Saturday, April 25, 2009

2006 Album Reviews: M-N

(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted...)

Anne McCue: Koala Motel (Messenger)—A speed-bump-free rock-and-roll ride, with the tough, electric-guitar-driven songs and medium-tempo poignant ones both standing on their own and providing natural transitions to the ones that follow.

Katie Melua: Piece by Piece (Dramatico)—Like pre-Grease Olivia Newton-John, Katie Melua sings the way she looks: youthful, languorous, and thin. Only whereas Newton-John began as a singer of country-lite, Melua gets ranked on the jazz charts. Such categorization does both her and the jazz charts an injustice. She could no more hold her own with Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald than Newton-John could’ve with Tammy Wynette or Dolly Parton (Anne Murray maybe). On the other hand, Melua’s not much less jazzy, all things considered, than Diana Krall. So let’s put it this way: Had Melua emerged twenty years ago instead of now, she’d be scoring big among fans of Sade, whose languorousness almost certainly would’ve benefited from such competition. Rating: Three-and-a-half smooth operators out of five.

Leigh Nash: Blue on Blue (One Son)—The Sixpence siren blossoms as a songwriter, deftly conflating her airily dreamy pop sense and sincerely if subtly Christian take on romance.

New York Dolls: One Day It Will Please Us Even to Remember This (Roadrunner)—Of course this isn’t a New York Dolls album, not with three of the original members long dead and one recently so. It is, however, a David Johansen album, and even during his Buster Poindexter decade Johansen was saved by his entertainer’s instincts from making dull recordings. This long-awaited reactivation of his proto-punk persona could’ve been tighter: “Plenty of Music” borders on bathetic, “Rainbow Store” echoes “Give Her a Great Big Kiss” a little too deliberately, and the production is muddled despite the care that the behind-the-scenes bonus DVD shows Jack Douglas putting into it. The good news is that the mediocre cuts sound like preservation-worthy outtakes from the Dolls halcyon days, while Johansen/Syl Sylvain standouts like “Dance like a Monkey” and “Fishnets and Cigarettes” sound like Johansen’s best rock-and-roll in twenty years. His collaboration with new Doll Brian Koonin scores too. If “I Ain‘t Got Nothin’” doesn’t break your heart, maybe you ain‘t got one. Rating: Three-and-a-half personality crises out of five.

Harry Nilsson: Son of Schmilsson (RCA/Legacy)—Although 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson is the man’s undisputed aesthetic masterpiece, I find this 1972 follow-up more enjoyable both emotionally and intellectually. Not that its aesthetics are deficient. “Spaceman” was a hit for a reason, and “Take 54” and “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” probably would’ve been hits if they hadn’t gone “I sang my balls off for you, baby” and “You’re breakin’ my heart, you’re tearin’ it apart, so f--- you,” respectively. More appealing, however, than this album’s whimsical tunefulness (imagine John Lennon and Ray Davies collaborating over drinks) is its vulnerability, a vulnerability made particularly poignant by its going all but unstated—even the explicitly melancholy “Remember (Christmas)” is sung with cool detachment. Further suggestive of fragility are the stylistic fault lines. Not only do no two songs sound alike, but they don’t even reflect a unified personality. (“The Lottery Song” is as sweet as “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” is bitter, “I’d Rather Be Dead” as hilarious as it is morbid.) Heard together, they illustrate a new aesthetic principal: it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that mood swing. Rating: Four-and-a-half fifth Beatles out of five.

No Depression: What It Sounds Like, Vol. 2 (Dualtone)—In one sense, this is just another multi-performer sampler attached to a worthy cause (specifically, getting people, or at least libraries, to buy The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music [University of Texas Press]). And as the liner notes correctly identify the music as a “suite of mostly sad songs about leaving and longing and what comes after,” there’s little in the way of attention-getting heterogeneity. Well, homogeneity can be attention-getting too, especially when unreleased or otherwise obscure gems from the Flatlanders and Julie Miller leaven better-known gems by Rosanne Cash and Drive-By Truckers. Rating: Four diamonds in the rough out of five.

Jim Noir: Tower of Love (Barsuk)—Hailing from Manchester, England, Noir has little firsthand surfing experience, yet this compilation of his three Europe-only EPs arrives atop a wave of critical praise awash with references to Brian Wilson. Indeed, the title track features Pet Sounds whimsy, “The Only Way” features Beach Boys harmonies, and “Climb a Tree” and “Turbulent Weather” feature watery sounds. There are, however, drier influences at work as well (Donovan, Ray Davies, electronica), with “Eanie Meany” having been recently used by Adidas to accompany its ads for that driest of sports, World Cup soccer. When news broke that Noir would be touring as part of this year’s Lollapalooza caravan, I wrote the following solicited festival-bio line: “By taking to the stage at the very age that Wilson began holing up in the studio, Noir suggests that at least some of the similarities between Wilson and himself are purely coincidental.” Then came the news that he was “ill” and that his appearances, like my bio, would be cancelled. As Noir is only twenty-four, it’s hard to imagine a physical illness so dire that it would cause him to miss the biggest promotional event of his young career. So maybe his ailment is psychological--and therefore he's even more like Brian Wilson than anybody has thought. Rating: Three-and-a-half sweet insanities out of five.

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