Saturday, December 5, 2009

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part I)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are four long ones.

Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison

Two diametrically opposed camps have formed in response to this compilation. One wishes it had been two discs and included all of Harrison’s best work (his Traveling Wilburys songs included) and that the songs had been sequenced less haphazardly, both to reflect the trajectory of Harrison’s development (or at least his career) and to make for a less sonically jarring listening experience. The other camp says nuts to such cavils: Harrison’s catalog oozes greatness no matter how you slice it, and to refuse to enjoy nineteen examples from it simply because they’re not sensibly sequenced or the nineteen one would have preferred is as petty as Harrison’s Wilbury partner Tom.

What neither camp has mentioned is the effect of eleven of this collection’s seventy-eight minutes being taken up by Harrison-sung Beatles songs (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun”) from the Concert for Bangladesh. Now, how many Beatles songs are on The John Lennon Collection or Paul McCartney’s Wingspan? None. Why? Because no one needs reminding that Lennon and McCartney were in the Beatles and because Lennon and Mcartney had enough fab solo material not to need Fab padding.

No one needs reminding that Harrison was a Beatle either (especially not with both “All Those Years Ago,” his Lennon tribute, and “When We Was Fab,” his Beatles tribute, on Let It Roll). So including the Bangladesh cuts while leaving off actual Harrison hits such as “Crackerbox Palace,” “This Song,” and “Love Comes to Everyone” implicitly diminishes his solo-artist stature.

The Bangladesh cuts also look like bait intended to convince owners of The Best of George Harrison (1976) and Best of Dark Horse 1976-1989 (1989) that they need Let It Roll too. But many Harrison fans had hoped Let It Roll would be was the single-disc Harrison best-of to end all single-disc Harrison best-ofs. Instead, its mix of hits, misses, redundancies, and obscurities makes it seem more like a teaser for a forthcoming box set.

Let It Roll does provide one useful service: It rescues 1985’s “I Don’t Want to Do It,” a Bob Dylan cover and one of Harrison’s finest singles, from the Porky’s Revenge soundtrack. And, as one might expect from an album containing “My Sweet Lord,” “Give Me Love,” and “What Is Life,” the tunefulness seldom lets up. But it needn’t have let up at all. Next time, somebody please get this right.

The Woodstock Experience

Amid the spate of fortieth-anniversary Woodstock product, these five two-disc sets by acts who performed that long-ago weekend at Yasgur’s farm stand out. Listing at $19.98 apiece, each one comes with an original, and in most cases classic, 1969 studio album (no big deal, as those albums are already available separately), original packaging and a poster (a medium-sized deal), and a live disc containing that act’s entire Woodstock set (a big deal indeed, as the various Woodstock soundtracks contain only excerpts).

The five acts are, not surprisingly, those to whose catalogs Sony has access. They’re also acts who were at or near their respective peaks at the time. So besides strong studio albums (Janis Joplin’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, Santana’s Santana, Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand!, Johnny Winter’s Johnny Winter), one gets live albums that both hold up on their own and function as a looser, more stoned mirror image.

But the set to get if you’re only getting one is Jefferson Airplane’s. Comprising Volunteers, which keeps getting better with age, and a live set including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” it’s almost enough to erase the memory of the Airplane’s eventual morphing into Starship.

Elvis 75--Good Rockin’ Tonight

You remember Elvis Presley. He was the Michael Jackson of your parents’ (and your grandparents’) generation, except it was rock’n’roll and not pop of which Elvis was king, A-list actresses and not pre-pubescent boys he was accused of bedding). He was a performer so talented he couldn’t help shifting pop-cultural paradigms every time he lifted his voice in song or swiveled his hips in actual or simulated heat, a one-man entertainment Mount Rushmore, replete with the requisite four faces (mid-to-late-’50s hillbilly-rebel Elvis, early-to-mid-’60s Hollywood-cornball Elvis, mid-to-late-’60s comeback-Vegas Elvis; early-to-mid-’70s increasingly stoned-and-corpulent Elvis).

