Rhapsody Streamnotes: February 2, 2008

Year-End Mop-Up (Part 3)

This is the third batch of short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, unfair to records that repay close attention, possibly too generous to ones that don't. I spent pretty much all of January pouring over year-end lists and picking out things that were well regarded and/or seemed interesting. I shut down the exercise as of Jan. 31, based on the calendar, diminishing returns, and the need to get back to real records, which in my case means jazz. By the time I posted my first two sets I figured I'd do one more. The first two netted 64 records. I now have 70 more. Seems like I should split them in two, so I'll post half now and the other half next week, possibly with some conclusions.

Porter Wagoner: Wagonmaster (2007, Anti-): Never really a great country singer, but for many years his TV show was the quintessential representation of everything I grew up loving and hating about country music. This last shot before he died is in many ways typical of his albums -- the songs are a little weird and out of place, his singing is weathered but not too battered. That they hold together so well is another irony. He rarely did that at album length, so I figure whoever produced helped out. B+(***)

John Anderson: Easy Money (2007, Warner Bros.): His rich, leathery voice hasn't lost a thing. He's got a few better than average songs as well, but "A Woman Knows" doesn't fit his voice, and "Funky Country" is pretty empty as anthems go. Still, he is a pretty funky country singer. And it don't hurt to have Willie Nelson pitch in on the closer. B+(*)

Merle Haggard: The Bluegrass Sessions (2007, McCoury): The label is presumably associated with Del McCoury, but I don't see any credits to McCoury or his band. The name guests are Marty Stuart and Alison Krauss. Most of Haggard's songs are old standbys, including three with "Momma"/"Mama" in the title and a typical political lament "What Happened." Nothing here he couldn't do in his sleep. B+(*)

Antsy McClain and the Trailer Park Troubadours: Trailercana (2007, DPR): AMG classifies this as comedy, but I'll file it under country, which is close enough. He's not an intrinsically funny singer, so the words have to work extra hard. Sometimes they do ("I Was Just Flipped Off by a Silver Haird Old Lady With a 'Honk If You Love Jesus' Sticker on the Bumper of Her Car"), sometimes his observations amount to something ("Joan of Arkansas"), and once he gets an anthem worth savoring ("Living in Aluminum"). B+(*)

Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer (2007, Vanguard): Haven't heard any of his scattered solo albums, but the voice remains recognizable, despite the years and throat cancer. Four of the first five songs are by Traditional, the other by Steve Earle. "False Hearted Lover Blues" is surefire; "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" is more of a stretch. No originals, but not a cover album either. More like a way of staking out that he's still around. B+(**)

Jason Isbell: Sirens of the Ditch (2007, New West): Solo debut from a former member of the Drive-By Truckers. Never bothered to figure out who's who there, but I vaguely recall at least one other solo spinoff [Patterson Hood], while the band carries on and I've seen some reports of a pretty good album out soon [Brighter Than Creation's Dark]. Countryish, but the music stretches out more, to let the writing unfold gradually. B+(*)

Ryan Adams: Easy Tiger (2007, Lost Highway): Prolific singer-songwriter, with something like 9 albums since 2000. Has the tools to do convincing alt-country, but has a tendency toward pointless rock bombast -- "Halloweenhead" is an extreme example. A couple of songs work nicely, but even so you wish he was smarter or funnier or had a better eye or ear. C+

Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha (2007, Fat Possum): Came in 28th in the Idolator poll, 3rd highest of those I didn't anticipate. I hadn't noticed him until a 2005 record made a run on the polls, didn't hear that one, didn't recall the special pleading in Christgau's dismissive review of it, and misunderestimated him. The first few cuts are enchanting. Bird is a singer-songwriter with an arty flair for arranging, a trend I don't particularly care for, except when it really works. Bird comes close. This drags a bit when he gets orchestral -- his first instrument is violin, so he may get some comfort there -- but it is consistently listenable. He's smart enough he never pushes an idea too far. B+(**)

