Michael Jackson Michael
Following the death of Michael Jackson, Jim and Greg predicted there would be an onslaught of posthumous releases. Now the first has been released. Michael is made up of 10 tracks from Jackson's archives, gussied up by producers like Teddy Riley, John McClain and Lenny Kravitz. There's been some controversy as to whether or not this is Jackson's voice, and Riley admits there was quite a bit of processing – too much, if you ask Jim and Greg. While Greg admires the sparsest, most emotional track, "Much Too Soon," the rest of the album is really hurting. And the awful production completely destroys what Jackson might have been intending with those tracks. Jim was not a fan of Jackson's material from the past fifteen years, but he respects Jackson's perfectionist nature. Surely such a perfectionist wouldn't have released these overblown clunkers. Michael gets a double Trash It.
Moving on to new releases, Duffy has a new album out called Endlessly. The British singer emerged out of a wave of retro-soul singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele. But here, she's also going for a pop sound. Greg compares her voice to Lulu, and worse, Betty Boop. He's not sure what's special about Duffy. Jim agrees, noting that it feels like Duffy is not wed to the '60s sound, but is instead trying to be everything to everyone. They both give Endlessly a Trash It.
Daft Punk Tron: Legacy
Kids of the '80s are excited about the revamped Tron movie. But what about the soundtrack? The original was composed by synth master Wendy Carlos, but Daft Punk were tasked with the music for Tron: Legacy. Like Carlos, the French duo merges electronica with symphonic music, but they aren‘t as successful. Jim hears some playful nods to video games and older synths, but there’s nothing that blows his mind. He doesn't see himself ever listening to this soundtrack again, so Jim gives it a Trash It rating. Greg isn't as harsh, but agrees that none of the music stands out. There are a lot of“toys,”and a handful of classic Daft Punk tracks, so he gives Tron: Legacy a Burn It.
The Black Eyed Peas The Beginning
The Black Eyed Peas are one of the best selling artists of the past decade. And now they're starting over with The Beginning. But Jim and Greg can‘t see what’s new or better. Jim is an admitted Peas fan, but what he loves about them – the humor, the pop pleasure – is lost on this album. So is singer Fergie, who Jim imagines must be saving her best stuff for another solo release. It breaks his heart, but Jim gives The Beginning a Trash It rating. Greg never understood the appeal of the Black Eyed Peas, but admits their songs are appropriate for rousing crowds. On this record, though, rapper/producer will.i.am is more of a hack than ever. He gives sampling a bad name, and doesn‘t even bother with the hooks. Greg seconds Jim’s Trash It.
Bruce Springsteen The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story
Bruce Springsteen fans are always hungry for more of The Boss, and they get it with the release of a new box set, The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story. But what about folks who don't belong to the "Cult of Springsteen"? Greg loved hearing the reissue of the 1978 album. The previously unheard recordings illustrate Springsteen's sound right after his hit Born to Run. It's a mix of the romanticism of that record and the leaner, meaner rock of Darkness. Greg gives it a Buy It rating. Sound Opinions listeners know Jim is no Bruce-lover, but he counts Darkness as one of the better albums. Going back to these unreleased tracks, it's even clearer what an anomaly it was. The songs on the The Promise reissue are full of the Born to Run era, over-the-top schmaltz. So Jim says Trash It.
Sharon Van Etten Epic
Jim and Greg both saw singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten perform at this past year's Pitchfork Music Festival. And while Jim was unimpressed, Greg highly anticipated this new album, Epic, which does not disappoint. Van Etten's first record was largely about a troubled relationship. On this one, Van Etten is much stronger and more confident, even in her orchestrations. Despite Jim's feelings about Van Etten's Pitchfork show, he loves this album – all seven songs of it. Very few women in indie rock have pipes like this singer. Epic gets a double Buy It.
Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West knows how to get into the headlines. He's bumped heads with everyone from Matt Lauer to Taylor Swift to President Bush. But, it's important not to forget: he also knows how to make music. Jim says, OK he's a jerk…John Lennon could also have been a jerk. But what Kanye West achieves on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is nothing short of amazing. He combines Iron Maiden with King Crimson; robotic humming and what Greg calls "classical opulence." Greg compares West to ambitious artists like Brian Wilson and Marvin Gaye, but notes that what separates him is his inability to censor himself. That gives his music both bravado and vulnerability. Both Jim and Greg give My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy an enthusiastic double Buy It.
Cee Lo Green The Lady Killer
Cee Lo Green has evolved from hip hop front man to soul crooner to "Crazy" guy, and his latest solo effort is called The Lady Killer. Many listeners will already be familiar with his angry viral hit "F@*k You". And, the album is packed with even more oddball tracks. Jim loves the diversity of sounds and can‘t get enough of Cee Lo’s voice. Greg agrees, praising the more eccentric songs that don't follow the standard R&B formula. The Lady Killer gets a double Buy It.
Brian Eno Small Craft on a Milk Sea
In the Sound Opinions drinking game, "Brian Eno" is the key word. Perhaps no name in rock gets dropped more than the pioneering producer. But, for good reason-especially this week since he has a new album called Small Craft on a Milk Sea. Jim's“hero”has produced albums for the Talking Heads and U2, he's collaborated with John Cale and Robert Fripp, and he's been extremely influential in the worlds of experimental and ambient music. His new album is another instrumental effort. Jim wouldn‘t put it up there with Eno’s best, but thinks it's a big step up from other recent recordings-especially if considered in the ambient context. He gives the record a Buy It rating. Greg heard moments of undeniable beauty, but he wasn't wowed. He says Burn It.
Bryan Ferry Olympia
There are few figures in rock as cool as Bryan Ferry. This remains the case even 30 years after the break-up of Roxy Music. Now Ferry is back with a new solo album, Olympia, which is comprised of mostly original material - a rarity for a singer who takes such command of covers. Greg explains that it would be no overstatement to say that Roxy Music changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll. But there hasn‘t been a lot of changing of Ferry’s sound since then. Jim agrees. He's still combining sly humor, sex appeal and lounge singer style. But this consistency is still great, and Olympia gets a double Buy It.
