Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pure West

Kanye West
Graduation
Score: 7

Ego is a double-edged sword for Kanye West. On one hand, it compels him to push himself further in craft, commercialism, performance and influence. Yet it can push people away, into the "haters" camp.

West has a reputation for overreacting when things don't go his way. At the MTV Europe Music Awards last year, he stormed the stage to protest his loss in the Best Video category. He argued that "Touch the Sky" deserved the honor because it "cost a million dollars, Pamela Anderson was in it. I was jumping across canyons." Desperate to make people underSTAND, he said, "If I don't win, the awards show loses credibility."

To be sure, West is a man of passion. He works hard, and he demands compensation for that work in the form of recognition, be it awards, special treatment, flattery, respect, privileges, money or sex. When he doesn't get it, that fire inside him blazes hotter, and he vows to prove he's worthy.

The pattern plays itself out on Graduation, his third studio album. Unlike on The College Dropout or Late Registration, he allows the schoolhouse concept to quickly unravel, forgoing the skits as well as the Voice of Authority that opened those albums. Instead, Graduation reveals itself to be a chronicle of the rapper's ups and downs in the world of fame.

"The Good Life" finds him in a celebratory mood. Over a buoyant banger abetted by T-Pain and a Michael Jackson sample, he hails the pleasures of the high rollers: the stacks of bills, the bottles of liquor, the blowjob at 30,000 feet, the Ferrari, Vegas, the chick-magnet status.

But there's a downside to this fame thing. Now the paparazzi's all over him ("Flashing Lights"), and people dis him out of jealousy ("The Glory," "Everything I Am"). To make matters worse, his hook-ups haven't gone according to plan ("Drunk and Hot Girls"). He fears he's cursed to pick up the same type of woman, the one who downs drink after drink on his dime, then dances with her girlfriends but not with him, then makes him drive them all home, then persuades him to stop at the drive-through, then distracts him with her queasiness to the point that he almost crashes the car. Still, he declares, "That that don't kill me / Can only make me stronger" ("Stronger").

Now, West isn't the greatest rapper in the world, and his shortcomings in that department are more evident on Graduation than on any of his previous albums. He even recycles his Klondike rhyme from Late Registration. But he compensates for his weaker points --- though he might claim to have none --- by loading the album with samples and guests. This, in effect, gives it the feeling of an all-star cast. "Homecoming" features Chris Martin of Coldplay, "Barry Bonds" has Lil Wayne, "Drunk and Hot Girls" taps Mos Def, "Good Life" trots out T-Pain and gets an extra shot of pep from Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T."

Additionally, West is first and foremost a producer (Common's Be, John Legend's Get Lifted), so everything outside the lyrics sounds fantastic. The samples are deftly employed, often with West's distinctive pitch shifting, which assimilates them into the whole. Elton John and Mountain are just two squares on the same quilt.

"Stronger," built on the back of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," provides a good example of some recurring elements on Graduation: clockwork beats, pitch shifting, heavily manipulated vocals, a robotic sheen of synthesizers, beautiful cohesion. It adds up to a compulsively listenable sound.

You don't need to tell that to West, though. Even in the arena of hip-hop, where braggadocio is often part of the game, he stands out. In "Barry Bonds," he does more than liken his steady stream of hits to the towering home runs of the maligned (and now indicted) slugger; he identifies with the man himself: Bonds, a superstar at the top of his game, someone with power and longevity who's openly scorned because of his attitude. Bonds steps up to the plate, slams one over the fence and receives no more respect than he did before. West knows what that's like.

Appropriately, the song features Lil Wayne, who displayed some swollen pride of his own when he declared himself the best rapper alive after Jay-Z's retirement in 2003 but before his return in 2006.

Fortunately, West is not a man without humor, which makes it easier to accept his ego. In "Barry Bonds," for instance, when he claims that he's among the top five MCs, he tempers his boasting by poking fun at himself: "You could get behind me / But my head's so big you can't sit behind me."

It's common for rappers to pay tribute to a fallen MC; it's less common when the MC's living. West recognizes this and dedicates "Big Brother" to Jay-Z. The ode bumps with a beefy guitar riff, handclaps, strings and dramatic synths. As if turning pages in a photo album, West pinpoints moments in their shared past: hanging out at the mall, him too shy (shy!) to show his idol the beats he made; playing his "lil' songs" for Jay-Z, who bobs his head and says proudly, "That's you?"; reveling in sold-out shows; feeling held back when he's blocked from joining Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden; burning with determination, the hunger steeling his voice even as he comes to the present day.

He calls it sibling rivalry, always reaching for the bar Jay-Z set, always finding a higher bar above it. He recalls a day when he was sure he'd topped his mentor: "I told Jay-Z I did a song with Coldplay / Next thing I know, he got a song with Coldplay / Back of my mind, I'm like, 'Damn, no way.' "

What shines through "Big Brother" --- and the rest of Graduation, for that matter --- is the honest emotion. "If you admire somebody, you should go ahead an' tell 'em," he raps, "people never get the flowers while they can still smell 'em."

He might broadcast arrogance, but a lot comes with it.


Monday, October 1, 2007

There's no going back

The Smashing Pumpkins
Zeitgeist
Score: *

The only way to reconcile the embarrassment that is Zeitgeist is to disavow it: It's not a real Smashing Pumpkins album. It's quasi-Smashing Pumpkins. It's Smashing Pumpkins 2.0. It's Smashing Pumpkins with an asterisk.

From its shakier songs to its mystifying production jiggery, Zeitgeist proves about as comfortable as a cattle prod. The only protection the Pumpkins' sterling legacy has from Zeitgeist is that asterisk. If you remove it, then the legacy is dented by mistakes compounding mistakes.

Mistake No. 1:

The name. Much pain could have been avoided if Billy Corgan had just left the name alone. Buried it and moved on. Instead, he dredged it up, half-decomposed and in pieces, and tried to resuscitate it.

In 2005, he announced in a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune that he wanted "my band back." Except that it was never his --- it was theirs. Together they were The Smashing Pumpkins; alone he was Billy Corgan. And guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky wanted no part of the reunion.

Perhaps smarting over the outcome of his post-Pumpkins projects --- the short-lived Zwan, which broke up acrimoniously; his foray into poetry; a solo album that failed to catch fire --- Corgan decided he would do whatever it took to reform the Pumpkins.

So he turned his back on Iha and Wretzky, forsaking a musical partnership that lasted more than 12 years, one that he likened in interviews to that of a family, or a band of brothers in the trenches. He cryptically announced the band's reformation and went into the studio with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.

Mistake No. 2:

Zeitgeist abandons the approach that made the Pumpkins' music consistently enthralling. The Pumpkins were progressive and calculating. They shifted their sound based on internal dynamics, changes in the musical landscape and a zest for exploration. They were ahead of the curve. They moved from the psychedelic swirl of Gish to the grunge-meets-classic-rock crash of Cherub Rock; from the epic scope of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to the dark, ornate tapestry of Adore, and beyond. Corgan's lyrical skill and conceptual powers seemed to grow with almost every release.

Zeitgeist, by contrast, is regressive. It's out of step. It ignores the trajectory of the Pumpkins' career. It doesn't use Machina/The Machines of God and Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music as reference points. Corgan seems to have lost his compass.

"7 Shades of Black" is a tepid rewrite of "Bodies." "United States" starts out promising, with surging electric guitars building up Chamberlin's tom attack. But come the five-minute mark, it plunders from the back catalog, recycling music from live renditions of "Silverfuck."

Mistake No. 3:

Zeitgeist doesn't know what it wants to be. Judging from the opening salvo of "Doomsday Clock" and the many towers of overdubbed guitars, Zeitgeist was meant to be a thunderous affirmation of the Pumpkins' continued ability to rock. But the production works against it. Like a screen, it muffles what it shouldn't, namely the big-and-noisy parts. Yet in "Starz," when Corgan softly sings, "We are stars," the volume jumps. Whether melodic, like high point "That's the Way (My Love Is)," or bombastic, like "Bring the Light," all songs suffer. Two producers assisted with Zeitgeist: Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, The Cars) and Terry Date (Pantera, Soundgarden). Each, however, handled fewer tracks than Corgan and Chamberlin. And Corgan and Chamberlin also are credited as co-producers on everything, so they have to bear responsibility.

Mistake No. 4:

Assuming rocking out was the focus of Zeitgeist, why lard the album's imagery with platitudes? The inside art features Paris Hilton, banks of televisions, the grim reaper flanked by politicians, a Trojan warrior with an automatic weapon, and the queen of England at a memorial. The queen is weeping for a heart with a Smashing Pumpkins logo on it.

