Sustenance Enough?

Indie-rock heavy hitters get confused figuring out why they're doing it, doing it, doing it

Pick Hits

SLEATER-KINNEY
The Woods
(Sub Pop)

Corin Tucker's abrasive warble is made for a Zeppelin move that seems inevitable now that it's here, and when the lyrics fail to mesh, or veer toward the sociologically corny, her proven ability to plow such quibbles is beefed up from the backup muscle. Nevertheless, the metal affinities are basically spiritual. Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev hand Dave Fridmann ain't John David Kalodner. Although the album is definitely loud, it's also raw, with no hint of the symphonic, yet at the same time it's a melodic highlight of an honorably tuneful catalog. And come down to it, the words are pretty good. I like the one about the boho losers. And the hungry-so-angry one. And the one that disses Interpol. A


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THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE SAHARA
(World Music Network)

Maybe it's just the harem scenes in racist movies, but seldom will you hear a regional compilation at once so distant and so familiar. The Sahara is bigger than Europe, and insofar as these often nomadic artists—very few of whom I'd heard before, with only the jet-setting Tinariwen and one other on Festival in the Desert—have home bases, most hail from lands thousands of miles apart, and further off the musical map than Mali: Mauritania, Niger, Libya, the Morocco-occupied "Western Sahara." Yet except for the closer, a long poem-sermon with rosewood flute by an Algerian Berber, they share lulling chants, many by women, and a steady pulse that seems neither African nor European but "Arab," which it isn't. Although often born of political conflict, they evoke eternal things—subsistence beyond nations, a post-nuclear future, world without end amen. A

BRIGHT EYES
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
(Saddle Creek)

Given indie-rock's formal-historical dilemma, grant Conor Oberst this—at least it bothers him that he has no idea what he's doing, or rather why he's doing it, though actually I mean he admits that it bothers him instead of trying to ignore it. Like the empathy of so many young men, especially artists, his is more self-involved than saints like us prefer. But at least he expresses empathy—to memorable melodies that very nearly bear up under the repetitions his rarely witless or superfluous lyrics require. A MINUS

ROBBIE FULKS
Georgia Hard
(Yep Roc)

Vocally, he's neither here nor there—by the standards of Jay Farrar, Trace Adkins, but by the standards of Trace Adkins, Todd Snider—and as a writer he's caught between Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and Columbia University, where he's spent more time. He has a lit major's love for Music Row convention: "Some people say a real hard woman's good to find," or the evolution of the "they" in "If They Could Only See Me Now" from the parents who didn't want him to marry above his station to the kids he can't see after he murders their mama. Because he doesn't have the physical equipment to put his formal hyperbole over the top, his novelties connect first—"I'm Going to Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)," featuring his wife Donna, and the first recorded use of the word gemutlichkeit in a country song, and "Countrier Than Thou," featuring an Oh! Brother fan from Boston and GWB from Austin. But on this record the writing is so consistent that eventually it makes emotional sense—the cheating songs and the drinking songs and the faux gothic songs are set pieces he puts his gumption into, softened by a pastoral nostalgia that's so lyrical you want to take a ride in the country yourself. A MINUS

STEPHEN MALKMUS
Face the Truth
(Matador)

Solo for real, Malkmus plays just about everything on this consistently enjoyable, predictably inconsequential recording. "You're the maker of modern minor masterpieces for the untrained eye," goes "Post-Paint Boy." As he must know—he's so knowing—substitute "ear" for "eye" and the self-portrait could make a lesser man afraid to look in the mirror without some company. B PLUS

JAMIE O'NEAL
Brave
(Capitol)

Middle America tells itself stories about normal life. The flourishes are too big and the musical colors too bright, the teller of tales a blonde looker who reaches out to heroic mommies and slaves of data entry and praises the company of girlfriends without abandoning her search for the perfect man. It's "like trying to find Atlantis," but somewhere in there she does. "I Love My Life," she concludes, and you can almost see how some normal person might. Not the truth—far from it. But not quite a lie. Probably because she's not middle-American at all. Australia—the promised land. B PLUS

SHUKAR COLLECTIVE
Urban Gypsy
(Riverboat)

Three Roma traditionalists aged 24 ("voices and primitive percussions"), 38 (lead singer, strikes barrel with stones or booted foot), and 62 (spoons player and singer, emulates Louis Armstrong) join five habitués of Bucharest's electronica underground in an ethno-techno that sounds mighty real as long as it doesn't overdo the techno. Ululating or speed-chanting, uttering words or sounds, vocalist Napoleon is the main dish. The enhanced beats are spice. A MINUS

SPOON
Gimme Fiction
(Merge)

Iwish this was still a world where the right guitar noise and a heaping helping of hooks were sustenance enough. But though I can imagine putting this on at year's end and remembering every song with a kind of surprised admiration, I can't imagine doing it any sooner—or any later either. Until their next album, anyway. This one's selling, so there'll be another. B PLUS

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
Devils and Dust
(Columbia)