Kid Cudi Man on the Moon II: The Legend Of Mr. Rager
Bringing us full circle, we again think of Kanye West. But this time, we don't ponder his dismissal of Taylor Swift, but rather his influence on a new movement of introspective hip hop. Drake, Lupe Fiasco and now Kid Cudi are all embracing self-examination, as well as rock and roll. And, explains Greg, Cudi is the great existentialist. His new album, Man on the Moon II: The Legend Of Mr. Rager, is a continuation of his last concept album. It is full of interesting narratives, wordplay, rock instrumentation and cameos. Both Jim and Greg are hugely impressed and give the record another double Buy It.
Belle & Sebastian Write About Love
For their latest release Write About Love, Scots Belle & Sebastian have yet again traded rainy Glasgow for sunny Los Angeles. On their last release, The Life Pursuit, this sun translated into a more upbeat dance record. But, now they have returned to their orchestral folk roots, and Greg wishes they had continued moving forward with their sound, rather than backwards. He appreciates singer Stuart Murdoch's vocals and witty lyrics, but this feels like a retreat. Greg gives Write About Love a Burn It rating. Jim thinks Greg hasn't been this wrong in a long time. He agrees that The Life Pursuit was a welcome change of pace, but really loves this album as well. It is toned down, but not precious and more full of edge. Simply put, Write About Love puts Jim in a great mood and he gives the record a Buy It.
Kings of Leon Come Around Sundown
A couple of weeks ago Jim and Greg discussed the career trajectory of U2. Kings of Leon seem to be on a similar path. The southern“band of brothers”(and cousin) are opening for the Irish band on their 360 tour, and Jim and Greg hear a lot more stadium bombast with their latest release Come Around Sundown. Lead singer Caleb Followill has turned on the rawk singing, and no funky or soul blues cliche was left unturned, according to Jim. It's way too over the top to him and lacks any experimentation or originality. Jim gives it a Trash It rating, adding that this might be one of the worst records of the year. Greg calls that a ridiculous statement, but agrees that he doesn‘t like the direction the band is headed. They’ve lost much of the rhythm and distinctiveness from their 2003 debut. But still, Greg wouldn't throw it in the bin. Kings of Leon gets a Burn It.
Ben Folds Lonely Avenue
Fans of Nick Hornby's books and criticism or Ben Folds' songwriting will be disappointed to hear that their new collaboration Lonely Avenue is not a“classic album.”Jim is not a fan of Folds, but admits he's got serious chops. But the compositions are all over the place. And worse are Hornby's lyrical contributions. He panders to the worse clich'es, especially on tracks like "Levi Johnston's Blues," which, yes, is about that Levi Johnston. Greg was“appalled”by this project, and got the sense that the sometimes condescending lyrics were just crowbarred in. Both Jim and Greg give it a Trash It.
Neil Young Le Noise
Another musician with impressive career longevity is Neil Young. At 64, he's still trying to reinvent his sound, and with Le Noise he comes out with a "folk-metal" sound. This is a true solo effort, though he did get help from super-producer Daniel Lanois. It's Young's voice and guitar + Lanois‘ effects, and Greg loves the result. While the lyrics are simple, they are really powerful and emotional. It’s one of his best, according to Greg, and deserves a Buy It rating. Jim admits that much of the lyrical content isn‘t new, but it’s done beautifully. And the sound is beautiful. He commends Young's courage and seconds that Buy It.
Black Mountain Wilderness Heart
Vancouver quintet Black Mountain also has a new album out called Wilderness Heart. Don't let the name make you think this is another folky, beard rock band. Black Mountain is straight up classic stoner rock ala Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and they make no bones about it. Jim describes it as heavy, psychedelic, sultry, trippy-how could he not like it? Greg is happy to hear Black Mountain bringing their sound and influences forward. The songwriting is great, not to mention the mellotron. It's a double Buy It.
Robyn Body Talk Pt 1
Swedish pop artist Robyn has been making music since she was a teenager. You might think of her as Sweden's answer to Britney Spears. But, she has since gone indie and edgy and began releasing a three part series called Body Talk last year. Part 2 feels like a full album to Jim. He loves her maturity and experimentation, noting that Robyn has even managed to make Snoop Dogg sound original. He gives it a Buy It rating. Greg agrees, and prompts Katy Perryto pay attention: This is how you make smart pop music. He doesn't hear anything as catchy as Body Talk Pt 1's "Dancing on My Own," but also gives the 2nd round a Buy It.
Superchunk Majesty Shredding
Perhaps no band better symbolizes the indie rock underground than Superchunk. They have been committed to being "indie" both in terms of sound and practice since forming in Chapel Hill in 1989. Two of its members have gone on to run Merge Records, home to Arcade Fire and Spoon. While they never officially broke up, the band hasn't released an album in almost a decade. Majesty Shredding is worth the wait according to Greg. They do pop rock as good as anyone, and Mac McCaughan still sings with the enthusiasm of a kid. Jim agrees, adding that they did lose the plot for a little while. He's happy to hear they have returned to form - simple exuberance - and Superchunk gets a double Buy It.
Grinderman Grinderman 2
Now it comes time to look at a new sophomore effort: Grinderman 2. Nick Cave's blues punk side project wowed Jim and Greg with its debut. And with this one, they've proved they can do more than just pure, raw energy. Jim hears a lot more experimentation, but also a lot more melody. Greg even found some songs just plain creepy. He calls Cave a wonderful“nasty rock and roll machine.”Grinderman 2 gets a double Buy It.
The Roots Wake Up!
