Saturday, December 5, 2009

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.

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