Rhapsody Streamnotes: December 26, 2007

Year-End Mop-Up (Part 1)

I got a temporary free account with Rhapsody recently, a perk for helping move a batch of Robert Christgau reviews to their engineers. I've had very little time to try it out recently, but figured it to be the only chance I'd have to make a quick sweep through a list of albums that are likely candidates for the year end polls. If it works out it could finally break me of the habit of buying things just to get a chance to hear them. In most such cases, I wind up filing them on shelves with little chance of ever hearing them again -- sadly, that happens even with good records, let alone not-so-good ones.

On the other hand, this results in snap judgments, which aren't always the best ones. The ones I did buy, like Spoon and Rilo Kiley, have been getting more play, at least in part because they're more convenient -- although both those cases took so long because they had me sitting on the fence, eventually leaning up for Spoon and down for Rilo Kiley. There are a few cases below where another play or two might very well nudge a record up a notch -- Pharoahe Monch is the most likely such candidate.

Not sure how much more of this I'll do, but there's enough below for a preliminary report. I have a pretty comprehensive set of notes on albums likely to figure large in year-end polls. The only one in the top ten I haven't checked out is Radiohead, which doesn't seem to be available, although there are others I haven't gotten to (and may not be able to), like: Band of Horses, Battles, Iron & Wine, Jay-Z, Kings of Leon, Okkervil River, Wilco, and Wu-Tang Clan. I'll do at least one more report, probably in a week or so, but not on any fixed schedule.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Some Loud Thunder (2007, clapyourhandssayyeah.com): Liked their first record, which had a Feelies-like groove going for it. This second one starts so ugly I wondered whether the download software was defective, but I gather that's supposed to be "a cheeky sonic joke" [as Christgau put it]. I'm not so amused. Nor does it help that the first hint of groove devolves into something called "Satan Said Dance." B-

The Go! Team: Proof of Youth (2007, Sub Pop): Still having some sound problems here -- for one thing, the subwoofer was set too low, but it's also easy to set it too loud. In any case, this is deliberately trashy, the sound layers piled on way beyond tacky. It would be dreadful if it didn't move, but it pretty much can't stop, or won't bother. B+(**)

The White Stripes: Icky Thump (2007, Warner Brothers): No doubt Jack White has talent. Just when I'm starting to wonder whether I've lost the cognitive skill to latch onto a rock lyric, he hits a dozen times or more -- nothing profound, but enough to prick up my ears. Plays some guitar, too. I'm less certain about the drums, which seem mixed way up, or maybe my subwoofer is still berzerk? The songs with "Blues" in the title are really superb, but there are other pieces where he reaches for a worldbeat motif and loses me completely -- "Conquest" [evidently a cover, which wasn't known while streaming] is one song I'd just as soon never hear again [Christgau praises it as "an anti-sexist jump blues . . . reconceived here as flamenco mariachi"]. B+(*)

Imperial Teen: The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band (2007, Merge): Lighter than I remembered them, which after the icky thumper was especially welcome. Can't say I got a lot of this, but played it twice, starting good, getting better. I imagine that with a few more plays most or maybe all of the songs will prove memorable. As it is, things like "Sweet Potato" and "21st Century" secure their titles deeply, the title song justifies its place, the first song ("Everything") kicks off hard, and two or three soft ones please while holding interest. A-

Les Savy Fav: Let's Stay Friends (2007, Frenchkiss): Postpunk, I guess -- they let their guard down here and there, but mostly keep their dukes up. The crunch is refreshing, and it helps that they keep it hooky. Something I didn't follow about a president, but I assume it's negative. A-

Buck 65: Situation (2007, Strange Famous): Another surfeit of wonders. He sounds older and like he's laboring, resigned maybe that he's not going to break through to any measure of stardom, but even his proletarian beats are several cuts above the competition, and he can't help but flaunt the brains behind the words. A subject for further study. Doubt that it ranks among his top 3-4, but I need to get a real copy. A-

Panda Bear: Person Pitch (2007, Paw Tracks): Noah Lennox, part of Animal Collective, another well regarded prog group I've heard little of. This seems even more prog, artfully complex, with some textures I can imagine getting to enjoy, but I'm not sure I want to go down that route. [Pitchfork's #1 record.] B+(*)

Justice: Cross (2007, Vice/Ed Banger): Album cover doesn't seem to have a title -- don't know about spine, booklet, etc., one of the problems working like this. Most sources list this as Cross, although the cover looks more like a coffin or maybe a stiffened scarecrow. French group (Xavier de Rosnay, Gaspard Augé), different from jungle producer Tony Bowes' alias, and possibly others. They favor bass riffs, the heavier the better, which often means keybs. At speed they turn into cartoonish grotesques, which is much of the fun. The vocal mixes are less successful, possibly because live humor is harder to fake than cartoon humor. B+(*)

