The Velvet Teen produced one of the best albums of 2004 with Elysium, an elaborately orchestrated mope-pop record that made routine heartbreak sound heroic. The band's follow-up album, Cum Laude, goes in a different direction, lyrically and musically. Bandleader Judah Nagler still sings about sex and separation, but he's lost his regretful tone, and now comes off cocky, bearing pain like a merit badge. He's also singing through filters that distort his otherwise pretty voice, matching an overall sound that subjects bouncy modern-rock songs to scuff, scrape, and batter. The album-opener "333" sets the pace, with its chaotic synthesizer and arrhythmic drumming, and Cum Laude continues the assault with songs like "Rhodekill," which tumbles headlong into its own shrill frequency, and "Tokyoto," a skittering, eccentric, but still melodic exploration of cacophony. Elysium fans may be put off that a band capable of such grandeur has decided to head in the deconstructive direction of The Cure's Pornography and Public Image Ltd.'s The Flowers Of Romance, but while Cum Laude is sometimes aimless and rarely pleasurable, it's frequently brilliant.
Hard-edged, album-length epics seem to be all the rage these days. In addition to The Velvet Teen, and recent trippy neo-prog efforts by Lansing-Dreiden and Muse, the Danish band Mew is seeing a domestic release of its offbeat 2005 song-suite And The Glass Handed Kites. The album is a seamless set of billowing Euro-pop, spiked with thick, elastic bass and a sound as resounding, yet claustrophobic, as the inside of a bell. Guest vocals by the creaky J. Mascis on "Why Are You Looking Grave?" and "An Envoy To The Open Fields" provide different textures, breaking up Mew's smooth fusion of the sacred and the stormy. But otherwise, And The Glass Handed Kites rolls through like a cold front, dropping electric pulses of guitar, synthesizer, and big-beat drums. What it lacks in variety—or, honestly, melody—it makes up in the windswept mystical air and triumphant tone of oddities like "The Zookeeper's Boy."