During the Obama campaign R&B singer John Legend and hip hop group The Roots were inspired by the African-American community's rich tradition of socially conscious protest music. So they decided to put together an album of covers of these funk, soul and reggae gems called Wake Up! Legend and The Roots really show their encyclopedic knowledge of music with their choices, which, Greg notes, are not the big hits by artists like Donny Hathaway and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. He appreciates that scholarship and hopes this will turn a new generation on to these artists. But, his main issue is that they don't transcend the original. So he gives Wake Up! a Burn It rating. Jim has major problems with Legend's vocal performance, which doesn't match the emotional content of the songs. He wonders if he has a“tin ear”and gives the record a Trash It.
Richard Thompson Dream Attic
On the other end of the music spectrum is veteran folk rock musician Richard Thompson. After releasing 5 albums with Fairport Convention, he went on to form a duo with former wife Linda Thompson, and then launched a solo career. His latest solo release is Dream Attic, which is a collection of live performances of new songs. As Greg explains, live is where Thompson is at his best. It's where audiences really get to experience his tremendous guitar skills. Previous releases focused more on Thompson's songwriting, so for Greg, this is one of his best. He gives Dream Attic a Buy It rating. Jim agrees, and would tell listeners who haven‘t experienced Thompson’s music to start here and work their way back. The songs are full of wit and wisdom and deserve a Buy It.
If you've seen the mug of Hurley from Lost lately, chances are you've been looking at the cover of the new album by Weezer. The band, fronted by Rivers Cuomo, has been recording at a prolific rate in the past few years. And many original fans continue to hold out hope that they'll meet or top their releases from the 1990's. But, as Greg explains, Cuomo, now a married father, is probably as happy as he's ever been and won‘t be returning to his old style of angsty songwriting. The upbeat pop songs he’s making now are good, but the emotional heft isn't there. Greg gives Hurley a Burn It rating. Jim admits there's a lot of silliness on this record, but the songs are very well-crafted. That's enough for him, so he gives it a Burn It.
Mavis Staples You Are Not Alone
During this show Jim and Greg review some of this season's big new releases. First up is the latest from Mavis Staples. The iconic Chicago soul singer turned to neighbor and fan Jeff Tweedy of Wilco to produce You Are Not Alone. Greg calls Staples one of America's great singers. And all of the facets of her sound and personality are represented here. He gives the album a Buy It rating. Jim has been waiting for Mavis to make her masterpiece record that would tell the world how great she really is. You Are Not Alone is a fine effort, but the songs are nothing special, according to Jim. He worries that Tweedy was intimidated by Staples and didn't push her enough. For that reason Jim tells listeners to Burn It.
Katy Perry Teenage Dream
Katy Perry has the number one album this week called Teenage Dream. But, unfortunately her dreaminess may be all she has going for her. The pop singer first made a splash with her hit "I Kissed a Girl." Now for her follow-up, she's paired up with a number of the industry's biggest producers. Jim appreciates bubblegum pop as much as the next person, but only when there's some twist. There's not an ounce of originality on Teenage Dream, so Jim tells people to Trash It. Greg feels like this record was written by a dirty old man rather than a modern woman. And the vocals sound completely digitally edited together. A robot could be singing these tunes, so he agrees: Trash It.
Interpol's 2001 debut Turn on the Bright Lights is still considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of that decade. But, they've been unable to reclaim that success with subsequent releases. Bassist Carlos D has left the band, and Dave Pajo of Slint and Brandon Curtis of The Secret Machines have joined it. So Jim and Greg were eager to hear how the sound had evolved. Unfortunately, it didn't. On their new self-titled release, Interpol is still churning out Joy Division-inspired tracks. And Carlos D's departure is a real loss. Both critics wish the songwriting had been stronger and give Interpol a Trash It.
of Montreal False Priest
Also coming out is False Priest, the 10th album by Athens, GA band of Montreal. Frontman Kevin Barnes records at an ambitious pace, one that's matched by his theatrical performances. On this record he works with producer Jon Brion, but Jim doesn‘t think Brion did much to rein Barnes in. He appreciates costumes and camp, but wishes there was some sincerity behind it. He notes that Barnes isn’t near the songwriter that his Elephant 6 influencers are, and gives False Priest a Trash It. Greg actually thinks this is of Montreal's most coherent effort yet, thanks to Brion. Plus, he really likes the R&B/Prince moments on the record. But, Greg agrees with Jim on the insincere schtick and can only give this album a Burn It.
Robert Plant Band of Joy
This episode's final review is of Robert Plant's new solo record Band of Joy. The album shares the name of Plant's pre-Led Zeppelin band, but Jim can‘t figure out the connection. He doesn’t see what roots Americana music has to do with the north country of England. He applauds Plant for trying new things, but misses more of his Celtic,“dark lord”sound. He gives Band of Joy a Burn It. Greg was a fan of Plant's last rootsy effort, Raising Sand. He heard the“Golden God”doing something completely new. But now, it's less innovative, and at times downright slow and creepy. Greg also gives this hit and miss affair a Burn It.
Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell Hawk
Next up a Beauty and the Beast duo (other than Jim and Greg): Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian and Mark Lanegan, formerly of the Screaming Trees. Hawk is their third collaboration of pop music in the vein of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra or Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Campbell steers this ship, and Greg is happy to hear her stretch out more with the compositions and arrangements. There are even some soul and gospel references. Greg gives it a Buy It. Jim agrees about the rating, but thinks this release is the least successful of the three, and wishes they'd stretched out more.
John Mellencamp No Better Than This
For his new album No Better Than This, John Mellencamp teamed up with veteran producer T. Bone Burnett. He and Burnett recorded in three iconic locations: First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studios in Memphis and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. But Jim thinks they might have been better off staying put. He doesn't like the sound, nor does he appreciate the lack of humor. Jim gives this“pile of cow dung”a Trash It. Greg can't believe it. Not only does he love the loose songwriting, he heard a lot of humor, and tells people to Buy It.
