As the driving force behind cartoon simians Gorillaz on their self-titled 2001 debut, moonlighting vocalist and songwriter Damon Albarn not only made the Guinness World Records as the most successful virtual band in history -- bettering the Archies and Josie and the Pussycats! -- he finally scored the massive U.S. hit that had always eluded him with Blur.

For the encore, Albarn has replaced his original musical collaborator, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, with the most acclaimed DJ/producer in underground music today, Danger Mouse, who won notoriety for "The Gray Album," one of the best discs that was never officially released, a mash-up of Jay-Z's "The Black Album" and the Beatles' so-called "White Album."

From an intro that samples music from "Dawn of the Dead," through a guest voiceover by the always creepy Dennis Hopper, to the closing title track, "Demon Days" creates a dark and threatening world all its own. Noise guitar, atmospheric synthesizer, stray orchestral instruments and Danger Mouse's gently propulsive drum loops create a swirling backdrop for Albarn's laid-back rapping, which remains the least exceptional element in Gorillaz' sound. (When some real rappers, the pioneering psychedelic hip-hop trio De La Soul, drop by for a cameo in "Feel Good Inc.," they steal the show.)

For all his underground/avant-garde aspirations, Albarn's greatest strength is his ability to craft indelible melodies, and "Demon Days" ultimately succeeds because of the massive hooks on tracks such as "Last Living Souls," "O Green Worlds" and even the exceedingly weird "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head." In fact, he seems to have been saving all of his best material in recent years for this side project, with Blur suffering considerably from his distraction, and seeming increasingly superfluous. Unless, of course, you prefer music that comes from a flesh and blood band, as opposed to one that exists only on paper.



The second outing from Audioslave is a more organic affair than its self-titled 2002 debut. That album was recorded before the supergroup pairing of Rage Against the Machine's three instrumentalists (drummer Brad Wilk, bassist Tim Commerford and guitarist and Libertyville native Tom Morello) and former Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell had ever performed live. Now, not only has the quartet kept its egos in check and its new band together -- defying the expectations of many -- it no longer sounds as if it's playing in two different rooms at the same time.

While "Out of Exile" is a more convincing effort musically than "Audioslave" -- with Morello's mind-blowing arsenal of inventive sounds as astounding as ever, and the rhythm section providing its trademark fluid but bombastic crunch -- writing remains its glaring weakness, a trait it shares with that other post-millennial hard-rock supergroup, Velvet Revolver.

Audioslave may have launched this album with a performance in Cuba -- Fidel Castro himself signed the papers making the May 8 gig in Havana possible -- but it still has absolutely nothing to say in its lyrics. It's admirable that Cornell doesn't want to become the pedant Zack de la Rocha turned into toward the end of Rage Against the Machine, but he remains mired in an even earlier era, with self-absorbed whining of the most cliched and annoying alternative rock as his preferred mode of expression, as a quick look at the song titles indicates: "Be Yourself," "Drown Me Slowly," "#1 Zero."

Granted, lyrics are hardly the most important element of effective hard rock. But Cornell's are so effortless and hollow -- "Was a time early in life/ When I hated everything," he growls in "The Worm" -- that they make all of his emotive screaming ring forced, insincere and false. If Morello is determined to keep his activism and his music separate, with Axis of Justice the vehicle for the former and Audioslave the outlet for the latter, you can't help thinking that he'd be much better off leading an instrumental group.



Given the incredible success of the Pixies' reunion, it's probably only a matter of time before that other much-revered, proto-alternative, Dadaist pop band Pavement returns for the big cash-in comeback, but it's hardly necessary.

Throughout his solo career, singer, songwriter and skewed guitarist Stephen Malkmus consistently has delivered twisted pop tunes that stand with the best that Pavement ever produced, as well as the same amount of indulgent, annoying, "ain't I clever" stylistic dabbling that marred even the best Pavement recordings.

Chief among the pleasures on the third of Malkmus' post-Pavement releases is the guitar-driven groover "No More Shoes" and the indelible indie-rock of "Baby Come On," while the list of twee detours is headed by the insincere disco of "Kindling for the Master" and the faux funk of "It Kills."

Pavement worshippers love Malkmus' allegedly ironic genre excursions and nonsensical toss-offs -- "Mama's in the kitchen with onions," begins the utterly dismissible "Mama" -- as much as they revere the good stuff. But as with all of his releases, I find them distracting, and a hindrance to enjoying the wonderful EP buried in the midst of a filler-padded album.