Profane, Couch (Matador)
Rock Action, Mogwai (Matador)
Like many indie bands over the last half-decade, Germany's Couch and the Welsh quintet Mogwai focus on soundscape over song, and both have found very different ways to get around the absence of lead singers. Where one band tightens and quickens its melodies, the other slowly and carefully sculpts emotion from sound.
By naming their second album Profane, Couch seem to promise either a thoroughly computerized sound a la Kraftwerk or a stiff, Teutonic Strum und Drang like Rammstein. In fact, they sound like a live rock band with a tight rhythm section, jangly guitars, and a little synth accompaniment blending together to imply a melody. "Plan" opens the album with Stefanie Böhm's stark piano against Thomas Geltinger's sharp drums, each of his percussive strikes hammering like a nail in a coffin. On "Meine Marke," soft horns create a smoky atmosphere reminiscent of Air. The band builds tension through repetition and variation, slowly working each song to its natural climax. Ultimately, Couch reject the tuneless abstractions of labelmates Jega and Sad Rockets for a sturdier sound firmly rooted in rock-and-roll. On Profane, they suggest a postmodern surf band: upbeat and vigorous, rhythmically propulsive and kinda fun.
A study in measured crescendos and slow climaxes, Mogwai's third full-length, Rock Action, reverberates with membranous guitars, staticky golem beats, horns, banjos, and somber synths, all adrift on an ocean of strings. There are vocals on Rock Action, and while they are not absolutely necessary to convey the songs' meanings, they don't feel superfluous either. After a long intro, Stuart Braithwaite sings plaintively on "Take Me Somewhere Nice," as well as on "Secret Pint." On "O I Sleep," Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys delivers a quiet vocal performance in his native Welsh. But both sets of vocals are so soft and whispery that they seem to merge with the music. Mogwai accomplish more with pure sound than with vocals. The swell of strings on the intro to "Take Me Somewhere Nice" and the intense, sustained climax of "You Don't Know Jesus" both convey a dark duality between loss and hope. The album's most memorable moment is the patient, unraveling coda "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong," on which an electric banjo fades into an ethereal chorale.
Voice never enters the equation in Couch's songs, but for Mogwai, it remains a sonic element, delivering little meaning beyond its own sound -- which is what these two bands emphasize over all else and where they excel. -- Stephen Deusner
Grades: Couch: B+; Mogwai: A-
Memphis In the Morning, Mem Shannon (Shanachie)
On this fourth album, New Orleans bluesman Mem Shannon ventures out of the Crescent City to record. Setting up shop locally at Ardent Studios, with the Memphis Horns in tow, the change of scenery seems to agree with him.
Memphis In the Morning opens with a strong four-song blast of soul-blues. "Drowning On My Feet" combines a funky rhythm section, jumping piano, and the Memphis Horns' trademark punch into a version of the Memphis sound almost on a par with "Soul Man" and "Who's Making Love." The Horns also make their mark on Shannon's jazzed-up take on B.B. King's "Why I Sing the Blues," the record's only cover and a song of plainspoken social commentary that meshes well with Shannon's own songwriting style. Things slow down after that with the title track, a lachrymose blues travelogue marked by Shannon's heavy baritone vocals. This opening quartet is capped by "S.U.V.," the first inspirational anthem of the current energy crisis, where an exasperated Shannon declares, "I'm sick of these SOBs/They driving these S.U.V.s/And trying to run over me/When I'm in my beat-up car."
After that impressive introductory sweep, Memphis In the Morning gets a little slower and less engaging, with songs like "Invisible Man" and "Tired Arms" showcasing Shannon's jazz sensibility. But at its best, Memphis In the Morning earns its title, conjuring nothing less than the work of Memphis' bluesier soul men -- James Carr, O.V. Wright, and Johnnie Taylor. - Chris Herrington
Second Reckoning, C Average (Kill Rock Stars)
When an artist skillfully straddles the thin line between passion and parody, both can plausibly end up in bed together. The sophomore full-length from the guitar/drums duo C Average does this and renders their moniker moot with a run-of-the-classic-metal spectrum that will put a smile on your face and a needed foot in your posterior. Tongues in mouths that rarely open are planted firmly against cheeks for a 95 percent instrumental ride through a Sabbath/vintage Van Halen terrain laid waste with Society for Creative Anachronism imagery. Second Reckoning is predictably similar to the Fucking Champs in patches, but I like to think of C Average as more of a They Might Be Giants of comic irony metal.
Another winning attribute of this record is that it's LONG -- a nice feature in an era of half-hour full-lengths with more filler and the same price. Economic, powerful, and hilarious -- "Starhok" will suck you in with its Halenesque beauty, "Strider '88" will wow you by opening with one of the greatest prank phone calls ever, and fantastic Blue Cheer ("Parchmen's Farm") and Sonics ("The Witch") covers make for an 80-minute listen that's over before it feels like 10.-- Andrew Earles
Speed of Sound, Rosie Flores (Eminent Records)
Throughout her decades-long career, Rosie Flores has had rotten timing. Her take on country was too traditional for the '80s California cowpunk scene or the later alt-country revival (she once aspired to be the new Kitty Wells). And she's too much of a rocker and not blond or insipid enough to fit into the current mainstream country mode. Despite all this, she's managed to garner acclaim from both critics and her peers and build a devoted fan base along the way. Flores is the undisputed queen of the dancehall with her always fiery live shows, and she's one hellacious guitarist, excelling in rockabilly licks and beyond.
Speed of Sound, her seventh solo album, is her most eclectic work to date and stronger for it, serving up a little torch, a bit more twang, and some tasty stronger stuff. She switches gender on Buck Owens' rockabilly tune "Hot Dog," transforming it into a teaser dripping with sexual innuendo. Flores plays the chanteuse on "Devil Love" then turns around and rips and shreds a Bo Diddley backbeat on the primal "Don't Take It Away." Speed of Sound should firmly secure Flores' place in the Texas pantheon of great guitar-slinging, roots-music players. -- Lisa Lumb
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.