Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

I’m naming 12 albums to my best-of list because there are 12 months in a year, and so it feels like a less arbitrary number than 10, even if it is also less round. Plus, where good music is concerned, more is always more. If you put Wilco at the top of your ballot, you forgo any chance of seeming fashionable (especially if you put them ahead of Frank Ocean and Tune-Yards), but if you’re going to engage in any activity as subjective as ranking the albums released in a given year, listing them in rough order of how much solace you’ve taken in them is the only honest rubric. If you haven’t heard any of these records, I feel qualified in saying that there is one sort of solace or another to be found in each of them.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Das Racist/Drake

To put a rather fine point on it, Drake and Das Racist provide clear examples of the broadening definition of rap: ethnically diverse, liberally educated (two of the three members of Das Racist met while they were undergrads at Wesleyan), and, in Drake’s case, confessional in a way that would have led to some name-calling a decade ago. If the Das Racist guys are smarter (they are), it would still take a fool to deny the pleasures of Drake, superficial though they may sometimes be. 

Das Racist: Relax
“But are they serious?” That’s the question that’s dogged this Brooklyn crew since they dropped their exceptionally daffy—and brilliant—single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” in 2008. The mix tapes they gave away two years later didn’t necessarily settle the debate, and the less-than-rapturous reaction to their first for-profit LP suggests many have stopped caring altogether, which is a serious shame. Indian-American Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) uses his first verse here to share the story of his immigrant parents: “1980, from Delhi to Queens/She had a pocket full of lint/He had a suitcase full of dreams/From holdin' me to bagging groceries at the Pathmark/To scoldin' me for drinking and driving in fast cars.“ Then a promise: “I ain’t backin’ out until I own a bank to brag about.” We’ve come a long way from the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Heems, along with fellow Indian-American Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dap) and Cuban/Italian/African-American Victor Vazquez (you can call him Kool A.D.), are so self-aware and hyper-informed about the world around them that their apparent contradictions and bone-deep irony sound like honest reactions to information overload. They say Urban Dictionary is for “demons with college degrees,” but make fun of themselves for all the poetry readings and jam band shows they attended at Wesleyan long before you have the chance to. Along they way, they prove that hip-hip is now as much the province of those places—not to mention the posh dorm room—as the ‘jects, even if they would roll their eyes at me for being so earnest about it. What does it all mean? Here’s a clue: “If you wanna be me, you can be me/…you can look all day but you still wouldn’t see me/If you wanna be you, you can do that too/And if you don’t, then I don’t really know what I can tell you.” Call it alternative rap or psychedelic rap or meta rap or whatever hashtag you can think of. Just don’t call it a joke. A-

Drake: Take Care
I don’t begrudge Drake’s apprehensions about his own fame and fortune; I wish I had his problems, but I’m sure I’d find plenty to gripe about in the life he leads. I don’t even get annoyed when he drunk dials his ex to tell her how all the sex he’s having is hurting his soul; that nakedly pathetic Hail Mary is the most compelling moment here. Drake—along with Kanye West—is a hip-hop confessor who pays little regard to the understood musical definition of ‘hip-hop.’ But because he’s not exactly what you’d call deep, his musical vision is a whole lot more engaging than his take on himself. The words ‘head case’ come up a lot in conversations about Drake, but his stakes are penny ante even before the Kanye comparisons he begs for and suffers by. The good news is that this follow-up to last year’s Thank Me Later never sounds anything less than terrific. Rapping and singing better than ever, getting the most out of his Toronto pal The Weeknd, and co-opting snippets of songs by Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and—on the title tracka Jamie xx remix of a Gil Scott-Heron cover of an R&B classic made famous by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Drake makes the case for the aficionado as artist. His taste and skill are plain throughout, and the beats he gets from his go-to producer Noah “40” Shebib are luxurious. I just wish all the above made as strong a case for Drake's soul as it does his ear. B+ 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Wilco/Joe Henry/Tom Waits

ANTI- distribution deals aside, these three are united by a warped take on Americana that, on the evidence below, just keeps on giving. If you thought the last couple Wilco albums contained some very good songs, but that Jeff Tweedy wasn’t using the excellent musicians around him as well as he could, this one’s for you. And if Joe and Tom don’t arrive with quite as many surprises this time around, know that there’s a difference between a rut and a groove.

Wilco: The Whole Love
You’ll be hard pressed to find a review of Wilco’s eighth album that doesn’t fixate on the stunners that bookend it. You may have heard less about the excellent songs that lie between “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning.” Not since the acrimonious departure—and, then, untimely death—of Tweedy foil Jay Bennett has a Wilco album sounded so much like a team effort. Nels Cline still shreds plenty, but where his guitar work once seemed designed to leap out from the arrangement every time one of Tweedy’s tunes was in need of a bailout—see: Sky Blue Sky—it’s now as likely to slink as thrash. The return to prominence of John Stirratt’s bass lines, meanwhile, may serve to remind us why he is the lone original member of Wilco besides Tweedy who remains in the band 16 years after A.M. For the first time in its history, Wilco has gone three straight albums without a lineup change, and whether or not constancy among musicians is what makes this one such a success, constancy has always been at the heart of what Tweedy does. “It’s all one song,” Neil Young famously admonished a heckler who told him all his songs sounded the same. Like Young, Tweedy is an artist with an emotional through-line, more felt than articulated, that unifies his work regardless of stylistic diversion. Here as ever, he is pushing down his own road, toward the place where you don’t have to feel so distant, and can stop telling lies for love. Those journeys are easier when the band's got your back. A

