(Jive/Zomba) Spears' Project: Comeback has been in full swing for a year now. Last year's Blackout was a tentative step back to relevance after endless months of head-shaving, cooter-flashing antics that eventually landed the paparazzi-magnet star in the loony house. Like Blackout, Circus features a carnival of burbling electro-pop mixed with a handful of inward-gazing ballads. But there's a more stable Britney serving as ringmaster this time around. She actually sounds committed to the album most of the time and checks in with her best overall performance since 2000's Oops! … I Did It Again. And just like Blackout, Circus' best cuts are all about Brit. The robo-beats of "Shattered Glass" moonwalk over fragments of her broken life. The foggy "Blur" wakes up in a daze. And the title tune compares her life to, you guessed it, a circus. Still, the mostly forgettable club jams (by a long list of top-shelf producers) that dominate the CD ultimately dilute both the singer and the songs. Circus is as much the beatmakers' record as it is Spears'. And it's almost like they still don't completely trust her. - Michael Gallucci
Arrington de Dionyso
I See Beyond the Black Sun
(K) Whenever Arrington de Dionyso steps away from the snarled, end-times, post-punk characteristic of the band he fronts - Old Time Relijun - and into the solo realm, his output turns risky. Loaded down with guttural Tuvan throat-singing exercises and discordant horn blats, 2006's Breath of Fire revealed the Portland, Oregon musician as a kindred spirit to Burning Star Core experimental violinist C. Spencer Yeh, another prolific practitioner of raw improvisational power.
I See Beyond the Black Sun ups the ante with more extended, sonically cleaner mediations, in clear opposition to Fire's brute-force snapshots. A droning, underlying hum - courtesy of mysterious homemade instrumentation - adds a welcome layer of warmth to tracks like "AION (Intuition and Science)," where de Dionyso digs deep, probing tunnels with his bass clarinet, and the hypnotic, yo-yoing vocal exertions on "Imagination Ensnared," which sounds a lot like what might happen if you drugged and tortured a bullfrog. The two halves of "The Naked Future" take this concept further, sending de Dionyso's speaking-in-tongues vocals through some sort of stutter-filter that suggests a hellish man-machine synthesis. Take it as a sign that his star is rising. - Ray Cummings
So, Who's Paranoid?
Not sure what the point of a Damned album is at this point in time. Sure, singer Dave Vanian's baritone still sounds sharp, and guitarist Captain Sensible is solid as ever. But the moody "Under the Wheels" sounds more like late-'80s alternative pop (something like Crash Test Dummies) than punk icons trying to recapture their halcyon days. "Dr. Woofenstein," which features a guest appearance by the Brighton Gay Men's Chorus (!), could pass for latter-day Bowie (and no, that's not a compliment) or something from a bad musical. The Damned has always had a latent goth side, but it's more explicit here, and that's not a good thing. The opening tune, "A Nation Fit for Heroes," has a cool garage-rock vibe to it, but there's not much else worthwhile. It's clear the guys put real effort into the songwriting and production; too bad it all sounds outdated and out of touch. - Jeff Niesel
Dark End of the Street
(Matador) After Chan Marshall hit her commercial and critical peak with 2006's The Greatest, she's returned to covering other artists' material, first on January's Jukebox, and now on this EP, which includes six cuts left over from that album's sessions. For a woman who used to be one of indie-rock's most manic and unpredictable personalities, covering other peoples' songs seems relatively routine. The venom obvious in the original version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" feels neutered on Marshall's wistful interpretation. Her band's exploration of alternate melodies is interesting but ultimately offers a lack of angst.
The centerpiece of the EP is the title track, a '60s country-soul classic. It's a song many indie fans know - the Afghan Whigs covered it on their What Jail Is Like EP. While Marshall's version is nowhere near as grave and melodramatic as the Whigs', but it's certainly as soulful. It's not quite on par with, say, Aretha Franklin's version, but soul is something that Marshall has never lacked. Her countdown before the last few bars of the song - something that most artists would've cut out during the mixing of the album - is perhaps the best moment on the entire EP because it's unexpected. But moments like this are few on a release that doesn't bring anything new to the proverbial table. - Jeremy Willets
Brighten the Corners: The Nicene Creedence Edition
Matador Records has done a fantastic job of reissuing Pavement's albums so far, and the new, expanded edition of Brighten the Corners is no different. Matador has managed to dig up two discs of material for the reissue, as well as a massive book of band recollections and photos. This isn't merely a re-pressing or a re-mastering, but a whole new experience, packaged with the original album and the sort of minutia that will please longtime fans. And while some of these tracks aren't exactly gems, it's surprising just how many songs Matador could find that are worth hearing.
