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Now Hear This

Reviews of new releases by Guided by Voices, The Electras, Brand Nubian, and local bands Engine Down and Keller Williams.

"Half Smiles" is, happily, a worthy final chapter. Ringing guitars fade in slowly on the opening "Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)" and the meaty riff that kicks in suggests this farewell party will be an upbeat celebration of what once made Guided by Voices great. Songs like "Girls of Wild Strawberries," "Gonna Never Have to Die," and "The Closets of Henry" are reminders of Pollard's undeniable melodic gift, as he once again channels the best of British invasion pop into songs you'd swear you've heard somewhere before. The skippable filler that's plagued recent albums is noticeably absent.

Words are typically cryptic and opaque, but when the fantastic closer "Huffman Prairie Flying Field" fades out as Pollard repeats the soaring refrain "for far too long," the grand project ends, finally, with a touching self-awareness. ***** — Mark Richardson

The Electras "The Electras" (Waterston Communications)

Garage Rock Veterans Against Kerry? Let's hope not, now that John Kerry's one-album stint with a '60s rock band called The Electras has been reissued. Kerry helped form the band as bass player in high school. The master tapes were unearthed recently by former members, all of whom swear the Chinned One earned his finger blisters during jam sessions.

The music is a standard Chuck Berry-Fats Domino combination, one that talented musicians of the time turned into bands like The Beach Boys, The Ventures and The Rolling Stones. You can tell immediately from The Electras' music, however, that its members were destined for stiffer professions.

Kerry's bass is actually one of the least awkward elements. The piano has some soul and the drumming is proficient. They should have ditched the maracas player, though, who is bad enough to sound more like some random person shuffling papers in the background. And the lead guitar player might be the biggest flip-flopper of the election year, slipping uncontrollably as he does between surf rock and plunky banjo tones.

After languishing for decades in obscurity, The Electras are now an official sidenote in music history. Let's just hope a sordid list of Electras groupies doesn't follow. ** (For curiosity value) — Wayne Melton

Brand Nubian "Fire in the Hole" (Babygrande)

Persisting in the attention-deficient hip-hop genre for 15 years is a feat, but staying vibrant and creative proves harder still for Brand Nubian on its hit-and-miss fifth album. Formed near New York in 1989, the pointedly outspoken foursome was propelled to fame in 1990 with the debut disc "All for One," and not reunited until 1998 for the critically acclaimed commercial flop "Foundation."

Individual solo careers have put the four in such various roles as acting in HBO's "Oz" series and guest rapping for the likes of Talib Kweli and Dan the Automator. "Fire" brings them all together again as Brand Nubian. Its opening salvo "Who Wanna Be a Star?" highlights the rappers' staying power and street background atop a club-worthy track that pairs a Greek bouzouki with a loping bass line. Still advancing their Afrocentric outlook, Brand Nubian pepper lyrics with social and political critiques that target both systemic racism and black-on-black violence.

Though rarely novel, the production of DJ Alamo is crisp, pushing lyrics to the fore. Some recycled phrases fall flat — yes, lots of words rhyme with "flow" — but clever samples often make up for any lyrical deficiency. Check "Still Livin' in the Ghetto," which opens with a Spanish acoustic guitar that morphs into a scorching electric. On "Where Are You Now?" a simple piano loop and soulful chorus augment the tale of an estranged, imprisoned and embittered lover.

The group falters when playing it too militant (the shamelessly corny "Soldier's Story" reworks a tired allegory complete with marching cadence) or too sentimental ("Momma," an ode to maternity, was cliché at conception). But "Fire" shines whenever it strikes a balance. **1/2 — Nathan Lott

Local Bin

Keller Williams "Stage" (SCI Fidelity Records)

Fredericksburg native Keller Williams, who was part of the Acoustic Planet Tour at Innsbrook on Sept. 1, has a unique mode of performance, and the double disc "Stage," recorded at two venues in 2003, captures it well.

Williams is basically a one-man band. He creates the sound of several instruments at once by employing a technique called live phrase sampling. The fleet-fingered Williams will play a phrase on guitar or other instrument and immediately record it. It then repeats as he directs via pedals with his bare feet, and he can layer other sounds over it. Williams also records various vocal sounds in addition to plain old singing, such as lip trumpet. Williams accompanies himself, harmonizes with himself and has a grand old time.

Absent the stage show, where one sees how he pulls this all off, the recording quickly turns boring and even annoying. Williams is an excellent player, no question. But what he chooses to play, and how he presents it, come off as monochromatic and self-indulgent. Songs segue seamlessly, but much of the rhythms seem the same — too many of them done just a shade too fast to allow any real emotion or subtlety.

Williams has a decent voice, but too often he plays around with it. Sadly, the Van Morrison and Buffalo Springfield covers are almost unlistenable, couched in Williams' syncopated up-tempo noodling. The Grateful Dead's "Bird Song" is done faithfully, and is a pleasure. Williams' own "Gate Crashers Suck" is strong. But for the most part, this record is too heavy on the gimmick and too light on music that stands on its own. ** — Andy Garrigue

Engine Down "Engine Down" (Lookout!)

Most bands that try to front a style like this end up looking like their members came out of a Bratz rock star boyfriends pack, complete with interchangeable designer jeans, shaggy-haired lead singer and limited-edition touring van. The guys in the local rock band Engine Down somehow make it look natural, as if the tour-worn jeans, vintage T-shirts and wristbands grew there like a second skin.

Their latest self-titled effort has a similar vibe of effortless detachment. It offers more of their signature astringent, metal-rooted guitar work driven by idiosyncratic rock drumming and lead singer Keeley Davis' chilling, antiseptic vocals. The music is meticulously clean. Melodies leave impressions rather than dig in with hooks. These guys could be diagnosed with a musician equivalent of obsessive compulsive disorder, as much as they've scrubbed their sound free of anything that could be labeled soulful.

For this album, the band left its longtime label Lovitt Records for Lookout! — the launching pad for Green Day back in the early '90s. The production is bit more mainstream, offering more overdubbing, background vocals and other studio effects. This does not necessarily translate into a refinement of overall sound. If anything, the songs have become less distinct than before and closer to the prosaic safety-rock of countless indie bands. When you're listening to this album (in sharp contrast to previous material) too often attention wanders as whole groups of songs uneventfully drift by.

Engine Down is a touring machine. (Sadly, the band had all its equipment stolen in late August outside a Houston inn.) But without a booming PA and a captive, inebriated audience, songwriting limitations are more apparent. Davis and company can polish their sound and make it appealing to a wider fan base — as long as it doesn't get in the way of writing compelling material. *** — W.M.

Engine Down ends its latest tour with a show Saturday, Sept. 25, at Nanci Raygun with Brooklyn's These Arms Are Snakes and Richmond's Wow, Owls!, 10 p.m., $6.

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