I'm a Fan, But...

Brief notes on some new records--two thumbs up, one down.

Eddie Vedder, Into the Wild I'm a Pearl Jam fan from way back, but let's be honest here--they haven't made a vital record since Vitalogy. I haven't yet seen the Sean Penn-helmed film that inspired this music, though I will eventually. I just decided on a whim that this warranted checking out after catching Penn and Vedder on Charlie Rose. I'm glad I did. While this soundtrack, on which Vedder effectively plays one-man band, doesn't for a minute rival Pearl Jam's first three albums, it's, somewhat surprisingly, the second-best rock record I've heard all year (White Chalk is so not a rock record). Even allowing for the movie's Thoreauian subject, I think Vedder is just about the only active artist from whom I'd buy this sort ("when you want more than you have, you think you need") of ("and when you think more than you want, your thoughts begin to bleed") thing ("such is the passage of time"). After a decade and a half, it's more than iconoclastic posturing; the man's earned his right to universalize and indulge his folksier impulses. Set standout "Hard Sun," with the always-welcome Carrie Brownstein providing backing vocals, doesn't make me want to venture out alone into the wilderness. It just makes me miss the '90's.

Northern State, Can I Keep This Pen? I'm a Northern State fan, and if I like their latest a tad less than the two that preceded it, that doesn't mean I'm about to ditch the bandwagon anytime soon. They're trying new things here, which is good. Some work ("Better Already," "Mother May I," "Away Away"), some don't quite ("Sucka Mofo," "Run off the Road"); "Fall Apart," the trip-hoppy album closer, I can't yet make heads or tails of after a half dozen listens. I guess the guitars prove they're not a one-trick pony, though fan that I am, I was sold halfway through the classic All City. No, they're still not great rappers. Neither is Kanye. But they're both getting better, and in the meantime, thinking outside the box to put together great rap records anyway.

Nellie McKay, Obligatory Villagers
I'm a Nellie Mckay fan. In fact, I was one of only thirteen critics who voted for the sadly slept-on Pretty Little Head in last year's Pazz & Jop poll. I liked "Mother of Pearl," Obligatory Villagers' snarky opener, more before it dawned on me a few tracks later that its aggressively precious Off Broadway style (think: "Clonie," except nothing here's as good as that Get Away from Me gem) would span the entire disc. To be sure, she's as clever as ever, but for those of us who value her knack for popform as much as her wit--and more than her theatrical aspirations--this is a major disappointment. Doris Day Meets Eminem was the pull-quote three years ago, but now she gets down strictly to Sondheim.
I Can Be Your Jim Caviezel

Andy Samberg is the voice of our generation. This is becoming increasingly evident.


Been Down for Years

A couple years ago, I received a promotional copy of an album called Imagining Weather by New York performance artist/singer-songwriter Natalie Rose LeBrecht. Veering dramatically between lovely tunefulness, discomfiting, unhinged range, and insomnia-curing avant-boredom, it remains, to date, the single strangest record I've ever listened to from start to finish. Seriously, Ms. LeBrecht makes Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart sound like Fergie and John Mayer, by comparison.

I only mention this because it's the first thing that comes to mind for me when listening to PJ Harvey's seventh album (eighth if you count 4 Track Demos, ninth if you count Dance Hall at Louse Point). After first hearing the advance single, "When Under Ether," Imagining Weather crossed my mind, but I suspected its parent album would sound something like the ethereal Is This Desire?. This would make sense: that 1998 record was an esoteric, understated retreat from the intense emotional extremes of her previous album, 1995's amazing To Bring You My Love. I consequently assumed that her latest effort would prove another retreat, this time from the harsh, No Wave-indebted sound of 2004's Uh Huh Her (the only PJ Harvey that I don't quite love, though I do like it very much).

Well, I was right and wrong. White Chalk is absolutely a major departure from her last record; the differences between the two records are as extreme as between any two records in her diverse catalog. Yet it doesn't sound much like Is This Desire? either. It sounds, at least in parts, like Imagining Weather. But where LeBrecht throws all of her ideas and impulses at the wall to see what'll stick--making for a messy and patience-testing though sporadically exciting album--Harvey is a master in total control of her aesthetic.