Joe Henry: Reverie
I am so sympathetic to Joe Henry’s worldview that I’m inclined to let him go on for hours without asking too many questions. By my count, he has made three masterpieces, and I wish I could say this was one of them. After two albums of craft and formalism, Henry aims for immediacy: surrounding himself with terrific musicians he wouldn’t presume to micromanage, he presses record and shouts go. The music, a shambling jazz-folk that happens before your ears, is thrilling. Likewise, Henry’s lyrical sketches of life lived moment-to-moment are just right for an album so concerned with the experience—not just the passage, but the experience—of time. The problem is that Henry has become such a poetic writer he occasionally trips on his own language; a lyric like “I dig in the dirt/and yank at the root/of a shadow’s dark vein/in a story gone mute” rhymes real nice, and is so fussy it only affirms my belief that poets and songwriters have very different jobs. He lands on the right side of that line far more often than the wrong one, but he spends enough time on the line itself to make me wonder what happened to the iconoclast who once professed a desire to work with Dr. Dre. That’s an affront to dignified taste I hope comes to pass. For now, I’m thankful for any album that ends with poetry as unfussy as this: “I’m an hour from arriving/and three from where I rose to go/and maybe two from where I’ll find you/between the world and all I know.” Maybe, just maybe, time has come today. A-

Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Now 61, Tom Waits is writing with an urgency the whippersnappers who worship him should envy, and then learn from. The music on his 17th studio album admittedly won’t send anyone to the thesaurus in search of fresh adjectives, but the songs themselves are as generous as ever, and more timely than those who accuse Waits of shtick have likely bothered to notice. “Hell Broke Luce” continues a string of anti-war songs—begun with 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow” and deepened with 2006’s “The Road To Peace”—no current songwriter young enough to fight can touch; “Talking At The Same Time” details chaos with disarming calm; and “New Year’s Eve” uses “Auld Lang Syne” to express the weary hopes of the downtrodden even better than Waits’ own “A Sight For Sore Eyes,” a song written a generation ago in rock years. Speaking of which, the most extreme moment of beauty on the album happens when Keith Richards himself shows up to harmonize on “Last Leaf,” a survivor’s song that manages to be weary and noble and funny all at the same time. A-

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shabazz Palaces/The Weeknd

The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye and Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler have stoked almost as much interest for their reclusiveness (both released their music anonymously before becoming big things, though Butler had a former public life with Digable Planets) as the shadowy R&B and hip-hop that dominate their highly celebrated records. Black Up, which follows two Shabazz EPs from 2009, is the first hip-hop album ever released by Seattle's Sub Pop label. House of Balloons is The Weekend's debut mix tape, and Tesfaye has already released a second in the time it’s taken me to get around to reviewing it. I'll let the grade below stand for both.

Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
Ishmael Butler makes his intentions known less than a minute into Shabazz Palaces' debut LP: “I run on feelings/Fuck your facts.” That’s a good mantra for a record that favors the physical experience of music—beats that shift and crack and splinter—over the intellectual. That's not to say the words aren’t important; it's that Butler uses them to direct you back to the music, or at least discourage you from parsing the two things separately. He and cohort Tendai Maraire are more interested in creating one long, immersive experience than they are in individual songs, which may be why they have titles as unwieldy as “A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis (1000 Questions, 1 Answer).” You're supposed to let the whole thing, and all the feelings Butler and Maraire pack it with, wash over you. Those feelings peak on “Recollections of the Wrath,” when Butler raps “With that starlight in your eyes/you want to find surprise/With the neon in your blood/you move to find your love/tonight.” He hits the ‘tonight’ hard, word and beat working together, as if to ask what you're waiting for. A-

The Weeknd: House of Balloons
Call me a puritan, but anyone who begins his record with what sounds an awful lot like a date rape, then has the stones to end it with a wronged-man ballad, makes me feel gross. Weeknd mastermind Abel Tesfaye is a Canadian R&B guy whose principle concerns are designer drugs, designer women, and the clearest path to obtaining both at once. Unbridled hedonism has its place, and sometimes the biggest creeps make the most compelling music, but Tesfaye is too shallow to generate anything besides atmosphere. His sound is as edgy and paranoid as a morning after, and if he weren’t so mean-spirited, his songs would work as something besides background music. I don't doubt for a moment that this would sound great in a club—a cavernous one, with the bass so loud you can barely hear the words. B-

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Same format as the last time, with some surprising names falling in the avoid column. Laura Marling improved a quantum on her second album, and the Joni Mitchell-lite of her third is a letdown I didn’t see coming. Speaking of letdowns, Lil Wayne’s turgid post-prison comeback album—for me, the most disappointing of the year—doesn’t even sound like the work of the same freewheeling genius who gave us all those free mix tapes a few years back. Notable from the consider column: Steves Merritt (his album a collection of outtakes) and Malkmus (his a proper studio album) honor if not improve their own legacies, Bill Callahan’s pomo folk both impresses and grates, and truly evocative singers Feist and St. Vincent still leave me wanting more in the song department.