All part of the confounding premise. "Zeitgeist" roughly means "the spirit of the age." So is it the zeitgeist of 2007 to get back on the circuit? To be riffmongers? Is it the zeitgeist of 2007 to protest U.S. affairs? The whole assemblage feels cheap, easy and thrown-together. It's nothing like the craft and thoughtfulness of previous albums.

Mistake No. 5:

Zeitgeist was issued in four forms, with Target, Best Buy and iTunes each selling a version that featured an extra track and a different tracklisting. Now, there isn't anything shocking or unusual about limited-edition bonus tracks; labels have played this marketing game a million times in the past.

The main problem with this arrangement is that it sends dangerous message: Shop at the big-box store instead of the independent. Yes, it's a moot point if everyone acquires the tracks through file-sharing services or otherwise finds a way to beat the system, but not everyone will have the knowledge, resources or persistence to do so.

The other problem is that it endorses commercialism at the expense of art. The running order of an album means something. When you tack on bonus tracks or rearrange the sequence to accommodate them, it's a significant change. The shrewdest artists release bonus tracks on a separate CD, or via a reissue, or in some other way that doesn't undermine the album as a unified statement. By releasing multiple versions of Zeitgeist, the Pumpkins are basically saying the tracklisting doesn't matter.

Mistake No. 6:

As if Corgan's appropriation of the band name wasn't rude enough, he coughs up an old bone of contention. An oft-repeated tale holds that Siamese Dream, the album that made the Pumpkins megastars, was basically a Corgan solo effort, with him playing all or most of his bandmates' parts (excluding the drum tracks). Some saw this as evidence of a runaway ego or his need to hog the credit.

In Zeitgeist, the liner notes defiantly read:

songs by WILLIAM PATRICK CORGAN
performed artfully by
JIMMY CHAMBERLIN: DRUMS / BILLY CORGAN: ALL THE REST

This is the equivalent of saying, "In your face, everyone!"

And such connections to the past simply illuminate the steepness of the fall. Before the Pumpkins broke up near the end of 2000, they were a juggernaut. Mellon Collie continued a long streak of impressive sales and critical and popular acclaim. Adore and Machina, while being far from rallying points at the time, have become considerably more appreciated since their respective 1998 and 2000 releases.

Zeitgeist will not go down in history as the first Smashing Pumpkins album with an asterisk. (That distinction belongs to Machina II, which the band gave away in September 2000 to fans, instructing them to share it with anyone.)

No, Zeitgeist will be remembered as the first Smashing Pumpkins album that didn't sound like a Smashing Pumpkins album.



Thursday, August 23, 2007

Warm-blooded killers?

Low
Drums and Guns
Score: 8

Like a series of aftershocks, the percussive loops on Drums and Guns follow the earthquake that was The Great Destroyer.

Low, long known for their glacial tempos and imposing sparseness, underwent a dramatic change in 2005, moving in a more conventional rock direction. They included more riffage, and they played harder, louder and faster. Where there had once been negative space, on The Great Destroyer there was a tough skin of discord.

That dynamic shake-up continues to play itself out. This time Low drop the bristly electric guitars in exchange for repeating rhythms. They've retained the brisker tempos, however, and that alone gives the album a different character than much of the band's previous work. Tellingly, Drums and Guns contains just two tracks that reach beyond the four-minute mark, and then only slightly. Most are about three minutes, and a few are considerably shorter than that. Compared to 1997's Songs for a Dead Pilot EP, which featured a 13-minute-plus song sandwiched between ones well-exceeding four minutes, this feels like a revelation, like the research proclaiming that the cold-blooded dinosaurs we all thought we knew as children were actually warm-blooded creatures, springing onto their prey with alarming speed. Or something like that.

But while the songs are quicker, the subject matter isn't likely to make people jump up and dance. Over a hornetlike buzz of guitars, opening track "Pretty People" levels a hard truth at the listener: You're gonna die. Just like the poets and the soldiers, you're gonna die. Those little babies? Yeah, they're gonna die. We're all gonna die. The only question is when. The kick drum shudders with the gravity of a public execution.

Mortality is everywhere on Drums and Guns. "Sandinista" asks, "Where would you go if the gun fell in your hands? / Home to the kids or to sympathetic friends?" It posits that a person can be fated to kill, much as death is predestined. "Breaker" is a few steps ahead, already at the funeral, organ pealing heavenward. At this particular funeral, the clergymen might also be the Neptunes, as handclaps and a programmed beat make a good case for finger-drumming on the pews.

Overtly rhythmic looping carries over to the box-top rapping and tapping of "Always Fade," though the message changes from activism to defeatism. A similar depressive ribbon entwines "Dust on the Window," probably the closest relative to Low's ice-age material. Gradually fading in with Mimi Parker's skeletal snare, it finds her drifting "one day closer / One sunset further behind." Through a veil of cryptic lines --- "breaking my arm that won't heal" is another --- Parker conveys a muted despair in her only solo appearance singing lead.

Drums and Guns, then, follows The Great Destroyer in its masculine spirit, with Alan Sparhawk being the dominant vocal force. But Parker does harmonize with him on most songs, so the shift is subtle. A highlight of their vocal interplay is "Your Poison," which arranges their harmonies in the style of a gospel choir and overlays them with Sparhawk and Parker in the foreground. This technique shows Low experimenting with filling the space they once reserved for haunting echoes. On "Take Your Time," they layer ghostly harmonies with a chime, a metronomic beat, a piano, Matt Livingston's bass and other elements.

There are a few corners of the album that escape the penetrating gloom, as on the playful "Hatchet," which bounds along with its bass run, sweetly suggesting, "Let's bury the hatchet like / the Beatles and the Stones." Mostly, though, it cycles like the looping percussion, lending a circular feeling to Drums and Guns. The final song, "Violent Past," could be a response to "Pretty People," answering its death knell with, "All I can do is fight / Even if I know you're right."

Still, Sparhawk sounds a lot less resigned on the cut before it, "Murderer," calling out the Man Upstairs ("Don't act so innocent / I've seen you pound your fist into the earth") and making him a proposition --- to do his "dirty work."

Rumble, rumble.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Another version of Trent

Nine Inch Nails
Year Zero
Score: 6

What happens when the man who famously yelped, "Help me get away from myself," finally gets comfortable with himself?

Torment and art have intertwined for ages, whether in painting, poetry or music. But for Trent Reznor --- who essentially built a career off his angst, mainstreaming the industrial genre in the process --- that braid is everything. Isn't it?

In a 2005 interview with Spin magazine, Reznor revealed that he went into a drugs-and-booze tailspin after The Fragile's release, shortly before the new millennium. "It was very clear to me that I was trying to kill myself," he said.

Reznor got help, and it showed (though it didn't necessarily help his music). Signs of his personal transformation flashed on 2005's With Teeth, from its looser structure to its desertion of past triumphs. Gone were the kinks and coils of Pretty Hate Machine, the blowtorch rage of The Downward Spiral, the labyrinthine corridors of The Fragile.

In its place were --- with a few notable exceptions --- straightforward rockers. Among the exceptions, standout track "Only" appropriated the early-'90s bass and synth sounds of Pretty Hate Machine and referenced the "tiny little dot" from "Down in It." Except instead of succumbing to it, as he did then, Reznor stood up to it. And with his newfound insight ("Now I know why / Things aren't as pretty on the inside"), he chose to rise above, snarling a defiant affirmation: "There is no you / There is only me."

But no sooner did he reclaim control than he found new grist for his songs. Ideas came to him on tour. Not even waiting until he returned to the studio, he tweaked them on his laptop.

Now, at Year Zero, Reznor has shifted from the personal to the political, and from the confessional to the fictional. He's pulled himself out of the downward spiral and found a world that disturbs him. A world that, with a few broad strokes of the imagination, becomes an Orwellian nightmare: one nation under the thumb of the U.S. Bureau of Morality, the result of a military-ecclesiastical complex stamping out dissent in the year 2022.

Part allegory, part rock opera, Year Zero is Reznor's first concept album. In keeping with this new direction, he adopts persona after persona, and he contorts his vocals more than on any other studio album, likely aiming to disappear into his characters. In "Capital G," a right-winger spouts his views on war, the poor and global warming. "The Warning" introduces us to The Presence, a giant hand that appears to extend from the heavens. It might be a hallucination, or an alien, or none of the above. "Vessel" follows the user of a powerful drug, by turns experiencing exhilaration, fear, clarity and megalomania. "The Great Destroyer" exposes a rebel's thoughts of "the limitless potential / living inside of me / to murder everything."

Clearly an ambitious project, Year Zero extends far beyond the album. Reznor and a group of specialists carefully plotted their viral marketing scheme, employing T-shirts, USB drives, online message boards and more. There's even a network of Wikipedia-like pages devoted to the album's concepts, www.ninwiki.com. Basically, Team Reznor created a Matrix for fans to escape into.