The new album clocks in at under 35 minutes, and there isn't a wasted or superfluous note to be found. Admittedly, there also aren't any songs that immediately stand out as classic PJ Harvey cuts; there's no "Sheela-Na-Gig" or "Send His Love to Me" or "This Is Love" here. To invoke a tired music critic cliche, White Chalk (like To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?, my two favorite PJH records--this one may very well end up third on that list) truly rewards repeat listens. By around the fifth or sixth spin, songs--mysterious songs, painful songs, songs as achingly beautiful as any she's ever recorded--begin to emerge and reveal themselves.

Still, songs aren't necessarily the point here. There isn't a single misstep among these eleven tracks, but there also isn't one that isn't significantly bettered by its space within the context of the whole. More than ever before (even Is This Desire? included "The Sky Lit Up" and "A Perfect Day Elise," actual Rock Songs that wouldn't sound entirely out of place on a good radio station), mood and atmosphere are decidedly at the fore. Roughly midway through the opener, "The Devil," Harvey she commands, "Come! Come! Come here at once!" It's an arresting moment, reminiscent of the bluesy operatics that Harvey harnessed on To Bring You My Love (think: "The Dancer" and "C'mon Billy"). It's also just about the only time on White Chalk that the album's plaintive, eerily restrained mood is disrupted by more forceful emotional expression.

From the haunting cover shot (our heroine looks like a woman appearing in her first photographic portrait, sometime around the advent of the medium) to the high, girlish pitch she mostly sticks to here to the words she's singing ("teach me mummy / how to grow / how to catch someone fancy / underneath the twisted oak grove"), this feels rather loosely like a concept album of sorts. It's as if Harvey decided to write and perform this material from the psychological and historical vantage point of Holly Hunter's (or Anna Paquin's?) character in The Piano (the title of one track on White Chalk and the set's dominant instrument, played for maximal spookiness).

Because listeners, especially reviewers, expect and demand something like autobiographical authenticity from artists, a sizable percentage of the reactions to this album have assumed that Harvey is morose. Maybe she is, but I'm done playing the guess-what's-going-on-in-her-life-based-on-the-music-she's-
putting-out parlor game, particularly when it comes to this artist. We all pounced on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, with its romantic tone and uncharacteristic accessibility, inferring that she was finally happy and in a stable relationship. And then, Uh Huh Her signified what exactly? That she was sexually frustrated? Give me a break.

Harvey has always been addicted to role-playing, from "50 ft. Queenie" to "Down by the Water" to the antiquated persona she's adopted on White Chalk. By turns, she's been a young girl, a riot grrl, a mother, a lover, a whore, an androgynous figure, and a primeval force of nature--why not a dour, repressed Victorian lady? It's conceivable (and likely) that each of these incarnations is, in some form or fashion, a genuine part of the real-life Polly Jean Harvey. But I'm not going to assume from what I'm hearing that she's any more or less content with life than she was seven years ago, when she put out Stories, or, for that matter, seven years before that, when the acidic Rid of Me was released. If White Chalk is evidence of anything, it's simply that PJ Harvey's singular genius remains firmly (or perhaps delicately) intact.

In honor of White Chalk--to my tastes, one of the year's strongest records--I've ranked my favorite PJ Harvey songs in today's entry on the lists blog.


My review of the Foo Fighters' Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace is up at PopMatters.


My review of Elvis: Viva Las Vegas is up today at PopMatters.


Ooh, They So Sensitive

Will Graduation win Kaye his third Pazz & Jop poll for just his third studio album--an unprecedented feat, which would make him the Voice poll's second-winningest artist ever, after only four-time champ Bob Dylan; West's pair of poll-toppers already ties him with Elvis Costello, the Clash, and OutKast.

