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December 21, 2006

Jay-Z: Kingdom Come
Interscope, 2006
Rating: 3.0
No one took Jay-Z's 2003 "retirement" all that seriously, but his 2006 "comeback" Kingdom Come proves his heart was in the right place. Whereas his so-called swan song, The Black Album, brimmed over with creativity (on the parts of the rapper and his multiple production collaborators) and passion, Kingdom Come simply comes across as uninspired; the searing title track (courtesy of Just Blaze's fresh take on the all-too-familiar riff from "Superfreak") and "Minority Report" (an impassioned bit of Hurricane Katrina-related soul-searching and political ranting) prove the notable exceptions. Jay-Z spends a little too much time sounding like P. Diddy, indulging in self-aggrandizing boasts about his CEO lifestyle to the detriment of the hustler persona he's worked so hard to nurture, and instances when he compares himself to Superman or Michael Jordan are a clear case of "show, don't tell." Kingdom Come's handful of musically and lyrically entertaining moments aren't anywhere near enough to justify the self-congratulatory air of lines like "Not only NYC, I'm hip-hop's savior, so after this flow you might owe me a favor." Kingdom Come is exactly the kind of rote product Jay-Z seemed to want to avoid when he "retired": It's a victory lap without a victory, a rare instance of a rap superstar blowing his own horn and yet sounding half-hearted about it.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 21, 2006

Mastodon: Blood Mountain
Reprise, 2006
Rating: 4.0
Atlanta metal quartet Mastodon garnered a lot of critical attention for its 2004 album Leviathan, a heavy, heady amalgam of sludging, thrashing and progressive metal explorations following a loose Moby Dick theme. Blood Mountain, the band's follow-up (and major-label debut), refines and expands that hybrid approach. It's as rich and textured as metal gets these days, weaving engrossing melodies and gorgeous guitar figures into an accessibly dense fabric of rock-bottom crunch, sprawling arrangements and precision mechanics. If that all sounds rather dry and industrial, the end result achieves a kind of liberating beauty. It's best to skim over the lyrics, concerned with a mythological quest for enlightenment, and appreciate Blood Mountain for the fantastical heights of its musical tableaus. There's shredding to be had, for sure, but Mastodon wields its brawny technicality not as a bludgeon but as an instrument of color and dynamics, paying as much attention to fluid shifts and interactions as to tonal heft. An admitted fondness for Thin Lizzy rears its head in dual-guitar floes that edge Mastodon away from brutal riffing and into a more rewarding realm in which obsidian opacity, intricate time signatures and gruff vocals (including guest spots from Josh Homme, the Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Neurosis' Scott Kelly) come together to build something intense, invigorating and beguiling.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 21, 2006

The Twilight Singers: Powder Burns
One Little Indian, 2006
Rating: 3.7
No one who's immersed themselves in Greg Dulli's music would be surprised to learn that the Twilight Singers frontman has wrestled with drug addiction. His best work, with the Singers and with his former, more alt-rock-oriented band the Afghan Whigs, has always mirrored the highest euphoric highs and the lowest, slow-burning lows of an epic trip: a seductive, full-throttle passion teetering on the edge of an abyss of loneliness, self-doubt and despair. In fact, Powder Burns, reportedly the product of a newly clean-and-sober Dulli, follows that arc to a T. A brief, mood-setting instrumental intro leaps headlong into the jacked-up rush of "I'm Ready," which (musically more so than lyrically) announces Dulli's newfound intention to embrace life and love. "There's Been an Accident" and "Bonnie Brae" extend that exhilarated buzz with all the familiar ingredients: hard-rock guitars, churning strings and the priapic magnetism of old-school R&B. But after that whirlwind courtship, the second half meanders, repeatedly aiming for that same heady mixture but rarely able to sustain a confident simmer, much less find climactic release, and the intensely personal lyrical subject matter suggests Dulli's too close to these songs to impose the discipline needed to sharpen their edges. It's a murky finish for such a bracing start, but when it works, Powder burns as brightly as the most affecting moments in Dulli's catalog.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 21, 2006

Dierks Bentley: Long Trip Alone
EMI, 2006
Rating: 3.6
Bentley cemented his status as a talented mainstream country songwriter and performer with his successful sophomore effort, 2005's engaging Modern Day Drifter, and especially its affecting ballads "Settle for a Slowdown" and "Come A Little Closer." Long Trip Alone starts off with a foolproof country-rockin' anthem, "Every Mile A Memory," but before long settles into the more refined groove of those earlier songs, most notably on the title track, "Soon As You Can," "Trying to Stop Your Leaving" and "The Heaven I'm Headed To" (a surprising broadside aimed at dogma, imagining an afterworld where "priests and prostitutes" co-exist in harmony.) Those songs, along with the closing "Prodigal Son's Prayer," leave the strongest impression, branding the album as a quote-unquote "mature" record; even its breezier singalong numbers -- "Every Mile A Memory," "Can't Live It Down," "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" -- reinforce that impression. That isn't a bad thing; these are all good, sturdy songs (save for "Band of Brothers," an awkward touring-band-as-military-unit metaphor that no doubt plays better in a honky-tonk than it does on record). But a few more brighter, lighter moments like "Memory" -- or, for that matter, past numbers like "What Was I Thinkin'" or "Domestic, Light and Cold" -- would have helped leaven an album that feels a bit self-conscious in its adult-contemporary skin.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 16, 2006

Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3: Olé! Tarantula
Yep Roc, 2006
Rating: 3.8
After oddly pairing with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for 2004's Spooked, on Olé! Tarantula Robyn Hitchcock teams up with a phalanx of collaborators who share more in common with his brand of psychedelic folk, pop and rock. Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin (Ministry) of the Minus 5 make up the Venus 3, but the album also boasts contributions from former Soft Boys Kimberley Rew and Morris Windsor, Chris Ballew (The Presidents of the United States of America) and even the Faces' Ian McLagan. (Andy Partridge of XTC also co-writes the music for one track.) As one might expect from such a lineup, the music that results splits the difference between the sparkling imagery of his classic early-mid '80s period and the more mature, reflective Hitchcock found on efforts like Spooked or 1993's Respect. "Adventure Rocket Ship" is an agreeable slice of pop, "Underground Sun" sports one of Hitchcock's signature shimmering melodies and the standout title track slides on cruise control along a low-key rock groove, spiked with an edgy harmonica that nudges the whole thing into restrained raucousness. If that sounds oxymoronic, it perfectly suits both Hitchcock's oblique, angular lyricism and his subtler latter-day musical approach -- as does "Belltown Ramble," which contrasts a pretty piano melody with arch lines ("Ignorance comes first / Then comes opportunism / Greed is third") in a, well, rambling narrative that includes an Uzbek warlord and a possible barb at the war in Iraq. Those dichotomies (along with "N.Y. Doll," which gently celebrates the late Arthur Kane of the glam-punk pioneers the New York Dolls) help to make Olé! Tarantula the best Hitchcock album of the new millennium: Less insistently jagged and catchy, but with a bit of sting wrapped in its more tasteful arrangements.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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November 30, 2006

+44: When Your Heart Stops Beating
Interscope, 2006
Rating: 3.4
What's surprising about When Your Heart Stops Beating, the debut album from +44, isn't how little it resembles Blink-182, the band that shot frontman/bassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker to fame. After all, artists are usually expected to expand their horizons on new projects. No, what's surprising is the unexpected indie-rock direction the album takes. Aside from the title track, which registers a brisk pace closer to Blink-182's spirited pop-punk, When Your Heart Stops Beating moves with a more relaxed gait, riding a current of unhurried guitar strumming that recalls bands like Portastatic. This is a pleasant revelation, but before long one begins to wish for even a dollop of the prankster piss and vinegar that fueled Blink's best work. Barker may not be someone you'd want to share a beer with, given his reported make-out session with Paris Hilton, but as Blink's 2005 greatest hits package proved, he's one of the best drummers in rock -- not that you'd know it from anything here. Hoppus' gift for insistent melodies goes similarly underused, resulting in an unassuming platter better suited for lazy Sunday drives than fist-pumping. +44's first effort is an enjoyable diversion, but it's not apt to stop anyone's heart.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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November 16, 2006

Damien Jurado: And Now That I'm In Your Shadow
Secretly Canadian, 2006
Rating: 4.2
Damien Jurado’s And Now That I'm In Your Shadow boldly claims that Damien Jurado is now a band (albeit a trio) and not just one man with an acoustic guitar and a slew of hardscrabble Americana tales to spin. Fortunately, what makes the solo Jurado so appealing -- the incisive lyrics, wounded soul delivery and unvarnished arrangements -- remains intact, with now full-time members Eric Fisher and Jenna Conrad complementing rather than overwhelming Jurado’s doggedly minimalist approach. Multi-instrumentalist Fisher serves up discrete notes that accentuate the naked emotionalism of Jurado’s vocals (check out “I Had No Intentions”) while Conrad’s lovely harmonizing helps punctuate the themes of loss and regret running throughout the album (“Denton, TX” being a particularly strong example). Aside from emphasizing the band-oriented aspect of Shadow, Jurado is still treading familiar ground: Sifting through the assorted pieces of damaged lives and trying (often vainly) to make sense of it all. Shadow simply holds together better than recent Jurado efforts, sounding more cohesive than last year’s On My Way to Absence and delivering a stronger set of tunes than laudable 2003 effort Where Shall You Take Me? As a documenter of broken lives and haunted pasts, Jurado has few peers. As a band, Damien Jurado has delivered a fine debut.