Amy LaVere: Anchors & Anvils (2007, Archer): A slight voice which she uses slyly, sneaking up on you with more substance than you -- unless you're paying enough attention to notice the ambush on the first track. What I noticed were little bits of fiddle and guitar that provide a consistently interesting background. She wrote some of the songs, and the others fit nicely. A-

Lori McKenna: Unglamorous (2007, Warner Brothers): She's got a great country voice, and this starts off sounding more poised than Miranda Lambert's much praised album. It loses ground when the songs slow down -- not that they lose interest, although the dense guitar backup doesn't offer much relief. A couple more listens could put it over, but I'm not quite sure. [Fifth album, first on a major label. She wrote or co-wrote all the songs. AMG lists her as folk, but this is country.] B+(***)

Elizabeth Cook: Balls (2007, Thirty Tigers): Yet another country chanteuse, about midway vocally between McKenna and LaVere, doesn't throw hard, but does put some twang on it. Title cut (actually called "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman") is a little heavy in the refrain but has something in the verse. A cut about rock 'n' roll has a nice lilt to it. She must know something about that because she covers Lou Reed's "Sunday Morning," a smart touch. A couple of other cuts stand out: "What Do I Do" and the closer "Always Tomorrow." Played it twice and it filled out nicely. A-

Joe Ely: Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch (2007, Rack 'Em): Only saw this on one very minor list. First album since 2003's Streets of Sin (Rounder), which was much better than anyone gave it credit for. The songwriting here lists a bit to the superficial ("Sue Me Sue" and "Miss Bonnie and Mister Clyde" both build on repeating the overly obvious), but retains his usual feel and style. Early on the horns run roughshod over the album, but later on they carry it. B+(**)

Ghostface Killah: The Big Doe Rehab (2007, Def Jam): I actually bought this when it came out, but was too busy to play it, then when I finally did it freaked out, unplayable. Now it looks like Rhapsody's copy is missing three cuts ("Supa Gfk," "I'll Die for You," "Shakey Dog Starring Lolita" -- first time I've noticed this; is it common to hold back?). This seeds an irritation factor that grows fast as they lay down the gangsta shit -- "Walk Around" hits too close for my comfort, although it and the preceding "We Celebrate" are musical highpoints. I haven't done the numbers yet, but I suspect that hip-hop is down on my list this year. This has a blustering sound to it, with choice samples, hopping beats, lots of bullshit blather. B+(***)

Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (2007, Universal): Starts off with two pretty great songs -- "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good" -- and packs on a second take of the latter for a closer, like Lily Allen did with "Smile." In between only the title song comes close -- "Wake Up Alone" has some promise, but doesn't deliver. I hear she's a notorious reprobate, which in my book doesn't count for much unless she can turn it into worthwhile music. She does have a distinctive voice, although reports of her jazz phrasing are, shall we say, exaggerated. B+(**)

Feist: The Reminder (2007, Cherry Tree/Interscope): That would be Leslie Feist, soft-voiced Canadian singer-songwriter. Half spare ballads, little more than guitar and voice, not witty or clever enough to get my attention. The other half pick up the pace a bit, as with the gospel touches on "Sea Lion Woman" and the horns on "1234," and that helps a lot. B

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007, Daptone): I'm a sucker for old-fashioned soul, especially with a voice like Jones has, but this never quite rose above the ordinary, and hit a confusing stretch in the middle, as if entertaining a foray into progressive territory. Didn't do anything with it, and it didn't stick. B

Mavis Staples: We'll Never Turn Back (2007, Anti-): The cover photo is the first sign that this invokes the civil rights movement. The first song is JB Lenoir's "Down in Mississippi," good for context setting up two old warhorses: "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Not Be Moved." Other trad songs like "This Little Light of Mine" and "Jesus Is on the Main Line" are adapted to powerful effect. Ry Cooder produced, added things to the songs, and no doubt is the reason the music remains so spare and muscular. With Staples' firm voice, the whole record broadcasts strength and determination. A

Ry Cooder: My Name Is Buddy (2007, Nonesuch): Tales of Buddy Red Cat, Lefty Mouse, Reverend Tom Toad: Cooder's been mining Americana since the early 1970s, so these originals attempt to put some back. That Cooder's imagined past is leftist reminds me of things that I'd almost forgotten and that most never knew. It's a fit past for a future we're not likely to enjoy. B+(***)

