Nathan Larson / A Camp

Getting married is probably a trip: If you're in love, vowing the vows can undo that; if you're not, the legality may tie the knot. And if you're either member of the Nathan Larson-Nina Persson estate, it can turn a once-dependable musical template inside out. That little truism seemed to loom on the horizon even before this recently wed pair had issued their first post-marriage records. Larson, ex-guitarist with art-punk kooks Shudder to Think, and Persson, the Nordic ice queen fronting the Brad Pitt look-alikes in the Cardigans, are at first blush as unlikely a rock couple as Sonny and the dude from Staind. But on two new solo efforts, they prove that their honeymoon has equaled a creative rebirth for each.

Larson's might be the more unexpected of the two. Shudder to Think spent the '90s inhabiting the hollow heart of the alt-rock promise, making records way too weird for air-guitarists baited by Alice in Chains and way too air-guitar-worthy for weirdos suspicious of rocking out. Pony Express Record, the band's extraordinary 1994 major-label debut (released after years of alienating its relatively puritanical Dischord Records mates), stood out of that year's post-grunge crop like an ugly duckling (albeit one dressed in a pink tuxedo and pearls). Jealous God, Larson's new record, smacks of a similarly refreshing disregard for current taste: It's a deceptively fussy song-cycle of blue-eyed-soul gems that's as intoxicatingly straight as the Shudder stuff was left of center. Not that the old zigzagging circumvented pop immediacy--the band's swan song, 1997's underrated 50,000 B.C., disguised a few alien-Motown chestnuts in distorted guitars--but it's surprising to see what a direct, mature songwriter Larson's become here, replacing shape-shifting time signatures with restrained string parts and impenetrable yarns about prescription meds with charmingly candid reflections on romantic inconsistency. If that reminds you of the trajectory Elvis Costello followed in the early '80s, when he mellowed from a horn-rimmed punk to a horn-rimmed balladeer, Larson's not pulling any punches: He hired Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley--the English team who helmed Costello's Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World--to produce Jealous God. Their grip on velvety classic-pop mannerisms and buttoned-up horn charts only serve to further legitimize Larson's new direction; Persson's bewitching guest vocal on the Marvin/Tammy update "Just Because a Man Expects Me To" doesn't hurt, either.

Larson returns the favor on A Camp, playing bass and guitar throughout Persson's immensely likable solo bow. Like Jealous God, A Camp doesn't sound much like Persson's work with the Cardigans, who over the course of four albums have somehow merged fizzy, largely acoustic jazz-pop and throbbing industrial grind into a crisp, clean cocktail of pleasure--their last album, 1998's Gran Turismo, effectively connected the dots between Marilyn Monroe and Depeche Mode. Yet for A Camp, Persson turned to Mark Linkous, the backwoods bard who fronts Sparklehorse, to fill out her sweetest-punch country-rock dreams. Lead single "I Can Buy You" is as good as that pairing would intimate, couching Persson's sugary coo in a sticky web of steel guitar, Hammond organ and strings that sounds exactly like the cozy upstate New York studio in which it was recorded. That relaxed warmth shares much with Larson's record; maybe musicians make more creative wedding presents than the rest of us.

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Mikael Wood

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