I posed my "will he or won't he" query to some other music critics, curious of their take on Kanye's chances of making it three for three. Fluxblog's Matthew Perpetua responded, "I kinda doubt it, I don't think the record has as many fans as the last two did, and though it'll probably do well, I figure something else will eclipse it. Anyway, I sure hope that it doesn't."

Justin Cober-Lake of PopMatters and Stylus Magazine said, "I think it's got a shot, but I don't think it will quite do it. I suspect that by this point there are enough people who just don't want to vote for Kanye. And while it's an impressive album, there are a few clunkers in the last third. I think Neon Bible and Kala both have a chance, as does Sound of Silver."

Meanwhile, Robert Christgau, "Dean of American Rock Critics" and former Pazz & Jop poobah, and Michaelangelo Matos, the mastermind behind Idolator's upstart rival poll, Jackin' Pop, declined to make predictions; the former confirmed that he'd be voting in Idolator's poll again this year and the latter replied, "I'd rather not speculate right now--it's too early, and I wouldn't want to risk altering the vote in any case."

Fair enough.

But I do want to start speculating, however early it may be in the year, and I sincerely doubt that a post here on JLT/JLT will alter the outcome of either poll. My two cents says, if nothing earth-shattering comes along in the next few months (the new Radiohead isn't due out until next year, right?), I think we're looking at a repeat of two years ago, with Kanye narrowly edging out M.I.A.

True, people aren't quite as passionate about Graduation as they were about his previous two, but people aren't as into Kala as Arular either. And, again, I think he'll edge her out for the same reasons he did in '05: Mainstream trumps marginal, especially when we're talking roughly the same genre (this isn't Lucinda vs. Lauryn in '98) and not entirely dissimilar artists (headstrong, arty, confrontational, overambitious--which is to say, they both tend to appeal to iconoclasts).

Plus, a) I suspect the consistent-if-not-spectacular Graduation (not my favorite album of 2007, but probably my favorite album so far this year that actually has a sporting chance of topping the polls) will hold up better over the year's final quarter than the spottier Kala, and, more importantly, b) Kanye will once again benefit from a mix of genuine enthusiasm and token hip hop placement.

So far as I can tell, there really isn't much else out there this year rap-wise that's going to achieve any real consensus among non-rap fans. I guess people like the Common, and he might cut a bit into Kanye's totals and will likely finish high, but I think most hardcore hip-hop heads will snub it, whereas a good chunk will presumably cite Graduation. I haven't encountered anyone, on or offline, who really cares about the new T.I. The UGK should muster some support, but I can't see non-rap fans voting for it. 50 probably won't even place, though Kanye will probably benefit additionally from the manufactured cause celebre of his triumph in their sales battle.

Assuming a proper version of The Carter III drops before ballots are due, Lil Wayne might be the wild card with regard to rap, but I think he'll perform better in the younger-skewing Idolator poll than with P&J's 50-plus contingent, who can't seem to stomach much rap beyond OutKast and Kanye--probably Common too, and perhaps finally Ghostface since he's developed that air of critical reverence.

As for the rest, I'm guessing rock critic rock will inevitably loom large. The usual suspects: Arcade Fire (I still don't get the appeal), White Stripes (people like this one more than their last one, right?), Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, Elliot Smith maybe (indie rock's Tupac?). Are people digging the Liars CD? I haven't really paid attention. Neil Young has a new one, I think, which should take some of the boomer vote.

PJ Harvey seems like a lock to place somewhere (not counting Dance Hall at Louse Point, her albums have finished #4, #3, #1, #7, #2, and #33, chronologically), and I'll go out on a limb and guess top 10, since I'm feeling optimistic. The new one from the New Pornos will probably crack the top 10, too, though most people don't seem that enthusiastic about it (and I live in their home province). Nellie McKay and the Fiery Furnaces might place respectably, too, if their new ones get people excited about them again. Feist is top 10 all the way, no question (not mine, mind you, but poll-wise).

I'm not sure where to slot Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or West (my for-now first and third-favorite albums of the year, respectively). Since Kerosene placed and most people agree that Miranda's new one is superior, I'm crossing my fingers she'll end up top 25. Lucinda usually equals consensus, but this one's considerably more divisive than her others. I'm thinking somewhere between 11-20.