Yep, that Elvis, and in case you couldn’t tell from the title of the latest installment in the cottage industry that Elvis box sets have become, the King would’ve turned seventy-five in 2010 if he hadn’t taken all of his daily drugs in a single dose thirty-three years before. So the Elvis 75 half of the title makes sense; the Good Rockin’ Tonight part, however, could use some tweaking. While there is plenty of good rockin’ to be found among the one hundred songs (on four discs), there’s some of the richest gospel, soul, and reified schmaltz ever committed to tape as well.

Speaking of the one hundred songs, it seems at first that there could’ve and should’ve been a dozen more. Obviously, the compilers liked the “one hundred” concept, but with forty-two minutes of total unused disc space, one wonders why such under-anthologized Presley highlights as (in no particular order) “(You‘re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” “Moody Blue,” and “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” (an obscure but definitely “good rockin’” mid-’seventies gospel number) to name just three.

Then you realize that it’s hard to name many more than just three. Memorable alternate versions of two tracks that are included come to mind (the un-remixed “A Little Less Conversation,” that live “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” in which he spends half the song cracking up), and maybe a few judiciously selected minutes from Having Fun wth Elvis on Stage.

So maybe one hundred songs is just right. Certainly, it would be hard to improve on Discs 1, 2, and 3--which hit every highlight of the Sun years, the pre-Army years, and the post-comeback Memphis years. What’s surprising is Disc 4. Even with financial, physical, and emotional disaster looming on the horizon, the King could still, on a good night, out-sing, and often out-rock, any other mortal entertainer.


Call it a sign of the times, but from the chaos leading up to 1998’s Crystal Ball (which was pressed only after 50,000 fans had “requested” it then mailed to them after it became available in stores) or the disorder leading up to 2007’s Planet Earth (which Sony refused to distribute in U.K. music stores after a prominent U.K. newspaper included pre-release free copies in its Sunday edition), Prince has been making news for over a decade now more for the way he releases music than for the music itself. And Lotusflow3r, the first album by a major talent to be sold exclusively at Target, is no exception.

Priced at a surprisingly wallet-friendly $11.99 (or about the price of a McDonald’s dollar-menu double date) it’s really two Prince albums (Lotusflow3r and MPLSoUND) with Elixer, the debut of Prince’s latest butter-melting protégé Bria Valente, thrown in. Not that Elixer is a throwaway. “Everytime,” the mid-tempo love song that pops up halfway through, may be the most gorgeous composition to which Prince has ever affixed any of his many names, diffusing a radiance that could almost make one swear the other nine songs aren’t really just more of the high-gloss, soft-core discotheque fodder that Prince has long had his many ladies in waiting eating from his hand.

In fact, with the exception of the “Crimson and Clover” cover on Lotusflow3r (and maybe “Colonized Mind,” Prince’s latest shout-out to God), “Everytime” is more show-stopping in its luminous simplicity than any of the new Prince recordings on the other two discs are in their kaleidoscopic funktionality. The problem isn’t that he no longer has talent out the wazoo but that he apparently has more wazoos than most mortal listeners have ears.

Whereas the prolific output of Elvis Costello or Ani DiFranco often looks like headlong self-indulgence and Bob Dylan’s, Neil Young’s, and Van Morrison’s like roads less travelled, Prince’s voluminous output, for all its hyperkinesis, suggests a more static metaphor: that of lavishly furnished, exotically perfumed rooms where the party never ends and Viagra-besotted satyrs chase young things around the casting couch shouting, “I got a box of chocolates that’ll rock the sox off any girl that wanna come my way” (MPLSoUND’s “Chocolate Box)--rooms with lots of trapdoors but no windows, the latest additions to a luxury hotel where you can check in anytime you want but you can never leave.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part II)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five of the brief ones.

