Rough Trade
These four lads from suburban Dublin make the purest pop of any band around. They don't even bother with the power. Hal's debut is sugary but not saccharine, sunny but with traces of melancholy, consummately tuneful but ambitious in a very ear-friendly way.

The milestones influences are here: Brian Wilson, McCartney, Simon & Garfunkel. But Hal goes even further into the pop realm to evoke wisps of such '60s chart-toppers as The Association, The Turtles and even the Cowsills. But enough name-dropping. Surprisingly, Hal is not a derivative act, at last not in terms of paying outright homage to particular bands of yore. It's more that they adhere to the pure pop ideal, dispensing with any sour notes or off-key vocals, the stuff that so many contemporary pop-leaning rock acts use as little hipness merit badges.

Formed by brothers Dave and Paul Allen, Hal, like any legit pure pop combo, is built around heavenly vocal harmonies. Lead singer Dave possesses the kind of tenor that mixes equal parts fragility and tensile strength with a higher-gear falsetto that brings tunes to still more ecstatic crescendos. He's reminiscent at times of Freddie Mercury sans the bombast, McCartney at his gentlest.

Although a few of the songs feature the kind of verse-chorus-verse format that makes for singles (presumably on British radio), many others are built in sections. The five-and-a-half-minute "My Eyes are Sore" could be an outtake from Smile, with its myriad movements, all gorgeous, and lovely sonic swirl. It's this type of sophistication that prevents Hal from becoming so sticky-sweet that you ultimately get a toothache.

And while the quartet uses the staple instrumentation of guitar, drums, bass and keyboards, many of the songs are augmented with lush strings and creamy horn sections, lending an epic, mildly psychedelic feel.

I was initially dubious about just how much of this confection I could take. As it turns out, I ate the whole thing. And I liked it.

-Eric Snider

Beggars Banquet
This Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati quintet's sophomore record, 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, earned worldwide underground acclaim for its noir-ish blend of vaguely, darkly Americana-influenced sounds and contemporary urban-Gothic vibe. Alligator, the band's first release for enduring label Beggar's Banquet, finds The National eschewing all but the remotest connections to American roots music in favor of expanding the more brooding, idiosyncratic and cinematic elements of its aural character. That doesn't mean Alligator is less accessible, however - if anything, the band is now even more resonant and emotionally compelling; tracks like "Karen," "Lit Up," "All the Wine" and "Abel" are as immediately engaging as ever. Singer Matt Berninger's consistently Nick Cave-compared baritone, defiantly non-traditional vocal cadences, and poetic lyrical mess of free association, metaphor and pointed aside ("You're the lowlife of the party," " You know you have a permanent piece/ of my medium-sized American heart") remain highlights. Drummer Bryan Devendorf's clever, syncopated percussion adds an alternately urgent and celebratory feel. But it's the guitar work of multi-instrumentalists Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Scott Devendorf that really raises the bar in terms of originality and atmosphere. The result is an original, impeccably moody, and utterly unclassifiable album that draws the listener tightly in while still making room for big dynamics and feelings; it's easily one of the two or three best "rock" records to emerge so far this year. Or last year. Or the year before that.

-Scott Harrell

Gimme Fiction
Over the course of four albums, Spoon have crafted one of the most distinctive sounds in modern rock. The key to their music is, without a doubt, the beat, a pulse that can be either sparse or layered, but is always in the forefront. I've never heard a rock band employ the percussive and rhythmic ring of the piano as brilliantly as Spoon regularly does, and even the clipped phrasing of lead singer Britt Daniel's lyrics contributes to the head-bobbing effect. Gimme Fiction, the band's fifth CD, departs in small ways from its predecessors by using abstract feedback more often than on any record since 1998's A Series of Sneaks. And by letting loose: Songs average around four minutes, epic by Spoon standards. Neither a huge leap forward from their latest, Kill the Moonlight, nor a retelling of previous highs, the album is free to revel in Spoon's established milieu while never being afraid to try something new. If that sounds like faint praise, it's not. Gimme Fiction only confirms that Spoon is absolutely one of the finest bands in the world.

-Cooper Lane Baker

Black Dialogue
Definitive Jux
The title of this record perfectly encapsulates what makes it special: The Perceptionists are fiercely political, but still able to deftly dodge the preachy tone that often hampers politically committed art. It's this idea of "dialogue" that sets them free. Yes, there are songs like "Memorial Day," a hollered middle finger at those in power, and we need them nowadays. But there's also a romantic song, "Love Letters," that's unabashedly beautiful and heartfelt. And "Career Finders," an absolutely hilarious caricature of the reigning tropes of corporate hip-hop, with the group's two MCs, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik, trading verses with guest Humpty Hump. Sample: "What's your skill?/ Every day I blast niggas with tecs/ Can you use an AK?/ Hell yeah/ Is that a fact?/ AK, pull up the plane and get this kid to Iraq." The production is generally excellent, courtesy of outsiders like El-P and insiders like the group's DJ, Fakts One. Black Dialogue also benefits from a brevity that's rare in the rap world. It's still everything dialogue should be: provocative, passionate, funny, open, inviting and, above all, dramatically three-dimensional. (www.definitivejux.net) 1/2

-Cooper Lane Baker

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