Rhapsody Streamnotes: January 15, 2008

Year-End Mop-Up (Part 2)

This is the second batch of short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, mostly meant to check out records that have some backing in year-end lists -- I'm keeping something of a scorecard as I go along. I'm thinking I'll do one more of these by the end of the month. At least, I'm not tired of the exercise yet, and I'm not in a huge rush to dig into the jazz prospecting. So we'll see how far this goes. It does at least give me a way to sample stuff that I wouldn't normally get to hear. But it doesn't give me everything I'd like -- I'd say about one out of every five records I've looked for aren't available (and it turns out that many of the hip-hop albums are missing tracks). Other problems include lack of documentation and the impracticality of getting back to a record that is interesting but not easily judged. With jazz prospecting, I often jot down an estimate and put the record back for further play later. Here I'm not doing that, although there are records here that I do want to return to in the future.

Mary J Blige: Growing Pains (2007, Geffen): Two guest shots come early, one with Ludacris, the other with Usher, both pretty good but far short of transcendent, and in the long run they seem like commercial expedients, more hint that she's less auteur than businesswoman. That's one reason I have trouble with her albums. Another is that she's got a voice that seems normative for a post-whatever soul niche that lost most of its appeal a decade or more before she came around and took it over. But once she's done her business, a series of relatively simple songs comes along building thoughtfully on her title theme -- maybe she's got a touch of auteur after all? I like this as much as anything I've ever heard from her, confirming her SFFR status, but on such short notice I'm still hedging my bets. B+(***)

Jill Scott: The Real Thing: Words and Sounds, Vol. 3 (2007, Hidden Beach): A softer, thinner, lighter voice than Blige, with music to match, but a near match nonetheless. Another SFFR. B+(***)

Rihanna: Good Girl Gone Bad (2007, Def Jam): Robyn Rihanna Fenty, b. 1988, Barbados; claims African, Irish, and Indian (Guyanese mother, so presumably from India) descent. Third album, with hits in each -- "Umbrella" is the one here, goosed by a Jay-Z feature. Doesn't sound like a teen star, other than that she depends on pro help, with Timbaland living large here. Looks hot enough to be a Blender favorite regardless of talent (cf. Paris Hilton). I like the dance pop well enough, but there are weak spots -- "Hate That I Love You" is pretty awful, and there are better songs about "Rehab" floating around. Wonder if I got this lyric right: "I think Christ sucks sometimes/but when you're in the spotlight everything feels good." B

Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog (2007, Sub Pop): Alias for singer-songwriter Samuel Beam. Has several well regarded albums, evidently starting from a folkie lo-fi base. This is low key and easy going, but fairly developed, elegant even, musically. Can even be catchy, but I didn't catch much in the way of lyrics, which eventually determine whether you like or hate such artists. B+(**)

Busdriver: Road Kill Overcoat (2007, Epitaph): Most sources elide the title into one word. I can't verify that, and suspect it's a matter of interpretation anyway. Underground rap, rapid fire wordiness over fanciful beats. Possible political content, although it's hard to say how deep. One line I noted is "in the face of neocon Nazis/I'm no Noam Chomsky." B+(**)

The Fiery Furnaces: Widow City (2007, Thrill Jockey): Brother-sister duo from Oak Park, IL, Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, the latter doing most of the singing. They have an annoying habit of shifting rhythms, melodies, and trains of thought within songs. There are occasional moments where all this chaotic ADD threatens to pay off -- "My Egyptian Grammar" and "The Old Hag Is Sleeping" sound promising, but they are songs 6-7. C+

Los Campesinos!: Sticking Fingers Into Sockets (2007, Arts & Crafts, EP): Welsh group, rocks hard, a bit too fancy for punk, male and female voices, no Latinos I can detect. Six songs, totals 18:38, including the 6:14 "You! Me! Dancing!" Full length album, Hold on Now, Youngster due out February. B+(**)