Nigel Godrich & Broken Social Scene & The Black Lips & Beck Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Reviews have been pretty solid for the movie Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. But what about the music? The film was scored by producer Nigel Godrich, and the soundtrack features songs by Broken Social Scene, The Black Lips and Beck, or Sex Bob Omb as the fictional band is known in the film. Greg doesn‘t think it holds up much as an album. It’s more of a souvenir of the movie than anything else. He gives it a Trash It. Jim calls Greg cold-hearted. He loves this“generation Y mixtape,”and tells people to get the record even if they don't see the movie (though he recommends that too). Jim gives a Buy It rating.
Tom Jones Praise and Blame
Tom Jones has been loosening knickers for half a century. Now he's back with a more“serious”album called Praise and Blame, but Jim and Greg wish he was still pushing the feel good hits. Following in the path of late career comebacks like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, Jones lends his baritone to classic blues and folk covers. The voice is still there, Jim admits, but with it none of the camp or smarm. Greg doesn't find these renditions authentic, and wishes Jones would just embrace his persona. Praise and Blame gets a double Trash It.
Dark Night of the Soul Dark Night of the Soul
A year after it was supposed to be released, Dark Night of the Soul is finally here. The record is a collaboration between producer Danger Mouse, singer/songwriter Mark Linkous, aka Sparklehorse, and director David Lynch. Sadly, Linkous committed suicide last year, as did one of the album's contributors Vic Chestnutt. The finished product is disjointed, according to Greg. There are a couple of standout tracks (no thanks to Lynch), but he can only give it a Burn It rating. Jim agrees, noting that it's sad that Linkous himself wasn't able to sing more of the material. He also gives Dark Night of the Soul a Burn It.
Arcade Fire The Suburbs
In other major indie rock news, Arcade Fire has a new album out called The Suburbs. As Jim and Greg explain, this is a concept record inspired by frontman Win Butler's suburban upbringing. It's ambitious to say the least, but more spacious and atmospheric than the previous two albums according to Greg. If there's one fault, it's that things get a little long-winded toward the end, but Greg gives The Suburbs a Buy It rating. Jim agrees and is happy that Arcade Fire ratcheted down the“Springsteen-ness.”He hears the songs as a hippy's response to urban sprawl taking over the wilderness, but you should form your own interpretation and Buy It.
M.I.A. has released her new album Maya with the appropriate amount of controversy we expect from the pop provocateur. First, there was the shocking video for "Born Free." Then came the New York Times Magazine profile followed by a subsequent tweet-war. But Jim doesn‘t think it’s fair to describe the Sri Lankan singer as radical. She's full of contradictions, and that's ok with this critic. He loves the mix of noisy world genres and gives Maya a Buy It rating. Greg loved how M.I.A. took some of these sound elements out of the“ghetto”of world music and hip hop and re-imagined them. But, things are more awkward on this record. She's working with the same crop of producers, but the joy is a little lost. He gives M.I.A. a Burn It.
Big Boi Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Outkast rapper Big Boi has released his first solo album called…wait for it… Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. Big Boi is often thought of as the more down to earth of the two Atlanta hip hop artists, but both Jim and Greg think the record is very inventive and ambitious. Greg does miss Andre 3000's presence, and thinks the two make each other better. But overall, Sir Lucious Left Foot is full of great beats and oddball touches and gets a Buy It rating. Jim agrees and was pleasantly surprised to hear these tracks, especially after all the torture that went into making it. It has a tad too many vulgar and juvenile lyrics, but he still thinks listeners should Buy It.
Alejandro Escovedo Street Songs of Love
Alejandro Escovedo has been making music since the 1970's, but this past decade has brought him his highest profile to date. The Texas-based rocker's new record is Street Songs of Love, a concept album about rock's favorite topic: love. But, Jim feels like he's heard these songs before, particularly the mid-tempo classic groove. This is not Escovedo at his best, according to Jim, who gives it a Burn It. Greg thinks it's easy to be let down because Escovedo is such a smart lyricist, but the more he listened, the more he liked it. Greg thinks the singer/songwriter is that rare artist who has gotten better with age and gives Street Songs of Love a Buy It.
The Roots How I Got Over
If country music isn‘t your thing, maybe you’re a hip hop fan. The Roots have released a new album called How I Got Over. It's the Philly group's first record since becoming the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. The Roots have always had a great reputation as a live act, but Jim thinks that gives short shrift to their terrific recordings. This is a dark album, but also really inspirational, especially towards the end. Jim gives How I Got Over a Buy It rating. Greg agrees, adding that MC "Black Thought" and drummer "Questlove" are as strong as ever. The Roots get a double Buy It.
The Scissor Sisters Night Work
The Scissor Sisters became a hit with singles like "Comfortably Numb" and "Take Your Mama," especially in the U.K. But they haven't been able to translate that success to album sales in the states. Jim and Greg don't think the 3rd release Night Work will do much better. They both appreciate the camp pop elements, but hear nothing special and nothing new. Greg is willing to recommend listeners Burn It, but Jim says Trash It.
Eminem released a new album this week, and it went on to not only debut at #1, but it became the biggest seller in a single week since 2008. Recovery is the follow-up to Relapse, an album that the rapper himself admits was kind of misstep. But now, after going through a lot of pain in his personal life, he's taking a more“emo”approach according to Greg. The lyrics are more introspective, which Greg applauds, but the production really brings it all down. It's only a partial“Recovery,”so Greg gives it a Try It rating. Jim also hears introspection, but it's of the Lifetime movie variety. He admits that Eminem is still a truly impressive rapper, but enough with the lame pop culture pot shots. Jim gives this record a Trash It.
Wolf Parade Expo 86
Montreal quartet Wolf Parade also released an album this week called Expo 86. Jim was a skeptic with the first couple of albums, but he hears a big step forward in the songwriting. The melodies are better than ever, and there's not as much“lo-fi clatter.”He gives Expo 86 an enthusiastic Buy It. Of our two hosts, Greg was actually a Wolf Parade fan. But the dynamic contrasts that songwriters Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner brought to the table last time around are less evident. Greg calls the sound more cohesive, but because of that, blander. He gives Wolf Parade a Try It.
