For their latest release, Radio Retaliation, Washington D.C. based Thievery Corporation (Rob Garza and Eric Hilton) decided to make an album with a more overtly political bent, and towards that end, they collaborated on tracks with an impressive roster of international musicians. The roster includes, to quote their press, “Nigeria’s afro-beat heir Femi Kuti, Brazilian star vocalist and guitarist Seu Jorge, Indian sitar virtuoso Anushka Shankar, Slovakian chanteuse and violinist Jana Andevska, and Washington D.C.’s own go-go originator Chuck Brown.” The results are mostly good and often great, though, no doubt owing to the broad range of their musical collaborations, Radio Retaliation sometimes loses a sense of cohesiveness and stops seeming like a Thievery Corporation record. Nevertheless, enough of their trademark masterful blend of electronica, downtempo, dub, jazz, lounge and world music elements can be heard here to make this rank as a good, if not great Thievery Corporation release. Standout cuts: “Radio Retaliation,” “Vampires,” “Beautiful Drug” and “La Femme Parallel.”

Ben Folds – Way To Normal

September 30, 2008

It occurred to me as I was listening to Nashville based singer/songwriter Ben Fold’s latest album, Way To Normal, that Folds is maybe to piano rock what Frank Zappa was to guitar rock: Both are uniquely gifted musicians, possessed of a sardonic, profane and sometimes goofy sense of humor, but also very serious minded about the music they make. Folds is maybe a bit more of a romantic than Zappa was, as evidenced by truly lovely ballads like “Cologne” and “Kylie From Connecticut,” but I think they set similarly high standards for themselves which they sometimes attain, sometimes do not. On Way To Normal, it can be said that Folds mostly attains whatever standard he set for himself with this album, as most of the music is pitch perfect pop music, inspired and engaging. Even the songs that I thought comprised some of the lesser tracks, like “Dr. Yang” and “Errant Dog,” are still possessed of an exuberance that’s hard to resist while the songs are playing. Despite the presence of the two aforementioned ballads, the 12 tracks included here positively whiz by in a flurry of piano pounding goodness. A definite highlight here is a duet with Regina Spektor called “You Don’t Know Me,” which also happens to be the first single. I’m not sure Folds breaks any new ground with Way To Normal, but with music this finely crafted and this entertaining, it hardly matters. Standout cuts: “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head),” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Cologne” and “Bitch Went Nuts.”

“I’m going to take you home…”

The new album from New York City based band TV On The Radio is their first record that’s really, truly bowled me over. It’s like Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Prince, the Clash and David Bowie somehow got together and made some electronic music, inviting in string and horn sections along the way. It’s ambitious and positively overflowing with ideas to the point where it’s difficult to take it all in on a single listen. Dear Science seems like one of those perfectly timed albums that captures a moment in time, the feel of a nation and a world on the verge of what may be enormous changes, charged with both hope and a profound ambivalence. The lyrics are optimistic but tempered by caution, forward thinking but deeply worried about the present. Dear Science is a reminder why many of us like music to begin with, because it moves us, makes us want to move, and connects us with all the things with which we want to be connected. And did I mention that it rocks, and is funky as all get out? This is inspired stuff, and you really should listen to it, because it was made just for you. Standout cuts: “Halfway Home,” “Dancing Choose,” “Golden Age” and “Shout Me Out.”

Loyalty To Loyalty, Fullerton based band Cold War Kids’ second album, has a jazzy, improvisational feel, coupled with lyrics that people may interpret as blunt and direct, or strident and obvious. This may be a love or hate sort of an album, and for my part, I wouldn’t say I love this album, exactly, but I do find I like it a lot, and when I start to listen to it, I listen to it all the way through. I like the late night quality of it, I like the way it sometimes sounds like the songs are coming together as you listen in, like you’re sitting in a smoky bar after hours, surrounded by Beatnik chicks just wearing their smocks, watching the band play. The guitar and piano work is richly atmospheric, and Nathan Willett’s vocals are the perfect complement, as he sings, croons and wails his way through the songs. Some of the material falls flat, it’s true, but as a whole, I must say I like this album a lot. Standout cuts: “Against Privacy,” “Mexican Dogs,” “Something Is Not Right With Me” and “Relief.”

First of all, let me just say that any band that has recorded a song called “Fry Bread,” as New Mexico based band Brightblack Morning Light (Rachael Hughes and Nathan Shineywater) did on their debut LP, is already on my good side. That said, their second album, Motion To Rejoin, doesn’t have any odes to Native American cuisine, but it does include music that is the auditory equivalent of taking the good acid (whatever color that is): The nine tracks have a hallucinatory quality that’s by turns beautiful and mysterious, otherworldly while at the same time utterly evocative of the American landscape. Trying to nail down what they sound like is sort of a tricky business. They are fond of the long song, so it’s tempting to label them a jam band, but a more apt description may be Mazzy Star crossed with Pink Floyd, with a healthy dose of jazz, gospel, blues and psychedelia thrown in for good measure. It’s lovingly crafted, densely layered music, with ghostly and often distorted sounding vocals hovering in the mix. The songs on Motion To Rejoin require a certain amount of patience and attention, but it’s patience and attention amply rewarded. Standout cuts: “Oppression Each,” “Another Reclaimation,” “A Rainbow Aims” and “Past A Weatherbeaten Fencepost.”

A side note: The music on Motion To Rejoin was recorded using power from four solar panels. If that isn’t being green, I don’t know what is.

