The Sunshine Fix -- Green Imagination (spinART): Pop music is about the tension between the familiar and the unpredictable, and the Sunshine Fix's Green Imagination hints how that works as Bill Doss of Olivia Tremor Control plays with pop conventions to psychedelic ends. The first Sunshine Fix album, The Age of the Sun, was more conceptually daring, manipulating a handful of riffs and melodies to see how many ways parts could be reconfigured to produce successful pop. For Doss, the musical language of pop is a big box of Legos, and Green Imagination shows Beatles' hooks can be assembled almost randomly and still produce catchy if not always memorable pop.
Together We're Heavy (Good), the second album from the Polyphonic Spree, works similarly. Singer Tim DeLaughter's voice recalls the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne's fragile tenor, and Eric Drew Feldman's production shares some of the Lips' grandiosity. Unfortunately, it's not clear if DeLaughter is mixing and matching the pop parts for any reason beyond the fact that he can. Only "Section 12: Hold Me Now" lingers, possibly because it's the most familiar sentiment couched in a new, immense musical framework. Eventually, the Spree's choir, horns and strings sound as monochromatic as a Ramones album.
Far more successful is Keane's Hopes and Fears (Interscope). The pieces are no more organic, though his youth might lead Tim Rice-Oxley to claim otherwise. These songs work because like the best pop, Keane stamps its identity on the assembled Kinks and U2 hooks. Rice-Oxley's piano defines the sound and lends drama to the affair, a drama stepped up by his yearning, reaching vocals. His voice has a hint of Freddie Mercury, but he seems guileless in his grand passions, an effect Mercury was too self-aware to manage. If American pop radio was more interested in songs and less consumed with manufacturing trends, it would be easy to imagine two or three hits here.
Velvet Revolver -- Contraband (RCA)/Tommy Stinson -- Village Gorilla Head (Sanctuary): If Contraband was the first album by a young bunch of musicians no one had heard of, it might be exciting. But it's not. It's former members of Guns 'n' Roses and Stone Temple Pilots who've made enough ignored records since their respective heydays to recognize the value of remaking the things that made them big in the first place. The results are hard enough to be satisfying on the surface, but with the title and Scott Weiland's cheaply melodramatic lyrics, it's hard to get around the suspicion that any edge and danger is calculation rather than the weird chemistry that made the original bands interesting. Former Replacements and current Guns 'n' Roses member Tommy Stinson is back with a pretty good pop album, but it's hard to imagine who will be happy with it. The production has a big-money sheen and the performances are measured and appropriate, two things no Replacements fan has patience for. Then again, the songs have just enough melodic complexity and vulnerability to leave GNR fans wondering if/when Chinese Democracy will ever come out.
De La Soul -- Live at Tramps, NYC, 1996 and De La Mix Tape: Remixes, Rarities & Classics (Tommy Boy/Rhino): Those who bailed on De La Soul after 3 Feet High and Rising or De La Soul Is Dead missed some strong albums, but these two recent recordings are best viewed as appendixes to a distinguished career. The live rap vocals are clearer and more prominent on Live at Tramps, NYC, 1996 than they may ever have been on a live rap album before, but Maseo's DJing is so far in the background it's almost inaudible. Pos and Trugoy repeating "I hate this song" during "Me, Myself and I" is funny, but it's not funny enough to buy. Ironically, the Badmarsh + Shri remix of "Me, Myself and I" is the only track that's sufficiently transformed on De La Mix Tape to merit seeking out. With a flute playing the melody and tabla and programmed drums carrying the rhythm, this dance remix gains an Asian feel that seems appropriate for a Native Tongues group. Nothing's wrong on the album, but nothing else is sufficiently eye-opening to be necessary either. Mary McBride -- By Any Other Name (Reality): Southern boogie and country ballads aren't McBride's escape into the past and away from the too sordid world; they're the lenses this Brooklynite uses to look at city life today. The girl in the toll booth with multicolored hair could just as easily be the waitress in a small diner the patrons watch just a little too long, and when she sings about having to choose between the bottle and the Bible, the distinction between the rural and the urban blur. Even though the songs have content, that doesn't mean they're too serious. She's enough of a rock 'n' roller to enjoy a rowdy good time, and if her choice of co-conspirators -- Steve Wynn and Dan Baird-- doesn't tell you that, her voice does.