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BALDWIN BROTHERS Cooking With Lasers (TVT) In the last few years laid-back electronica, be it trip-hop, acid jazz, or watered-down techno, has supplanted Muzak in the sort of eateries where brightly colored cocktails constitute a first course--and the Baldwin Brothers' full-length debut will surely be on many a restaurateur's grocery list. The shuffling breakbeats, retro Fender Rhodes licks, unremarkable turntable work, and toothless lounge grooves don't serve great songs--they're all there is, and the ease with which vocalists (including Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and Frente's Angie Hart) dominate the tracks on which they make cameos only emphasizes the lack of personality elsewhere.

MANSION Mansion (Overcoat) The three young men who make up the front line of this new quintet look like they're playing music to while away the hours while they wait to be asked to model for Prada, and their three-song debut EP sounds aptly disconsolate. Piano dominates the slow-moving tunes, but nice details lurk beneath the surface; a glimmer of acidic feedback here, sudden stabs of acoustic guitar there. John Klos's wobbly singing makes me think of Nikki Sudden in his Jacobites days--he has a languorous tone that blurs the line between debauchery and depression.

PACIFICS The September First Project: Long Overdue (Propaganda Movement) This Filipino hip-hop trio started in the mid-90s, when the local scene was noted for gimmicky gangsta rappers like Crucial Conflict, Twista, and Do or Die. But in the last few years, with the ascent of the post-Native Tongues aesthetic of Chicago's All Natural and the Family Tree, the PACIFICS (an acronym that, in addition to nodding toward the members' heritage, stands for People Accumulating Creative Ideas Forgoing Ignorant Conclusions of Society) have turned a few heads. On their debut album, MCs KP and Mr. Rexford kick it with precision if not flash, touting their ethnic identity and their adherence to old-school rhyming values. KP also handles the lion's share of the production responsibilities; he doesn't embarrass himself, but he's hardly breaking ground.

THE REPUTATION The Reputation (Initial) Elizabeth Elmore moved to Chicago from Champaign in 1999 to study law at Northwestern, and shortly thereafter her popular downstate pop-punk band Sarge dissolved. After a number of subsequent solo and band gigs under her own name, she's assembled an outfit called the Reputation, whose debut adds superficially sophisticated touches like piano and brass to her amped-up pop tunes. Elmore's singing is also increasingly assured, and she's grown more eloquent melodically. The musical maturity is undercut somewhat by the lyrics: she has a knack for cutting to the quick ("You pay your dues on battered lips and broken themes / Your little scenes played out in bars / Well, welcome to the grown-up world / It's time you learned we are the stars of amateur hour"), but her endless jabs at ex-boyfriends, fair-weather friends, and the Chicago scene make her sound more bitter than insightful.

SINISTER LUCK ENSEMBLE Anniversary (Perishable) Guitarist Charles Kim was the primary colorist for the dusky melodies outlined by Darren Richard in Pinetop Seven, and since he left that group a few years ago both parties have suffered. Richard's recent music lacks the stunning detail of the group's first recordings, and Anniversary, the debut album from Kim's all-instrumental Sinister Luck Ensemble, is a collection of gorgeous, moody arrangements in search of real songs. The music is reminiscent of the cinema, from Robert Cruz's Piazzolla-esque accordion melodies to Kim's own Morricone-esque guitar figures; guests like Andrew Bird, Rob Mazurek, and Ken Vandermark add subtle details to the stark, remote soundscapes. But the pieces behave more like stills than movies. The enhanced CD also contains a short work by local filmmaker Jeff Economy for which the group's "Cakewalk" serves as the sound track.

SPACEWAYS INC. Version Soul (Atavistic) Reedist Ken Vandermark formed Spaceways Inc. with drummer Hamid Drake and Boston bassist Nate McBride to interpret the music of Sun Ra and George Clinton, and that's exactly what they did on their 2000 debut, Thirteen Cosmic Standards (Atavistic). But the band's chemistry was strong enough to warrant a second recording, and Version Soul is a much different, more impressive beast. This time out the trio plays original compositions, all but two of them by Vandermark, grounded in heavy funk and reggae grooves. A few of the pieces sound like genre exercises: "Size Large," dedicated to Sly Stone bassist Larry Graham, has a tough swagger, but its melody seems stymied by rhythmic requirements. Highlights include the pretty, syncopated "Back of a Cab"--dedicated to the great Jamaican keyboardist Jackie Mittoo--and "Reasonable Hour," a jaggedly swinging cool-jazz salute to baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. Drake is the star of the show, holding the group together with his deep rhythms and yet finding endless variations in each of them.

STRING THEORY Anhedonia (Consumers Research and Development) Josh Davison and Nathan Tucker turned to electronic music in 1996, when poor soundproofing in their loft forced them to stop playing loud rock. They've gone through numerous projects since then, but in 2000 they settled down as the String Theory. The five tracks on their debut wouldn't sound out of place next to stuff by Boards of Canada, Bola, or Jega, and in fact that's my main beef with them: the downtempo beat programming, twinkly music-box melodies, and ambient synth washes sound too indebted to the duo's Brit antecedents.

TINY HAIRS Subtle Invisible Bodies (False Walls) This sextet employs significant amounts of improvisation and experimentation, but their main goal seems to be beauty. Painterly prettiness from violinist Peter Rosenbloom, electronicist and turntablist Charles King, and electric guitarist Mark Booth levitates over the somnambulant drumming of Jim Lutes, who spreads the rhythms all over his drum kit, and the mutating acoustic guitar arpeggios of Jonathan Liss; John DeVylder's somber double bass holds everything in place. While the music is probably as static as Sinister Luck Ensemble's, the intuitive quicksilver interaction between players gives it an exciting tension.

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