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Fresh thoughts on new music

BY MARTIN BANDYKE • FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER • August 10, 2008

Boy bands will always have a place in pop culture as long as they gain approval from their key demographic: teenage girls. Say what you will about the limited shelf life and artistic merits of most of these groups, the beleaguered record industry welcomes acts like these to prop up sagging sales.

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One of the latest in a long line of G-rated acts with kid appeal to hit mega-stardom is the Jonas Brothers -- Nick, Kevin and Joe -- New Jersey natives who are releasing their third album, "A Little Bit Longer" (TWO STARS out of four stars, out Tuesday on Hollywood Records). Arriving on the heels of a Rolling Stone cover story, massive iTunes sales and a sold-out concert tour that includes three nights at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, it's the latest bid for world domination from the youthful trio..

To their credit, the brothers played their own instruments and wrote all the squeaky-clean, power-pop songs on this album, one that is sure to scorch the top of the Billboard album chart for weeks to come.

Loud guitars and sing-along choruses are the order of the day on "BB Good," "Burnin' Up" and "Shelf," all sounding like the Ramones backing up Rick Springfield. Lighter in tone is the ballad "Love Bug," which starts off with acoustic guitars before bursting into a gaudy, stadium-rock finale. Parents will be relieved to know that the Jonas Brothers are about as wholesome and innocent a band as you can hope for these days.

There may not be a ton of variation in the music, but the messages are thoroughly positive and life-affirming.

"A Little Bit Longer" is currently streaming in its entirety at mtv.com.

Stereolab is still helmed by founding members Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, and "Chemical Chords" (THREE STARS out of four stars, out Aug. 19 on 4AD) -- the group's first album in four years -- is eccentric, arty and utterly delightful. Combining '60s pop with elements lifted from '70s experimental German rockers Can and Neu, Stereolab has a unique sound, with Sadier's low-key but hypnotic vocals employed well on the title track and "Self Portrait with 'Electric Brain.' " Both have the unlikely feel of Motown songs sung by the late Velvet Underground vocalist Nico -- a strange but beautiful juxtaposition. (Stereolab performs at the Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac on Oct. 9.)

Contemporary folk quintet the Duhks (pronounced "ducks") went through major personnel changes over the last year or so, with vocalist Sarah Dugas and her percussionist brother Christian replacing former members Jessica Havey and Scott Senior. Sometimes change is good, because "Fast Paced World" (THREE STARS out of four stars, out Aug. 19 on Sugar Hill) finds this band of skilled Canadians sounding refreshed and inspired. The impressive version of the traditional song "Mighty Storm," about the devastating 1900 flood in Galveston, Texas, features fiddler Tania Elizabeth, along with a blistering, gospel-influenced vocal from Dugas. A strong cover of Brazilian composer Carlinhos Brown's "Magalenha" is a knockout and a testament to the Duhks' diverse, open-minded approach.

Bob Dylan has a new track streaming on his Web site (bobdylan.com) and it's a tasty appetizer from the eighth release in his Bootleg Series, "Tell Tale Signs" (out Oct. 7 on Columbia).

"Dreamin' of You" is a fully realized studio recording from the 1997 sessions that resulted in his brilliant album "Time Out of Mind" and features haunting, high-range guitars behind a lyric that reflects a romantic obsession. The other 26 songs on "Tell Tale Signs" will be previously unreleased recordings and alternate takes from the past 20 years of Dylan's career, a golden period that produced "Oh, Mercy," "Time Out of Mind," "Love and Theft" and "Modern Times." It will be available in a standard two-CD and four-LP set, as well as a limited-edition three-CD set that will have an additional 12 rare tracks and deluxe artwork.

Two releases that hit stores last week are worth quick mentions: "Harps and Angels" by Randy Newman (FOUR STARS out of four stars, Nonesuch) and "She Ain't Me," by Carrie Rodriguez (THREE STARS out of four stars, Manhattan). Pianist and vocalist Newman's first album of new, non-soundtrack material in nine years is a masterpiece, with brilliantly written songs that run from the satirical to the achingly sincere. Rodriguez is a protégé of "Wild Thing" songwriter Chip Taylor, and her second album is an engaging showcase for the singer and fiddle player whose roots lie in the blues, country and folk.

Ann Arbor's music scene is thriving, and one of the area's most original and compelling bands -- Mason Proper -- is preparing to release its second album next month. "Olly Oxen Free" (FOUR STARS out of four stars, out Sept. 23 on Dovecote) is an intelligent, multilayered work from the quintet originally based in Alpena and led by Jonathan Visger on vocals, guitar and keyboards. Visger and band mates Zac Fineberg (bass), Brian Konicek (guitar), Matt Thomson (guitar, keyboards) and Garrett Jones (drums) play with tremendous cohesiveness throughout, with the dynamic "Shiny" and "Lock and Key" are particularly impressive.

All the songs lean toward the angular and unusual, never quite going where you expect them to. Credit Mason Proper for delivering something far more imaginative than most indie-rock fare. Sample tracks from "Olly Oxen Free" at myspace.com/masonproper, and catch Mason Proper's CD release gig at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor on Sept. 25. Everyone who attends the show will receive a free copy of the new album.

Free Press special writer MARTIN BANDYKE may be heard on Ann Arbor radio station. WQKL-FM (107.1, annarbors107one.com). Contact Bandyke through www.martinbandyke.com. Playlist appears on Sunday and rotates among Bandyke and Free Press music critic Mark Stryker and Free Press pop music critic Brian McCollum.

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