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The $50 guide

June 29, 2003|Robert Hilburn

For those wanting more of the raw passion, energy and vision of the White Stripes and the Hives, new albums by the Detroit Cobras and the Kills should prove among the year's favorites. They join veterans Radiohead and Annie Lennox in the latest edition of Calendar's guide to keeping up with the most noteworthy pop releases on a budget of $50 a month.


The Detroit Cobras' "Seven Easy Pieces" (Rough Trade).

In this EP, the Motor City band continues to serve up supercharged renditions of mostly obscure R&B and pop-rock tunes, from Pops Staples' "You Don't Knock" to Willie Dixon's "Insane Asylum." Rachael Nagy's vocals mix Joplin-like obsessiveness with rockabilly flourish, and the arrangements combine guitar and percussion touches with a collision force that makes the whole album seem like the soundtrack for those old destruction derby car-wreck contests.

The Kills' "Keep on Your Mean Side" (Rough Trade).

Alison Mosshart (stage name: VV) is often compared to Chrissie Hynde, but her dark, unsettling vocals lean more to the bluesy, Gothic strains of PJ Harvey and the take-no-prisoners assault of Courtney Love. Her partner is multi-instrumentalist and singer Jamie Hince (a.k.a. Hotel), whose sensibility leans to the dark, buzz-saw tendencies of the Jesus and Mary Chain, with occasional traces of Velvet Underground, and "Exile"-era Rolling Stones thrown in for seasoning. The rock-noir tales frequently sound as if they were lifted from a therapist's journal.

George Jones' "The Gospel Collection" (Bandit/BNA).

Jones may be in his 70s, but he remains one of the half-dozen greatest country singers ever. He teams up once more with producer Billy Sherrill, who helped shape Jones' most memorable heartbreak ballad, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," some two decades ago. Rather than gospel's traditional organs and choirs, this two-disc album leans to the honky-tonk electric guitars and pedal steel of Jones' old jukebox hits.


Radiohead's "Hail to the Thief" (Capitol).

This is Radiohead's finest album since "O.K. Computer," the 1997 gem that pushed the British band to the edge of superstardom. That escalation frightened singer Thom Yorke, and he's spent much of the last six years trying to make music that speaks about some of the same issues (including society's dehumanizing forces) in ways that seemed aimed at alienating casual listeners, such as abandoning rock's guitar emphasis and accessible song structures. The best moments here combine the imaginative sonic textures of that period with vocals that seem so desperate and caring that the album, oddly enough, sounds hopeful and even warm.

Annie Lennox's "Bare" (J).

With partner Dave Stewart in Eurythmics, Lennox came up with some smart, seductive music in the '80s, but nothing approaches the daring and depth of the best tracks in her stylish, elegant-sounding third solo album. Written after the breakup of her marriage, it tackles issues of self-esteem and despair with a sometimes brutal honesty. This album is Grammy bound.

Gemma Hayes' "Night Is on My Side" (Astralwerks/Source).

This highly promising young Irish singer-songwriter seemed happi- est last week at the Troubadour when she strapped on an electric guitar and her band pumped it up a la Elvis Costello and the Attract- ions, and some of it worked nicely. Yet Hayes was most affecting when she turned to the acoustic guitar and slowed down with a version of "Evening Sun," a melan- choly tune that is the centerpiece of this debut album. On the number, on stage and on record, she shows much of the soulfulness and taste of Norah Jones.

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