Drake Thank Me Later
Thank Me Later, the debut album from rapper Drake, went to #1 this week, and Jim and Greg have no doubt that the young Toronto artist has a long career ahead of him. Previously best known as the wheelchair-bound Jimmy on the teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation, Drake and his MC skills caught the attention of Lil Wayne. Wayne, along with Kanye West, Alicia Keys and a number of other heavy hitters join Drake on Thank Me Later, but it's a testament to his strength as a performer that he's not overshadowed by any of the guest stars, according to Jim. He presents a thoughtful album that focuses on hip hop's latest drug–celebrity. Jim calls the record introspective and brilliantly minimalistic and gives it a Buy It. Greg agrees, noting that Drake lacks the typical rap bravado. It's fascinating, but also monochromatic, meaning you'll need to sit and live with the record for a while. Thank Me Later gets a double Buy It.
Christina Aguilera Bionic
Another big summer release is Christina Aguilera's Bionic. This is the pop diva's first record since becoming a mother, but neither Jim nor Greg hear any additional maturity. Greg believes she's the most impressive voice to come out of the teen pop era of the late '90s, but this record is a totally juvenile pop product. It's robotic and gimmicky, and he gives it a Trash It. Jim doesn‘t understand why an interesting wife, mother and singer would want to portray herself as a juvenile sex robot, but that’s what Christina does. He seconds the Trash It.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Mojo
In his four decades in music, Tom Petty has appeared to do it all. He's been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he's performed at the Superbowl, and he's collaborated with everyone from George Harrison to Johnny Cash. So, Jim and Greg wonder, what's left to accomplish? On his new album Mojo, it sounds like the only goal was to have an easygoing jam. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but Jim feels like the fight has gone out of Petty. Greg agrees, explaining that Mojo is more about the band's performances and the songs themselves. Both critics give Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers a Try It rating.
Rhymefest El Che
After years battling with his major label J Records, rapper Rhymefest has finally released an album on his own. El Che is his second official release, though he put out a fascinating (and unauthorized) Michael Jackson tribute in 2008. As Greg explains, this record definitely doesn‘t fit in a major label model–it’s too hard to market as one thing. It's funny, political and poppy. But, because of that, the sound of El Che is sometimes erratic and not as strong as his debut. Greg gives the record a Try It. Jim disagrees. He hasn‘t seen this kind of strength of character in hip hop in a long time. Rhymefest is indeed weird, but he’s funny, unique and totally himself. Jim gives El Che a Buy It.
Blitzen Trapper Destroyer of the Void
Blitzen Trapper kicks off the reviews this week. Their 5th and latest album is called Destroyer of the Void. Both Jim and Greg were big fans of the 2009 Sub Pop debut Furr. Greg continues to respect singer Eric Earley's songwriting and fondness for traditional American folk sounds. But, he feels like the band is on repeat with this album. It's too predictable and only gets a Try It rating from Greg. Jim can't believe his ears. The moments of departure and growth that Greg loves are the worst parts of the record according to him. Blitzen Trapper is aping Queen, and it doesn‘t work for Jim. It’s a“disgrace”and a Trash It.
Sleigh Bells Treats
Sleigh Bells has released its debut record, Treats. The duo of guitarist and beat maker Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss made noise at both CMJ and SXSW. But to Jim, a self-professed connoisseur of noise, this is too much. Every note is full of massive fuzz and distortion. Everything's at“11,”and it gets a Trash It from Jim. Greg wants us all to note the moment where Jim complained his rock and roll was too loud. It's ear-bleed loud, yes, but it's also a tremendous pop pick-me-up. Greg gives Sleigh Bells a Buy It.
Bettye LaVette Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook
What happens when a veteran soul singer takes on classic British rock tunes? The answer is actually not as exciting as one might think. Both Jim and Greg were really looking forward to Bettye LaVette's Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. The album came out of LaVette's Kennedy Center Honors performance of "Love Reign O'er Me," by The Who. She put her unique, alto rasp to use on subsequent covers of songs by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. But, as Greg explains, the album's sleepy, slow-burn pace didn't do her voice or the songs justice. Jim agrees, and also wishes LaVette had chosen more original songs by these famous artists. They both regrettably give the record a Trash It rating.
The National High Violet
Brooklyn rockers The National released their fifth album called High Violet. Greg has been a champion of the band and its melancholic sound from the beginning. He's a“sucker”for their Joy Division-meets-Leonard Cohen songs. However, he wished they'd gone somewhere new on this album. High Violet is merely a refinement of what The National had done before, so Greg can only give it a Try It rating. Jim thinks Matt Berninger's lyrics of heartache are as original as ever. It's not groundbreaking, he admits, but it's a Buy It.
Janelle Monáe The ArchAndroid
On the other end of the rock spectrum is Janelle Monáe. The alternative R&B singer's debut album is called The ArchAndroid. It's a dense science fiction concept record that incorporates hip hop, soul, funk, rock and big bandsounds. Jim hears the most ambition from an R&B singer in a long time. He loves Monáe's universe and gives The ArchAndroid a Buy It. Greg goes even further, calling this record the best he's heard this year. Spend time with it and you will love it. The ArchAndroid gets a double Buy It.
The Dead Weather Sea of Cowards
Jack White might be the new hardest-working man in show business. Not only does he front his original band The White Stripes, but he's a member of The Raconteurs and most recently The Dead Weather. That group just released its second album in less than a year called Sea of Cowards. White is joined by Alison Mosshart from The Kills on vocals and Dean Fertita from Queens of the Stone Age. But, as Greg explains, it's White's stamp that's all over this record. He does the songwriting and production. Jim hears a lot of enthusiasm in the music, and it holds together more as a project than the self-titled debut. He compares White to Nick Cave — the music is dangerous and enticing and gets a Buy It rating. Greg can‘t believe Jim would compare White to Cave — he doesn’t think he has nearly the same songwriting chops. And the songwriting is where Sea of Cowards falls off for Greg. He loves the attitude and sound, but thinks the songs are fragments at best. It gets a Try It.
