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ALL EARS 

IS "FEY SUPER-GROUP" AN OXYMORON?

Yet the songs are written by one man, Gary Lightbody, and the pictures they paint - of long-lingering broken hearts and slowly decaying romances - are too specifically evocative to get lost amid two dozen musical personalities. Those collaborators are sensitive, anyhow, and would never get in the way; for the most part, they provide sweet backing vocals or tasteful orchestration. The only song that really sounds like it could belong to another member's band is "Whodunnit?," which features the unmistakable voice of Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat. With this sophomore record, the collective is starting to look less like a cobbled-together indie supergroup than a living band. I'll bet Lightbody's manager hates that - imagine the headaches of coordinating a tour with 27 musicians, most of whom have other successful bands on the side.

On our side of the Atlantic, Chicago's Aluminum Group is a very similar entity - in which two brothers, Frank and John Navin, have conned 17 musicians, many of whom have perfectly fine careers of their own (my dream girl, Spinanes founder Rebecca Gates, for instance), into playing their songs. (What's interesting about both of these groups is that guest players and core members alike are listed together, as if all were equal partners.)

Much of the breezily sophisticated music on the Group's illiterately titled Happyness (Wishing Tree) would not have sounded out of place in the '80s, if you had heard it on the radio sandwiched between Talk Talk and Bryan Ferry. Although tracks such as "Stroke" do include recognizably contemporary electronica ingredients, they are gently swallowed by dry, late-Sunday-afternoon horn arrangements, reassuringly obvious bass lines, and lightly sugared vocal harmonies.

It all runs the risk of preciousness, but the Nevins' smart, elliptical lyrics anchor the songs, which never try too hard to make you swoon with gauzy melodies. With all the recent critical noise about resurgences of this or that once-dead musical style, the Aluminum Group has staked out their own retro territory: It's hard to imagine anybody else hopping on this bandwagon.

Another Belle & Sebastian spinoff, Looper, had a record out recently called The Snare (Mute) that no listener in the world would have connected to B&S. It is a pleasantly moody concept album which, from the opening tune's hammered dulcimer, has enough hints at classic movie soundtracks to clue you in that the songwriter is trying to make an epic; it's fine in a Portishead kind of way, but none of the songs are likely to get under your skin.

Fans of the Magnetic Fields might have the same kind of problem hearing the latest Future Bible Heroes release, Eternal Youth (Instinct) as being related to Fields songwriter Stephin Merritt. FBH is Merritt's place to play with layered synth-pop and occasional dance beats, and those sounds don't always jibe with the songwriter's oddball lyrics. Things come together on, say, "Doris DayTheEarthStoodStill," which sounds as if it were performed deep in an ocean of thick liquids that bubble together but never combine; but the techno thing doesn't work at all for "I'm A Vampire," which might have been great as one of the Fields' pared-down acoustic numbers (especially if Merritt were to do the vocal, which he doesn't, here). Youth is not a bad record, but the songwriter would be doing the music world a favor if he would make just four or five Fields records a year and take the band on a proper tour.

A note about names: "Aluminum Group" is a tribute to a line of office furniture produced by master designers Charles and Ray Eames. An "Arab Strap" is an exotic sex toy. And "Reindeer Group"? Your guess is as good as mine.


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