Asthmatic Kitty Records
Think of Paul Simon's early folk melodies, then filter in Michael Stipe's earnestness and simmer carefully with chamber pop that evokes Brian Wilson and a sense of humor suggesting the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. The result of this cultural alchemy would be Sufjan Stevens, whose new music is gently low-key but conspicuously brilliant. All of the arrangements are ''painstakingly composed" by Stevens, as the liner notes say, and every drop of sweat is worth it. He seizes on various subjects about Illinois (it's part of his ''states" series that began two years ago with ''Greetings From Michigan: the Great Lakes State") and extrapolates universal truths that provide this music with philosophical power. He combines unlikely scenarios of banjo, electric guitar, and strings one minute, and, later, swirling horns in this 22-song series of mini-suites geared toward listeners who have heard everything and want to try something new. His hilarious song titles are part of the charm, from ''Concerning the UFO sighting Near Highland, Illinois" (with a pretty piano and flute weave) to ''Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It Out in Bushnell." Some of this has a high nerd quotient, but most of it is remarkable songwriting, driven by a refined melodic sense that gives many songs a stately exhilaration. There are some strangely interwoven instrumentals of short lengths, such as the six-second ''One Last 'Whoo-hoo!' For the Pullman" and the 47-second, back-porch opera feel of ''A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But for Very Good Reasons." He plays more than 20 instruments himself, from guitar, bass, and drums, to glockenspiel, vibraphone, and sleigh bells. With its compelling vision and structure, ''Illinois" is an idiosyncratic masterpiece. Stevens performs at the Somerville Theatre on Sept. 8.
Already a huge star in the United Kingdom, Natasha Bedingfield tries to invade the American charts with her immensely appealing debut. The singer-songwriter is the kid sister of Daniel Bedingfield, and she brings much of the same effervescence to her music, mixing classic pop with lite hip-hop and a Pink-like attitude. Essentially, this is a string of hit singles waiting to be unleashed. The songs are filled with hooks galore, and Bedingfield has a confident, alluring vocal style. The opening ''These Words (I Love You, I Love You)" is insinuating and digs deep into the memory after a few spins. The title track approaches midcareer Madonna with its inspiring multi-tracked chorus and soaring production. ''Single" is a confident declaration of independence: Even though she may hopelessly express her love for a guy in one song, she doesn't need someone to be complete. All of this is immaculately produced -- bright, bold, and easy on the kitschier aspects of manicured pop. Interestingly, the American version drops D-12's Bizzarre from the most hip-hop-influenced track, ''Drop Me in the Middle" for female Brit MC Estelle, which probably says more about D-12's complete failure to make an impact in America than anything else. There are some sloggy ballads, which find Bedingfield reaching for empty emotions, but this is a mostly consistent, tuneful debut.
MADE IN CHINA
Ye Olde Records
''I am a confused, sloppy, childish, conflicted mess," Juliana Hatfield confesses in the personal statement accompanying ''Made in China," her first solo album for her own label, Ye Olde Records. The local singer-songwriter has made a career of such candor since breaking out with the Blake Babies in the late '80s and as a prolific solo artist for more than a decade. Hatfield's new album is just as revealing, from the photograph of her bare torso on its cover, to her searching lyrics about love, fame, and the difficulty of personal and cultural fulfillment. But she seems more in control of her disclosures than in the past. The album is taut and forceful -- thanks to Hatfield's production and muscular playing by her backing musicians, including local power pop trio Unbusted and bassist Ed Valauskas and drummer Pete Caldes of The Gentlemen. It also dares a wide range of moods and textures. Brooding album opener ''New Waif" and the melancholy ballad ''Hole in the Sky" have classic girl group charm. ''What Do I Care" is all edgy dissonance, as her bratty vocals chip at a wall of wiry guitar and sludgy bass. ''Oh" finds her exuding sultry menace as she plays all of the instruments herself. Hatfield shows that neither her increasing confidence as a songwriter and musician, nor her ongoing discomfort with her public image, have diminished her artistic courage. Hatfield is at the Paradise Aug. 20 with the Gentlemen and Furvis.
LET'S GET IT: THUG MOTIVATION 101
Def Jam South
The hip-hop hype machine is working overtime these days. It seems that each month a young MC comes out of the box and hits the top of the charts on the strength of industry-created buzz. The latest is Young Jeezy, an Atlanta rapper who is already riding high with his group, Boyz N Da Hood, whose debut CD created a stir earlier this summer. This is Jeezy's debut joint (it landed at No. 2 on the Billboard charts its first week) and while it's a solid disc, there's little to warrant the kind of static he's gotten. He is not the South's answer to 50 Cent: The rhymes and the grooves just don't warrant the comparison. Granted, Jeezy has done some stellar turns on mix-tapes over the past year but so much of his flavor -- like Mike Jones -- comes from self-promotion that it's hard to take him seriously. What's refreshing is that unlike so many of his peers, who bank on a bevy of big-name producers and all the beats money can buy, Jeezy's tracks are mostly unpretentious, underplayed. The beats serve him instead of the other way around. Most of the production -- from knob twiddlers including Mannie Fresh, who does little to alter his usual output with the Cash Money crew -- gives Jeezy the kind of head-bobbing bounce the rapper needs to offset his limited lyrical range. Of course, his drawl is a key element of his flow as are the hooky, one-word declarations littering so much Southern hip-hop. But we've been down the road of songs like ''My Hood" or the big pimpin' ''Don't Get Caught" many times before. There are fresher takes on a track like ''Trap Star," which has some penetrating verses. Ultimately, Jeezy is just another solid MC, whose skills simply don't assure that he'll endure.
Sons and Daughters
THE REPULSION BOX
From the first scrappy licks on ''The Repulsion Box," Sons and Daughters prove that they are the illegitimate children of lasso-wielding outlaws and mohawked British punk rockers. The band's quick drumbeats and twangy country guitar plucking make you want to burst into a saloon and start stomping wildly on the dusty floor; yet at the same time, Scottish singer Adele Bethel's raspy, venom-soaked singing leaves you wanting to wear enough hair dye, heavy eyeliner, and frayed denim to befit a Sex Pistols concert. Because of its freewheeling genre-blending, ''The Repulsion Box" manages to talk about loneliness and fractured relationships without seeming too cynical or melancholy. Instead, the album provides a blissfully numbing thrill, a rebellious ride through wild deserts and the grimiest urban streets. In ''Dance Me In," a standout track with a throbbing beat, Bethel and guitarist/vocalist Scott Paterson go back and forth with morbidly carefree lyrics: ''It's avoiding the plans, sneaking past the narrow truth / Remind me of the young, dance me in." They are like two ghosts who have witnessed so many eons of death and broken hearts that tragedy fails to move them -- they just want to be devilishly raucous, constantly. In the playfully titled ''Rama Lama," they tell the story of a woman who drowned in her bathtub after her boyfriend stopped paying her visits, and the neighbors don't even notice she's gone. But it seems like they are singing with a sly smile as they close the song with a rollicking ''Rama lama lama, Shake shake shake shake." ''The Repulsion Box" refreshingly tosses reflection to the wind in favor of nihilistic absurdity.