::: Laurence Station

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October 31, 2006

Lambchop: Damaged
Merge, 2006
Rating: 3.8
“It’s just that it seems impossible / To understand a man like me,” admits Kurt Wagner, leader of the 18-strong (at the time of recording) Lambchop collective on "The Rise and Fall of the Letter P." Which isn’t entirely accurate, as Damaged, the band’s latest release, makes semi-clear. Despite indulgences in obscurity like name-checking seemingly unrelated figures as wily Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and entertainer Jim Nabors on the closing "The Decline of Country and Western Civilization," and offering peculiar dietary suggestions like “Try to avoid even the casual relationship to cheese” (on "Crackers"), Wagner nonetheless touches on recent physical ailments that have forced an assessment of his mortal worth. “And our life hangs on a string / And today we start to learn just what that means,” he grimly observes on "Short," while “Fear” evinces a subtle, underlying sense of --  if not doom, at least something deeply troubling, thanks to moodily plucked strings. Opener "Paperback Bible" takes a more circular, philosophic tack, as the Good Book procured on a swap-shop radio show at the beginning of the song is offered up for sale by the end. Damaged is quintessential Wagner: a ponderous, carved-wood gut-punch of a record that finds hope in the mundane details of everyday life, even as the big worldly picture comes crashing down with alarming force.

::: Laurence Station

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October 31, 2006

Junior Boys: So This Is Goodbye
Domino, 2006
Rating: 3.4
Junior Boys are very much a band, in that their songs consist of two wholly interdependent parts: The first is made of intelligent synths, the second a sensitive, elegant vocal sigh. While many lead singers try to recall the disturbing androgynous sexuality of '80s synth-pop, Jeremy Greenspan actually succeeds, alternating between disturbing desires, neediness and sophisticated emotional understanding, depending on the song. The band's sophomore LP So This Is Goodbye shows Greenspan maintaining these lyrical qualities, but it also proves that when his background of blips and clicks fails to register as interesting, he merely reads as a depressive. On Last Exit, the electronic textures referenced the '80s but maintained an IDM sensibility and irregularity; here, forward-thinking moments and twitchy beats co-exist with flaccid synth washes and by-the-numbers rhythms. The album is still filled with exquisite moments, like the sampled sighs and disturbing sexuality of "In the Morning" and the emotional intelligence and simple looping arpeggios of "FM.” Yet the wobbly keyboard of "When No One Cares" only manages to live up to its name, and the largely instrumental title track is an exercise in sterility; similar moments of electronic boredom are scattered throughout the album. The Boys are still presenting themselves as an emotionally sensitive duo, but the smoothness pulls the urgency out of some of their problems. Let's hope that by the next LP they've managed to get a bit more wound up.

::: Peter Landwehr

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October 18, 2006

Oxford Collapse: Remember the Night Parties
Sub Pop, 2006
Rating: 3.4
Remember the Night Parties is the third outing for the Oxford Collapse, and with it the band attempts to evoke nostalgia for both the now-gone summer months and the correspondingly departed summer album. This is little more than a front, however, as a single listen makes it clear that the group actually aspires to evoke longing for an even earlier time, back when ’90s hipsters making ironic references to the '80s was still confused with knowing whimsy. This might be a pop album released in 2006, but the vocal harmonies that don't quite mesh and rapid electric guitar arpeggios owe a serious debt to indie rock forefathers like Pavement (along with Tapes 'n Tapes and Figurines, the Oxford Collapse makes clear that we’re in the midst of a small-scale indie-rock resurgence, though much of the bounce is also the child of the New Wave revival), to say nothing of lyrics that are obtuse enough to be read as sardonic comments: "And on Saturday we become lady lawyers." None of this makes the Oxford Collapse’s sound fall apart. But unlike the groups' prior albums, Remember the Night Parties carries less heft due to its shimmering pop mindset. While interesting change-of-pace tunes like "Lady Lawyers" and "Molasses" stand out from the crowd, the main drawback is redundancy. Harmonies shift into falsettos as a crest of background noise forms a decent-sized wave for the guitar to ride on. It’s a pleasant, disposable wash of pleasure, which, apparently, is exactly what the group was seeking to create in the first place.

::: Peter Landwehr

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October 12, 2006

Ben Kweller: Ben Kweller
Red Ink, 2006
Rating: 3.7
Ben Kweller’s refreshing brand of unapologetic pop-rock takes a more reflective, serious turn on his self-titled third studio release. “Nothing Happening” opines, “It’s all confusion / It’s all illusion,” while “Sundress” serves up “I do everything you want me to” more as a plea than an admission. The pained expressiveness of centerpiece tune “Thirteen,” coupled with the pumping exuberance of the subsequent “Penny on The Train Track” reveals just how far Kweller has evolved since his debut. As if to really put a stamp on his growing self-assurance, Kweller also pulls a Ben Folds and does everything himself, sacrificing the urgent, “live in the studio” sound of On My Way for a more audacious demonstration of his musical abilities. Despite running out of gas down the stretch, Ben Kweller is still a validation of its creator’s burgeoning gifts.

::: Laurence Station

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October 12, 2006

Beck: The Information
Interscope, 2006
Rating: 3.3
Call it information overload. Beck’s third collaboration with celebrated producer Nigel Godrich is the most Beck-like to date. Whereas Godrich seemed to push Beck beyond the junk-box white-boy rap that peaked on 1996’s Odelay via the charming pop eclecticism of 1998’s Mutations or the emotionally naked song cycle comprising 2002’s Sea Change, The Information falls back on been-there-done-that tropes. What sounded fresh and spontaneous a decade back now seems labored and wearying. The Information hits its high points early, with the genuinely felt "Think I'm In Love" and the frenetic "Nausea" proving Beck still capable of controlling the schizophrenic genre-hopping that typified the initial phase of his career. Less successful are the lukewarm "Soldier Jane" and the cluttered digital rap "We Dance Alone," a pair of tracks that simply don’t measure up to rest of the material. By the time the bloated ten-minute closer “The Horrible Fanfare / Landslide / Exoskeleton” rolls around, it’s gratingly obvious neither Godrich nor Mr. Hansen knew when to say when.

::: Laurence Station

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October 12, 2006

The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America
Vagrant, 2006
Rating: 3.8
Bruce Springsteen wrote of characters Born to Run; Hold Steady front man Craig Finn documents the trials and tribulations of those Born to Bar Hop. Both embrace a blue-collar romanticism that employs gritty detail and lived-in empathy for those forever on the margins. Boys and Girls in America, The Hold Steady’s third album, has grander aspirations (baldly literary, to be exact) than doing for Minneapolis what the Boss did for Asbury Park, however. "On the Road" narrator Sal Paradise and suicide confessional poet John Berryman are name-checked on opening salvo "Stuck Between Stations," and recurring characters Charlemagne, Gideon and Holly (who pointedly haven’t evolved dramatically since prior appearances on Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday) are still haunting the Twin Cities club scene. "First Night" finds ex-Blackgirls and current Dear Enemy singer Dana Kletter dueting with Finn in a theatrically appealing manner reminiscent of Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley, closing with the potent observation that “when they kiss they spit white noise.” Finn’s examination of restless youth and wasted nights might not be as incisive nor as relevant as he clearly wants them to be, but there’s little question The Hold Steady has never sounded tighter. Boy and Girls in America might be aiming for literary validation, but lines like “We drink / We dry up / Then we crumble to dust,” from “Stations,” pretty much nail the world Finn’s so doggedly explicating.

