Don't Call It a Comeback

As several e-mailers have noted, I did indeed spend three months listening a lot more than I wrote. Here's where I start catching up.

(Lost Highway)
Hayseeds manqué who think he's betrayed his alt-country heritage should adapt to a world where traditionalism means not having a call out to the Neptunes. Tiny banjo fills, grand guitar solos, solo-acoustic, swelling strings that disguise your inability to distinguish between nuclear holocaust and breaking up with your girlfriend—they're all roots-rock now. With that tumescent ache in his voice, tunes easy as pickup lines, and a telltale tendency to vague out completely when saying anything you don't already know, Adams is a romantic egoist of the old school. Like every other alt-country hero worth spit, he assumed the pose because it gave him a way to look conceptual while knocking off some strophes. It's an excuse he's long past needing. Four albums boiled down to one—all right! B PLUS

(Coup d'Etat)
Great novelty record, I thought, following his high-pitched singsong through rhyme schemes whose lyrics broadsheet skips the dirtiest one: "I want a smelly slice/Of Kelly Price" building to "Cynthia Ozick/Takes off her clothes quick/And likes exposed brick." But Barman's not just a clever twerp with an interest in literature. In fact, he's kind of a nice guy. Listen a little and you'll hear a contemptuous dismissal of Ritalin and the testing-service torture device called the DBQ, a defense of p.c. that invites the world to tzuck his tzadik, and two fond memories of an anarchist bookstore. White hip hop for left-wing wimps—maybe even left-wing wimps like you. A MINUS

Gotta Get Thru This
Bedingfield listens so attentively that he not only knows all of boy-pop's tricks and influences but adds his own, and so responsively that—here's the deal—he comprehends reception as well as production. Play the uptempo openers one-two-three and maybe you'll get off on which beat or timbre is Michael and which Prince, although he wouldn't break it down so crudely. But the reason to believe is a line apiece in the two slow-it-down-a-littles that follow, both of a shamelessness Michael and Prince will be lucky to equal again. "He don't want to have your children," this cute mouse-clicker warns. "And I wish you could be the one I die with," he swears. A MINUS

Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
(Saddle Creek)
Spewing his sprawls of lyric, melody, and instrumentation, Conor Oberst is the poster boy of the American Agony Association. Respect him as a co-equal and he'll drive you out of the room in nothing flat. Feel or indulge his suffering youth, however, and he'll kindle something like awe. This great leap forward, 13 songs lasting 73 minutes without benefit of extended groove, comes to a climactic halt with "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)," where his apology for a suicide attempt elicits his dad's Inspirational Retort: "Child, I love you regardless and there is nothing you could do that would ever change this. I'm not angry. It happens. You just can't do it again." B PLUS

Spend the Night
On this beefed-up sprint to the major-label gold, their shallow attitude makes up for their skinny voices and vice versa. Getting laid can be a healthy character adjustment in singers who don't have the muscle to force themselves on anybody tougher than an a&r man who admires their songwriting. It's all been said before, but few penis carriers put it so consistently or succinctly. "Met a shy guy from KnoxvilleTennessee/High school yum yum give me some Hennessey." Or if that isn't legal enough for you, how about "Don't wanna be your friend/Don't try to take me home/This won't happen again/Just take me to the backseat"? A MINUS

The Instigator
With producer Jon Brion overdubbing band parts, these pretty-hooks-all-in-a-row end up too pick-'em-up-and-put-'em-down, and some of the lyrics are reductive, victims rather than bright clear examples of the high focus Miller sets his sights on. "Things That Disappear," for instance, doesn't fuse mortality and splitsville the way it means to. On the other hand, "This Is What I Do" is a statement of artistic purpose straightforward and subtle enough to justify anybody's solo debut. In his minor way, Miller is a major talent. I still miss the Old 97's. A MINUS

Loose Screw
Of course Chrissie Hynde's not "back." She never went away, and if this record proves anything it's that she never will—as long as she gets a production budget. Figure she got into a spiky mood after 1999's Viva El Amor failed to impress radio or her U.S. label of 20 years. Where that album demonstrated the emotional utility of a comfortable tune, here the Steinberg-Kelly plush is down to two tracks and doesn't quite go with material that finds its spirit in the persistence of punk and its soul in reggae basslines. For a 51-year-old who refuses to act her age, pretty convincing. Stick her on one of those diva specials and watch her snarl. A MINUS

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