ED ACKERSON WAS more than 10 years into his career as a local bandleader/producer when he ditched his own game plan and came up with Polara, a four-track porch experiment that birthed a buzz band. On C'est la Vie, the group bravely fights off the sophomore slump. Though less intense than Polara, this is Ackerson at his most confident and technically proficient, staggering out of the major-label gate with the pumped-up self-assurance and over-the-top guitar effects of any rock band that's preparing to take over the world.

The pleasures of C'est la Vie's noise-pop innovations reveal themselves slowly, but it is also Ackerson's most commercial outing. "Sort It Out," for example, is a miracle radio hook with a song attached, and except for a nine-minute breakbeat weirdout on the hidden 13th track, C'est la Vie is in part an unexpected return to the pop roots that Ackerson last purged on 1992's Up by 27 Various. At times it pays blatant tribute to Ackerson's all-time favorite band, the Who: the Tommy-boy power chords of "Light the Fuse and Run," or bassist Jason Orris's spidery runs on "Sort It Out." Along the way Ackerson gets a bit political ("Quebecois" and "Pantomime," about provincialism and Republicans, respectively), and in the record's last half swerves towards self-doubt and introspection.

The latter detour is especially compelling, as it has the universal markings of someone questioning his own dreams on the verge of their finally coming true. "Incoming" is about waiting his entire life for a moment that's "over in half the time it took to come on"; "Idle Hands" conjures the "ball of delusion" of career crisis. On "Other Side," the big-label signee comments on "indie rock from the office block," execs who "joke and flirt in your X-Girl shirt," and so on. The songs might come off as trite without Ackerson's gorgeous presentation: on the latter, a swooning, fluttery guitar that carries the pathos up to the clouds and beyond, leaving meaning far behind. And that's Ed Ackerson, guitar hero and studio maestro. The story, in the end, is in the sound.

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