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Stinking Lizaveta "III"; Beachwood Sparks "Once We Were Trees" (Sub Pop); Beulah "The Coast Is Never Clear" (Velocette)

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Stinking Lizaveta "III" (Tolotta Records)

For a cerebral foray into the world of noisy post-punk, it doesn't get any more intelligent than Stinking Lizaveta. This Philadelphia-based threesome says more with its music alone (possibly out of necessity since lyrics on "III" are almost nonexistent) than most groups say with an album's worth of words. The members' freestyle-jazz approach to music (without the actual jazz) leaves their creative avenues open, which they readily prospect with guitar, bass and drums. Mood is everything in the music of Stinkin' Liz, from the charged "Stupid MF" to the melancholy piece "Diana," in which an emotional tone is set and explored to fruition. "Shu Shu," an ode to a pet dog of one of the band members, also makes for one of the record's signature cuts. Add the occasional guest musician on the violin or Korg, and the paths of both the psychological and artistic meet on "III." — Angelo DeFranzo

Beachwood Sparks "Once We Were Trees" (Sub Pop)

Someone forgot to tell the Beachwood Sparks that it is 2001. For the unaware, the Los Angeles-based quartet is a missionary representing a foregone era of West Coast music (circa 1968) — a zeitgeist that gave birth to wistful, psychedelic sounds as evidenced by bands such as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Sparks' sound is highly derivative of these groups. It is safe to assume that these cosmic cowboys couldn't care less, however. Great music is great music regardless, and a historian of sorts is always welcome to remind us of past treasure.

The album features 15 seamless songs that lull in a casual, pleasantly distracting hour. It would provide the perfect soundtrack to a road trip along a coastal highway. The stellar sophomore effort is filled with more ringing slide guitar, complex vocal harmonies, and spacey instrumental freakouts — a splendid cacophony of sound that is utterly hypnotic and simultaneously organic. Excellent tracks like "Confusion is Nothing New" and "Yer Selfish Ways" ride "Farmer" Dave Scher's lap steel into swirling twang bliss, while other more subdued numbers like "Hearts Mend" and "Old Manatee" embody a classic old-timey aura. Throw in a well-conceived, nonironic cover of Sade's "By Your Side," and the Spark's latest arguably stakes a claim as one of the best rock and/or country albums of the year. — Bret Booth

Beulah "The Coast Is Never Clear" (Velocette)

Beulah is an anachronism. A typical song by the San Francisco conglomeration of like-minded musicians bleeds of sunny guitar-pop circa 1964. Basically, these California dudes create the type of music that would give Brian Wilson and all of his cultlike followers strychnine-sized smiles for many an endless summer. Most importantly, the unusually large rock band (the touring unit is typically a septet) is a welcome surprise in the present music climate: a group fond of precise vocal harmonies, ornate, orchestral instrumentation and a positive, cheery sound. This renders Beulah an outsider without many contemporary peers. At the same time, this also makes the group unique — kind of like a clandestine treasure that friends might share with one another by word of mouth. Those who are in on the secret feel special.

"The Coast Is Never Clear" is a solid catalog release for the Bay Area bunch. Although not quite as urgent and innocently raw as 1997's "Handsome Western States," nor as artistically supreme and complete as 1999's "When Your Heartstrings Break," Beulah's third full-length album is nevertheless a great album filled with sturdy pop songwriting. Standouts such as "Popular Mechanics for Lovers," "Gravity's Bringing Us Down," and "Gene Autry," touch on typical Beulah fare — unrequited love, loss of love, potential loss of love and, of course, falling in love. Head Beulah Miles Kurosky sums it up nicely: "When I get to California I'm gonna write my name in the sand." That said, the indie-pop throne has been officially staked out by the best modern-day power-pop band. — B.B.



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