ALLÁ : Digs (Crammed)--Allá ’s Jorge Ledezma called his group’s 2008 album Es Tiempo the “Chicano Pet Sounds,” but this follow-up is no Smile, Chicano or otherwise. Clocking in at under half an hour, Digs is as tight, raw and driving as Es Tiempo was expansive, layered and trippy. Aside from the catchy, one-chord original “Si Se Puede” (which at 1:52 is practically over before it begins), it’s also a tribute to some of the group’s favorite bands, comprising Allá-flavored versions of songs by the Residents, Terry Riley and John Cale, Los Dug Dugs (pioneering Mexican psychedelic posters), and Faust (pioneering Kraut-rock experimentalists), versions solid enough to have under-forties seeking out the originals. “Love Lockdown,” meanwhile, is such a hothouse vocal tour de force it might have Kanye West seeking out singer Lupe Martinez.

THE BEATLES: Past Masters (EMI/Capitol/Apple)--The bad news, in case you haven’t heard, is that these two discs of odds and sods come packaged so tightly in a replica of a foldout LP cover that it’s all but impossible not to scratch them every time you slide them in or out. (At least vinyl records came protected in paper or plastic sleeves.) The good news is that you needn’t slide these discs in or out at all to hear their contents. Originally left off the Beatles’ U.K. albums and released only on 45s or EPs, most of these thirty-three songs have nevertheless long been available on one side of the Atlantic or another on compilations with more user-friendly--and disc-friendly--packaging (1962-1966, 1967-1970, Rarities, 20 Greatest Hits, 1). Meanwhile, though only audio nerds will likely detect the much-ballyhooed audio superiority of these latest re-masterings, average Fab Four fans of various nationalities will easily notice the pointlessly extreme separation of the “wider stereo” versions of “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German) and “Sie Liebt Dich” (“She Loves You,” ditto) and wonder why we couldn’t have gotten, oh, I dunno, a spruced-up The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl or some other genuine obscurities instead.

CHRIS BELL: I Am the Cosmos (Deluxe) (Rhino Handmade)--Big Star’s first album, 1972’s #1 Record, really is as special as its devotees claim, a perennially fresh hodge-podge of flower power and Beatle-esque pop (hence “power pop,” the name of the genre it more or less spawned). And Chris Bell was as much a reason for #1 Record’s greatness as his band mate Alex Chilton was. The proof is this album, compiled from Bell’s mostly unreleased mid-’seventies recordings and first released in 1992, nearly fourteen years after his death in a car wreck. This limited edition adds a second disc of alternate takes and pre- and post-Big Star recordings that Bell made as a regular at Memphis’s Ardent Studios as well as updated and insightful liner reminiscences by those who knew him best. Ethereal and earthy. Exhilarating and sad.

GEORGE BENSON: Songs and Stories (Concord/Monster)--For this album’s first seven cuts, it’s Benson-esque business as usual: smooth soul-lite vocals, smooth jazz-lite guitar, and smooth covers both familiar (James Taylor) and obscure (Donny Hathaway)--stuff that Benson has long proven he can do in his sleep by sounding as if he was asleep when he did it. ’Round about the thirty-five-minute mark, however, his dreams pick up steam, thanks to two lengthy, slowly simmering funk-lite instrumentals (Marcus Miller’s “Exotica,” Lamont Dozier’s “Living in High Definition”) and to two better covers (Tony Joe White’s familiar “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Smokey Robinson’s obscure “One like You”). But his neatest trick is going out on an instrumental version of Christopher Cross’s biggest hit so meditative it makes not quite waking up seem like the smoothest “Sailing” there is.

CARPENTERS: 40/40 (A&M/UME)--How is this two-disc, forty-song Carpenters compilation different than Gold, the two-disc, forty-song Carpenters compilation released in 2004? Well, since thirty of the songs on both collections are the same, 75% of 40/40 isn’t different at all. And although those who see the glass as half full will correctly point out that many of these songs are masterpieces of easy listening at its most tensile and therefore worth owning twice, those who see the glass as half empty will correctly point out that owning them twice and buying them twice are very different things. Furthermore, the ten songs on Gold but not on 40/40 (especially “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again,” “Merry Christmas, Darling,” and “Karen’s Theme”) are better than the ten songs on 40/40 but not on Gold.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part III)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five of the brief ones.

