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.


RYAN ADAMS
Demolition
(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

MC PAUL BARMAN
Paullelujah!
(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

DANIEL BEDINGFIELD
Gotta Get Thru This
(Island)
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

BRIGHT EYES
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

THE DONNAS
Spend the Night
(Atlantic)
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

RHETT MILLER
The Instigator
(Elektra)
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

PRETENDERS
Loose Screw
(Artemis)
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

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE
Justified
(Jive)
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

WIRE
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


PICK HIT

KIMYA DAWSON
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


PICK HIT

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
Tallahassee
(4AD)
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

BECK
Sea Change
(DGC)
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").

CHOICE CUTS: Kimya Dawson, "I'd Rather Go With Friends Than Go Alone" (Call It What You Want This Is Antifolk, Olive Juice); Kelly Willis, "If I Left You," "Easy (As Falling Apart)" (Easy, Rykodisc); Avril Lavigne, "Sk8er Boi" (Let's Go, Arista); Billie Joe Shaver, "That's What She Said Last Night" (Freedom's Child, Compadre); Laura Cantrell, "If It's All the Same to You," "Don't Break the Heart" (When the Roses Bloom Again, Diesel Only); Ben Kweller, "Commerce, TX," "Wasted & Ready" (Ben Kweller, ATO); Mario, "2 Train" (Mario, J).

DUDS: Four Bitchin' Babes, Some Assembly Required (Shanachie); Adam Green, Garfield (Rough Trade); Enrique Iglesias, Escape (Interscope); Justincase (Maverick); the Nihilistics, Al-Qaida Detonator (Visionary); They Might Be Giants, No! (Idlewild).

ADDRESSES: Bloodshot, 3039 West Irving Road, Chicago, IL 60618, www.bloodshotrecords.com; Coup d'Etat, 532 LaGuardia Place, #704, NYC 10012, coupdetat.tv; 4AD, 625 Broadway, second floor, NYC 10012, 4ad.com; Matador, 625 Broadway, 12th floor, NYC 10012, matadorrecs.com; Pinkflag, Box 3459, London SW19 6ES, England, pinkflag.com; Redwing, Box 577575, Chicago, IL 60657, redwingmusic.com; Restless, 826 South Victory Boulevard, Burbank, CA 91502, restless.com; Rough Trade, Chelsea Hotel, 222 West 23 Street, room 103, NYC 10011, roughtrade.com; Rykodisc, Box 241, Gloucester, MA 01931-0141, rykodisc.com; Saddle Creek, Box 8554, Omaha, NE 68108-9554, saddle-creek.com; Smile, 11410 Aqua Vista Street, Studio City, CA 91604, image-entertainment.com; Sub Pop, Box 20645, Seattle, WA 98102, subpop.com; Vitamen, c/o Blockton, 126 St. Marks Place, NYC 10009, thevitamen.com

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