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Think Tank
Maybe it's the influence of vocalist/mouthpiece/chief decision-maker Damon Albarn's spectacularly successful Gorillaz project. Perhaps it's the fact that now ex-member Graham Coxon is no longer supplying guitar, rock cred, or the phrase "Seriously, Damon, are you completely off your head?" to the proceedings. In all probability, it was a combination of both that engendered this, Blur's least accessible, least rocking, least Britpop, least Blur-esque album to date. We all know that the storied English outfit has always displayed a penchant for cleverness, experimentation and general sonic fuckery, but Think Tank extrapolates that adventurousness into some seriously left-brained tinkering.

The disc opens with "Ambulance," an amalgam of light, quirky rhythm programming, techno-soulful female backing vocals and what might be Albarn's best attempt at a David Byrne impression. While interesting and nominally engaging, "Ambulance" also comes off as insubstantial beyond whatever leniency afforded contemporary computer-assisted pop music. And as the tunes keep coming, that feeling of sweetly screwing around, of not really meaning it at all, becomes a disappointingly recurring theme.

Think Tank features very little in the way of live instrumentation; they're not exactly a requirement for decent songs, but without the organic grounding they lend, the layers of gadgetry quickly spiral off into unchecked noodling. "Good Song," "On The Way to the Club," "Caravan" and the Norman Cook-assisted "Gene by Gene" all contain some neat noises or a quality vocal turn by Albarn. Unfortunately, there's never quite enough here to sustain more than a passing perk of the ears.

Given the flashy but flimsy standard set by those tunes, the standout songs stand way the hell out, indeed. First single "Crazy Beat," another cut featuring production by Fatboy Slim himself, is exactly what the name implies, an exhilarating ride overlaid with fuzzy guitars and some Vocoder madness. "We've Got A File On You" rages in immaculate, funky electro-punk style, for all of one minute. The William Orbit-knobbed "Sweet Song" is also aptly titled, a sublimely sugary ballad in which insubstantiality is an asset rather than detriment. And the raw, dynamic closer "Battery in your Leg" packs more human weight and genuine emotion into its brief span than the rest of Think Tank put together.

Generally speaking, experimentation is to be encouraged, and an outfit of Blur's tenure and pedigree can be forgiven one wildly self-indulgent full-length. Listening to Think Tank, however, one can't help but wonder if Coxon took more than a bit of the band's vitality with him when he left. There are a handful of great tunes here, but too often, it seems like their heart just wasn't in it. 1/2 —Scott Harrell

Sub Pop

The second outing by Chicago's Fruit Bats is a bag of delightful contradictions, which all make sense. Mouthfuls is epic and intimate, rootsy and lush, profound and light as air. The core of the group — lead singer/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Eric Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Gillian Lisee — and a cast of contributors have concocted a set of warm, melancholy folk-pop wrapped in heady arrangements. Acoustic guitar might be the sonic anchor, but the flourishes and details add crucial flair. Case in point: During a lovely swirl of vocal harmonies on "Seaweed," up pops the staccato plunking of a banjo. Johnson's aching, fragile voice aptly implement these ennui-laced melodies; Lisee layers background harmonies to luscious effect. Fruit Bats steer away from the purposeful dissonance heard in much indie and underground pop. They're just not that precious about it. "A Bit of Wind" is modeled, without irony, after the Beach Boys. You can also hear reverent vestiges of the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel throughout, but then, unexpectedly, you'll catch twinges of country. Mouthfuls possesses a kind of improbable cohesiveness that makes it compelling listen after listen. www.subpop.com —Eric Snider

The RH Factor: Hard Groove

Hip-hop's favorite trumpeter, who has layered seductive horn parts over albums by Common and D'Angelo, steps out for a groove-oriented solo album that unfortunately wanders too often into the realm of smooth jazz. This can be a difficult distinction. Elevator jazz favors laid-back funk beats, simple melodies and easy-to-digest solos; RH Factor employs somewhat hipper rhythm tracks and more challenging horn arrangements, but it comes off so patently a crossover bid that its artistry gets lost. Perhaps most disappointing of all, Hargrove, a trumpeter who has long held his own in the acoustic jazz world, seems bent on dressing up his horn with effects and layering them in ways that all but bury the actual solos. For the most part, the coolest stuff here features Hargrove's buds from the hip-hop world. "Common Freestyle" chugs along, supporting a conversational rap by Common. The simmering funk of "I'll Stay" has a '70s feel, thanks to D'Angelo's Wurlitzer organ and hushed, choir-style vocals. Q-Tip raps, Erykah Badu sings and Meshell N'Degeocello plays bass on the slinky "Poetry." With the help of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, Hargrove goes aggro-funk on "Out of Town." RH Factor has its moments, yes, but too much of it fails to make a distinctive imprint. 1/2 —Eric Snider

Infinite Keys
Jade Tree

There are quite a few new space-rock acts out there just now, languishing beautifully about and garnering Sigur Ros and Spiritualized comparisons. But few of them offer as complete and organic a sound, or as obvious a hard-on for Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, as Oklahoma conglomerate Ester Drang. The band's penchant for vintage keyboards and classically proggy cascading guitar tones produces a warmth and cohesion lacking from some of the genre's more scientific outfits. Plus, they write actual, honest-to-God songs, as opposed to blithely meandering soundscapes of no discernible form. Vocalist Bryce Chambers' high timbre will almost certainly draw Radiohead comparisons, as will some of the more esoteric keyboard augmentation, but Ester Drang's overall sound is far more rooted in accessible psychedelia than the "Head's postmodern and often amorphous experimentation. Layered and textured without ever becoming complicated, all of Infinite Keys' tracks ebb and flow to create a singular disc-long listening experience that hooks and lulls, but never bores. It's still early yet, but this album's combination of evocation and melody make it a strong contender for Headphone Album of the Year. 1/2 —Scott Harrell

Blue Note

Guitarist John Scofield, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Al Foster — no matter how you configure the syllables, it makes for one helluva jazz supergroup. (Although I'm not the last word on it, I've decided to pronounce the band name Scolo-HO-fo.) In the old days, all-star sessions would use standard tunes. One of the distinguished aspects of Oh! is that all of the material was written by band members: the serpentine post-bop of Lovano's title tune; Scofield's sprightly, Latinesque "Shorter Form;" Holland's cozy ballad "In Your Arms;" and Foster's vivaciously swinging "Brandyn." The quartet does not seem to be knotted up by the desire to create music that's particularly important or groundbreaking. Rather, the disc benefits from the musicians' playful, come-what-may attitude, lending a relaxed and appealing sense of flow. 1/2 —Eric Snider

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