So if you feel like the music sometimes takes a back seat to the grand concept, it's not just you. For starters, there are no great songs on Year Zero. No "Head Like a Hole." No "Hurt." No "Closer." And while the album has better cohesion than With Teeth, its songs are less memorable.

Part of this could be a focus on rhythm at the expense of melody. Nowhere is this more apparent than on "Survivalism," the album's first single. It opens with a buzzy guitar riff, a drum machine snare and an ambient techno burble, all looped. Reznor sings a verse, and waspy sound effects fly in. Then he launches into an odd guttural chant for the chorus, the first line being "I got my propaganda I got revisionism." It sounds remarkably like, "I guh muh prupa-na I guh ruh-vishin-nuh."

Rhythm chains together the next three songs, always repeating elements in a tight loop. In "The Good Soldier," they're a bass line and a handclap. "Me, I'm Not" puts the beats in an airplane hangar. Synths take over on "Vessel," beaming lasers and blowing raspberries until noise hijacks the track in a fusillade of caustic riffage, feedback loops, beeps and blips, rat-a-tat-tating percussion and some kind of wind chime.

While these rhythms make the album interesting (and are among the most salient examples), they don't make it particularly memorable. This is not to say that albums heavy on rhythm and light on melody cannot be good albums. If that were true, Tortoise would never have enjoyed acclaim. Yet Year Zero's songs don't resonate the way previous Nine Inch Nails songs have.

Reznor's departure from personal experience plays a significant role here. Serving as omniscient narrator to his imaginary soundtrack or script, he cuts from one character to the next with minimal development, making it hard to care about their lives and situations. If Year Zero were a screenplay, it would be an action movie, perhaps in the survival-horror genre. Lots of explosions, little dialogue.

Rumor is, there will be a sequel. Look for it in 17 months or less; Bush leaves office in January of 2009.

That's a tight deadline, Trent. Better practice your Orwell.


Monday, July 9, 2007

The revolution will not be amplified

The Nightwatchman
One Man Revolution
Score: 4

Setting aside his greatest asset --- his bomb-rocking, gut-socking ax --- Tom Morello quietly picks up an acoustic guitar. For this is to be an old-fashioned protest. And while it will be old-fashioned, do not misconstrue "old-fashioned" to mean "wimpy" or "hippie." With his voice, those taut strings and a small posse of other instruments (even if it is producer Brendan O'Brien who plays them), Morello wields plenty of power.

Whether he knows what to do with it is another thing.

One Man Revolution, the Rage Against the Machine veteran's first solo album, under the alias the Nightwatchman, teeters on a mound of quality lines and clunkers, of heart and half-wittedness.

At times, Morello approaches profundity. In the title track, he declares, "In my nightmares, the streets are flame / and in my dreams, it's much the same." He offers a similarly deep phrase in "Maximum Firepower": "The skin you're in / makes choices for you."

Highlight "Let Freedom Ring" celebrates freedom with the kind of passion not native to people born into it. With a chiming piano and Morello's solemn sincerity, the song hits all the right notes. His voice boasts a compelling confidence, the kind that comes when you know you're right. This adds to the song's dignified and respectful air, and Morello never strays into overly sentimental territory.

If only he had an album's worth of those songs in him. More often than not, the discipline seems loose and the material amateurish. An excessive repetition of lines and a reliance on devices contribute to One Man Revolution's rudimentary feel. While it's true that many classic protest songs use repetition as a way to 1) Make a song easier to remember, and 2) Drive home a point, no one would mistake Morello's lyrics for Bob Dylan's, even though "The Dark Clouds Above" adopts the structure (and use of meteorological metaphor) of "Blowin' in the Wind."

Throughout the album, Morello clings to another device: numbers. Though used to good effect on the solidarity pledge "Until the End," which counts down from 10 to one, the presence elsewhere of the same technique, albeit in abbreviated form, diminishes its power. On "Flesh Shapes the Day," Morello includes the lines "ten letters I am writing" and "nine circles I am drawing." That's in addition to the album's "seven summits" and "seven seas" and "forty days in the wilderness" and "forty sleepless nights" and "one man revolution" and "two steps toward you" and "twelve fine friends" and "three more seconds" and a patridge in that tree with the yellow ribbon (maybe).

These grievances alone could not quite derail the album, particularly with the strong work in "Let Freedom Ring" and "No One Left," a requiem for fallen soldiers. But "Flesh Shapes the Day" proves up to the task. What begins as merely a substandard, generalized diatribe turns laughable about a minute in, when Morello starts hooting, growls "mic check," then follows with another round of hooting. Ruling out momentary insanity, this happens again later on. It's the chorus.

Such decisions endanger the credibility of One Man Revolution, making it border on campfire sing-along rather than well-conceived studio recording. Which is unfortunate, because the album deserves to be heard --- if only to prove the man can hold a tune. Morello's vocals, scratchy and radio-friendly, fall somewhere between those of Jakob Dylan and Everlast.

If there's anybody who can relate to Morello's situation, it's Everlast. When House of Pain, the sole source of his success, disbanded in 1996, he found his way to an acoustic guitar. The resulting album, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, was a smash. It launched Everlast to heights he and House of Pain had never known. Suddenly he was recording a duet with Carlos Santana, then picking up a Grammy (whatever that's worth these days) for that collaboration.

But the chain of events was due in large part to the crossover appeal of Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. One Man Revolution doesn't span a lot of genres, so the chance of it following such a path seems beyond remote. If Carlos Santana likes it enough, though, maybe there's hope --- of a guitar duel. That would be pretty cool.

Plugged in, of course.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Dude, what happened?

OK, so illness and several projects kept me from posting for a while, but more reviews are coming soon.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

XXXplicit

Devin the Dude
Waitin' to Inhale
Score: 6

Met with a title like Waitin' to Inhale, you might think Devin the Dude's interests include smoking weed, smoking more weed and ... uhhh, what was that other thing?

But what Devin really wants is sex. All the time. Even while you're reading this sentence. With you, even --- assuming you're a chick, and one who won't charge too high a price.

Devin's conquests fill much of the album's first half, and his delight in dishing the juicy details might make some people blush.

And it might make others abort the CD entirely.

"She Want That Money" will provide the first test. An uncompromising introduction to his pro-prostitution platform, it finds him having his way with a hooker on a big brass bed. "She Want That Money" has more bite than most tracks, though. In general, Devin's songs are light-hearted, meant to crack smiles, not grimaces.

He scores with his use of absurdity in "Broccoli & Cheese." When he tries to move his date's hand to his crotch --- because "it's the third time we've been together" --- she pulls away, worried about venereal disease. (Perhaps she heard some of his other songs.) Devin, clearly indignant, tells her, "Girl, this dick is so clean / that you can serve it with some lima beans."

Deep in his subconscious, however, doubt stirs. Amid a succession of skin dives, he says the situation's "gettin' ridiculous / I hope I don't get sick of this." And he's serious. Because if casual sex suddenly failed to thrill him, what could? The line hints at an emptiness behind his boasting. Here, a minor-key piano creep serves as a nagging reminder that such a development is not only possible, it's probable.

"Hope I Don't Get Sick-A-This" exemplifies the quality of the instrumentation on Waitin' to Inhale. Symbolizing the quest that Devin and his many producers take up, a recurring skit involves an engineer searching for a particular kind of "boom."

No doubt it's on "She Useta Be," a tale of "elegant to elephant." Over a sleepy sax riff and a rubbery beat that could've come from ToeJam & Earl's Funkotron, Devin recounts a surprise meeting at the grocery store: His boyhood crush --- the one who always turned down his advances in high school --- finally has the hots for him 10 years later.

Except now she's morbidly obese. "Seems like everything on her body just melted together," he says.

Surely, some will chalk it up to misogyny, and throughout the other tracks Devin and his guests don't offer much evidence to the contrary.

But when Devin reveals a moving vulnerability on the D'Angelo-esque "Don't Wanna Be Alone"; when he moans "Don't say goodbye / unless you wanna see a grown man cry, girl," it's hard to believe he misses her body alone.

Besides, if that was the case, he'd just buy a blow-up doll.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Goes down easy

Amy Winehouse
Back to Black
Score: 8

Back to Black might as well be a Greek tragedy. Embodying the ill-fated heroine, Amy Winehouse pinballs from bed to bed, from bar to hotel, aware of her mistakes but destined to repeat them. Her Achilles' heel swells with every bottle downed and every belt slithering to the ground.

"You Know I'm No Good," propelled by a shuffling snare and kick drum, finds her flitting between two men, thinking of her beau as she pleasures her ex. She ultimately realizes that, through her infidelity, she has cheated herself out of happiness.

