26 May 2011

2010: Katy Perry, Lady Antebellum

Katy Perry
Teenage Dream

Released August 24, 2010 (Capitol)

Short Notes: This is how major label pop ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper that consists mostly of whipped cream shot from aerosol cans attached to large breasts.

Lin: C

My office has taken to this game of rickrolling each other with Rebecca Black's "Friday." I've heard the original so many times now and many of the remakes/parodies. The original video has over 140 million views and nearly 2.8 million 'dislikes.' Perry's album was nominated for a best album grammy and is certified multi-platinum. With maybe two exceptions, I'm not sure I could tell these two artists apart. (Not helped by Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)" which is actually inferior to Black's weekend ode.)

Let's get the good parts out of the way. Second single "Teenage Dream" is why I included the album in the first place, as a friend with a generally good taste in music claimed it was one of the best singles of the year. True? No, but it's alright in so far as it goes. "E.T." and "Circle The Drain" provide some much needed gravitas (comparatively) and could be saved by the right type of mixtape.

And now the bad. Generic. Cloying. Tries to hard (c.f. "Peacock" which has barely more subtlety than your average ICP track). Generic. Boring. It loses nearly all the comparison games: compare, for instance, the Snoop Dogg-featuring track "California Gurls" with Robyn's Snoop Dogg featuring "U Should Know Better." It's inoffensive pop music -- a common critique of the genre, but much more damning since it so wants to be edgy. And maybe it is. If you're 12.

Brandon: C

Let's start with the positives. The singles--the ones I'm regularly exposed to, living in a region of rural Ohio without a classic rock radio station, and requiring, despite my impeccable liberal elite credentials, the occasional break from NPR--aren't half bad, as far as these things go. Of course, I'm increasingly mystified by teen-oriented pop (I was warned this would happen, but it snuck up on me a little) but there are things Katy Perry does rather well. I've never particularly cared to be "young forever," there's a certain naive charm to "Teenage Dream," and it's got a big ol' chorus. "Firework" works well as a Pink-style, vaguely rocking song about empowerment, and even though Snoop Dogg's verse is a travesty, "California Gurls" has a legitimate hook. So there's that.

But even evaluated on its own terms, there's a whole lot of mediocrity here, most of which will probably seem obvious to the sorts of people who read our blog. But lest you think I'm some sort of anti-pop snob, I'd like to rehearse the arguments, anyway. This is the sort of music audiophiles provide as evidence that the MP3 format has led to the decline of production values. Even her best tracks sound hollow, with big beats, synths, and the occasional instrumental flourish (as with the sax in "Last Friday Night [T.G.I.F.]") all compressed within an inch of their lives, with no depth to the arrangements. It's not that I have a particularly good sound system, but this record sounds better on the earbuds I use at the gym than on my home stereo. I was surprised at just how obvious the hollowness was--this is a decay in quality that wasn't evident even in the pop records ten years ago. Thankfully, it's still not entirely crowded out more complex soundscapes (Gaga, for example, who despite her reliance on pretty straightforward 4/4 Euro-dance beats, makes music that's at least passable on headphones).

Lyrically, the story is much worse. Beyond the singles, there's really not a listenable song here. Part of it is that Katy Perry's persona is really unpleasant to me--there's not even much nodding and winking here with regards to the sexual content ("Peacock"). Rather than simply being sexy, this just sounds forced, sort of like the cheesy single-entendres of the terrible self-titled Liz Phair record of a few years ago. Perry lacks a musical (as opposed to visual/public) identity. She tries to "rock," but doesn't do it as well as Pink or even Avril Lavigne (whose "What the Hell" is actually quite pleasant, although the video is product-placed within an inch of its life),

and she does the sexual liberation thing lyrically in a way that makes her (or rather, her handlers) seem rather desperate for the male gaze and its approval. She tries to nod towards hip-hop, but as Lin notes, doesn't come within a mile of what Robyn is doing. She's not the singer Christina Aguilera is, and the Auto-tune and pitch-correction are all over the place on these tracks. There's just not much reason to listen to this record given the available alternatives.

