Breaking & Entering

A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Atmosphere, Jet and Pine Mountain Railroad.

NEW TERRITORY: Minneapolis rap duo Atmosphere has gotten a lot of mileage out of not signing with a major label. The hip-hop act has built a strong underground reputation with three independent albums, and Atmosphere's constant touring has helped the act solidify a fanbase throughout the Midwest. The pair's 2002 album, "God Loves Ugly," has sold more than 73,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and a jump to a major label seemed like the pair's next step.

After being courted by a handful of majors and rumors that had the act signing with a more, Atmosphere has decided to stay independent. Yet the duo of Slug and Mr. Dibbs isn't going it completely alone.

For Atmosphere's fourth album, "Seven's Travels," the two have aligned their own Rhyme Slayers Entertainment with L.A.-based punk staple Epitaph Records. The latter will provide added marketing and promotion for the pair, a piece of information that slightly scares Atmosphere's Slug.

"It freaks me out a bit," He recently told Billboard. "I'm trying to convince myself I'm cut out for this."

AtmosphereEver since "God Love's Ugly" debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart last year, plenty have thought Atmosphere is more than "cut out for this." Indeed, the fact that Atmosphere didn't sign to a major label caused some surprise in the hip-hop community.

Yet independent or not, one listen to "Seven's Travels," which plays out like a sort of twisted tour diary, and it's clear that beat supplier Mr. Dibbs is ready to compete with hip-hop's major players. With the old-school keyboard that dresses "Reflections," the carnival sounds that frame "Gotta Lotta Walls" and the acoustic guitar that fuels Slug's rant against the upper class on "National Disgrace," "Seven's Travels" represents Atmosphere's most sonically diverse album to date.

Meanwhile, Slug's rhymes take the listener on a cross-country trip by spinning tales about the people he meets rather than the places he visits. What he mostly finds is a lot to mock. The fame-obsessed denizens of "Los Angeles" may make for an easy target, but elsewhere, Slug provides a more nuanced, albeit tongue-in-cheek look at the insecurities that run amok in big city life on "Good Times (Sick Pimpin')."

It's a journey that culminates in the show-stopping track "Always Coming Back to You," which ends the album with a funky love letter to Minneapolis. "Minnesota is dope, if only for not what we have, but we don't," Slug raps in a nine-minute ode to his home, "the land of cold air and mosquitoes."

On the track, Slug declares that Minnesota and Chicago are the only cities worth living in, but Atmosphere is well on its way to becoming a nationally known rap act. "Seven's Travels" is bringing the pair into new territory, and in two weeks of release, sales have already topped 30,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Soundscan. Additionally, the album bowed two weeks ago at No. 83 on The Billboard 200, the act's best showing on any of the magazine's charts.

Atmosphere is in the midst of 62-date fall tour with the Micranots, Soul Position, Eyedea & Abilities and Brother Ali.

JetTAKING OFF: Like the Vines, Jet hails from Australia, and the act secured a major record deal with an American label before so much as releasing a single. Additionally, Jet has a look ready-made for MTV2 and its retro rock is already a hit with U.K. audiences. Jet's hype machine was in full gear before the four-piece released its debut, "Get Born," on Elektra two weeks ago.

Also like the Vines, Jet's sound is built with a host of 1960s and '70s rock influences, and the group glams-up the edges to ensure the tunes sound fresh on modern radio. Songs such as "Take It Or Leave It" and "Cold Hard Bitch" channel the Rolling Stones by way of Buckcherry, while the break-up ballad "Move On" sounds a bit like Guns 'n' Roses covering Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Led by brothers Nick and Chris Cester, with the former singing and the latter drumming, Jet counts the Who, the Faces and Oasis among its biggest influences. Tounded out with Cameron Muncey on guitars and Mark Wilson on bass, the band began playing its first club shows just as the Vines were taking off. With record labels soon sending droves of A&R men out to Australia, Jet didn't go undiscovered for long.

Earlier this year, the group released the four-song "Dirty Sweet" EP, which helped win the band some press and appearances on late-night talk shows.

First single "Are You Going to be My Girl?" has spent five weeks on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks tally, peaking at No. 33. Last week, Jet's "Get Born" bowed at an impressive No. 79 on The Billboard 200. With most retailers selling "Get Born" for less than $10, the album was an easy buy for fans of the single.

Jet begins a U.K. tour later this month.

Pine Mtn. RailroadMAKING TRACKS: Bluegrass act Pine Mountain Railroad began not as band, but as a tourist attraction. The act was assembled in 1998 by a tourism agency in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Yet by 2001, only two of the original five remained, and the Pine Mountain Railroad began to chug along as an actual group. Sort of. The band is funded, after all, by a major sausage company, and is still forced to act as the company's spokesmen.

Yet with a lineup consisting of Jimbo Whaley (guitar, lead vocal), Kipper Stitt (banjo), Bill McBee (bass), Clint Damewood (fiddle) and Danny Barnes (mandolin), the Pine Mountain Boys hit the bluegrass circuit, and soon earned comparisons to Bill Monroe. Despite the band's sausage affiliations, CMH Records took an interest, and inked the act for its sophomore album, "The Old Radio."

The set features mostly original banjo-driven tunes, but also includes a cover of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and the Bailes Brother's "Traveling the Highway Home." The group has staked a reputation for its impressive live shows, and plays regularly at Nashville's Grande Ole Opry. "The Old Radio" entered at No. 13 on Billboard's Top Bluegrass Albums chart last week, giving the act its first appearance on any of the magazine's charts.

Pine Mountain Railroad tour constantly, and have already been confirmed for a slot on next year's Merlefest, scheduled for April in North Carolina. Additionally, the group was featured on a 2003 compilation CD culled from acts at this year's edition of the festival.