But what's so intriguing about Winehouse is that her songs front like they're lost classics from the '60s. From her delivery to the musicians' Motown-indebted grooves, Back to Black plants at least one foot in the past. If "Tears Dry on Their Own" sounds familiar, it's because it rides an interpolation of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

On the beautifully orchestrated title track, Winehouse channels the drama of Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," albeit through a saltier mouth. Sniffling over a man who left her for a former flame, she sings, "He left no time to regret / Kept his dick wet / With his same old safe bet." Winehouse favors bluntness.

And she doesn't do euphemisms, so vulgarities turn up in places throughout the album that even casual listeners could pick out. What makes this approach novel is that it runs counter to the conventions followed by Springfield and her peers, as well contemporary female artists influenced by their style. Certainly, the practice of keeping it clean in Springfield's day had a lot to do with social norms and radio broadcasting rules, yet the tendency of singers to sanitize lyrics still exists today. You don't hear Tracy Chapman or Natalie Merchant dropping F-bombs.

Winehouse, despite working with people obviously gunning for heavy airplay, chooses to go against the grain. She chooses words that suit her and suit the situation, and if they happen to be crude, then bring on the parental advisory sticker. (Although, curiously, some profanities in the liner notes use asterisks and some don't, despite being the same profanity.)

Even the decency police at the FCC would have a hard time not swaying to "Me & Mr. Jones," the song in which she most pushes the envelope. There and elsewhere, Back to Black's many saxophones impart a nightclub feel, nourishing Winehouse's torch songs, which thrive in darkness. "Some Unholy War" gets its moon tan on, with bass, drums and bells mingling on the dance floor. "Love Is a Losing Game" and "Tears Dry on Their Own," meanwhile, ooze with pessimism. The former's title alone could be the album's credo, while the latter prophesizes doom: Winehouse, kissing a lover goodbye, admits, "Even if I stop wanting you / And perspective pushes thru / I'll be some next man's other woman soon." Self-medication from a bottle no doubt ensues.

"Rehab," the album's percussive first single, squares with the modern-day parade of young starlets in and out of treatment centers, their troubles thrown up on tabloids everywhere. Yet it, too, has ties to the past, referencing "Ray" and "Mr. Hathaway," both of whom spent time in clinics. "Rehab" also has that Ray Charles roll; it's easy to picture Charles singing it, the Raylettes providing the handclaps and chanting "no, no, no."

Only Winehouse can prevent her downfall. But her tragic flaws prevent her from taking action, and she rattles off excuses: "I ain't got the time," "I just need a friend," "There's nothing you can teach me."

And so she goes back.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

M.C. Lite

Joss Stone
Introducing Joss Stone
Score: 5

If the intro feels heavy-handed, maybe it's because the Juggernaut's doing it.

That's right, the first voice on Introducing Joss Stone comes not from the singer but from tough-guy actor Vinnie Jones. And he can't wait to tell you that this album is all about change, dispensing such pearls of wisdom as "although the players change / the song remains the same" and "you gotta have the balls to change."

Thanks, dude. See you in "X:4." Now where's Joss Stone?

Oh, there she is: covered in body paint, ostensibly naked, writhing against a brick wall.

It's safe to say Stone has spent some time updating her image since 2004's Mind, Body & Soul. She's also done a lot of growing. She's made some mistakes ("What Were We Thinking"), caught the touring blues ("Arms of My Baby"), lost someone she cared about ("Bruised But Not Broken") and fallen in love several times.

Vocally, she seems to be reinventing herself as Mariah Lite. Diva squeals show up all over the assertive, turntable-tasting "Put Your Hands on Me." Such straining makes the smoothness of "Fell in Love with a Boy," from 2003's The Soul Sessions, even more appreciated in retrospect.

Stone handles the mellow songs better. On "Tell Me What We're Gonna Do Now," she settles into a comfortable groove and leaves it sunny-side up for Common, who contributes his winning positivity: "When we combine it's like good food / and wine / flavorful yet refined."

The Lauren Hill-abetted "Music" comes off best, though. Stone, cruising along in midrange over a thick beat, harmonizes with the backing vocals in a way that recalls Destiny's Child. And that's an interesting coincidence, seeing as how Mariah Carey looked a lot like Beyoncé on the cover of her comeback album, 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi.

Stone's inner diva re-emerges to finish off "Arms of My Baby" with extra melisma. Then she encores on the funky "Bad Habit" --- a song that would've fit in nicely with the uptempo material from Carey's 1991 debut --- before full-on commandeering the hook from Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby." But she's not done yet. "What Were We Thinking" opens with oversinging that approaches "American Idol" territory.

Carey can get away with similar things because she has The Voice. Having five octaves to work with is practically a license to go overboard, because even the crashes will be spectacular. Stone does not have The Voice. She forces her vocals to go where they can't. She's so focused on reintroducing herself to the public as Joss Stone, Diva Supreme, that she sometimes loses sight of her strengths. In her efforts to change, she simply tries too hard.

Couldn't she just call herself Mimi or something?


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Winded

Air
Pocket Symphony
Score: 6

You know how it goes: You spin a few records, toss back a few cocktails, bed a few lovelies, sell a few hundred thousand albums. Then you wake up one morning and you're an old man.

Where'd the time go?

Parisian duo Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are approaching the big four-oh, and the measured, somber currents that flow through Pocket Symphony make it clear they've been dwelling on that question.

"Once Upon a Time" opens like an hourglass spilling sand up and down the piano keys. "Time's getting on / time's over now," Dunckel reminds himself on the worry-bead chorus.

Tick-tock, tick-tock, replies the percussion in the next track, "One Hell of a Party," upon which Jarvis Cocker of Pulp provides the vocals. Cocker passed the age milestone four years ago, but hardly no worse for the wear, it would seem. As he alludes to a pounding headache in the "burnt-out husk of the morning," he sounds haggard enough to pass for 60: "This was one hell of a party / Nobody got to go to bed / But this morning-after's killing me."

That's the body for you. As the metabolism slows down, so does the ability to process all those substances. And, like those of the liver, matters of the heart aren't what they used to be. On "Napalm Love," Dunckel's gasping confession "I'm falling in love" eventually becomes "I'm burning alive."

In other words, this ain't no "Playground Love."

Aside from those tracks, much of Pocket Symphony relies on instrumentals and songs that use lyrics sparingly, each a monochromatic raindrop in a soup of gray.

"Mayfair Song" proffers a reflective mood that ventures into post-Play Moby territory, thanks to its chilled-out piano and synth ripple. "Night Sight," on the other hand, paces back and forth with the rhodes, gazing into the darkness. Out there somewhere, Dunckel and Godin see their lost youth.

They're aren't necessarily nostalgic. Just disappointed that it's gone so soon.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Say your prayers, everybody

The Arcade Fire
Neon Bible
Score: 10

Someone owes Bruce Springsteen a drink. Make that seven drinks: one each from Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, Tim Kingsbury, Richard Reed Parry, Will Butler, Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara, collectively The Arcade Fire. And while they're at it, they should send a round over to Radiohead. Because without the Boss and the British lords of alienation, Neon Bible would not exist.

On their second album, The Arcade Fire take Springsteen's popular appeals and run them through the Big Rock Megaphone. Post-rock guitars swell. Orchestras crescendo. Choirs take you higher. Win Butler belts out lyrics with the earnestness of an evangelist. Church organs peal, trying to deliver you from evil. Or Fergie. (Close enough.)

Undergirding it all is a rhythm section with roadhouse gumption. "Keep the Car Running" kicks off a blue-collar jig, and Butler co-opts Springsteen's larger-than-life delivery. Handclaps reinforce the proletariat theme and come arena-ready.

Springsteen's influence is unmistakable on "(Antichrist Television Blues)," the album's centerpiece. It follows a man who dreads his paper-pushing job and begins to unravel. On the verge of cracking, he splits town, pinning his hopes on his 13-year-old daughter, whom he believes to be a preternaturally talented singer. Before long, however, his lust for the big time overshadows his concern for his daughter's well-being, and he starts pressuring her:

"Do you know where I was at your age?
Any idea where I was at your age?
I was working downtown
for the minimum wage
and I'm not gonna let you just throw it all away!"

Thus, The Arcade Fire change him from a sympathetic character to a complicated, flawed character, making him seem more real.

Stories turn up in other songs, too. In a spin on the "lead me not into temp-
tation" scripture, a siren in "The Well and the Lighthouse" persuades a prisoner to plunge into "water black" and scolds him for it: "You always fall / for what you desire." Then the tune veers into Echo & the Bunnymen's quirky-loner territory with an update on the prisoner, now resurrected as a lighthouse attendant. Yet he's no better off than when he was in the cell because "if you leave / them ships are gonna wreck."

