Our reviewers give you the low-down on new and notable recordings

Exciter, Reprise
When a new album comes out from any band that's been around as long as Depeche Mode, you've gotta remember not to fall into that "why don't they make songs like they did in 1986?" trap. Come on, are you doing the same thing you did in 1986? We all should have grown up a little since then, and this band certainly has. The first track on Exciter, the single "Dream On," is like classic '90s Depeche Mode; the combination of Dave Gahan's low, breathy voice and that erotic, driving guitar that makes you want to press your thighs together and sigh makes for perfect dance-floor fodder. After that initial hook, though, the disc goes deeper into new places, a dark yet uplifting, swirling world of soft dreamy melodies wafting over thick, soupy layers of electronic pulses and beats. In the press materials, keyboardist Andrew Fletcher compares it to the 1986 album Black Celebration, "in that it has lots and lots of good songs that sound completely different but actually work together on one album," and Exciter does flow in that same disjointed but workable way, making it fresh on every listen. --Amrah Fatale

Vingt à Trente Mille Jours, Labels/ Virgin-France
In the teeny-tiny confines of France's indie-rock scene, Françoiz Breut reigns as a doleful, brooding queen. On her haunting 1997 debut, Breut and her songwriting partner Dominique A sidestepped the kitschy conventions of ye-ye girl-group retro, as well as the often-dreary theatrical mannerisms of France's latter-day chanson pop vocals. The pair crafted a uniquely alluring soundscape in which Breut's understated, Marianne Faithfull-ish vocals slid alongside murky, jazz-tinged arrangements reminiscent of Tom Waits' most foreboding collaborations with guitarist Marc Ribot. Four years later, that sinister grace is reprised, but with a lighter feel that shifts subtly between mournful beauty (á la Tindersticks) and outright handclapping bounciness (as on "L'Origine Du Monde"). Enlisting the aid of Gallic indie-poppers such as Katerine and Autour de Lucie, France's most downcast mademoiselle still paints a somber scene, but now shows herself willing to flash a little--ever so little--smile. --Lawrence Kay

Real Cool Hits, Bacchus/Dionysus
Oy, yet another reissue of a mondo-obscuro '60s surf music disc? Yes, but before you skip to the next review, the Avengers VI (not to be confused with the '70s San Francisco punk band) were not just another SoCal surf band. Firstly, they didn't record this, their only longplayer, until 1966, after the British Invasion had all but buried the sounds of the surf. Secondly, they had three ace guitarists, and an organist (!) with a neat-o wail that at times echoed that solo on Del Shannon's "Runaway." They wrote some boss originals, like the majestic "Time Bomb," covered since by Man or Astro-Man. As icing on the cake, they gave a new lease on life to clichéd oldies like "Peter Gunn" (maybe the coolest version since H. Mancini's original) and "Coming Home Baby," the latter featuring some Roland Alfonso-style Jamaican horns. --Mark Keresman

Breakfast at Midnight, Northern Blues
Rita Chiarelli's bluesy bellows sound like something you've heard before; and in this case that's not a bad thing. Ranging somewhere between Janis Joplin, Melissa Etheridge, and Bonnie Raitt, Chiarelli's pipes have all the qualities of a great blues voice that come from too many nights of smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking whiskey: raspy, powerful, emotive. On her new release, Breakfast at Midnight, she struts through a variety of blues styles, singing about traditional blues themes such as the woman scorned, love unrequited, and all-around world-weariness. She knows how to use her powerful voice to accentuate the mood, too, building up to a fury on the rocker "Loving You (Is Killing Me)." Her whispered sweet nothings on the ballad "If You Were Crying over Me" conjure a dark cloud of sadness, and she even dips into jazz stylings on "Midnight in Berlin." Chiarelli's band, led by guitarist Colin Linden, ably backs her up while handling Chicago blues, Delta blues, and even some zydeco. This album is as comforting to a blues lover as crying into a beer at closing time. --Michael Gowan

Never Kiss the Wasp, El Distorto
Good punk rock should always be aggressive, but once in a while a band like Bottles and Skulls comes along and rips the fucking flesh from your bones. Like a wind-up foursome fueled on high-octane cocaine, they crash through the speakers and shred rock into shrapnel. You'll walk away from their shows as a puree of your former self, but even on disc the band stirs up a hailstorm of hard rock. To say Never Kiss the Wasp is fast and furious is like calling a 900mph tornado a little dust storm. The songs don't kick-start, they fly--guitars, bass, and drums racing ahead like a maniac ripping the world off his walls. What do they have to be so angry about? Drugs, nightmares, rock chicks in duct tape dresses--who cares? When you're in this kinda mood, it's not what you say, it's how you say it. Bottles and Skulls says it loud, straight-out, and just like you want it. --Jennifer Maerz


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