O.K., it’s been a few weeks now since the latest annual installment of The Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll made its newsstand debut, but no-lifer that I am, I’m still obsessing over the results. My smug inner contrarian was happy to see that precisely zero of the other 694 critics who participated voted for one of the albums that I included on my 2002 Top 10 list: Tom Burris’ For Sale , on the newly reconstituted Tomato Records label. Mr. Burris, a New Yorker with a mellifluous voice much like that of the English Beat’s Dave Wakeling, makes an appealing brand of folk-pop that’s sometimes fanciful, sometimes impassioned, and always catchy and well worth your time.
Speaking of time, one of the funniest assertions made by a Pazz & Jop participant was a short paragraph by an online critic named Michael Daddino. “I’d sooner download a song than dig out the relevant CD only five feet behind me,” he wrote. “Compared to the immediacy of MP3s, CDs are too pokey.” Mr. Daddino also pronounced compact discs “a pain in the ass to listen to” as well.
As much as Mr. Daddino’s mind-boggling laziness portends a brilliant future as a music critic, I’ve got to disagree with him. If you ask me, CD’s aren’t pokey enough. One of the reasons I love old LP’s is that the process of playing them is so physically satisfying. The records are big, round, solid. They make an elegant swish when I pull them out of their sleeves. They hit the turntable with a resounding thump. I can feel the whir of the motor as it clicks into action, and the weight of the stylus as it slowly drops down onto the vinyl. There is an air of holy ritual to it all.
CD’s got rid of the extraneous pops and clicks, but they also did away with the little procedural details that made listening to music an event. MP3′s may be more “immediate,” but they have no physicality at all. And where’s the pleasure in that?
Somehow, I was able this week to overlook the compact disc’s lack of immediacy and listen to five recent releases in that patience-trying format:
Massive Attack, 100th Window (Virgin): Having helped both to inspire and make obsolete the term “trip-hop,” this celebrated Bristol, England, collective returns to the marketplace with a fourth album of dark electronic musings. Of the original core trio, only Robert (3D) Del Naja remains. Andrew (Mushroom) Vowles left the fold a while back; Grant (Daddy G) Marshall doesn’t appear on the album either, but Mr. Del Naja insists that Mr. Marshall is still in the group. Going by that logic, we all could be members of Massive Attack.
The most illustrious of the many guests on the album is Sinéad O’Connor, whose voice aches just as powerfully with rage and sorrow as it did on her ear-grabbing 1987 debut, The Lion and the Cobra . Ms. O’Connor’s three haunting vocal contributions are so far and away the best tracks on 100th Window that a full-length collaboration between her and Mr. Del Naja would seem advisable -though this might run counter to the willful self-marginalization she’s been engaged in for much of her career.
As for the rest of the album, it’s more surface than substance, but what surfaces: Sampled strings hang like noxious gas clouds on the horizon, high-hats chatter madly across the stereo spectrum, ominous guitar chords ring down from distant mountain tops. The sound of abject dread has rarely been this tantalizing.
Though 100th Window is probably Massive Attack’s weakest effort-novices should begin with 1991′s seminal Blue Lines -there aren’t a lot of artists out there who can make more sonically enticing records than Mr. Del Naja. For all of its shortcomings, the damn thing sure sounds swell on headphones.
50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope): On paper, this is Queens native Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson’s first album, but in reality he has at least four previous bootleg releases to his name. Originally discovered by the late Jam Master Jay in the mid-90′s, 50 Cent didn’t reach the mainstream until Eminem and Dr. Dre hooked up with him last year for the 8 Mile soundtrack. As he puts it on “Many Men,” “I’m the diamond in the dirt that ain’t been found / I’m the underground king and I ain’t been crowned.” Considering that he’s now a Billboard chart-topper, I think we can safely call that statement outdated.
Much has been made of Mr. Jackson’s real-life gangsta background-the trail of dead family and friends, the crack-dealing, the multiple knife and gunshot wounds-and it’s impossible to dispute that he knows whereof he raps. But just because you’ve lived it doesn’t mean you can make interesting music out of it, and too much of this overlong disc is pure formula. Even as Mr. Jackson speaks of violent payback and enemies who want his blood, one doesn’t get the sense that there’s a whole lot at stake.
Part of the problem is that 50 Cent’s style of M.C.-ing is relaxed to a fault. When his lethargic delivery collides with Dre’s incisive beats on “In Da Club,” sparks do fly, but the most exciting moment here is Eminem’s ultrawired cameo on “Patiently Waiting.” No Big Pun intended, but Mr. Jackson’s rhyming pales in comparison.
Lyle Lovett, Smile (Curb/MCA): Mr. Lovett, whose distinctively intimate blend of country, folk, blues and jazz ranks among the choicest Texas exports of the past 20 years, recorded his most recent collection of original songs, Road to Ensenada , in 1996, the year after he and Julia Roberts divorced. Since then, there’s been a covers record, a live album, a movie soundtrack and a best-of anthology. Prolonged creative dry spell-could Ms. Roberts have left him that desiccated?-plus contractual obligation equals this CD, which compiles a decade’s worth of songs (none of them his compositions, most of them well-worn standards) rendered by Mr. Lovett for various films, including Quiz Show , Toy Story and The Apostle .
It’s curious that Mr. Lovett has so frequently gotten the call from major directors to lend an old-school Hollywood patina to their work-curious because his voice isn’t suited to the task. Mr. Lovett’s pure, almost confessional vocal manner works in a small-group, parlor-jazz context for “Blue Skies” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” especially when he’s egged on by the effervescent comping of longtime pianist Matt Rollings. But he just doesn’t have the vinegar required to take on orchestral outings like “Summer Wind” or-why, Lord, why?-”Mack the Knife.” And putting him up against the earthy magnificence of Randy Newman on the Toy Story duet “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” makes him sound homely in comparison. The 12 tracks on Smile might have been fine for 30 seconds each on-screen, but turning them into an album wasn’t the wisest idea.
The Forms, Icarus (Threespheres): The Forms are a Brooklyn-based, aggro-artsy trio fond of awkward time signatures, sly rhythmic manipulation, curlicuing vocal lines, and giving one song two separate track numbers for no obvious reason.
Produced-sorry, “recorded”-by indie-rock demigod Steve Albini, the group’s debut album, Icarus , moves in violent fits and starts. At one point, the music jerks to a halt and singer Ecco Teres’ shriek turns abruptly into polite conversation. “So anyway,” he says, “I was sleeping the other night and I was having this dream, and then all of a sudden I just-” The band slams back in with another taut riff before he has a chance to finish.
I realize that in rock criticism, genre categorization and comparisons to other bands are a must. So here we go: Emocore blah blah blah Sunny Day Real Estate yadda Slint yadda post-rock humina humina. My advice: Forget the references and just absorb the way these guys make a virtue out of attention-deficit disorder.