Tuesday, May 22, 2007

With The Village Voice having canned Robert Christgau, I thought I’d start my own little Consumer Guide. Each month I’ll do 8 to 10 reviews, split up into two entries. There will also be the odd feature or two as I feel the inspiration come over me.

Here goes nothing.

Lily Allen: Alright, Still (Capitol, 2007). It would be easy to dismiss this 21-year old child prodigy – she’s the daughter of prominent British actor Keith Allen – as just another privileged brat of excess. But you’d be wrong. In deed it is Allen’s upbringing – attending 13 schools in 12 years and being expelled from many of them, running away from a boarding school when she was 14, and various sundry relationships with folks obviously not of her class, that sets the theme for this album. The girl is pissed, and with a maturity that belies her age, she transcends her rage and rebellious past and comes up with an album that her contemporaries could only pray to deliver. She’s Ani DiFranco with a rhythm section, with one obvious exception. While DiFranco had a loathing for herself and a healthy contempt for anyone who was superficial, Allen seems to get off on her good looks. She really thinks she’s the shit, which probably means she is. A-

Chris Smither: Leave the Light On (Signature, 2006). Smither has been around so long – his first album I’m a Stranger Too was released in 1970 – only Dylan and, maybe, Newman have lasted as long, with only the former consistently turning out significant works. And while Smither’s voice is aging faster than the fingers that pick his legendary blue guitar, it’s his indelible spirit that remains ageless and timeless. While I still prefer 1991’s Another Way To Find You if for no other reason than the fact he’s always been at his best when he flew solo and live, there’s no denying this 60-plus year old troubadour his due. Gotta love his sense of humor too on the title track when he boasts he’ll live to be a hundred, “39 to go but I ain’t keepin’ score;” or on “Origin of the Species” the funniest knock on intelligent design ever set to music. But it’s on “Diplomacy” where Smither’s folkie roots come home to roost: “Peace is so peaceful, it ain’t a way to survive. When nobody hates you, nobody knows you’re alive.” Like so many philosophers before him he has the heart of a poet but with the moral high ground to make it sound sincere. I’m hoping he makes it to the century mark. A-

Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Ever Sank (Epic, 2007). Having long ago given up any hope he would one day wake up to find he was Stephen Malkmus, Isaac Brock was free to develop one of the country’s best indie-rock bands this side of Pavement; and unlike the former, Brock’s star is still ascending. Ever since 1996’s “This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing To Think About” they have continued to evolve their sound, which I’ve always suspected owes much of its heritage to ‘80s bands like the Meat Puppets and Husker Du. Adding former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr to the lineup cinches it for me. These guys are nostalgic, but in a good way. “Dashboard” proves they can reach for the stars while still reaching for the jugular, and with five albums already under their belt, this one is their finest. Among their contemporaries, only Sonic Youth has a longer and more substantial catalogue. A

Brandi Carlile: The Story (Columbia, 2007). Having survived the accolades of her self-titled debut in ’05, Carlile enlisted the help of T-Bone Burnett and with the help of some smart lyrics by Phil and Tim Hanseroth, comes up with a sophomore effort worthy of her P.R. While I generally eschew singer/songwriters who wax poetically, but who lack the depth to convey substance behind the style, there’s no denying the charm of this Washingtonian. Her songs are light, but hardly the stuff of the background music that finds its way to most “easy-listening” stations. And she never over-reaches, meaning she knows her limitations – a talent other supposedly “superior” artists seem to lack these days. A good one. A-

Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch, 2007). I used to think that Jeff Tweedy was this generation’s Mark Knopfler in that he seemed overly preoccupied with technique often at the expense of substance. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a text-book case in point. I still don’t know what the thing is, but boy doesn’t it “sound” impressive? But now I think his real problem is that he suffers from Paul Simon syndrome: he’s too damn smart for his own britches. How else do you reconcile the brilliance of the Mermaid Avenue albums with the aforementioned effort? Clearly, Tweedy, like Simon, is far better off keeping it simple, which is why this album – his sixth in 12 years and the best since Being There (which I'll admit I may have initially overrated a bit) – is a classic example of the age old axiom, less is more. Here, Tweedy abandons his “technique” and instead opts for simplicity. The songs for once are engaging and inviting, rather than complex and obtuse. Consider these lyrics from the opening track, "Maybe the sun will shine today, the clouds will blow away / I will try to understand, everything has its plan." Tweedy’s real accomplishment is not trying to sound so profound that he misses the forest for the trees. Another welcome sign is his return to his alt-country roots, where I’ve always thought Tweedy belonged in the first place. Like so many bands before them – the Jayhawks come to mind here – Tweedy’s Wilco, and to a lesser extent Uncle Tupelo, overreached and thus lost touch with what made them truly successful. Unlike Mark Olsen, who fumbled the ball and never did recover, Tweedy has a chance to build off this if he wants it. For now, I’ll just say this is the Wilco album both fans and admirers alike will enjoy. A-

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