The New Pornographers Together
The New Pornographers have a new album called Together. But Jim wonders if the title is ironic. The band includes A.C. Newman, Neko Case and Dan Bejar — all successful solo artists in their own right. And he doesn‘t get the sense that they really came together for The New Pornographers record. He doesn’t hear energy or inspiration, and gives the supergroup a super Trash It rating. Greg, on the contrary, didn't hear anyting patchwork about Together. That's the band's great trick. What does hold them back is Newman's oblique lyrics, which make it difficult to make an emotional connection to the songs. That said, the music is beautiful, exuberant and a Buy It.
The Hold Steady Heaven is Whenever
The Hold Steady is back with a new album and a new lineup. Heaven is Whenever is the band's fifth record, and its first without keyboardist Franz Nicolay. He was a big part of their sound, so Jim and Greg were curious to hear their new offering. As Greg explains, The Hold Steady is something of a glorified bar band, with rambling anthems. On 2008's Stay Positive they polished things up. And Heaven is Whenever is an attempt to find balance between those two approaches. Therefore, it's a transitional record, and for Greg, a Burn It. Jim has come to terms with the fact that he just doesn't like The Hold Steady. He loves singer Craig Finn's energy live, but finds his vocal style very grating on record. He gives this a Trash It.
LCD Soundsystem This Is Happening
During the next segment Jim and Greg review this season's big new releases. First up, This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem. LCD Soundsystem began as a pet project for DFA co-founder James Murphy. He's been instrumental in establishing the dance-punk sound of the past decade. Jim thinks Murphy is going for a Roxy Music vocal style. He explains that Murphy is saying this record will be his last, but notes that it's not his best. Greg agrees, adding that the bar was set very high with the previous two releases. There was much more honest emotion. But that said, it's still worth your money: a double Buy It.
Roky Erickson True Love Cast Out All Evil
Psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson has an album out called True Love Cast Out All Evil. Since fronting the 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson has been in heavy decline, dealing with mental illness and drug abuse. He was nursed back to health by his brother and, in part, the Austin community. So this record, which was produced by Will Scheff of Okkervill River, is a personal as well as a professional achievement. Greg describes this record as reflective rather than howling. But, it's beautiful to hear his voice, which is still intact. He gives it a Buy It. Jim wishes that Erickson had collaborated with someone like Billy Gibbons, who could‘ve brought out the acid rock side of the singer. He doesn’t recommend this if it's your first foray into Erickson's music, but gives it a Buy It.
High on Fire Snakes for the Divine
Heavy metal group High on Fire also has a new album out called Snakes for the Divine. The band's guitarist, Matt Pike, began as a member of the legendary stoner rock group Sleep. As Greg explains, you can hear their influence on Pike's playing today, which sounds like three guitars rolled into one. And, he‘d rank Snakes for the Divine as one of High on Fire’s best. Jim admits there's some silliness with regards to the lyrics, but also calls Pike one of the most inventive guitarists in the last two decades. It's a pummeling record that gets a double Buy It.
MGMT Oracular Spectacular
After gaining attention with their 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular, Brooklyn duo MGMT are back with Congratulations. They've expanded their synth pop sound and have looked to Jim's hero Brian Eno for inspiration. So, he wonders why he doesn't like their music more. He finds their vocal style irritating and the subject matter flimsy and can only give Congratulations a Burn It. Greg is impressed with what producer Pete Kember of Spaceman 3 has brought to the table, as well as their darker lyrics and gives the album a Buy It rating.
Hole Nobody's Daughter
The final review is of Nobody's Daughter, the reunion effort from Courtney Love and Hole. Love is one of rock's most famous widows…and also train wrecks. So, it was a surprise to Jim and Greg that she paired up with slick Hollywood songwriter Linda Perry. The last thing they want to hear is a professional Courtney Love, except maybe an immature, ranting Courtney Love. Both are on Nobody's Daughter in full effect, and it's a Trash It.
Erykah Badu Return of the Ankh
The second installment of Erykah Badu's New Amerykah series is out now: Return of the Ankh. The neo-soul goddess has been in the press recently due to controversy over the album's first video, but Jim and Greg know that she's more about shock and awe. Neither find New Amerykah Part Two to be an easy listen. Greg admits it has a very weird vibe, and lacks hooks, but he think it's worth the challenge. Jim agrees. He's always admired Badu, but was disappointed at first in the sleepy nature of the record. After multiple listens, though, it kicked in. Erykah Badu gets a double Buy It.
Fatboy Slim & David Byrne Here Lies Love
Renaissance man David Byrne has tackled rock and roll, theater, dance, and now, perhaps his most surprising project to date: Here Lies Love, a song cycle with Fatboy Slim about the life and times of Imelda Marcos. This concept prompts a chuckle to be sure, but Jim and Greg explain that Byrne spent five years on this album. Jim is predisposed to like anything Byrne does, but knows he's not infallible. Byrne dug deep into Marcos‘ life, but Jim didn’t find it a very interesting story. Worse, the talented guest vocalists were reduced to showtune-style singing. He gives Here Lies Love a Trash It. Greg agrees that the vocal style is a big drawback. But, he thinks Fatboy Slim's disco contributions really work. The Marcos story, however, is not that compelling, so Greg can only give the record a Try It.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings I Learned the Hard Way
The next album up for review is I Learned the Hard Way by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. 53-year-old Jones is the voice of the Daptone label, whose house band the Dap-Kings is perhaps best known as Amy Winehouse's backing band. Greg explains that this title is well-earned for Jones, and her life experiences inform her nuanced vocal style. He loves the dialogue between the singer and the horns section and highly recommends people check the group out live. Greg gives this record a Buy It. Jim has found her previous releases more like souvenirs of the live show. But I Learned the Hard Way is a complete work. There's a retro element, but it's not about looking backward–it's about where Jones is in her life right now. I Learned the Hard Way gets a double Buy It.
