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Now Hear This

Reviews of recent releases by Frank Black, R.E.M., Elliott Smith, Jean Grae, Rene Marie — and a Lawrence Welk remix CD.

R.E.M. "Around the Sun" (Warner Brothers)

There is a cadre of longtime fans, graying and balding now like the band, who embrace the cliché that R.E.M. peaked as an '80s college band. On "Around the Sun," those purists will welcome back Peter Buck's acoustic guitars, but search fruitlessly for another "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

Whether presaging trends (unplugging on "Out of Time"), following them (plugging in in Seattle on "Monster"), or suspiciously toying with them (adding sometimes-ironic drum loops and synths on "Up"), R.E.M. has consistently and convincingly reinvented itself. Following the band's breakthrough single, "Losing My Religion," pop-music media found a hero in frontman Michael Stipe, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies a commanding stage presence. After more than two decades, R.E.M. is increasingly a vehicle for Stipe's famously oblique and increasingly political lyrics.

The band's recent, contemplative phase began with the departure of drummer Bill Berry, and the remaining trio has reined in both the session players and drum machines now employed in his stead. (Use of the latter prompted "Reveal" remixes, free to download via As a result, keyboards have assumed a more predominant role. "The Ascent of Man" on the new disc features an organ swell worthy of a gospel choir.

Aside from pulsing synth beats on "Electron Blue" and a distorted drum loop under "High Speed Train," R.E.M.'s latest sees the band resuscitating folk-music idioms to approach a theme of protest. A tambourine rattles beneath the "I Wanted to Be Wrong," the album's most convincing social critique. Mandolin appears on "Final Straw," a surprisingly bitter song about forgiveness.

In the rare moments when R.E.M. manages to be joyous, or simply hopeful, the band still shines — as on the exultant gem "Aftermath," complete with piano and, yes, tuba. More often, however, "Around the Sun," vacillates between indignation and desperation — upset, but not quite angry.

It's no surprise that Stipe and company, who recently completed the Vote for Change tour, broach divisive subjects. Yet, scattered references to the Patriot Act ("what silenced me is written into law"), failed diplomacy ("we can't approach the Allies 'cause they seem a little peeved"), and political dissent ("I wish the followers would lead") simply weigh down the record. Stipe all but abandons the melody when delivering this cumbersome stab at the GOP: "the crime of good men who can't wrestle with change, or are too afraid to face this life's misjudged unknowns."

Such lines sit uneasily amidst songs primarily devoted to relationships. After a corny, contrived rap by Q-Tip (from A Tribe Called Quest) on "The Outsiders," you have to wonder why the band that got KRS-1 so worked up about commercial radio ("Radio Song") can't muster a little more energy now. *** — Nathan Lott

Various Artists "Upstairs at Larry's: Lawrence Welk Uncorked" (Ranwood /Vanguard)

In ordinary circumstances, you wouldn't hear "Lawrence Welk" and "hip" in the same sentence without the word "replacement." His big-band TV show appealed — and through the mercenary impulses of PBS, continues to appeal — to the senior set. Welk's tight big band and relentlessly perky singers and dancers cruise through the American songbook, making the show as sterile, efficient and oddly compelling as an operating room.

To capitalize on the retro-chic lounge music trend, the Welk heirs have authorized these 15 remixes. They're a mixed bag, and the disc isn't sequenced well — the opening tracks are among the lamest, and the first three repeat samples of speaking from the TV program. And does anyone need not one but two versions of Henry Mancini's hideously cutesy "Baby Elephant Walk?"

But deeper in are such gems as a laid-back take by Kaskade on "String of Pearls," which accentuates the delicious difference between the swing of live players and the relentlessness of a drum machine. Under the name Magic Elephant Orchestra, Chicago house DJ Angel Alanis turns Welk's version of "Let it Be Me" into Portishead. And Smitty's take on "Blue Velvet" is suitably David Lynchian. **1/2 — Mark Mobley

Elliott Smith "From a Basement on the Hill" (-ANTI)

Few albums sound better when you're alone. Elliott Smith's posthumous release is one of them. The album represents the 15 songs Smith completed before he committed suicide last fall. Family, friends and producer Rob Schnapf, who worked on three of Smith's five albums, chose their favorites of the tracks he had recorded.

