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Matthew Friedberger
Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School (859)

As one half of the Fiery Furnaces--the brother/sister duo known for their exasperatingly adventurous/experimental/expressive alt-rock (which has involved their wacky grandmother on vocals)--multi-instrumentalist Matthew Friedberger can be counted on to supply inspiration, perspiration and a healthy dose of grand madness. His solo debut shows him to be a gifted sample manipulator, a slapdash singer and a talented (if scatterbrained) songwriter. The first CD of this double disc, Winter Women, sounds like Harry Nilsson (or perhaps Flo and Eddie) lost in a maze with only his keyboard, a sampler and booze for friends. Friedberger sings in an undecipherable stream-of-consciousness mumble as horror organs, guitar, synths (mellotron?), tinkertot piano, cheesy string machines, and frenetic, neurotic drumming run rampant. But there's a wonderful sense of organic glee running throughout this stumbling music, and Friedberger's odd, often spoken vocals ("from West Virginia to West Side Story ") lead you on a journey unlike anything you're likely to hear this year (or any other). His melancholic melodies are even more stark when joined with plunging-down-a-wormhole instrumentation--the sum effect like canned goods crashing out of the cupboard and onto your head. The second disc, Holy Ghost Language School, is pretty much more of the same, charging headlong into a whirlwind of lumbering pianos, freak sound effects, awkward beats and gentle melodies exposing the little boy behind the big vision. (Ken Micallef)

Download: "Her Chinese Typewriter," "Do You Like Blondes?", "Cross and the Switchblade."

Shout out Louds
Combines (Capitol)

Of all the things going through my mind while absorbing Shout out Louds' charismatic Stateside debut Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, I never thought, "I'd love to hear this remixed." And yet here we are a year later, and the Swedish guitar-pop outfit has allowed some pals to tinker with four of Howl's songs as a stopgap before a proper follow-up. Combines opens with the new song "I Meant to Call," and though it's not a remix, it was produced by the Stockholm duo Harlem on a bed of processed beats. Despite being a little too long, it underscores the band's strengths, namely sugary melodies and Adam Olenius' empathetic songwriting. Then we're into the remixes, starting with Ratatat's take on the single "The Comeback," which sounds a hundred times hipper than the original (surely an iPod commercial will spring up around it) and keeps intact the indelible lyrics. Not so with Konstruction and the Subliminal Kid's "Seagull," for which the vocals are made robotic and surrounded in squiggly effects until it resembles a lost track by the defunct vocoder addicts Plone. Architecture in Helsinki apply their usual array of shimmering carnivalesque sounds to "Very Loud," and Harlem return to transform "Shut Your Eyes" into the EP's most dance-ready submission, making the title refrain into a New Order-style call to the floor. As with all remixes, it takes time to get over people messing with songs you love, but once the shock dissipates, each entry here displays as much color and vigor as the song from which it evolved. (Doug Wallen)

Download: "Shut Your Eyes," "The Comeback."

Ani DiFranco
Reprieve (Righteous Babe)

After a couple years of press attention and more accessible big-band sound, it almost looked like Ani DiFranco was going to stay in the country's musical consciousness like her major-label counterparts. But then she pulled back in a big way, not so much dropping albums as quietly placing them, each one softer, more understated and more stripped down than the last. All were high on craft, but varied when it came to listenability. Reprieve, more focused than her recent Evolve or Educated Guess, starts with a slow boil, proceeding to simmer over a dark, bubbling stew of plunking minor chords and sad, plodding longing. The payoff comes halfway through--kinda. The centerpiece trio of "Millennium Theater," "Half-Assed" and the title poem convey the emotional core of the album, but they come off a little uneven and hollow. But for every political platitude ("Halliburton, Enron, chief justice's for sale," she laundry-lists at one point, to almost zero effect), DiFranco can still pull off a line or metaphor that pretty much flattens you on the first listen: "I had to be more or less true/ To learn to tell the two apart," she sings on the late-game pickup "Shroud." Reprieve never explodes the way you want it to, but she never takes the pot off the fire either. (Jeffrey Barg)

Download: "Hypnotized," "Half-Assed," "A Spade."

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Mondo Topless
Take It Slow (Get Hip)

Their last album was titled Go Fast! and fetishized sexual self-sufficiency ("Think With Your Hands") and laundry room kinks ("Panty Sniffer"), but these vox-fueled garage revivalists aren't exactly ready to mellow. Take It Slow is balls-out rock 'n' roll in the tradition of the Lyres, the Fleshtones and the Mono Men--and by extension, all the 1960s bands that inspired them. Rinky-dink organ lines run into short, testosterone-charged guitar riffs for a rough-edged party vibe in the title cut, and there's an "apeshit whistle" credited in "It Hurts Me." "Louise," a Paul Revere and the Raiders cover, is radiantly goofy, all tangled guitar solos and arching harmonies, but "Beer" takes things to a new level with a "Wipeout"-style drum intro and crazed chants about beer and its (possible) consequences. (Liner notes explain the tune is a shameless ploy for a Yuengling sponsorship.) "Stupidity" is a bar-band tour de force, a bluesy call and response leading into a molten organ solo, and "Just One Thrill" hammers its simple riff into glorious oblivion. The whole album feels like a drunken hookup. Super fun, but not to be taken seriously. (Jennifer Kelly)

Download: "Beer," "Louise."

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