Don't Call It a Comeback

He's one giant step ahead of his audience, just like always, and though his talent and character were there for all to see, who knew he'd turn out this heady or beatwise? Maybe his mom, or his manager—a woman and an African American, respectively. There's plenty of Neptunes records, but none as nice; plenty of Timbaland records, but none as sexy. Tagging the lead track, he sums up his growth curve in six simple words that, somehow, no one ever thought of before: "Gentlemen, good night. Ladies, good mornin'." Then, as if he wasn't already in the door, he gooses the play with a relieved, knowing, friendly chuckle. Five straight hook tracks at the beginning are topped in the end by lubricious Janet and experimental Timbo. Any jerk who disses the awkwardness with which Justin calls out "Drums!"or gets guys and gals trading come-hithers should have been half as coltish at 21. He can still make *NSync records if he wants—the Brian McKnight mawk proves it. But if he does, it'll be out of the goodness of his heart. A MINUS

Read & Burn: 01
(Pinkflag import)
Old art-punks sing hallelujah—the godfathers rock again. Only these songs are so much bigger and louder, so developed, that it seems like Pink Flag was the idea and this is the realization. Only with art-punks ideas really count. Pink Flag was geeky, scrawny, catchy—and exciting that way. The first EP of a six-part concept just flattens you. Which can be fun too. A MINUS


I'm Sorry That Sometimes I'm Mean
(Rough Trade)
First of the CD-ROMs she started peddling at gigs in early 2000, first officially released. Though her subsequent output includes stories so fantastic they could kick off an attack of the Dylans, if there's a song you don't need here it's only by comparison. Right, it won't convert the insulin-challenged, and what can she do? Among other things—her desire to hit a certain social worker with a crowbar, for instance—Dawson has a genuinely sweet nature and a fondness for every kind of play including word. Like fellow (ex-?) Moldy Peach Adam Green, she's super clever, but in addition she's got loads of heart—heart that would look great on her sleeve if she had a sleeve, which she doesn't because she's so naked. Coextensive with the nursery-rhyme whisper and goofy-catchy toy samples is someone you want to know—mature, childlike, full of fun, and conversant with species of misery growing girls should only grow up without. Any album that leaves you wondering whether there's really a Muhammad Ali Barbie will enrich your life in ways you can't now imagine. So will any album that explains why kids in day care and singer-songwriters in extremis want to die. A


John Darnielle's embattled "alpha couple" are no more a single fictional creation than his Mountain Goats are a group or his "I" is himself. They're the kind of irreducible sociological construct that impresses artists that settle into deep heartland—literally Iowa for Darnielle, symbolically where it says on 2002's much flatter DIY All Hail West Texas and now the different place it says on this well-enhanced major-indie debut (which comes trailing Ghana, Sweden, and Full Force Galesburg). Darnielle gets mileage out of songs-with-strummed-guitar's confessional imperative; as unautobiographical as we guess his Tallahassee-and/or-Texas interpersonals must be, there's tremendous emotional oomph in his first person. His singing reinforces the effect. And if there's nothing heartland about "Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania/Trucks loaded down with weapons/ Crossing over every night/Moon yellow and bright," well, really, who cares? A

Dud of the Month

Sea Change
How painful the calculation to become sincere, how arduous the labor to find one's ease. Nobody's saying he isn't talented, and there are some fetching tunes here. But when the most impressive thing about slow songpoetry is the string writing, somebody doesn't have his heart in it, and even if it's not his fault 'cause he doesn't have one, his dolor ends up as cold as his funk. For some that's the idea—a little affectlessness helps the prettiness go down. But whatever irony diehards believe, emotion and intelligence aren't mutually exclusive. Any argument to the contrary calls for active resistance. B

Additional Consumer News

HONORABLE MENTION: This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies & the Kinks (Rykodisc): like Irving Berlin and Al Green, he can make the shallow speak and the lame lilt (Fountains of Wayne, "Better Things"; Steve Forbert, "Starstruck"); Desaparecidos, Read Music/Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek): protesting too much, with a gusto that won't be denied ("Man and Wife, the Latter [Damaged Goods]," "Hole in One"); Antifolk Vol. 1 (Rough Trade): Adam and Kimya stay true to their scene (Lach, "Drinking Beers With Mom"; Diane Cluck, "Monte Carlo"; Brian Piltin, "Tramp Star"); the Negro Problem, Welcome Black (Smile): Stew solves the song problem, but not the what-it-all-means problem ("Bermuda Love Triangle [The Waterbed]," "Is This the Single?"); the Waco Brothers, New Deal (Bloodshot): singing the good songs as hard as the great ones, more Johnny Cash every time out ("The Lie," "Poison," "Johnson to Jones"); Christine Lavin, I Was in Love With a Difficult Man (Redwing): confessions of a marginal literary professional ("Trade Up," "Sunday Breakfast With Christine [and Ervin]," "Making Friends With My Gray Hair"); They Might Be Giants, Holidayland (Restless): something German plus something Jewish equals borscht-belt gestalt ("Santa's Beard," "Feast of Lights"); Stew, The Naked Dutch Painter (Smile): very large professor as rake-about-town ("The Naked Dutch Painter," "Giselle"); Yo La Tengo, Nuclear War (Matador): four versions of the same scary-funny protest song, (any) one of which we need ("Version 2," "Version 1"); James Luther Dickinson, Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis): the North Mississippi paterfamilias, "as pure and unblemished as Dorian Gray" ("Bound to Lose," "The Ballad of Billy and Oscar"); Jeffrey Lewis, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane (Rough Trade): forlorn, funny (anti) folkie who isn't getting laid ("Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song," "Life"); the Vitamen, Fun (Vitamen): cynical, sex-seeking (alt) rockers who aren't getting laid enough ("The Richer My Dad Gets," "1/2 Hard"); Jason Loewenstein, At Sixes and Sevens (Sub Pop): reduced to providing a change of pace from his own damn self ("Codes, "Funerals").

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