ROSANNE CASH: The List (Manhattan)--Listeners have long wondered why some all-covers albums by performers better known for their own material actually turn out well, especially since most such albums don’t. Well, with The List Rosanne Cash has solved the mystery. First, have an iconic roots musician for a father. Second, get that father to give you a list of one hundred essential songs from a particular genre (country in this case) when you’re eighteen and listen to them a lot for the next thirty-five years. Third, choose a dozen of the songs. Fourth, marry a top-flight producer for whom arranging such material represents a lifelong dream. Fifth, possess a voice so gorgeous that the cameo harmonizers (Springsteen, Costello, Tweedy, Rufus Wainwright) just get in the way. It’s really quite simple when you think about it.

CRAIG CHAQUICO: Follow the Sun (Shanachie)--No one who has bought a new Santana album in the last two decades has any business looking down his nose at this nimble take on Latinized jazz-rock--even if Chaquico was a member of Starship and therefore partially responsible for “We Built This City.” That city, incidentally, was San Francisco, so this album’s sole vocal track, “Lights Out San Francisco,” might’ve been a belated make-up call, except it’s stupid too: “So tired of living like a rolling stone,” sings guest vocalist Rolf Hartley (I dunno, Keith Richards seems to have a lot of fun), and “When I’m all alone, holding my own” (no comment). So stick to the others: breezy, Laserium-lite soundscapes fully deserving of titles like “Solar Wind,” “Island Breeze,” “Fantasy in Paradise,” and “The Coast of Orion.”

MARIANNE FAITHFULL: Easy Come Easy Go (Decca)--The subtitle, “12 Songs for Music Lovers,” is pretty funny. Finally, a CD for people who actually love music! It’s also inaccurate, as one of the songs--the experimental version of the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” that takes up eight of this album’s fifty-six minutes--is unlikely to be loved by anyone. The rest, however, is one impressive example after another of Faithfull’s unique ability to transform any room in which her music is played into a post-punk Moulin Rouge. No one else finds songs, whether old (Dolly Parton, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Randy Newman) or not so old (Neko Case, the Decembrists) better suited to her voice, and no one else has a voice like Faithfull’s. It’s enough to give cigarettes, if not necessarily heroin, a good name.

WOODY GUTHRIE: My Dusty Road (Rounder)--As recounted at length in the accompanying booklet, the story behind the 2003 discovery and subsequent refurbishing of the metal masters that function as this four-disc set’s Rosetta Stone is almost as interesting as the songs themselves. Serendipitously well-preserved, the masters turned out to contain Guthrie’s 1944 recordings for the Stinson company, much of which had been released over the years but in annoyingly lo-fi versions. Of the fifty-four tracks thematically organized herein (“Woody’s ‘Greatest’ Hits,” “Woody’s Roots,” “Woody the Agitator,” “Woody, Cisco and Sonny”), six have never been previously released, and one, “Bad Repetation” (sic), wasn’t even known to have existed. Would the left-wing individualism they enshrine matter much if it hadn’t inspired Bob Dylan and he, in turn, countless others? Maybe not. But it did, so it does.

BRUCE HORNSBY & THE NOISEMAKERS: Levitate (Verve Forecast)--With its frequently snappy tempos, relatively modest song lengths, and gregariously catchy hooks, Levitate evokes the top-forty-friendly Bruce Hornsby of old just enough to make the lyrics easy to ignore at first. When the melodies of “Paperboy” and “Invisible” could teach Paul McCartney a thing or two, who cares that the former has a verse about cannibalism or that the latter’s narrator hates his own skin? Eventually, though, the wacky triptych of “Space Is the Place,” “Michael Raphael,” and “Simple Prayer” will force even the most insouciant listener to play armchair metaphysician. And the characterization of nineteenth-century American pioneers as Nazis (“The Black Rats of London”) and red-state residents as rednecks (“In The Low County”) will have reasonable folks wondering how nuts Hornsby would’ve gone if McCain and Palin had won.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part IV)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five of the brief ones.

