Extraordinary Machines

We didn't get what we wanted but we haven't entirely lost what we had

MADONNA
Confessions on a Dance Floor
(Warner Bros.)

She did make an album like this before: her debut, where she flitted so astutely between producers that fools took her for a casting-couch queen. But where Madonna had a distinct feel, disco that partook simultaneously of electro minimalism and pop sellout, it also had distinct parts. Here she subs out the flitting to producer Stuart Price, who digests the entirety of '80s dance music into a flow that subsumes all details and referents. If anything, it's more a dance record, leaving those of us with a sentimental weakness for distinct parts a little lost. So not only am I glad she rhymes "New York" and "dork," I'm glad she put her kabbalist on the guest list. B PLUS

JAMES MCMURTRY
Childish Things
(Compadre)

Although Larry's boy has been arranging strong words into stolid strophes since 1989, it took four years of King George II to get a political song out of him. "We Can't Make It Here," now Bernie Sanders's 2006 campaign theme, is still a hell of a downloadable loss leader at jamesmcmurtry.com, where the slogan is: "We tour so we can make albums. We make albums so we can tour." No other track quite matches its simmering rage, but a few come close, including two that mix carnage on America's holiday highways and carnage in America's holy wars. In the past, McMurtry's square-set solemnity has buried him in the Americana section. This time it makes him sound like a prophet. A MINUS


Dud of the Month

ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS
I Am a Bird Now
(Secretly Canadian)

Whose voice touches who is personal, but that doesn't mean Antony will ever reach as many humans as Aretha Franklin or Billie Holiday, and up against the archer Bryan Ferry, the artier Rufus Wainwright, and the grander Nina Simone, objective physical differences manifest themselves: he's thinner, drier, more strained. Not only is his willingness to express emotion commoner than indie denizens imagine, his failure to undercut that emotion with irony or humor is a spiritual weakness. Right, he suffers. But billions of humans have it worse, and while we who are luckier are morally obliged to remember that, we're not obliged to empathize with any of them. Those convinced of the metaphoric-political centrality of transgender issues and the AIDS epidemic will feel Antony's songs. Those who don't should find a record they enjoy. B MINUS


HONORABLE MENTION:

REV RUN
Distortion
(RSMG)

He says his piece and gets out, as rare a thing in a preacher as in a rapper ("I Used to Think I Was Run," "Home Sweet Home").

BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE
(Arts & Crafts)

Indie-rock as borderless utopian collective, kind of like Yo La Tengo with no heads instead of two-plus-one ("Swimmers," "Fire Eye'd Boy").

KATE AND ANNA MCGARRIGLE
The McGarrigle Christmas Hour
(Nonesuch)

Great old songs they didn't write, dubious new ones they did ("Seven Joys of Mary," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve").

OL' DIRTY BASTARD
Osirus: The Official Mixtape
(Sure Shot)

Weaker than his legendary final album, but way more alive than his rumored one ("Pop Shots," "Dirty Dirty").

HOT HOT HEAT
Elevator
(Sire)

Pop satire, its targets obvious but left wriggling in a discomfort they deserve ("Jingle Jangle," "Soldier in a Box").

ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE
(Uncivilized World/UWe North America)

Cross-cultural statements, many warming and three scintillating, two Clash covers among them (Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra, "Lost in the Supermarket"; Manu Chao & Tonino Carotone, "La Trampa"; Asian Dub Foundation & Zebda, "Police on My Back [Live]").

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS
Twin Cinema
(Matador)

Weightwise, think Hollies, with the lyrics dumber and the production too full of itself ("Use It," "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras").

NINE INCH NAILS
With Teeth
(Nothing)

All pretense of deeper meaning worn into shtick, he's left with the aggro mood music that was always his calling ("Getting Smaller," "With Teeth").

NATASHA BEDINGFIELD
Unwritten
(Epic)

Working things out for herself within the severe constraints of pop form ("These Words," "Unwritten").

DEVENDRA BANHART
Cripple Crow
(4AD)

Kind of charming, with two songs so cute they should be sung by Cyndi Lauper and Paul Westerberg, respectively ("Chinese Children," "I Feel Just Like a Child").

THE DECEMBERISTS
The Decemberists Present Picaresque
(Kill Rock Stars)

Know less about history (and literature) than they think they do, but more than their students ("16 Military Wives," "On the Bus Mall").


CHOICE CUTS

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE
"I Will Follow You Into the Dark"
(Plans, Atlantic)

ANTIGONE RISING
"Hello"
(From the Ground Up,
Hear Music/Lava)

CYNDI LAUPER
"Money Changes Everything"
(The Body Acoustic,Epic/Daylight)


DUDS

AUDIOSLAVE
Out of Exile
(Interscope/Epic)

BILLY CORGAN
The Future Embrace
(Reprise)

SHERYL CROW
Wildflower
(A&M)

JOSé GONZáLES
Veneer
(Hidden Agenda)

IDLEWILD
Warnings/Promises
(Capitol)

MAGNOLIA ELECTRIC COMPANY
Hard to Love a Man
(Secretly Canadian)

NEW ORDER
Waiting for the Sirens' Call
(Warner Bros.)

QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE
Lullabies to Paralyze
(Interscope)

XIU XIU
La Foret
(5RC)

ADDRESSES: Arts & Crafts, arts-crafts.ca; Chocolate Industries, 1573 North Milwaukee Avenue 442, Chicago IL 60622, chocolateindustries.com; Compadre, 708 Main Street, Suite 720, Houston TX 77002, compadrerecords.com; 4AD, 625 Broadway Suite 12 Floor, NYC 10012, 4ad.com; Kill Rock Stars, 120 NE State Avenue PMB 418, Olympia WA 98501, Matador, 625 Broadway 12 Floor, NYC 10012, matadorrecords.com; Sure Shot, sureshotrecordings.com; Uncivilized World/UWe North America, 414 Broadway 4th Floor, NYC 10013, uncivilizedworld.com

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