A Very Good Year

Want to know why I do this, over and above it's a living? Because as of August 14 or so I thought it was a lousy year—until the grading discipline made me come to terms with just how good the new Sleater-Kinney, Mekons, and Spoon albums are.

THE APPLES IN STEREO
Velocity of Sound (SpinArt)
After years of taking the band name literally, I realized that not even Magical Mystery Tour was this arch. If Robert Schneider's falsetto affect evokes the '60s, it's such extreme cases as the Hollies of "Carrie-Anne" and the Small Faces of "Itchycoo Park," a narrow frame of reference even as formalism goes. Here it's played for teen ambience rather than musicianly musing. The gurl cameos help, as does the antigurl Beach Boys closer, but since the teens it speaks for are as imaginary as the era it honors, that Schneider (just barely) brings the conceit off is the usual tribute to his songwriting chops. If he had anything to say, he could be a contender. A MINUS

DEXTER'S LABORATORY: THE HIP-HOP EXPERIMENT
(Cartoon Network/Rhino)
With sci-fi a linchpin of hip-hop's nerd underground, a kiddie show gets it right for the ideal length of one EP. De La Soul are grownups who could have sent up "Sibling Rivalries" on their own, but both Coolio and a Black Eyed Pea to be spelled later benefit mightily from what Kool Moe Dee used to call sticking to themes. Also from cultivating what Kool Moe Dee didn't know enough to call innocence. A MINUS

MARIANNE FAITHFULL
Kissin Time(Virgin/Hut)
She's a professional sufferer, to be taken seriously as who she is rather than what she symbolizes. That said, and despite two dull Billy Corgan copyrights, these collaborations with the likes of Blur and Beck are her best bunch of songs since—not Broken English, that's ridiculous, but Strange Weather or A Child's Adventure. And that said, its peak is a ghost closer from the '60s, Goffin-King's supremely untortured "I'm Into Something Good"—inspired by Earl Jean's version, not Herman's Hermits', all feminists devoutly hope. B PLUS

ICE CUBE
Greatest Hits(Priority)
He's always been intelligent, and talented. What he hasn't always been is honest. So though I miss "Dead Homiez" and the late anomaly where he plays an ex-G in a wheelchair, and note that this garbage scow lists alarmingly when it takes on his 1998 and 2000 albums (both named War and Peace, after how hard it is to get through them), I'm grateful to be able to access so many of his best beats and rhymes without once hearing him incite a race riot or force a Catholic schoolgirl to lick his testicles. A MINUS

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO
Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape(Maverick)
Age increased the wisdom she trafficked in while familiarity cut into the sexual allure that ran the roadblocks. So here's hoping Madonna Inc. is as ready to forgive Ndegeocello's limited profitability as she is to not be a materialistic girl. Her basslines prove that unmaterialistic ain't immaterial, and without resorting to anything so obvious as a hook she manages to maintain continuity and interest over an hour-plus of poetry-with-funk. Quiet storm music for people who don't turn off their brains when they get down to bidness—at least not right away. A MINUS

PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES
Good Health(Lookout)
"All we are, all we are, all we are/Is trying not to fall into line," goes half of one song, and by dint of palpable effort and notable skill, this grrrlish Seattle neopostpunk quintet succeed—except insofar as neopostpunk sets a line of its own, of course. For three EPs now become one 27-minute CD, they thrash out herky-jerk bombardiering, guitar abrasions that won't go away, and themes, classic themes: alienation, separation, betrayal, all that negative intensity. The counterbalance is a golden age they strive to re-create in the present tense: "And nothing else matters/When I turn it up loud." Probably the struggle will prove too much in the end. But Fugazi has made a life of it—a life some pretty girls aspire to. A MINUS

RIZWAN-MUAZZAM QAWWALI
A Better Destiny(RealWorld)
You bet I A-shelved The Rough Guide to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Music Club's Ecstasy even better. Nevertheless, my basic attitude toward the prolific late great is enough already: We atheists need only so much Allah, and a little marginal differentiation helps the Sufism go down. I didn't notice the first two albums by this group, led by two more of Nusrat's numberless nephews, and I might like the first, by the label's account "traditional" rather than the "hypnotic fusion" of the Count Dubulah-aided follow-up. But when I grabbed this one blind, I had a reconversion experience. Even by qawwali standards Rizwan and Muazzam have big voices—rival nephew Rahat is distressingly reedy by comparison. They're at once more forceful and more eccentric than fraternal competitors the Sabri Brothers. And they're also lively, leaping higher and crazier than nephew Basrat on his latest speed-qawwali venture, the imaginatively titled Lost in Qawwali III. A MINUS

