26 February 2011

2010: Erykah Badu, Fang Island

Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh)

Released March 30, 2010 (Universal Motown)

Short Notes: Erkyah Badu’s somewhat surprising career as a major label artist with a big avant-garde soul sound rolls on, with another effective album.

Lin: B

Confession: I don't care all that much for the Motown sound, even the classic stuff that is admittedly awesome. My taste in soul tends towards the Muscle Shoals, Stax/Volt end. I'm ultimately not sure why, as on paper Motown ought to hit my own desires better than it does. Unlike some of these other albums that I readily admit I probably just don't get (e.g. Ariel Pink), New Amerykah Part Two simply lacks a place in my life. That is, I can't relate to it. I'd like to, because it's a fairly strong album front-to-back and better than the first New Amerykah. My favorite track here is the opener "20 Feet Tall," which starts with some low end noises that morphs into a simple four chord progression from an electric piano. Over this, Badu's voice rises and falls, the repetition of the chords and words creating a non-threatening tension broken by a chorus of children's cheers before segueing into the next track. Overall, the 'B' rating is probably a step too low, but I just can't see myself coming back to it all that often. There's a good chance it'll be my loss.

Brandon: B+

In looking for a touchstone for this album, the “Motown” label on the record is a bit misleading. That is, unless when you think “Motown,” you think late-70s Stevie Wonder crossed with Prince. In fact, the artist Badu most often reminds me of is Prince, especially the late 1980s Prince of Lovesexy or Graffiti Bridge. Obviously, her work is also concretely grounded in the soul canon (the intro to “Agitation” is, I think, explicitly biting Stevie Wonder), but the psychedelic undertones to her version of soul aren’t too far under the surface. This record is never boring, with plenty of variety (like Lin, I enjoy the opener “20 Feet Tall,” as well as the groovy “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long”). But it’s also lacking in genuine standouts--it’s good, but not spectacular.

Fang Island
Fang Island

Released February 23, 2010 (Sargent House)

Short Notes: Jangly, synthy guitar pop for the kids.

Brandon: B-

I can’t help but suspect that I’d like this record better in June than in late February. This is clearly a bright, polished, shiny, anthemic slice of pure pop, and that sort of thing always goes down a little summer with the wind in my hair and the sun in my eyes, so to speak. In principle, I should like this record a lot more than Lin, but I’m having a hard time getting excited, too. The songcraft is interesting, but given that most of the songs are quasi-instrumentals (a few repeated lines interspersed), I need a bit more in the way of hooks and supreme catchiness to find this engaging. I also really tire of the “African music via the hipsters” trope that this band rides (although I like Vampire Weekend a lot more than Lin)--it sounds like “Graceland” on coke, and I don’t like “Graceland.” By the way, Paul Simon’s guitar player on that record was a Cameroonian dude, but the music on that record is, well, neutered-sounding, so even that can’t put me over on it. Fang Island shouldn't be punished for the sins of Simon, but what I hear are anthems without choruses, and let’s face it: who wants that?

Lin: C+

This reminds me of bands like Vampire Weekend, a sort of vaguely schizophrenic, anthemic, African-music-by-way-of-The-Lion-King based indie pop/rock. So, you should know already if this is something up your alley. Me? Not a whole lot to say. I do like it more than the saccharine sounds of the aforementioned band, but there's not a whole lot I find appealing or noteworthy. The best track here is probably the six minute long "Davey Crockett," which plays more like a frantic blues song, approaching something like the transitions on Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor record.

17 February 2011

2010: David Banner, Eminem

David Banner
Death of a Pop Star
Released December 21, 2010 (b.i.G.f.a.c.e/eOne)

Short Notes: Add one part gruff southern rap legend to equal portion backpacker producer, stir to combine. Results will vary.

