CD reviews


TV ON THE RADIO
Return to Cookie Mountain
(Interscope)

Although they’ve made the leap from an independent label to the majors – and they’re showing up now on late-night network TV – this Brooklyn band is still uncategorizable and peculiar. The vocal harmonies evoke ’70s funk and R&B records, with some touches of older doo-wop, while the tricky and dense arrangements often feel like a challenge to the listener: “Decode this!”  The lyrics require a little deciphering, too, but they clearly communicate a sense of unease about the world’s darkness. In “Wolf Like Me,” the narrator tries to fight off the curse of being a werewolf (“Mirror my malady/Transfer my tragedy”) before finally embracing his hairy inner beast. TV on the Radio is trying to transform rock music into something equally supernatural and dangerous.


YO LA TENGO
I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass
(Matador)

For most of its long career, Yo La Tengo has alternated between loud songs built on droning riffs and quiet moments of intimacy. After going all-quiet on its last two albums, the New Jersey trio is back to a more varied sound this time. The simple but addictive little bass line that pulses through the opening song, “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” lets you know that these indie-rock veterans haven’t gone completely soft in their middle age. That song and the closing track both stretch past the 10-minute mark, building with raga-like intensity. Those marathon songs never drag, but the album as a whole does feel too long. A little pruning would help, but it’s still a worthwhile addition to the Yo La Tengo catalogue.

BRAZILIAN GIRLS
Talk to La Bomb
(Verve/Forecast)

First off, here’s the standard disclaimer that appears in virtually every article on Brazilian Girls: They’re neither Brazilian nor girls. Well, there’s one female in the bunch, the sultry Sabina Sciubba, but she’s a German-Italian who sings in several languages. Like the group’s 2005 debut, this sophomore album is fizzy and fun, filled with smartly programmed electronic beats and catchy tropical melodies. Leaning a little bit more toward electronica than the first album, it’s dance music that should appeal to musical cognoscenti as well as the folks who just want to get down. Imagine a Björk album without all of that weird warbling; Sciubba just sounds cool and sexy.

I can’t mention Brazilian Girls without posting one of my favorite photos of Sabina Sciubba from last year’s concert at Metro. After all, searches for photos of “Brazilian Girls” and “Sabina Sciubba” are one of the top search strings that lead people to this Web site. Go figure. Click above for a close-up.

LAMBCHOP
Damaged
(Merge)

RICHARD BUCKNER
Meadow
(Merge)

Listeners looking for instant gratification may dismiss the new albums from the Merge label by Lambchop and Richard Buckner. Both artists are working at the fringes of alternative country, with low-key melodies that don’t exactly jump right out at you. But patience will pay off.

Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner barely manages to croak out anything resembling a tune as he recites his lyrics Leonard Cohen-style over melancholy orchestration, but somehow, the patterns of his words are memorable. The effect is somewhat like eavesdropping on one side of a deeply personal conversation. If anything, “Damaged” is even quieter than previous Lambchop hush-a-thons — until Wagner angrily chants “Damn, they’re looking ugly to me” on the oddly alluring closing track, “The Decline of Country and Western Civilization.”

Eight albums ago, Buckner started off as a somewhat typical-sounding roots singer, but then he went underground instead of mainstream. Reuniting with producer J.D. Foster and bringing in musicians from Guided By Voices and the Mekons, Buckner has found a strong lineup that adds some spark to his downtrodden, impressionistic tunes, a sound aptly described by the first words Buckner drawls: “Pretty destroyed.”

AUG. 29, 2006

BOB DYLAN
Modern Times
(Columbia)

You’ve probably seen all of the rave reviews by now. And maybe I’ll rave a little more after I’ve had a chance to live with this album. But my early impression is that this is just a pretty good Dylan records. Of course, his lyrics are interesting (and will require more time for me to digest). And I think he’s found an effective way of using his worn-out, hoarse voice to sing, a sort of whispery rasp that’s actually delicate as it quietly carries the melodies.