The Not-So-Good Book --- the Neon Bible, as it were --- gives Butler plenty of reason for his distressed vocals. A pall of fear hangs over the album, and numerous tracks make reference to the apocalypse, which would seem to be right around the corner. "Not much chance for survival / if the Neon Bible is right," Butler sings on the hushed title track. On "Windowsill," he cries, "So what'll it be? / A house on fire, or a rising sea?"

His anxiety springs from present-day concerns: war, global warming, the erosion of civil liberties, the proliferation of security cameras in the band's native Canada. That grounds Neon Bible in modern times, whereas Radiohead's OK Computer still sounds futuristic 10 years after its release.

The Arcade Fire's ambitious and creative leap from Funeral to Neon Bible remains a tier below the one Radiohead took after The Bends (and after OK Computer, for that matter), but it deserves the comparison. Both are anthemic, complex rock 'n' roll epics about angst-ridden young characters. Both are highly melodic and symphonic. Neon Bible concerns a post-MTV, pre-World War III society, while OK Computer concerns a distant technological and dystopian age. A bible versus a computer. "Paranoid Android" versus just plain paranoid.

The machines have not revolted, but The Arcade Fire preach about the end of the world with more fervor than The Rapture Index on the Web. "Black Mirror," which opens the album with an ominous rumbling, includes the lyrics "Mirror, mirror on the wall / Show me where them bombs will fall."

Would Plutonium Bible have been too much of a giveway?


Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mystery men

Clinic
Visitations
Score: 5

When Ade Blackburn chants, "Keep yourself hidden," there are at least three other guys who know exactly what he's talking about. See, on stage and in their publicity photos, the four Brits who comprise Clinic wear surgical masks and dress alike, whether that means scrubs or suits or monastic robes. Their songs add to the mystique, with abstruse lyrics and a penchant for rhythm.

Visitations, their fourth album, testifies of an uneasy compromise between methodical studio tweaking and raw instrument bashing. Those contradictory impulses have arisen before, and Clinic have dealt with them on a case-by-case basis.

For 2002's Walking With Thee, the studio took precendence. Two years later, with Winchester Cathedral, Clinic distanced themselves from it, embracing the primal immediacy of laying down tracks live. 2000's Internal Wrangler fed off the friction, bounding from beachside repose to tangles of discord and back. The rub is that Visitations follows the same path as Internal Wrangler, only with less energy.

Oh, the bag of tricks has expanded, to be sure. "Gideon" splices up a cymbal's crash so that it whiffles, similar to the sound Saturday morning cartoons employ when someone stops time. "Children of Kellogg" opens with battle-charge MIDI trumpeting. "The Cape" aims to evoke a market in India or China with its rickshaw shk-shk-shk and snake charmer flute.

Ultimately, however, the album comes across as a less-inspired sequel. "Paradise" follows the chillout blueprint of "Earth Angel." The angular "Tusk," which bears more than a passing resemblance to "C.Q.," gives way to "Internal Wrangler" sound-alike "If You Could Read Your Mind." Clinic even returned to Gareth Jones, who mixed Internal Wrangler but none of their other albums, for Visitations. Yet there's no nocturnal lesson in haunting beauty like "Goodnight Georgie," and instead of sounding wound up amid his whines and trills, Blackburn sounds halfway reserved.

And while that makes Visitations a disappointment, it isn't a drag.

As an organ thrums in "Animal/Human," someone runs a hand over an autoharp like he's sharpening a knife. Just when your skin starts to crawl, guitarist Hartley throws in some wah-wicky-wah strumming a la U2's "Mysterious Ways."

Clinic like these ways.

Near the three-minute mark of "Children of Kellogg," drummer Carl Turney hits a triangle and the song jerks out of its buzz-and-thump furrowing and into a lounge tempo and a field recording of someone sawing wood by hand.

Darned if I know what it means. But I have four guys in mind who might know.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It's a big country

Lucinda Williams
West
Score: 7

Jesse Sykes
& the Sweet Hereafter

Like, Love, Lust
& the Open Halls of the Soul

Score: 6


Lucinda Williams grew up in the South. Jesse Sykes grew up in the Northeast. Williams lives in Los Angeles. Sykes lives in Seattle. But it's the inner landscapes that really matter, and both artists have tromped through plenty of inhospitable regions.

Those journeys shaped West and Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul: the struggles, the heartaches, the regrets, the anger, the will to keep on going.

West, for the most part, is a quiet affair. The band exercises restraint, putting the focus on Williams' penetrating lyrics.

"What If," a meditation on how the world would change if everything were rearranged, begs to join John Lennon's "Imagine" and Joan Osborne's "One of Us" on the philosopher's playlist. It mixes the absurd ("If cats walked on water") with the bleak ("And flowers turned to stone") and ends up poignant ("If children grew up happier / And they could run with the wolves / And they never felt trapped / Or hungry or unloved.")

The hushed, haggard "Fancy Funeral" advises against splurging on last goodbyes because "No amount of riches / Can bring back what you've lost." Apply the money where it will make a difference, Williams says, like groceries and covering the bills.

On the one song Williams cuts her band loose, "Come On," she sounds empowered, hollering over the din. Although her voice tightens with contempt, it's apparent that she takes immense satisfaction in slagging off a self-absorbed suitor, wielding broken-bottle verses like "You think you're in hot demand / But you don't know where to put your hand."

If West is a diary, Like, Love, Lust is a manifesto. Encompassing at least four weighty and intangible subjects in the title alone, it aims to be grandiose and universal, and to do it without abandoning the Sweet Hereafter's dark country rock.

Appropriately, the most affecting moments on Like, Love, Lust often don't come from Sykes' lyrics, but from the larger presence of the guitars, or when a harmonica or horn section dominates a relative silence. Multi-instrumentalist Phil Wandscher unleashes not one but two searing guitar solos on "LLL," and "The Air Is Thin" piles up band members' vocals into a towering chorus.

It's too bad Like, Love, Lust has a drier sound than 2002's Reckless Burning and 2004's Oh, My Girl: It overemphasizes the wheeze of Sykes' voice. And that quality is more noticeable here because on several occasions Sykes sings with minimal or no accompaniment.

More important, however, is the fact she weaves a thread through the songs (that would be dysfunction), unifying the album with a love-is-a-battlefield theme. On the viola-caressed "Morning, It Comes," she says, "Baby i know / that this love is a feature / that's lost on us creatures so small."

Happy endings don't happen 'round here.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hail to the Busdriver

(but only if you dig his crazy route)

Busdriver
RoadkillOvercoat
Score: 5

Busdriver must love 7-Eleven's Fusion Energy coffee. You know: the kind with enough stimulants to make drug-sniffing dogs start foaming at the mouth.

His frenzied delivery forces reams of eccentric lyrics into nearly every song on RoadkillOvercoat, and his head-scratching style-morphing takes him all over the map. He goes from Hawkman ragga ribbit to Weird Al falsetto to the falling-all-over-himself flow of Del tha Funkee Homosapien --- sometimes switching it up in the middle of a verse ("Secret Skin"). On the streamlined hook of "Less Yes's, More No's," he even manages to evoke Trent Reznor.

'Course, if you don't have the liner notes handy, good luck deciphering half of what he's saying. He probably could blow by OutKast in a 50-rhyme dash. He cribs from the Atlanta duo's "B.O.B." on "Ethereal Driftwood," but he's no OutKast.

And let's be real: He could use some slow-and-steady on this album. The lines the average listener can pick up are the ones that stick. Those tend to be the choruses.

For the verses, Busdriver carps his way through injustices political and social, from reps who "want someone lowbrow, a philistine with iron-on irony" ("Casting Agents and Cowgirls") to everybody who "voted in a defrosted Cro-Magnon man" ("The Troglodyte Wins").

Though he declares himself to be left-wing, Busdriver's an equal-opportunity hater. Hippies are the target in "Kill Your Employer (Recreational Paranoia Is the Sport of Now)." Part grime and part primal, the track lambastes veggie-dog-eating peace marchers: "Let me guess, you're a macrobiotic cuisine prep-cook / With a textbook liberal outlook in an oppressed nook / Couch surfing, but your dad's got employment history at Halliburton / While you dress like wild mermen."

When Busdriver settles down, as on "Go Slow" (how apropos), the ride's considerably smoother. Contributing some much-needed balance in the vocal department, Bianca Casady of CocoRosie waves her freak folk wand and chants an incantation --- probably to control time, judging from the sedated beats per minute.