Brandon: B-

This was a late addition to the list, and when Lin proposed we try to fit it in, I was thrilled. I’m a fan of David Banner, whose 2003 Mississippi: The Album is one of the most interesting rap records of the decade--a rough, banging mix of the gangster cliches and deep politics that’s an obvious touchstone for another of my favorite working rappers, Atlanta’s absolutely crucial Killer Mike. The addition of 9th Wonder, a throwback, golden age-style producer who regularly works with the likes of Murs, seemed like a recipe for success, and most importantly, a departure from Banner’s more recent pop friendly material.

But despite coming in at a taut 31 minutes, this is a loose, sloppy record. Banner is one of the most immediately engaging rappers in the business, but his gravelly menace is blunted here by both the smooth soul-pop production and his relative lack of lyrical bite. There’s a lot of female-sung hooks (by the likes, mind you, of Erkyah Badu) here, with 9th Wonder’s bass-heavy but trap-light production making this sound like a Blu & Exile record. Banner’s raps are sometimes great, but are generally a poor match for the music. Worse, his politics, which are usually spot-on, are marred by a singularly bizarre interlude at the end of “Something is Wrong” which may or may not be repulsively homophobic. There are still some interesting songs here (“The Light,” especially, sounds like a more familiar conscious club banger with slightly avant-garde production), but this record was mostly disappointing for me.

Lin: B-

Banner's 2003 track "Cadillac on 22's" is one of my favorite rap songs ever -- though, admittedly, it's more for the beat than any of his skills as a rapper. More or less Death of a Pop Star reinforces my preconceived beliefs based on that one track, mainly that Banner is not a bad rapper -- at worst, he's competent -- but that he's not as engaging or consistent as the major southern rappers. I'm happy this clocks in at a tight 30+ minutes, avoiding the classic overlong rap album problem, but it feels unformed and incomplete. There's some decent stuff here, but "The Light" is the only thing worth singling out as pretty good. It's quality enough that I may still go out and get his other albums, but only if they're cheap.

Released June 18, 2010 (Aftermath/Interscope)

Short Notes: "Album of the Year" nomination aside, Eminem returns with either his best album in years or another collection of nearly irredeemable raps.

Lin: B+

I'm not telling you anything new here, but Eminem is a hard artist to approach critically. His skills as a rapper are obvious and haven't been in question since (at least) The Marshall Mathers LP . I mostly hated and still hate that album outside of the singles. A song like "Kill You" exemplifies the problem: great writing, great rapping, great beat...but it is, at best, morally 'questionable' mitigated (maybe? somewhat?) by the final "I'm just playin', ladies" paper tiger. As far as I'm concerned, this song is a perfect microcosm of the Eminem thing during his cultural zeitgeist years. The second problem is that Eminem was the dominant force in not only rap but popular music during my first half decade of music geekdom. While I didn't like the first or second albums when they came out -- I was a latecomer to the genre -- it shaped both the music I loved and have come to love. However, the deeper issue is that, regardless of whether or not I liked or like the early music, it evokes nostalgia. And given Eminem's distinctive voice and style, some of that carries over into the new stuff.

The best part of Recovery is probably the first half of "No Love" -- Lil Wayne's portion. It's a stark contrast when Em comes in and it offers a revealing comparison between the former and (more or less) current champs. Eminem does not come out looking good. But here's the thing: I like this Eminem more than previous Eminiem or Slim Shady or Marshall Mathers. Yeah, he's claiming he's number one, and the conviction is there, but it's obviously not true. I don't want to imply any pity or schadenfreude -- it's more tragic than anything. Eminem is DeNiro's "I'm the boss" shadowboxing from the last scene of Recovery's "Raging Bull," all sound and impotent fury.

This context raises up some of the more mediocre tracks, providing (admittedly) some extramusical help. "Love The Way You Lie" and "Won't Back Down" are the highlights, but you already know that. "Going Through Changes" and "Not Afraid" are pretty good despite suffering from uninspired sample choices. Recovery does suffer from Overlong Rap Album Syndrome (77 Minutes?!) -- this album would be at least an A- with a half hour cut out. (My suggestion? "W.T.P" and pretty much everything between "Seduction" through "So Bad.")