Mekons: Natural (2007, Quarterstick): First album since 2004's Punk Rock -- scattered across at least two continents their recording rate has slowed but hasn't slowed to the point of serious hiatus. First song ("Dark Dark Dark") seems way too dark, less for its theme than its dirgelike pace, which covers up the looseness of the remaining material, which gains traction after the initial despair wears off. Still, they seem neither inspired nor outraged. They know what they're up against, and pace themselves accordingly. B+(**)

The Oohlas: Best Stop Pop (2006, Stolen Transmission): Los Angeles group, mostly nonstop groove, layered guitar, and Olivia Stone singing, but one called "From Me to You" stands out, possibly in contrast, more likely because the guitar groove kicks up a notch. B+(**)

Peter Bjorn and John: Writer's Block (2006 [2007], Almost Gold): Swedish group: Peter Moren (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Bjorn Yttling (vocals, bass, keyboards), John Eriksson (drums, vocals). Third album, originally released on Wichita in 2006, reissued with bonus tracks (remixes) in 2007. Leads off with strongly strummed guitar, which seems to be a trademark. Catchy middlebrow pop-rock, didn't catch much in the way of lyrics, even though they were in English (more or less). B+(*)

Prince: Planet Earth (2007, NPG/Columbia): This suffers from self-comparison, which is inevitable in a major artist so prolific for so long. "Guitar" is a good hot one, and "Future Baby Mama" is a good soft one, but neither threaten his best-ofs. Better the second time through, and probably gets better still. B+(**)

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Red Earth (2006 [2007], Emarcy): Didn't get this from Verve, which like other units of Universal has suffered the cutbacks in employees and interns with diminished service. Enough other jazz critics did get it to tie up Abbey Lincoln's much adored albums in the Voice jazz poll. I'm way short on details here, but the subtitle is "A Malian Journey," and Malian musicians are prominent -- including a number of co-writing credits and vocals. This works to remarkable effect on "Bad Spirits," where a Malian singer sings in some Malian language with Bridgewater picking up the refrain in English. But other collaborations don't mesh so well, making me wonder whether this works either as jazz or Malian pop. Bridgewater is on more secure ground with the covers: the opening "Afro Blue," the closing "Compared to What," and declaiming Nina Simone's "Four Women" asserting the slave connection which mostly missed Mali. Hard to predict whether I'd go up or down with more exposure. Among Mali tourists, she's more imposing than Ry Cooder and more ambitious than Hank Jones or Roswell Rudd, but not as clever as Damon Albarn, who got the best album out of the deal. B+(*)

Ponytail: Kamehameha (2007, Creative Capitalism): Hard guitar riffs, too crunchy fast for heavy metal but made of some lighter alloy, to which one Molly Siegel adds annoying shrieks. Christgau describes this as "kiddie-pop hardcore no wave assault/playground game/initiation ritual." I don't doubt that it's meant as a joke, and give it some credit for that, but not a lot. B

Mary Gauthier: Between Daylight and Dark (2007, Lost Highway): An alt-country singer-songwriter who made a big impression with Mercy Now turns to measured storytelling instead of intense first person experience. It's hard to tell from one play how deeply these stories will sink in, but I'm reminded of several cases where I wound up treasuring similar milder follow-ups as much as their more obvious predecessors -- Marshall Chapman's Inside Job after Dirty Linen one good example. B+(***)

Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart (2007, Rounder): Another one that could inch up with more listening -- what strikes me at first as plain may well just be subtle. I'm also not clear how big a role son Teddy Thompson plays: he's likely the key to the musical improvement, if not necessarily to the lyrics. Not as searing or as sore as she was with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, but wiser, better paced. I get the feeling she could do this more often than she has in the past. B+(**)

Northern State: Can I Keep This Pen? (2007, Ipecac): Christgau downgraded this after giving their first two albums (and a teaser EP I've never seen) full A grades. I liked those albums less, and now find myself enjoying this one more. They basically do old school rap with college girl voices and left-liberal (i.e., not new or old leftist) politics, with all three swapping rhymes. The deviation here is that they sing more, which works for me. It gives them a cheesy pop vibe that I rarely hear anymore -- check out "Good Distance," or "Better Already." Of course, smart, clever, and up yours help, especially on top of cheesy pop. A-