Stephin Merritt: Obsucrities (“Forever and a Day,” “Plant White Roses,” “Take Ecstasy With Me”)

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Mirror Traffic (“Brain Gallop,” “Forever 28,” “Fall Away”)

Cymbals Eat Guitars: Lenses Alien (“Definite Darkness,” “Another Tunguska”)

Bill Callahan: Apocalypse (“Drover,” “Baby’s Breath”)

Feist: Metals (“Graveyard,” “A Commotion”)

Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge (“City of Refuge”)

St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (“Champagne Year”)

Matraca Berg: The Dreaming Fields (“South of Heaven”)

Laura Marling: A Creature I Don’t Know

M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Earl Sweatshirt: EARL

Lil Wayne: Tha Carter IV

Friday, October 14, 2011

Frank Ocean/Tyler, the Creator

Divisive LA crew Odd Future has been the rap story of the year; even New Yorker subscribers not necessarily known for their horror-core affinity have heard a thing or two about them. I’m in the camp that contends their glib shock-rap—especially that of leader Tyler, The Creator—goes absolutely nowhere. The exception is singer-in-residence Frank Ocean, whose voice will be familiar to anyone who’s heard Watch the Throne, and whose brainy brand of R&B is by far the greatest thing Odd Future hath wrought.

Frank Ocean: Nostalgia, Ultra
What this guy understands that his Odd Future cronies don’t is that real candor is more exciting than any blatant attempt to shock. It’s usually more shocking, too. “They say you can’t miss something you never had/Well I can/I’m sad,” he says of the father he never knew and the grandfather he met once. If those words look flat on your screen, trust that they’ve got plenty of dimension when Ocean sings them. They’re also awfully soft for a guy whose key affiliation is with a gang of rape-and-pillagers. Other highlights on this debut mix tape include Ocean’s improvement of Coldplay and Eagles songs you’ll recognize, one about a lost weekend with a future dentist/current porn star that Ocean likens more to Novocaine than ecstasy, and another detailing his frustrations with the girls who turn off his copy of Kid A (“What is a Radiohead, anyway?”) in favor of Drake and Trey Songz, both of whose “songs for women,” Ocean is chagrinned to discover, said women prefer to his own. If all the above doesn’t make you want to know Ocean a little better, you’re aware of more innovative modern R&B than I am. He’s such a breath of fresh air that you wish he didn’t under-stay his welcome. Things end abruptly with his fantastic reworking of MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” effectively reminding us that this is a mix tape, not an album. Other artists have blurred that distinction. Ocean nearly obliterates it. A-

The problem isn’t—as many have asserted—that this 20-year-old Odd Future ringleader is socially irresponsible; it’s that he’s boring. Tyler rapes and stabs his way through a coma-inducing 15 songs in 75 minutes, the scope of his vision summarized thus: “kill people, burn shit, fuck school.” Forgive me if I like my rebel yells just a little more interesting than that. His “Random Disclaimer,” along with his introductory declaration that he is not a role model, along with pretty much everything he does, clearly evokes early Eminem, but this is closer in spirit to Relapse than The Marshall Mathers LP. Speaking of that one, wasn’t the whole point of Slim Shady raping his own mother even though they gave him the Rolling Stone cover—a near rhyme funnier and more shocking than anything here—to render moot the dull gross-out fantasies of dweebs like this? “Her,” in which Tyler discovers that even goblins can get stuck in the friend zone, comes as a relief not so much because it gives the goblin himself some depth, but because he leaves the ‘her’ in question unmolested for a change. “I’m fuckin’ radical! I’m motherfuckin’ radical!” he shouts at us, as if shouting alone made it so. C

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Arctic Monkeys/Old 97's

Words up front, guitars not far behind.

Arctic Monkeys: Suck It and See
Turns out the bludgeoning desert rock these normally nimble Brits turned in on 2009’s Humbug was just an aberration. Phew. Main Monkey Alex Turner weds quip to hook with far too much finesse to settle for brawn alone. A bit of Humbug’s heaviness remains, but it comes with the sorts of angular guitars and turns of phrase that marked the band’s surprisingly durable 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. And Turner, always precociously self-aware, is beginning to do genuine feeling almost as well as come-ons and kiss-offs. “Love Is A Laserquest” maps the moment young people start feeling old with a cartographer’s precision, and the title track—it’s British slang for “give it a try,” in case you were wondering—suggests that Turner may go on to write the sorts of wry love songs that become standards. If, for now, it sounds like he’s still a few genuine feelings away from that, give him time. Four albums in, he’s still only 25, and getting deeper. B+

Old 97’s: The Grand Theatre, Volume Two
How is Rhett Miller, who has built a long and fruitful career out of using train mishaps as metaphors for romantic dysfunction, just now writing a song called “I’m A Trainwreck”? Everything here sounds like something the 97’s could have, should have, or actually have done before, and your degree of affection for the band will determine whether you describe this little brother to last year’s Volume One as freewheeling or merely stitched together. The two volumes should have been edited down to one, sure, but the keepers here prove this is still one of the few bands whose live chemistry translates to record, and Miller more than meets his quota for lyrical jewels: “He said, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’/What he meant was, ‘Can I buy you?’/Yeah his eyes were pits of despair/But his accent recalled the bayou.” That’s almost as good as “I keep turning up The Wedding Present/You’re too tired to turn me down/Well you’re probably gonna tell me that this sounds a little adolescent/But counting me there’s 1.3 million lonely people in this town.” You barely notice that sly little ‘counting me’ the first time around, which is exactly how Miller wants it. B+ 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Jay-Z & Kanye West/Bad Meets Evil

Two rap collaborations, with three of the biggest names in the game between them. Side project or no, Eminem’s predictably potty-mouthed team-up with fellow Detroit MC Royce Da 5’9” is disappointing. Jay-Z and Kanye, meanwhile, earn their use of the imperative mood.

Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne
Sonic ambition and improved flow aside, Kanye's greatest contribution here was using both to inspire (or maybe scare?) his older and more business-minded mentor back up to his artistic A game. Jay-Z hasn’t sounded so nuanced or effortless on record since American Gangster, if not The Black Album. So while Kanye is a pop artist who earns the title, Jay is an MC who makes it look easy; where sheer elan is concerned—and elan is a major concern on an album like this—a scrapper like Kanye is bound to come up short by comparison. But we probably have him to thank for how well the whole thing works as a piece; album-making is his game, and good luck beating him at it. The black power songs "Murder to Excellence" and "Made in America"—and the sentiments nested throughout—are inspiring no matter your race, the Frank Ocean hooks are gold, and the floss-and-gloss tracks everyone feared would be the whole story upon hearing lead single "Otis" are more aspirational than discouraging for those of us whose net worth Jay-Z spends on an average Tuesday. At home in the stratosphere, Jay and Ye can do what they want. In this case, what they wanted was an Event album (a deeply weird and ambitious one at that), which they took great care to keep from leaking before its street date so we could all hear it for the first time together—and, yes, to encourage us to spring for the deluxe edition on iTunes. Among many other things, these two are living proof that capitalism and generosity of spirit are not mutually exclusive ideals. A-  

Bad Meets Evil: Hell: The Sequel
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Eminem’s Detroit buddies just don’t bring out the best in him. While it’s true that Royce Da 5’9” has twice the talent as any member of D12, he’s also happy enough to be here that he rarely tries to shift the focus away from tired scatology and woman hate. Fans who missed Slim Shady’s mischief on last year’s Marshall Mathers-heavy Recovery might want to check this out, if only to see what none of us were missing. Em’s rhymes are as acute as ever, but lack the context and wit that separates The Slim Shady LP from D12 World. He’s also cynical enough to say lascivious if not cruel things about an assortment of pop stars, but still bring Bruno Mars in for a hook. The best moments here are those when Em remembers he’s his own best punch line. When one of the many women he douses with epithets reminds him just how much everyone hated Relapse, you want to stand up and cheer. C+

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tune-Yards/Bon Iver

By now you know how much acclaim these ostensible one-person bands—Tune-Yards masterminded by former puppeteer/superhuman performer Merill Garbus, Bon Iver by sensitive soul/insufferable drip Justin Vernon—have enjoyed for their sophomore albums. Sometimes it’s clear what all the fuss is about. Sometimes it isn’t.

Tune-Yards: Who Kill
“There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand/and like I’ve never felt before.” So shouts Merrill Garbus midway through an album that begins with the intimation of an underclass revolution and ends with a song called “Killa.” There isn’t a lot of peace in between; “violence” is a word Garbus uses as casually as most songwriters use “love,” and her bat-shit arrangements—horn blasts slam up against big beats while guitars blare and sirens wail and yes that is a ukulele you hear—are meant to agitate. Even the love song is jumpy. Garbus shares M.I.A.’s pan-musical ambition and Tom Waits’ knack for repurposing junk. Like those great artists, she is also, on occasion, easier to admire than she is to love; all that kinetic energy can be overwhelming. Then again, how else do you want your revolution? It also helps that Garbus chooses her targets well: manipulative record label execs, unjust cops, the penny-pinching top one percent, and oppressors of all sizes and stripes. In short, she’s one of the good guys, and she sums herself up in the end: ”All my violence is here in my sound/Ready or not/I’m a new kind of killa.” A-

Bon Iver: Bon Iver
For my money, the best musical decision Justin Vernon has made since the release of his massively overrated debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, in 2007 was when he allowed Kanye West to use his (heavily autotuned) voice to both soothing and menacing effect on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Lord knows he’s too dull to have achieved either on his own. Said debut’s oft-repeated back story—Vernon got dumped and retreated to a cabin in the Wisconsin woods to write songs about it—was stereotypic emo-by-numbers, and the songs Emma Whoever She Is inspired were, to my ears, exactly that. To everyone else, Emma was some kind of touchstone, a breakup album so “pure” and “real” that even its boring back story turned to myth. So now we see what a little taste of love can do for the lovelorn. That is, convince them it’s okay to indulge every single idea that comes to mind: gentile arpeggios that build to money-shot walls of sound? At least one per song. Synths and strings? All over the place. Flutes and other various woodwinds? Those’ll age great! Unlike new BFF Mr. West (or Merill Garbus, for that matter), Vernon doesn’t have the taste or the talent to bring all his disparate musical ideas together in one song; he simply pours his paints on the pallet and stirs until they turn gray. The most memorable moment here is the electric keyboard intro to closer “Beth/Rest,” mainly because it sounds like a Christopher Guest joke about singer-songwriters whose emotionality is as direct as it is false. So is Vernon just too sincere to know when he’s being mawkish, or cynical enough to know he can get away with it? You probably shouldn’t trust him either way. C

Saturday, July 2, 2011


A few words about what does and doesn't get reviewed on this blog. If you're going to regularly review music, there's nothing more exciting than loving an album. Therefore, any record that, by my own highly subjective standards, deserves an A- or better will get reviewed. So will a strong B+. And since the second most exciting thing about reviewing music is hating something, you'll get some outright pans from time to time too. Of course, most albums aren't deserving of love or hate, and these in-betweens, for the most part, won't get reviewed here. There are exceptions, of course; formerly great or currently overrated artists doing B- work are often worth the blog inches. But one more Brooklyn band named after an animal whose album I'd give a B? You've got better things to read. The same goes for C-grade music I would roll my eyes at but that does not actively offend me. In short: if something doesn't elicit a strong response in me, I won't review it. Still, lots of music that doesn't grab me might grab you. Likewise, just because I don't totally hate something doesn't mean I won't try to steer you away from it. To that end, I'm putting together this list, as I will periodically, of albums I think might be worth your time (Consider), and others I'm quite sure are not (Avoid). They are in descending order of my own affection/admiration for them, and the albums in the Consider column include tracks worth previewing, though if you need to preview Adele you probably haven't walked into a Starbucks this year.


