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Jukebox

Three critics from different musical perspectives offer competing takes on recent noteworthy albums.

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Rating System:
1 = Skip it
5 = Try it
10 = Buy it

Andre the Music Snob
Immerses himself in neo-psychedelia and no-wave, and takes ironic pleasure in southern rock. Favorite band of all time: James Chance and the Contortions.

Madison the A&R Chick
A pop fanatic since she first heard Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac. Depeche Mode defined her teenage years. Obsessed with finding the next Prince.

Howie the Sleepless New Dad
In college, he listened to nothing but rap. Now his taste tilts toward gentle folk-rock that won’t drive his wife from the room. Hates Maroon 5 with a passion.

M.I.A.
Arurlar
Just your typical female rapper from a family of Sri Lankan refugees, mixing her thoughts on global politics with Eastern-influenced disco beats composed on an old drum machine.
Some artists steal, and some artists borrow. Whichever M.I.A. does, she’s almost slick enough to get away with it. M.I.A. makes agitpop for the armchair stoner rabble-rouser, exotica for the fashion set. In between chants about bombs and poverty, there are snatches of Brazilian baile funk (“Bucky Done Gun”), Baltimore club (“U.R.A.Q.T.”), and dancehall reggae (everywhere else).

Rating: 5
Best Track: “Galang”
Urban beats, horns, world music, and electronic hooks blend together to create a ferocious cutting-edge sound fronted by a righteous, politically charged female rapper with a style all her own. M.I.A.’s CD will hook you in right from the start and keep you there until the end. M.I.A. is going to have trouble connecting to a big audience here, but she will have her fans.

Rating: 8
Best Track: “Galang”
I’m too old to listen to all these harsh metallic sounds, and I gotta tell you, after the summer we’ve had, I’m not so sure that I need to hear M.I.A. boasting that “I’ve got the bombs to make you blow” and “It’s a bomb, yo, so run, yo.” The sitars and steel drums are something different, and I bet it sounds great on a dance floor, but on the subway? Not these days.

Rating: 3
Best Track: “Hombre”

The Hold Steady
Separation Sunday
The NYC-by-way-of-Minneapolis indie scenesters are known for their aggressively un-trendy classic-rock vibe and ornate, almost spoken-word vocals.
Craig Finn might be a solipsist, but he’s got no interest in going it alone. Accordingly, he traded in his indie-rock outfit Lifter Puller a couple of years ago to launch the Hold Steady, which makes, for better or worse, lazy music for bright people. While the band plays expertly mimed power rock from the REO Speedwagon era, Finn grumbles about what happens when the girls on Bedford Avenue become women but the boys never make it to manhood.

Rating: 8
Best Track: “Banging Camp ”

If you’re into the trendy-punk-band scene in NYC, these guys are for you. The riffs may be pure classic rock, but the attitude is downtown all the way. Which would be no problem if only Craig Finn’s spoken-word vocal style didn’t get annoying after a few songs. Is it too much to ask a singer to hit more than a couple of notes?

Rating: 5
Best Track: “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
A kick-ass bar band. I love this. By the time you realize the singer’s never going to bust out and produce much of a melody, his nutty free-associating has won you over. It’s about time somebody wrote a song about Stevie Nicks. And have you seen a better song title recently than “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”?

Rating: 9
Best Track: “Stevie Nix"

Cowboy Junkies
Early 21st Century Blues
The veteran Canadian alt-country quartet with the distinctively hushed, mellow sound returns with an album of mostly hushed, mellow antiwar cover tunes.
Cowboy Junkies offer a hazy dream version of Americana (even though they’re Canadian), with two decades of songs that creep, shuffle, and at times twang. Though the quaver in front woman Margo Timmins’s voice is deeply affecting, her band lets her down. The songs by Dylan, U2, and Springsteen are neutered by the Junkies’ style. But the two spacious originals—“December Skies” and “This World Dreams Of”—deviate from form. Unbound by the words of others, the Junkies unfurl in beautiful, fearless style.

Rating: 6
Best Track: “December Skies"
On first listen, I thought this CD could easily cure a sleeping disorder. However, on further review, a few songs popped out that made the album worthy, like “You’re Missing” and “This World Dreams Of.” The album closes with a cover of U2’s “One,” a bad choice for a couple of reasons: Keeping up with Bono is hard enough, but beating Johnny Cash’s rendition from a few years back is just plain impossible.

Rating: 4
Best Track: “You're Missing"

The burst of hysterical laughter at the beginning of the record sure is ironic, since what follows is so dark and plodding. Some of the songs are lovely, but the majority of them just go nowhere—and take their own sweet time getting there. A bizarre rap thing breaks the mood, though not in a good way.

Rating: 5
Best Track: “You're Missing"

Missy Elliott
The Cookbook
The rapper’s latest involves a wider range of guests and producers than her usual Timbaland-heavy efforts, but the avant-garde beats and old-school flow still dominate.
Long miscast as hip-hop’s top futurist, Missy outs herself here as the genre’s most assiduous classicist. Everything about her sixth album is a throwback—the guests (Slick Rick, Grand Puba), the beats (which recycle ’82 drum patterns on “On & On” and Cybotron’s gelatinous proto-techno jam “Clear”), and her elementary cadences. This stuck-in-time vocal style of hers has occasionally grated in the past, but here, in a context that sounds almost vintage, it is fully realized.

Rating: 8
Best Track: “Irresistable Delicious”
Although Missy’s strong point of view and infectious beats are still present, the new album doesn’t feel as cohesive as her last one. Her decision to use multiple producers, including Scott Storch and the Neptunes, in addition to her main collaborator, Timbaland, makes the album seem more pop than her previous releases. But The Cookbook has its pleasures. There are several great tracks and amazing guests, including Slick Rick, Mary J. Blige, and Mike Jones.

Rating: 7
Best Track: “Lose Control ”

Several songs went into instant rotation on my iPod. The first time I listened to the disc I played them over and over again. And that gives you a sense of the disc overall—half a dozen really good songs, with great beats and rhymes, and another half dozen that just slip right on by.

Rating: 7
Best Track: “Can't Stop ”

Sufjan Stevens
Come on Feel the Illinoise
The indie songwriter continues his oddly earnest project of making an album about each of the 50 states with tunes about Abe Lincoln, John Wayne Gacy, and other Illinoisian subjects.
Springsteen’s Nebraska was, at best, an
idea. By comparison, Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois feels utterly lived-in, to the point of being denatured and bizarre. The subject matter is all over the map—UFO sightings, serial killers—and so are the arrangements. The record teems with dense chamber pop: flute trills, girl choirs, horns, contemplative piano, and the odd nod to big band. Precious, yes, but Stevens, despite his frail voice, is cocksure in his eccentricities.

Rating: 7
Best Track: “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
An odd but beautiful combination of styles and sounds, including jazz, funk, pop, and folk. The CD tests your patience, then rewards it with lovely instrumentation and textures. Each song has its own story to tell and its own distinct musical flavor, but it does somehow fit together as a whole, neatly bound by Stevens’s soft folk-styled vocals.

Rating: 7
Best Track: “Casimir Pulaski Day”
What is this, a group of woodland pixies playing Up With People covers? The flutes, the strings—it’s all a bit much. The best songs are the simple ones, just the singer and his guitar, but there aren’t enough of those. And I know this is a concept album or whatever, but 22 songs about the history of Illinois? It’s like Schoolhouse Rock for third-graders in Peoria.

Rating: 4
Best Track: “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”


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