BC-NXT-SOUNDAFFECTS:MCT _ lifestyle, entertainment (1550 words)

Sound Affects: Music reviews and ratings

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Depeche Mode: “Sounds of the Universe” (Capitol/Mute/EMI) (rating: 5 out of 10)

“Sounds of the Universe” is, for all intents and purposes, a Depeche Mode record. This band, barring some sort of drug relapse or internal feud, has been around for far too long and has too solid an understanding of what works and what doesn’t to write a “truly” bad album, and, if you’re a fan, your enjoyment of this one is going to fluctuate based on what you like about Depeche Mode, but only gently, because everything you like about Depeche Mode is represented here in some form.

What we get on “Sounds of the Universe” is less the concise dark pop that defines Depeche Mode’s best work, and more the expansive atmosphere that defines their ho-hum mid-’90s output. And while a down-tempo aesthetic isn’t an inherently bad thing, it can get a little frustrating when you’re sitting there waiting for a track to explode, only to realize, oh, that thing I just heard was the chorus. But once you wrap your head around what the band’s going for, it can work.

Opener “In Chains” and follow-up “Hole to Feed” show us a Depeche Mode more than at home in their more restrained approach. Both songs have a subtle, deliberate build that never crashes through the roof and, crucially, doesn’t care to, relying instead on stark, Portishead guitar figures and murmuring electronic miscellany to fill in the empty alcoves. But, as is only natural for a band whose identity has been firmly defined and in place for a few decades, they don’t quite tap into that old transcendence. Instead, they tempt us with a strong first half and then dump us in a collection of tossed off b-sides.

The songs that compose the latter part of the record are a formless sort of musical vapor, tracks wandering languidly, blending into each other and rarely finding a shape of their own before dissipating. _ Bill Stewart

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Pet Shop Boys: “Yes” (Astralwerks/Parlophone) (rating 7 out of 10)

“Yes” takes Pet Shop Boys’ trademark synth-pop intelligence, strips it down and then redresses it in contemporary clothes. The beats are a bit heavier, more chunky than usual. The arrangements a little simpler. The lush strings and synth pads you remember are still in effect, but they no longer dominate. The dance numbers don’t just rely on that percolating “dugga-dugga-dugga” bass line from “Opportunities.” In short, “Yes” sounds fresh, dynamic, and vital, while paying plenty of respect to Pet Shop Boys’ storied career.

This would all be of marginal importance were Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s songs not so good, so sharp. For a band that has been skewering the “E! News” lifestyle since before “E! News” existed, lead single “Love, etc.” is a new highwater mark. From the start, the simple beat-box rhythm and dreamy synth hook evince Brian Higgins’ involvement. The call-and-response chorus and Tennant’s ruthless wit provide the type of familiarity you hope for. Coming from these guys, lines like, “Don’t have to drive / a supercar to get far / don’t have to be / beautiful but it helps” aren’t just catchy. They’re an admonishment.

Not even the paring of Tennant, Lowe and Higgins can completely avoid clunkers. The politically-oriented “Building a Wall” isn’t embarrassing, but isn’t all that great, either. The line, “There’s nowhere to defect to any more” is the most backwards-looking part of the album. Legacy” is what happens when Pet Shop Boys let their Art get the best of their Pop. Still, in an era when pop is going sour, it’s sweet and fresh. It’s the moment when Pet Shop Boys became relevant again. _ John Bergstrom

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Camera Obscura: “My Maudlin Career” (4AD) (rating 8 out of 10)

The band’s finest work, “My Maudlin Career” continues the pop rush we’ve come to expect from Camera Obscura but also develops the band’s sound and identity in significant ways. The record is expertly sequenced, with a fluidity that credibly draws together folk, girl-group, country and western, doo-wop, and Northern soul sounds as a foundation for Tracyanne Campbell’s wistful songs, most of which concern the bliss and ache of relationships.

