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Low
The Great Destroyer
Sub Pop

Low has always provided a particularly unsettling mix of Sunday school sing-along and atavistic jungle stomp. The key to both elements is drummer-vocalist Mimi Parker, whose minimal, primitive beats and fetching Mormon-girl-next-door voice have long pegged her as the legitimate heir to the Velvet Underground's Maureen Tucker. The latest Low disc, The Great Destroyer, finds Parker's tribalistic percussion more powerful and further out front than ever, but her vocals are relegated exclusively to the band's trademark two-headed-beast harmonies with her husband, guitarist-singer Alan Sparhawk.

Low's quest to shake off its dour "slow-core" reputation has been in effect for a couple of years now. Their previous CD, 2002's Trust, was eclectic to the point of perversity, full of hairpin turns from atmospheric ambient tracks to piano ballads to slamming rockers to spooky nightmare soundtracks and back again. The new Destroyer is less multipolar and seems intent on refining the slamming rock facet to bracing effect, particularly on the album-opening one-two-three punch of "Monkey," and on "California" and "Everybody's Song" -- all sure to leave the average Low fan's head spinning and ears ringing.

Push the Button finds the Chemical Brothers 
doing just that, with mixed results.
Push the Button finds the Chemical Brothers doing just that, with mixed results.
It takes the Hag's voice to bring something new to the 
old chestnuts on Unforgettable.
It takes the Hag's voice to bring something new to the old chestnuts on Unforgettable.

In fact, the ringing of ears is one of The Great Destroyer's themes. Throughout the disc, Sparhawk lets wicked humor take the place of pathos on the lyrical front, and two songs in particular mordantly attack the opportunity cost of a life spent in music. On "Death of a Salesman," a fledgling songwriter is advised that "Music's for fools / You should go back to school / The future's in prisms and math." On the even more telling "When I Go Deaf," you can almost hear the anticipation in Sparhawk's voice as he delicately croons, "I'll stop writing songs / Stop scratching out lines / I won't have to think /And it won't have to rhyme," before slamming the band in at stun volume, joyfully hastening himself down the road to the hearing-impaired life.

Two of the most charming tracks on Trust are "Tonight" and "Point of Disgust," both of which feature Parker on lead vocals, and the only real disappointment on The Great Destroyer is that there are no equivalent showcases for her here. In the past, Parker's tracks have kept the always imposing Low-thing from becoming overly monolithic. Like Mo Tucker's "After Hours" at the end of the third Velvet Underground LP, Parker's solo singing can act as a tonic to place the rest of an extremely intense musical experience in relief. And, for all its strengths, relief is one thing The Great Destroyer could use a little more of. -- Scott Faingold

Mannie Fresh
The Mind of Mannie Fresh
Universal/Cash Money Records

Although he's released about a million albums as part of the Big Tymers and Cash Money Millionaires, Mannie Fresh has never had the spotlight to himself. Until now, as The Mind of Mannie Freshfinds the full-time producer and part-time MC working nonstop at both ends of the mike.

We always knew he could make hits from behind the boards, and "Chubby Boy," "We Fresh" and "Fight Song" all feature the head-nodding beats and catchy choruses we've come to expect from the New Orleans bouncemeister. Still, they aren't enough to transcend the dumb lyrics. Check this doozy from the David Banner collabo "Go with Me": "Check out my shoes, I still ride them trues / you could call me a Crip because I give hoes the blues." Well, at least the beat is banging.

The album weighs in at a whopping 30 tracks, but that includes eight or ten skits that get old after the first listen. Ultimately, it's a typical Cash Money record -- if you're looking for intelligent, witty or introspective lyrics, keep looking. On the other hand, if you're looking for mindless music with beats that boom out da trunk, you'll want to pick The Mind of Mannie Fresh. -- Quibian Salazar-Moreno

Chemical Brothers
Push the Button
Astralwerks

The great thing about technology is its power to combine elements from any kind of music you've ever liked into one cohesive song. Uncannily, the Chemical Brothers have accomplished this feat repeatedly, building around a genuine pop structure and cleverly managing to make a loop feel like a song, as on "Block-Rockin' Beats."

On their fifth full-length, Push the Button, though, they seem to be merely, well, pushing buttons. Aside from album opener "Galvanize," a mind-bending Middle Eastern loop featuring Q-Tip that stuns with its sheer force, most of these tunes go backward rather than forward. At times the Chems channel the Stone Roses ("Marvo Ging") with a psychedelic twist; on "The Big Jump," Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is decoded robot-style. But overall, though Push the Button retains its creators' danceability, that extra Chemical genius is sounding decidedly digital. -- Lily Moayeri

Merle Haggard
Unforgettable
Capitol Nashville

The post-Norah Jones phenomenon of standards albums from singers who don't usually sing them has yielded the occasional alternate-universe proposition: Cyndi Lauper doing "La Vie en Rose"? Hey, middle-aged mothers just wanna have fun, too.

Country vet Merle Haggard isn't the least likely artist to rip through the Great American Songbook. But on Unforgettable, Hag's voice, a tarnished whiskey-soured croon with all manner of rough edges, doesn't lend itself to easy piano-bar interpretations of "As Time Goes By" and "Pennies from Heaven." This is a good thing: Too often, we're unable to hear anything in these songs beyond our collective memory of them -- that's the risk that accompanies overfamiliarity with a canon. Yet Haggard gives these tunes a proud sense of experience that has less to do with the sophisticated facility of producer Freddy Powers's smooth country-jazz settings and more to do with the sound of a man flipping through his back pages, at a leisurely pace you couldn't hurry if you tried. -- Mikael Wood

 
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