::: Laurence Station

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October 12, 2006

Nina Nastasia: On Leaving
Fat Cat, 2006
Rating: 3.0
On Leaving is an apt title for Nina Nastasia’s latest full-length, for this is a work that seems barely there once it’s finished playing. Recorded once again by Steve Albini, Nastasia continues to offer sketches as opposed to wholly fleshed-out songs, most running under three minutes. Unlike 2003’s superb Ruin to Ruin, On Leaving fails to resonate. Granted, there are lovely moments, such as the guitar work on “Lee,” the vocal delivery throughout “Settling Song” and the cumulative effect of “Bird of Cuzco,” the album's peak track, which conveys a level of intimacy, a window into Nastasia’s world, absent from the rest of the album. With all due respect to Mr. Albini, perhaps it’s time Nastasia broadened her collaborative horizons, emphasizing arrivals as opposed to a departure.

::: Laurence Station

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October 12, 2006

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: The Letting Go
Drag City, 2006
Rating: 3.8
Spiritual yearning for a love never to be or one long departed is the thematic linkage holding Will Oldham’s latest Bonnie “Prince” Billy release, The Letting Go together. Atypical of prior efforts, Billy’s achingly personal laments are backed by Valgeir Sigurdsson's layered production and the fulsome string arrangements of Ryder McNair and Nico Muhly. There's a big sound underlying these haunted whispers and folksy odes. Dawn McCarthy (of Faun Fables) serves as a nice vocal counterpoint to Oldham, especially on “Then the Letting Go,” where her full-bodied delivery adds substantive weight to Oldham’s world-weary croak. Be it British folk (“No Bad News”) or bluesy workouts (“Cold & Wet”), The Letting Go refuses to break on through to the other side of epic despair. “The Seedling” roils and fights to rise above the autumnal hush, as does the welcome clatter and ramble of “Lay and Love.” This promising notion of marrying the overly pensive, doomed-romantic Billy persona with orchestral-sized studio ambitions is a wash, the cumulative effect being undeniably gorgeous, in a rainy-day internalized apocalypse kind of way.

::: Laurence Station

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October 12, 2006

The Close: Sun, Burn
Goodnight, 2006
Rating: 2.0
You can't pronounce the name of the band behind Sun, Burn, because it's "The Close." It might mean intimacy (being close), or it might mean an approaching end or cut off (the close of a door). Or it could be some witty little combination of the two: If you close a search for someone you love, closing in and getting close together ... It's frustratingly clever, and if The Close was a twee band you'd say it was all of them and intended as cute. Fortunately (or rather un-), singer Brooks Meeks solves the dilemma by stripping away any assumptions of intimacy with his vocals. The lyrics aren't much help, with the endless repetition of "car" and other rhymes on (yes) "Penny Jar," but that alone can't explain it. Either he just doesn't care or the production makes it seem so, and the latter is actually a reasonable possibility given that the rest of the band sounds technically precise but similarly apathetic. There's nothing wrong with their playing -- the jagged guitar riffs on "Sun, Shine" and the keyboard intro to "The John & Donna Thing" even manage to be catchy -- but for all the shifts between different riffs and rhythms on each track, there's no pleasure in the icy post-punk here. Rather, it’s all very workmanlike: They've punched in, recorded a disc, put it on the shelves, and punched out. Maybe some day they'll take the day off, borrow the equipment, and just rock the life out of it. For now, however, they haven't.

::: Peter Landwehr

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September 29, 2006

Grizzly Bear: Yellow House
Warp, 2006
Rating: 3.8
Yellow House, Grizzly Bear’s follow-up to Horn of Plenty, takes the band (actually singer and guitarist Ed Droste with an assist from drummer Christopher Bear) out of the bedroom and into a yellow house (generously loaned by Droste's mother in a residence just off Cape Cod). Daniel Rossen (vocals, guitar) and Christopher Taylor (bass, woodwinds and vocals) have joined the fold, expanding on Grizzly Bear's DIY indie rock aesthetic but retaining the distinctive brushed-drums, meander-rock vibe of the debut. Yellow House benefits from a tighter focus, sonically speaking, the tracks' dynamics blending with a uniform courtesy not as readily apparent on Horn of Plenty. The woozy, intoxicating “Marla” and the moody closer “Colorado” are standouts. The album's main liability is its inability to grab a listener’s attention and shake vigorously. This is a subtle, whispered scream of a work, one that demands nothing of a consumer’s time but pays decent dividends for those willing to make the investment.

::: Laurence Station

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September 29, 2006

R.E.M.: And I Feel Fine: Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987
Capitol/I.R.S., 2006
Rating: 4.4
In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 had no use for democracy, with four tracks from the band's 1992 masterpiece Automatic for the People dominating the playlist. And I Feel Fine: Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 takes a considerably more balanced approach (four tracks each from the band’s first five albums, plus “Gardening At Night” from the debut EP Chronic Town) -- and therein lays the problem. 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction simply doesn’t merit taking away four slots from the other releases. Aside from the brilliant “Driver 8,” Fables is the weak link in an otherwise astonishingly strong chain. Murmur’s “Catapult,” Reckoning’s “Harborcoat,” and Lifes Rich Pageant's “The Flowers of Guatemala” could have easily replaced the decent but hardly revelatory “Can't Get There From Here,” the turgid flow-breaker “Feeling Gravity's Pull” and the pedestrian “Life and How to Live It.” Overly democratic selections aside, And I Feel Fine serves as an excellent overview of the Athens-based quartet’s pre-major label days, moving non-chronologically through essential highlights like “Radio Free Europe,” “Finest Worksong” and “Cuyahoga.” A bonus disc helps flesh out the breadth of the band’s evolution from underground jangle-rock pioneers to radio heavyweights, with a trio of live performances from the Paradise in Boston in 1983 showcasing the tightness and immediacy of the group’s delivery and material, even at that early date.

::: Laurence Station

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September 29, 2006

Dark Side of the Cop: Dark Side of the Cop
Auger Down, 2006
Rating: 2.5
Dark Side of the Cop is a concept album, an alternate soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop that discards the specifics of Eddie Murphy's antics for the generalized tale of a policeman who leaves Detroit to find his first love in Beverly Hills. The title is an obvious homage to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, famous in recent years for the fact that you can allegedly sync it up to The Wizard of Oz. Of course, Pink Floyd didn't try to sell their work as an experiment, and at 35 minutes if you want to match Dark Side to its movie you'll have to play it at one-third speed. Everything starts off well with the cop's descriptions of an encounter with a prostitute ("Childhood") and his early code of ethics ("Shaky Little Rules"). Tyler Gibbons's voice is eerily similar to The Sea and Cake's Sam Prekop, and the bedroom synth-pop is '80s-reminiscent but more IDM, blending beats with traditional instruments. As the cop enters California, however, the story breaks down. It's not that Marco Panella's lyrics lose their focus on the character's issues; rather, they became disconnected from events and impossible to contextualize. Songs become two-minute snapshots of the need for love, loneliness, and melancholia; the cop eventually finds his peace, but how? The need to reconstruct events frustrates more than if the plot didn't exist, and results in the dismissal of music that hasn't otherwise gone down in quality. As it is, Dark Side of the Cop is an interesting failure. The band has two more albums in the works as part of the same series (Dark Side of the Cop 2?) and if the next two maintain a narrative then they might succeed grandly. If not, they'll just be more curious synth-pop that frustrates listeners who want to probe the lyrics further.

::: Peter Landwehr

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September 16, 2006

The Album Leaf: Into the Blue Again
Sub Pop, 2006
Rating: 3.0
Into The Blue Again is the sequel to The Album Leaf's In A Safe Place, and banking on the success of that previous collaboration, Jimmy LaValle returns to Sigur Ros's swimming-pool studio to record with members of the Icelandic group. But on this outing he falters, not so much badly but innocuously. Simply put, the album feels very much like background IDM, music that evokes emotion just as well, and not a jot better, than expected. Oddly, this is most noticeable when LaValle sings: His voice is forcefully unemotional, and lyrics like "You are here with me / I am here with you" or "It was always for you" come across as unoriginal and apathetic. The instrumentals, by contrast, are pristine combinations of Sigur Ros' strings, piano, guitar, clicks and synth drones. Yet cuts like "Shine" and "Into The Sea" lack any real sense that LaValle is extending himself, as he loops track onto track or builds the strings to expectable crescendos. Nothing is bad, but little is great. Indeed, part of the reason that opener "The Light" manages to sound unique is because its moaning synth and minor-key piano set the tone for the entire album. It's hard not to like music this well-ordered and composed, but in the end it sounds as if The Album Leaf has taken a break on innovation and is settling for being derivative -- of itself.