SPOON
Kill the Moonlight(Merge)
It's so reassuring when the indie rumor mill isn't just licking its own asshole. Britt Daniel and company's Merge-reissued 1998 Elektra cutout A Series of Sneaksdoesn't qualify as the instant pleasure hypesters claim. It's too spiky and too cryptic. But it certainly earned its cult, which was onto something much bigger than last year's Girls Can Tell, the breakthrough album skeptics like me took for a fluke peak: namely, this one. Eggo Johansen's piano-styled keybs mark the hooks as Daniel exploits the catch in his voice to establish a humane mood. There's even a thematic thread. If I was feeling cranky I might argue that songs about marginality will consign you to the margins every time. But the two titles that set the course, "Small Stakes" and "How We Get By," seem pretty universal to me. A


Pick Hit

MEKONS
OOOH! (Quarterstick)
Their best album in a decade doesn't exactly come up and give you a kiss. Half 9-11 fallout, half night thoughts of a band whose heyday is past, it begins with what seems a faux-folk trope until you realize that "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem" is also the new crusade, and ends with the impassive boast, "We pride ourselves that our memory/Will vanish from the memory of the world." It's slow, sour, dark, grimó obsessed with treachery, conflagration, and death. For years the Time Out of Mind fan club has been finding unfathomable fatalism in folk songs that rarely gather the grounded gravity sustained here. Inspirational Verse (really, think about it): "Everyday is a battle/How we still love the war." A


Pick Hit

SLEATER-KINNEY
One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)
Sleater-Kinney is one of three unapologetically political bands to respond to September 2001's world-change with August 2002 albums, and it's remarkable how different they are. The Mekons are cynical and defiant; Springsteen is spiritual and uplifting. Yet both seem worn out, as if neither defiance nor uplift can get them out of bed in the morning. Sleater-Kinney, on the other hand, go for defiant uplift and seem energized by the challenge. Probably it isn't the stance that energizes themóit's their energy that powers the stance. Not only are they a generation younger, they're riding the crest of a wild success burdened by neither the Mekons' quarter-century of subsistence nor Springsteen's felt responsibility to 10 million consumersónot to mention that Corin spent 2001 with her new baby, who plays a suitably small and crucial role in her September 11 song. Throughout they bubble and shriekóliterally in the opener, where Corin's "bubble in a sound wave" is the secret of both social and nuclear fusion, and in the career guitar line Carrie lays under "Oh!" Let "Step Aside" do its thing and you'll "shake a tail feather for peace and love" no matter what your weary self thinks of protest songs. A


Dud of the Month

DAVID BOWIE
Heathen(ISO/Columbia)
The "Bowie's back" huzzahs that accompany every one of this music mill's new releases beg the question of what he's back to and from. The reason Englishmen have actually touted him as the greatest rock artiste of all time is that he's the least American major rock artiste of all time, which is one reason his careful brand maintenance isn't filling any arenas over here. Just to be mean I compared his latest phoenix imitation to 1979's Lodger, a certified nonclassic I always kind of liked. Lodgerwon easy. He has indeed Learned to Sing, thus rendering himself more the chansonnier only art-rockers ever wanted him to be, and the strain is hell on his sense of humor. The textures are nicer now, but whose aren't? And while the songwriting ain't bad, it also ain't that good. Just switch between the Black Francis cover and any other track and you'll know exactly what I mean. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