Brandon: C-

Unlike Lin, I’ve never actually heard an Eminem record all the way through before. I’d guess this isn’t the place to start. As such, I don’t really have any baggage here--I’ve heard his singles, but his first record came out when I was a senior in high school. By that time, I was pretty much on to other sorts of things, musically, and no one I knew really listened to this sort of thing (except for my freshman roommate, who also loved Limp Bizkit, and whom I almost never spoke to). So listening to the album tracks here, my initial impressions are strongly reinforced: Eminem is a virtuoso rapper who is entirely and irredeemably self-absorbed, and as such boring to me. His pain and raw emotionality, which is apparently his most attractive attribute for many of his fans, is one-dimensional to my ears, and my ability to relate and sympathize with him--to enter into his pathos--is continuously undermined by the gross misogyny and homophobia he laces nearly all of his songs with. Now, like every rap fan I know, I tolerate too much of this sort of thing from artists I like (Kanye, Weezy, The Clipse) for reasons I’m not entirely able to justify. But here, it’s just so omnipresent, so overwhelming, that it’s distracting.

Frankly, I wanted to give this a lower score based on how little I enjoyed listening to it. But he is an undeniably amazing technical rapper, and I have to give him his due. His rhymes are complex, and his flow, which is where his true brilliance lies, is front and center here--he can rap at hyperspeed, then slow it down on a dime, and he handles complex phrases as well as any rapper in the game. In that sense, this sounds like those late-era Rakim records without Eric B--sonically, they bear no resemblance (as Em still has access to top-notch beatmakers and collaborators), but in terns of their ultimate vibe, both artists are trying to remind you why you liked them with technical virtuosity that’s sadly free of interesting content. This is the hip-hop equivalent of a Chick Corea album--an incredible talent seeking only to satisfy itself, with predictably unpleasant results.

14 February 2011

2010: Ed Harcourt, Elizabeth Cook

Ed Harcourt
Released June 15, 2010 (Piano Wolf Recordings)

Short Notes: British Singer/Songwriter with another sometimes-pleasant addition to the overwrought genre.

Lin: B-

I blind-bought this one because, for some reason, I thought Ed Harcourt was the former frontman for 16 Horsepower, a band I like more often that not. He's not, not even close, but the decision was made with help of the album cover, which invokes a "country gothic" feeling, which is how I hoped the album would sound. It doesn't: what this is is a collection of singer/songwriter pop music. It appeals lyrically to my more melancholy and depressive nature, but Harcourt's singing lacks the gravitas or world-weariness that the best sad-sack music has. In the end, it sounds more like he's playing at pathos instead of really feeling (or at least channeling) it. But it works, sometimes, more or less, on individual tracks, making perfect mixtape fodder: "Killed By The Morning Sun" and "Lustre" being the most promising.

Brandon: C+

This is a lush pop record with a vague British accent. For the most part, it’s an entirely pleasant, if occasionally overwrought (the drippy piano ballad “Lachrymostly”) album that fans of bands like the Dresden Dolls would probably enjoy just fine. For me, I’d agree with Lin: there are a few songs here I’d be happy to hear again (I liked the catchy, propulsive “Secret Society"), but when it veers towards the maudlin (as it often does), it’s pretty forgettable.

Elizabeth Cook
Released May 11, 2010 (31 Tigers)

Short Notes: Nashville reject=pretty good alt. country record

Lin: B

I was wrong in the past couple of reviews where I've said albums had a "classic country" sound -- Doug Paisley, for instance, is nowhere near as "classic country" sounding as Elizabeth Cook. Maybe it's just her register and some of the themes, but many of these tracks remind me of something Dolly Parton would sing. This is both a blessing and a curse, though more the latter: Cook isn't as skilled as Parton and I'm not a huge fan of Dolly. Still, the best tracks here are those that skew closer to melancholy alt country, specifically "Not California," "Rock N Roll Man," and "Follow You Like Smoke." Like the Ed Harcourt album, it works better as a collection of songs than as an album, but that's not to say that it's not worth checking out for country fans.

