"Life is unfair; kill yourself or get over it" went the chorus to Black Box Recorder's first single, "Child Psychology." The first option is as rock & roll as power chords, but, for Recorder, the second option is far more subversive. Their sophomore album, The Facts of Life, is a breezy and eerily refined scrapbook of the everyday cruelties and frustrated desires that hide beneath middle-class life. It's almost like the musical equivalent of Blue Velvet -- only sexier.
Although the subjects are trivial, this trio knows how to make grand flourishes out of each pathetic crisis. "The English Motorway System" contrasts an almost gothic highway (symbolized with Grand Guignol moans) with the crumbling relationship of the couple zooming along it. The flirtatious "The Art of Driving," meanwhile, is a modern update of Serge Gainsbourg's sleazy '60s duets. Even the trip-pop title track is more stylish than an indie song has a right to be. It treads the line between Swede-polished teen fodder and moody dub until they merge into the same pulsing beat, and when vocalist Sarah Nixey teases her pubescent audience with "I'll let you hold my hand," the poppy bounce only accentuates her predatory glee.
These 13 tracks were all penned by Luke Haines of underrated Britpop band the Auteurs, and they may represent his finest hour. His fevered obsessions -- cars, childhood, middle-class conformity -- are still ubiquitous, but, for the first time, his symbolism doesn't twist the lyrics into knots and the music has a gentle warmth throughout, which only heightens the unsettling quality of the subject matter; the heartbreakingly morbid "Goodnight Kiss" could almost be a lullaby.
But Facts is Nixey's album, bearing her angelic wisp of a voice and cool, straight-faced reserve. She sharpens Haines' edges and chills his tantrums till they fit her wide-eyed cynicism. Here's a woman who could sing the phone book ... and it would sound like an enemies list.