::: Peter Landwehr

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September 13, 2006

DJ Shadow: The Outsider
Universal, 2006
Rating: 3.0
Josh "DJ Shadow" Davis' The Outsider is a mix tape. The artful flow that defined Endtroducing and The Private Press has been eschewed in favor of individual tracks, and the album succeeds or fails along these lines. While there’s no doubt Davis likes everything assembled here (it is after all his mix tape, with the added bonus of being able to bring in the artists he wants to work with and producing the tracks), on balance, The Outsider just doesn’t include enough sterling moments to justify its considerable stylistic breadth. The bouncy, growling hyphy cut "3 Freaks," spotlighting Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk; the paranoid rant "Seein Thangs," with David Banner; and "Backstage Girl," featuring Phonte Coleman’s randy running dialogue, are the choice selections. "Triplicate / Something Happened That Day" is like a thematic bridge from earlier releases, the main difference being that it connects nothing here, making for an odd insertion -- especially contrasted with the suitably downcast "Broken Levee Blues," which logically follows Banner’s post-Katrina litany of government conspiracies on “Thangs.” The weakest moments (perhaps unsurprisingly, given Davis’ preference for hip-hop) are a trio of non-rapping tracks, two by Stateless' Chris James (the droning "Erase You" and the disappointingly conventional, Coldplay-esque "You Made It") and the other by Charlambrides’ Christina Carter (the meditative, New Age-y "What Have I Done"). It’s easy to imagine Davis cruising in his car, listening to The Outsider (ironic, given the ultra-insider cred needed to assemble such a diverse array of talent) and loving every second of it. That’s what mix tapes are for -- personal playlists indulging their creators. In that respect, The Outsider is guaranteed an audience of at least one, with the rest of the world picking and choosing particular songs to be included on fresh mix tapes.

::: Laurence Station

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September 13, 2006

The Mars Volta: Amputechture
Universal, 2006
Rating: 3.4
If The Mars Volta really wants to stun us, how about an all acoustic-folk covers album? Obviously, as long as singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/principal songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez are in charge, that’s not going to happen. Amputechture, the group’s third full-length, following 2003's arresting De-Loused In The Comatorium and 2005's highly conceptual Frances The Mute, finds the undeniably talented, unabashedly indulgent outfit working off a progressive jazz-fusion template to varying degrees of success. Opener "Vicarious Atonement" is a mostly controlled, heavy-riffage workout that sets a promising tone. "Asilos Magdalena" utilizes some beautifully played Spanish guitar and serves as a nice change of pace from the typically heavier material, though even here The Mars Volta can’t help but sneak in familiar proggy riffs. Ultimately, it’s on the nearly 17-minute long "Tetragrammaton" that the group stands or falls. There’s the tidal crush of percussion, tape manipulation, discordant breaks and endlessly tricky guitar histrionics. Despite all of this, it’s the waaaaaay-out there lyrics that pull you out of the moment. Did Cedric really just sing “The kiosk in my temporal lobe / Is shaped like Rosalyn Carter”? Yes, he did. So ruthlessly is The Mars Volta following its own fractured Dadaist muse that the band all but demands to be marginalized by the mainstream and idolized with cultic fascination by its rigidly weeded-out fan base. Amputechture, with its obsessive exploration of religious fanaticism and the physical expression of devotional desire, is not an album wanting to be loved so much as feared and listened to with a sense of awe and taxed exasperation.

::: Laurence Station

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August 31, 2006

The Roots: Game Theory
Def Jam, 2006
Rating: 3.8
The Roots’ eighth album, Game Theory, opens with a tribute to J. Dilla (“Dillatastic Vol Won(derful)”) and closes with an impressive production assist (“Can't Stop This”) by the recently deceased beat maestro. In between, gallons of vitriol are spilled, from “False Media” decrying “Eleven million kids are on Ritalin” to the great hook that drives “Don't Feel Right” and its list of apocalyptic worldly ills. There’s also some killer braggadocio, thanks to the welcome return of Malik B. on the title track, the spirited fun of “Baby” and get-the-funk-out high energy permeating “Here I Come.” The Roots definitely kick off their relationship with Def Jam is high style. A few throwaways, like the Beck-aping “Livin' In A New World” and the faux-lounge-y jazz of “Clock With No Hands,” keep Theory from attaining the rarified heights of earlier efforts. But in the final count, it’s just nice to hear this criminally underappreciated outfit sounding so sharp and revitalized.

::: Laurence Station

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August 22, 2006

The Thermals: The Body, The Blood, The Machine
Sub Pop, 2006
Rating: 3.7
The Thermals have always been known for fast-paced, lo-fi rock, but on The Body, The Blood, The Machine, they've slowed down the tempo a little and cleaned up the sound a lot. While still passionate and noisy, the tempo isn't that of Fuckin A. Three songs are well over four minutes, and there's even a ballad. All the tracks are tied together by the album's most compelling element: the paranoiac lyrical screed delivered by Hutch Harris, a rant that alternately states that God is against us, the government is against us, God is the government, God is for us, and we've lost God. For all the contradictions, there's a core of earnestness that makes potentially trite references to sin and Jesus immensely appealing; the Thermals feel more akin to Ted Leo in their attitudes than the bratty pop punks who just want to poke people in the eye with angst. And if not for the lyrics that poke harder, they'd be just as radio-ready as the latter. "A Pillar of Salt" sports as catchy a pop hook as you could ask, and it's the radio stations' loss that it mentions "our dirty God, our dirty bodies" -- and that other tracks offer similar lyrics. (Harris' anthemic requests on "Returning to the Fold" include needing God "like a Big Brother.") A few small instrumental solos -- most notably the guitar outro that descends into noise as the album ends -- make you wish there were a few more instrumentals to showcase the band's musical prowess. But those would cut into Harris' lines, so we're probably better off without them.

::: Peter Landwehr

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August 19, 2006

M. Ward: Post-War
Merge, 2006
Rating: 3.4
M. Ward’s Post-War gets off to a strong start before petering out with an unremarkable sequence of short songs mostly played at slow tempo. Ward’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home” is a highlight, successfully marrying rumbling drum fills with euphorically pragmatic lyrics (“God it’s great to be alive / Takes the skin right off my hide / To think I’ll have to give it all up someday”). “Right in the Head” works in an appropriately insistent rhythm and ambiguous, uneasy fadeout. “Chinese Translation” sports quintessential Ward-ian imponderables like “If life is really as short as they say / Then why is the night so long?” “Eyes on the Prize” is a lazy profession of faith and love and kicks off Post-War’s uninspired second half, though the instrumental “Neptune's Net” does offer strong percussion and some fine guitar picking. Thematically, Ward appears to be aiming for some sort of aural-equivalent to the ’70s Vietnam-fallout film “Coming Home,” an examination of the life of soldiers and their families in the aftermath of conflict. The material doesn’t resonate, however, and pales next to Ward’s prior effort, Transistor Radio.

::: Laurence Station

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August 11, 2006

The Heartless Bastards: All This Time
Fat Possum, 2006
Rating: 3.6
The Heartless Bastards possess an unfortunate name. It doesn't quite trip off the tongue, it makes them sound less invested in emotion than they are, and most importantly, it'll probably alienate the boomers who would otherwise enjoy its old-school sound. Lead singer Erika Winnerstrom has a slurred, powerful voice that echoes Janis Joplin. In contrast to Joplin and Full-Tilt Boogie, who could both stand on their own, Winnerstrom and bandmates Mike Lamping and Kevin Vaughn create a unified sound on All This Time that would fall apart if any one member were missing. Their simple combination of drum, bass, guitar, and vocals creates a bluesy garage rock whose blurriness at times approaches shoegazer territory; if there's a problem with the group's sound, it's that you can take only so many combinations of buzzing guitar and muffled drums. Consequently, besides the moments when the band is at its most thundering, the moments most likely to return to your mind are those brief segments that vary from the standard mold, like the piano lead-in of "Into The Open" or the strings on "I Swallowed A Dragonfly." At a slim 40 minutes, however, the album only feels bloated in one or two spots. As it is, you'll best appreciate All This Time if you alternate it with something a bit crisper.