Brandon: B

This record isn’t as solid top to bottom as the Caitlin Rose album we reviewed last month, but when you cover the Frankie Miller class “Black Land Farmer” (one of my top 20 all time songs, and part of the epic “500 Greatest Country Singles of All Time,”) I cut you some slack. Like Lin says, this record is probably the closest thing to mainstream Nashville country we’ve reviewed thus far. And that makes sense: Cook appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 2000, and did a couple of major label Nashville records at the beginning of the decade. This record bears the mark of a former mainstreamer, with strings, relatively lush production (Don Was manned the board), and a couple of corny mis-steps (“Yes to Booty,” “Snake in the Bed”). But for the most part, this record walks a perfectly enjoyable line between Lucinda Williams and Miranda Lambert, with a couple of genuinely affecting songs that, like Lin said, wouldn’t be out of the question as Dolly Parton songs (“I’ll Never Know,” “Mama’s Funeral”). It’s worth a listen, but get the Caitlin Rose record first.

13 February 2011

2010: Drive-By Truckers, Dum Dum Girls

Drive-By Truckers
The Big To-Do

Released March 16, 2010 (ATO)

Short Notes: Great band continues its streak of decent but inconsistent albums larded with the odd magical track.

Brandon: B
Lin and I are old Truckers fans from way back, courtesy of of our old buddy Andre, who, so the story goes, pulled their 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera out of a cd rack at random because “the album art looked pretty cool.” Since that lucky afternoon, the both of us have lived and died by the songs of Patterson, Mike, Jason (on to solo work), Shonna, and the rest of the boys.

At their best, the DBTs are a pot distilled version of the best attributes of American rock and roll--clever, affecting storytelling about individual lives married to a southern chug propelled by three guitars and a lock-down rhythm section. Their best work tells stories like early Springsteen, only more personal, if it’s possible, wrapped up in southern gothic symbolism and drenched in sweet guitar solos. But like most rock bands, the DBTs have also gotten more inconsistent in their old age--this is, after all, their eighth official studio record, and Mike and Patterson have been playing together since the 80s.

Their middle records--the aforementioned Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South--were all released between 2001 and 2004, and all benefited not only from strong secondary material from lead guitarist Mike Cooley (who has the best nickname in rock these days--the “Stroker Ace,” after a truly terrible Burt Reynolds stock-car racing movie from ‘81) and (in the latter two cases) Jason Isbell, but also from presumptive frontman Patterson Hood’s strongest work. Hood is the heart and soul of the band, his nasaly yelp and charisma are front and center at every show, and he’s the most recognizable member. But as good as he can be, his batting average as a songwriter is also the lowest among the band’s regular contributors. So when the newest record includes 8 of his originals of 13, sadly, this suggests a few slower duds among the highpoints.

To concur (in advance) with Lin, there are a few songs here that count among the finest work the band’s ever produced, making this album a totally respectable starting place for new fans. Cooley’s “Birthday Boy,” sung from the perspective of a young stripper/prostitute, is probably one of the best songs of 2010, and among their finest tracks as a band. And as Lin describes below, the front half of the record is chock-full of new Truckers classics--songs in the old vein they’ve mined so well over the years, about drinking and death in the new recessionary America. As for the weaker tracks that make up side two (although “This Fucking Job” is one of the better non-hip-hop songs about the structural impoverishment of America, and their video for it is nothing short of amazing), well, let’s just say that the Truckers are ripe for a self-mixed best of. I wish this record was solid top to bottom, but for a favorite band still releasing good music, I hate to be too critical.

Lin: B

For as much as I love the DBTs -- I count them as one of my favorite active bands -- they've yet to release a truly great album. Perhaps it's not important in the iTunes age, but even their best album (Southern Rock Opera) or my favorite (Decoration Day) have filler that I always skip over. The Big To-Do is no different in this regard, but the success-to-failure ratio is lower here than on any other album with the exception of A Blessing and a Curse.