IAN HUNTER: Man Overboard (New West)--Picking up where he left off with 2007’s Shrunken Heads, the erstwhile Mott the Hoople frontman has now become the first major rocker to release an album at the age of seventy. More impressively, you’d never know it to be the work of a septuagenarian. If anything, Hunter’s awareness of his mortality seems to have tapped an autumnal wellspring. True, “Arms and Legs” begins with him seeing a “ghostly shadow of a man” in the mirror, but it develops into a full-bodied love song, and by the next track, “Up and Running,” he’s up and running. The primarily acoustic instrumentation and Hunter’s increasingly raspy pipes may suggest early Rod Stewart more than vintage Mott, but early Rod Stewart was really good. And “Girl from the Office” is as exquisitely charming as klassic Kinks.

KEITH JARRETT: Testament: Paris/London (ECM)--Two more improvised solo-piano jazz concerts from the master of solo-piano jazz improv, the first (Paris) clocking in at sixty-nine minutes, the second (London) at ninety-three. And, as has been the case for the last thirty-plus years, if you didn’t know Jarrett was making each track up as he went along, you’d never guess he was. The tension between his left hand’s repetitive rhythms and his right hand’s melodic virtuosity still provides the suspense--a suspense made all the more gripping because it holds its own creator in its grip--and he still draws upon the full range of his vast musical knowledge (pretty much everything from classical to Miles Davis). Most of what results is as impressive as the occasional slow, simple changes of pace are beautiful.

TOMMY KEENE: In the Late Bright (Second Motion)--It’s hard to believe that twenty-five years have passed since Tommy Keene released Places That Are Gone. More than any other middle-aged pop-rocker, Keene seems stuck in a moment that he can’t get out of. Not that it’s a bad moment: His attractive setting of bittersweet vignettes to wistful melodies sprinkled with Rickenbacker-sounding fairy dust and sung in a gruff Paisely Underground voice serves as a perennial rebuke to the vicissitudes of fashion. But it is weird that he sounds exactly the same as he did when it appeared he would accompany his then-indie peers R.E.M. and the Replacements into high-profile glory. Those who argue that Keene does too evolve will cite “Elevated,” this album’s sole--and Keene’s first-ever--instrumental. R.E.M. and Replacements fans will say big deal.

THE KINKS: Picture Book (Sanctuary)--Nineteen years after their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and twelve years after their breakup, the Kinks finally get their box set. Has it been worth the wait? Other than the fact that “Come Dancing” appears only in a demo version and “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” is omitted altogether, yes. The eighty-two songs on Discs One through Three, which chronicle 1964 (when “You Really Got Me” exploded on both sides of the Atlantic) through 1970 (when “Lola” did the same), find the Kinks not only keeping quantitative and qualitative stride with the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who but also sometimes outstriding them. Alas, as Picture Book‘s lengthy booklet painstakingly documents, they could also be uncommonly volatile, insularly British, and bewilderingly inclined toward concept albums (see Disc Four). It took the back-to-basics Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Low Budget albums (Disc Five) to pave the way for their early-eighties success. Disc Six proves that their barely noticed late-’eighties and early-’nineties failures had their share of highlights as well.

ELENI MANDELL: Artificial Fire (Zedtone)--You’d never guess from the care evident in these fifteen songs that there’s an economic downturn or that 2008 saw a 20% decrease in CD sales. It’s almost as if Eleni Mandell feels liberated by her reduced chances of striking it rich as a pop star--liberated to forgo obvious radio-friendliness for offbeat syncopation, occasionally dissonant instrumentation, and folk-jazz melodies that unfold as slowly and as unpredictably as a reverie. Her lyrics unfold the same way. Essentially a miniaturist (kissing plays a central role in five songs), she also writes about macrocosmic matters (“God Is Love,” “I Love Planet Earth”) with no hint of sentimentality or agitprop. More than anything else, what draws you in is her solid-smoke voice, whether tough (“Cracked”) or tender (the rest).

