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Cool Schmool

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.)

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).

The band's penchant for donning surgical headgear and Sergeant Pepper­era Beatles garb suggests a tongue-in-cheek silliness, but its sound owes much more to the dark surrealism of Ian McCulloch than to the Fab Four. A Clinic Yellow Submarine would have crashed into the bottom of the Barents Sea. Still, even in the murky depths there are beautiful sights and sounds. "Sunlight Bathes Our Home" perfectly captures this eerie sensibility: "Magical, magical, magical weather/sunlight bathes our home/keeping our life and limbs together . . ./back and forth the colors go/where it stops, no one knows." (Nathan Ihara)

Clinic performs at the Troubadour, Tuesday, March 19.

CORNELIUS Point (Matador)

The coincidence is poetic, if not downright eerie: The very same month Juan Garcia Esquivel dies, along comes Point, an album that takes Esquivel's famous stereo experiments of the 1950s and refits them for the new millennium. After gaining a worldwide cult following with the sonic collages of his last two albums, 1996's 69/96 and 1998's Fantasma, Japanese pop wizard Keigo Oyamada -- a.k.a. Cornelius -- could have easily focused his periscope on mainstream success. Instead, Point is even weirder than previous Cornelius records, even if its emphasis on acoustic guitars makes it seem uncharacteristically mellow at first listen.

Like Esquivel, Cornelius is fascinated with the endless possibilities of the stereo spectrum, and the disorienting effects that can be achieved by unexpected juxtapositions. But where Esquivel's patented "sound your eyes can follow" was designed to blow the minds (and speakers) of Eisenhower-era hi-fi enthusiasts, Point is unquestionably a product of the CD age, a cut-and-paste cornucopia of digital distortion, electronic beats and layered vocals. Invisible at background-listening volume, the intricate absurdities of tracks like "Drop" (which combines breezy '70s pop à la America with the sounds of someone bathing) and "Bird Watching at Inner Forest" (wherein electronically altered bird calls are stacked against a bossa nova groove) really spring to the fore on a good set of headphones.

Of course, the big difference between Esquivel and Cornelius is that the former used classic songs as a departure point, while the latter's compositions often place more importance on vertiginous impact than actual melody. In fact, the best tune on Point belongs to the album's only cover, a gently percolating rendition of Ary Barroso's "Brazil" -- a song that, appropriately enough, also appeared on See It in Sound, the great "lost" Esquivel album released in 1999. Still, Point is so consistently whimsical and inventive, it's easy to imagine Esquivel smiling down from his conductor's podium in the heavens, happy to have found a worthy successor. (Dan Epstein)

ALANIS MORISSETTE Under Rug Swept (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

Once upon a time, Alanis Morissette was God. Not just in her role as the Almighty in director Kevin Smith's Dogma, but to the 16 million listeners who bought Jagged Little Pill, the singer-songwriter's 1995 estrogen-empowered catharsis of grrrlie rage. Wielding a power-chord punch lacking in diary-entry contemporaries like Tori Amos, Alanis grew even more introspective and New Age with her triple-platinum follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. Just in time for the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Morissette has shucked off erstwhile producer Glen Ballard and returned with the self-produced Under Rug Swept, her first full studio album in four years.

Lord only knows how the Gen-X poster girl will be received at a time when Spin magazine's ads are down 20 percent. For her part, Alanis delivers the heart-on-sleeve confessionals that her followers bank on. "21 Things I Want in a Lover," a wholly satisfying pop-rocker, launches the album with her laundry-list lyric style ("Thank U," "Hand in My Pocket") enumerating "not necessarily needs, but qualities that I prefer": experimental sex three days a week, enjoying the illusion of life without buying into it, etc.

"Narcissus" is a patented Morissette Dear John letter with major zingers; over a stuttering guitar-echo effect, she questions why she tries to love a "mama's boy" who's "never really apologized for anything . . . never really taken responsibility." "So Unsexy" pleases, spilling a guitar wash over the hip-hop beat of Biz Markie's "Nobody Beats the Biz" while detailing the little abandonments (the forgotten birthday, the forgotten phone call) that sting so easily. "Flinch" -- the most straight-ahead ballad at over six minutes -- falls short of the majestic "Uninvited," and the album as a whole deals in more obtuse metaphors than the personalized specificities of her last record. Still, Under Rug Swept is Alanis Morissette in top form, exercising her God-given right to vent and sound beautiful doing so. (Miles Marshall Lewis)

PERFORMANCE

GORILLAZ at the Hollywood Palladium, March 9

The way Gorillaz keep up the "virtual" act in a live concert is simple. The people responsible for the "band"'s blunted hip-rock dub-hop sound -- chiefly, Blur's Damon Albarn and Dr. Octagon producer Dan the Automator -- perform behind a stage-level scrim, a setup that suggests their insignificance or mystery. The real performers are supposed to be the screen projections above the scrim featuring the official band members: four hollowed-out cartoon zombies, each one urban-outfitted for today's modern ironies and vector-based imagination. The human silhouettes on the scrim are there only to give visual proof that the music is being performed live. Otherwise, the projections would amount to little more than a 90-minute music video, and no one would imagine a music video event selling out two consecutive nights at the Palladium. At least not before this Gorillaz tour started.

Journalists have been humoring Gorillaz's fussiness for a while now, partly because we have nothing else better to do and partly because we wouldn't mind watching any media-rigged idea run its course, to see if we can fire up anything Zeitgeist-y when Albarn says Gorillaz want to "inject some real integrity into the concept of manufacture" (Pulse, May 2001). So far, the concept works well in the realm of manufacture: cool music videos, cool interactive Web site and magazine covers. But onstage, the diligence of Gorillaz's think-tank gimmick is a miscalculation. At last Saturday's show there was such a rigid conformity to their unconformity that, after the novelty of the first 20 minutes, we all hoped that one of the band members would just slash the damn scrim with a knife, anything to collapse the dreary 2-D flatness of the sights and sounds.

By drawing attention to their concert's unique audio-visual setup, Gorillaz inadvertently remind us that a conventional concert is an audio-visual setup already -- a far better one, since when you see the dramatic details of music being performed, you hear it differently, you hear it spectacularly. That's why something always seemed unfulfilling in Gorillaz's sound at the Palladium, most notably in the crowd favorite "Clint Eastwood," where Jamal the Last Emperor replaced Del the Funky Homosapien, the best thing about Gorillaz's self-titled debut. But none of this would have mattered if you went to the concert stoned, where the induced synesthesia would have complicated the spectacle wonderfully. It's probably the thing to do the next time they're in town. (Tommy Nguyen)


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