Edges of the Groove

Arguments against education, reclaimed punk rants, electropop with staying power

Pick Hits

The Mountain Goats
We Shall All Be Healed

Inexhaustible wordslinger, belated bandleader, John Darnielle submits a singer's record. He enunciates so forcefully that any verbal incoherence is your fault, projects so loudly it takes months to notice his backup musicians. This is a record whose idea of poetry is "That's good we can always use more electrical equipment," "I eat a couple of Milky Ways for breakfast," and "Get in the goddamn car." Nothing begins-middles-and-ends like "No Children" or "International Small Arms Traffic Blues" because speed freaks tweaking from one meaningless activity to the next don't generate much narrative logic. Every character is a loser or fuckup whose future is no bleaker than that of the planet we all inhabit. They aren't redeemed by Darnielle's love because he doesn't love a one of them. But they are redeemed by his interest, in them and in the planet we all inhabit. And whenever he flags a little, they're also redeemed by his backup musicians. A

Kanye West
The College Dropout

What is the fuss about his contradictions? The main difference between him and most hip hop journalists is his money. They'd buy the Benz—so would I, Volvos don't last as long—and probably the gold too. They'd say anything to get laid. They accept the economic rationale of dealing and dig music of dubious moral value. Yet at the same time they do their bit for racial righteousness and know full well how much they need the "single black female addicted to retail." On Easter Sunday, some of them even believe in Jesus Christ. But none of them are as clever or as funny as Kanye West, and these days I'm not so sure about Eminem either. West came up as a beatmaster, but his Alicia Keys and Talib Kweli hits are pretty bland, and neither his voice nor his flow could lead anyone into sin. So he'd better conceptualize, and he does. Not only does he create a unique role model, that role model is dangerous—his arguments against education are as market-targeted as other rappers' arguments for thug life. Don't do what he says, kids, and don't do what he does, because you can't. Just stay in school. Really. I mean it. A

Shadows on the Sun
(Rhymesayers Entertainment)

The voice is anxious—sometimes shrill, sometimes defiant, strong and articulate either way. The beats are soul-simple, not hooky enough for radio or dull enough for old-school. The rhymes are proud, thoughtful, searching, candid, angry, observed. Because Ali is married, he avoids nerd-rap's itchy dick syndrome. Because he's an albino, he knows extra about difference. Because he's a serious Muslim, he's a serious moralist. Because he's a good guy, he's not self-righteous or judgmental. Two of his best songs are about fights. In the funny one he ends up with a bloody eye and a split bicuspid. In the indignant one he clocks a woman-beater and gets arrested. A MINUS


Cut at the same time in the same studio during Ghana's chaotic early '80s, this CD condenses two old LPs but functions as a follow-up to the brave, sunny Electric Highlife comp Naxos World released in 2002. Maybe the music feels slighter and less captivating because it gives equal time to what producer and Afropop chronicler John Collins calls "gospel highlife," created by church-based ensembles whose amateurism is even more palpable than in the "concert party" and "cultural" strains. The only repeater is the most professional, and the best: F. Kenya's Guitar Band, whose four tracks here (and three there) combine loping beats, a lead voice of undeniable presence and indefinable key, and high little guitar figures scuttling along the edges of the groove. A MINUS

Get Away From Me

Hidden smack in the middle of each of these two nine-track CDs are two forgettable songs, leaving 16 of 18 that are memorable melodically, lyrically, or both, which would be an accomplishment for Randy Newman himself. Not counting Stephin Merritt, no other under-40 approaches McKay's gift for cabaret. The worst you can say is that her satire is shallow—dissing yuppies in the '00s is the precise terminological equivalent of dissing hippies in the '80s. But "Work Song" (bosses), "Inner Peace" (New Ageism), "It's a Pose" ("God you went to Oxford/Head still in your boxers") feel something like classic, and personal notes like the fond "Manhattan Avenue" and the fonder "Dog Song" suggest that soon her egomania will yield emotional complexities worthy of her talent. A MINUS

Punk Rock

Periodizing their history for fun and mainly profit on their 2002 tour, the Mekons who could remember back that far—namely, trouper Jonboy Langford and sufferer Tom Greenhalgh—relearned the punk rants that set the stage for their transition to faux country. These aren't indelible tunes like "At Home He's a Tourist" or "Suspect Device." But months later they're still getting not just stronger but rawer, which isn't how this game usually works. One comparison is the eponymous hardcore album Rancid dropped in 2000 when ska felt played out, but this is sharper and more varied. Who could not love how "32 Weeks," in which Rico Bell I think it is bellows out how much time it takes to earn the price of a car, a mattress, a bottle of whiskey, leads to "Work All Week," in which Jonboy promises his beloved gold itself? A MINUS

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