ARMAND VAN HELDEN
The oft-heard complaint that electronic music is too repetitive can be true, though it voids itself if there's something in a song worth repeating. On the new artist albums from scene veterans Maas and Van Helden, that's not always the case, though they've authored insistent grooves in their day. New York–based Van Helden came to mainstream prominence in 1996–97 following popular remixes of Tori Amos' "Professional Widow" and Sneaker Pimps' "Spin Spin Sugar," which found him the go-to guy for folks looking for club cred from the Stones to Puff Daddy. Maas' Music for the Maases compilation—with all his production monikers, an artist album in disguise—included his biggest hit, a sterling remix of Azzido da Bass' "Doom's Night," and coincided with a residency at N.Y.C.'s Twilo in 2000, as the lights in mega-clubland were starting to dim.
On his production debut, Loud, Maas enlisted Kelis' pipes for the doom-and-gloom orchestration and playful breakbeat of "Help Me," and she reappears on Pictures' best track, "4 Ur Ears." It's the sexiest jam on an album stuck in spooksville. Of the six other guest vocalists, the nasal strain of Placebo's Brian Molko grates the most. The title track casts him as sexual predator, growling, "I won't hurt you unless you ask me to," over anxiety-inducing strings, and "First Day"—with Molko's endless refrain of "It's the first day of the rest of your life"—crams eternity into just under four minutes. Similarly plodding along, MC Rodney P's sci-fi rude bwoy on "Release" sings, "My potion's addictive," but I reckon it'd go down smoother with a spliff. Separate Pictures' instrumental tracks from that noise, and their ghostly, creaking effects will drift perfectly from your dry-iced porch this Halloween.
Van Helden's Nympho also works the sexy/scary angle with murky results, but it's a lot more fun. It opens with the scream of someone high-kicking off a Marshall stack—Van Helden, who's known to sample the Scorpions, as Virgin Killer—trailed by guitar fuzz and the riotous climax between a hefty 4/4 and a cowbell. Van Helden howls and struts his macho altar ego all over the album, pausing on "Juicy" to describe how he's—gag—achin' and earth-quakin' for his girl's plump and juicy bacon. It's a deranged take on the post-electroclash N.Y.C. scene of recent years, with Rapture-ish funk bass lines and spoiled-brat vocal affectations throughout. Speaking of spoiled brats, uptown babes Spalding Rockwell appear on "Hear My Name," Van Helden's smash from last year's New York: A Mix Odyssey. It's a giddy, rambunctious tune anyone could have sung, and they're milking the association while promoting their horrid album, but I'll give them credit for seizing a fun opportunity. Though Nympho's anthems are as exhausting as Pictures' groovy forebodings, Van Helden didn't once call his style "Cool Cheese" for nothing. RACHEL SHIMP
Tournament of Hearts
"Years from now they will make water from the reservoirs of our idiot tempers," Constantines frontman Bryan Webb sings in "Soon Enough," an organ-encrusted cut from the Toronto fivesome's third album. Well, if things get really bad, "they" will also wonder where the legacy of midperiod Pearl Jam ended up—not the Dionysian grunge-pop of Ten and Vs., but the (relatively) difficult stuff from Yield and Riot Act, where the band traded their supersized sweep for a sort of salty folk-punk introspection. Those underworked anthropologists-to-be should start their search with Tournament of Hearts. Throughout this peculiar little album, Webb and his bandmates seem propelled by the same kind of tension that gripped Pearl Jam: They're distrustful of the immediacy of a pop song (albeit for different reasons than Eddie Vedder), yet they're also unwilling to resist the pull of a rock anthem, so the songs derive a great deal of energy from the back-and-forth between fist-pumping choruses and knotty instrumental passages. (Canada is becoming something of a safe haven for conscientious indie-rock objectors; the new CD by Montreal's Wolf Parade throbs with an arresting ambivalence, too.) Like Vedder, Webb sings opaquely in a gruff voice about both breaking free and mastering desire. In "Love in Fear," he longs to "lust with raging lungs," while Will Kidman's tinkling keyboards seem to taunt him with the promise of release. How long must he sing this song? MIKAEL WOOD
The Constantines play Neumo's with the Hold Steady and Tim Fite at 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 15. $10 adv.
