KEANE

"Hope and Fears"

Interscope

FRENCH KICKS

"Trial of the Century"

StarTime

Whether by design or not, British bands always travel in packs. After the success of Coldplay, rear-guard action like Starsailor and Keane was almost inevitable. The latter's innovation is to ditch guitars altogether; the trio comprises only a singer, a drummer and keyboardist-bassist, supplemented by string arrangements. Considering that Coldplay is already known for its piano ballads, however, Keane's "Hope and Fears" is hardly a bold departure.

This is an assured debut and leaves no doubt about what Keane wants to accomplish. Tom Chaplin's beseeching vocals and the threesome's grand arrangements place songs such as "Everybody's Changing" in Britain's long operatic-rock tradition. Rather than rallying cries, however, Keane presents self-pitying accounts of loss and loneliness: Titles such as "Somewhere Only We Know" and "This Is the Last Time" are all you need to know about the band's whiny worldview. The album's drama would better serve a more distinctive message; this is hardly the last time a British pomp-pop band will hit these exact musical and emotional notes.

French Kicks may never be mistaken for Coldplay, but the new "The Trial of the Century" finds them continuing their evolution from rough-edged punks to tuneful smoothies. This Washington-rooted New York quartet's previous album, "One Time Bells," included a handful of songs that emphasized chirpy synths, silky vocals and cozy pop-soul melodies. This time, such material is preponderant.

Electro-pop hasn't entirely supplanted the band's rock heritage, as songs such as the guitar-driven "The Falls" demonstrate. But on most of the album the guitars merely embroider the music, which is designed around Nick Stumpf's voice. For this new style to click fully, the band will need a more consistent supply of melodies, but such numbers as the spare, sweetly funky "Oh Fine" and the harmony-suffused "Following Waves" engagingly showcase the Kicks' post-rock potential.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Tuesday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Keane, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8133; to hear French Kicks, press 8134. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)