Getting Them Straight

Alt-rock continues both strong and resistant—except for the cheap and easy Chicks on Speed, all the entries in that vague category A-listed below took a lot of listening to get straight. Including Shelby Lynne.


The Apples in Stereo
The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone(SpinArt)

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Alternative young people may need all the Beatles/Spector-Wilson/Zep-Sly foofaraw to grasp a band who avoid roots sound effects yet put songwriting first. To me they're just syncretic, like all pop if you listen deep, only here shallow will do fine. In typical Elephant Six fashion, they're busy and fussy and can't stop their minds from wandering. But with Robert Schneider fixing the holes, the lyrics swirl around sensibly and the formidable tunesmithing never goes down the drain. Nostalgic and in love with love, he's as American as all get-out or Steve Earle. A MINUS


Chicks on Speed
Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All!(Chicks on Speed)

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With the effective pop audience spanning 50 years and myriad interlocking taste cultures, early-'80s nostalgia isn't current—it's just a wrinkle in the gestalt. Nor will those who embrace B-52's-to–"Mind Your Own Business" but not Euro-to-electro orMalaria-to–"Warm Leatherette" be especially thrilled by these smart young things' taste or concept—except insofar as the smart young things are thrilled themselves, which in matters of revival makes all the difference. Sexy Malaria song, girls. Nifty new early-'80s Euro-electro originals, too. A MINUS


De La Soul
Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump(Tommy Boy)

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Once pranksters whose greatest pleasure was disrupting the groove they adored, they've evolved into hip-hop's purest musicians. Partly our ears have changed and partly theirs have, so that their brilliant hunches now sound like glowing accomplishments. As they leapfrog around from Busta to Beastie, from herky-jerk drum and bass to diva anthem, from playground old-school to love-men ballad, this holds steady as the Temptations album of dreams, with Smokey and Holland-Dozier-Holland playing king-of-the-mountain and James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin doing God's work below. The lyrics are intelligent of course, clever and moral and street-conscious and just gnomic enough, but their art is in their beats and flow and tunes too. Hip-hop as a great black music, as amenable as jazz itself to young turks turned old masters. A MINUS


Eminem
The Marshall Mathers LP(Aftermath Ent./Interscope)

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Unless you hope to convince the platinum hordes that you live on Mars, there's even less point moralizing about this one than there was with the last. Right, Marshall Whoever is homophobic; right, he breathes. In context, the worst thing about his casual fag-baiting is that it's at once so received—like the shock-horror his boys envision in "Amityville," the one provocation here whose boundaries are predictable—and, because he's a devastating wordslinger in every context, so hurtful anyway. But the real Slim Whoever seems far more deeply disturbed about stardom, drugs, his marriage, and boning his mom—which latter, like it or not, is the fantasy (or whatever) that sets all the rest up, a big fat fuck you to the black culture Eminem respects and owes so explicitly, for if Snoop or Too Short or DMX would never say such a thing, just how bad can they be? Disable your prejudgment button and you'll hear a work of art whose immense entertainment value in no way compromises its intimations of a pathology that's both personal and political, created by one of those charming rogues you encounter so much more often on the page—exceptionally witty and musical, discernibly thoughtful and good-hearted, indubitably dangerous and full of shit. He may yet give a fuck—he has it in him. But not on anyone else's terms or timetable. A


Shelby Lynne
I Am Shelby Lynne(Island)

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Epistemologically, one tough cookie. A trailer-trash blonde as down-home-and-crazy as George Jones who cut five country albums on the strength of a voice that turned out to have nothing on her writing, Lynne radiates roots signifiers. Yet though her music avoids all shows of pomo dissociation, the harder you listen the more rootless her mix-and-match rock-etc. sounds. Even more than, speak of the devil, Garth Brooks, she's a creature of the recording industry and the smorgasbord-of-the-air it's laid out everywhere. Are the emotions she displays so pithily as synthetic in the end as her harmonica-with-strings or steel/slide guitar? Does that make them less real? Do she or her fans want to know? A MINUS


Modest Mouse
The Moon and Antarctica(Epic)

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Production notwithstanding, the major-label move is the lyric sheet, which situates their circular minor-key riffs in a congruent worldview: eternal recurrence as infinite regress as cosmic bummer. Isaac Brock may be every bit the ass he claims, but basically he seems chagrined that he was ever so inept or unlucky as to get caught up in this, as the saying goes, downward spiral. And unlike other rock pessimists we might name, he's so modest about it that he ends up with an uplifting representation of human life as damn shame. A MINUS


Nelly
Country Grammar(Universal)

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