My first impression of Nashville based band Kings of Leon’s new release, Only By The Night, was that it was one half of a great rock album, but upon repeated listenings, I think I was wrong about that. After five good to great tracks in a row, ranging from the slow burning, slightly spacey opener “Closer,” the soaring, should be a single “Use Somebody,” to the strangely melancholy sounding ode to partying in “Manhattan,” the album merely switches tone a bit rather than drops in quality with “Revelry.” That said, I still like the first half of the album better, but then I can have few complaints about a second half that ends with the gorgeous “Cold Desert.” They have lately been accused by some fans of aping U2 owing to their expanded sound, but lead singer Caleb Followill’s powerful, often plaintive wails and Matthew Followill’s terrific guitar work, which is sometimes so subtle that it feels like a ghostly presence somewhere in the mix, keep the music firmly rooted in their Southern rock influences. Kings of Leon are making rock that feels both intimate and majestic at the same time. If they share anything in common with U2, it’s the earnestness and passion that U2 was celebrated for when they first emerged as a young band. Standout cuts: “Crawl,” “Sex On Fire,” “Use Somebody” and “Manhattan.”

Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue

September 23, 2008

How you feel about Jenny Lewis’ second solo album may be dependent on how you felt about Rilo Kiley’s Under The Blacklight, since Acid Tongue exists in largely the same musical universe as that album. The majority of the songs here are firmly rooted in 70’s era country, pop and bluesy rock, with a couple of nods to blue-eyed soul via Dusty Springfield, all genres Lewis takes to with ease. “Black Sand” gets things off to a solid start, with Lewis seemingly channeling Kate Bush and the Beatles a bit to good effect. One of the highlights, and possibly the pinnacle, of the album is the nearly nine minute long psychedelic blues rock opus, “The Next Messiah,” which features some top notch back up from guitarist and vocalist Johnathan Rice. On “Carpetbaggers,” Lewis duets with Elvis Costello, and seems to riff of Neil Young’s “Love is A Rose” to some degree, although the song here is quite a bit sexier and sassier. Mention also has to be made of the rousing “Jack Killed Mom,” which starts out sounding a bit like the story songs of Bobbie Gentry and Vicki Lawrence, but then ends with a country rave-up. The final track, the gentle ballad “Sing A Song For Them,” recalls the first couple of Rilo Kiley’s first albums. I really enjoyed listening to this album, not least because of Lewis’ voice and her intelligent and witty lyrics, but also because it’s fun, entertaining music, crafted with care and passion. Is it a classic? I don’t know, but it sure goes down smoothly. Standout cuts: “Black Sand,” “The Next Messiah,” “Acid Tongue” and “Carpetbaggers.”

Lindsey Buckingham’s Gift Of Screws finally sees the light of day after a years-long delay during which a version of the album was leaked to the Internet, and individual tracks were released on a Fleetwood Mac record, Say You Will, and Buckingham’s last solo release, Under The Skin. The ten tracks that comprise this official release were mostly self-recorded and produced by Buckingham in his home studio, and as anyone familiar with his past solo work will expect, the music alternately explodes with pop bliss, or burns with a barely contained urgency, both anxious and erotic. And if you’ve seen Buckingham live with his band Fleetwood Mac or on his own, you’ll also know he can rock the hell out when he wants to, and he does often on Gift Of Screws with some incredible electric and acoustic guitar work. Out of his four solo releases, I’d rank this number two, just behind 1984’s Go Insane, which is perhaps a sentimental favorite, after all. The best news about Gift Of Screws is that it seems clear that Buckingham isn’t even close to exhausting his creative energy, even after 35 years of recording. In addition to Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac fans, I would also recommend this album to indie pop fans, and then advise them to go back and listen to his first two solo releases and Tusk. It will start to become abundantly clear how influential Buckingham has been on modern indie pop. Standout cuts: “Great Day,” “Did You Miss Me,” “Love Runs Deeper” and “The Right Place To Fade.”

Since Damien Jurado officially became a band (featuring Jurado, Eric Fisher and Jenna Conrad), rather than just the name of a singer/songwriter, Jurado’s songs have developed a fuller sound, as opposed to his more spare recordings of the past, which often involved just his guitar and his voice, a powerful instrument in itself and one of the most unique and evocative in indie rock. Jurado is mostly known for unhurried folk, blues and alt-country inspired compositions, lyrically often stark in its portrayals of modern American life and relationships. Caught In The Trees continues on in that tradition, though on a few tracks, Jurado kicks up a few notches, and rocks out a bit. It’s a good mix of Jurado playing to his strengths, while effectively continuing to expand his sound in different directions. Jurado, Fisher and Conrad are clearly an inspired musical team, it’s worth noting Conrad’s often extraordinarily beautiful vocals. This is Jurado’s best and most fully realized work since 2000’s Ghost Of David, still my favorite Jurado release. Standout cuts: “Gillian Was A Horse,” “Trials,” “Last Rights” and “Predictive Living.”

The New Year

September 20, 2008

The third album from the New Year is guitar based indie music in the tradition of Yo La Tengo, Luna and the Eels, which is to say, to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, it’s “adult quality” music. It’s intelligently conceived for an audience willing to pay it some attention, which is not to say that the album is meandering, as at ten tracks and 34 minutes, it’s definitely not that, but it often does take its time getting to where it’s going. On the opening track, “Folios,” it’s three and a half minutes in before anyone starts to sing. Lyrically, the songs for the most part take a non-sentimental look at relationships, with the keenly evocative instrumentation either ornate or spare, quiet or loud, as it serves the song. It’s also worth remarking that this album features some of the loveliest guitar work I’ve heard since the aforementioned Luna. This is the first New Year album I’ve heard, and it certainly makes me want to go back and check out their previous two albums. For now, The New Year is very much recommended. Standout cuts: “The Company I Can Get,” “X Off Days,” “Wages Of Sleep” and “The Idea Of You.”