Steve Earle: I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive ("The Gulf of Mexico," "Meet Me in the Alleyway")

Gang Gang DanceEye Contact ("Chinese High," "Sacer")

Kurt VileSmoke Ring For My Halo 
("Puppet to the Man," "Runner Ups")

Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde ("Still New")

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

Moby: Destroyed

New York Dolls: Dancing Backward in High Heels

Anna Calvi: Anna Calvi

Wild Beasts: Smother 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Raphael Saadiq/Lucinda Williams

Two heavyweight songwriters fall short of nobody’s standards but their own. Shout-outs to Robert Christgau and my mother for describing Lucinda's recent songs as litanies before I did.

Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
“This is just what I hear when I hear music,” Saadiq told a rapt crowd at Irving Plaza back in 2009. From a guy in a natty white suit and Buddy Holly specs, leading a similarly outfitted band through a set of songs that sounded more like Holland-Dozier-Holland joints than any R&B recorded this century, the statement could have been disastrous: a last disingenuous straw in an evening of gimmicks. But Saadiq has a sure hand. He inhabits the early-60s soul man role so convincingly, and with such ease, that it seems a serious injustice to call him retro—note that Jay-Z sounded more at home on 2008’s masterly The Way I See It than really-retro Joss Stone did. This follow-up is grittier, and has as much to do with 50s rock n’ roll as it does 60s soul. That was Saadiq bopping around with Mick Jagger during the Solomon Burke tribute at the Grammies this year, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who’d have fit the bill better. Everything here is much looser and less focused than The Way I See It, and side A, to speak in the parlance of the era Saadiq loves so explicitly, is a good measure stronger than side B. But fast and loose is fun too, and there is never any doubting the depth of Saadiq’s love—for communicating the joy of his craft, for warmth, for making a tune go go go. That won’t stop anyone from calling him retro, but let’s look at it the other way: would “Day Dreams,” about maxing out your credit card to impress your baby, resonate as deeply in less debt-ridden times? I’d wager yes. A-

The music is so rich and satisfying—like no Williams album since Car Wheels On A Gravel Road—that it’s easy to overlook some of the lyrical shortcomings. Lucinda’s been moving away from the scene-setting details that defined her earliest and best work (remember how cold that Corona was against Sylvia’s hand in “The Night’s Too Long”?) ever since 2001’s Essence. She leans toward litanies now—not a bad way to lean, given her way with incremental repetition. But she owes us something better than “we were blessed by the watchmaker who gave up his time.” When we see the widow who doesn’t yet know she’s a widow push her daughter on a merry-go-round in “Soldier’s Song,” we’re thankful for the image—for the people and the things—even if the song gets a little cozy with the platitudes. Quite a few of them do. But this is still Lucinda Williams, still the most well regarded writer in a family that also includes her father, who was Bill Clinton’s second inaugural poet. So we still get stuff like “Seeing Black,” which honors her late friend Vic Chesnutt without letting him off the hook for the way he went out, and “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin,’” which offers further proof that no one knows how to miss somebody the way Lucinda does. Of course, the latter also recalls the superior “Are You Alright?” a little too blatantly. Sometimes greatness comes back to haunt you. B+

Monday, May 16, 2011

TV on the Radio/Tennis

Songs of love that revel in worldly context and others that shun it, delivered on scales big and small. While I have no preference when it comes to scale, I am always grateful for some context.

TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light
The golden age these Chroniclers of Our Times foresaw in 2008 did not come to pass, so what now? The attempt at love, naturally. That’s not a new thing for this band, and nothing else on their fourth album is either. Still musically omnivorous, their arrangements are lighter on their feet this time around, and, it must be said, less surprising; this is the first TVOTR album that sounds better on the first listen than it does on the fifth. Good thing it makes a hell of a first impression then. If Return to Cookie Mountain and Dear Science made you work for it, this one, as if recognizing that our national moment feels less like the fiery apocalypse of a few years ago than a winter that just won’t end, warms you up right away. Half the songs are relationship songs explicitly, but they’ve got conflict and context to spare; Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are as direct with the words as they and their band mates are with the music. Lines about bastards who broke the world, landmines for miles, and bullshit that keeps you stuck up on the shelf raise the stakes on their lover’s pleas/laments/reveries. Most pleasing is that their gift for uplift (an underused word for this band, from my view) has never come through clearer. Holding fast to their belief that “love is the province of the brave,” they make their fight for it sound valiant. “Every lover on a mission/shift your known position,” they command at the start. That kind of bravery is hard, but I appreciate the encouragement. A-

Tennis: Cape Dory
What this sweet little album about a yacht trip real-life married folk/band mates Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore took up the Eastern Seaboard lacks in weight is nearly made up for by its effervescent tunes, the ease of which suits these charming songs-at-sea perfectly. From “South Carolina” to “Bimini Bay,” Riley and Moore’s time off the grid will make you wish you had a boat, or at least more vacation time. If a whole record about a voyage undertaken by two people in what sounds like an admirably healthy relationship doesn’t strike you as, you know, exciting, bear in mind that it’s short – here and gone like a summer breeze. Pleasant and insubstantial like one, too. B+

Friday, April 22, 2011

Saigon/Ghostface Killah

Fans of East Coast rap who have lost count of how many albums Ghostface Killah has released in the past half decade are not alone. Neither are those who’ve lost the thread of the Saigon story, which has involved – among other twists and turns – major label drama, a bar brawl with Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and a recurring role on Entourage. Ghost could make good albums like this forever, and he could do it at this pace, but if he wants to deliver another Supreme Clientele or Fishscale, he might want to take his time on the next one. At the moment, I wouldn’t presume to give Saigon any such advice.