::: Peter Landwehr

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August 4, 2006

Guillemots: Through the Windowpane
Polydor, 2006
Rating: 3.6
Brit Fyfe Dangerfield (actual surname Hutchins) leads the cosmopolitan quartet Guillemots, a recently formed group that has generated impressive buzz thanks to several well-received singles and anticipation for its Mercury Music Prize-nominated debut, Through the Windowpane. Guillemots' bread and butter are melodramatic artifice and rainy-day weepers. This is hyper-romantic art pop that can easily polarize those who love string-drenched emotionalism writ large and others who cringe when lines such as “Sometimes I could cry for miles” are delivered without a trace of irony. Give Guillemots (and especially the vocally gifted Dangerfield) credit for going all out on Windowpane, from the overblown sentiments on “If The World Ends” ("If the world ends, I hope you're here with me / I think we could laugh just enough to not die in pain") to the dizzying exuberance of “We're Here.” Though even the talented supporting players can’t help Dangerfield when he tosses out lines like, “Found something crying, it was my soul / I fed it milk so it wouldn’t grow old” (from “Annie, Let's Not Wait”) but at its best (previously released tracks “Made Up Love Song #43” and the fantastic “Trains To Brazil”) the band more than justifies the hype. The mix of lovelorn pining and headline-grim reality on “Brazil” is perfectly encapsulated by stinging observations like, “The prophets and their bombs have had another success /And I’m wondering why we bother at all.” Because love conquers all, right? We know that, and so do Guillemots. Should Dangerfield’s lyricism rise to such heights consistently, Guillemots may indeed prove to be a band worth sustaining a relationship with over the long haul.

::: Laurence Station

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August 4, 2006

J Dilla: Donuts
Stones Throw, 2006
Rating: 3.8
Detroit native James Yancey, aka J Dilla, passed away three days after the release of Donuts; he worked on the album from his hospital bed. Such a serious back story all but merits a knee-jerk praising of what became a death’s door creation. Donuts isn’t some magnum opus, though, a colossal, poignantly contrived final goodbye on par with Warren Zevon’s The Wind. The well-liked and respected hip-hop producer has assembled what amounts to a thiry-one-track, forty-plus minute sketchbook of stitched samples and beats. It’s almost like a gift to fellow artists, a convenient source for inspiration and borrowing. As such, Yancey doesn’t allow anything time to develop -- this is a kaleidoscopic, fragmentary rush. The contemplative, soulful “Time: The Donuts of the Heart” jarringly gives way to the horn-mashed loops of “Glazed.” The commercial-sampling digital blips of “Lightworks” are succeeded by the old school hand-waving of “Stepson of the Clapper.” Thematic cohesiveness is not an option. Donuts is fascinating, disorienting and -- despite its best efforts to avoid such sympathies -- a bittersweet document of a too-young talent who ran out of time.

::: Laurence Station

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August 4, 2006

Various Artists: Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound
Soul Jazz, 2006
Rating: 4.0
The rock ’n’ Bossa Nova sound that is Tropicalia lasted but a few years in Brazil, the music’s country of origin, but the genre’s influence has been substantial. From Beck to Stereolab, the sound created by the likes of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil has endured and reached a saturation point in order to merit this tidy twenty-track sampler covering some of the key tracks from the movement’s ’68 to ’70 heyday. Unsurprisingly, the wonderful Sao Paulo outfit Os Mutantes dominates, with the madcap laughter preceding the psychedelic-buzzed “A Minha Menina” still sounding fresh and vital. Other highlights include Veloso’s delightfully groovy “Alfomega” and the liberated expression of Gil’s “Bat Macumba”. Granted, those who have the David Byrne-endorsed Everything Is Possible sampler of Os Mutantes' hottest cuts will find less value here, but Tropicalia serves as a decently comprehensive introduction to an essential period in music history.

::: Laurence Station

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July 24, 2006

Destroyer: Destroyer's Rubies
Merge, 2006
Rating: 4.0
It’s a bold move to open an album with the lengthiest, strongest cut. But that’s exactly what Dan Bejar does on his latest Destroyer album. The nearly nine-and-a-half minute “Rubies” features memorable guitar lines that keep the rambling (in an accomplished and often startlingly good way), multi-part work from venturing too far astray. In terms of sheer chutzpah and a willingness to put all of his musical cards on the table up front, Bejar justifies the entire album. The remaining nine tracks can’t be faulted for failing to measure up to the high standard of “Rubies,” though it’s interesting to wonder what sort of impact the song would have had it closed the album. Coincidentally, the best things here are the longest compositions, with the seven-and-a-half minute “Looters' Follies,” featuring wonderful multi-tracked harmonies, and the six-minute “A Dangerous Woman Up To A Point,” with its paradoxical grooving melody cut by frantic lyrical bursts, capably taking the silver and bronze on the podium for best song. In true Bejar/Destroyer fashion we get hyper-literate, fractured lyrics like “origami angel on a deathbed in a dream” (from “Priest's Knees”) delivered with his affected, certainly acquired-taste vocal delivery. Regardless of track order, Rubies is one of the most enjoyable listens from Bejar’s solo catalog and comfortably stands with 2002’s This Night as his best effort.

::: Laurence Station

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July 18, 2006

The Divine Comedy: Victory For The Comic Muse
Parlophone, 2006
Rating: 3.2
This is how Neil Hannon’s latest Divine Comedy album ends: “All through this short life we give of ourselves / Giving and giving and slowly diminishing / Leaving a mark that will gradually fade / Ash in the breeze, snowballs in negative.” Put the straight razor down and padlock the medicine chest. “Snowball In Negative” is truly the Bleak House of Hannon’s catalog. Decidedly non-divine and quite unfunny, it nonetheless typifies some of the darkest material the typically wry (though hardly doom-and-gloom-laden) artist has offered. “The Plough” melodramatically details a wayward character searching for a higher meaning; “Count Grassi's Passage Over Piedmont” treks the folly of a Victorian-era balloonist; the exceptional “A Lady Of A Certain Age” is a forlorn, backward-glancing lament about a woman running around the French Riviera “until the light of youth became obscured” and reduced to hitting up much younger men for drinks in a pub. Hannon doesn’t stick to this sour worldview, however, which helps uplift the mood but also makes for a frustratingly unbalanced, thematically patchwork listen. “To Die A Virgin” is a typically cheeky Divine Comedy sketch; the wonderfully titled “Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World” compares a hard-to-figure-out girlfriend with mysterious and inexplicable events. “The Light Of Day” is a clunker that finds Hannon delivering heartbroken pap like “Even though the skies above are cold and grey / I'm sure tomorrow we will see the light of day” without a shred of irony. Victory For The Comic Muse seems destined to be one of those odd works beloved by cultish fans of Hannon’s work, but an unfocused misfire from the casual listener’s standpoint.

::: Laurence Station

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July 18, 2006

Brian Eno & David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [Remastered Edition]
Nonesuch, 2006
Rating: 4.2
It’s notable that "Qu'ran" has seemingly been banished forever from subsequent editions of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The appreciatively remastered and expanded edition of the highly regarded and forward-looking 1981 original can’t help but dredge up the prickly absence of this key track. Granted, the song is easy enough to find on auction sites or through trader depots like Gemm.com. But for an album brimming over with religious references and vocal samples (be they African, Christian, or Middle Eastern), it’s amazing how a piece that could hardly be considered the Satanic Verses of cut-and-paste collage noise art has been so rudely (and universally) silenced. The Islamic Council of Great Britain didn’t want recordings of the sacred text referenced and, hence, no one gets to enjoy "Qu'ran" regardless of geographic location, religious denomination or spiritual outlook. Thematically and sonically, "Qu'ran" makes a far better fit than its replacement, “Very, Very Hungry." And the album still loses focus with the concluding tracks “Come with Us” and “Mountain of Needles,” which never fit into the admittedly eclectic brew concocted by Eno and Byrne. Other omissions include late evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman’s sermon on “The Jezebel Spirit” after her estate requested it not be used. Such are the hazards of borrowing from worldly clatter. The main selling point of this Ghosts is the richly improved sound: The frenetic tribal rhythms backing the Gospel sermonizing on “Help Me Somebody” are more forceful and pronounced. “The Carrier” sports a nicely contrasting vocal inserted in the middle that apparently got excised due to time constraints the first time around. Basically, this is the definitive (if incomplete) version of a landmark release.

