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U2 Leads This Week's New Releases 

U2

No Line on the Horizon

(Interscope)

The guys in U2 are the planet's last Big Rock Stars. They're multimillion-selling giants among faceless Frays and overreaching Coldplays. They pack stadiums with a huge repertoire of great songs that spans three decades. And they still make event albums that purport to be about something. Ever since 2000's back-on-track All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 has soaked in its own mythical stature. Their last album, 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was pretty much U2 Mad Libs: "inspiring adjective," "persuasive verb," "something that causes damage" - not bad, familiar sounding but ultimately forgettable. No Line on the Horizon, their 12th album, is a bit more inspired, reaching back to 1984's moody The Unforgettable Fire for motivation.

And it's right there from the start, on the opening title tune, where the guitars ring large, the words are quasi-mystical ("You can hear the universe in her sea shells") and the sound is that of a band with vital things on its mind, even if they are kinda vague at times. Producers Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite - the vets behind U2's best albums - layer the songs with oodles of atmospheric texture, as Bono gets all solemn and the Edge picks out weighty guitar lines. No Line on the Horizon is filled with this self-importance. Only the fizzy, fuzzy "Get on Your Boots" cracks a smile, but it sounds labored, especially within the context. Better are those Big Rock Star moments that made U2 big rock stars: "Magnificent"'s systematic buildup, the chiming "Unknown Caller" and "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight"'s sweeping grandeur. It's classic U2, toiling in the landscapes of hope, glory and messy messianic proclamations. - Michael Gallucci

Black Lips

200 Million Thousand

(Vice)

The amazing thing about nearly every Black Lips recording is the almost defiant way the band refuses to play the same kind of song consecutively. Utilizing an almost haphazard method of sequencing and pacing, Black Lips albums are like no-fi demos made by a dozen different bands for a themeless mix tape. The Atlanta quartet's new album, 200 Million Thousand, follows faithfully in this schizophrenic tradition. While the band has called their sound "flower punk," that phrase may be a loose translation meaning "the history of anarchic music filtered through whatever we feel right now." 200 Million Thousand opens with the tribal thump of "Take My Heart," sounding like the bastard crawlspace-hidden children of the Stooges who learned their sound through the floorboards and damp osmosis. It's immediately followed by the almost spritely "Drugs," a surf-tinged cage match between Camper Van Beethoven and the Replacements, which itself is left behind by "Starting Over," a Byrdsian janglefest that suggests Paul Westerberg channeling the La's. Like Reese's experiment with peanut butter and chocolate, the Black Lips emerge from their garage studio lab after mutating the co-existence of dissonance and melody, pop and punk, reeling improvisation and calculated deliberation. 200 Million Thousand is their lurching, flower-picking, child-mauling creation. - Brian Baker

Grandmaster Flash

The Bridge

(Strut)

While most of rap's early stars have faded from the spotlight, Grandmaster Flash is still doing his thing. Of course, it's easy to be skeptical - at this point, no one's going to argue his skills, but is he still able to make relevant music? With The Bridge, the legendary DJ answers that question with a resounding "yes." Most of the discs he's dropped in recent years have flown under the radar, but this time around he appeals to both old and new fans with a star-studded roster of guests. On "Here Comes My DJ," he teams up with DJ Kool for a house-rockin' jam that's sure to get any party started; the track recalls the energetic vibe of Kool's classic, "Let Me Clear My Throat." Flash helps the spastic Busta Rhymes find his groove on "Bounce Back" - the MC hasn't sounded this good in years. "Those Chix" breaks up the dudefest with some feisty female rhymes from Princess Superstar, Byata and Hedonis Da Amazon - the girls can definitely rock the mic. But the album's best cut is "What If," a serious tune where KRS-One ponders what life would be like without hip-hop. Thanks to the still-innovative Grandmaster Flash, we'll never have to know. - Eddie Fleisher

Thursday

Common Existence

(Epitaph)

After two albums on Island, New Jersey band Thursday is back on the indie-label circuit. The group fell victim to the cuts at the major label and seized the opportunity to sign with a company that would allow it to more fully explore its political side. Common Existence, the band's fifth album, retains its hardcore-influenced rock sound, allowing producer Dave Fridmann to roughen the edges more than on previous records. The result is a raw, explosive collection of 11 tracks that don't tiptoe around what the band wants them to be. Frontman Geoff Rickly is admirably unapologetic as he yelps and screams, giving the sense that he and his band made this record their way. "Resuscitation of a Dead Man" is an apt opening track, setting the tone with its surging guitars, urgent drums and guest vocals by Rise Against singer Tim McIlrath. Thursday is clearly not a major-label band, and that's a compliment. - Emily Zemler

