Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2004-09-14
Antibalas: Who Is This America? (Ropeadope, 2004) Mostly instrumentals, and no longer do they fade into nothingness up against Fela ("Indictment," "Obanla'e"). *
Bad Religion: The Empire Strikes First (Epitaph, 2004) "Los Angeles Is Burning," "Let Them Eat War"
Dan Bern: My Country II (Messenger EP, 2004) "Bush Must Be Defeated"
Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company (Concord/Hear Music, 2004) Accepting help is a great virtue in the dying, and Charles goes out like a lion by surrendering control. The duet partners mean less than the producers--Concord's John Burk augmented by Billy Joel hand Phil Ramone. Their good taste can't stifle Charles, but it can protect him from his own weaknesses, which ever since he got into publishing have included songwriters who owe him points. Instead Charles picks songs for posterity, and even James Taylor's "Sweet Potato Pie" sounds like a standard. But it's crucial that Taylor eases the master's vocal burden, as do Van Morrison, Gladys Knight, and Bonnie Raitt--and Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Natalie Cole, who's a good half of why this "Fever" is up near Peggy Lee's and Little Willie John's. Elton John and Michael McDonald, on the other hand, end up where Charles often did in his fifties, so set on proving their physical prowess that meaning gets away from them. And Willie Nelson reminds us that past a certain age even the shrewdest singer can't cut it on the wrong day. This is why it's good Charles owned the studio. He got do-overs, and he took them. A-
Terri Clark: Greatest Hits 1994-2004 (Mercury, 2004) Nashville's feisty female ideal, which is one reason she's not a bigger star ("I Wanna Do It All," "If I Were You"). **
The Comas: Conductor (Yep Roc, 2004) Chasing drugs under the stars, staring at the ground through the hole in his shoe ("Tonight on the WB," "Invisible Drugs"). ***
Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South (New West, 2004) Class warfare meets gangsta-rock. The imagistic density of the songs about working for a living till you die--especially Jason Isbell's poetic "The Day John Henry Died" and Patterson Hood's narrative "Puttin' People on the Moon"--makes the vicious cycle seem more inescapable; their class consciousness justifies the badass nihilism of the anti-Buford Pusser triptych like ghetto sob stories about dope lords' pain do, only without the sentimentality. Then there are the two about successful musicians. Sam Phillips was OK for a rich man, but he could only take Carl Perkins so far. And Rick Danko ends up not much better off alive than Richard Manuel is dead. A-
Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts Now (E-Squared/Artemis, 2004) The title's poetic license, the artist half a poet at best ("Condi, Condi," "The Gringo's Tale"). **
The Elected: Me First (Sub Pop, 2004)
The Fiery Furnaces: Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade, 2004)
Gogol Bordello Vs. Tamir Muskat: J.U.F (Stinky, 2004) Jewish-Ukrainishe Freundschaft," it stands for; "Afterparty on the Frontline," it's subtitled. As Gogol Bordello mastermind Eugene Hutz asks, "Where the fuck is for example Gypsy-disco-punk for the after party. Where is Arabic-dub-sextura and where the fuck is the soundtrack for a Balkan train robbery." The answer is self-evident: Hutz sings, so does Jerusalem-based Indian classical music devotee Victoria Hanna, Gogol's Oren Kaplan is on guitar, not to be confused with ex-Gogol saxophonist Ori Kaplan, and driving driving driving is Big Lazy drummer Tamir Muskat. Hutz furnishes conceptual bravado, Muskat renders Hutz's songwriting irrelevant, and Ori keeps butting in. The intensity recalls the Bulgarian wedding sax of Yuri Yunakov, only the multiculturalism plus Hutz's unrelenting sense of humor means it never gets samey. World-rock not en español--in the universal language, English. A-
The Hunches: Hobo Sunrise (In the Red, 2004) Madder and uglier than your father's punk noise ("Where Am I," "Nosedive"). *
Ben Kweller: On My Way (Fader, 2004) "On My Way"
Sondre Lerche: Two Way Monologue (Astralwerks, 2004) Norwegian aims for classic-pop wit in English, with precisely analogous music ("Wet Ground," "It's Over"). *
Liars: They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (Mute, 2004)
The Libertines: "I Get Along" (Rough Trade EP, 2003) Debut-album "single" plus four affectionately unfinished collectibles, the best an actual single ("Don't Look Back Into the Sun," "Mayday"). ***
The Libertines: The Libertines (Rough Trade, 2004) They didn't start as fast or punky as their reputation, and this seat-of-the-pants follow-up, every song cut quick lest Peter Doherty take a powder, often seems fragile, offhand, tentative, even enervated. But this isn't a weakness--it only makes their sound more their own. As with the Heartbreakers on the precious occasions when they jelled, their punk is overwhelmed by unhinged lyricism--with drum powerhouse Gary Powell assuring that they rock when need be regardless. A-
Los Lobos: Ride This (Mammoth/Hollywood, 2004)
Christine McVie: In the Meantime (Koch, 2004)
Meat Purveyors: Pain by Numbers (Bloodshot, 2004) The dark side of bluegrass revivalism ("TMP Smackdown," "How Can I Be So Thirsty Today?"). **
The Naysayer: Kitten Time (Red Panda, 2004) Sixteen brief, quiet, sardonic meditations that require your full attention ("Silent Night," "New Jersey Baby"). **