I hope, in projecting "Umbrella" as the odds-on favorite to top the singles list, that people don't forget that Rihanna made a damn good album. The other night we were at a club, and the four Good Girl Gone Bad tracks the DJ played--none of which, incidentally, were "Umbrellla"--seemed to elicit the best crowd response of anything in his set, give or take Timbaland's "Way I Are," which I'm thinking is top 5 singles-wise.

I'm not really sure what else will finish high on the singles list. Something by Kanye (hopefully "Can't Tell Me Nothing," more likely "Stronger")? Justice? "Give It To Me"? "I Get Money" (assuming people can get past their 50-hatin' long enough to recognize that the track's fantastic)? Something off Kala (I'd love to see "Jimmy" place, not so much "Boyz" or "Bird Flu")? Some indie rock smash I've successfully managed to ignore?

I'd love to see "Before He Cheats" ride its '07 ubiquity to high placement, despite coming out last year (I might just vote for it in hopes of this). Conversely, I hope "Rehab" and "Fergalicious" don't benefit from the same, thought they probably will (I wouldn't be shocked at all if the former landed in the top 5). Then again, Carrie and Amy have new records due before the year's end, which might negate the vote for songs that are more than a year old.

I'm not sure what to make of either Patti Smith or Timbaland's chances--that is, I wonder if sterling reputations will be enough to secure good finishes. We Are the Pipettes might place well if it gets enough votes this year to carry over last year's total. I don't see it happening, but the Justin record could conceivably do the same--Justified did.

I think the following albums will finish somewhere between eleven and twenty, though not necessarily in this order: Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam; Elliot Smith's New Moon; Bright Eyes' Cassadega; Lucinda's West; Neil Young's Chrome Dreams II;, Wayne (if Carter 3 comes out in time); Springsteen's Magic (assuming it's decent); Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight; The Go Team's Proof of Youth; and the Fiery Furnaces' Widow City.

There's probably stuff, months-old or upcoming, that I'm momentarily blanking on, but for my predicted top ten finishers, check out the lists blog.
My review of the September 11 international film collection is up today at PopMatters.


My review of Alan Jackson's 16 Biggest Hits is up today at PopMatters.


My review of the Kurt Cobain: About a Son soundtrack is up today at PopMatters.


This article by Rebecca Chang is a must-read for anyone interested in Jia Zhang-ke, Zhang Yimou, or Chinese cinema in general. It's a superlative piece of writing, and one of the sharpest analyses of modern Mainland movie-making I've seen published anywhere, print or online.


Wake Me Up When September Ends

What an absolute crock of shit.

Don't get me wrong. I certainly admire Joe Torre. The man's arguably a baseball genius. But like his arguable-genius counterpart in St. Louis, he sometimes leaves me dumbfounded, scratching my head and directing four-letter words toward our tv.

Chris Britton in the ninth? Of a 1-1 game? In mid-September, when we have the most crucial series of the season coming up this weekend and can't afford dumb losses if we want to retain any remote hope of catching Boston? Really?

Joe, you've got both the greatest closer of all-time (play for the win, not extra innings!) and a virtually unhittable phenom (forget the every-other-day bullshit--we're in the final weeks of a pennant race!) in your bullpen, and Chris Britton gets the ball? Hell, Luis Vizcaino looked sharp closing out the eighth. Why not send him back out there? (As another miffed Yanks fan has noted here, this isn't the first time this season that Torre has shunned his best relief arms in crucial ninth inning situations.)

Or, better yet, why not pinch hit for those clearly cold bottom-of-the-line-up guys an inning earlier, with a pair of runners on base?! Uh, Jorge Posada is hitting .338 and Giambi just belted a grand slam a couple days ago: Nah, let's leave the game in Melky Cabrera's hands. Seriously?! Cabrera's a solid young player, no dis to him, but there's no way he should pick up that bat when you've got a clutch, switch-hitting veteran (who'll more than likely earn a handful of MVP votes come season's end) and one of the most intimidating power hitters in the game resting on your bench! This just should not happen, and this time of year is especially not the time for such inexplicable lapses in managerial judgment.

