Rhapsody Streamnotes: April 17, 2008

Music Year 2008 in Progress

After finishing the Jazz Consumer Guide, I wanted a bit of a change of pace. Don't get much non-jazz anymore, but I have an account at Rhapsody, so I thought I'd check out some new 2008 records. These are snap judgments, based on usually one, rarely two plays. Every now and then I find Rhapsody doesn't have a track, so that's one more caveat. I still consider packaging important too, and that's missing. So these aren't much more than educated guesses. I imagine that some of the records would get better with more exposure, but that most won't, and there may even be some cases where I've erred on the favorable side.

I'll probably do this again every 2-3 months, especially given that I've already started putting together a Year End List Mentions file, as well as my standard Year End List.

Hot Chip: Made in the Dark (2008, Astralwerks): English group, electronic beats, not so fast or fancy as to move them into the techno category, especially given that they set cogent pop songs to them. Multiple voices, none prepossessing. Several previous albums, including remixes. One line I recall: "I'm only going to heaven if it feels like hell/I'm only going to heaven if it tastes like caramel." B+(***)

Drive-By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation's Dark (2007 [2008], New West): Nineteen songs here, what would have been a double-LP in the old days, and like such hard to get your head around it all. Especially given that the tunes are merely as good as they have to be to support the words, and that I've never been much good at focusing on the words. But most I notice, with "Bob" and "Lisa's Birthday" and "Crystal Meth" and several others sinking in. I hear Jason Isbell is gone, and girl singer Shonna Tucker pops up on a couple of occasions, a curve I didn't expect and didn't swing at. On the other hand, Christgau praised this, taking the occasion to pan A Blessing and a Curse once more -- a record I liked just fine. This is as good, maybe better. A-

The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (2008, Nonesuch): Never much of a fan of 69 Love Songs, I find Stephin Merritt's wit insufficiently funny, his songcraft too arch, his voice -- well, it's too arch, too. His new move here is lo-fi distortion, which has its moments -- the "California Girls" he hates so much is one. But it also muddies even the lyrics, where "Zombie Boy" sounds so much like "Tommie" I take it personally. Too much drinking. Not enough dreaming. B+(**)

Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend (2008, XL): New rock group, got some notices for their EP last year, setting up their eponymous debut. Tries to get by on brains and culture, including cops from reggae and afropop (one song called "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" shows their erudition but lacks a convincing beat). Singer commands little presence, and the keyboards mush up the sound a bit, so the brains and culture are saving graces. B+(***)

Los Campesinos!: Hold on Now, Youngster . . . (2008, Arts & Crafts): Welsh group, hyperactive punk-pop with shades of circus music, both male and female lead singers, exceedingly clever. Not something I normally like, more like something I'd rather admire infrequently from a distance, but then it's not close to normal in any regard. I hate to say it, but what I am likely to return for is to decipher a few more lyrics. Some intriguing wit there. But I do think they're way too young to use a word like "youngster." B+(***)

Be Your Own Pet: Get Awkward (2008, Ecstatic Peace): I liked their eponymous intro album -- not sure if it was their first, but it was definitely their coming out party. This one is much more awkward, their crunch moving toward metal, their themes moving toward horror movies. B

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Real Emotional Trash (2007 [2008], Matador): Malkmus seemed such an inept singer, and his melodies seemed so strangely constructed, with big loops and curlicues where anyone else would aim for a straight line, that he made it seem miraculous whenever anything worked at all. I've gone up and down on Pavement albums, with one topping a year-end list, and others I never managed to be able to deal with. Solo, he seems to have settled into a more consistent state -- his singing has steadied, anyway, but here the melodies are as loopy as ever. First couple caused me a lot of agita, but the more moderate "Cold Son" started to zone in, and the title track works out as a generous 10:08 band exercise. Another record that needs more time than I can (or really want to) give it. Those who do are likely to like it a lot. B+(***)

Shelby Lynne: Just a Little Lovin' (2008, Lost Highway): Probably shouldn't bother, given that Rhapsody is only providing 6 of 10 songs. Still, the concept is straightforward: songs picked out of Dusty Springfield's songbook, which Lynne sets as firmly in Memphis as ever. Probably pretty easy to guess the rest. B+(*)