Singing on almost all of the tracks and playing nearly every instrument on the album, Smith centers his lyrics and melodies on the sound and feeling of isolation. From the quiet lone guitar and vocals on "Last Hour," to the poppy and pretty "Fond Farewell," he had the genius to take pop melodies and turn them inside out until they were introspective. Comparisons to the Beatles — from chord changes to vocal harmonies — often have been made. But the raw emotion of these lyrics and the underproduced recording quality of this album leaves an uneven listening experience that gets close to the bone.

Often the sound is disturbing, such as with the lyrics — "I can't prepare for death any more than I already have" — and organ accompaniment on "Kings Crossing." Overall, the album dares to delve into places of the heart and mind few choose to explore. Each song is happily downcast, embracing themes from addiction to suicide. The album expresses a view from the margins — an ode to those who will never fit in.

Like the juxtaposing music and lyrics of the Beach Boys' seminal "Pet Sounds," this album creates an uncertain territory for the listener. Caught somewhere between a laugh and a cry, the vocal harmony comes back to a safe place. It's a shame that in taking the listener to such a daring and often beautiful place, Smith couldn't find his way back. **** — Shannon O'Neill

Jean Grae "This Week" (Babygrande)

Jean Grae earned respect as part of the underground hip-hop duo Natural Resources in the late '90s. In 2002, her solo debut earned her comparisons to Lauryn Hill. Her sophomore release pushes the boundaries of alternative rap with a concept album detailing a week in her life. But she's not above mocking the idea of conscious rap, as when she courts stardom on the album's initial outburst: "you can still call me conscious; call me regardless."

Born in South Africa, she was raised by jazz-musician parents in New York City, where she embraced American urban culture. Recently, she rapped on The Roots' "Tipping Point" and D.C. DJ Sharkey's "Machine." (Her bouncy rundown of the five boroughs serves as an ingenious chorus on the latter's breakout hit, "Summer in the City.").

On "This Week," Grae presents herself to a burgeoning audience as complex, conflicted and gifted. Although they reinforce the concept motif, several audio skits are throwaways. Grae's lyrical breadth is far more revealing. From writer's block ("A-Alikes") to paranoid nightmares ("Going Crazy"), to past mistakes ("P.S."), she repeatedly exposes her faults only to reassert a hard-core heartlessness. Grae outpaces most of her male counterparts on "Style Wars" when matching Block McCloud's rowdy crunk chorus with graphic, violent verse.

On one of the album's strongest tracks, the Midi Mafia-produced "You Don't Want It," Grae matches playful, irreverent lyrics with tenacious, bass-heavy blips and bleeps. If it were Eminem rapping "mangle your face up worse than the makeup that's on Tammy Faye's pillowcase whenever she wakes up," this song would rattle rims from Brooklyn to Burbank. Grae would welcome the hit, but if it doesn't happen, she knows why: "I'm just too cute to be considered filthy. Industry can't milk me." ***1/2 — N.L.

Rene Marie "Serene Renegade" (MaxJazz)

"Serene Renegade" is the darkest, most daring and deeply personal disc of Rene Marie's career. It's tempting to say that it's her best, but more accurate to say that it's simply her.

From the start Marie has been straining against the limits of other people's songs, inhabiting and subverting them from within, colliding them into each other (the "Dixie/Strange Fruit" medley) or fusing them into a new, highly personal whole (the transcendent blend of "Suzanne" and "Bolero" on her last album). Her compositions don't appear until several songs into a recording or performance.

"Serene Renegade" reverses that strategy. The two covers are buried in the exact center of an epic, varied and highly original song cycle. (MaxJazz did get her to open with the playful, freestanding "Red Shoes" rather than the intense "The South is Mine," which begins the central thematic arc.) The new songs unfold in organic, unpredictable ways ("Don't speak to me of straight-line melodies, I have no use for those," she sings on "Autobiography"). The result is deeply rooted in her past work and reaching toward something new.

Universality is just a slip away from cliché, but Marie's vision, however expansive, is always specific and highly personal. She is one of those rare artists whose every new release is like a dispatch from the front. ***** — Peter McElhinney

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