Ah, springtime: the season when, after a quiet winter, compact discs begin to cover-like pollen-every flat surface in a pop critic’s humble abode. Time to play catch-up with a wrap-up of 14 records that I’ve consigned to one of three categories for ease of consumption.
(Enjoying Steady Rotation)
The Black Keys, thickfreakness (Fat Possum): Think the White Stripes cornered the market on guitar/drum duos? Think again. Hailing from Akron, Ohio, the Black Keys make sweaty, dirty, blistering blues-rock that clobbers all competitors. Not only is Dan Auerbach a ballsy white-soul belter, but he also gives good fuzzbox. Meanwhile, Patrick Carney thrashes his mini-kit like the second coming of John Bonham. If you like your metal heavy, consider these 11 tracks of pure lead-footed joy.
Goldfrapp, Black Cherry (Mute): If, on the other hand, you get your jollies from the blurps and bleeps produced by 80’s-style analog synthesis, then Brit thrush Allison Goldfrapp and her partner in ambiance concoction, Will Gregory, have just what you’re craving. Not only does the mechanistic pulse of such tracks as “Crystalline Green” and “Train” bring back fond memories of the Human League and early Depeche Mode, but the hormone-soaked lyrics and libidinous moans of “Twist” go one better, recalling the days when Donna Summer used to fake orgasms with Giorgio Moroder.
Junior Senior, D-D-Don’t Don’t Stop the Beat (Crunchy Frog): Due in part to the kind words of No. 1 fan Fatboy Slim, this Danish technopop duo has become a dance-club sensation in Britain. Junior and Senior (yep, that’s what they call themselves) yell out such absurd lines as “He is the son of Frankenstein / He shakes it good, he shakes it fine” with childish glee over low-rent retro beats that lean closer to the B-52’s than the Chemical Brothers. A U.S. label, Atlantic, just signed them and will, I presume, grant this domestic release in the near future. But I suggest getting down with their infectious shtick in its current imported form, before your neighbors start talking about this really “sweet” new band they’ve discovered called Junior Senior.
Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango (XL Recordings): Another group coming belatedly to American attention-this album, their debut, was released in Europe two years ago and has sold nearly half a million copies-the Paris-based Gotan Project combines the traditional dance music of Argentina with dance music of a more modern stripe, mainly house with touches of dub, techno and drum ‘n’ bass. Not just a creation of studio boffins, La Revancha features real live instrumentalists, including Argentinean expat Nini Flores on wheezing bandoneon. Yes, it works as a non-demanding soundtrack for multiculti sophisticates’ social gatherings. But in its idiosyncratic way, it also captures the essence of tango: both its cool, austere surface and the passion smoldering at its core.
Richard Thompson, The Old Kit Bag (spinART): Let’s see, it’s 2003-must be time for another excellent Richard Thompson album. As with every disc the veteran British singer/songwriter has recorded since his career began in the mid-60’s, this one trades in Celtic-flavored folk rock of enviable finesse and black humor. The difference here is that the trio setting-bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Michael Jerome are the only other musicians-leaves more room than usual for Mr. Thompson to indulge in astonishing displays of guitarcraft. Many of his frenzied, string-bending solos bristle with dissonance, paying little heed to whether a song is in a major or minor key. Strictly speaking, they’re littered with mistakes. But Mr. Thompson wills his wrong notes to work, and the result is genius.
(Good, If You Like That Sort of Thing)
Fleetwood Mac, Say You Will (Warner Bros.): Reason for existence: Will move more units than either a Lindsey Buckingham or a Stevie Nicks solo record. Born of resignation though it may be, the ex-couple’s return to the Mac fold is welcome, making for a listening experience that ranges from pleasantly familiar to head-turningly aggressive. Christine McVie’s departure isn’t as fortunate; it means that Ms. Nicks gets a record nine cuts, which is at least two meandering dirges too many. Still, “Thrown Down” and “Running Through the Garden” find her at her bewitching best. And the plangent California strains of Mr. Buckingham’s “What’s the World Coming To” and “Steal Your Heart Away” won’t be leaving my head anytime soon.
Prince Paul , Politics of the Business (Razor & Tie): The business, of course, is the music industry, and this is a concept album about it. Those familiar with Prince Paul’s long history as a rapper and producer (Stetsasonic, De La Soul, Handsome Boy Modeling School) will expect high comedy, and they’ll get it. All the stock characters are here, served up with relish: the manager who loves you till you flop, the washed-up artiste who thinks he still has something to say, the girlfriend who can’t stand to come in second to record-making. Witty as the tunes are, they’re nearly eclipsed by the even more hilarious between-song skits, which poke holes in the fabric of every hip-hop convention.