The Pipettes: We Are the Pipettes (2006 [2007], Interscope): English girl group, modelled on early '60s prototypes, replete with wall of sound production. It only works on occasion, maybe because postmodernism innoculates one against going back to a period that depended on such innocence, or maybe because it's just harder to do than it looks. B

Jens Lekman: Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007, Secretly Canadian): Swedish singer-songwriter, working in English, has a self-pity streak like Morrissey and a flair for excessively ornate arrangements like Sufjan Stevens, although less extreme than either. I initially found him appalling, but bits of melody proved irresistible, leaving me merely uncomfortable. "Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo" is a relatively straight one, catchy enough they picked it as the single. B [later: B+(*)]

Michael Hurley: Ancestral Swamp (2007, Gnomonsong): Simple, patient, humble folkish songs, mostly just sung over guitar, a couple adding a bit of fiddle. Not as funny as he used to be, but then he never was Peter Stampfel nor Jeffrey Fredericks, authors of the funnier songs on Have Moicy! (the most hilarious were actually penned by Antonia). B+(**)

The Good, the Bad, & the Queen (2007, Honest Jons/Virgin): Supergroup project, assembling Damon Albarn (Blur), Simon Tong (Verve), Paul Simonon (Clash), and Tony Allen (Fela Anikulapo Kuti's drummer), produced by Danger Mouse. Presumably Albarn is singing, although I found the vocals on the first cuts awful tedious, especially against the blippy music effects that seem typical of Danger Mouse. The title cut could almost be a different group, with serviceable vocals and guitar rave. B

Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (2007, Nonesuch): Knowing that jazz whiz Nels Cline was added to the band, I can't help but notice the guitar, which while not jazzy is powerfully sharp even if the songs and singer-songwriter are still on the lame side of alt-country. At least that's my first impression. But they're tuneful, and while I didn't follow the words any more than usual, nothing stuck out like a sore thumb. B+(***)

Lupe Fiasco: The Cool (2007, Atlantic): Chicago Muslim, doesn't like Cool any more than he liked Liquor last time, but knows enough about it to take it for a ride. This takes a while to get in gear -- the thing about his town being the best town falls short of convincing residents of any other town, even those who live in towns they admit suck, but "Hip Hop Saved My Life" makes up for it, and he hits more often than misses from there out. After two plays I'm not as solid with this as I ought to be, but for once feel like gambling by rounding up. A-

Jay-Z: American Gangster (2007, Roc-A-Fella): I'm tempted to dock this conspicuous commercial tie-in simply on anti-gangsta principle, but the most obvious connections are far and away the strongest cuts, especially musically. A bigger problem is the "ignorant shit" (a title) he subcontracts out to his lessers -- he may stand behind his brand name, but he's not above stretching it a bit. Another problem is that Rhapsody's download is three songs short, so that's another reason to hedge. B+(*)

Colombiafrica -- The Mythic Orchestra: Voodoo Love Inna Champeta-Land (2007, Riverboat): Not sure how this breaks down. Champeta is Colombian, reportedly from Cartagena. Most of the percussion sounds Latin (and plausibly Colombian, although I can't be sure, and I see one credit to Camerounian drummer Guy Bilong). The guitars trend African, mostly Congolese -- Diblo Dibala is the best known, followed by Sekou Diabaté (from Guinea, if memory serves). The voices are mostly Colombian, except for Nyboma (who I figure for Congo, but can't be sure). The album was produced by Paris-based Congolese guitarist Bopol Mansiamina, but I don't know where it was recorded. The label's hype talks about afrobeat and mbaqanga and all sorts of other things, which appear to be reflected radiation. Nor do I know if this is just a one-shot, which is what it looks to be. In any case, it keeps its various pieces balanced and hopping along, the sort of rhythm-first album that bridges all language barriers. A-

Okkervil River: The Stage Names (2007, Jagjaguwar): Austin TX group, by reputation a folk-rooted group with particular debts to the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers. Don't know about their earlier albums (AMG lists 4), but this one sounds like typical midwestern singer-songwriter fare, with the one compelling riff swiped from the Beach Boys. B

