Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hayes Carll/Old 97’s

A couple alt-country stalwarts return, reliable as ever. These Texas boys are frequent touring partners. Catch them if you can.
Hayes Carll: Kmag Yoyo (& Other American Stories)
The title is military speak for “Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own,” an acronym for when the going gets tough. And the soldier in the title track, though he “ain’t even nineteen,” already knows tough in a way only someone who’s done business with the Taliban could. Among the best of the Other American Stories is a Christmas tale about a family that’s learned to be thankful for its own specific brand of dysfunction and one about a Democrat who walks into a bar alone and walks out with a Republican who probably won’t leave him her number in the morning. Mostly, though, his great American theme of choice is the highway – and all that you’ve heard comes with it. So while the wife he writes home to in “The Letter” might not be comforted by a line like “I swear I tried to reach you, but the cop took my phone,” she probably knew from the start that he was a type. You’ll swear you know him from somewhere, and yet you’ve still never met anyone quite like him. A-
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Old 97’s: The Grand Theatre, Volume One
While I prefer 2008’s more lyrical Blame It On Gravity, this one – a band album through and through – says encouraging things about this particular great band’s future. There’s the implicit promise of a Volume 2, first off, but also an urgency that suggests they’re functioning as a unit rather than an excellent singer-songwriter with an uncannily sympathetic backing band. The semi-downside is that, while they sound more juiced than they have since 2001’s unstoppable Satellite Rides, the lyrics aren’t the focus this time around – nor do they need to be when the band is this tight. But most bands, tight or otherwise, don’t have a writer as sharp as Rhett Miller in their corner. That’s not to say there aren’t great songs here. “Let The Whiskey Take The Reins” enters the pantheon on first listen while “Champaign, Illinois” repurposes the melody of this blog’s namesake Dylan song so well that Bob himself, who normally denies such requests outright, let the band keep half the publishing rights. Game recognizes game. B+
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Kanye West/Joanna Newsom

The only thing these two artists share – other than a tendency to alienate people – is my love. One had it from the start, the other snuck up and stole it. My two favorite records of 2010, reviewed in 2011 because time can’t diminish their power. Or, as Kanye puts it, “POWER.”

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The fact that he was mean to Taylor Swift once upon a time is a big part of the context, but the fantasy itself is universal. You probably haven’t fallen in love with a porn star or woken up in Paris as many times as he has, but the dark, twisted, beautifully messy personality this album exercises (“POWER”) and exorcises (all nine glorious minutes of “Runaway”) transcends those specifics. From the opening “Can we get much higher?” to the closing “Who will survive in America?” he’s including you in the conversation. And any guy who would allow Nicki Minaj to so thoroughly take over the discourse – as she does on “Monster,” overshadowing Kanye, Rick Ross, and Jay-Z – knows how to give just as good as he gets. A
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Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me
My hatred for this 29-year-old harp-playing chanteuse’s early work was so strong that I came to this album, her third, spoiling for a fight. Imagine my chagrin when she pinned me. Newsom has a habit of going all in, which in the past has meant Van Dyke Parks orchestra arrangements, cloying pastoral poetry, and a whole lot of harp. What has me going in with her on this triple album of 18 breakup songs, fully half of which are over seven minutes long, is – believe it or not – the way she reins herself in. The harp’s still there, but it’s getting a lot of help from the piano, and Newsom uses both to impart melodies a normal person could actually hum. Like obvious touchstone Joni Mitchell, she’s an acquired taste, but that high, keening voice of hers has softened, and she’s replaced the florid poetry with lived-in stuff like this: “The tap of hangers/swaying in the closet/Unburdened hooks/and empty drawers/And everywhere I tried to love you/is yours again/and only yours.” I could drink a case of that. A
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Arcade Fire/Eminem

Arcade Fire’s Grammy upset gives me an excuse to play catch up. How AF lost to the Black Keys in two minor categories, then beat Em and Gaga for Album of the Year, is the sort of question you ask only if you believe the Grammies ever make a bit of sense. They don’t, but the right album won anyway. Go figure.

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Win Butler’s failure, over 16 songs in 60 minutes, to say anything concrete about the suburban landscape he evokes throughout is partly the point. This is ennui writ big. Madison Square Garden, Billboard Number One, Grammy Album of the Year big. No wonder people compare them to U2. But Butler has no use for Bono’s messiah robes. He’s a modest guy who thinks you’ve probably felt that ennui once or twice yourself. And if you haven’t, the sheer scale and force of the music will have you empathizing anyway. The most wistful arena rockers in the world – from Canada, naturally. A-

Eminem: Recovery
He gives a damn about a Grammy – deep down, he’s far too traditional a guy not to. Thankfully, he’s still a little too dangerous to win the big one (though this decent comeback album, released on the heels of 2009’s deplorable one, did net him his fifth rap album trophy – not bad for a guy who’s released six albums). “Kill You” dangerous? No. Dangerous in that ribald, self-effacing way that’s always been his great strength? You bet. He tells us on “Talkin’ 2 Myself” that, around the time he was falling asleep stoned in McDonald’s parking lots, he also somehow retained the good sense to think twice before dissing Kanye and Lil Wayne, both of whom he’s sure would have handed him his ass. I miss his sense of humor as much as the next longtime fan. But if he’s smart enough to see that Relapse sucked, he’s smart enough to know where to go from here. B+

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