Usher Raymond V. Raymond
Usher is back this week with his 6th record called Raymond V. Raymond. The title is a reference to the R&B singer's divorce, and based on the content of the songs, Jim and Greg would say he's quickly back to being a playboy. Usher carved out a successful niche as a less threatening version of R. Kelly, but Jim thinks a few of the songs would make even Kelly blush. He calls it empty, tasteless, and worst of all-boring-and gives Usher a Trash It. Greg believes the singer should've known better. He has always admired artists like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, but is currently doing a poor job emulating them. There are a couple of tracks where he digs deep and explores his relationship issues, but Greg gives the rest of it a Trash It as well.
She and Him Volume Two
This episode's review is She and Him's Volume Two. The duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward are back for a second collaboration. Jim and Greg both enjoyed their previous album, as well as their performance on Sound Opinions. Jim, however, is very disappointed in the 2nd volume. He calls it predictable and pedestrian, and thinks it sounds more like Deschanel's cotton commercial than their older Brill-Building, cabaret songs. He gives the record a Trash It rating. Greg thinks the album is more diverse and surprising than Jim gives it credit for. He is impressed with Deschanel's range and heard everything from country to flamenco to piano pop. Greg thinks Volume Two is better than One and gives the album a Buy It.
Broken Bells Broken Bells
Jim and Greg review the self-titled debut from Broken Bells, the new collaboration between James Mercer of The Shins and Danger Mouse. This is an unexpected pairing, but Jim and Greg are both impressed to hear each artist stretching. Greg notes that both are minimalists in their own right. And the first half of the record has one fine track after another. But he finds the second half slightly disappointing. Overall, though Greg gives Broken Bells a Buy It rating. Jim doesn‘t understand Greg’s complaints. He doesn‘t think the album falls off at any point. It’s a perfect collection of pop songs and deserves a Buy It.
Gorillaz Plastic Beach
Kicking off the reviews this episode is Plastic Beach, the latest from Gorillaz. The project is helmed by Damon Albarn of Blur and features a cast of guests to create its animated fantasy world. Greg is impressed at how the singer/producer can bring together so many seemingly mismatched elements, sounds and voices and still end up with something wonderful and cohesive. Greg gives Plastic Beach a Buy It rating. Jim goes so far as to call Albarn a genius. He notes that it's a darker record, but gives it a Buy It as well.
The Besnard Lakes The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night
Jim and Greg next turn to the third release from Canadian indie rockers The Besnard Lakes called The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night. Jim describes the album as a mix between nature-inspired“beard”rock and early '90s shoegazer. This is the duo's most epic effort yet, and Jim recommends it as something you can lose yourself in. Greg wonders if they need a new rating category:“Wow.”He'd add orchestral pop and progressive rock to the list of influences. Greg describes the record as an amazing achievement and an example of great collaboration between the husband and wife team. The Besnard Lakes get a double Buy It.
Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back
While he won't be joining his former Genesis bandmates at the upcoming Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, Peter Gabriel will be busy promoting his new album Scratch My Back. Gabriel graduated from Genesis to have a hugely successful solo pop career. Now he's tackling some of his favorite songs on this new covers record. Greg has immense respect for Gabriel and thinks the album concept, which focuses on melodies and lyrics, is a noble one. However, he thinks it loses steam and lacks any variety. He gives this“well-intentioned dud”a Trash It. Jim doesn‘t understand Greg’s criticism about tempo and points out that this is a mood record. He applauds Gabriel for taking a left turn at 60 and gives Scratch My Back a Buy It.
Johnny Cash American VI: Ain't No Grave
Despite having passed away in 2003, Johnny Cash is still releasing new albums. Case in point: American VI: Ain't No Grave, the latest in Rick Rubin's American Recordings series. Rubin and Cash seemed like an unlikely pairing, but the partnership has resulted in some of Cash's most memorable performances. Greg finds the 6th album somewhat disturbing to hear; you can tell he was deteriorating. The songs have a psychedelic quality, nodding at the world Cash would soon be moving on to. Greg gives Ain't No Grave a Buy It rating. Jim heard three excellent tracks, but found the remaining either embarrassing or painful. He feels this material should've stayed private or been released as outtakes and gives the record a Try It.
Gil Scott-Heron I'm New Here
Gil Scott-Heron also has a new album out– his first in 16 years. The poet and protest singer helped to define hip hop today with his politically charged examinations of our culture. He's had a lot of trouble with drugs and the law in recent years, and these experiences have informed the new record, I'm New Here. Jim wishes Scott-Heron had looked out more than in. Not commenting on some of the changes in the world in the past decade seems like a missed opportunity. He also wishes the tracks hadn't been so overproduced. Jim gives I'm New Here a Trash It. Greg agrees that Scott-Heron's comments on recent events would‘ve been a welcome addition, but he gets the sense that the singer wasn’t present much in the last few years. It's sad for him to hear the patchwork songs, and he gives it a Burn It at best.
Yeasayer Odd Blood
The record review this week is of Odd Blood by Yeasayer. The Brooklyn-based band released their highly-acclaimed debut in 2007. And like Weezer, they faced the dreaded sophomore album pressure. But, Jim and Greg agree that they deliver. Jim has already nominated "Madder Red" for hook of the year. Yeasayer has upped the songwriting on Odd Blood, but Greg wishes they had maintained the mystery and allure of the last record. He hears some obvious references and hopes they don't go too far in the pop direction on their next release. That said, Odd Blood gets a double Buy It.