Disc one's B-sides, like "Westie Can Drum" and "Birds in the Majic Industry" are high-grade Pavement tracks, but even more surprising is how good two unreleased jam sessions ("Beautiful As a Butterfly" and "Cataracts") are. These are not mere curios, but interesting disjointed rockers. Disc two, which delves into alternate takes and live material, is also surprisingly vital. Pavement was a unique force in American indie-rock, one that still holds up today, and this reissue is sure to preserve that legacy. - Matt Whelihan
The (International) Noise Conspiracy
The Cross of My Calling
The fifth album by the (International) Noise Conspiracy shows just how much the band refuses to comprise its 1960s rock 'n' roll/garage revival. The 14 new throwback songs on The Cross of My Calling don't offer any surprises or innovations, but the CD does feature the band's best protest anthems to date. Rick Rubin's production is spot on, giving clarity and space to each element while facilitating musical interaction. Every song is polished without being gaudy and there are plenty of big choruses. "The Assassination of Myself" and "Arm Yourself" contain some of the band's best hooks. The BellRays' Lisa Kekaula's performance on "I Am the Dynamite" keeps things lively just as the album's endless dance grooves become monotonous.
The politics, well-intentioned as they are, sound stale; this CD would have reached a more receptive audience before the election of our nation's new president. You can't teach the sexiest man in Sweden and his crew new tricks, but that's fine when the tricks they know rock. Have T(I)NC achieved Phil Ochs' ideal of "a cross between Elvis Presley and Che Guevara"? That's debatable, but can you think of another act that's made the cry of "dance, dance, revolution" this catchy? - Nick DeMarino
Cupcakes Taste Like Violence
(Popsicle) You may be confused why exactly Jeffree Star has become famous. The Los Angeles hot-pink-haired personality has somehow risen to notoriety for his gender-transgressive image through modeling and fashion design. But Star, the self-proclaimed "Queen of the Internet," is apparently also of (questionable) musical talent. The six tracks on his second EP, the follow-up to last year's Plastic Surgery Slumber Party, are electronic-based songs with flat beats that sound almost like pre-set GarageBand loops.
Star's vocals aren't much better, although it's impossible to know how his voice really sounds because it's so distorted and robotic. "Picture Perfect" is a lackluster trance number with some ridiculous chipmunk vocals, while "Miss Boombox" is dance-club fodder that only the most desperate DJ would slide on the turntable. "Lollipop Luxury" is the EP's low point, with lines like "Fuck me/I'm a celebrity/Can't take your hands off me." Based on Star's outrageous and frequently charismatic personality, it's safe to assume his live performances are far better than this EP suggests. On record, he sounds really dull, even if that is not actually the case. - Emily Zemler
Al and the Transamericans
This Day & Age
(Basemental) Right from the opening notes of "Somewhere in Kansas," it's apparent that moe.'s Al Schnier is going for a twangy Americana sound on this solo project. "I'll be in Colorado by the morning light," he sings to the hum of a lap pedal steel guitar and fiddle in a song that sounds like it was written 'round the campfire. Elsewhere, "Grass Is Greener" adopts an atmospheric, Wilco-like vibe; the same goes for the lonesome "Waiting for the Rain," a song that could be a long-lost Jayhawks tune. "Light of the Moon" has a cowpunk approach that recalls the Meat Puppets, circa their breakthrough album, II. While "Time" settles for conventional jam-band music, the rest of the disc delves deeper into roots-rock and American country. The album isn't likely to give Schnier the kind of popularity that'll allow him to quit his day job. But it's a great effort that has more substance than most side projects, particularly those in the prolific but often amateurish jam community. - Niesel -------