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part V)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five brief ones.

ROGER JOSEPH MANNING JR.: Catnip Dynamite (Oglio)--Even when overdubbed into Queen-like choirs, Manning’s voice is a little too thin, and that’s the only thing wrong with this tour de force of what can only be called ace influence synthesis. Both the Beach Boys and Paul McCartney--heck, maybe even 10cc and the Osmonds--in their primes would‘ve killed for a song as sweet and buoyant as “Love’s Never Been Half As Good,” and Alan Parsons could’ve no doubt found places for “Survival Machine” and “The Turnstile at Heaven’s Gate.” But the most glorious result of Manning’s misspent youth is “Down in Front.” Combining a hook worthy of T. Rex or Sweet with the clavichord riff from ELO’s “Turn to Stone,” it could almost make one believe that bubblegum music really is the naked truth.

BUDDY & JULIE MILLER: Written in Chalk (New West)--If anyone (or, in this case, any two) can make you believe they really want to be taken back to the time when they had two mules instead of a tractor, it’s Buddy and Julie Miller on this album’s “Ellis County”--solo, together, or on other people’s records, they write and sing as if they were channeling spirits distilled long ago and far away. As usual, the Buddy-sung songs tend toward backwoods country blues, the Julie-sung songs tend toward late-night heartbreak, and the ones they share tend toward salvation by way of hell. The difference this time is the cameo duet partners. Regina McCrary and Patty Griffin get two songs apiece, Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris each get one, and while they don’t add much, at least they don’t subtract much either.

BETH ORTON: Trailer Park (Legacy Edition) (Arista/Legacy)--Because it was ahead of its time and because it wasn’t as celebrated here as it was in England, Trailer Park (Disc One of this thirteenth-anniversary reissue) will still strike Americans as contemporary. Not, of course, that “contemporary“ is synonymous with “brilliant.” While the London fog one hears in Orton’s voice gives the ear more to work with than the Nova Scotia sunshine in Sarah MacLachlan’s, Orton’s overriding sentimentality is, in the end, just as unrewarding to the brain. Where this edition really comes to life is Disc Two. Comprising her 1997 Best Bit EP and eight other previously uncollected B-sides and covers of the period, its patchwork nature makes for pleasant surprises. Best bit: her use of Tony! Toni! Toné ’s “If I Had No Loot” riff in “Best Bit.”

PERE UBU: Long Live Père Ubu! (Hearthan)--Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Pere Ubu Fan? Sure, you know the band is named after a character in Alfred Jarry’s seminally absurd nineteenth-century play Ubu Roi. You’ve even been to this album’s website (, learned that the songs are based on a new adaptation of Jarry’s drama, found the libretto, read along, done outside research, and laughed repeatedly at the slowed-down, looped belching of drummer Steve Mehlman on “Less Said the Better.” Unfortunately, you’ve also come across this quote from Ubu leader David Thomas: “Brutal, lacking charm, and without redeeming values, this is an album for our times. It is, in fact, the only punk record that's been made in the last thirty years." What were the Ramones--chopped liver?

IGGY POP: Préliminaires (Astralwerks)--That Préliminaires is no ordinary Iggy Pop record should be obvious from its appearing on Astralwerks; that Préliminaires is no ordinary Astralwerks record should be obvious from its having been made by Iggy Pop. Except for the ambient-inclined “I Want to Go to the Beach,” “How Insensitive,” and “Spanish Coast,” the music works variations on everything from Leonard Cohen seduction (“Les Feuilles Mortes”), Tom Waits cabaret (“King of the Dogs”), and Howlin’ Wolf blues (“He’s Dead, She’s Alive”) to The Idiot-style punk (“Nice to Be Dead,” “She’s a Business”) minor-key synth-pop (“Party Time”), and spoken word (“A Machine for Loving”). The “theme” may elude those who haven’t read The Possibility of an Island, the Michel Houellebecq novel on which Préliminaires is based. The songs might make them want to read it.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Pt. VI)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five brief ones.