The main character in these songs is “you.” The singer’s first-person perspective does not necessarily make her the “me” to the “you,” but her often-confessional lyrics and delivery suggest a personal, emotional investment in these romantic tales. The key to the band’s realization of this material is that it never gets so precious as to shut “us,” the listeners, out of the equation. Nor does the album waste any time establishing its premise, which let’s face it, is a continuation of a career’s worth of confessions from Campbell’s character(s).

Uncertainty is the subject of “You Told a Lie,” which analyzes a relationship through an utterance about the character’s eyes (“the coldest blue”) and the insecurity that statement creates. Throughout the album, Campbell achieves this degree of ambiguity in the individual components even as they form such a harmonious whole. Only “James” falters in this respect, because it is suddenly too specific and not strong enough a story-song to draw us in.

Ballad “Careless Love” corrects the course with its sweeping, weeping strings and the proper return of the organ. It is arguably the most involved song on the album, with distinctive playing on everyone’s part, from the drums to the guitar to the strings and backing vocalists. The song’s untouchable crescendos represent new heights for Camera Obscura as a band. _ Thomas Britt

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Art Brut: “Art Brut vs. Satan” (Downtown) (rating 7 out of 10)

“Art Brut vs. Satan” could have just as easily been called “Bang Bang Rock and Roll III.” The band is still just as capable of hanging with the punks as it is with the indie kids, Eddie Argos is still barking drunken blog posts instead of singing them, and all songs _ except seven-minute closer “Mysterious Bruises” _ still come in nice, manageable blocks of verse-chorus.

With most bands that fall into diminishing returns like these, this is the point where we begin to grow weary, cut our losses, keep the excellent debut in our collections and go look for someone else to worship. This won’t happen with Art Brut, though, because even though any of its songs could migrate from one of its three LPs to another without any of us being the wiser, this band is still near impossible to dislike. The fact that Art Brut refuses to develop or mature in any obvious way between recording sessions is sort of the whole point.

As far as indie music goes these days, this band proves with “Art Brut vs. Satan” that they’re still one of the most punk bands we’ve got going for us. Not necessarily in sound _ though cuts like opener “Alcoholics Unanimous” have more than a bit of the propulsive energy that defined the first rebellion _ but in ethos. Punk rallied against the increasing pretensions of ’70s rock; Art Brut rally against the rampant preciousness and self-seriousness of modern indie.

This band never seems to think the sounds they’re making with their instruments are of Profound Importance _ Argos is more interested in complaining about hangovers than attempting “poetry,” and despite having the word in their name, this band has no interest in making art with a capital A. There’s no posturing here: they’re making genuine, simple rock music, they’re “just talking to the kids,” and man is that refreshing. _ Bill Stewart

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Wayne Hancock: “Viper of Melody” (Bloodshot) (rating 7 out of 10)

If your dictionary was hip enough to have an entry for the term “juke joint swing,” Wayne Hancock’s picture would be plastered beside it. The Ex-Marine from Austin is the real deal, a traveling truck-stop troubadour who’s on-the-road itinerary makes Willie Nelson and Family look like pikers.

Hancock’s latest disc, “Viper of Melody,” reveals the honky tonk master still knows how to play rock ’em, sock ’em country with a beat, a twang, and a boogie. Describing Hancock’s mastery is like trying to explain the force of a natural event such as a tornado to someone who has never experienced one.

Even when he plays the music slow and drawls out the lyrics of love, his power is palpable. There’s a self-evident intensity behind every note. “Viper of Melody” recalls the past in its use of Western Swing, old fashioned lingo, and other dated references, but the music never feels old.

Hancock surrenders himself to his passions and brings the listener with him. It’s like looking at the moonlight on a June night with one’s main squeeze in tow. There may be something corny about it, yet there is no denying the inherent romance of the moment. Hancock’s music is as real as those moonbeams. _ Steve Horowitz

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