Luckily, the album is sequenced with all the best tracks up front: (1) opener "Daddy Learned to Fly" is in the same vein as the last album's "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife"; (2) "The Fourth Night of My Drinking," which has an surprisingly appealing undercurrent of self-contempt; (3) "Birthday Boy," one of the best Trucker's tracks, ever, and (4) "Drag The Lake Charlie," a somewhat trite track but full of joyous (handclaps!!) dark humor.

After that is "The Wig He Made Her Wear," a story song that doesn't go anywhere or do anything. Then is "You Got Another," the first truly great Shonna Tucker song, very "classic country" and lovely -- but it sounds out of place on an album like this. "This Fucking Job," (or "Working This Job") a 'zeitgeist capturing' if somewhat generic recession song, rounds out the worthwhile tracks. That's nearly 27 minutes of "A" quality stuff that can sit comfortably aside their weightier material and 27 minutes of stuff that will only get a listen when I forget to switch albums half way through.

Dum Dum Girls
I Will Be

Released March 30, 2010 (Sub Pop)

Short Notes: fuzzed out, jangly guitar pop by girls proves divisive for the boys.

Lin: B

I'm already on the record for having a distaste of the now-prevalent washed-out all-middle production style. So, inside 15 seconds this album is already fighting an uphill battle. Which is disappointing as, just like the Best Coast album, it'd be fairly enjoyable (if mostly unspectacular) garage-pop if it was more sonically diverse. "Jail La La" and "Yours Alone" being the highlights and the closest tracks to overcoming the production -- as it's the ballads like "Blank Girl" that suffer the most. If you don't share my hang ups and/or like the Best Coast album, feel free to consider this a recommendation and a pleasant way to kill half an hour.

Brandon: A-

As is probably pretty obvious by now, Lin and I, despite our decade long friendship based largely on a mutual affection for the same sort of pop music, have very different preferences. We converge on a few things (alternative country and gritty Americana, classic punk rock and post-punk, post-war Chicago blues, Richard Thompson), but when it comes to new indie pop, we have radically divergent preferences. For my part, I’m a classicist--drawn to guitar pop genre exercises and the weird formalities of the power pop, twee, and post-Jesus & Mary Chain/Beat Happening fuzz-pop. I came up on music like Matthew Sweet, Big Star, Material Issue, and Teenage Fanclub, and I love bands like the Vaselines, that I suspect Lin finds a bit cloying.

The Dum Dum Girls, on Sub Pop, are one of a number of new bands dedicated to reviving the Vaselines/Beat Happening/C-86 sort of take on classic pop. These groups (I’d also lump in the excellent The Pains of Being Pure at Heart as a perhaps better-known point of reference) layer fuzz over the top of Ronettes-baiting riffs, all the while singing in shaggy harmony about cute things. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, run, don’t walk, to pick up this record. I find a lot to like here--the songwriting is far better than most of the other bands mining this same vein pull off, the music is sweetly poppy, and the whole thing sounds a fair bit more sincere than you might expect from the sort of hipsters that would try to revive the Vaselines sound in 2011. My favorite tracks--”It Only Takes One Night,” “Jail La La,” and “Yours Alone”--are all insanely catchy, not so much because they have big hooks as because of an insistent propulsion that I find incredibly endearing. Highly recommended, with the caveat that this is clearly, for lack of a better terminology, a “Brandon” record.

09 February 2011

2010: Doug Paisley, Drake

Doug Paisley
Constant Companion
Released October 12, 2010 (No Quarter)

Short Notes: Confirmed Nelsonville Music Festival act (yay, SE Ohio) makes a sparse, mellow alt. country record that evokes Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Brandon: B+

