"Chapter II," Ashanti (Murder Inc.)
If you eliminate the intro and outro, the silly sketches and the annoying commercials for the label, Murder Inc., the number of tracks on Ashanti's second CD is whittled down from 20 to 12. What's left is just fine. Eschewing the pleasant anonymity of her debut for a subtler confidence is just the beginning of what Ashanti gets right here. Most of the numbers are grooves rather than songs (the album's best cut, "Rain on Me," is an exception) but they're smooth, listenable pop, silky and danceable, and assured enough not to foist themselves on you. Ashanti doesn't have a remarkable voice, but you appreciate the fact that she sings the songs instead of performing gymnastics on them. Fitting herself into the songs gives her more distinction -- and more sexiness -- than showing them up with the usual diva dynamics. On "Chapter II" her flame burns low and steady.
-- Charles Taylor
"O," Damien Rice (Vector Recordings)
Damien Rice is slated to break in America. The home-recorded "O" was released in Ireland last year and went triple platinum; one year later, it's finally available here. But it's folk music. You could get a sense of that genre boredom in Tom Green's eyes (subbing for David Letterman) when he offered up Rice to the show's circus of a music segment last month. In a recent interview Rice described "O" as his "selfish self-produced album" and his possible one shot at getting things right, and it remains to be seen if the comfortable lanky freedom of his delivery and the maturity of the writing will protect him from the inevitable folksinger pitfalls that lie ahead.
-- Bob Watts
"Mayors of the Moon," Jon Langford and the Sadies (Bloodshot Records)
You wouldn't think the prolific Langford -- ringleader of the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and more -- would need another side project, or would have the surplus inspiration to make good use of it. But here it is, as if to say, "Wahoo! Why not?" -- a full-length and rich collaboration with the Canadian country-punk band the Sadies. Langford's dread-laden lyrics receive steel-guitar-filigreed, twangy treatments; the atmosphere is a little less honky-tonk-bopping than the Waco Brothers, a little more angst-laden and poetic.
-- Scott Rosenberg
"Welcome Interstate Managers," Fountains of Wayne (S Curve)
A few days after Sept. 11, Fountains of Wayne appeared on the Conan O'Brien show to perform the Kinks' "Better Days." It was, in some ways, horribly inappropriate ("Forget what happened yesterday" -- fat chance), but the band's attempt to wrest humanity out of mass murder was moving.
On their third album, "Welcome Interstate Managers," the band's songwriters, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, treat New York's bridge-and-tunnel crowd with the affection and understanding that Ray Davies brought to small British towns on albums like "Something Else by the Kinks" and "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society." Committed to the music rather than getting off on the idea of being boys with guitars, Fountains of Wayne stand out from the glut of bands showing off their ability to write retro three-minute guitar pop by the accuracy of their observation and the depth of their empathy. The songs are populated by guys living in the suburbs, dreaming of the city, though not feeling at home there. Among 16 terrific songs, "Hackensack" stands out. It's the same story as the Beatles' "Honey Pie" and Johnny Cash's "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," the story of a small-town boy longing for the girl he knew who's become a star. Like the entire album, its poignancy and yearning and craft put it in a class by itself.
-- Charles Taylor
"Blue Screen Life," Pinback (Ace Fu Records)
If you combined Modest Mouse's bouncy, unpredictable riffs with Elliott Smith's sweet, melancholy voice, you might end up with a sound close to Pinback's ... but it wouldn't be nearly as good. Pinback combines the talents of bassist Armisted Smith (aka Zach) and drummer Tom Zinser, both from San Diego's Three Mile Pilot, one of my all-time favorite bands, and Rob Crow from Heavy Vegetable, Thingy and other obscure bands I suddenly want to know more about. "Blue Screen Life" features songs lush and hypnotic and unpredictable, yet it holds together beautifully from start to finish. Show me a warm-blooded mammal who doesn't love Pinback and I'll show you a deaf meat puppet.
-- Heather Havrilesky
"Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard (A True Story)," !!! (Touch and Go)
Driven by an ever shifting Bootsy bass line, Devo/Edge guitar segues, collective vocal work, horns, breaks, turns and doodlededoos, this proto-punk-funk rebellion fantasy is the summer skin shaver from repeated Play button punches. This is the kind of song that makes you do stupid things in public, and if future punk decides to turn on this corner of funk and fade, we're in for a lot of fun.
-- Bob Watts