The Fall: Reformation: Post TLC (2007, Narnack): After 30 years and at least as many records, you'd think they'd have a following, but when I couldn't find this behind all the Fall Out Boy albums at Best Buy, I was told that it had been dropped from the store inventory a month or so after it came out. Needless to say, they didn't have any of their others either, not even the best-ofs that concentrate and elevate their basic sonic trademark riff. This does the same, less consistently of course, but close enough and with a few curves tossed in, one sung by leader Mark Smith's wife, keyboardist Elena Poulou, in sort of a Kim Gordon move. A-

The National: Boxer (2007, Beggars Banquet): Deep monotone voice, calm demeanor, deep foursquare drums, little guitar flash (although they can lift it up a notch), some words reflect the times ("Fake Empire," "Start a War") but I didn't follow close enough to analyze. (On replay, the latter sounds domestic.) I find the steadiness appealing, but can't get excited about it. B+(*)

Kenge Kenge: Introducing Kenge Kenge (2007, Riverboat): A group from Kenya, voices thick, percussion rough, very little of the Congolese guitar that turned much of their region into paradise. Rather, their instrumentation sounds primitive, similar to Konono No. 1, a more recent Congolese influence -- arguably both more modern and more improverished, which seems to be the trend. B+(**)

Burial: Untrue (2007, Hyperdub): This tops Metacritic's list of best-reviewed albums in 2007, a result which is surely skewed by limited exposure to specialists -- the numbers range from 80 to 100, and how they average out to 92 isn't intuitive obvious (looks to me like the median is 90 and the mean a bit less). Electronica, not fast, fairly low keyed beats, some sound swirls, and lots of voices, mostly tracked to repeat. Strikes me as insignificant, but I like it nonetheless, and can see how someone can become habituated to it. B+(***)

Pharoahe Monch: Desire (2007, SRC): Got shortchanged here again, with two cuts dropped from Rhapsody's stream. That convinces me to go conservative on the grade, hoping I can revisit this someday with the full album. Otherwise, this is one of the best hip-hop albums I've heard this year, with the obligatory Bush dis (the obviously titled "Welcome to the Terrordome") and stories that hold up (even the crime melodrama "Trilogy"). Presumably "Push" was reworked from Joe Zawinul (AMG credits "Jamerson, Zawnul"; presumably Jamerson is the name Monch cashes his checks under). Hope to revisit. B+(***)

Bright Eyes: Cassadaga (2007, Saddle Creek): It's easy enough to see how someone might take Conor Oberst to be one of the more important pop artists of recent years, but I haven't been able to make up my mind whether that's a good thing or not. Lifted has been languishing on my shelf for a couple of years now, just something I don't seem to be able to make up my mind about. But the game rules here don't allow such procrastination: after one or two plays, the record gets the highest grade I'm pretty much sure of, even if it seems like more play might help. So at this stage "Make a Plan to Love Me" still seems like little more than a superior quality 10cc song, as does "Soul Singer in the Session Band" with Billy Joel. I'm not sure whether such comparisons demonstrate his craftsmanship, lack of erudition, or dumb luck. Some words grab my ear, but after I jotted down "if you can't understand something it's best to be afraid" I decided that wasn't so deep either. B+(***)

Of Montreal: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007, Polyvinyl): Athens GA group, led by fawn-voiced Kevin Barnes. Been around since 1997, with quite a few albums. Sounds a bit like the Brains at first, but only when they bother to extend a groove. AMG lists several styles, including neo-psychedelia, which barely scratches the problem. I'm impressed by the cleverness here, but I'm also sorely put off by it. Christgau is right that "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" is a choice cut, but that's only because the music overpowers the grotesquerie. That doesn't happen often here, and that's probably deliberate. C+

Against Me!: New Wave (2007, Warner Brothers): Florida punk group led by a Tom Gabel, with several albums out, specializing in exclamation marks and wordy titles. Christgau claims this is "the best political punk in years." I played it twice and have my doubts, both the analysis and the crunch, although they don't miss every time. On the other hand, how difficult can it be? Butch Vig produced, for better and worse. B+(**)

Art Brut: It's a Bit Complicated (2007, Downtown): English rock band, had a terrific debut album, so this is their sophomore slump. Not that they don't still sound terrific. It's just the usual story: the best songs got used up the first time around, and the obligatory follow-up came too soon. B+(**)

Babyshambles: Shotter's Nation (2007, Astralwerks): Spinoff group by Pete Doherty of the Libertines -- second album, may be his main concern. I never cared for the Libertines, but I can't deny the tough, hooky popcraft here -- even the slow ballad at the end holds up. B+(***)