While it's at times puerile and overindulgent, RoadkillOvercoat refuses to be pinned down stylistically, much like its creator refuses to be put down by the Man. Just don't blast "Kill Your Employer" from your corporate cube, because your boss isn't likely to catch that it's about smelly peaceniks. But he'll understand the chorus.

So much for "Take this job and shove it."


Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Downcast days

The Good, the Bad
& the Queen

The Good, the Bad
& the Queen

Score: 4

Oh, 2-D, what did they do to drive you away? Did you get tired of Murdoc flashing pentagrams? Was Russel throwing his weight around? Please don't let this foreshadow the "creative differences" announcement.

Because you and your animated pals have made better records than the markedly less animated musicians in The Good, the Bad & the Queen.

Damon Albarn, perhaps best known these days as 2-D, the main vocalist for Gorillaz, leads a supergroup comprised of bassist Paul Simonon (The Clash), guitarist Simon Tong (The Verve) and drummer Tony Allen (Fela Kuti) on a surprisingly underwhelming journey on The Good, the Bad & the Queen.

That queen part gives you an idea the album's about Britain, but good times are few and far between. Albarn mopes through song after song of the flat, the bland and the shiftless. Maybe it's because of Iraq. "Drink all day / coz the country is at war" he laments on "Kingdom of Doom," as though all life has offer is cold porridge and a front-row seat at the nation's public shaming.

Though Albarn's pace and stance recall some of his soggier work with Blur, the music easily could be mistaken for scrapped Gorillaz compositions. Plenty of the quirks are there: the impish keyboard trundle ("Northern Whale"), the outer space vibe ("Herculean"), the prominent bass ("The Bunting Song"), a choir ("Herculean"). The sonic resemblance is apparent on other songs, too, probably in no small part because Danger Mouse, who handled Demon Days, reprised his role as producer.

And all of these things work to the album's disadvantage, since the similarities underscore its shortcomings. The Good, the Bad & the Queen lacks the adventurousness of Gorillaz, and it lacks the shrewdness and wit of Blur.

Nevertheless, a few cuts are worth hearing. "80's Life" has a Beach Boys nod and a nice piano chord progression. "Three Changes" bustles with agitated clatter. By the time the other band members really assert themselves --- three minutes into the final track --- it's a welcome, rocking contrast to the pervading wet-blanket monotony.

You wonder what Albarn had them doing the rest of the time. Eating porridge?


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A jester with angst

Aqueduct
Or Give Me Death
Score: 8

Kanye didn't know how good he had it.

His girl might've been a gold digger, but at least she wasn't digging his grave.

David Terry, the man behind Aqueduct, needs to have a talk with his sweetie.

"You say you're not after my money / but lately you've been acting funny / planning my funeral, choosing my coffin," he muses on "You'll Get Yours." The kicker comes when he deadpans, "The black one's nice, but the gray one's fantastic."

With inspired orchestration and more hooks than a pirate party, Or Give Me Death goes for the funny bone often, and it often succeeds.

The Postal Service pop of "Broken Records" seems straight until Terry suddenly switches to vocoder to close out the first chorus.

"Keep It Together," by contrast, lets you know upfront that it wants to play. The cheesy, buoyant synths bring to mind characters running in place or in slow motion on some '70s cop show.

Droll humor abounds in the faux murder ballad (and "The Princess Bride"-referencing) "As You Wish." Mariachi horns serenade until a marching band tempo shoves them off the stage. The persistently peppy snare makes it the most upbeat song about a killer since The Beatles were cracking noggins with "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."

Terry sets up his vocals so that they counterpoint: one soft and melodic, the other boisterous and discordant. The off-key one is dominant, casually mentioning, "I'll probably kill you in the morning." The other is submissive, with its repetition of "Please" and "As you wish." Later on, the threat changes to "I'll kill you in the morning," and that's followed by a four-part description of how. Of course, before this development, the killer expresses a hankering for Reese's peanut butter cups.

Humor is a tricky thing. Certainly not everyone would find "As You Wish" amusing. Terry even has a song on Or Give Me Death that addresses this fact from a different angle. "Just the Way I Are" casts him as a misunderstood joker. "It's easygoing sarcasm, don't get me wrong, girl," he sings. "My heart is in the right place / but sometimes it's off course."

He recalls times when his goofing around irritated her, for example, asking, "What if we got stuck like this forever?" while they were holding hands. The track hops along with a "Wizard of Oz"-like glee, which underscores the contrary chorus: "It's not the way I am / it's just the way I are" (a sentiment that's more Scarecrow than Tin Man). In the end, he wants to be true to himself but not lose her affection because of it.

Tone goes a long way toward revealing Terry's intentions. If isolated, the lyrics would give the album an entirely different character. Many point to depression, frustration and cynicism. "Keep It Together" includes the line "People never change -- bitch, don't even try." On "Lying in the Bed I've Made," it's "I might be lonely all my life." The pop-punk "Living a Lie," which jumps out of the gates with a formidable riff, advises "It's not living a lie if you're not living at all." But the upbeat music begs to differ.

If life throws you lemons, laugh at them.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Not there yet

Norah Jones
Not Too Late
Score: 4

Norah Jones has a nice voice: honeyed but not cloying, soothing but not tiresome.

She also has a knack for interpretation. That's why she can cover Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael, Elvis and Nick Drake and have each come out sounding like her own. Even if she isn't reinventing a song, she's able to absorb its essence, then let her passion for it emanate.

But that's also because she's covering good songs. When the writing is weak, she can slip into listlessness.

Jones' greatest talents don't lie in songwriting. This proves unmistakable on her third album, Not Too Late. 2002's Come Away With Me (the disc that won her all those Grammys) involved Jesse Harris behind the scenes. He wrote or co-wrote nearly a third of its songs, and their partnership inspired a dynamic that was as arresting as it was assured. On 2004's
Feels Like Home
, Harris' role shrank to playing acoustic guitar.
On two songs.

Meanwhile, the contribution of her other collaborator, bassist Lee Alexander, remained constant: roughly three songs per album.

This time, though, Jones took over. She's the principal songwriter on 12 of 13 tracks. Not that it's wrong for her to write her own material, but she stumbles many times leaping to a wider role.

"Thinking About You" feels rudimentary. The lyrics are cliche: "Yesterday I saw the sun shining / And the leaves were falling down softly / My cold hands needed a warm, warm touch / And I was thinking about you." With some ingenuity, the song could work. No luck. Jones and the band play it straight down the middle, as flat as the lyrics.

"Not My Friend" is similarly adrift, although it does feature some curious muted guitar hemorrhaging in the background.

Neither song has a memorable melody, and that makes the other failings of each only more apparent.

Jones doesn't boggle minds with her words. She doesn't have a five-octave voice. She doesn't experiment with synthesizers, samplers or beats. And she favors the soft-and-measured approach more often than not. So, until one of these things changes, melodies are more crucial to her songs.

Unfortunately, the one with the most memorable melody, "My Dear Country," happens to be the one with the most cringeworthy lyrics. "'Twas Halloween and the ghosts were out" it begins, before revealing that Election Day, believe it or not, is a even scarier occasion because of a certain outcome at the polls, and because of a certain president. A stagger-step piano tempo sends it toward the schmaltzy conclusion: "I love the things that you've given me / And most of all that I am free / To have a song that I can sing / On election day." Those words might win over the civics professor, but that's about it.

Lyrically, the country-tinged "Little Room" acts like it wants to be sexy (hint: There's a bed). Yet it ends up being silly because of more than 30 seconds of amateurish whistling (by Daru Oda).

The lone song on which someone else did the bulk of the writing, "Sinkin' Soon," shines as the album's finest moment. Jones steps out of her comfort zone and into a slinky, cabaret style, while the band, mostly hushed throughout the album, bursts to life. The plucks of a mandolin take you down to splash in the steerage section, where the water's rising fast. The pots-and-pans percussion and brass come in when the ship starts to list. The coolest trombone ever yelps and simulates drowning.

To be sure, Not Too Late is scattered with small victories: the upright basses played with bows on "Broken," the lyrics on "Little Room," the love-and-war tale with a twist "Wish I Could." Jones summons a wonderful peace on the Sarah McLachlan-indebted "Rosie's Lullaby" over electric organ and a rocking-chair snare groove.

With good songs, Jones is fine. When they fail her, however, she becomes forgettable. Her songs fade into the background. Coffeehouse territory. No more important than the wallpaper.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Sweet dreams, mostly

The Shins
Wincing the Night Away
Score: 6

It's a shame Wincing the Night Away didn't exist a few years ago, because several of its songs would have worked well in the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

And there might be a few memories James Mercer would like to erase.

Like the one that prompted him to write "Let's carve my aging face off / Fetch us a knife, start with my eyes / down so the lines form a grimacing smile."

