While their first two albums were best qualified as guilty pleasures -- with fuzz-drenched anthems such as "What Ever Happened to My Rock and Roll" deriving most of their power from slavishly imitating the Jesus and Mary Chain (which, after all, wasn't around to provide that sort of kick itself anymore) -- the third release from the Bay Area trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is an unexpected stylistic departure, as well as a record of considerable depth and emotional impact.

Dropped by their original label, Virgin Records, Peter Hayes, Robert Been and Nick Jago recorded "Howl" on their own dime, uncertain whether the 13 songs would ever be released, or indeed if the group had a career left at all. Instead of England's Creation Records roster, the inspiration this time came from older strains of dark, cathartic and death-obsessed sounds -- American blues, country, folk and gospel -- delivered with acoustic guitar as the primary instrument, decorated with harmonica, autoharp, piano, trombone and a subtly employed gospel choir, and laced with an inspired punk sneer.

Cynics may charge that this is a move as contrived as the band's earlier thievery of the Mary Chain formula, but the pleasures of the most cursory listen are enough to dismiss that complaint, and "Howl" grows even more powerful on repeated spins. The longing for redemption and the pain of regret expressed in songs such as "Devil's Waitin'," "Ain't No Easy Way," "Still Suspicion Holds You Tight" and "Weight of the World" aren't easily faked. But even if it is just another pose, "Howl" stands as a collection of beautiful, haunting roots-rock anthems in the vein of the Rolling Stones' classic "Wild Horses" -- evidence of supremely soulful mimicry, even if the musicians aren't the best (or the most original) minds of their generation.



On their first two albums, the loosely knit indie-rock/alt-country collective the New Pornographers seemed like less than the sum of their parts: Their driving force, Vancouver-based songwriter Carl "A.C." Newman, penned pleasantly Kinks-flavored power-pop ditties, but they hardly seemed worthy of talents such as Chicago's brass-voiced Neko Case or the ever-soulful Nora O'Connor. "Twin Cinema" is the first time the band really lives up to its reputation as an underground supergroup.

Newman and fellow songwriter Dan Bejar have written their strongest collection of tunes to date, as elliptical and inscrutable as ever in the lyrics (What exactly are "The Jessica Numbers"? Beats me, nor do I have any idea what the group means when it pleads, "Sing Me Spanish Techno"), but overflowing with indelible melodies most often delivered via choruses of magnificently layered backing vocals. Sure, there are some star turns -- Case shines on the Loretta Lynn-inspired country weeper "These Are the Fables" -- but for the most part these 14 songs are a seamless group effort and a perfect example of orchestral pop, with trumpet, cello, pump organ and xylophone augmenting the basic rock lineup and emphasizing the gorgeous vocal hooks.

Songs such as "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "Streets of Fire" are guaranteed to have you singing along by the second chorus the very first time you hear them, and for once, the New Pornographers have delivered a disc strong enough to make you hope its members put their individual careers on hold long enough to do it justice in live performance.