The Bran Flakes

I Have Hands

(Illegal Art)

Beyond popularizing copyright-infringing experimentation and preaching its own weird gospel, the Bran Flakes don't appear to have any agenda to push. Political discourse? Nope. Mashups by hipsters for hipsters? Nah. This sample-happy American-Canadian concern seems content to stitch its steals into whippet-hit pop. I Have Hands serves up more of the glazed-eye same. Stentorian overtones of long-gone announcers usher us along on a sonic highway of musty musical-theater numbers, mawkish film dialogue, barking dogs, sonorous Julie Andrews wannabes, jazz flute solos and kids' cassette cheese. What's notable - and laudable - about Hands is how a crisp, mirthful pace is established and maintained, and how its seams don't show: Most of the time, IDing definite sources for this drum beat, that organ riff or those piano chords is pretty much impossible - so well-integrated, back-masked or scrambled are the various elements. There are exceptions: Those grunts and ad libs erupting on "Van Pop" have got to be James Brown exclamations; "Marchy March" seems to be built on rhythms from Chic's "Le Freak"; "Stumble Out of Bed" plainly and proudly borrows from Dolly Parton's hit "9 to 5" and, to a lesser extent, the Osmonds' "Think." The overall feel is one of whimsical pep and high circumstance - Flakes principals Mildred Pitt and Otis Fodder partying down in the sound lab and goading each other into just one more goofy, smiley-face-pin curio. It pays off. - Ray Cummings

Say Hi

Oohs & Aahs

(Barsuk)

In the year of Twitter, people can read friends' abbreviated blurbs about their daily lives. Eric Elbogen, the one-man band behind Say Hi, satisfies the blog-loving generation with lyrics that read like short diary entries. Each song is a vividly detailed piece of the puzzle that's his life. The Seattle-based musician sprinkles fuzzy synth, punchy drums and a melancholy but hopeful scratch of vocals across an album filled with themes of lost and tarnished love. The effect is always entrancing. Elbogen creates an echo chamber of vocals on "Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh" and perfectly portrays a really bad day in "Audrey," when he asks his girl, "Would you just play records and maybe listen to my sighs?" If Elbogen's bedroom-pop doesn't catch your fancy, just listen to the album as a sort of classified ad for his ideal girlfriend. He sprinkles clues throughout the songs - she listens to Violent Femmes and rare Built to Spill cuts, wears Saucony kicks, has a job as a radio DJ and cheats at board games. - Danielle Sills

N.A.S.A.

The Spirit of Apollo

(Anti-)

The real stars of N.A.S.A. aren't the L.A. production duo at the center of the studio project. It's all the big names that weave in and out of the grooves. For more than an hour, they come: David Byrne, M.I.A. They go: Tom Waits, Karen O. There's even a bunch of Wu-Tangers in there somewhere. Masterminds Squeak E. Clean and DJ Zegon get lost in the shuffle, but The Spirit of Apollo is all about mashing-up hip-hop like it's some sort of pliable natural substance. So even if the beats are supple (the lurching global funk of "The People Tree," "Strange Enough"'s razor-blade rock, the stuttering and spastic "Whachadoin?"), the rhymes flow like something out of a fever dream. Would you expect anything less from George Clinton, Kool Keith and Ol' Dirty Bastard? - Gallucci

Boy Least Likely To

The Law of the Playground

(+1)

So far, ll the news this year has been bad. The economy is collapsing, the environment is on self-destruct and no one will get a job in the next three months. But before you throw yourself off the nearest bridge, grab a copy of Boy Least Likely To's second album, The Law of the Playground. The Wendover, England-based duo of Pete Hobbs and Jof Owen makes music with an air of lightness that is a reminder that even when the economy is in the shitter, two musicians can still relish simple joys, while the rest of us sing and dance along. With bells, glockenspiels, fiddles, recorders and computers, the duo matches I'm From Barcelona in cuteness and lyrical content. The twee-pop touches on fears and tough times, but lingering innocence and zany instrumentation makes it refreshing. The album includes lines like "I know there is a big, scary world out there just waiting for me." It's a reminder to look at the world through the eyes of a child and, what the hell, break out that egg shaker every now and then. - Sills

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