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Cool Schmool 

N*E*R*D want theirs

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002
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N*E*R*D In Search of . . . (Virgin Records)

I've had friends who feel the urge to drive SUVs within the confines of Los Angeles. They wear designer blue jeans, enjoy the occasional lap dance and snort cocaine, preferably between midnight and 4 a.m. and within spitting distance of the Sunset Strip. The proffered explanation: "These things make us feel cool." My hypothesis: Onetime nerds need to mask their inadequacies.

If your bank account and taste for decadence's downsides -- nosebleeds, waking up next to ugly partners -- is limited, you might find N*E*R*D's debut, In Search of . . ., a suitable substitute. N*E*R*D is a pseudonym for the Neptunes, arguably the most successful production team in contemporary pop (Jay-Z, Britney Spears, No Doubt); their album's subject is Textbook Cool. And what is the sound of deca-dance? Syncopated Southern hip-hop, plus glammy, anachronistic rock that conflates the most flamboyant sounds of the '70s and '80s, plus an ear for texture that brings to mind hi-fi test records from the 1950s or, more accurately, Stereolab. Great beats, psychedelic flourishes, whirring keyboards. (Note: In 2001, a version of this album with less potent rhythms was released in Europe and sent to American press. It got four stars in Rolling Stone. This new take is better -- an early contender for album of the year.)

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Neither my friends nor N*E*R*D are entirely defined by the drugs they take, the hot cars they drive, the girls they seduce and the nice clothes they buy. Between songs about bitches and strippers and coke, I note a moral stripe running through In Search of . . . The title character of "Bobby James," for instance, is a 17-year-old geek who finds solace in drugs but ends up begging in the street.

Perhaps a clue to N*E*R*D's ostensible taste for dangerous pleasures resides in the group's name. They say it's an acronym for Nobody Ever Really Dies. News flash: Everybody does.

THE WALKMEN Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone (Startime International)

In 1996, a salivating music industry dubbed Jonathan Fire*Eater "the future of rock & roll" (a title now tenuously held by the Strokes); devilishly smart and talented, JF*E signed with the DreamWorks behemoth and waited for the fireworks. A year later, their raw and wonderful second album, Wolf Songs for Lambs, was gathering dust in the record bins, and the Ivy League literati mod-rock outfit had burned itself out.

Now, three JF*E survivors, organist Walter Martin, guitarist Paul Maroon and drummer Matt Barrick, have joined with Recoy bassist Peter Bauer and Hamilton Leithauser at the mic to rise from the ashes as the Walkmen. It's a strange and haunting mix: part Joy Division, part Radiohead if it were a real rock band, part Chopin piano concerto. For those of us who mourned JF*E's implosion, the Walkmen are the ultimate redemption.

The Walkmen's debut album, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, is nearly magical. The first song, "They're Winning," immediately sucks you into a forlorn abyss of ringing guitar chords, droning organs and Leithauser's heart-rending lyrics: "I've stood in line so many times/How can I do it all again?" And for the next 50 minutes, the album holds you swirling in the Walkmen's throbbing rock. While the songs' textures vary considerably, from richly saturated layers to the stripped-down necessities of drum, guitar and voice, the emotional center of the album never wavers.

The songs wrap themselves around the classic existential problems of loss, fear, isolation, doubt and something not quite right in the world. Leithauser moans on the title track, "I made the best of it/I made the best of it/I made the best of it."

He has indeed. (Nathan Ihara)

The Walkmen perform at Spaceland, Tuesday, March 19.

CLINIC Walking With Thee (Domino)

First: a haunting little keyboard tune. Next the beats: fast and synthetic. A moody melodica chimes in. Then Ade Blackburn adds the vox, a droning lament: "I believe in harmony/I believe in Christmas Eve." Then why does he sound so bitter?

This is "Harmony," the first track of Clinic's sophomore album, Walking With Thee, and already the Liverpudlian quartet is messing with your head. Clinic may be Britpop, but the moniker doesn't do justice. A Clinic song is a pop tune transplanted with an AbioCor heart . . . and hooked up to an iron lung. Sure, the songs are short, fast and catchy, but Clinic isn't filling prescriptions for ear candy; the music cuts into you with a desolate, sarcastic, scalpel-sharp edge.

Radiohead comparisons may come too easy (Thom Yorke invited Clinic on the Kid A tour), but the two groups clearly inject their music with the same jaundiced paranoia and agonized aggression. In a world of simplistic musical emotions -- love, loss, sadness, sex drive, etc. -- it's a welcome change to hear a group that intentionally confuses you: gets your blood pumping and bums you out at the same time (the killer "Welcome," for example).

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