A bunch of records in to this little project, I’ve learned a little about new music, and a lot about how my way of relatinhg to and consuming music has changed over the years. Case in point: I like Doug Paisley’s Constant Companion record quite a bit. It’s a short, mellow but enjoyable piece of folky-sounding alternative country, with decent songs, just enough variation in arrangements (from guitar/vox up to a more lush full acoustic combo with piano) and tempos to keep me engaged. There’s a number of tracks I’ll be re-listening to in the future--the slow shuffle of the opener, “No One But You,” the delicate “End of the Day,” the Big Star guitar riff-jacking “Always Say Goodbye.” But why can’t I get more excited about it? If listening to this record wasn’t a musical chore, relatively speaking, I think I’d bump it up a half-grade. But this project has really cut into my back-catalogue time, and I’m writing this review late at night after a three hour guilty binge of old Richard Thompson and Mountain Goats records, avoiding another new record by skipping through to the old favorites. I’m guessing that, of the records I hear during this project that I eventually come back to, my initial impressions will be pretty subject to change. At 4 or 5 new records a week, there’s not much time to let things sink in. Sorry, Doug. But I’ll catch your set in May, I promise.

Lin: B+

Don't tell my 16 year old self, but I've really grown to like the classic Nashville country sound: your George Jones's, Conway Twitty's, Tammy Wynette's and so on. This Doug Paisley album hearkens back to that era, fitting closer to a Charlie Rich or, surprisingly, even a Nick Drake. As such, there's nothing particularly revelatory here, though "O' Heart" comes the closest. It's a solid set, though, the type of thing I could see throwing on when I'm in a particularly indecisive mood. But Brandon's exactly right: with so much other music, it's hard to get particularly excited about repeat listens. Still, it's worth checking out if you're into the genre.

Thank Me Later
Released June 15, 2010 (Cash Money Records)

Short Notes: Technically proficient (and occasionally pretty good) pretty-boy hip-hop.

Brandon: B

It’s not hard to like Drake. He’s a great technical rapper, there’s not a ton of misogyny in his lyrics (his guest stars, on the other hand...) but his relationship tales (which make up the bulk of the album--this one’s for the ladies) are reasonably engaging, and he's absolutely not trying be anything (read: gangsta) he’s not. So why am I not in love with this record? It got rock solid reviews in the mainstream and indie presses, who stressed the above qualities, as well as his versatility--he’s equally comfortable on club tracks and slow jams as on more standard rhyme-heavy joints. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but the issue for me is that it’s hard not to compare him to Kanye, and I think he comes up short. It’s not just because Kanye is a stone genius, whereas Drake is merely good. Rather, it’s that ‘Ye is just so much more interesting--he’s genuinely fucked up, and his contradictions and embarrassing emotionalism are what he puts right up front in his music. He’s confrontational, where as Drake is merely confident (and this is a very confident record. Drake knows he’s hot, and as they say, he acts like he’s been here before). I like the weirdness and the self-doubt in Kanye’s rhymes as much as I love the adventurousness in his production, where as Drake’s album sounds straightforward and cocksure. But most people who like contemporary hip-hop will like this record, and should check it out. Don’t let me rain on your parade.

Lin: B-

Let me start by saying that this isn't my type of thing and that I'm having a difficult time trying to figure out what kind of "thing" it is. The inevitable comparisons are to Kanye and Lil Wayne and I guess that's a good starting point. But, the thing is, I generally don't much care for Mr. West and Wheezy tends to be really hit and miss, the hits being more of the glorious weird style. Drake lacks this humor, leaving the story telling (as good as it may be) still fairly straight-forward. And it's auto-tuned, which usually is just grating. (And, side-note, the woe-is-me-I'm-rich-and/or-famous style lyrics have seriously started to offend me in the "I'm a good liberal" sort of way. So, there's that.) This describes the music, too: it's solid and will appeal to those that like the modern mainstream rap sound, but ultimately leaves me a little cold. The slow jam "Shut It Down" is surprisingly good considering what it is, but the Nicki Minaj-featuring "Up All Night" is the clear highlight, followed by "Find Your Love" and it's electronic-dance-music backing track. Outside of those, though, there's not much that'll bring me back.

04 February 2011

2010: Deerhunter, Dessa

Halcyon Days
Released September 28, 2010 (4AD)

Short Notes: Generally more of the same unassuming indie rock.

