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This week's reviews: They came, they saw, they Conchord

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While this week's reviews are dominated by the gargantuan rock titans that are Flight of the Conchords, there's more -- Ashlee Simpson, Phil Vassar, Story of the Year! Capsules follow:

> Flight of the Conchords is the kind of parody record "you'll want to play for everyone you know," I go out on a limb to predict.

>  Ashlee Simpson "channels Debbie Harry, Madonna and Toni Basil about as well as any girl who could afford the help," snipes Elysa Gardner in a vintage assault on mediocrity.

> Story of the Year's "personal stories connect better than its more ambitious admonishments," says a generally impressed Brian Mansfield.

> Phil Vassar "often winds up sounding like hair metal without guitars," Brian declares, conjuring a rather frightening prospect.

> Former Star Search winner Tiffany Evans "has a lot going for her" on her debut album, Steve Jones feels.

> Brit band the Duke Spirit can sound "attractively melodic and intriguingly unsettling at the same time," it seems to me.

> Hayes Carll's "best rakish ramblings put him on a par with such collaborators as Darrell Scott and Ray Wylie Hubbard," compliments Brian.

Full reviews and links follow.

> This week's spotlight album:

Flight of the Conchords: * * * 1/2 -- Achieving parody

The temptation in reviewing the first album by this deadpan duo from New Zealand is to quote endlessly from the wealth of lethal one-liners lurking like land mines in the midst of seemingly serious songs. Tracks such as Inner City Pressure, The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room) and Business Time — the seduction song to end all seduction songs — are so skillfully constructed along the lines of their ’70s/’80s models (Barry White, Prince) that they almost suck you in.

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie also parody hip-hop, ’60s psychedelia and (most devastatingly) David Bowie while providing riveting commentary on such modern-day crises as arrogant bank clerks and impolite epithets and conjuring a near-future dystopia in which robots have destroyed humans and are left with a few clumsy dance moves. A Kiss Is Not a Contract is a much-needed contribution to the underpopulated genre of male chastity songs.

Most parody/comedy records wear out their welcome quickly. This one — even though fans have seen the songs performed on the duo’s HBO series — may be an exception, because you’ll want to play it for everyone you know. — Ken Barnes

>>Download: Tracks mentioned,Robots, Bowie, The Prince of Parties >>Consider: Foux du Fafa, Boom

> More notable albums:

Ashlee Simpson, Bittersweet World: * * -- That '’80s Show

With this collection of bouncy, banal homages to the ’80s, Simpson proves she can do more than generically angsty, post-Avril Lavigne girl-pop. She can also crank out generically blithe, pre-Avril Lavigne girl-pop. Aided by Timbaland, The Neptunes’ Chad Hugo and others, the famous little sister channels Debbie Harry, Madonna and Toni Basil about as well as any girl who could afford the help. But if someone with so little perceptible personality or presence can sustain the media’s rapt attention, whose fault is that — hers or ours? — Elysa Gardner

>>Consider: Boys >>Skip: title track, the single Little Miss Obsessive, Hot Stuff

Story of the Year, The Black Swan: * * 1/2 -- Long story short

For an album that takes its title from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book about the highly improbable, Story of the Year’s third set gets a little predictable as it plays out. That’s not entirely a bad thing: SOTY is a smart band, with song topics that range from global conscience to interracial romance, and they hold their balance between fiercely melodic choruses and more aggressive shouting. But the band’s personal stories connect better than its more ambitious admonishments — the longer somebody shouts about ignorance and apathy, the more it starts to sound like a rant instead of enlightenment. — Brian Mansfield

>>Download: Wake Up, Tell Me (P.A.C.) >>Skip: Cannonball

Phil Vassar, Prayer of a Common Man: * * 1/2 -- Whoa-oh, halfway there

Vassar goes for social commentary as he rails against gas prices and “fat cats,” but in terms of relevance, this piano-playing country singer comes closer to Bon Jovi than Merle Haggard. Fortunately, he has some help saving him from his nobler aspirations — song pros Jeffrey Steele and Craig Wiseman, who write about a wedding from the perspectives of the attendees, and Los Lonely Boys, who bring a Tex-Mex rave-up. When left to his own devices, Vassar often winds up sounding like hair metal without guitars. — Mansfield

>>Download: Love Is a Beautiful Thing, Why Don’t Ya >>Skip: Baby Rocks, The World Is a Mess

Tiffany Evans: * * 1/2 --Talent show grad with talent

The 15-year-old 2003 Star Search winner has a lot going for her as she makes her debut. She’s got a cadre of top-flight producers and songwriters and an R&B/pop-star mentor in Ciara, who joins her on the sweet young-love single, Promise Ring. But the best thing she has is a voice that seems a little farther along in years that its owner. The songs are catchy enough, though they generally stay safely in the girl-thinking-about-boys mode. Maybe that is all there is to think about at her age, but a couple of her edgier songs hint that there is more beneath the thematic surface. — Steve Jones

>>Download: Promise Ring, I’m Grown, Girl Gone Wild, Thinking About It >>Skip: Again, Impossible

The Duke Spirit, Neptune: * * * -- British intrigue

It’s a good year for British female vocalists so far. Leona Lewis is burning up the charts, Amy Winehouse swept most of the Grammys and acts such as Adele Bethel’s Sons & Daughters are freshening the rock scene. The Duke Spirit (featuring the distinctively husky, faintly exotic vocal stylings of Liela Moss) is the latest rock-styled present for American ears. The upbeat tunes sometimes sound ordinary, but when the band takes the tempo down, the effect is often attractively melodic and intriguingly unsettling at the same time. — Barnes

>>Download: Wooden Heart, My Sunken Treasure, Sovereign >>Skip: You Really Wake Up the Love in Me

Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind: * * * Texas troubadour

The first of many girls who whirl through Carll’s third album likes him to watch her naked. That makes her a drunken poet’s dream, to his mind, and this Texas troubadour’s happy to play that dreamer. Carll’s characters have problems with commitment, booze and religion, and the Tom Waits cover gets to the album’s essence faster than any of his own songs, but his best rakish ramblings put him on a par with such collaborators as Darrell Scott and Ray Wylie Hubbard. That’s a place any drunken poet worth the price of his guitar would dream about. — Mansfield

>>Download: Faulkner Street, Willing to Love Again, the cover of Waits’ I Don’t Want to Grow Up >>Skip: She Left Me for Jesus

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