That doesn't come till the end, though. Plus, in the album's dreamlike realm, it's hard to believe any blood could be spilled. Most of the time, the gentle instrumentation and Mercer's lilt
steer the songs closer to a marshmallow world than a world of pain.

"Phantom Limb," the album's first single, is a standard Shins chirper that slowly grows on you until you realize one day that you're unconsciously humming it. It might be the best palate cleanser on corporate radio today. It's also deceptive. It feels like a three-minute song, but it's almost five, thanks to a long outro of Mercer singing "ooooooo-whoa-oh, ooooooo-whoa-oh," with lovely backing vocals by Anita Robinson of Viva Voce.

"Red Rabbits," on the other hand, founders with its half-cooked lullaby: a gunnysack, orphan eyes, sprites "standing up for their rights." It ends with what resembles crowd noise but probably is supposed to be some sort of protest or battle charge from the sprites, who we've apparently been defiling with our urine. Regrettably, the strange lyrics pull attention away from the music. The bridge weaves a beautiful tapestry of violin and lap steel that would have been much better represented if reworked as an instrumental.

Other tracks show the Shins tinkering with their glimmering-pop formula.

On "Pam Berry," a guitar helicopters around as Mercer stretches his vocal range, hitting a lower register, going softer and, ostensibly, tightening his throat. "Spilt Needles" makes good use of treated guitars. "Sealegs" takes a generous swig from the brew marked "funky" --- if not from the bottle, then maybe from a teacup.

Opening track "Sleeping Lessons" burbles like an inverted version of The Chordettes' "Mr. Sandman" and floats around in amniotic tranquility before it breaks into a sprint. "Black Wave" favors similar atmospherics, and both bring to mind the frosty blues and grays of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

As it turns out, the Shins didn't need that film. They did one better, infiltrating not only a successful movie's soundtrack, but also a line of dialogue. The film, of course, was "Garden State." And the line was one nobody seems to be able to forget.


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 1

Cat Power
The Greatest

Life is an ocean, and Chan Marshall's always treading water.

Melancholia. Abandonment. Loneliness. Alcohol abuse. Self-loathing. Isolation. She knows them all and knows them well. When she sings, her words pour out in a viscous syrup of grief.

Yet for an album that chronicles her darkest hours, it offers a remarkable amount of warmth. Recorded over three months in Memphis, The Greatest carries the imprint of Al Green by way of his guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges and other Southern luminaries. Together they salve Marshall's scarred vocals. Call it red-eyed soul.

Buoyed by the Memphis Rhythm Band, "Living Proof" and "Could We" practically amble, which for a Cat Power song is pretty brisk. "Could We," brimming with nostalgia, retraces idealistic days of teenage love: "I'll let you walk me up the street / Back home / Thank you / It was great / Let's make another date."

The title track is beauty and sadness incarnate. What begins as a cautious piano melody with shimmers of pedal steel blossoms into the most lushly orchestrated song in her catalog. A string section weeps, and the background voices echo "the greatest, the greatest, the greatest," as if they're ghosts of the past or thoughts rising from her subconscious.

The "rush of the flood" forces her resignation, though from what is uncertain. The lyrics "Lower me down / Pin me in / Secure the grounds" indicate her ceding control to another, putting herself in someone else's hands. They would seem to hint at her time in the psychiatric ward of Miami's Mount Sinai Medical Center, but The Greatest was recorded before then, so perhaps they foretell it.

Prior to her institutionalization, she often turned to alcohol, and "Lived in Bars" reflects upon those nights of drinking to oblivion. A wheeze of saxophone drifts in like cigarette smoke to join her at the piano. Marshall's hoarse. She's been crying. "There's nothing like living in a bottle," she sings. And that's when you realize the title is positively Freudian. What better word than "bars" could describe how she feels trapped? And whether they're made of iron or glass or her own nerves, they form just as strong a prison.

By the time "Hate" rolls around, she's all alone, guitar twinging in an empty room. Her friends are worried about her. "Do you believe she said that?" goes the call, and the response is heartbreaking: She softly croaks, "I said I hate myself and waaaaauhhhnt to die."

Death also shows up in more subtle ways on The Greatest. In "Islands," she says that if "my sailor" isn't coming back, she'll "sleep eternally." During "The Moon," she asks if the "big bad beautiful you" will still be around "when they put me six feet underground."

On such songs, the accompaniment is skeletal, emphasizing her feeling of isolation. Elsewhere, however, her bandmates accentuate their instruments --- a woozy saxophone at the end of "Willie," fiddle at the beginning of "Empty Shell," organ on "Living Proof" --- as if each tone is a memory or emotion flaring to the surface, then diving back into repression.

"Love & Communication," which even has some heaves of electric guitar, is the busiest piece on the album, and its comparatively bombastic spirit sounds triumphant in light of Marshall's recent months. She's sober now, or at least on the path to sobriety. Her live shows have greater focus and energy. She credits the Memphis Rhythm Band with boosting her confidence and allaying her stage fright. She's doing interviews and recording more material.

When she's surrendering control on the title track to The Greatest, she speaks of a "later parade." With any luck, she's found it.


Friday, February 2, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 2

Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae

The first stop on Corinne Bailey Rae's first U.S. tour was Seattle's Crocodile Cafe. It was July 24, one of the hottest days last summer. If fact, Wikipedia has an entry on the "2006 North American heat wave."

It was close to 100 that day and certainly above that in the stuffy club, which had fans, just not working ones. The water was free. It kinda tasted like chlorine, but I didn't care --- it was iced.

Opening act Gran Bel Fisher looked miserable, sweat soaking through his shirt. "This is the hottest I've ever been in my life," he groaned.

Corinne Bailey Rae, by contrast, just smiled after she took the stage. "It's a bit warm in here, isn't it?" she said, British accent kissing each vowel. The crowd was charmed.

Reinforced by a crack backing band, the willowy singer delivered a set of soul gems, radiating youth and grace. Rae and her band made me feel the way I imagine the people who witnessed early Supremes concerts must have felt.

That feeling courses through her self-titled debut.

It's in the comfy, enveloping bass and the soft, clipped guitar of "Call Me When You Get This." It's in the finger cymbals on "Enchantment." It's in "Trouble Sleeping," which bobs and sways with a red-blooded horn section and has to be one of the most sensuous songs ever written about wanting to
not fall in love. Most of all it's in her voice, an inviting coo with a rumple of huskiness.

"I just wanted to know what it was like, what's it really like to be loved?" she sings on "Call Me When You Get This." "These little volcanoes came as a surprise to me."

Sometimes love isn't as kind. Sometimes it stings, as on the wounded-heart tale "Till It Happens to You." Or it yearns for reciprocation with "my best friend" on "Breathless." Love, in all its forms, is a big part of this album. But even the sad moments will warm you up.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 3

Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere

It's fitting that "Crazy" became the first single in history to go No. 1 in the U.K. based on download sales alone. St. Elsewhere is, if anything, a product of the Information Age, the work of young minds steeped for years in technology and pop-culture minutiae.

"Go-Go Gadget Gospel" implies a connection to the cartoon "Inspector Gadget," which itself was preoccupied with gizmos. "Transformer" could allude to any number of animated TV shows: "GoBots," "Voltron," "Transformers." In fact, the "I-yi-yi" part of the hook echoes the exclamation of the robot assistant Alpha 5 from "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." Even the duo's name, Gnarls Barkley, would seem to be a contortion of Charles Barkley (though it's not).

Danger Mouse's approach, more "SimEarth" than petri dish, makes full use of electronic breaks and beats, as well as samples, and involves him creating a concept and writing a score for it. Cee-Lo, the actor to Danger Mouse's director, provides the voice that brings the vision to life.

Cee-Lo's soulful tenor sets the foundation for the cinematic vignettes, many of which concern a character's crumbling mental state. "Crazy" introduces this theme in no uncertain terms, starting out, "I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind."

Even if not everybody who downloaded "Crazy" could relate to that feeling, the song was guaranteed to resonate with the masses, thanks to its instantly recognizable low-slung bass run and chorus of ooooooohs in the background that rolls in like fog at a morning funeral.

Similarly, St. Elsewhere taps into related social issues, including suicide ("Just a Thought") and obsessive behavior around belief systems ("Feng Shui"). "The Boogie Monster," a calliope(?)-driven track that begins with a Dracula laugh, is about being so frightened you can't sleep, then realizing you're your own worst enemy because it's all in your head.

And Gnarls Barkley don't shy away from seamier subjects. On "Necromancer," Cee-Lo mixes sex and murder --- just not in that order --- and the result is necrophilia. "She was cool when I met her," he says, "but I think I like her better dead."

