Harmonies and Abysses

Across the sky sheet the impossible birds in a steady illiterate movement homewards

Pick Hits

JOANNA NEWSOM
The Milk-Eyed Mender
(Drag City)

Not only does she sing in a fey little voice and fingerpick a damn harp, she hangs out with the wrong crowd—hippie folkies, basically. So snub her on principle if you like, but note this quatrain (yes, quatrain): "And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers/and we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words/while across the sky sheet the impossible birds/in a steady illiterate movement homewards." Sorry, folks, that's s-m-a-r-t whether you like its drift or not, and there's plenty more where it came from. Right, she's chronically whimsical—the final song adduces dragons. But her whimsy is genuinely funny, and though the melodies fade on the second half, which damages the poetry, there at the end of the faintest one comes the wise warning: "Never get so attached to a poem/you forget truth that lacks lyricism." So I won't. A MINUS

View "Sprout and the Bean" (Quicktime)

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THE ARCADE FIRE
Funeral
(Merge)

First you notice that the opener really is kinda gorgeous, with its twin-xylophone-echoed piano flourish and all. Then you isolate Win Butler's sob and fantasize about throttling the twit, an immature impulse unmitigated by the lyrics, which are histrionic even for a guy who's just lost a grandparent (or whoever). But if you keep at it till the next song, which tells the story of his runaway older brother getting bitten by a vampire, you begin to admire his resilience—he's retained a sense of the ridiculous, which is more than you can say of most young twits who sing about losing a grandparent (or whoever). And that's how the album goes—too fond of drama, but aware of its small place in the big world, and usually beautiful. N.B.: if you're considering Montreal, which is certainly my favorite Canadian place, the ex-Texans and -Haitian here want to make clear that it's horribly cold. A MINUS

Stream "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" (MP3) Stream "Rebellion (Lies)" (MP3) Stream "Wake Up" (MP3)

BUCK 65
This Right Here Is Buck 65
(V2)

Since four standout tracks come from one of my favorite albums of the millennium, the Canada-only Talkin' Honky Blues, I have my doubts about the best-of route taken by Richard Terfry's long-delayed U.S.-major debut. Only it's not a best-of. Listening back to such worthy alt-rap cult items as Square, Vertex, and Man Overboard, I was amazed at how willowy he once sounded—a mere stripling, with a voice macho chauvinists could call nerdy even if he was a hell of a shortstop. Everything here projects his new gruff 'n' gravelly persona, including a remake of the best song in hip-hop history about a big dick (which utilizes a John Fahey-type sample rather than the electronics he has a knack for). Three are from two 2004 Canada-only EPs; another, the striking if overwrought "Cries a Girl," is now a live staple. The collection doesn't cohere the way it should, and I still say seek out Talkin' Honky Blues. But wherever you start, he's a major rhymer, performer, storyteller, humanist visionary, and student of the DJ arts. A MINUS

Preview Album

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO BRAZILIAN HIP-HOP
(World Music Network import)

As with most foreign-language rapping, you may wonder what the point is, especially given liner notes so devoid of lyrical clues I assume the compiler's Portuguese is mucho shaky. But if like me you're prey to the vulgar prejudice that most carioca rhythms run a little lite, the straightforward beats here are intensely pleasurable whether indigenous or r&b—imbued with the rhythmic sophistication of their culture, the vocalists just naturally provide enough variety to keep a North American clod like me going. Often the rappers work chorally, augmenting the r&b feel. One of the soupiest tracks, a love letter recited over Rammelzee's "Bon Bon Vie" variation, is by two guys who were doing 10 years for armed assault when it was recorded. A MINUS

Sample Track (MP3)

SEPTETO RODRIGUEZ
Baila! Gitano Baila!
(Tzadik)

Longer on violins this time, Rodriguez's Cuban klezmer packs less thrill, with David Krakauer and Craig Taborn missed. But it's smoother too, and with international mix-and-match feeling so crucial these days, that's educational. The pomo aesthete in us craves disruptive kicks as inoculation against an undoing world. The weary traveler will settle gratefully for some social harmony. A MINUS

"Wolfie's Corner" (MP3) "Paseo Del Prado" (MP3) "Hadida" (MP3) "Baila! Gitano! Baila!" (MP3) "Para Peru" (MP3) "Turkish-Bulgarish" (MP3)

MATTHEW SHIPP
Harmony and Abyss
(Thirsty Ear)

My tastes in piano run to five-fingered banging, my tastes in ambience to rhythm massage. So although I've admired several of Shipp's many albums, Nu Bop especially, this one I identify with. The hard-driving "Galaxy 105" tinkles jazzily at times, and "Invisible Light" contributes a free interlude, but mostly Shipp and his certified-jazzbo drums-and-bass—plus, crucially, programmer FLAM—explore pulses and textures: all distinct, some quite jazzlike but most on the trip-hop side. Remember "acid jazz"? This is what it wasn't tough enough for. A MINUS

"Ion" (MP3) "Virgin Complex" (MP3) "Blood 2 the Brain" (MP3)

VIKTOR VAUGHN
(VV:2): Venomous Villain
(Insomniac, Inc.)

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