Northern State: All City (Columbia, 2004) Feeling they have nothing to prove and plenty to get right, Hesta Prynne, the retagged Spero, and a funkier Sprout throw themselves into what they love with no discernible concern for cred. Except insofar as all voices are different, which counts, the music on this feisty, funny rap album isn't new--just irresistible, like the regional pop crossovers of the pre-Hammer/bling era, the same golden age underground sobersides remember as the heyday of obscure Eric B. soundalikes. DJ Muggs, Pete Rock, ?uestlove, and the High and Mighty all pitch in on a record that calls up memories of Hitman Howie Tee and ends with an LFO rip that shoulda conquered Z100. Hip they're not, I know. Can't be because they're female, or white, or suburban. Right? So figure it's because they're sane--so sane they invoke John Kerry's square name. A
The Rogers Sisters: Three Fingers (Troubleman Unlimited, 2004) Especially when the guy is singing, the art-funk forebears this trio recalls are ones the mind's ear can no longer retrieve--Medium Medium if their finest moment had been less fine, say. But friendlier echoes tone up their EP--Devo, Gang of Four, B-52's--and groove and lyrics pack serious wallop. Finest by far is Jennifer's cute, wise, dippy "Fantasies Are Nice," which deserves to rule dancefloors like the "Hungry So Angry" of yore. B+
Tarika: 10: Beasts, Ghosts & Dancing With History (Triloka/Artemis, 2004) Like so many folkies, Hanitra Rasoanaivo and her sister Noro Raharimalala are too damn nice and too damn sophisticated. But because they're so damn talented, they're also idealists sitting on a gold mine--Madagascar's rich, isolated, heterogeneous Afro-Asian music culture, which they absorbed entertaining their 90-strong Merina family well before they made it into college. They have plenty of intellectual ambition--their Son Egal and Soul Makassar tackle Madagascar's defeat by French-led Senegalese troops and its strong Indonesian strain, respectively. But this decade-marking retrospective of tuneful hits and apt remixes is just easy to like, a gratifying achievement for a band that's often too ingratiating. A-
TV on the Radio: Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go, 2004) Intelligent, honest, and original ought to be enough. But in fact there are acres, tons, and years of bad art that share these virtues, especially if "original" is interpreted generously, which it better be with the world's hundredth or thousandth guitars-and-loops outfit. Really. Take-him-or-leave-him singer. No great shakes melodically or rhythmically. Approximately as insightful in re the exigencies of male-and-female as 50 years of male chauvinists before them. Always humorless, sometimes sententious. All told, pretty dull--unless you're so desperate that you'll sing hosanna for every piece of intelligent-honest-original that comes down the circuit. B
Vakoka: Introducing Vakoka (World Music Network, 2004) Madagascar supersession with Hanitra co-chairing--long on process, interactions their own reward ("Era," "Manigne"). *
The Veils: The Runaway Found (Rough Trade, 2004)
Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster (Emergent, 2004) Foster presaged rock and roll--"Oh! Susanna" was his "Louie Louie"--but rock and roll barely knows he existed. Except for John Prine drawling "My Old Kentucky Home" in gravelly tones no minstrel troupe would have stood for, the only fast one that does justice to Foster's uptempo mode is BR549's clog-stepped "Don't Bet Money on the Shanghai," about a Chinese fighting cock who decreased the songwriter's whiskey intake. Oh well--no point lamenting the rhythm sections of Nashville roots fanciers, and anyway, like most pop tunesmiths Foster was what the word says, a melody man first. As a result, normally snoozeworthy schoolteachers like Judith Edelman, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and David Ball, who does his level best to help us forget that "Old Folks at Home" ever had anything to do with darkies, fit the bill on this worthy effort to reclaim the master for the American vernacular. Inauthentically quaint here (a santour, a toumbak, and an armonica pop up, and once Foster's antiquity is signified by a now extinct guitar not yet invented when he was alive) and anachronistically subtle there (before the microphone, even parlor singers pro-jec-ted), it nevertheless feels more or less the way one suspects Foster must have. Special kudos to Henry Kaiser and Mavis Staples for making their weirdness and grit blend right in. A-
The Rough Guide to Gypsy Swing (World Music Network, 2004) Django Reinhardt towers so high over this style that he takes four of 21 tracks on a multi-artist comp with no other repeats, and wrote two others. Maybe "Gypsy swing" isn't a style at all--just a bunch of tribute bands. Yet its master proves far easier to emulate than Jimi Hendrix or Jerry Garcia, in part because his followers bypass his excitable youth for the sophisticated background music of his post-WW II decline. Reinhardt was one of the first to welcome bebop's harmonic challenge while finessing its cultural threat--which makes him the kind of artist whose imitators segue smoothly from cut to cut on a collection like this one. B+
The Rough Guide to the Music of Venezuela (World Music Network, 2003) Folkier than necessary, which hurts the beats, though it probably helps the tunes (Simón Díaz, "Caballo Viejo"; Guaco, "Deshonestidad"). **
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