In St. Elsewhere, sometimes the heroes are the monsters.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 4

Camera Obscura
Let's Get Out of This Country

Whatever personal matters Tracyanne Campbell and her fellow Scots sowed after 2004's "Underachievers
Please Try Harder," those seeds grew into some beautiful compositions, rich in country sway and Motown rhythm.

Warm, full arrangements frame Campbell's '60s-pop voice as she sidles through rocky relationships and frustration.

"I hope and I pray he'll leave me one day," she sings on "The False Contender," only to bemoan two tracks later, "I won't be seeing you for a long while / I hope it's not as long as a country mile."

"Dory Previn" adds to the subtext: The first husband of singer-songwriter Previn dropped her for Mia Farrow, and the protagonist finds solace in Previn's music, turning it "up to eleven for the band's ears to bleed." Fictional band or not, it's hard to tell, though co-founder and vocalist John Henderson did quit Camera Obscura shortly before the recording sessions for "Let's Get Out of This Country." So co-founder Campbell wrote all the lyrics and performed lead vocals on every song.

Her bandmates, producer Jari Haapalainen and the other players help her give the album the vintage feeling her songs call for. Together, the collective provide the violins and cello, the lazy accordion that wafts through "The False Contender," the choir on "I Need All the Friends I Can Get," the clip-clop cadence of "Dory Previn."

"Razzle Dazzle Rose" is essentially a country song with trumpet and without twang. If Loretta Lynn switched places with Campbell, she'd find herself at home with the shuffle-step of the snare and tambourine.

On the other hand, maybe Campbell has all the country she needs, because she swings through "If Looks Could Kill" (her first name is Tracyanne, after all). To be fair, though, that track, with all its ricocheting, has more in common with Phil Spector's Wall of Sound than with Nashville.

"Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken," the album's finest piece, chugs along care of a Motown-inspired rhythm section. From the peals of the church organ to the earnest choruses to the final unified cutoff, it's magic. It evokes the buzz of a perfect live take in a '60s recording studio. It's easy to imagine the engineers nodding their heads, the vibrations on the wood floor, the producer tapping his foot, the reels turning, the little needles wobbling. Goose bumps, for sure.

Not that they'll go away anytime soon.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 5

Neko Case
Fox Confessor
Brings the Flood


Once upon a time, there was a singer named Neko. Neko loved animals. Whether eagle or lion or fox or sparrow, she cared not. All were regal creatures, and all deserved songs.

And yet her heart first went out to a girl: Margaret. Margaret worked at the cannery, where she lost three fingers. She once rode a train with a girl who had the smoothest waves of cinnamon hair she'd ever seen. Her name was Pauline. Everything was hard for Margaret, but everything was easy for Pauline. This wasn't fair, Neko decided.

But before she could help Margaret, her heart went out to a woman who's true love died in a car. A 1969 falcon sedan, if you care. The paper didn't. It said '75.

It dawned on Neko as she wrote these songs that she reserved the most tender place in her heart for strangers. And yet she took no stranger home with her the day she left the party at 3 a.m. But she did accept a Valium from the bride.

When Neko thought about recent events --- poor Spanaway, widows toasting at St. Angel, the laughs she had with her friend "holding out for that teenage feeling" --- she had a lot of regrets. So she sang about them.

But soon she met the fox confessor. He distracted her. He shamed her. Neko panicked.

"Who married me to these orphaned blues?" she cried.

"It's not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder," he snapped.

Troubled, Neko sang "John Saw That Number" to take her mind off what the fox confessor told her. But it was no use. The madness came. A man Neko knew thought he saw wolves, so he turned his furniture into firewood.

All this distressed Neko. She felt as if she were in the jaws of a lion until she found a compatriot in a similar predicament: a sparrow perched, preparing to fly.

"The hawks alight till morning," Neko warned, "you'll never pass beyond the gate." But it was too late.

At last, Neko sang about herself: "I can say that I've lived here in honor and danger / But I'm just an animal and cannot explain a life."

And the fox confessor laughed.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 6

Asobi Seksu
Citrus

It starts with 17 seconds of softly chirping electronics. Seventeen seconds for you to prepare yourself.

Not nearly long enough.

The next 47 minutes and 15 seconds fall somewhere between heaven and a head rush. Bells ring; guitars jangle and fuzz; the bass rattles; the drums thunder; Yuki Chikudate's angelic voice sails through the verses and soars through the choruses. With an oceanic pull, the songs swell and crash, only to rush to greater heights, sweeping you away in surge after surge of exhilaration.

Faster, faster, faster! the band seems to urge in the final leg of the first full-length song, "Strawberries," before giving way to a gurgle of guitar. But it's just a prelude to the glory of "New Years," which explodes from the speakers like a solar flare.

Such is the volatile nature of Citrus by New York-based band Asobi Seksu. Songs are studies in elemental intensity, intermittently churning, reacting, combusting.

Album centerpiece "Red Sea" moves from barely audible synths to a taut tom groove and begins layering: a guitar line, a few plucks of the bass, louder washes of keyboard, vocals, another riff, a drum fill. When the chorus hits, so does a mass of popping snare and hissing hi-hats. The sequence repeats, but more rapidly. As wave after fuzzy wave rolls and breaks, Chikudate's voice struggles to be heard above the tempest: "You said the first time was so perfect / but the rest was all just wrong."

At other times, Citrus highlights Asobi Seksu's '80s pop leanings, such as "Goodbye," which features glockenspiel in the intro, a frolicking beat reminiscent of The Cure and an everybody-sing-along refrain.

Whether singing about "deafening strawberries" or a dying relationship, Chikudate suffuses her words with emotion. Two of the songs are in Japanese, but you don't have to understand the lyrics to "Mizu Asobi" to appreciate its giddiness.

The jingle bells and la-la-la chorus don't need translation.

But, overall, the album is about sonics, not lyrics.

With Citrus, producer and mixer Chris Zane might have been aiming to replicate the textures on My Bloody Valentine's landmark guitar album "Loveless." And while Kevin Shields' studio alchemy remains singular, there's something special here.

Apparently favoring treble over bass, Zane captures a crispness of tone along with thin echoes that imply spaciousness, giving the album a feeling of winter rather than summer. The vocals, for the most part, are gauzy. On "Lions and Tigers," they traverse the same distant, echoey territory that deflected Aimee Mann's voice so beautifully on 'Til Tuesday's hit "Voices Carry."

On "Nefi + Girly," Chikudate pleads, "Disconnect the feeling factory."

Too late.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 7

Serena Maneesh
Serena-Maneesh

The members of Norwegian band Serena Maneesh are metalworkers, melting down the rock 'n' roll elements of their predecessors and molding them into other fascinating creations.

You'll find pieces that could pass for Spiritualized, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, The Smashing Pumpkins and many more, but all bear the engraving of Emil Nikolaisen --- along with everybody else who hammered, filed, forged, cast and polished on Serena-Maneesh.

Guitarist and vocalist Nikolaisen recruited his sisters Elvira and Hilma for the project, as well as several friends, including Sufjan Stevens and Daniel Smith of the Danielson Famile. At least six people recorded or mixed Serena-Maneesh, among them Greg Norman (at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studios) and Martin Bisi, who has produced Sonic Youth and The Dresden Dolls. Also, this took place in at least three countries.

All participants prove their worth over the course of 11 songs, many of which change direction midway through and exceed seven minutes.

Naturally, with so many venues and musicians and instruments and influences and egos at play, as well as the detours within songs, Serena-Maneesh can be a tricky album to follow. Distorted guitars and processed pianos add to the feeling of disorientation. "Selina's Melodie Fountain," the second song, contains faint crowd noise, though it apparently was not recorded live. The muted rumbling in the final two minutes of "Sapphire Eyes" could have been a field recording from the bottom of a swimming pool.

The Can-like rhythms of "Candlelighted" (a wink in the title, perhaps?) mesmerize while the guitars hallucinate, or get as close as guitars can get to such a thing. "Beehiver II" evokes the full-frontal thrash of Nirvana's "Aneurysm" and the fuzz-storm guitar of Dinosaur Jr. "Drain Cosmetics" is a dead ringer for The Jesus and Mary Chain. Even the Nordic cousin to Billy Corgan's tape-tearing scream circa "X.Y.U." shows up twice on the album.

Impressively, none of these songs clashes or overwhelms, even though several appear back to back. Good sequencing undoubtedly plays a role. "Her Name Is Suicide," with its hypnotic throb, soothes after "Beehiver II," and the quasi-ballad "Don't Come Down Here," which would be leaden if it appeared early in the album, is welcome after the spare closing of "Sapphire Eyes."

Nikolaisen, though, deserves the most credit: The frontman wrote and produced Serena-Maneesh.

As he surely knows, the tools and material get you only so far. The rest is talent and vision.