::: Laurence Station

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July 10, 2006

Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche
Asthmatic Kitty, 2006
Rating: 4.0
Those hungering for two-and-a-half hours of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois are in luck. Thanks to the release of The Avalanche, Prairie State fanatics can now double their listening pleasure with 21 additional tracks. Sure it’s a shameless cash-in (even the album cover owns up to this), but at least Stevens had the integrity to rework, polish and sort out the also-rans from the original sessions. The title track suitably caps the set, an ostensibly plain-spun folk number about travel that builds with typical Steven-sian ambition to a triumphal pseudo-orchestral flourish. Other gems include the brooding “Saul Bellow,” the apologetic “Pittsfield” and a trio of alternate versions of Illinois highlight “Chicago”. The electronic-tinged instrumental pieces prove hit-or-miss, with Stevens’ nods to outsider art eccentric Henry Darger’s “Vivian Girls” brief enough to act as a workable transition between the more fleshed-out tracks. By contrast, the closing “Undivided Self” simply comes across as indulgent padding. The biggest upside to the release, however, is that now the intrepid Illinois enthusiast can cobble together one super playlist, and loop it till Stevens finishes his musical sketch of the next state on the map.

::: Laurence Station

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July 10, 2006

The Handsome Family: Last Days of Wonder
Carrot Top, 2006
Rating: 4.0
Finding rarified and magical totems in the most sterile of places -- parking lots, bowling alleys, airports, golf courses, neglected graveyards and drive-thru lanes at fast-food joints -- forms the thematic underpinnings of the Handsome Family’s latest release, the ruefully titled Last Days of Wonder. Core members (and husband and wife) Brett and Rennie Sparks hold fast to the notion of keeping a capital-R Romantic spirit alive in this digital age. Whatever science reveals, there are still hidden, fantastic surprises awaiting us. The gems: “After We Shot the Grizzly” contrasts a light-afternoon-stroll tempo with a harrowing tale of a group struggling for survival under very harsh circumstances. “Beautiful William” deals with a man who unexpectedly leaves his worldly possessions behind and vanishes, much to the consternation of acquaintances. The lamenting “White Lights” sums up the album’s overarching idea: “There was mystery singing from everything / The strip mall, the highway, the boarded-up skating rink.” The Celtic-inspired fable “Hunter Green” gracefully deals with notions of loss and transcendence, while “Tesla's Hotel Room” proves another fine addition to Handsome Family biographical sketches like “Amelia Earhart Vs. the Dancing Bear” and “The Giant of Illinois” (about Robert Wadlow), touching on the eccentricities and sad reality of the gifted inventor (“Dreaming of God as an X-ray beam / He was hit by a cab”). Last Days of Wonder finds the Handsome Family hitting a comfortable stride. Seek out their work.

::: Laurence Station

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June 29, 2006

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Show Your Bones
Interscope, 2006
Rating: 3.8
Show Your Bones, Yeah Yeah Yeahs sophomore effort, is a more shaded, musically expressive version of the continuing story of O. Backed by the unoriginal but appealingly familiar riffs of Nick Zinner and the brawny percussion of Brian Chase, Karen O manages to convey an aggressive physicality (“We'll build a fire in your eyes” from “Gold Lion”; “The face ain't making what the mouth needs” from “Way Out”) with aggrieved, bruised-heart laments (“Dudley” and “The Sweets”). “Fancy”, the album’s longest, heaviest cut, successfully expands and welds something substantive from its poetic and rhythmic chaos; O’s near threatening phrase “We're just another part of you” seamlessly clicks with Zinner’s crunchy guitar lines and Chase’s furious drumming. “Warrior” sums up Show Your Bones’ nakedly exposed expressiveness best, however, with O wearily admitting, “When it’s missing then you want it more.” O has opened the diary to her soul, and it’s neither black nor white but rather a bluish-gray pulsating wound laced with lyrical salt.

::: Laurence Station

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June 29, 2006

Liars: Drum's Not Dead
Mute, 2006
Rating: 3.7
Drum's Not Dead, the third Liars full-length, revolves around the contrapuntal dynamics of carefree life-of-the-party Drum and worrywart party-pooper Mount Heart Attack. Unlike the divergent viewpoints of the superstitious villagers and harried witches from 2004’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, the tension between the considerably more nebulous Drum and Heart Attack isn’t nearly as compelling. Obviously there’s no juicy witch-hunt thematic angle to sink one’s teeth into, but more importantly, the tracks and sequencing simply don’t rival the quality found on band’s arresting sophomore effort. Opener “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!” is a highlight, even if it pushes forward without actually arriving anywhere. “The Wrong Coat For You Mt. Heart Attack” successfully utilizes samples of lapping waves to create a moodily unsettling effect, and the closing “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” achieves a surprising level of intimacy heretofore unexplored on prior works. Despite isolated moments of brilliance, Drum’s Not Dead fails to mesh. That being said, even a Liars misfire is worth hearing.

::: Laurence Station

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June 28, 2006

Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped
Geffen, 2006
Rating: 4.0
It’s bright, it’s punchy, and it’s most definitely not your typical Sonic Youth album. Or isn’t it? Rather Ripped still finds time for the expected jams (the languorous “Turquoise Boy”), arresting feedback squalls (“Sleepin' Around”) and the too-cool-for-school delivery of leads Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. The departure of Jim O'Rourke, however, has fostered a more accessible Sonic Youth, an outfit not as interested in pushing sonic boundaries as simplifying and tightening its particular, Gotham-inspired pop-rock aesthetic. In this respect, guitarist Lee Renaldo delivers the signature highlight on “Rats,” with its noirish metropolitan groove and icily jaded wordplay (“You call it love alright / That was the catch / A cold suicide”). Simply, Rather Ripped is a solid collection of songs smartly executed by a band secure in its legacy and refusing to go gently into that good rock night.

::: Laurence Station

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June 23, 2006

Ed Harcourt: The Beautiful Lie
EMI, 2006
Rating: 3.8
“I'm on the edge of something beautiful,” Ed Harcourt sings on “Late Night Partner.” And the gifted singer-songwriter is correct. His latest effort, The Beautiful Lie, is almost his masterpiece. But, as with earlier works, Harcourt has yet to pull together the wildly diverse pieces of his artistic ambitions. The lyrically apocalyptic, weirdly appealing production tics of opener “Whirlwind In D Minor” and the bleak-exits-in-miniature “Last Cigarette” are among the best tunes the hyper-prolific Londoner has laid down. Even the kitschy, woozy waltz number “Scatterbraine” merits a passing grade for, if nothing else, passionately dedicated execution. Unfortunately, it’s those should-have-been-B-sides inclusions at the end that sour the batch. The gratingly simplistic rhyme schemes and odd Devendra-Banhart-meets-Nick-Drake delivery of “The Pristine Claw” and the energy-draining, breathily protracted “Braille” ensure Harcourt’s Beautiful Lie will remain another almost-but-not-quite entry in a catalog full of near-miss gems.

::: Laurence Station

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June 23, 2006

The Futureheads: News and Tributes
Vagrant, 2006
Rating: 3.5
The title track of the Futureheads' sophomore release pays respect to members of the Manchester United soccer team who lost their lives in a 1958 air crash in Munich. It’s a genuinely heartfelt song that conveys an earnestness on the part of the band to grow beyond the fun, nervy sound of its debut. But bets are hedged to what’s expected (the delightful “Yes/No” and excellent “Skip to the End”), making News and Tributes a curious case of progressive regression. The Futureheads can’t quite make it two steps forward before falling back to the proven mastery of their familiar sound and lyrical obsessions with awkward opposite sex encounters and dating-game blues. What we’ve got: Promising but safe.

::: Laurence Station

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June 12, 2006

Scott Walker: The Drift
4AD, 2006
Rating: 3.8
The Drift marries Scott Walker's labored pleadings with an enormous string section (used with eerily minimalist effect), creating a distinctly unsettling work that is neither an unqualified triumph nor a pedestrian failure. Rather, Walker (whose last studio effort, Tilt, arrived in 1995) has crafted a cerebrally exhaustive work that relies on intriguingly disassociated couplets like "A nocturne filled with glorious ideas / A chilling exploration of erotic consumption" (from opener "Cossacks Are"), historical footnotes (Mussolini's tragic mistress in "Clara"; Elvis Presley's stillborn twin on "Jesse"), and strangulated duck noises(!) (the delightfully unhinged "The Escape") to serve up a very personal assessment of worldly affairs. The Drift is so fiercely idiosyncratic as to be critically bulletproof -- champions of its genius or folly have plenty of ammunition at their disposal. Ultimately, those enamored with Walker's infrequent but peculiarly expressive post-'70s work (from Climate of Hunter on) will find much to enjoy here. Newcomers to the artist are better off starting with cuts from his enduring, '60s pop heyday.

