Latest CD releases reviewed.

Honeycomb Cooking Vinyl

Now here's something you weren't expecting - a mellow Frank Black. Conserving his nerve-shredding howl and slashing guitars for the Pixies' reunion tours, Black's first solo album since 1996's The Cult of Ray finds him in laid-back and melodious form. In the unlikely setting of Nashville, with the unexpected company of adept soul guitarists and country stalwarts, Black moseys through the byways of Americana and Memphis soul. His muted but startling lyrics on I Burn Today, Another Velvet Nightmare and Sing for Joy trace sinister intent beneath these dulcet tones, but a cover of Dark End of the Street (sung at the brittle top of his range) is astonishingly simple and surprisingly affecting. Given the unpredictable twists in his interests, there's no telling where this might lead him, but the stealthily melodic Honeycomb makes for another welcome detour. www.frankblack.net  Peter Crawley

Notes on Love Gronland Records

Something of a revelation is Petra Jean Phillipson. Previously known in hip cognoscenti circles as the voice in Belfast man David Holmes's Free Association, Phillipson saunters into the spotlight with a debut solo album of rare grace and fragility. Easing herself into songs themed around the topic of love in particular and emotions in general, Phillipson gravitates towards a clear-cut blend of Portishead, Billie Holiday and another British singer who also bears the initials PJ (whose influence is consolidated even further by a rather gorgeous and tender cover of Nick Cave's Into My Arms). Phillipson, however, seems far smarter than the average new great white hope, and this could be but one of the reasons behind the record's austere, original style. wwwpetrajean.com

Tony Clayton-Lea

All Winter We Have Waited

Is there a rulebook that insists solo male musicians must play guitar and pen woebygone lyrics ad infinitum? If there is, a subclause should stipulate that if it has to be melancholic, it had better be worth it. Some of Dubliner Chris Gavin's songs are worth it, like the plaintive acoustics of Primo Levi and If It Brings Me Peace. Many songwriters hide behind metaphors, but Gavin's earnestness about difficult, personal topics can be overwhelming. This is underpinned by the grave timbre of his voice, which is not unlike that of Adrian Crowley's. The title is no coincidence, and breezy violin and vocal arrangements add a degree of warmth to these chilly songs. In summer they sound unremarkable, but perhaps by Christmas we'll have changed our mind.

www.chrisgavin.net Sinéad Gleeson

12"/80s/2 Family

Faced with three CDs containing dozens of extended remixes of various pop hits and misses from the 1980s, the law of diminishing returns sets in rather quickly. Any ironic or kitsch pleasure quickly pales when you hear the same synths and drum-machines over and over again on various attempts to fill out every nook and cranny of the 12-inch slab of vinyl with the latest in technological advances and studio trickery. Back then, it seemed that all remixes had to sound the darn same. There are reminders of some decent pop tunes that deserve another few minutes in the sun (Swansway's Soul Train, That Petrol Emotion's Big Decision), and the early innovative electronic beboppery of Heaven 17, Human League and the Tom Tom Club. But there's also indelible proof of the brute ugliness of Culture Club's I'll Tumble 4 Ya, Animal Nightlife's Mr Solitaire and most 1980s pop.

www.familyrecordings.com Jim Carroll

Greatest Hits Columbia

And I thought they were one-hit wonders. But the Pretty Fly (for a White Guy) guys have had lots of hits, including Come Out and Play (Keep 'em Separated), Self-Esteem, The Kids aren't Alright and Why Don't You Get a Job?, all of them based on a bedrock of skateboard punk, ska and power pop. Like The Bloodhound Gang, who were popular around the same time, Dexter Holland and his gang come on like a bunch of cartoon punks (or, on Gotta Get Away, cartoon Ozzy Osbournes), but they seem to lack the killer melodic instinct of a Green Day or a Weezer, and Holland's hyperactive shout gives you a headache after 10 minutes of moshing. For those ageing skateboard punks who've hung up their short pants and settled down, there's a bonus track: a mellow mix of The Kids Aren't Alright by The Wiseguys. www.offspring.com Kevin Courtney

The Wingdale Community Singers Agenda

Rick Moody, author of The Ice Storm, has joined up with Hannah Marcus, sometime collaborator with God Speed You Black Emperor!, and David Grubbs to create "faux-traditional folk classics" such as Dog in Winter, Blue Daisy, Bike Shop Boy, Sugar and Salt, Holy Virgin Star and Rat on the Tracks. They're named after a local "nervous hospital", but don't mistake this for another parody a la A Mighty Wind. Moody and Marcus may be gently ribbing the conventions of the old-fashioned Apallachian hoedown, but there's a deadly serious intent behind these picayune post-rock tunes. Rat on the Tracks, Fishnet Stockings and Sugar and Salt may have a tongue-in-bearded-cheek mischief about them, but Bigger Ocean, Holy Virgin Star, Bitter Angels and Family Plot, Mayfield Kentucky are shot through with an eerie sense of small-town introspection. www.agendamusic.com

Kevin Courtney

Come on Feel the Illinoise Rough Trade

Sufjan Stevens's beautiful record is the second in a proposed career-long project to record an album about each of the 50 American states (the first was the superb Welcome to Michigan). Composed, arranged and produced by Stevens, his fifth album in four years features songs inspired as much by Illinois geography and history as mythology - Superman, serial killer John Wayne Gacy and 1893 Chicago World Fair to name but three - which fuse memory, story and confession into a joyously idiosyncratic song cycle. Combining alt.rock and acoustic folk idioms with gorgeous melodies, exquisite harmonies and eclectic instrumentation (banjo, piano, oboe, glockenspiel), Stevens creates songs of rare visceral force and emotional complexity. Breathtaking. www.roughtraderecords.com

Jocelyn Clarke