Either Colin Newman has finally gotten old or he's become young again. The Wire frontman and his collaborators, Malka Spigel and Max Franken of Israeli/Dutch post-punks Minimal Compact and Robin Rimbaud of Scanner, are much more subtle, restrained, and esoteric than Newman has been on his recent collaborations with his former bandmates. But Githead aren't entirely serious, either. Whereas Wire's recent Read and Burn series is aggressively shouty, aggressively angular, and aggressively aggressive, Profile is at once laid-back and playful, atmospheric and poppy. Either Newman's new band has convinced him that good music doesn't have to be loud, or they've collectively decided that '80s synth pop is, in fact, punk. Lead track "Alpha" is slow and cinematic; lines of Newman's deadpan lyrics stack on top of each other lazily and languidly, like they have all the time in the world. Two short, simple, fuzzed guitar interludes are the only hint that someone from Thatcher's England is involved. Next, "My LCA (Little Box of Magic)" recalls the breezy, electronic dream pop of California's Book of Love. Wire fans will hear that band in "Cosmology for Beginners" and elsewhere, but Scanner fans get just as much play; tracks tend to begin and end with dribbles of tastefully placed technology. Newman once told me in an interview that it's his job to know what's cool. Thankfully, on Profile he seems retired from all that. LAURA CASSIDY
JOHNNY "GUITAR" WATSON
The Funk Anthology
Some men buy a Corvette and start chatting up coeds when they approach their 40s. Johnny "Guitar" Watson handled his midlife crisis a bit more deftly. Rock oafs were still trying to catch up to his fierce, mind-bending blues guitar 20 years after Watson's mid-'50s hits like "Space Guitar," and one of them, Steve Miller, decided to settle for swiping Watson's "Gangster of Love" handle for himself. So Johnny made the best career choice of any aging, crowded-out R&B star ever: He donned pimp couture and reinvented himself as a funk virtuoso. The two-CD Funk Anthology spans a particularly fertile period from the late '70s and early '80s, the work of a multitalented visionary who broke more ground in his field at middle age than anyone this side of the Isley Brothers. But where the Isleys simply evolved, Watson integrated: He still had plenty of blues in him, and no matter how much disco throb or electro-funk bounce he put in it, his music always felt like a particularly inspired update of a traditional sound, a weird, rare place between innovation and nostalgia. Songs like "What the Hell Is This?" and "A Real Mother for Ya" extrapolated on and modernized the high-cost-of-everything theme of old-school moaning, often with a profoundly goofy sense of humor and a bemused "well, how 'bout that" delivery. On his 1976 breakthrough "Ain't That a Bitch," an expensive trip to the grocery store has him remarking, "I was in the bologna section/And I had to take myself a close look/Now, Abdul-Jabbar could'n'a made these prices with a skyhook." With the most justifiable nickname in R&B, Watson's playing could turn twang into gold: think B.B. King getting a contact high off Rick James, baddest of the bad. NATE PATRIN
Bloom: Remix Album
Sarah McLachlan has the kind of "angelic" voice that makes electronic-music producers flip, so it's hardly surprising that since 1994's "Possession" was given a blissed-out remix by Rabbit in the Moon, she's enjoyed a second career as a dance-floor diva. On Bloom, McLachlan's second remix collection, Junkie XL's take on "World on Fire," with its piles of piano, spooky guitar loop, and hard-house stomp, is the only one that approaches the hypnotic haze of "Silence," her mega–club hit collaboration with Delirium. Since McLachlan's 2003 album, Afterglow, doesn't offer particularly exciting source material, Bloom's remixes feel more like coups: Thievery Corporation and Talvin Singh, respectively, transform the adult-contemporary-dull "Dirty Little Secret" and "Answer" into showcases for their Brazilian- and tabla-laced styles. Where Tom Middleton's happy house "Vox" drags toward the seven-minute mark, masters of tension Gabriel & Dresden spend even longer on Bloom's best track, "Fallen." Much like their trance megahit "As the Rush Comes" (recorded as Motorcycle), it's a huge teaser, never shifting into a major key while emphasizing McLachlan's high-rising vocals to their best advantage. And as the beats fade, she gets the last word. RACHEL SHIMP