Wednesday, June 27, 2007

2007 Mid-Year Round-Up

145. Brother Ali: The Undisputed Truth (2007)

No doubt Brother Ali is talented, with a gift for narrative and a mesmerizing tone, but the real star on The Undisputed Truth is beatmaker Ant. Even Ali knows it: "Ant give me 10 beats a week / so fuck it / I put the record how it need to be." Need further proof? Try Watcha Got's early '80s hip-hop throwback of a bridge, the Bollywood bounce of Truth Is... or Freedom Ain't Free's reggae-with-strings backing. No other hip-hop producer works with such a wide variety of sounds while still building such coherent, even commercial, songs.

The highlight of the album is a final suite of autobiographical songs. Walking Away details the dissolution of Ali's marriage with brutal honesty and a little bit of controlled anger. Faheem is a love song for his son and avoids being cingeworthy by being straightforward and brief. And finally the '80s soulfulness of Ear To Ear allows Ali's to get his priorities straight and give thanks for his successes and the new lady in his life.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Take Me Home

146. Albert Hammond, Jr.: Yours To Keep (2007)

Had this record come out as the debut of a promising new singer-songwriter rather than as a solo-album curiousity from a guy who plays guitar in The Strokes, it'd already be near the top of all the critics' 2007 lists. As it is, we've heard some of these tricks before (the chugging/ringing/bouncing riffs on In Transit and Everyone Gets A Star) and that lessens its impact.

But it doesn't make Yours To Keep any less of an excellent album. And some of it IS relevatory, like the whimsical opener Cartoon Music For Superheroes or the fact that Hammond sounds like a less drunk version of Strokes singer Julian Casblanacas, or the gentleness that pervades, from the sweet album title to the too-cute cover art to the could've-been-a-Herman's-Hermits-hit closer Well...All Right.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Well...All Right

147. The Click Five: Modern Minds and Pastimes (2007)

These Boston-based boys with a sweet tooth only satisfied by sugary hooks cooked up their sophmore CD with a wider variety of ingredients (and a new lead singer). Presumably they've realized power pop will never win them radio play or sales, so they throw in a pinch of emo (the Fall Out Boy-channelling When I'm Gone) and a tablespoon of new new wave (the sythtastic Addicted To Me) for good measure. It's a good instict and the payoff is a more balanced record than their 2005 debut.

The problem is their lyrics. Happy Birthday and Headlight Disco are happy exceptions, but for the most part the words are generic, unrevealing and about girls ("You've got me on my knees", "You keep me hanging on", "gotta start somewhere", etc.) and the songs suffer for it. Not every tune needs to be ABOUT something, but at the least I need some cute phrases that stick in my craw. There're none here. Brevity, handclaps, synth fills and harmonies will go a long way to mask underwritten songs, but when you consider that clever lyrics are a hallmark of the power pop elite, The Click Five don't measure up yet. Maybe they should spend more time on the words and less on their overly-styled hair (check out that cover!).

Music Grade: B
Lyrics Grade: C -
Fave Song: Addicted To Me

148. Mandy Moore: Wild Hope (2007)

Amanda Moore has improbably become the most respectable of the four blond-headed pop tart attack of the late '90s. Unlike Christina, she never went through a stripper phase. Unlike Jessica Simpson she doesn't come off as cold and calculated. Unlike Britney Spears, she still has her hair and sanity. Instead, she has proven herself a gifted comic actress and an adaptable musical artist.

On 2003's Coverage, Moore used well-chosen cover songs to demonstrate that her tastes were more '70s and singer-songwriter than '80s mall pop. On Wild Hope she follows through with 12 originals that, at their best, recall Saturday mornings listening to Carole King while mom cleaned the house and at their worst recall the guy in the dorm room next to you who was way too into Jewel.

Moore even wrote the relationship-centric lyrics herself, which adds an extra level of intrigue. If you weren't paying attention, she has a few high-profile exes, including Zach Braff, Wilmer Valderrama and Andy Roddick. That means you can, You're So Vain style, spend some time thinking about which bitter kiss-offs are about which exes. Kind of a fun game. Nothing That You Are, Latest Mistake, Ladies' Choice and All Good Things are prime candidates for dissection.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Looking Forward To Looking Back

Friday, June 15, 2007

Justifying My Love

I've been away from music writing for over two months, though not purposefully. I have been ensconced in major life changes: turning thirty, moving for the first time in 8 years, and finding a new job. Call me crazy, but having several aspects of my life in flux is just not conducive to creativity. That doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about and listening to music just as much as usual. I just haven't been putting those thoughts into words.

And maybe that's good.

Okay, I'm being dramatic with that. I love writing album reviews and have no intention of stopping. But I must admit to lately finding it difficult to truly express how certain songs and albums make me feel.

I don't think I'm alone in this. Even in some of the great books about pop music (Song Book by Nick Hornby, anything by Chuck Klosterman, Love Is A Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield) the rate of me truly identifying with the author's love of a song or album or artist is alarmingly low. And if it's about a song or album or artist I don't know, that already low number is halved.

I guess it's less important to share exactly what a music writer is feeling than it is to appreciate that they could put those emotions into words. And yet, I've found lately that any time I try to explain what a piece of music does to me, I'm met with distant agreement or outright disagreement. Roughly 97% of the time I share some random but consistent inner thought about a song I end up regretting even trying to put it into words.

This is why those of us who like to write, talk and think about music rarely bring emotion into the conversation. Instead we talk about band line-up changes, record labels, inter band feuds, kick ass shows we saw, which album is better than which album, what b-sides are the best, and selling out. These are vital parts to the machine that is pop music, but feelings - the songwriter's and performer's and the listener's - are the engine.

These days, long past my only-child introvert phase, very few of my thoughts and emotions stay bottled up. While this is an overwhelmingly positive development, it occurs to me that perhaps I should keep a little something for myself. And the imaginary harmonies I hear on a certain song, or the additional word that completes the rhyme in a particular lyric, maybe those things should just belong to me.

As I already stated, in no way does this mean the end of my reviewing days. Just get back to me when I've signed a new contract, and the boxes are unpacked!