CHUCK PROPHET: ¡Let Freedom Ring! (Yep Roc)--Amid the various aural templates that Prophet has used throughout his career, the one constant has been his voice. A cross between Iggy Pop and Tom Petty in which the less flexible elements of both cancel each other out, Prophet’s singing conveys a conversational cool appropriate to his understated take on American decay. Even his occasional recourse to headline news (Code Orange alerts and Prozac in “American Man,” global-warming apocalypse in the title cut) never solidifies into a Springsteenian bludgeon. In fact, undercutting the Boss seems to be the whole point of “What Can a Mother Do,” or at least of the verse about a girl who was “born to run” and “unwanted in seventeen states.” As for the aural template, it’s Prophet’s loosest and most rock ’n’ roll yet.

EDDI READER: Love Is the Way (Rough Trade)--Inexplicably, Eddi Reader has failed to connect with a mass U.S. audience for twenty years now, and, judging from the ever-so-delicate Old World feel of these thirteen acoustically foregrounded new recordings, she probably doesn’t care. But, whether intentionally or because she simply can’t help herself, she’s still not above covering two songs familiar to U.S. Baby Boomers: Spring’s Brian Wilson-composed “Sweet Mountain of Love” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again” (in a medley with Reader’s own “Queen of Scots”). Like the other songs, Reader delivers them with a combination of insouciance and rapture, as if she’d accidentally left the mics on while just playing stuff she likes, heard the playbacks, liked them, and figured that with a little enhancement they could be high points. She was right.

MINDY SMITH: Stupid Love (Vanguard)--Perhaps because Mindy Smith’s conflation of folk, pop, and country feels like a throwback to the days when performers only got to put ten songs on an album, it’s tempting to guess which three of these thirteen tracks would’ve gotten the ax. It’s also difficult--Smith is as economical performer as you’ll find, specializing in lyrics in which every word counts and melodies in which every chord change matters. Sometimes the consequences of having three producers become apparent (“Love Lost” nearly gets lost amid sonic clutter), but mostly her sound is as focused as her voice is pretty. And speaking of focused, titles such as “What Went Wrong,” “Bad Guy,” and “Disappointed” are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how “stupid” she believes love can be.

DALE WATSON: The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 2 (Hyena)--Despite his knack for writing and singing like the second coming of Merle Haggard, Watson can be uneven. But this, his second installment of paeans to the trucker life, is his most consistent effort since his honky-tonk masterpiece I Hate These Songs. Obviously, an album consisting entirely of songs with titles such as “Truckin’ Man,” “10-4,” and “Truckin’ Queen” (the first-ever tribute to a truck-stop transvestite?) risks coming off like one big novelty. What saves it is the fiddle, the interplay of greasy-spoon guitars (two electrics and a pedal steel), and lyrics so vividly detailed they make “toolin’ down the Interstate” seem like the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

YO LA TENGO: Popular Songs (Matador)--Can we just “flip all the cards,” as they used to say on What’s My Line?, and declare Yo La Tengo the greatest band in the world? In the twenty-three years since their recording debut, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have specialized in sculpting recycled scraps of once-hip genres into new and freshly arresting shapes without sanding down the rusty, jagged edges or welding them into over-homogenized blobs. The most obvious touchstones this time are the Velvet Underground (the sixteen-minute, feedback-channeling instrumental “And the Glitter Is Gone” sounds like “Sister Ray” over under sideways down) and the Four Tops (“If It’s True” begins just like “I Can’t Help Myself”), but the depths conjured by the blending of airy vocals with garage guitars and chintzy keyboards remain theirs and theirs alone.