Tuesday, September 30, 2008

As the Crow flies

Sheryl Crow
Score: 5

Somewhere between the
time Sheryl Crow went
from mold-scraping and french toast-serving to
Kid Rock-dating (and dumping), her earth went fallow. Conflict and passion leached, she sang a could-be ode to tanning. 2005's glossy and conventional Wildflower didn't help matters. This time around, she comes armed with some serious fodder, namely a broken-off engagement, a recovery from cancer, and an adopted son. Yet for all the creative possibility these topics offer, Crow often proves unable to convert that to a powerful performance.

In "Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)," for instance, her exam-table entreaties are fairly flat despite the gravity of the situation, and when her multitracked voice is used for an overlapping effect, the result doesn't resemble mortal pleading, but surface-level whining.

"Diamond Ring" is a small improvement: Over the stagger of a kick-snare beat, Crow recalls how her push to get married was the catalyst in dissolving a relationship (with Lance Armstrong, in all likelihood). An organ churns for the chorus as Crow tests her pipes. It's a rare instance of her singing forcefully and reaching for high notes, and it's one of the better songs she's written this decade. Unfortunately, it seems as if she's concentrating on hitting her notes rather than conveying the emotion that she clearly must feel. As a result, she can't quite pull off the pathos. The raw song itself, however, is good enough to become a standard. Assuming Crow's plight is common enough to invite feelings of solidarity, it will be interesting to hear what other artists bring to "Diamond Ring" in the future.

The life change that does produce a solid performance is "Lullaby for Wyatt," a tender tribute to her baby son, in which she expresses premature worries along with the standard pledges of parental caring. "How do I keep you from losing your way?" she wonders, "Hope you'll go out and you'll come back someday." What could have been a treacle cradlesong instead achieves a rounder quality, more representative of the sweep of emotions brought on by new parenthood.

In general, the sparer the song on Detours, the better Crow fares, and vice versa. The title track and "Drunk with the Thought of You," both largely acoustic numbers, whisper their wings with Beatle dust, hinting at Crow's Fab Four appreciation (she covered "Mother Nature's Son" for the "I Am Sam" soundtrack and "Here Comes the Sun" for the "Bee Movie" soundtrack). By contrast, the hippie-dippy "Out of Our Heads" grafts a torpid Euro house beat to slide guitar and accordion, and the percussion for "Love Is All There Is" sounds too canned.

From the beginning, when the loud, pro-studio "Shine Over Babylon" rudely tailgates the pretty, lo-fi folk of "God Bless This Mess," it's apparent that Detours is muddled. But the album's not without its moments.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Burning the book of love

The Long Blondes
Score: 10

Romantic strife is The Long Blondes' stock-in-trade, but Couples affords the topic an inflamed sense of urgency, writhing as if dunked in turpentine. Kate Jackson, the album's principal voice, bounds through tales of curdled love, yowling here, sashaying there, as the rest of the band shake the dust off new wave and disco, assimilating them into their tightly wound rock 'n' roll.

The lyrics, nearly all written by lead guitarist Dorian Cox, examine the intrigue inherent in affairs: the emotional twisting and turning that upends lives and turns people into marionettes.

"Too Clever by Half" swivels to an R&B rhythm and outlines a "Closer"-style web of betrayal: "You both planned to leave your lovers and run off with each other / and leave us to look like fools." Jackson delivers the lines seductively, her character's coquettishness meant to draw the cheater close. Clearly possessing the upper hand and knowing it, she savors the moment, her words exposing themselves as a taunt. Then she sticks the knife in: "When you and her were out, I would go 'round to his house / and I don't have to tell you what we did next."

The roles are somewhat reversed in "Round the Hairpin," which throws a rented car into the equation. He's at the wheel. She's at his mercy. A keyboard lurches and buoys, combining with drummer Screech Louder's snare taps to lock in the trajectory, weaving back and forth, back and forth. When the taps give way to crashes, it's the terror pounding in the passenger's head. "Don't let me die," she pleads (possibly a last-minute ad-lib by Jackson, since the phrase isn't listed in the liner notes for the song). The driver's response, spoken by Cox and barely audible over the now-screaming guitars, is a chilling ramble, complete with, "If I can't have you, I don't want nobody / If I can't have you, I don't want to live."

Similarly, the woman at the pub in "The Couples" feels that failed love has sucked the life out of her. Now jaded, she clings to her self-pity as she watches the guys and gals. "People have the nerve to tell me that they're lonely," she moans to herself, "You're not lonely --- I am, baby."

All of this is heavy stuff, but Couples is a hemorrhage you can dance to. The slinky bass line of "Too Clever by Half" invites you to strut, and "Guilt" demands more, its disco-indebted beat and humming keyboards poppy enough to be a floor-filler. When it comes to vocals, bassist Reenie Hollis and guitarist-keyboardist Emma Chaplin add to the variety, providing the shouted chorus on "Here Comes the Serious Bit" and backing vocals elsewhere.

The final track, "I'm Going to Hell," is a towering inferno of a rock song -- huge enough to be a Broadway production -- with piano pounding worthy of at least a few puffs of "Great Balls of Fire." "I don't watch soap operas," one of the cheaters confesses, "maybe I should / I need to know if being the bad guy's any good." Everything about the song goes for broke: musically, vocally, thematically. It goes for the throat and hits the heart instead.