Van Morrison: Keep It Simple (2008, Lost Highway): Reasonable sentiments, admirably executed. Not an exceptional album, at least by his standards; by anyone else's would be another story. Already I regret not picking up a copy when I saw it on sale. On the other hand, I doubt that I would pick it from the shelf over, say, Days Like This, let alone Down the Road. Still wouldn't mind hearing this any time, and expect a song or two to show up on another late, great best-of. B+(***)

Akrobatik: Absolute Value (2008, Fat Beats): Underground rapper, from Boston, had a good debut album in 2003 called Balance, then popped up with an even better one in a group called the Perceptionists. But this one seems like a scattered mess, starting off with old style guest autohype, waking up midstream to overly obvious politics (Katrina strikes again), eventually stumbling onto some minimalist beats that hold up the underground aesthetic. B+(*)

Moby: Last Night (2008, Mute): Working famililar territory here, although he seems reluctant to pick a sample that stamps an indelible hook, or to push his grooves beyond the well established of his trademark sound. That's OK, but not by much. B+(**)

DeVotchKa: A Mad and Faithful Telling (2008, Anti-): Denver rock group, draws on Eastern Europe for its sound, but not charged hard enough for gypsy punk. With violin or accordion, a bass player who doubles on sousaphone, a guitarist-singer who plays some trumpet. B+(***)

Kathleen Edwards: Asking for Flowers (2008, Zoë): Singer-songwriter, from Canada, sings OK, can write a little, with a countryish eye for realistic detail, and ordinary melodies that can be pumped up or aired out. B+(*)

Willie Nelson: Moment of Forever (2008, Lost Highway): Scattered songs, a couple by Nelson himself, but most picked up from hither and yon, most unfamiliar to me -- "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Louisiana" the exceptions -- done haphazardly which doesn't preclude a marvelous performance but doesn't guarantee one either. Picks up a duet partner on "Worry B Gone" (producer Kenny Chesney?). B+(*)

Erykah Badu: New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War (2008, Universal Motown): Complex, fractured funk. Took a while for it to start to kick in -- "Soldier" was one I noticed, most likely because it's relatively simple and straightforward. The sort of album that takes more time than I can allocate, but some rough spots make me wonder. Missing one cut. B+(***)

Raheem DeVaughn: Love Behind the Melody (2008, 128/Jive/Zomba): Neo-soul singer, second album, sounds slick and sexy, capable of waxing porn, but songs are pretty weak, forced metaphors propped up with some overly obvious samples. Son of jazz cellist Abdul Wadud, who used to play with Julius Hemphill. B

Toumast: Ishumar (2007 [2008], Real World): Saharan group, Tuareg to be more specific, not sure where leader Mousa Ag Keyna and his cousin Aminatou Goumar come from -- Algeria is my best guess -- but the group formed in Paris, and Christgau reports that Dan Levy is the secret ingredient. Like many Sarahan groups, they seem to fit a straighter rock mold than either the Africans to the south or the Arabs and Berbers to the north, so this is short on flashy, fancy beats, but stable and winning at its chosen speed. One some ("Innulamane") in English, way out of line from everything else except in tone, but it's a good one. A-

Del Tha Funkee Homosapien: Eleventh Hour (2008, Definitive Jux): Fifth album since 1991, first since 2008. Del was underground before the genre sorted itself out: loose, funky, clever, constructive. Beats here are suitably unhinged, with a broad grin of a rap voice. They got me foot tapping, but not many words are registering. B+(**)

Foals: Antidotes (2008, Sub Pop): English rock group, from Oxford I think. Rhapsody listed them as "alt dance" -- probably because they have a beat. AMG classifies them as "new wave/post-punk revival" and something I've never heard of called "math rock." Maybe that means they program their beats. Singer sounds arch, educated, alienated. Does remind me of some new wave groups, ranging from Fashion to the Auteurs, but neither the beat nor the whine are world class. Two "bonus tracks" at the end -- UK singles "Hummer" and "Matheletics" -- are better; mostly because they're denser, you feel that something is at stake, like their careers. B+(*)

