Rhapsody Streamnotes: July 14, 2008

July 14, 2008 Notebook

Still in Detroit, working on cleaning things up following the funeral of my father-in-law, Kalman Tillem. Have scarcely managed to listen to any music, much less write about it. Doubt that I will until we get back to Wichita, hopefully by the end of this week.

In the meantime, I thought this would be a good time to dump out my ongoing file of short review notes based on listening to Rhapsody streams. This has lately become the main way I keep track of new non-jazz. They are based on one or two plays, with no consideration of the packaging, and little background research, so take them with more than the usual grain of salt.

Kelley Polar: I Need You to Hold on While the Sky Is Falling (2008, Environ): Original name, Mike Kelley, suggests this should be sorted under K. Worked with Morgan Geist, whose Metro Area has made some very attractive disco revival records. Plays viola, of no particular importance here. Songs, mostly, the best with sweeping themes like "We Live in an Expanding Universe" and "Sea of Sine Waves," some barely emerging from the ambient. B+(*)

Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple (2008, Atlantic): Not sure that Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse are really good for each other. There's a fractal brittleness to DM's beats that shines like ice on their own but is likely to get smothered with gravy when CL chimes in. Similarly, CL seems a little undernourished here -- man needs some greens, some fatback too. He does pull off a couple of memorable songs, especially "Who's Gonna Save My Soul." Don't hear anything like "Crazy" here, but I didn't hear it last time either. B+(**)

Mike Doughty: Golden Delicious (2008, ATO): Former front man in Soul Coughing, an alt-rock group with a couple of good records in the 1990s. This is slimmed down to solo act size, although he picks up backup singers and spare musicians when he feels like it. Songs well crafted, varied, etc. None sounds like a hit. B+(*)

James McMurtry: Just Us Kids (2008, Lightning Rod): Songs like "Ruins of the Realm" and "Cheney's Toy" pull no punches, least of all in the hard edged music. The spare but emphatic music also drives home the detailed everyday portraits -- the man was born to literature as well as country, and learned to rock when he finally had too much rage to vent any other way. A-

Robyn (2007 [2008], Konichiwa/Cherry Tree/Interscope): Swedish answer to . . . well, more like Britney than Madonna, but I'm not sure if even that holds up. Beats seem hollow, a little straight-laced. Songs have some sass to them, but that's all she's got, and she may just be confused by the language. B [Later: A-]

The B-52s: Funplex (2008, Astralwerks): Way past their prime -- 1983's Whammy! was the last time they really pulled a first rate record together, not that they've been trying very hard. The new label must have nudged them back into their old sound, for they go fishing for "Rock Lobster" three or five or seven times and come up with everything from sea urchins to the narwahl. As one who remembers seeing them at Max's before their first album dropped, that would score nostalgia points if it didn't dredge up so much fun. A-

Robert Forster: The Evangelist (2008, Yep Roc): With Grant McLennan dead, the surviving author of the Go-Betweens. I never made a point of sorting out who did what, partly because I was so much less conscious of Forster -- McLennan's solo albums seemed to capture the whole sound, while I missed Forster's four completely. This is his fifth, spiked by a couple of joint songs that would have been solid on a group album. Meanwhile, he has the detailed sense of wordplay that made the group delight, and enough of the songsmithing to keep it going. A-

Santogold (2008, Downtown): Not sure whether Santogold is an alias for singer Santi White or something more like a group, with Joseph Hill (of ska-punk band Stiffed) the main collaborator. Eponymous debut album, following the angular single "Creator" -- reprised here. Good beat, a bit on the foursquare side. B+(**)

No Age: Nouns (2008, Sub Pop): A Los Angeles lo-fi drum/guitar duo, more new wave than punk -- although the latter is better remembered -- with a little Jesus and Mary Chain fuzz but a lot more intricate structure. Last year's UK-released debut sounded promising in two plays. Two plays of this one sound like an advance, although this is the sort of thing that could take many plays to really flesh out. A-

Tokyo Police Club: Elephant Shell (2008, Saddle Creek): Montreal group, had a well-regarded EP a couple of years ago, which I didn't bother with because EPs don't strike me as substantial enough for the paperwork -- the contrary point is that brevity is a virtue we encounter less and less these days. In any case, their debut has a straightforward alt-rock beat, a singer who's just appealing enough to keep you with him, and songs that are just enigmatic enough to keep one thinking they might pan out. A-

Al Green: Lay It Down (2008, Blue Note): I remember two occasions when I first heard a new record playing while loitering in EJ Korvettes (Herald Square, NYC), recognized that the record wasn't up to the artist's usual standards, knew I'd rarely if ever play it again, but couldn't go home without it. One was Van Morrison's A Period of Transition; the other was an Al Green album, probably Have a Good Time, maybe Full of Fire. Only God broke me of the habit of buying Al Green records, and even that didn't come easy: I have 4-5 of his 1980-94 gospel records, like some, might even like more. The first of Green's Blue Note albums was a return to his secular form, even if it wasn't much better than Full of Fire, and ultimately due to languish on the shelf -- I get around to Green so rarely these days that I go straight to the 1972-73 classics, or 1977's Belle Album, or the faultness Greatest Hits. The new one reminds me of Korvettes because the sensation is the same: he still operates on his own unique level, an amazing singer, backed here with a very studious band, but compared to his oeuvre this isn't especially distinguished. Kind of like this year's Van Morrison album, which I have slotted a bit further down my list of near misses. I don't shop as impulsively as I did in 1977, but I still wouldn't mind having both albums on my shelf. I imagine that's because the sense of wonder is still evident even when it's faint. B+(***) [Later: A-]

Emmylou Harris: All I Intended to Be (2005-08 [2008], Nonesuch): Midway through she does one of Billy Joe Shaver's almost too good to be true songs, "Old Five and Dimers Like Me." This reminds me that she's got good taste, but errs cautiously on the obvious side. She does it as a duet -- not sure who with -- but that just reminds me she's the world's finest backup singer. She also tackles Merle Haggard's "Kern River" and Rodney Crowley's "Beyond the Great Divide" to similar effect, except the songs are a bit less obvious and suit her better -- the latter is a choice cut. She sneaks some originals in, collaborating with the McGarrigles on a couple -- that's where she really shows her good taste. B+(***)

John Hiatt: Same Old Man (2008, New West): I never wrote about Hiatt; no doubt I was meant to. (John Piccarella did but fate dealt him Hiatt's worst album to date -- possibly worst ever.) Shortly after I started writing for the Voice, Christgau sent me Hiatt's first two LPs, figuring Midwestern weirdos are meant for each other. A couple of years later I had a uniquely serendipitous experience: I caught Hiatt performing solo at a bar on the north side of Indianapolis -- just happened to be passing through and stopped to see an old college chum who had moved back home and was hip enough to be able to add it all up. The first two albums had great off-the-wall songs like "I Killed an Ant With My Guitar" and "Motorboat to Heaven"; two later albums rocked more consistently (Slug Line and Riding With the King) without losing much of his surrealism. Then I lost track of him, catching few of his evidently successful A&M albums, none until now of his 3-4 on New West. His voice has gotten odder -- he's always had this bass-type voice pinched into a soprano, which was always weird enough, so maybe he's just gotten more comfortable singing in it. Songs jump out less, but they always took a little time to sink in (when they did, that is) -- one line about being a young man just interested in food registered. Title track is memorable. B+(**)

Old 97's: Blame It on Gravity (2008, New West): Blame what? The songs are hard to fault, and they lift off so effortlessly you wonder how they managed to suspend gravity. A-