But the overall sound of this record – the soft-shoe-shuffle pre-rock jazz-pop vibe – just doesn’t appeal to me all that much. It’s not that I don’t like that kind of music, but this band’s arrangements just seem too timid and too unvaried. I hate to sound anything like those people back in the ’60s who were outraged when Dylan went electric, but I can picture these songs sounding so much better if they were done as acoustic guitar and harmonica numbers – or as “Like a Rolling Stone” style rock-folk songs. Maybe Dylan needs to bring in someone like M. Ward or Gilian Welch to arrange his material.

And what’s with him name-checking Alicia Keys? Bob is just being Bob, I guess. His sense of humor is as good as ever.

My favorite song of the record (so far) is the last one, “Ain’t Talkin’,” which finally brings the album the otherwise lacking sense that something important is happening.

AUG. 24, 2006

M. WARD
Post-War
(Merge)

Over the course of five albums, M. Ward has quietly established himself as one of his generation’s best singer-songwriters, and a master guitarist as well. His gift for indelible melodies is undimmed on Post-War. He’s still singing in a hushed, distant tone, but more of the songs have a full-band sound and more of the solos are electric. The war in the title might be metaphorical or literal, but either way, Ward is haunted by questions of mortality as he pursues life’s meaning. In “Right in the Head,” he sings: “I lived with many ghosts when I was younger, and I will live with many ghosts until I grow old.” Whatever those ghosts are, they’re inspiring Ward to make some marvelous music.

Album of the year? It’s in the running. Currently, Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Hold is holding the No. 1 spot on my personal list, and Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere is also a strong contender. But Post-War is the record I can’t stop listening to at the moment.

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Mortality figures in several other songs. In “To Go Home,” Ward sings, “God it’s great to be alive, takes the skin right off my hide to think I’ll have to give it all up some day.” That sums up the fear of death and joy of living so well. Those aren’t Ward’s own words – this is the second time that Ward has covered a song by Daniel Johnston, coming after the equally affecting “The Story of an Artist” – but Ward made a perfect choice in including this song along with his own. With chaotic drumming, pounding piano chords and backup vocals by Neko Case, this recording transforms the tentative, goofy original by musical outsider artist Johnston into a powerful anthem.

With mournful Mellotron and strings, “Poison Cup” proposes the idea that love is poison – and should be swallowed anyway. “Right in the Head” is almost scary as Ward sings about hoping his brother isn’t insane.

“Chinese Translation” is a clever song with a circular narrative about a man seeking life’s answers from a wise old sage on a mountain. Note the slight differences in the lyrics when they repeat. The young man asks the old man for answers, then the old man tells the story of how he, too, came here asking questions when he was young. But instead of being told to “sing” the song, he was told to “play” it – and thus the song moves into a final instrumental section.

“Neptune’s Net” is another wonderful instrumental part of the album, and “Magic Trick” is a nifty little Beach Boys-esque pop tune co-produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

It was great seeing M. Ward making his network television debut Aug. 24 on“The Late Show With David Letterman.” And the new CD includes a nicely animated video for “Chinese Translation.” Here it is on youtube.

CROOKED STILL
Shaken by a Low Sound
(Signature Sounds)

Crooked Still plays public-domain folk songs and classics by Robert Johnson, Bill Monroe and Bob Dylan in a style that blends traditional bluegrass with a slightly jazzy tinge of cello. The precise arrangements are spare but sparkling, leaving plenty of room for Aoife O’Donovan’s lovely vocals.

THE SADIES
In Concert, Vol. One
(Yep Roc)

With their blazing-fast guitar licks, Canada’s Sadies are quite simply one of the best live rock bands working today, so they’ve earned the right to put out a two-CD concert recording. Playing a mix of surf riffs, spaghetti Western-style themes and country-folk recalling the Byrds and the Band, the Sadies duplicate the sound of their records — proving, if nothing else, that they can do all that fancy fretwork without the aid of studio gimmicks. Many guests take the stage, including Neko Case, Garth Hudson, Jon Langford, Kelly Hogan, Jon Spencer, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, members of Blue Rodeo and various relatives of Sadies guitarists Travis and Dallas Good. The star-studded cast makes for a fun jamboree.