixed with psych-rock sensibilities. Songs like "Neck Escaper" have a chanted, sing-along quality that feels loose and organic, as if it were being improvised. I'm tempted to lump these guys in with the new school of computer/effects-obsessed musicians who find ecstasy in the cacophony of modern technologies, juggling them, sputtered and broken, into operatic snippets. But for now, these guys just sound young and different no easy feat today. Brent Baldwin
Gram Parsons, "The Flying Burrito Brothers Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969" (Amoeba)
Live from San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom in 1969, these two similar sets recorded by acid kingpin Owsley "Bear" Stanley constitute a valuable contribution to the recorded history of country rock considering Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers were one of the first and best (before the Eagles whored the genre out for pop stardom).
The guitars are a little low in the mix, but the snaky pedal steel of Sneaky Pete Kleinow and the youthful vocals of then-22-year-old Gram Parsons cut through like a hot knife in butter. For many, this sober period in Parsons' life features the best work of his career, and he harmonizes memorably with Chris Hillman on tracks such as "Dark End of the Street" and the early Willie Nelson tune "Undo the Right" showing an unusual mix of innocence and veteran musical understanding.
These two discs may remind some of Grateful Dead country material, minus the psych-guitar wankery. But it all comes down to the fact that Parsons had an intimate respect and love for the old-school country singers a passion that carries these shows. Special bonus tracks include heartfelt home demos of Parsons performing a solo piano version of "Thousand Dollar Wedding" as well as a sloppy sing-along take of The Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved." B.B.
Alicia Keys, "As I Am" (RCA)
"As I Am" begins with a lone piano playing a melody that recalls "Für Elise" over a thudding hip-hop beat, perfectly summing up Alicia Keys' musical approach. Her combination of classical chops with pop R&B hooks sounded fresh in the early 2000s, but as the decade nears its end, "As I Am" suggests her Chopin-meets-Wu-Tang style is beginning to lose its novelty.
With her collaborators including Kerry "Krucial" Brothers and John Mayer Keys gets a live band and pile on the synths and samples, nodding even more knowingly to '70s soul but often sacrificing melody to gospel bombast. Keys testifies mightily, over and over again. Despite her more restrained performances on "Lesson Learned" and first single "No One," there is nothing here as immediate or as memorable as past hits "Fallin'" or "You Don't Know My Name." Furthermore, the preponderance of preposterous Linda Perry-penned tracks (worst offender: "Superwoman") sinks "As I Am" even further, making you wish Keys could sound As She Was. Stephen Deusner