Brandon: B+

I’ve been pretty ambivalent about Deerhunter’s rise to indie popularity over the last few years. Like Lin, I didn’t really enjoy Microcastles, despite the strong encouragement I received by my friends to check it out. I’ve never really liked singer Bradford Cox’s other major project, his band Atlas Sound. The first couple of tracks here didn’t sound much more promising--it’s lo-fi without a payoff, like Ariel Pink without any fun (“Don’t Cry”). But starting with track 4 (“Sailing”), and really with the next track, the poppier “Memory Boy,” this record really turned around for me. There are still some places where the sonic effects get in the way (a number of the songs, especially the otherwise interesting “Helicopter, ”have this strange underwater-sounding reverb going on that I just don’t find pleasant). But I’d count two tracks here--the lengthy but simple rumination on childhood “Desire Lines,” and especially the really excellent “Fountain Stairs,” among my favorite tracks from the albums I’ve reviewed thus far. Unlike the mainstream indie reviews I’ve read of Halcyon Days, which treat it as some sort of masterpiece, I found it to be a largely unassuming record, with simple lyrical themes, best when it was at its most straightforward.

Lin: B-

You've seen the movie "National Treasure," right? The one with Nick Cage where he's running around solving mysteries based on American history? I don't hate it and I don't love it: it is the most mediocre movie I've ever seen. The acting? Not good or bad. The script? Not good or bad. Etc. Etc. I feel the same way about Deerhunter. 2008's Microcastle has it's moments but, for the most part, the three albums I've listened to are neither particularly good nor particularly bad. It's the sort of thing that I can understand why folks like it -- I'm not going to think less of your taste if you do -- but doesn't resonate with me either way. I probably wouldn't pick Halcyon Digest over the aforementioned Microcastles or Cryptograms because it doesn't feature any standout tracks that I can point to as samples (the video I posted is just the first one I could find off the album). It's very very even but, like I said, mediocre.

A Badly Broken Code
January 19, 2010 (Doomtree Records)

Short Notes: Minneapolis hip-hop that bridges the gap between spoken word and hip-hop.

Brandon: A-

Dessa is a member of the acclaimed (at least among upper midwest ‘heads) hip-hop Doomtree crew, and this is her first full-length solo record. As far as contemporary hip-hop records go, it’s a sparse affair--relatively unadorned beats and a dense, not always rhythmic flow more akin to the spoken-word and slam poetry she got her start on. But despite not really following certain hip-hop delivery conventions, this is a really enjoyable record. Dessa tends, like most Minneapolis rappers these days, to rap about self-realization and her more intimate life experiences. And while it’s a cheap reference, she does evoke the spectre of Slug (Atmosphere’s frontman) in her storytelling--the Slug of God Loves Ugly, the dense, personal storyteller who makes some missteps but sounds endearingly sincere. The standout tracks here--”Dixon’s Girl” and the bluesy “Dutch”--are complex tales of women looking to reclaim their lives, full of pathos and interesting wordplay. My only criticism here is that, really, the beats are pretty mediocre. I’d love to hear her over some more aggressive, sonically-expansive beats in the future. Give Ant a call, girl.

Lin: A

I described this album to a friend as “Sage Francis if he was a woman and liked trip-hop more” -- which is right but, like all great albums, is only part of the whole story and severely diminishes the complexity it offers. This isn’t an “Ohmigod, you have to listen to this album!” album, but one that I feel like I could confidently recommend to anyone who has even a passing interest in hip-hop or lyrics worthy of reading. (She gives a shout-out to the Chicago Manual of Style, after all.) The opener here, “Children’s Work” is one of the best songs I’ve heard from 2010; it’s too trite of a compliment, but it would work just as well as words only. While things dip a bit after that -- I don’t much care for the “single” “Dixon’s Girl” -- the latter half of the album is amazing and lacking clunkers. The back-to-back-to-back power of “Go Home,” “Seamstress,” and “Dutch” is as good as anything else I’ve heard this year. Highly recommended.