Saigon: The Greatest Story Never Told
“I been in the pen/been in the ‘jects…been in a box and back.” In other words, he knows about doing time. The pen and the ‘jects held Saigon for a while, but it was a box at the back of Atlantic Records’ shelf – where A&R buffoons who didn’t hear a hit kept this world-beating debut for the better part of a decade before producer Just Blaze finagled a way to release it on an indie – that had him contemplating retirement. Pray he’s left those thoughts behind. Much has been made of Saigon’s moralism, and rightfully so, but even more important are his empathy (enormous) and his honesty (bracing). He blasts the drug dealer who enlisted his services when he was barely an adolescent, but admits he still thinks about calling the guy to hang out when he’s feeling lonely; he hangs onto his faith while asking God what gives; and he vocalizes hard for the young African Americans – in the ‘jects, the pen, and boxes all their own – he deems the Abandoned Nation (also the name of a foundation he runs to assist kids whose parents are behind bars). The ex-con who triumphs through music is rap’s version of the Rocky story, but Hustle & Flow this is not. Quick to call himself a conscious rapper, Saigon never condescends the way conscious types sometimes do, and, better still, his consciousness has breadth. To be clear, no one with this many Just Blaze beats is required to use them toward the public good of indicting for-profit religion’s crass manipulation of the poor. Saigon does. A

Ghostface Killah: Apollo Kids
Unless you’ve yet to hear enough about how he and his goon buddies used to sell crack and run trains, this is not indispensible. The man born Dennis Cole is now a 40-year-old father of four. No wonder he’s more convincing referring to himself as “Grandpa Ghost” than he is for the entirety of “Handcuffin’ Them Hoes,” a misogynist goon-fest every bit as tedious as the title makes you fear it will be. Sometimes it’s easy to forget this is the same guy who wrote “Save Me Dear,” to say nothing of “All That I Got Is You.” But when Joell Ortiz and The Game show up to help Ghost tell us about that time they happened upon some other goon dumb enough to steal from them while waiting, ten beers deep, for Whoppers at the Burger King drive-thru? Or the one about the Father of the Year candidate who uses his son’s Nintendo as a blunt-force weapon? I’ll sit at this guy’s knee for hours if it means I get to hear stories as wonderfully crass and detailed as that. B+

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Strokes/R.E.M.

If either of these bands favored burning out over fading away, they missed their chance. Truth be told, R.E.M. had a far more noble option, and one that’s all too rare in rock: to bow out gracefully. They used to say they’d hang it up if any one member wanted to quit. But that was before they signed what was, at the time, the most lucrative record contract in history. And while I hope that wasn’t the only reason they carried on after Bill Berry quit in 1997, I also have to wonder whose heart is still in this. Because I’m an optimist, I hope the Strokes hold on a while longer. But I also hope neither Julian Casablancas nor I lives long enough to see his band become a corporation, which, no matter who won’t say so, is exactly what R.E.M. is now.

The Strokes: Angles
I’m among the very lucky subset of youngish music obsessives who got to buy the first Strokes album as a CD and listen to it for the first time in a tiny dorm room. Given the fact that I’ll remember those 36 minutes for the rest of my life, it’s a shame I’ve already forgotten how half of these songs go. This is the first Strokes album to feature songwriting from all five members of the band, and it sounds like a case of too many elegantly wasted cooks in the kitchen. Even more frustrating is that, while Julian Casablancas was by all accounts not in the same room as his band mates when these songs were recorded, a few of them are actually thrilling. “Taken For a Fool” and “Under Cover of Darkness,” especially, demonstrate just how much punch their neurotic boogie can pack. But four albums was all they owed RCA, and, unlike R.E.M., they’re not into redemption narratives. So, is this it? I don’t necessarily buy the line that longevity is impossible for this band – they’ve got the ideas and they’ve got the ambition. But I also can’t deny that I got the highest my first time. B

R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now
What you've heard is true: R.E.M., as much as any American band that ever became the biggest or best, reached the top with honor. They repped noble causes, refused to license their songs to commercials, and shared songwriting credit equally. But more to the point: they went ten straight albums without making a bad one, or – while they always had their signature moves – the same one twice (some may hold up a halting finger and say something dismissive about Monster or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but I keep my copies close, and recommend dusting yours off if they’re around.). More impressive still was how quickly they did it. Consider this: a decade on from their debut, the Strokes have released four albums in total, and there's a reason you probably haven't heard much about two of them. Ten years after Murmur, R.E.M. had already released their eighth – the classic-on-arrival Automatic For The People. Now we get album 15, and their fifth since Bill Berry’s departure. One of my fellow R.E.M. fans has rightfully noted that their last, 2008’s quick-and-hard Accelerate, lacked the singular identity this band used to exude, but it also served notice that Buck, Mills, and Stipe were recommitting themselves to making band albums again after the beating they took for 2004’s slow-and-soft Around The Sun. They’ve taken a step back here, with Stipe turning in some of the worst lyrics of his career (“the annals of our flavored times” is an awfully big bummer coming from the man who wrote “Nightswimming”) and Buck & Mills working overtime to recapture 90’s glories. But Berry isn’t coming back, and he took something immeasurable from this famously democratic band when he left. Their formula’s bound to hit once in a while: “Discoverer” gives the impression that these 50-something multi-millionaires still feel they have discoveries left to make, and “Oh My Heart,” while a touch corny, is deeply felt. Most of the others feel like – and this word hurts – product. Out Of Time has never sounded sweeter or sadder. B-

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lykke Li/Yuck

Youth hurts. Here are two excellent examples of how.

Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes
The song titles say it all. Three in sequence: “Love Out Of Lust,” “Unrequited Love,” “Get Some.” That’s a story as old as time, and one that’s bound to repeat itself. But it’s her story now, and she’ll tell it her way: with walls of sound like those of Phil Spector himself, who was by no means being glib in describing them as “little symphonies for the kids,” and with smarts that allow her to follow the above triptych with “Rich Kid Blues,” which she knows she has, in case you were afraid she wasn’t also self aware. “Youth Knows No Pain” at the outset, but only because she’s drunk and dancing – she’s devoting herself to sadness before all is said and done. She’s grown more assured since her debut (she was 21 then and she’s 25 now) and also (because she was 21 then and she’s 25 now) more bruised. “I’ll get back what I gave my men/Get back what I lost to them,” she pledges in “Unrequited Love.” We know how that will turn out, but so does she. So don’t go saying you told her so. A-

Yuck: Yuck
“Everybody has a mild crucifixion,” sings front man Daniel Blumberg on this young British quartet’s dreamy debut. Like every thwarted romantic of a certain age, Blumberg doesn’t have it quite as bad as he thinks he does. Thankfully, he and his mates know how to tune their guitars to that magic key between spiky and sweet – a great one for selling lyrics that confuse breakups with heart attacks and girls' names with benedictions. “Me and my guitar/drowning down down down/ready when the pain kicks in,” goes the opener. Theirs is a familiar song, still worth playing after all these years for its ability to thwart disillusionment the way one’s mid-twenties thwart romanticism. A-

Thursday, March 24, 2011

James Blake/Bright Eyes

31-year-old Conor Oberst used to be where 22-year-old James Blake is now: atop a wave of boy-wonder hype. Retiring the Bright Eyes name once promotion for this one is done, Oberst says he's after a fresh start, and he sounds like he could use it. Blake, meanwhile, is off to a start almost as promising as you might have heard.
James Blake: James Blake
Overrated as some kind of breakthrough for electronica with feelings, this British dubstep sensation’s debut is, true enough, electronica with feelings. Just hold off on the breakthrough. Blake’s neatest trick is the way he synthesizes and processes his own voice to make it sound like another one of his gizmos, then comes at you straight, voice pure and pained, accompanied by nothing but a drifting piano. It’s all very evocative, but I’m not convinced it’s meant to signify anything in particular about British dubsteb or the singer-songwriter form or our digital existence. The words, which are spare and sad and resemble Zen koans, shouldn’t be taken separately from the music, and they work just fine as a part of it. But if you come in looking for anything besides mood music, you might be disappointed. As mood music, though, it’s awfully effective; Blake already has that innate and rare ability to make you feel lonely and assure you that you aren’t alone in it. B+

Bright Eyes: The People’s Key
Conor Oberst identifies the problem with the latest – and purportedly last – Bright Eyes album right at the top: “Feeling close, but keeping my distance.” Come closer, please. And speak up. If you listen long and hard enough – the music, a glossed up relative of the noise-pop from 2005’s Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, is neither noisy nor poppy enough to open many doors for you – his ideas about a humankind greater than the sum of its parts begin to resonate. Or they do half the time, anyway. The other half, it’s hard to know what, exactly, he’s talking about. We are jejune stars? If you say so. Oberst is at his most galvanizing when shouting a command as simple and inclusive as “everyone on the count of three!” Still, it says something about him that he doesn’t actually count to three for us. B

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Radiohead/PJ Harvey

I’ve swooned as hard for these great UK artists as anyone, so don’t call me a hater. Radiohead, you’ve pissed me off before. Polly, I thought I knew you.

Radiohead: The King of Limbs
“You stole all my magic/took my melody.” Thanks for my lead, Mr. Yorke. To be fair, some of these jittery half-songs do sink in over time, though listening on headphones didn’t help as much as it was supposed to, thankyouverymuch. The precedent is Thom Yorke’s 2006 electro solo thing The Eraser. There are more grooves here, to be sure, but if there’s evidence the other four members of the band heard these tracks, let alone played on them, I can’t hear it. In Rainbows’ ballyhooed pay-what-you-will retail model, while admirable, is by now secondary to the fact that the record was terrific. Lots of magic, lots of melody. This sounds like a collection of demos – eight of them, sold directly to fans for nine bucks as MP3’s or, if you're a collector, as something called a "Newspaper Album," which, at $53, just drives home the fact that there is no other band on Earth with so much power to abuse. Memo to Yorke: I hate to come across as a boor, but, next time, would it kill you to let the drummer play on one damn song? B- 

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
My love for Polly Jean Harvey is deep, so I’m as willing to bear with her autoharp dalliances as I am that high, breathy voice she favors now, even if I do think guitars and moans suit her better. And when she cites T.S. Eliot and the Gallipoli campaign as influences for this album about a national conflict as personal as it is political, I believe her. The problem is that when she tries to adopt the voices of soldiers who – she claims – could just as easily be fighting in Kabul as Turkish Thrace, she never gets deeper than language, and it's lousy language at that. Something of a tragedy when you consider this is an artist who once seemed capable of inhabiting any feeling you could throw her way. The frantic mother in “C’Mon Billy”? That was desperation she could taste. The triumph and terror of “Big Exit”? Lived them both – or, crucially, made us believe she had. But historical fiction suits her far worse than autoharp; it’s hard now to tell what, if anything, she feels about those soldiers who “fall like lumps of meat” in “The Words That Maketh Murder” (maketh, for Christ’s sake!), and when she says the songs about her relationship with her native England could just as easily be about any person in any place, I’m left to take her at her word. B-

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hayes Carll/Old 97's

A couple alt-country stalwarts return, reliable as ever. These Texas boys are frequent touring partners. Catch them if you can.