Springsteen the superstar's one-man-band album is less engaging musically than Malkmus the cult artist's, but more engaging artistically, because for all his overreliance on dramatic drawls, Southwestern locales, and mother love, Springsteen has stories to tell. I dearly hope the two kids in "Long Time Comin' " 's sleeping bag are off with their parents on a cheap but restorative vacation—that would be so much less a commonplace than on the road. But I'm not so curious I'm tempted to boot up the explanatory DVD on the other side of the superstar's DualDisc. A MINUS

THE WILLOWZ
Talk in Circles
(Sympathy for the Record Industry)

The new generation of cute punkoid bands are committed minimalists, like when these kids from Anaheim put nine songs on their 22-minute debut whatzit. But they're also ambitious, a winning quality in a cute punkoid band. You can tell because these 20 songs last over an hour. Yet they still sound rushed and excited—if a lyric is unfinished it's obviously because they couldn't wait to get to the next one, and when they slow down they're just catching their breath. In its cute punkoid way, a major statement. A MINUS


Dud of the Month

TRACE ADKINS
Songs About Me
(Capitol)

Adkins is one of these guys who spends so much time in the weight room that his arms don't hang plumb from his shoulders. In the rear view thoughtfully provided his female fans in the booklet, only his ponytail and his cowboy hat distinguish him from the Incredible Hulk. You'd never confuse him with the similarly named Clay Aiken, a much wimpier guy, and not just in the delts—Adkins's baritone sounds like it emanates from the Mammoth Cave. But in the most essential matter you'd be dead wrong. Track record notwithstanding, the ex-gospel singer is every bit as much a calculated corporate creation as the duly elected idol. The 11 songs on this No. 1 country, No. 11 pop album were written by 23 songwriters, only one of whom has his name on even two. The most far-fetched is "Arlington," in which Dave Turnbull vouchsafes the patriotic thoughts of a dead soldier—to be specific, the first Tennesseean to die in our current Iraq war—to former DUI Adkins. Needless to say, the artist suffers no anxieties over exactly why any of these songs he didn't write is "about me." These are "songs I've been waiting to record for my entire career." Especially "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." C


Additional Consumer News

PONY UP!
(Ten Fingers/Dim Mak)

The demure femme-punk sexpot trick ("Shut Up and Kiss Me," "Matthew Modine").

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
The Sunset Tree
(4AD)

Is it that he knows less about himself than he does about the world, or that he won't reveal it? ("Dance Music," "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?").

PAVEMENT
Crooked Rain Crooked Rain: LA's Desert Origins
(Matador)

You have to care even more than I do to sort this expanded edition out, but you won't turn it off ("Unseen Power of the Picket Fence," "Fucking Righteous").

SHELBY LYNNE
Suit Yourself
(Capitol)

"You do it do it do it do it just let go" ("Johnny Met June," "You're the Man").

COMMON
Be
(Geffen)

Few of the best moments belong to the main attraction, who's not as wise as they tell him he is ("It's Your World [Part 1 & 2]," "The Food [Live]").

THE ROBERT CRAY BAND
Twenty
(Sanctuary)

"I wanna see you burn all the way down/I wanna see your ashes all over the ground" ("My Last Regret," "Twenty").

DWIGHT YOAKAM
Blame the Vain
(New West)

Sounds older, and the infirmity becomes him ("Blame the Vain," "Three Good Reasons").

FARM FRESH
Time Is Running Out
(Peanuts & Corn)

McEnroe supercrew a tad too long on Pipi Skid's whiteboy groan ("Frail Dale," "Ex-Girl").

COREY HARRIS
Daily Bread
(Rounder)

Has more blues in him than Ali Farka Toure and Sylford Walker combined ("The Bush Is Burning," "Mama Wata").

OXFAM ARABIA
(World Music Network)

If by Arabia you mean Palestine, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan, and Iraq (MoMo,"Agee Jump"; Abdou, "Mali Ha Mali").

BRIGHT EYES
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
(Saddle Creek)

Noised these up because he's nervous about them ("Arc of Time," "Hit the Switch").

RHYMEFEST
A Star Is Born
(All I Do)

Kanye homeboy proves who his friends are by rapping all over their mixtape ("All They Do Is Dis," "Devil's Pie").

NORTH AFRICAN GROOVE
(Putumayo World)

Mediterranean cosmopolitans entertain a groovy world (Amr Diab, "Nour el Ain"; Samir Saeid, "Aal Eah").

MIKE JONES
Who Is Mike Jones?
(Swishahouse/Asylum/Warner Bros.)

Marvel mildly yet again at the sonic variety of criminality ("What You Know About . . . ," "Back Then").


Choice Cuts

VAN MORRISON
"Keep Mediocrity at Bay"
(Magic Time, Geffen/Exile/Polydor)

PRINCE PAUL
"MVU (Final Act)," "Yes, I Do Love Them Ho's!"
(Itstrumental, Female Fun)


Duds

BRIGHT EYES/NEVA DINOVA
One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels
(Crank!)

MATSON JONES
(Sympathy for the Record Industry)

TIFT MERRITT
Tambourine
(Lost Highway)

ROBERT PLANT AND THE STRANGE SENSATION
Mighty Rearranger
(Sanctuary)

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