Carlene Carter: Stronger (2008, Yep Roc): No matter what, she has a name and legacy to fall back on, to pick her up when she crashes. Her early rock records didn't offer much more than cutesy rebellion, as her reprise of "I'm So Cool" (from Musical Shapes) shows. But she had a good run of records from 1990-95, starting with I Fell in Love. This is her first since then. Did it the hard way, writing all the songs. Mostly somber stuff, which is to say more conventionally country. She's entitled to the title cliché, but that doesn't mean we have to honor it. Her voice is converging on her mother's, but she's still short a sense of humor. B

The Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely (2008, Warner Bros.): Touted as a supergroup, but Brendan Benson is just a name I've vaguely heard of, and the Greenhomes is a band I'm pretty sure I hadn't heard of, leaving White Stripe Jack White, who contributes enough to make this feel like more than a throwaway side project. Seems like a lot of talent, but not put to any use I find interesting. Only thing I glommed onto was "Rich Kid Blues," which seems à propos, and not a plus. Cover looks rustic, like they'd like to be 2008's The Band. B

Hayes Carll: Trouble in Mind (2008, Lost Highway): Singer-songwriter from Texas. Hadn't heard of him when his second album, Little Rock, showed up in the mail, one of the most refreshing pieces of country songwriting I've heard in years. This one goes for cheaper jokes, but "Drunken Poet's Dream" is Bukowski for hicks, and "She Left Me for Jesus" is quotable from beginning to end: "She's given up whiskey and taken up wine/While she prays for his trouble she's forgot about mine/I'm gonna get even I can't handle the shame/Why last time we made love she even called out his name/She left me for Jesus and that just ain't fair/She says that he's perfect how could I compare/She says I should find him and I'll know peace at last/If I ever find Jesus I'm kickin' his ass." Not as consistent as Todd Snider, but pulling away from Guy Clark. A- [later: A]

Ashton Shepherd: Sounds So Good (2008, MCA Nashville): Born 1986, sounds much older -- guess we should give her credit for not trying to pass as jailbait. Voice isn't weathered so much as darkly operatic, with an occasional yodel trying to get out. Drinks a lot; sings about it, anyway. Wish I thought she enjoyed it more. Age 21 is pretty young to congratulate yourself that you're not dead yet. C+

The Mountain Goats: Heretic Pride (2008, 4AD): Unable to really focus on the words, I note that this is finely structured and uncommonly balanced, even with the instrumentation varying significantly from song to song. The lyrics are likely to add something. One I fretted over a bit was a line about Israel in "Sept. 15, 1983" -- turns out the memorable date was the death of Michael James Williams, better known as Prince Far I. A-

Kevin Ayers: The Unfairground (2007, Gigantic): A personal, rather idiosyncratic interest of mine, one I backtracked from his June 1, 1974 live album with Eno and Nico to his central role on the first Soft Machine album, finding a number of pieces of brilliant pataphysical kitsch along the way. The last really good album he did was 1976's Yes We Have No Mañanas (a fitting successor to 1973's Bananamour). I notice that my database skips several later albums that I no longer own and barely remember, and even I stopped buying them at some point -- 1983's Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain is the last title I recall, excepting a See for Miles compilation from 1990. This new record is what you'd call a return to form. Ayers' songwriting toolkit is rather limited, with many timeworn melodies recycled once again. His voice is droll and he ambles through the lyrics. Not as funny nor as absurd as in his heyday, but much the same feel. B+(*)

Les Amazones de Guinée: Wamato (2008, Sterns Africa): Formed in 1961 as the official band of the Guinean police force, as the name suggests, all female. I ran across the name before in reference to former members Sona Diabaté and M'Mah Sylla, who aimed for a dry, folkish Sahel sound. Not so here, where the group rocks out, in Mande riddims that split the distance between Nigeria and Senegal minus the idiosyncrasies of either. A- [later: A]