HONORABLE MENTION: RJD2,Deadringer (Definitive Jux): Shadow lite, featuring a high keyb-to-bottom ratio, a Steve Reich moment, and a comic robot who's on both "izzle fa shizzle" and the grace of Christ ("Two More Dead," "The Horror"); Sonic Youth, Murray Street (DGC): the diligently realized sound of exhaustion ("Sympathy for the Strawberry," "Rain on Tin"); Rocket From the Tombs, The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs (Smog Veil): David Thomas and Peter Laughner rehearse and play out, rude and alive respectively ("Raw Power," "Never Gonna Kill Myself Again"); Supersuckers, Must've Been Live (Mid-Fi): alt-rock road dogs unleash country hoo-haw ("Good Livin'," "Hangin' Out With Me"); Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow (MCA): Words of Wisdom from Gift of Gab ("Sky Is Falling," "Release"); the Queers, Pleasant Screams (Lookout): paring down from "I Hate Your Fucking Guts," "I Just Called to Say Fuck You," "Journey to the Center of Your Empty Fucking Skull," "Stupid Fucking Vegan," "My Cunt's a Cunt," and "Just Say Cunt" to "See You Later Fuckface" in just two years! ("I Never Got the Girl," "Homo"); Linda Thompson, Fashionably Late (Rounder): relocating her folk roots with a male musical-domestic collaborator—her son Teddy ("Weary Life," "Dear Mary"); Tony Allen, Psyco on da Bus (Platform): Africa's premier avant-popster breaks Afrobeat into trip-hop ("Push Your Mind Break Beat Remix," "Hand Full of Sands"); Pere Ubu, St Arkansas (SpinArt): there is no joy in Meadville, mighty Ubu has blooped a single to left center—but there wasn't much joy before either ("Slow Walking Daddy," "333"); Reigning Sound, Time Bomb High School (In the Red): Jack White's garage-blues feel without its poetry ("Time Bomb High School," "Stormy Weather"); Arto Lindsay, Invoke (Righteous Babe): never think samba can't accommodate, and indulge, the abstruse ("Invoke," "Ultra Privileged"); Dave Pirner, Faces and Names (Ultimatum Music): from a dynamite soul singer, these would be dynamite soul ballads ("Teach Me to Breathe," "Faces and Names"); Original Sinners (Nitro): better Exene in band than Exene with backup, but the X factor was a Y chromosome ("Who's Laughin' Now," "River City"); Chumbawamba, Readymades (MCA): faux-slick truths about real world horror ("All in Vain," "Don't Pass Go"); Jarvis Church, Shake It Off (RCA): the theory is, if Minneapolis produced a Prince, so can Toronto ("Who Will Be Your Man," "Shake It Off"); Los Lobos, Good Morning Aztlán (Mammoth): back to basics, all because, no kidding, "things are not the way they used to be" ("Good Morning Aztlán," "Maria Cristina").

CHOICE CUTS: Bruce Springsteen, "Paradise," "Nothing Man," "The Rising," "My City of Ruins" (The Rising, Columbia); Ol' Dirty Bastard, "Reunited," "Here Comes the Judge" (The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones, D3 Entertainment); Toby Keith, "Huckleberry," "Who's Your Daddy?" (Unleashed, DreamWorks); Sleater-Kinney, "Maraca" (Group, Yoyo); David Johansen & the Harry Smiths, "My Grandpa Is Old Too" (Shaker, Chesky).

DUDS: Beachwood Sparks, Make the Cowboy Robots Cry (Sub Pop); Beachwood Sparks, Once We Were Trees (Sub Pop); Tift Merritt, Bramble Rose (Lost Highway); David Thomas and Two Pale Boys, Surf's Up! (Thirsty Ear); V for Vendetta, Beneath This Mask Another Mask (Mr. Lady); Victoria Williams, Sings Some Ol' Songs (Dualtone).

ADDRESSES: Cartoon Network, c/o Rhino, 2225 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404-3555; Definitive Jux, 199 Lafayette Street, #3B, New York, NY 10012, defjux@hotmail.com; In the Red, 118 West Magnolia Boulevard, P.O. Box 208, Burbank, CA 91506, intheredrecords.com; Kill Rock Stars, PMB 418, 120 State Avenue NE, Olympia, WA 98501, killrockstars.com; Lookout, P.O. Box 11374, Berkeley, CA 94701, lookoutrecords.com; Mammoth, 99 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10013, mammoth.com; Merge, Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, mrg2000.com; Mid-Fi, supersuckers.com; Platform, 4311 Wilshire Boulevard, suite 311, Los Angeles, CA 90010, platformrecordings.com; Quarterstick, P.O. Box 25432, Chicago, IL 60625, southern.com; RealWorld, c/o Narada, 4650 North Port Washington Road, Milwaukee, WI 53212, narada.com; Righteous Babe, Box 95, Ellicott Station, Buffalo, NY 14205, info@righteousbabe.com; Rounder, 29 Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, rounder.com; Smog Veil, 774 Mays, #10-454, Incline Village, NV 89451, smogveil.com; SpinArt, Box 1798, New York, NY 10156-1798, spinart@slashcom.net; Ultimatum Music, 8723 West Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232, ultimatummusic.com.

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