::: Laurence Station

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June 5, 2006

The Walkmen: A Hundred Miles Off
Record Collection, 2006
Rating: 3.7
The Walkmen have ventured well beyond the urban cliques of New York and discovered more brass and fewer organs fills. Shambling opener “Louisiana” sets a high bar that the remaining tracks struggle to graze. What stick out are isolated moments of technical proficiency (the controlled yet paradoxically manic percussion on “Emma, Get Me a Lemon,” the insistent guitar riffs on “Don't Get Me Down”). The concentrated unity of form and content that elevated sterling sophomore effort Bows & Arrows has been replaced by a footloose approach to songwriting and style that fails to mesh. Isolated keepers: the organ-featuring “All Hands and the Cook” and the punk-furious “Tenley Town”.

::: Laurence Station

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June 5, 2006

Mission of Burma: The Obliterati
Matador, 2006
Rating: 4.1
The Obliterati's first half makes 2004’s stellar comeback ONoffON seem tentative. No small feat. However, it suffers from the same weak back half that plagued Burma’s creative resurrection. But what a killer first set, with the brawny riffs and pummeling beat of “2wice”, the digital groove of “Donna Sumeria” and the back-and-forth sallying of “1001 Pleasant Dreams” standing with some of the finest work of the band’s career. There’s an eclecticism and sense of daring permeating Obliterati that reveals a band not merely content with returning to its early '80s form but powering full steam ahead as the first decade of the 21st century closes. Give us a full hour of the best stuff here and obliteration of any critical resistance will be complete.

::: Laurence Station

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June 5, 2006

The Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soldiers
V2/Third Man
Rating: 3.5
The main point of interest on Broken Boy Soldiers is which stylistic personality dominates: Jack White’s gothic-tinged bluesy stomp or Brendan Benson’s infectiously bouncy popcraft? White scores points with the sweaty, rumbling title track and rhythmically assertive “Level,” while Benson kicks things off with album highlight “Steady, As She Goes” and the subsequent pop treat “Hands.” We’ll call it a draw with the moody “Together” revealing what’s possible when White and Benson join forces. If only collaborations in this vein had been given greater consideration, the Raconteurs might have had something truly revelatory beyond a whimsical side project.

::: Laurence Station

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May 1, 2006

Gomez: How We Operate
ATO, 2006
Rating: 3.0
Gomez makes a summery pop record. You read it right, senor. The bluesy British outfit has eschewed the gruff traditionalism of Bring It On and Liquid Skin for bright “sha-la-la” harmonies and shimmering, unruffled melodies. Even the blues-legend name-checking “Charley Patton Songs” is about as far from classic twelve-bar, AAB structure as a piece can get, relying more on dream-pop meandering than hard-learned Delta laments. The title track provides enough rhythmic muscle, coupled with complementary plaintive guitar lines, to reveal just how dramatic Gomez’s musical metric has shifted. If 2004’s Split the Difference gave the fans what was expected (after the arresting experimentation of 2002’s In Our Gun), How We Operate proves another surprising turn. If you can get behind the stylistic change, everything really comes down to the appeal and craftsmanship of the songs: Basically, pretty, understated, and occasionally engaging. How We Operate earns points for stylistic adventurousness but, unlike In Our Gun, doesn’t meet its self-imposed challenge with the strongest batch of tunes.

::: Laurence Station

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April 23, 2006

The Fiery Furnaces: Bitter Tea
Fat Possum, 2006
Rating: 3.7
Strip all of the digital fills and percussive farts, the ad nauseam backward loops and wildly unpredictable tempo changes from the Fiery Furnaces’ Bitter Tea, and what you’re left with is a pretty solid pop album. The endearing nature of tracks like “In My Little Thatched Hut” -- in which Eleanor Friedberger comments “I lounge and I look” -- and the lovely “Benton Harbor Blues” prove Eleanor and older brother Matthew are more than capable of crafting wonderful pop tunes. The only problem: That’s just not hip enough for the talented duo. Thus, we get the overwhelming backfill. Now, if the Furnaces had relegated all that cred-multiplying energy into one track (“The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” being an excellent choice), and left the remainder uncluttered and pure, Bitter Tea might not be so hard to swallow. The Furnaces refuse to play it commonplace, however, which is both their greatest strength and most frustrating weakness. Buried beneath the album's crush of self-consciously cool studio finesse is more-than-adequate proof that unabashed pop is nothing to be ashamed of.

::: Laurence Station

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April 10, 2006

Calexico: Garden Ruin
Cityslang/Quarterstick, 2006
Rating: 3.4
Calexico’s Garden Rain is a too-sedately executed protest album. That is, despite serving up Rage Against the Machine-worthy invectives like “When you think it couldn't get much worse / The numbers rise on the death toll” (from the much-needed simmer-to-boil closer “All Systems Red”), the Tucson-based band’s fifth proper release never achieves a musical force of will equal to its impassioned lyricism. The languid “Bisbee Blue” considers urban sprawl and the dark side of progress with the intensity of a flagman lazily waving cars past a construction site. “Panic Open String” paints intense imagery (“Oceans on the coast will cling to their host / The sun will split in two, sink through an empty sky”) against a decidedly non-apocalyptic tempo. Fortunately, there’s a strong exception to the laid-back rant rule: “Letter to Bowie Knife” marries a muscular rhythm to its potent avenging-fundamentalist-angel lyrics (“This world's an ungodly place / Strangled by vines unchaste”). Obviously, with no end in sight to the Iraq imbroglio and oil and environmental issues dominating blogspace, there will be more albums speaking out against current events (just listen to the latest Flaming Lips album), but if the urgency of the music isn’t going to match the alarmed sincerity of the words, at least offer engaging melodies to back the complaints. Garden Ruin’s arrangements simply don’t arrest the senses as forcefully as its intelligent and aggrieved wordplay merits.

::: Laurence Station

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March 31, 2006

Ghostface Killah: Fishscale
Def Jam, 2006
Rating: 4.0
When arguments are made for the best Wu-Tang member solo release, GZA's Liquid Swords and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (both from 1995) regularly rate the highest endorsements. Considering the abundance of Wu-affiliated albums that have come out in the now decade-plus since those stellar works (including Ghostface Killah’s impressive 1996 debut Ironman and his 2000 high water-mark Supreme Clientele), the pressure on Clan members to top the power-packed work from the collective’s early years is obvious. Indeed, in a refreshingly candid moment, Ghostface challenges himself on Fishscale’s “The Champ,” as a growling manager barks, "You ain't been hungry since Supreme Clientele!" Granted, both 2004’s The Pretty Toney Album and 2001’s Bulletproof Wallets failed to live up to the promise of Ghostface’s initial solo efforts. The good news: Fishscale has more in common (memorable hooks, clever raps and sharp, soulful beats) with his early work than the uneven post-Clientele material. “Shakey Dog” features the fidgety energy befitting a dealer trying to contend with business and family life pressures; “Kilo” plays like a retrofitted take on Curtis Mayfield’s classic "Pusherman," while the obligatory single track “Back Like That” (featuring Ne-Yo) derails the hard-edged, Day-in-the-life-of-a-drug-dealer continuity. But on balance, Fishscale earns its street-cred stripes and adds another worthy release to the Great Wu-Tang Best Solo Effort debate.

::: Laurence Station

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March 27, 2006

Josh Rouse: Subtitulo
Bedroom Classics, 2006
Rating: 3.4
It’s ironic that the best track on singer-songwriter Josh Rouse’s latest release, Subtitulo, is an instrumental. The brief “La Costa Blanca” sports great guitar work, exhibiting a definition and focus noticeably absent across the span of this ten-track set. The wealth of memorable hooks Rouse served up on last year’s Nashville have given way to a laid-back, shuffling groove no doubt reflective of Rouse’s current domestic locale in southern Spain. Opener “Quiet Town” typifies Subtitulo’s chilled-siesta outlook, with its carefree melodicism and lyrical celebration of retreat. “Jersey Clowns” is a slow, meditative sketch, while “Givin' It Up” livens up the album’s back half before giving way to the innocuous pap of “Wonderful” and “The Man Who...”, an appealing duet with singer Paz Suay. Subtitulo certainly appears to be an accurate representation of where Josh Rouse is in his life: comfortable, confident, and beneath-the-radar contented. Good for him; bad for fans of Josh Rouse albums brimming over with great hooks.

