As Long as I Still Can

It is a great privilege to review records for a living. It is a great pleasure to review records for a living. I am lucky to live in the same world as the artists recommended below. So are you. So are we all.

I Care 4 You
A half measure that's anything but "definitive" and the best we're likely to get until she's a trivia question: both soundtrack smashes plus a hit-or-miss best-of and six previously unreleaseds whose consistency rescues the project. From "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number" when she was 15 to "More Than a Woman" just before she died (the latter included, the former discreetly not), she was lithe and dulcet in a way that signified neither jailbait nor hottie—an ingenue whose selling point was sincerity, not innocence and the obverse it implies. Timbaland's beats add essential eccentricity, but R. Kelly's ditties suited her almost as well. And what can it mean that a good new one celebrates the machinations of the bitch queen of All My Children? Such mysteries are beyond the ken of mortal males like me. A MINUS

The Swastika E.P.
In 2001 Bern wrote an endlessly corny nine-minute 9/11 elegy that I liked that way. Then he mourned securities traders and lusted for revenge. Now the meanness of "Talkin' Al Kida Blues" is just as apt—in two lines the WTC is down, an atrocity that quickly pales against slavery and the Indians, and we're off to a John Ashcroft theme park as per Dylan-does-Woody. Elsewhere Bern writes a NORML ad in jail, waxes warm about wayward friends and Jewish forebears, and reclaims a symbol from Nazis, punks, everybody. Protest music—we need it bad. A MINUS

Log 22
A bigger and looser band than the one that made its name with Palomine in alt's salad days—brawnier, brainier, sweeter, more direct. But where once they were the future, now they're near forgotten, because what for their admirers was a game, a phase, or a fleeting passion, for Carol Van Dyk is a life. Alt's college cheerleaders have matured. Van Dyk's just gotten older, embracing soul and skill but not the mainstream: "Smack in the middle of ridiculous places, smack in the middle where I shouldn't have been." Of course, part of their gimmick was how alt they weren't. They've always gravitated toward straightforward tunes and guitar voicings, which is why horns that would obtrude in any ordinary alt-fledged band seem natural horning in here. So please, somebody make me feel stupid and tell me what '60s solo they quote outright on the eight-minute "White Dogs" jam. It's driving me crazy. A MINUS

Bright Yellow Bright Orange
They say they're a band again, and I believe them—bye Forster, bye McLennan, welcome back Forster-McLennan. What I don't believe is that they're as integral or rocking a band as they once were, or that the strummy arrangements turn back on themselves like they should. But after longer than any neutral party will wait, the songs flower if not bloom into tints subtler than the noontime hues of the title. I don't mean the opener, which snaps into place with a classic identiriff, or the one where Robert wants to go to Brazil. Those are quick. I mean every single song. Too slow, too slight, still remarkable. B PLUS

Spring Hill Fair
The new "expanded" version, which I'm not plugging for Spring Hill Fair, a classic those who care already own, but for the bonus disc, if you can believe that—outtakes, mostly, plus a B side and a 12-inch instrumental they must have put out as a joke and one from the lost 1978-1990 best-of. Often raw or gawky, lyrically or instrumentally—and busting with circa-1984 we-can-do-no-wrong. "Newton Told Me" and "Sweet Tasting Hours" could go on their set list tomorrow. A MINUS

Mayors of the Moon
Right, he's got all those other albums—Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Mekons of course, Waco Brothers. But there he was just the compere, or had to share the writing with his mates. This isn't enough when you have a calling to pursue, a family to support, a world to curse and mourn—when nothing can shut you up. Lyrics that despair of politics, find true pain in true love, unhinge from terra firma, and gripe about the road are delivered with country plainness, glimmers of spirituality, plenty of rolled r's, and the sense that by singing reality you can make it mean something, at least while you're at it. Not "Before they stop me"; more like "As long as I still can." A MINUS

Soft Rock
(The Self-Starter Foundation)
Nobody's gonna sit and listen for two hours and 20 minutes without even a chorus to ease the rush of words and riffs and bumpy beats—not unless they're working, like I was when I did. But the sheer bulk of these two CDs is their charm. Debut and singles and EPs and compilation cuts, almost every piece of crap this Minneapolis four-piece ever recorded except an album that's less impressive for being better shaped, and not counting a few early losers stuck in back they form one pretty damn good song: postpunk noir at the economic margins, drugs and sex and rock and roll in that order, an epic best intoned in toto around a verboten communal ashtray in some after-hours den. Craig Finn spouts like a jaded Conor Oberst and tells his underworld tales like a slacker Hamell on Trial, whose fame he may yet match. I wonder how many he made up. That's the fun part, right? A MINUS

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