(Daemon Records)

You think you know her after years of appreciating Amy Ray as an Indigo Girl. But listen to Stag with an open heart and you are surprised to discover something more grown-up and significant; more rock and honest pop, with undeniably Southern sensibilities. This is Amy Ray with crumpled daisies and smudged aprons and a creaky screen door, singing with overgrown bangs and a peeling nose. Alone, Ray renders herself confident, imperfect, and gracefully so, discovering blemishes and new strengths, polishing familiar patterns while being risky and innovative. She enlists the help of the Rock*A*Teens, Joan Jett, the Butchies, Luscious Jackson's Kate Schellenbach, and the Breeders' Josephine Wiggs, and--despite a few plucks of banjo and the word "yonder" used in the album's first song--leaves the sanctity of rustic prettiness behind, leaping into something inspiring, infectious, and really, really fun. MIN LIAO

(File 13 Records)

Atmosphere. That's what this record is all about. Droning guitars, xylophones, analog beats, ethereal vocals, etc. On their second full-length, the guys in National Skyline (two of whom come from the bands Castor and Hum) up the ante established on their Exit Now EP. Where I was once reminded of Pinback, I now hear so many artists reflected in their music, that it could very well be National Skyline are "this close" to developing their own sound. Equal parts by-the-numbers post-rock (see: xylophones, analog keyboards) and Radiohead inspirato, This=Everything desperately wants to transcend these elements. It doesn't completely succeed, but the attempt makes it more worthwhile than anything "indie" I've heard in a long while. I eagerly look forward to their next effort--they just might have it by then. MURRAY CIZON

To Boys Who Say No
(Paisley Pop)
** 1/2

Quite simply, The Love Boat was entertaining because it was a simple-minded study in how the very same actors can be different characters depending on their circumstances. Cast against a dark and handsome traveler, Julie could be a sexpot; but set against an elderly traveling couple she was a doting stewardess. Girls Say Yes are like this: The studio musicians and singers switch nearly every song and, with each change, their sound re-configures. The standout song, "Beckon," is fronted by Shandeen, whose assured but melancholic voice lends a gravity that is absent elsewhere. Most songs mix a three-beat, Bangles-like funk, with cheeky lyrics such as "she's hitched her wagon to a falling star." Sung with unflinching forthrightness, Girls Say Yes does not dive much deeper than earnestly considering love as a choice between loneliness or losers. PHIL BUSSE