::: Laurence Station

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February 09, 2006

Tarkio: Omnibus
Kill Rock Stars, 2006
Rating: 3.0
The selling point is obvious: Before The Decemberists, there was Tarkio, the college band Colin Meloy (sounding closer to Whiskeytown-era Ryan Adams than later, Emerald Isle-inflected yarn-spinner) fronted back in Missoula, Montana before relocating to Portland, Oregon and seriously upgrading his profile. While this two-CD, 27-track set provides inklings of where Meloy was headed (an uninviting, early version of “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” and the unaffected, clever “Neapolitan Bridesmaid”), its will probably appeal most to those who followed the band during its heyday. Otherwise, Omnibus is more a historical artifact for the Decemberists completist than a riveting overview of a criminally neglected band from the late ’90s.

::: Laurence Station

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February 09, 2006

Wilco: Kicking Television: Live in Chicago
Nonesuch, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Wilco’s first official live release is a 23-track, nearly two-hour affair culled from four sold out nights at Chicago's venerable Vic Theatre. The requisite energy adds extra oomph to the majority of the songs, with Being There’s “Misunderstood” swelling to epic proportions thanks to the thunderous beat and rapturous crowd feedback (call it “call and response” cliché but what else are the paying customers to do when Tweedy intones “You still love rock and roll” but roar with approval). A jauntier version of A Ghost Is Born’s “Hell Is Chrome” benefits enormously from the canny theatricality in Tweedy’s delivery. If you love guitar histrionics, Live in Chicago is a white-hot keeper. As gratuitously extended as the jams were on Ghost, here the blazing axemanship finds a proper context in which to cut loose, making up for the relative lack of compositional or lyrical reinvention of the studio material.

::: Laurence Station

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February 08, 2006

Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
Domino, 2006
Rating: 3.4
Arctic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not is a high-energy smash-and-grab debut that shouldn’t sound so cynical coming from a band just starting out. Whether it’s begging "Kick me out!" in reference to the shallow world of celebrity (from "Fake Tales of San Francisco") or complaining about harassment from the "silly boys in blue" ("Riot Van") as they crack down on after-hours cavorting, Whatever People Say I Am has no patience for authority or vapidity. Musically, the barbed punk hooks and breakneck speed of the tracks threaten to bleed together, which makes the comparatively epic "Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But..." stand tall, allowing the band to stretch its rhythmic legs a bit and let the composition exist on the wire longer than an ash flick. Based on the hype coming out of the Sheffield-based quartet’s home country, it’s going to be difficult for the group to pass judgment so blithely on future releases. Congratulations, lads, you’re about to become everything you hate.

::: Laurence Station

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February 06, 2006

Beth Orton: Comfort of Strangers
Astralwerks, 2006
Rating: 4.0
Beth Orton’s Comfort of Strangers opens with “Worms,” a song possessing a deliberate cadence and urban snap akin to something generating royalties for Fiona Apple. What’s going on here? Where’s the wistful, reservedly introspective Orton sound her base has grown accustomed to? Not to worry, faithful listeners: The subsequent track, the lovely, comparatively sedate “Countenance,” bears all the familiar Orton hallmarks -- gorgeous voice, emotional delivery undercut by Protestant decorum, and clever but not showoff-y lyricism. Jim O'Rourke, a producer and musician known for his experimental bent, manages to bring some interesting arrangements to Orton’s compositions (the attention-grabbing opener and the rumbling train beat of “Rectify” being two exemplary examples) without overcrowding the British singer-songwriter’s personal space. Comfort of Strangers is a more confident record than 2002’s Daybreaker, exhibiting an economy of craft and unvarnished execution that might glide by less attentive ears but rewards the keen consumer with a warmth and depth worthy of the artist who created Central Reservation.

::: Laurence Station

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February 06, 2006

Robert Pollard: From a Compound Eye
Merge, 2006
Rating: 3.4
From a Compound Eye is ostensibly Robert Pollard’s first post-Guided by Voices solo release. But it’s well-known that this exhaustive 26-track, 70-minute-plus release has been accumulating material and approximate shape for years; it’s like one of the GbV Suitcase compilations in miniature. Unsurprisingly, the track list is all over the map, stylistically, technologically and qualitatively. On the upside, the best moments show up in the first half. “Dancing Girls and Dancing Men” serves up peppy Brit-pop, the affected lo-fi opener of “The Right Thing” explodes into a larger sound, and “Love Is Stronger than Witchcraft” finds Pollard flexing his classic rock muscles. But for every excellent detour there are just as many so-so cuts (take your pick from the backside) or flat out duds (the overlong, proto-prog Genesis reject “Conqueror of the Moon”), emphatically proving that sometime in the future Pollard will expire and there will be nothing left in his songbook that’s not been recorded and released somewhere, somehow. Not all creative efforts are meant to see the light of day, however.

::: Laurence Station

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January 23, 2006

Cat Power: The Greatest
Matador, 2006
Rating: 4.1
The Greatest finds Cat Power alter-ego Chan Marshall delving deep into the Memphis sound, from her choice of backing musicians (specifically longtime Al Green collaborator and guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and bassist Leroy "Flick" Hodges) to the soulful, full-bodied arrangements. The end result is one of Marshall’s most satisfying and consistent Cat Power releases. The gorgeous, opening title track and nakedly expressive “Lived In Bars” are particular standouts. Beyond the midway point -- that being after “Willie” (a scaled-down version of the track heard on the Speaking for Trees DVD) -- The Greatest slips a few notches. Despite losing creative momentum down the stretch, it’s still a remarkably affecting and mature record, proof that Chan Marshall kicks off the second act of her career in top form.

::: Laurence Station

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January 07, 2006

Isolée: We Are Monster
Playhouse, 2005
Rating: 4.0
We Are Monster, the first album since 2000 from Microhouse-mixer Rajko Müller, aka Isolée, starts with a squelchy tickle of bass and a resounding slap of drums, more about familiar rhythms than progressive forms. And that appealing, playful aspect holds form throughout. Tracks like the slow-starting “Mädchen Mit Hase” bring balance to the set, but the thumping “Enrico,” the futuristic-sounding pulse and bounce of “Do Re Mi” and the untroubled “Jelly Baby/Fish” remove all doubt about Müller’s objective: Party hard, party safe, party like we still live in a world where terrorist threats happen elsewhere, not near the downtown club where you and a group of friends are gathering for a carefree night of drinking and dancing. Müller ends things with the skittering, repetitive “Pillowtalk,” the kind of track built for the last-call crowd slowly filtering out into the pre-dawn light. Faultless sequencing, an array of clever (and comfortably familiar) beats, and a refreshingly optimistic, apolitical vibe make We Are Monster a keeper.

::: Laurence Station

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January 07, 2006

Ryan Adams: 29
Lost Highway, 2005
Rating: 2.9
Ryan Adams concludes an incredibly prolific year with 29, his third release of 2005. Whether it’s a concept album about his twenties or simply a collection of songs Adams deemed fit for recorded posterity, the nine tracks here make for a grab-bag assemblage that simply doesn’t flow together very well. The opening title track reworks the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'" and sports a suitably shambling, willy-nilly quality that sounds dashed off compared to the more polished, Ethan Johns-produced cuts succeeding it. The overall timbre of 29 is icy blue. The moody “Nightbirds” -- complete with echoed splashes after references to the ocean are made -- and the appropriately downbeat “Blue Sky Blues” typify the morose nature of the set. Stylistically, however, Adams is all over the place, from the aforementioned Dead salute to minor-key bummers (“Starlite Diner”), affected, country-noir storytelling (“Carolina Rain”) and epic, flamenco guitar-driven folk ballads (“The Sadness”). Cold Roses and, especially, Jacksonville City Nights are stronger works in terms of consistency. Hopefully 29 clears the table for a more focused third decade for Adams. One release per year comprised of the talented artist’s best ten or twelve tracks would suit this reviewer just fine.

::: Laurence Station

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