End rant. Let's go Yankees!

PS: Ian Kennedy > Phil Hughes?
This story warms every square inch of my heart.
As mentioned before, here's my review of Ha Ha Tonka's Buckle in the Bible Belt, up today at PopMatters.


My review of Kenny Chesney's Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates is up today at PopMatters.


I have a pair of reviews up today at PopMatters: One on 50 Cent's Curtis, the other on Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
My review of Mandy Moore's Wild Hope is up today at PopMatters.


"Diplo Didn't Make It"

Kala, track by track.

01. "Bamboo Banger"

TERESA: This gets the energy flowing exceptionally well for an intro song. The bamboo / mango / pickle / various food shout-outs are getting old, but the beat is more than solid and her flow is commanding enough to whet appetites for what's to come (and houses lyrics that are actually catchy, unlike the first leaked track--"XR2," which only made me worry about the album). [7]

JOSH: Not a particularly strong opener (ala "Pull up the People," which is so, you know, this-shit-is-on!). This one's more "this shit is...different." But it does grow a bit. Maybe a wise call for the first track actually, as it is indicative of the album's general oddness and allovertheplaciness. Jonathan Richman, eh? [5]

02. "Bird Flu"

TERESA: When this first surfaced on the net, I liked it a lot more than I do now. Mostly because it shone in contrast to the aforementioned, "XR2," but also because it was an inspired, genuinely, poundingly good club track for people that don't like normal club tracks. After hearing the rest of the disc, though, it's probably one of the weaker moments. [7]

JOSH: I like this, but not with much passion. Its chief virtue is its jarring otherness. At least, it's jarring the first few times you hear it. After that, it's take it or leave it. I'll take it, but the best thing it has going for it (a seemingly determined resistance to accessible songform) is also what prevents me from really getting into it. What can I say? I'm a songform guy.[6]

03. "Boyz"

TERESA: Okay, this is barely listenable. Maya's not even trying to be clever--resorting to simple riot chanting, which is annoying as hell (while it could have been intimidatingly badass... if it was about bombs and Bush instead of boys). [0]

JOSH: Same qualm, except this one falls on the "leave it" side. I know lots of people love it, which makes me wonder if I'm missing something, but what is there to possibly miss? It doesn't go anywhere. At all. But I digress... [3]

04. "Jimmy"

TERESA: Yes, the best song on here--though not her best ever, despite what Josh might tell you. The perfect Bollywood pop concoction, with a little more street edge and less camp than the usual kind. [10]

JOSH: The gift that just keeps on giving. On listen #493 or so, it still shimmers. Nothing else on Kala comes close. It suggests some tantalizing possibilities, not least of which the idea of M.I.A. as a pop star in a not purely theoretical sense. [10]

05. "Hussel"

TERESA: Initially, this one impressed me a lot--not unlike "Bird Flu"--but faltered on repeated listens. The chorus is still decidedly brilliant, in a simple way, but the verses are really quite lame. "I hate money 'cause it makes me numb"? We all know she can do better. [5]

JOSH: This one does go somewhere, but it gets tiresome fast. The spare drums are exciting early on, then the synths barge in and add nothing (good) to the mix. Kind of gives me a headache the way some grime did, and guest rapper Afrikan Boy sounds a lot like someone from Roll Deep. [4]

06. "Mango Pickle Down River"

TERESA: Ugh, if there's one thing that I always hate in music, it's pointless novelty. The only band I can think of that does it well would be CSS (though their pop culture parodies are really more like homages, and are hardly pointless). But anytime little kids are involved, it's bad news. And M.I.A. saying she likes fish and mango: not cool. Not cute. Not funny. [0]

JOSH: Weirdest track yet. Those kids are creepy as hell. (Maybe it's just me, though. I sometimes find young children creepy when that's not the intended effect.) I like it. [6]

