Terra Incognita sounds like the work of someone struggling to cap a deep well of sadness. If "Automatic Love" is any indication, the price of taming desire is exhaustion and routine. The song isn't bad--it's the closest thing to a conventional pop song--but I prefer "Still Point," which uses feedback guitar, banjo and bass to produce a sound that's equal parts bluegrass, blues and noise-rock. Amazingly, it manages to sound weirdly natural, a temporary triumph in a life of impulsive action and long, lingering regret.

--Keith Moerer

Veruca Salt
Eight Arms to Hold You
(Outpost Recordings)

Pardon the mistake. At first it appeared Veruca Salt (its name a swipe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was a cynical Breeders knockoff, just another prefab product that fell off the alternarock assembly line into the cutout bin, where people mistakenly paid full price. From the start, Veruca Salt smelled like suspicious secondhand goods, garnering buzz before anyone even heard a note, and its indie-to-major debut American Thighs (its title a swipe from AC/DC) sounds like it was recorded not by musicians, but by A&R cronies with an expense account. "Seether" wasn't a single; it was a career.

Then, last year's Blow It Out Your Lame Ass It's Veruca Salt EP was given the Steve Albini treatment, which was like putting salt on a chocolate bar. Veruca Salt presumably wanted Albini for the indie-rock cred he can no more deliver than a Domino's pizza in 30 minutes; he presumably wanted to prove he could still fuck over a band on a major label's dime. The result was more garbage than garage, a recording split between Nirvana outtakes and Olivia Newton-John remakes. Nothing salvageable, so on to the next mess.

Which leads to Eight Arms to Hold You, where Nina Gordon and Louise Post do a 180, round up producer Bob Rock, and spin the dial on the Way-Back Machine to 1980. Forget the Breeders, this is pure Heart--the alternarock Bebe Le Strange, where the only thing it's the alternative to is good music. Rock, a man so wimpy his idea of hard-core is Def Leppard, is just the kind of producer Veruca Salt needed to illuminate its fatal shortcomings: He's a tech-head whose obsession with finding the "right" sound drowns out his ability to perfect the "wrong" sound; every song is crafted with an architect's steady hand, every note secured in its proper place. Eight Arms (the title a swipe from the Beatles) is sterile, self-contained rock 'n' roll--the sound of guitar and harmonies duking it out in a vacuum.

Lyrically, it's a mess ("Words won't do/Can't stay true"--sing it, sisters!), and musically, it's a wash; Eight Arms is really no different from its predecessors, split between postpunk by-the-numbers--the singles "Volcano Girls" and "Don't Make Me Prove It" sound like "Seether" broken into two parts--and power ballads. Save for the David Bowie homage, in which the women imagine themselves singing for the Thin White Duke and no one else, there's never any sense Gordon and Post need to make music. They seem to stand on the stage just to "hear the crowd" (as they sing in "Earthcrosser," doing their Wilson sisters act to perfection), not to feed it. Rock 'n' roll's not a spectator sport, but Gordon and Post are distanced from their own music--perhaps because of the production, perhaps because they put nothing of themselves into it from the start.

--Robert Wilonsky

Ben Vaughn
Rambler 65
(Rhino Records)

One of the rock biz's most prominent urban legends posits that Brian Wilson used to mix singles through car-radio speakers to make sure they sounded good on the road. Ben Vaughn's Rambler 65 takes this legend and runs with it: Vaughn claims the album was recorded in a studio constructed in the back of his beloved AMC Rambler.

Of course, the Rambler is the central metaphor of the entire album. Luckily for Vaughn, the gimmick works: By attaching the jumper cables, Vaughn has given what might otherwise be a pretty ordinary recording an added jolt of energy. And while not every song on Rambler 65 is about cars--that would make it a "concept album"--those that aren't, such as "Song for You" and "Rock Is Dead" (both album highlights), would sound awfully good on a road trip.

Other songs, such as "Heavy Machinery," "Levitation" and "Perpetual Motion Machine," use car metaphors to describe love--and they try their damnedest to sound like songs you might have heard in a '65 Rambler back in 1965. But near the end of the recording, the gears shift a little too often: The instrumental "Soundtrack Music" (reminiscent of the surf-rock album Instrumental Stylings Vaughn released last year) is a by-the-numbers '60s radio jingle, and "Rambler Spot" is an actual ad for the car.

But Vaughn has never been an innovator; indeed, the more retro he tries to sound, the better he is. But the real beauty of his work is the very fine line he runs between basic rock 'n' roll and overintellectualized hogwash. Unlike that of other clever songwriters--Elvis Costello and John Hiatt pop to mind--Vaughn's rock is simplicity itself. He ain't verbose, and he never gets too deep, yet the light of his big brain shines through every number.

--Gina Arnold

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