Those Legendary Shack-Shakers, Cockadoodledon’t (Bloodshot): This frenetic Nashville country-punk outfit floored me a couple of months ago at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Tex. And while hearing them on plastic can’t match seeing them in the flesh-you miss the sight of wiry, flame-haired singer Col. J.D. Wilkes projectile-blowing snot into the crowd, for one thing-what’s left behind is still plenty potent. Standouts: the demented polka “Help Me From My Brain” and Col. Wilkes’ molten harmonica playing on an ace cover of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips.”
Ralph Carney, This Is! (Black Beauty): Sideman to Tom Waits and the B-52’s, member of the recently reunited Tin Huey-who had a semi-hit in the early 80’s with their copy of Robert Wyatt’s version of the Monkees’ rendition of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”-Ralph Carney (uncle of Patrick; see the Black Keys, above) is a multi-instrumentalist with an unusual definition of reality. This, his third album of completely self-generated material, features zany forays into boho jazz (“Jug Gland Music”), synth-pop (“Heckraiser”) and back-porch country (“Man Don’t Come”). My favorite: the loping “Swamp Horse,” on which Mr. Carney sings repeatedly about being “sucked dry of my impurities-you know what I mean.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell (Interscope): Various members of Rock Critics Far-From-Anonymous have joined together in proclaiming New York’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs the newest members of their pantheon. You can understand why. The band’s endearingly rough-edged songs carry a nasty sexual charge, and front woman Karen O’s yelps and growls suggest a tough-chick cross between Chrissie Hynde and Lydia Lunch. Fun? Sure. Derivative as hell? Double sure. The salvation of rock as we thought we knew it? No way. Fever to Tell may be a diverting listen, but compared to the music that so obviously influenced it-Siouxsie & the Banshees, say, or Gang of Four-it’s minor stuff.
Blur, Think Tank (Virgin): Once upon a time, Blur’s leader Damon Albarn wrote clever, concise story songs in the tradition of the Beatles and the Kinks. These days, he can’t be bothered. To be fair, the move from the Brit popcraft of Blur’s mid-90’s heyday to the tripped-out soundscapes of more recent times has opened musical doors for the band; the off-center groove of Think Tank ‘s opening track, “Ambulance”-at first baffling, then beguiling-wouldn’t have been attempted in earlier eras. But it’s dispiriting to hear Mr. Albarn, a past master of the character sketch, turn into yet another lazy rock-star lyricist. To quote only one example, this from “Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club”: “The desert needs a beer / But if we go and blow it up / Then we will disappear.” Harsh, dude.
(Put the CD Down and Back Away)
Madonna, American Life (Warner Bros.): Is it just me, or is there something horribly wrong about Madonna strumming an acoustic guitar? Actually, the general folk-meets-disco vibe here is appealing, though unoriginal-Mrs. Ritchie’s going over the same ground she covered on her last disc. But the real horror is what the slick sonics are supporting: rock-star lyrics that are lazy (see Blur, above) and shallow. Take this stunning insight from “Love Profusion”: “And I know I can feel bad / When I get in a bad mood.” Maybe she’s putting us on, but it sure sounds like she means every word. Which puts American Life within striking distance of “so bad it’s good” territory”-but not close enough.
Pete Yorn, Day I Forgot (Columbia): On his ear-grabbing 2001 debut, Musicforthemorningafter , Mr. Yorn successfully merged the two sides of his nature: tough indie-rocker and sensitive singer/songwriter. He tries that trick again here, but what he comes up with is a big snore. A couple of tunes-the delicate “Turn of the Century” and the taut, up-tempo “Burrito”-show what Mr. Yorn can do when roused from his lethargy. Too bad the rest is sound-alike mush.
Lisa Marie Presley, To Whom It May Concern (Capitol): It’s definitely in the genes. Ms. Presley, like her famous father, has a great rock ‘n’ roll voice-deep, husky and forceful. Unfortunately, she’s also like Elvis in that she doesn’t rock out enough. Instead, she wastes her pipes on turgid, overproduced power ballads that try to make up for their lack of oomph by using lots of cuss words, a tired gimmick that would also have embarrassed Ms. Presley’s dad, who-whatever he may have been doing behind the walls of Graceland-kept his lyrics clean. No, thankyouverymuch.