ALL EARS 

OBSCURE ENOUGH TO BE POPULAR

Obscure how? Well, listen to the melodies on Hail to the Thief (EMI) - which strangely is not a political record, so back the hell off. You know full well Thom Yorke can write a memorable succession of notes, but instead he'd rather string the tones together like flowers on a garland, pretty enough to admire but quick to fade. His singing is distinctive but barely asserts its own personality; compare it to Coldplay, whose Chris Martin also wails yearningly in the upper register but desperately wants you to sing along.

Hail isn't as prog-wanky as the band's recent artsy excursions, though it certainly swims in the same gene pool. Some of the tracks even resemble rock music, albeit without the "and roll" part. Often these songs start off in dreamsville just to throw you off the track: "2+2=5," for instance, or "Sit Down, Stand Up," which is three-quarters over before kicking into an obsessive autobahn-tempo repetition of the words "the raindrops, the raindrops."

If you can manage to forget how frigging important it's supposed to be, though, there are a decent number of pleasures to be had on this record: the shimmying drone behind "Backdrifts," which feels like becoming tiny and standing inside a speaker cone; the iron-works guitar noises toward the end of "There There"; the percolating synthesized percussion of "The Gloaming." Don't rest the future of pop music on it, and it's a worthwhile release from a good band.

If Radiohead can be superstars, though, what's keeping The Notwist out of the limelight? Their Neon Golden (Domino Recordings) tills the same aesthetic soil, and comes up with a more consistent crop. Where Radiohead flirts with blip-hop, the Notwist is having a meaningful relationship; the album's 13 tracks are perfectly formed creations where blips, bloops, and glitches are structural as well as decorative devices.

The main difference is that occasionally distasteful atmosphere of icy grandeur - Notwist isn't having any of it. Where Yorke's soaring vocals tug at emotions his songs don't quite produce, Notwist singer and lyricist Markus Acher is relaxed and unpretentious. On "Pilot," he's an easygoing version of New Order's Bernard Sumner, but if Sumner had a detached streak, Acher undoes it on such tunes as the grinning "Off the Rails."

"Rails" and its kin also buck a trend by making acoustic - primitive, even - instruments feel at home among the synthesizers: The title track relies on classical Indian instruments, "Trashing Days" is based on a banjo line, and so on. It's a heterogeneous sonic package that lets machines breathe like men, all in the service of something better than mere modernistic cool. Why shouldn't a few hundred thousand hipsters make Notwist their new find? •


More by John DeFore

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