Prayer + Pretend | Johann’s Face

The Atari Star’s third full-length CD is a batch of ominous originals, ranging from “Starve a Fever,” a punk-prog spasm, to “Night Striped Assassins,” a slab of violent electro-funk. It’s a far cry from the lush emo and manicured indie pop of the band’s first two albums, though front man Mark Ruvolo retains his nasty habit of wearing his heart on his sleeve, lapel, and every other piece of exposed fabric. But his earnestness actually works to good effect on tracks like “The Assimilationist,” an enveloping miasma of romantic masochism and metallic guitar. The whole album’s a dour festival of foreboding minor-key ruminations that require the right mood–black, ideally–and multiple listens to appreciate.


The Beloved Enemy | Undertow


Arabella | Broadmoor

The middle album of Jay Bennett’s post-Wilco solo CD trilogy, this nine-song effort is a breakup album firmly in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. While the often ramshackle record can’t touch those masterpieces, it is a significant improvement over Bennett’s disappointing spring release, Bigger Than Blue. He makes like Tom Waits on the searching “My Little Valentine” and Nick Cave on the murder ballad “It Might Have Looked Like We Were Dancing,” and ends with a downright suicidal cover of Tori Amos’s “Pretty Good Year.” The whole dark and disturbing affair sounds like a last-minute wail from someone about to plunge into the abyss. On the flip side, Arabella, the latest from Wilco bassist John Stirratt and his twin sister, Laurie, is a light and breezy 11-song set of pastoral pop. The sibs fashion a sound that’s closer to John’s AM Gold-loving side project the Autumn Defense than their early-90s redneck Replacements combo, the Hilltops. Though Arabella boasts an array of hotshot guests (Jeff Tweedy, Brad Jones, Will Kimbrough, Glenn Kotche), the Stirratts’ strong harmonies are the album’s chief appeal, twining together on the country lament “Can’t Stand Yourself,” the golden summer reverie “Canadian Noon,” and the softly chugging groover “Mistral.”


Lonely People of the World, Unite! | Mousse

Iowa native Davis is best known–if he’s known at all–as leader of the 90s college-rock outfit Irving and its offshoot Irving Philharmonic, a band firmly entrenched in the Sonic Youth/Dinosaur Jr camp. For Lonely People of the World, Unite!–his first album since moving to Chicago in 1999–he makes an ambitious transition. Davis plays most of the instruments himself (including trombone, piano, and theremin in addition to guitar, bass, and drums), and the album showcases his penchant for the big-tableau production, feedback-laden hooks, and winking wordplay associated with arena-friendly power poppers like Superdrag and Weezer. The album launches with the brass-fueled bubblegum fuzz of “Iron Woman” and “When I Turn Ninety-Nine,” then heads off in manifold directions; it shifts from Kinks-style cleverness (“Giant Spiders”) to 50s-flavored barrelhouse piano (“Paratrooper With Amnesia”) to a funereal organ ballad (“The Choir Invisible”) before closing with the sweeping geek soul of “Deserted Eyeland.” Not a duff track in the bunch.


In the Right Hands | The Sirens

This past June, Steven B. Dolins of Highland Park’s The Sirens label gathered together a trio of Chicago gospel keyboard kingpins for this historic session, which is as powerful as the label’s other classic all-star unions like 8 Hands on 88 Keys and Heavy Timbre–Chicago Boogie Piano. Dixon is the biggest name here–he’s earned multiple Grammy nominations and worked with pop artists like Paul Simon–but it’s Shaffer who steals the show, bringing an unabashed Baptist fervor to “When the Saints Go Marching In” and delicate grace to his duets with Geraldine Gay. The three tackle a mostly instrumental songbook of church standards and evocative originals, but the album’s standout is a deeply felt vocal performance of the trad “I Have a Friend” featuring Gay’s brother, Pastor Donald Gay.


Low Income Housing | Domination

Prolific underground rap vet Infinito (of Unorthodox Poets Society) joins forces with fellow south-sider Thaione Davis (who released an ambitious solo joint, Situation Renaissance, last summer) for this 15-track, 52-minute exercise in thought-provoking hip-hop. With Infinito handling the rhymes and Davis guiding the production, the album balances socially conscious, historically aware tracks (“MK Ultra,” “Equal Opportunity Employment”) and snazzy sound collages (“Samuel L. Jackson vs. Dolomite,” “Marcellous Dublace”). Davis and turntablist DJ Waht provide dense and layered (though not especially hooky) backdrops, and Infinito’s earnest flow is well suited to their forays into jazz, soul, and Jamaican music. UPS cohorts Cosmo Galactus and Mr. Skurge make a memorable guest appearance on “Bubblegum Artist,” a screed about dilettante rappers and the state of black radio. Recorded during a whirlwind two-day session, the album lacks the careful craftsmanship of Infinito’s 2002 release, Music With Sound Right Reasoning, but it’s a winning effort nonetheless.


Mutual Insignificance | File 13

Led by D.C. transplant Chris Thomson, former front man of Circus Lupus, the Monorchid, and Skull Kontrol, the Red Eyed Legends have tweaked their personnel for their second EP of the year, losing guitarist Steve Denekas and adding Dishes veteran Kiki Yablon (who also works at the Reader) on guitar and Farfisa. Though this stuff is still best enjoyed in small doses, Mutual Insignificance is more polished and satisfying than the band’s debut, The High I Feel When I’m Low (GSL), and manages to make something worthwhile out of the danceable postpunk style that’s been abused by a crowd of paint-by-numbers preeners like the Killers and Hot Hot Heat. The thundering “Go-Go Girls” and the hooky, stop-start “Cold in the Sun” stand out among these five tangled, insistent songs, and Thomson’s vocals are the star of the show throughout, evoking both English art punk and American hardcore with their combination of brattiness and bile.