The Sadies: New Seasons (2007, Yep Roc): Country band from Canada. Did a pretty good album with Jon Langford once. Without him, they still do pretty good background, but don't have a strong lead. B+(**)

The Pierces: Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge (2007, Lizard King): Two sisters from Birmingham, AL, on their third album. Songs about evenly divide between awkward ones that feel forced and others that flow well enough they could be hits. More of the latter would put this over, but even the awkward ones get by on intelligence and wit. Reminds me a bit of Voices of the Beehive, but not as loud or irresistible. An interesting album, one that could charm its way into becoming a favorite. B+(***)

Britney Spears: Blackout (2007, Jive): Nothing here Madonna hasn't done better and a lot smarter, but she's got enough libido and practice as a poseur that her limited pipes and brains aren't huge liabilities. Obviously, she had help, and it makes a difference. Despite my fondness for this kind of dance music, she never made much of an impression before, but I never disliked her either. This isn't great, but it's very solid. B+(***)

Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness: Congo Classics 1961-1977 (1961-77 [2007], Sterns Africa, 2CD): Early material, starting when the all-time soukous great was 21. The earliest cuts do favor lightness, but this picks up a powerful groove as it progresses. This has been on my shopping list for a while, and sooner or later I'll pick it up. Hope the booklet is useful. But even on music alone it's possible that this could pick up a notch (or two). A- [later: A]

Band of Horses: Cease to Begin (2007, Sub Pop): Indie rock band, from Seattle, second album. Songs are mostly catchy, guitars have some punch and wail, singer isn't bad, can do a little country twang, but doesn't depend on it. B+(*)

Nellie McKay: Obligatory Villagers (2007, Hungry Mouse): Third album, second on her own label after a well publicized spat with Columbia. Not sure whether to consider her a jazz singer. She's more like a Bette Midler who insists on writing her own songs, and is smart enough to get away with it (mostly). Her model seems to come from show music, which often suffers from overdramatization, not to mention excessive fanciness -- unless, of course, it really works, in which case all is forgiven. I don't think this works often enough, although two plays is certainly not enough to be sure. B+(**)

St. Vincent: Marry Me (2007, Beggars Banquet): Alias for Annie Clark, a singer-songwriter, high voice, eclectic pop arrangements, clever and whimsical, maybe with a literary bent. Reminds me of Kate Bush. B+(*)

Konono No. 1: Live at Couleur Café (2007, Crammed Discs): From Congo, a group with junkyard instruments and thumb pianos, all groove all the time. Two previous albums capture the same sound, making them more/less interchangeable, but this set, recorded in Belgium, is at least their equal, maybe better -- at least more consistent. A-

Wu-Tang Clan: 8 Diagrams (2007, SRC/Universal/Motown): Another hip-hop album missing a track, but this time I doubt that it can make much of a difference. Only one cut I don't much care for ("Stick Me for My Riches" featuring Gerald Alston), a couple of platinum samples, a lot of deft beats, plenty of rough and/or smart talk. A-

Wax Tailor: Hope & Sorrow (2007, Decon): A DJ from France, JC la Saoût, stakes out his political position early regarding cultural reuse, then proceeds to make his case artistically. Spoken bits can be educational or just underscore a line or bridge a passage; raps go a bit further, and there are a couple of soul vocals, including one by Sharon Jones. The beats are loose, almost bow-legged, giving the whole thing an air of goofiness. The best culture, indeed. A-

The Chalets: Check In (2005 [2007], Setanta): Irish pop-rock group, both male and female singers, big hooks, catchy, harder than most such groups. Christgau docked them for being "a little too cute," but not a lot. I find them a bit too much, but for two or three songs they sound really great, which means they got it in them. If they were better they'd be the B-52s. (On "Love Punch" they are: "I know you love me but you're fucking crazy.") B+(***)

Apparat: Walls (2006 [2007], Shitkatapult Strike): German, a/k/a Sascha Ring, although I don't know if that's a real name or another level of alias. Done work with Ellen Allien, a name I've been curious about but never got to. The electronica is full-fleshed, elegant, songlike, with half or more vocals -- don't know who sings, but I've seen comparisons to Thom Yorke. B+(***)