It was only a matter of time before Electrelane morphed into this generation's Sonic Youth. The signs were there -- starting with the all-female quartet's sophomore release, last year's excellent ''The Power Out." Now, with ''Axes," the Brighton, England, band has made its most adventurous and challenging album yet, and for Electrelane that's saying a lot. ''Axes" is an enigma, full of brawny instrumentals that narrowly avoid full-blown art-rock pretension. Like ''The Power Out," this new album was recorded with uber rock producer Steve Albini, and as usual, this is a band much more attuned to its lofty ideas rather than cheap accessibility. You don't casually listen to an Electrelane album; you dissect and then process it. Ultimately, ''Axes" is rewarding for what it proposes: that rock 'n' roll can (and should) be considered a work of art. The album begins conspicuously enough with a blast of thrashing feedback and then leads into the exhilarating ''Bells." ''Eight Steps" is a jagged joy ride propelled by coursing accordion solos that break down after two minutes and then build into a harrowing finale. Then again, there can be too much of a good thing. On ''Business or Otherwise," it's hard to tell what the band hopes to accomplish, other than irritating, John Cage-esque noise that, as interesting as it is, hinders the album's momentum. Otherwise, ''Axes" is an erudite rock fan's dream: exciting, snarling, and wildly unpredictable. Electrelane plays the Middle East Upstairs on June 5.
LIVE AT STUBB'S
Giggle, if you must, at the seemingly incongruous notion of a Hasidic reggae singer. There's nothing gimmicky about this New York-based performer, unless one considers originality and talent nothing more than a clever ruse. Recorded live at an Austin, Texas, club in February, Matisyahu brings a generous spirituality to his brand of reggae, something that has been lacking as the music has been overwhelmed by sexually explicit and sometimes hateful lyrics. More Bob Marley than Beenie Man, the 25-year-old (born Matthew Miller in suburban Philadelphia) Matisyahu makes his religious devotion clear on songs like ''King Without a Crown," in which he sings, ''Me no want no sinsemilla, that would only bring me down," and ''Torah food for my brain, let it rain till I drown/ Thunder!/ Let the blessings come down." At the same time, he can rip with the kind of supple dancehall-style delivery designed to get crowds on their feet. His voice is flush with power and soul on ''Chop 'Em Down," and glides just as masterfully into the easy skanking groove of ''Warrior." And he gives props to Marley -- ''Bob Nesta said it best, everything will be all right" -- on ''Close My Eyes." Rather than a punch line or a sendup, Matisyahu (his name is a Hebrew version of Matthew) proves himself as a fine new artist whose music revives the righteousness and uplift of heartfelt reggae music.
Robert Plant & Strange Sensation
Robert Plant's new solo album, despite being one of the most anticipated discs of the spring, is an inconsistent sprawl. He tries to live up to his Led Zeppelin legacy one minute with incendiary blues-rock, then attempts to be an electronica god the next by letting his young band, Strange Sensation, dictate the sound. The group includes musicians who have played with Portishead and Roni Size, but some of the buzzy electronics and synth blips detract from songs such as the overly clever ''Tin Pan Valley" and the hidden five-minute remix of another track, ''Shine It All Around," tacked on at the end. Maybe Plant should adopt the Ryan Adams approach -- instead of releasing a disjointed single album, split it into two EPs. Then the people who respect his past would be happy, and so would the electronica nuts who probably aren't too keen on hearing the John Lee Hooker-flavored title track or the bluesy Ray Charles tribute, ''Brother Ray." There are some great, Zep-like tunes, including ''Another Tribe" (with tribal drums and sharply syncopated acoustic guitar) and ''Dancing in Heaven," with a chiming 12-string. This is an ambitious album from Plant -- he tries to be more modern than most of his contemporaries -- but it won't be enough to placate fans who are waiting for the next Page & Plant reunion. Plant is at the
Ten years is a long, if not uncommon, time to hover in indie rock purgatory. But the Austin, Texas-based band Spoon has used the time well. Their fifth album, ''Gimme Fiction," finds them in command of their knack for cunningly layered melody and post-punk delivery. Propelled by the singer/guitarist Britt Daniels and the brawny beats of drummer Jim Eno, along with a shifting cast of backing musicians, the outfit has survived major label fickleness and their own doubts to expand beyond their cult following. Each increasingly well-received album has helped, as did Daniels's 2004 collaboration with Bright Eyes. Their toil informs the gorgeous tension on their new release, which reveals a sound that is mature yet hungry, thanks to production help from Mike McCarthy (. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead). Album opener ''The Beast and Dragon, Adored," is built on insistent piano, percussive strings, and Daniels's vocals, while ''I Turn My Camera On" is a joyously angular dance shuffle. The album achieves unfussy pop perfection that evokes Elvis Costello's craftsmanship and Franz Ferdinand's fervor, but with its own unique melodic vitality. Spoon plays the Paradise on June 7.
HEARTS ON PARADE
You have to love American Hi-Fi's approach to rock. They are unabashed Cheez-Whiz popsters who would make the Knack sound as heavy as Lou Reed. The only way to approach them is on their own terms, and on their third record the group improves upon their successful formula. They've streamlined their sound, thanks to producer Butch Walker, who relies more on the group's sweet harmonies and ringing guitars and less on busy sonic gimmicks. Of course, the hooks are piled on, and almost every track is a Top 40 hit waiting to happen -- if pop radio paid any attention to those kinds of songs. The guys know their sources well and they excavate the past with abandon. ''The Geeks Get the Girls" is straight from Cheap Trick -- the chorus is such a nifty lift it would not be surprising if they're paying Rick Nielsen and company royalties. ''We Can't Be Friends" cops a little Blondie with a splash of Joe Jackson thrown in. While American Hi-Fi references so many hit-makers, they're still able to create such tuneful nuggets as ''Something Real," an affecting ballad sung with style by Stacy Jones. The40-minute disc flattens out in the second half, but its mostly a fizzy adventure in hi-fi.