07. "$20"

TERESA: This one is probably my third favorite on Kala. She may have picked the most famous, ubiquitous Pixies song to quote, but it's still the Pixes, and it still ends up being creative and refreshing. The rest of it is stellar, too. She's in top form here. [9]

JOSH: My initial impulse was that this was just okay (synths put to better use than on "Hussel," at least), but just when I was starting to get a tad bit bored with it, they switch up the synths and she starts chanting some Pixies. Upon repeat listens, this one impresses. It's actually somewhat hypnotic. [8]

08. "World Town"

TERESA: Again with the chanting. Sometimes it works, but on this disc it mostly fails--especially on "Boyz," and here. The squelchy atari trumpet beat doesn't help. [2]

JOSH: Sort of a songier (relatively speaking) "Bird Flu," yet decidedly less interesting. More than anything else here, this might've fit in on her debut (though it would've probably been the weakest track). [4]

09. "The Turn"

TERESA: Her most vulnerable moment in a long time--maybe to date. It, along with "Jimmy" shows that she can sing; if not particularly well, at least very prettily. [8]

JOSH: Not very songy at all, but I like it just fine nevertheless. Perhaps this is M.I.A.'s version of mood music. It comes off pretty well. [7]

10. "XR2"

TERESA: I've said all I need to say on this turd of a wannabe-cultural mantra. [0]

JOSH: Still not a fan. I was hoping this would sound better in the context of the album, but Kala's so willfully eclectic that such context means little. In 2007, Diplo's baile funk fetish might finally be played out. [4]

11. "Paper Planes"

TERESA: M.I.A. may be bitter at the recognition and credit Diplo still gets for Arular, but she'll have to live with the fact that he did "make" the beat to one of her best songs (yes, this one). The sample is integrated beautifully, so that it's instantly recognizable, but not necessarily placeable (it took me a minute to realize what it was, though I knew I knew it). To her credit, her lyrics and pacing fit over it gracefully and make it eerily beautiful and tough at the same time. [10]

JOSH: Her ex redeems himself completely, though, with this one, my second-favorite on the record. Here, she raps over "Straight to Hell" with the same relaxed confidence she exuded on Piracy Funds Terrorism's "Bingo"/"Big Pimpin'" blend. It's too bad they're on the outs now. They make a terrific duo, creatively anyway. (This video proves it.) [9]

12. "Come Around"

TERESA: It's held up well, even after hearing the entirety of both this disc and Timbo's. It's breezy, summery, sweaty, fun, and funny. A winning combination, blah blah blah. Oh, and for the record, this is an example of the chanting being a good thing. [8]

JOSH: It's appropriate that this appears as a bonus track on both this album and Timbaland's. It feels like a one-off, the curious product of a collaboration that maybe didn't quite gel but still yielded this interesting result. That "baby girl / you and me / need to go to your tee pee" line is hilarious. [7]


It's Britney, Bitch!

Forget everything you know about Britney Spears in 2007. Forget that bald-ass billiard ball head. Forget the disturbing absence of panties when exiting vehicles. Forget the horrendous parenting and messy custody battle. Forget K-Fed. Forget that her other ex is now huger and more universally embraced than she ever was or could ever hope to be again.

Or don't.

Either way, "Gimme More" is terrific. The tight, squelchy beat, by Timbaland protege Nate "Danja" Hills, is locked-in and irresistible. The verses are all coy, breathy come-on's ("just wanna go that extra mile for you"), Britney doing what Britney's always done best--taking a page from the Madonna play-book and making smart use of that notoriously limited vocal range.

The forgettable, underwhelming chorus is the only thing that prevents this from being classic Britney ("Baby One More Time," "Crazy," "Oops I Did It Again," "I'm a Slave 4 U," "Toxic"), and, really, that's only appropriate. Killer hooks are for pop stars, and--let's face it--Britney isn't really much of a pop star anymore. She's a media star, eternal paparazzi bait, and as such, "Gimme More" is at least as good as, say, "Stars Are Blind." And better than "Rumors."