Hayes Carll: Kmag Yoyo (& Other American Stories)
The title is military speak for “Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own,” an acronym for when the going gets tough. And the soldier in the title track, though he “ain’t even nineteen,” already knows tough in a way only someone who’s done business with the Taliban could. Among the best of the Other American Stories is a Christmas tale about a family that’s learned to be thankful for its own specific brand of dysfunction and one about a Democrat who walks into a bar alone and walks out with a Republican who probably won’t leave him her number in the morning. Mostly, though, his great American theme of choice is the highway – and all that you’ve heard comes with it. So while the wife he writes home to in “The Letter” might not be comforted by a line like “I swear I tried to reach you, but the cop took my phone,” she probably knew from the start that he was a type. You’ll swear you know him from somewhere, and yet you’ve still never met anyone quite like him. A-

Old 97’s: The Grand Theatre, Volume One
While I prefer 2008’s more lyrical Blame It On Gravity, this one – a band album through and through – says encouraging things about this particular great band’s future. There’s the implicit promise of a Volume 2, first off, but also an urgency that suggests they’re functioning as a unit rather than an excellent singer-songwriter with an uncannily sympathetic backing band. The semi-downside is that, while they sound more juiced than they have since 2001’s unstoppable Satellite Rides, the lyrics aren’t the focus this time around – nor do they need to be when the band is this tight. But most bands, tight or otherwise, don’t have a writer as sharp as Rhett Miller in their corner. That’s not to say there aren’t great songs here. “Let The Whiskey Take The Reins” enters the pantheon on first listen while “Champaign, Illinois” repurposes the melody of this blog’s namesake Dylan song so well that Bob himself, who normally denies such requests outright, let the band keep half the publishing rights. Game recognizes game. B+

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kanye West/Joanna Newsom

The only thing these two artists share – other than a tendency to alienate people – is my love. One had it from the start, the other snuck up and stole it. My two favorite records of 2010, reviewed in 2011 because time can’t diminish their power. Or, as Kanye puts it, “POWER.”

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The fact that he was mean to Taylor Swift once upon a time is a big part of the context, but the fantasy itself is universal. You probably haven’t fallen in love with a porn star or woken up in Paris as many times as he has, but the dark, twisted, beautifully messy personality this album exercises (“POWER”) and exorcises (all nine glorious minutes of “Runaway”) transcends those specifics. From the opening “Can we get much higher?” to the closing “Who will survive in America?” he’s including you in the conversation. And any guy who would allow Nicki Minaj to so thoroughly take over the discourse – as she does on “Monster,” overshadowing Kanye, Rick Ross, and Jay-Z – knows how to give just as good as he gets. A

Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me
My hatred for this 29-year-old harp-playing chanteuse’s early work was so strong that I came to this album, her third, spoiling for a fight. Imagine my chagrin when she pinned me. Newsom has a habit of going all in, which in the past has meant Van Dyke Parks orchestra arrangements, cloying pastoral poetry, and a whole lot of harp. What has me going in with her on this triple album of 18 breakup songs, fully half of which are over seven minutes long, is – believe it or not – the way she reins herself in. The harp’s still there, but it’s getting a lot of help from the piano, and Newsom uses both to impart melodies a normal person could actually hum. Like obvious touchstone Joni Mitchell, she’s an acquired taste, but that high, keening voice of hers has softened, and she’s replaced the florid poetry with lived-in stuff like this: “The tap of hangers/swaying in the closet/Unburdened hooks/and empty drawers/And everywhere I tried to love you/is yours again/and only yours.” I could drink a case of that. A

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Arcade Fire/Eminem

Arcade Fire's Grammy upset gives me an excuse to play catch up. How AF lost to the Black Keys in two minor categories, then beat Em and Gaga for Album of the Year, is the sort of question you ask only if you believe the Grammies ever make a bit of sense. They don't, but the right album won anyway. Go figure.

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Win Butler's failure, over 16 songs in 60 minutes, to say anything concrete about the suburban landscape he evokes throughout is partly the point. This is ennui writ big. Madison Square Garden, Billboard Number One, Grammy Album of the Year big. No wonder people compare them to U2. But Butler has no use for Bono's messiah robes. He's a modest guy who thinks you've probably felt that ennui once or twice yourself. And if you haven't, the sheer scale and force of the music will have you empathizing anyway. The most wistful arena rockers in the world - from Canada, naturally. A-

Eminem: Recovery
He gives a damn about a Grammy - deep down, he's far too traditional a guy not to. Thankfully, he's still a little too dangerous to win the big one (though this decent comeback album, released on the heels of 2009's deplorable one, did net him his fifth rap album trophy - not bad for a guy who's released six albums). "Kill You" dangerous? No. Dangerous in that ribald, self-effacing way that's always been his great strength? You bet. He tells us on "Talkin' 2 Myself" that, around the time he was falling asleep stoned in McDonald's parking lots, he also somehow retained the good sense to think twice before dissing Kanye and Lil Wayne, both of whom he's sure would have handed him his ass. I miss his sense of humor as much as the next longtime fan. But if he's smart enough to see that Relapse sucked, he's smart enough to know where to go from here. B+