Beirut: The Flying Club Cup (2007, Ba Da Bing!): Vehicle for a young singer-songwriter named Zach Condon, who plies a bit of gypsy accordion for rolling, lilting melodies that sound vaguely European without getting too specific. I understand his previous album had more brass. This one is pleasantly nondescript. B

Björk: Volta (2007, Atlantic): I suppose she's an SFFR, a project I'm not at all anxious to get into. Before this, I've heard two albums: Homogenic (1997) and Vespertine (2001), which got B and C- respectively. I don't remember either, but it's safe to say they left me confused as much as anything else. I'm confused here too, but at least I can credit two songs I want to hear again. They both have hard, angular beats and repeat their titles extensively: "Earth Intruders" and, better still, "Declare Independence." Not sure what to do with the rest of it, but I've heard worse. B+(**)

Caribou: Andorra (2007, Merge): An alias for Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Snaith, previously known as Manitoba until Handsome Dick took offense. AMG classifies as electronica with shoegaze influences, but also refers to it as dream pop, which sounds about right. The idea here is that high-pitched sounds are intrinsically pretty. That may be, but they wear thin after a while. B

Dizzee Rascal: Maths + English (2007, XL): Foreign language rap is all the more dependent on the beats, which here are hard and grimey, without a lot of texture. Not really a foreign language here, just a tough accent to follow -- first song that I figure I get is called "Suk My Dick," and I take it to be funny as well as outrageous. There's more like that, mostly a shade subtler. You get used to it after a while. B+(**)

Bloc Party: A Weekend in the City (2007, Vice/Atlantic): English rock group. I liked their 2005 album Silent Alarm, which had a more electronic feel plus a bit of politics, both missing in this more conventional follow-up. Still sounds agreeably crisp, and I can't swear there isn't more substance to it. B

3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia (2007, Shanachie): The lead singers aren't household names. In fact, I barely recognize the groups they led: Russell Thompkins Jr. (Stylistics), Ted Mills (Blue Magic), William Hart (Delfonics). Not sure of their claim as tenors either -- their real specialty is falsetto. I'm not sure they appear on every track either: Rhapsody credits Bilal, Average White Band, and Hall & Oates, while AMG lists them as guest spots. In any case, this is a remarkable slice of classic Philly soul. Biggest caveat I have is that "Fantasy" merely recalls the EW&F original. B+(***)

Von Südenfed: Tromatic Reflexxions (2007, Domino): This sounded familiar, but it took me a while to get past Public Image Ltd., which AMG cites as an influence, and zero in on the Fall. Shouldn't have taken so long, given that the vocalist is the Fall's own Mark E. Smith, working with a couple of Mouse on Mars guys: Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner. Have heard of but don't know the latter group. Quasi-industrial electronica, with a punk background but a more measured pulse. Some lyrics in German -- for me that just helps frame the joke. Trails off a bit toward the end, which may just require further study. One thing that is worth noting is that this has fared better in the polls than the Fall's own new and quite good record. That's probably because the label hustles more to get their records out to reviewers. That's always a subtext in year end polls. B+(***)

Marnie Stern: In Advance of the Broken Arm (2006 [2007], Kill Rock Stars): I half like this annoying singer-guitarist and/or her eponymous group. Thrash noise, loud, garish, cartoonish. Reportedly she was inspired by Sleater-Kinney, which explains everything and nothing. B

Kevin Drew: Spirit If . . . (2005-07 [2007], Arts & Crafts): Solo spinoff from the group Broken Social Scene, which is enough of a draw that the cover touts "Broken Social Scene Presents:" above Drew's name. Soft-voiced singer-songwriter, although some pieces are band-framed -- I only vaguely recall BSS, thinking they're some kind of punk/political. Can't follow the words here -- probably my fault, something I'm never much good at -- but it's likely he has something to say. "Frightening Lives" is a choice cut. B+(**)

1990s: Cookies (2007, Rough Trade): Pop-punk trio from Glasgow, related to a hadn't heard of called Yummy Fur. They sound much like the Strokes and their various progenitors, with a mischievous streak. First three cuts blow me away, and most that follows is solidly enjoyable. Could finish higher with a few more plays. B+(***)

