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Black Box Recorder

Black Box Recorder isn't a bad name for this immaculately dressed, euphonious English pop-rock trio; like a fallen plane's in-flight recorder, the group documents the unpleasant. But they make the unpleasant seem that much more so by dressing it up in pretty clothes, so to speak -- smooth, seductive melodies, luscious textures. This kind of study in contrasts, between frank, pointed, socially critical lyrical content and lush, lovely arrangements, may remind a few of The Auteurs, another talented English pop combo which has released a handful of splendid albums that have gone tragically unnoticed outside the U.K.

This may be because Auteurs' frontman Luke Haines is at the helm of this group too, though he's not its primary voice. That would be chanteuse Sarah Nixey, whose breathily aristocratic, bored and slightly haughty singing style provides the perfect mouthpiece for Black Box Recorder's commentary on English disenfranchisement and malaise. The group's third member is former The Jesus and Mary Chain member John Moore. Haines assembled the group in 1998 while on hiatus from The Auteurs.

Black Box Recorder quickly settled on a silky, loungy pop approach, less guitar-driven than The Auteurs, more built around whispery vocal harmonies, keyboards, synthesized sounds, and atmospheric percussion. Their scabrous debut single, "Child Psychology," immediately established the band's tenor with its confrontational lyrics, "Life is unfair/Kill yourself or get over it," which got the song banned from U.K. radio and MTV. The trio succeeded that with the sardonic, minimal 1998 full-length, England Made Me.

Then in 2000, Black Box Recorder released its sophomore album, The Facts of Life, on Nude Records (licensed to Jetset Records in the U.S.). The noir-tinged, painfully lovely album is remarkable in its understatement, each song needing only a few powerful elements -- shimmering guitar, hypnotic drumming, sampled strings, and of course Nixey's bottomless voice -- to achieve their effect. The opener, "The Art of Driving," is emblematic: Nixey and Haines trade spoken, impossibly disaffected double-entendres, endless in their subtext, on the "art of driving," managing to touch on a variety of themes from the transience of modern life to middle class boredom to careless sexuality, over a rich, luscious backdrop of glossy strings, deep rhythms, and rich guitars. Barbed and beautiful.

In 2001, the trio issued a collection of B-sides and rarities, titled with typical dark BBR humor The Worst of Black Box Recorder. It features B-sides from the group's first four singles, a handful of leftover tracks from the England Made Me and Facts of Life recording sessions, and some multimedia content. Unlike so many artists' B-side collections, this actually stands up next to their other releases; highlights include a gleeful rendition of Jacques Brel's "Seasons in the Sun," a slow, sultry, and vaguely menacing cover of David Bowie's "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," and the featured "Start As You Mean to Go On," another great piece of BBR's patented blend of intelligent dance pop and cutting social commentary. Recommended.

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