Dolly Parton: Backwoods Barbie (2008, Dolly): She wrote 9 of 12 songs this time, including one good enough it wouldn't disgrace her best-of. It's called "I Will Forever Hate Roses," and I wouldn't be surprised if George Jones finds out about it. It's also the only stone cold country tune here. A couple more might pass, but not the unfeminist title cut, nor the one called "Shinola" that only reminds you of the missing word. Two of three covers wreck any assertions that she's returning to country from pop: "Drives Me Crazy" (from Fine Young Cannibals, words a bit mangled) and "The Tracks of My Tears" (Smokey Robinson). The third cover is called "Jesus & Gravity" -- you know, lifts me up, pulls me down, follows up on "Backwoods Barbie"'s push-up bra. Done with a gospel chorus. Sure shot for her worst-of tape. AMG reports that there are also exclusive editions for Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy, so your mileage may vary. C

Sheryl Crow: Detours (2008, A&M): The acoustic opener, "God Bless This Mess," could refer to the album as well as the state of the world. Unlike her, I never found any comfort in Bush's post-9/11 words -- I knew then that the immediate horror would only be amplified in the months and years to come. Then she moves from folkie to arena rocker with "Shine Over Babylon" -- God's answer record? It's pretty tedious, but she starts shuffling in Latin rhythms and odd twists. While she's never been mistaken for a deep thinker, she's on to something in her post-peak oil "Gasoline" where she recognizes, "we'll be the last to recognize where there's shit there's always flies." (Previous line: "cause the money's in the pipeline and the pipeline's running dry.") That's not the only point of interest, either music or theme. Would take some time to sort out the mess, even the one contained within the album. B+(**)

The Teenagers: Reality Check (2008, XL): French synthpop group, sing in English, an achievement that makes them sound a good deal more mature than the American standard for their namesakes -- compare the much rougher and more hormone-disturbed Be Your Own Pet. More like old new wave, with the guy playing with his newfound toy "fuck" and the girl shying away from it. The beats translate better than the ballads. B+(*)

Morcheeba: Dive Deep (2008, Ultra): Appeared in the mid-1990s as a dance group with a sharp beat. A half dozen albums later they're evoking comparisons to Portishead. I don't find them quite that dead ass, but they've lost much of their edge -- "stop chasing shadows just enjoy the ride" is a refrain with enough of a beat to get you somewhere, but not what you'd call a thrill. B

The Raveonettes: Lust Lust Lust (2008, Vice): Danish duo. I think the name comes from Buddy Holly's "Rave On." Sometimes they give off a whiff of 1950s rock 'n' roll, but at this point the band they most resemble is Jesus and Mary Chain, with the fuzzed guitar pushed a bit further toward industrial. It's an effective sound when they push it hard enough. B+(**)

The Service Industry: Limited Coverage (2008, Sauspop): Austin TX group. Heard the singer is from KS, but haven't managed to find much info on them. Most of the songs are about work, less because of any intrinsic interest than because it takes up so much time there's not much else to think or talk about. B+(**)

The Five Blind Boys of Alabama: Down in New Orleans (2008, Time Life): Presumably this is new, although the group with various personnel changes goes back to 1939, and only a couple of the songs were written more recently -- Earl King's "Make a Better World" and Curtis Mayfield's "A Prayer" go back quite a ways. Allen Toussaint produced, giving it a New Orleans undertow, helped out by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band -- great to hear that tuba. Songs are classic ("Free at Last," "You Got to Move," "Uncloudy Day," "Down by the Riverside"). None are spectacular, but that in itself is refreshing, given the current state of gospel hysteria. B+(**)

Clinic: Do It! (2008, Domino): English rock group, fifth album since 2000, would be alt-indie here, but come off a bit more metallic, bending guitar notes instead of letting them fall. Have a reputation, including Christgau HM on first two, A- on next two. Not something I normally care for, but tantalizing enough to get a second play, which got a bit better. Some day they might be worth investigating. B+(**)

Lyrics Born: Everywhere at Once (2008, Anti-): Great album in 2003 (Later That Day), recycled for a good one in 2005. This one has good stuff on it, but doesn't seem comfortable with itself -- several songs feel like they're angled for airplay but split off in different directions. No doubt about his talent, just about what it's good for. B+(**)

Dengue Fever: Venus on Earth (2008, M80): LA alt-rock band, fronted by Cambodian pop singer Chhom Nimol, sometimes singing in Khmer. As one who often has trouble with rock vocals, this doesn't seem much out of the ordinary to me. The music is new wavish, swooping rather than punchy, with occasional east Asian tics, some quite enchanting. B+(**)