Brakes: The Beatific Visions (2007, Rough Trade): This sometimes gets attributed to "brakesbrakesbrakes" -- one of those cover tics that causes all sorts of confusion. Presumably this is the same group that recorded the countryish Give Blood in 2005, which I liked but haven't played since I filed it. This one doesn't sound countryish. More of a singer-songwriter album with something to say and an easy way of putting it over. Several lines caught my ear, like the one about the politics of fear. B+(***)

The Cribs: Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever (2007, Warner Brothers): Yorkshire Brit group, three brothers, guitar hooks, some smarts. I'm most impressed by the odd song out, a political talkie over steady riffs called "Be Safe." Otherwise, they are formidably rockish. Includes songs named "Men's Needs" and "Women's Needs," but no "Whatever" -- must be the rest. B+(**)

Electrelane: No Shouts No Calls (2006 [2007], Too Pure): British band, from Brighton, mostly (or all) female. Has an agreeably light, relaxed, jangly keyb/guitar sound that sails past you without demanding much in the way of attention. B+(*)

Peter Evans: The Peter Evans Quartet (2007, Firehouse 12): I haven't really reconciled myself to using Rhapsody to make up for the jazz records I don't get, but crusing through the year-end data I noticed this, typed it into the search box, and found the record. Evans came to my attention in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, a leading candidate for Jazz CG pick hit slot. The quartet includes Kevin Shea on drums (also in MOPDTK), Brandon Seabrook on guitar (also in Alex Kontorovich's quartet, with another A- record), and Tom Blancarte on bass. A lot of quick flutter in the trumpet here, as if Evans is trying to simulate a fuzzy logic approximation or dislocation of standard changes. B+(***)

DJ Spooky: Creation Rebel (2007, Trojan/Sanctuary): Here Paul Miller gets his shot at remixing Trojan's reggae catalog, and has a lot of fun with it. Some items are noteworthy in their own right, like Mutabaruka's "Dis Poem"; some definitely pick up on the extra swoosh Spooky delivers. One cut didn't show up on Rhapsody: someone named Bob Marley. B+(***)

Nublu Orchestra Conducted by Butch Morris (2006 [2007], Nublu): Don't know enough about group/record, but as far as I can make out, Nublu is a club on Avenue C in New York and a label which has at least this one record out. The group includes "band-members from Brazilian Girls, Wax Poetic, Kudu, Forro in the Dark, I Led Three Lives, and Love Trio and regular Nublu guests Graham Haynes and Eddie Henderson"; evidently, they get together and Butch Morris points his baton and conducts their improvisations. I haven't spent the time to digest the Morris oeuvre -- above all the 10-CD Testament: A Conduction Collection -- but any doubts I had about his skill at taking large groups of musicians and getting them to play in tightly measured cycles were put to rest with Billy Bang's Vietnam recordings. This only furthers his case. Small bits of vocals add to the multicultural cross-genre milieu, but most of this consists of long groove pieces with a bit of avant noise. If I were jazz prospecting I'd bracket the grade until I let this settle in more, but I don't have much in the way of caveats. I'll try to look into this further. A-

Liars (2007, Mute): Rock band, hard and dense but not all that metalic. I've seen them listed as dance-punk or art-punk, neither making much sense, except perhaps for their elemental sense of melody. First album was called They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. Fourth album suggests they've run out of titles, and maybe ideas as well. B-

New Pornographers: Challengers (2007, Matador): Semi-supergroup, not that the independent members have ever done all that much on their own. Together they have four albums now. I never got any of them, and have long since ceased to care. This one strikes me as lighter but more belabored. People who care might find it appealing. B

Tegan and Sara: The Con (2007, Vapor): Twin sisters from Canada, on their fourth album. They may have been folkier early on because folk music requires so little capital, but by now they're accomplished popsmiths, writing catchy tunes with mature smarts. B+(**)

