Thalia Zedek
Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch of Madness (Thrill Jockey)

For those who thought her music couldn't possibly get any more abysmally bleak than 2001's Been Here and Gone (Matador), Thalia Zedek proves her despair knows no boundaries on her long-awaited second solo album.

On the beautiful, even more harrowing Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch of Madness, the former singer and guitarist of Come not only accomplishes the impressive feat of out-depressing her previous work but also makes the famously world-weary Leonard Cohen – whose growl recalls her androgynous, bluesy yelp – sound like he's singing "Walking on Sunshine." For an entire hour, Zedek wails her way through torch songs so oppressively dark that the album's sole moment of relief is when the final track, "Hell Is in Hello," creeps to a close.

Still, like even Cohen's most intense work, Trust Not isn't needlessly melodramatic. Rather, the album is so infinitely sad because its slow, restrained funeral dirges and death marches – crafted mainly out of guitar, drums, and viola – never sound at all forced. Even potentially overwrought lyrics like "Well, I can't sleep and I can't take those pills / My doctor tells me she don't know what to do," from "Bus Stop," don't come off the least bit like a pity party when sung in Zedek's gravely serious voice. In other words, only intrepid listeners with the steeliest of heartstrings should invest time in Trust Not. Those who do, however, are guaranteed one impressively compelling, poignant song cycle. Thalia Zedek performs Thurs/27, Bottom of the Hill, S.F. (415) 621-4455. (Jimmy Draper)

Various artists
Sub Rosa vs. Kompakt (Sub Rosa/Quartermass)

Typically, when Belgian ambient label Sub Rosa takes on the back catalog of another imprint for its stellar remix projects, things can get a bit messy. Since the original 1999 pressing of Sub Rosa vs. Kompakt, the label has put a few treasures through the grinder – Kitty-Yo and Rather Interesting Records were last seen collecting their broken pieces somewhere near Brussels – with acts like Gonzales and Dropshadow Disease taking it hard from Add N to (X) and Plaid, respectively. But when Cologne, Germany-based techno powerhouse Kompakt was but a twinkle in Reinhard Voigt's eye, it fearlessly offered its most functional artists at the time – Dettinger, Michael Mayer, and Jurgen Paape among them – to the fine science of remixing and came out something of a superhuman.

Much of the credit is due to the disc doctors, naturally. The Sub Rosa surgeons, almost all of whom are known more for their recombinant production skills than their adherence to musical rules, treat their subjects with heightened sensitivity. Autechre and DJ Olive take liberties with Paape's precise, dubby compositions but emerge with entirely divergent yet invigorating four-on-the-floor numbers. Even Scanner, a multimedia sculptor with a penchant for stylistic anarchy, respects the laws of the dance floor as he recuts Freiland's rumbly, low-end freak-out "Reliefpfeiler Blau" into a club-friendly offering worthy of any DJ's crate. And that's by far the most important feature of Sub Rosa vs. Kompakt: that each track was protected and processed so carefully by its remixers, and still seems so fresh and relevant nearly six years later, is the truest testament to the record's timelessness. (Ken Taylor)

Bill Frisell
Richter 858 (Songlines)

It seems Bill Frisell has come undone. And wonderfully so. After a protracted and fruitful mosey through American roots music, the tireless guitarist and composer has evaporated into the ether. With Richter 858, he offers a series of new chamber pieces in which his ghostly guitar is present only in the delicate shading around the edges. At the same time, this is unmistakably a Frisell project. The compositions have the mixture of melancholy, ragged harmonic content, and offbeat playfulness that runs throughout his oeuvre.

Richter 858 was conceived by producer David Breskin as a musical response to Gerhard Richter's series of eight paintings, "858 1-8," which appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2002 as part of the much-acclaimed retrospective of the German artist's work. The relationship between the paintings and Frisell's compositions is a fluid one, most vibrant when considering the effect of the musical and visual offerings in sum rather than looking for correlations between songs and the images that inspired them.

The 858 Quartet – Frisell and long-time collaborators Hank Roberts on cello, Jenny Scheinman on violin, and Eyvind Kang on viola – respond to the compositions intuitively, moving from abstraction to introspection and, briefly, to what's almost an old-time fiddle reel. Frisell's raveling and unraveling continue, to our benefit. Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet play Feb. 4, First Congregational Church, Berk., and Feb. 5, Noe Valley Ministry, S.F. (415) 454-5238. (Bruce Wallace)

Bright Eyes
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Saddle Creek)
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek)

In an era when double albums clock in as predictable vanity projects – right up there with CD-DVD packages, tell-all rockumentaries, and reality TV series – doesn't the release of two fairly stylistically divergent albums on the same day, by one artist, seem like the ultimate I-could-care-less-but-I-can-do-it-all act of one-upmanship? And why are flyover zone-bred city-country mice like Lambchop and now Bright Eyes resorting to these tactics? Are red-state denizens preparing to throw a crunk stick into the mix?

And which to acquire first? Against the grain, I'd pick Digital Ash in a Digital Urn because, really, would Conor Oberst's quivering voice ever make it to tape, hard drive, and plastic disc, if not for Robert Smith's? Look at his Bright Eyes as the latest in a long line of rubbed-raw, too-sensitive, and nervy goths in black sheep's clothing, and Oberst's more baldly artificial, synth-shrouded Digital Ash in a Digital Urn easily trumps the folkier I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.

Sorry, but the simultaneous release begs this kind of taste-test comparison. In contrast, Wide Awake seems far too familiar, more than 40 years along from Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and their ilk, with its beat storytelling ("Lua"), Emmylou Harris harmonies ("We Are Nowhere and It's Now"), and "travelin' " songs ("Another Travelin' Song") – all lovely and ready-made for a swing-states tour with Bruce Springsteen and flirting with self-important signifiers that scream, "Important, authentic statement coming in on runway two, straight from the really real world of Omaha, Neb." Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, on the other hand, sounds like the backing track for the rock-unsteady adventures of a happy, thoughtful, and slightly morbid robot. It bristles with scratchy textures and shaky beats on the single "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" and bounces with synthetic, splotchy keys and painterly percussion on "Hit the Switch." "But it's all I'm doing now / Listening for patterns in the sound / Of an endless static sea," Oberst intones amid an electric storm, the steady splatter of OMD-ish beats, and the sampled screams on "Easy/Lucky/Free." Classic pop songwriting, crickets, and some real feeling are built into those uncool decadance rhythms with such strength of will and confidence that you almost believe it's easy, though far from freeing or even a matter of luck. Bright Eyes play Feb. 15, Berkeley Community Theatre, Berk. (Kimberly Chun)