Sade Soldier of Love
This week's review is another possible prescription. What couple wouldn't like a romantic dose of Sade? The Nigerian-British singer is back with her first album in a decade. Most people associate Sade with that smooth R&B sound of the 80s. Now she's created a smooth R&B sound for the 10s. As Jim and Greg discuss, Soldier of Love is not a radical departure. But Sade still sounds great, and has brought her complicated and compelling life stories into her music. It's a welcome return for both critics and a double Buy It.
Charlotte Gainsbourg IRM
Next, Jim and Greg review Charlotte Gainsbourg's new Beck-produced album IRM. The name refers to the French term for an MRI machine, something the actress and singer spent a lot of time in after suffering a near-fatal accident. Greg describes how you can hear that experience come through in this album, though without being self-pitying. He also hears a lot of Beck's influence and was glad that the producer pushed Gainsbourg into new territory. Jim agrees, noting that you don't need to know her backstory to enjoy the record. Both Gainsbourg's parents, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, have influenced her sound, but in the end she's her own woman. IRM gets a double Buy It rating.
Midlake The Courage of Others
At the end of the show Jim and Greg review The Courage of Others, the third album from Denton, Texas rockers Midlake. When the band appeared on Sound Opinions in 2007, many people were comparing their album The Trials of Van Occupanther and its track "Roscoe" to ‘70s Fleetwood Mac. Now, Jim hears more of an early ’60s English folk vibe. It's a gorgeous but chilling record that's perfect for winter. Jim gives it a Buy It. Greg agrees, adding that he hears some Elizabethan madrigals' influence as well. He hesitates to call Midlake and bands like Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective“hippies,”but hears their yearning for a return to nature. Greg also gives Midlake a Buy It.
Lady Gaga The Fame Monster
Lady Gaga was one of the top selling artists of 2009, and she doesn‘t appear to be going away in 2010. She’s launched a successful tour and released The Fame Monster — a deluxe version of her 2008 debut that comes equipped with eight new tracks. After seeing her in concert and listening to this release, Greg found himself won over. He didn't hear a duff track on The Fame Monster and wouldn't hesitate to encourage listeners to Buy It. Jim agrees, though noting that Lady Gaga doesn't need our money. He thinks Madonna comparisons are apt. Like the Material Girl, Lady Gaga is completely unoriginal. But she raids the underground in a smart, fun way. The Fame Monster gets a double Buy It.
Mary J. Blige Stronger with Each Tear
Jim and Greg continue their winter review round-up with a discussion of Stronger with Each Tear, the 9th album from R&B singer Mary J. Blige. Blige has built a career inspired by a life of drama. Now, self-proclaimed to be drama-free, she has to face doubts that she's lost her power. Jim insists happiness hasn't weakened Blige. What has weakened her is terrible production. With the exception of a beautiful Raphael Saadiq song, this album is filled with generic, glossy R&B. Jim can only give it a Burn It rating. Greg agrees that the production lacks authenticity, but thinks Blige fights through it. She's the best R&B singer working today, and he gives the album a Buy It.
Spoon also has a new album out called Transference. It's the Austin band's 7th release, and on it they've returned to formula-a very simple one that melds cryptic lyrics with hypnotic rhythms. On their last record, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the band opened up more and included horns and more melodies. Greg wishes they had kept pushing in that direction. Instead they sound like they closed up again. He calls this an album for fans only, and while there are great moments, it's hard to listen to at times. Greg gives Transference a Burn It. Jim is shocked. He admits that Spoon has returned to its artier ways, but he believes it works. For Jim Transference is a great road trip record and a definite Buy It.
Ben Gibbard & Jay Farrar One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Music from Kerouac's Big Sur
One of the 2009 artists that slipped through the radar was a collaboration between Jay Farrar of Son Volt and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. The two musicians bonded over their admiration for Jack Kerouac and created the soundtrack to a documentary about the writer. The result is One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Music from Kerouac's Big Sur. As Greg explains, Farrar's voice is perfectly suited to Kerouac's darker material. Greg also thinks he was smart to bring Gibbard in to lend a little optimism. He was spoiled by seeing them live, but would still recommend listeners buy the album to hear these two terrific voices. Jim, also a Kerouac fan, agrees that the album, complete with artwork, is a thing of beauty. One Fast Move gets a double Buy It.
Lil Wayne Rebirth
The final album this week is Rebirth, the highly anticipated rock record from Lil Wayne. The rapper has become one of the most important figures in hip hop, so people are anxious to hear how he sounds with a guitar. In fact, anxiety abounds with this release-even over the release date. To say that Jim and Greg were disappointed would be putting it mildly. Neither critic hears anything original on Rebirth and wonders why Lil Wayne would pick the worst elements of rock to use. It's a substandard, Neanderthal Linkin Park rip-off. In other words, it's a double Trash It.
Vampire Weekend Contra
The first review of the new year goes to Vampire Weekend. Their album Contra is the follow-up to their 2008 debut—one that Greg explains had a backlash even before its release. The Brooklyn certainly seems to polarize. In fact, Jim absolutely hated the debut. But do they deserve such passionate hatred or praise? With Contra, they are trying to be more ambitious musically. There are elements of reggae, dub and even autotune. But, Greg still hears a perfectly nice pop band—nothing more, nothing less. He gives the record a Burn It. Jim admits Vampire Weekend has a terrific drummer and undeniable hooks, but he can't get past the preppy yacht schtick. He wishes they were more critical and thoughtful in their lyrics and gives Contra a Trash It.
Alicia Keys The Element of Freedom
Pop and R&B singer Alicia Keys also has a new album out this week called The Element of Freedom. This is the 4th record from one of the biggest artists of the last decade, and according to Greg, she's being more conservative and less gimmicky. The album is therefore more consistent, but lacks the rough edges you can hear in a song like "Love is My Disease." He wishes she'd let lose more and gives the record a Burn It rating. Jim is able to overlook Keys‘ horrible lyrics, but can’t get over the hair metal production. He thinks these songs fit better in the hands of Jon Bon Jovi and gives The Element of Freedom a Trash It.