Bonde do Rolê: With Lasers (2007, Domino): A Brazilian baile funk group, cleaned up for American audiences by DJ Diplo. This takes a while to get all the gears meshing -- if the lead off "Dança do Zumbi" translates as dance of the zombies the awkwardness may be cartoonishly deliberate, but around midway "Marina Gasolina" combusta and then we're into "Caminhao de Gas," which probably doesn't translate as cooking with gas, not that it matters. B+(**)

Amy Winehouse: Frank (2003 [2007], Universal): First album, came out in UK when she was 20, but she sounds much older with her odd jazz stylings -- scat on the opener, a few extended vamps, a bit of classic vocalese ("Moody's Mood for Love"). But the jazz is more like an affectation, not something she feels like sustaining. Inconsistent song selection plagued her breakthrough Back to Black as well, but there it seemed more like the classic singles/filler problem. Here it's a way of life. B+(*)

Wiley: Playtime Is Over (2007, Big Dada): English grime rapper, not as splashy beatwise as Dizzee Rascal, but similar, if anything faster with the words. Besides, aren't grime beats supposed to be sort of minimalist? B+(*)

Talib Kweli: Eardrum (2007, Blacksmith/Warner Brothers): He combines underground consciousness and/or smarts with mainstream connections, and he's steady enough that he's able to bridge guest stars from Kanye West to UGK to KRS-One while keeping on top of his album, maintaining a consistency that may be his real weakness. Some good stuff here. I like a refrain that goes: "it's bad here on earth but if we don't get to heaven it's hell." One called "More or Less" advocates more peace and less war, also "more Beyoncé, less Britney." B+(***)

Mac Lethal: 11:11 (2007, Rhymesayers Entertainment): White rapper, from Kansas City, KS. I'm not sure why Christgau thinks that, as oppposed to KC MO, makes a difference, other than that KC KS is blacker (somewhat) and poorer (a lot), but I'll grant that it makes a difference he's not from Overland Park, let alone Leawood or Olathe. I was sucked in when he decided to keep his KS accent, and when he said he wouldn't go to church until the Chiefs win the Super Bowl. (I didn't even go then, but he wasn't born yet.) His beats and rhymes remind me a bit of Buck 65 -- less intellectual, coarser, more KS. Has a touching song about growing old. Sounds like he's gonna stick around. A-

Sage Francis: Human the Death Dance (2007, Epitaph): Another white rapper, from Miami, one of Non-Prophets, which had a pretty good record out in 2003. Has a couple of previous albums. Smart, witty, gives a damn, given to poetics, but also inclined to get theoretical. Beats deft but unlikely to move you. B+(**)

Lifesavas: Gutterfly (2007, Quannum Projects): Portland underground rap duo, known individually as Vursatyl and Jumbo the Garbageman -- although looks like three guys on the cover. Good first album, Spirit in Stone (2003). This one is a soundtrack to an unfinished blaxploitation movie. A bit narrow beatwise and complicated plotwise. B+(*)

Devin the Dude: Waitin' to Inhale (2007, Rap-A-Lot): Houston rapper, originally from Florida, takes it slow and doesn't miss a lick. Sample line: "seems like everything on her body is melted together." I suppose the coughs on "Nothin' to Roll With" are meant to be responsible, but it's basically a blues. B+(**)

T-Pain: Epiphany (2007, Jive): Tallahassee rapper, second album, has a couple of singles peaks ("Church") but runs thin, or long, or both -- "Reggae Night" is especially sloppy. Before hip-hop he'd be a soul singer, just not an especially good one. B

Chuck D & the Slamjamz Artist Revue: Tribb to JB (2007, Slamjamz): Christgau attributed this to The Peeps of Soulfunk, which looks plausible enough, at least from the front cover. Might as well file it under Chuck D, although James Brown is sampled enough to claim a credit as well as the cover. Awesome much of the time, but no match for the original, nor for what D can do on his own. Chuck D does toss some well-aimed grenades, such as: "that's the Bush for you/always chasing the dollar." B+(**)