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


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?