The Catherine Wheel

Wishville
(Columbia)

The Catherine Wheel makes über-English music -- though the title of its new album, Wishville, sounds like it might have wandered over from the Wilco rack, the eerie blend of wistfulness and barely bridled anger in the band's music could only come from the Old Country. But not the old Old Country. Earlier Catherine Wheel albums were tapped into a Beatles-esque sound that emphasized not the layered melodies that people pinpoint when discussing Elliott Smith, but instead the adult wanderings of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." It was dreamy, but not easy listening: You can hear the insistent rhythm to the guitar line, meant to disturb you a little, when Rob Dickinson sings "Eat My Dust, You Insensitive Fuck," on 1995's Happy Days. And of course the words back it up.

But today, on Wishville, the disturbing aspects -- the driving guitar, the unrelenting high-hat, and the cigarette-honed throatiness of Dickinson's voice -- take center stage. Darkness no longer lurks in the back of the music -- it pushes the songs from their heavily percussive beginnings (fully four songs on the short, nine-track EP open with just drums) through their distorted centers and into creepy repetitions of phrases. "Lick licking my wounds/ Will it help me/ Rip rip ripping my skin," Dickinson intones, not really looking for an answer. Resentful resignation beats out actual hope on every track, excepting the final song, "Crème Caramel" -- "Smooth and sweet and really unctuous." And even in that song, the Catherine Wheel comes across as nearly incredulous of the moment of beauty captured therein. Though a tribute to a lover, the song dips into imagery that is hardly loving: "I keep thinking my heart isn't true," it goes, "[but] I'll take an ax to that lie." Haunting organ tones back the otherwise soothing guitar and drum blend.

Details

Plays Thursday and Friday, July 27 and 28, at 9 p.m. with Tracy Bonham at Slim's, 333 11th St. (at Folsom), S.F. Tickets are $18 pre-sale, $20 door; call 522-0333.

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Still, the album is seductive. The execution is clean and expert enough that it's easy to see how the band could have developed its cultish following, pulling in listeners with the promise of a glimpse at what's inside the group's collective head. And though this unifying mood underlies the majority of the tracks, the band still manages to cover quite a range. Guest vocals by Sara Lee on the Verve-esque, looping "What We Want to Believe In" help to change it up, dribbling light notes into the sometimes heavy mix. And the simple four-track sound of "All of That," produced by Dickinson in his home, provides a welcome contrast to the heavily layered studio polish of the rest of Wishville. Following an album drought of three years, the Catherine Wheel has come around again, offering a set of songs that both flow well and offer enough variety to keep the group's patient audience from zoning out.

 
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