And this leads to Brandon's deep thought for the day: When will artists like Katy Perry simply stop releasing albums all together? Given that her sales (less that 200,000 units in the first week) really don't compete with what was possible in the late 1990s, and given that pop albums like this get huge initial sales bumps from deep discounting at places like Amazon, why not just release a steady stream of $1.50 singles, rather than an album that ends up being marked down to $5 to get a big sales bump? If an artist like Katy Perry can release three or four Top-5 singles in a year, why bother with filler-laden albums that get slagged not only by me, but even by more mainstream critics? Since album sales don't seem to drive the revenue stream the way they once did, why dilute your best product with the likes of "The One That Got Away?"

Lady Antebellum
Need You Now

Released 26 January 2010 (Capitol)

Short Notes: It's one of the biggest albums of 2010, but when your grandchildren see it at their local post-modern flea market in 2045, they won't even recognize it.

Lin: C+

Five dollar albums from Amazon will be my death, allowing me to pick up, on a whim, zeitgeist albums without a significant amount of guilt. (Most albums are worth getting for $5, you see.) I knew, of course, the quadruple platinum, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, most downloaded country song EVER (and 9th overall), the all-around massive chart hit "Need You Now." Hell, it's my father's ring tone. I like the song, but it's unclear at this point if it's due simply to familiarity or the psuedo-nostalgia of being loved by people I love. So there's that.

The rest of the album is generally generic pop country that Main Street Nashville has been producing for years. Maybe it's because I generally stay away from the genre, but I have a higher tolerance for the unexicitingness of mass produced country as compared to mass produced pop, hence the higher grade than the Katy Perry, even though they have similar sins. Lady Antebellum's songwriting is stronger, with some moments that threaten to break through the walls of my cynical detachment. ("American Honey" and "Something 'Bout a Woman" being the two best examples.) For better or worse, Lady Antebellum sounds more earnest in their begging and pleading than a number of the artists we've reviewed, even though it's been overmanufactured, removing the rawness that is necessary for it to truly be a positive. Anyway, more likely than not, you already know whether or not you need to pick this one up, and I'm in no position to convince you one way or another. For what it’s worth, this is the best ‘C’ album of the year.

Brandon: D+

My reaction to this album is the mirror of Lin's. I think I tolerate fluffy pop (I do watch "Glee," after all) better that I tolerate post-Shania/Faith country dreck. There’s really nothing here I find either interesting or clever. This is pop-country crossover at its most eager, referencing Skynyrd and Springsteen (“Perfect Day” and “Stars Ahead,” in which they refer to themselves as a “rock and roll band”) in the lyrics while aiming square at the teenage girl/mother of teenage girl nexus. There’s an equal number of happy and sad songs (although nothing too unhappy), and with two lead singers (Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley), there’s enough variety here to keep anyone from catching on to the underlying lack of variety. Lin’s right that the songwriting is stronger here than on the Katy Perry record, but this is still country/pop by the numbers--professional, but forgettable.

The day that I listened to this record, I also happened to attend a flea market. Since there aren't a lot of buried treasures at a rural Ohio flea market (mostly, people are selling recent NASCAR memorabilia and used DVDs), I typically look through the stacks of old records that are often an afterthought for most vendors. I've occasionally pulled some good stuff this way--especially country from the 1960s and lesser-known classic rock albums--but mostly, the sorts of LPs that end up at these kinds of things are what people were actually listening to 50 years ago. I see an awful lot of dog-eared copies of Andy Williams, Johnny Rivers, Peter Nero, and Herb Alpert--sappy, sentimental, and string-laden, and often in the form of Christmas records or record company samplers.

My point isn't to be needlessly mean, but when people my age (even musically plugged-in kids like me), think about what was important about pop music in the 1960s, this isn't what comes to mind. Sure, it was on the charts, but so was a lot of other better material. We forget just how ubiquitous this sound was in lower middlebrow American culture, and when I hear Lady Antebellum (or Rascal Flatts, or the execrable Sugarland), this is what I think of. If it were the early 70s, Lady Antebellum would be guesting on the "Lawrence Welk Show." This is the kind of music that, in an earlier time, would have left a demonstrable physical presence of its former popularity, but no one in the future would have been able to hum.

But times change. This record has moved 3.2 million, but with the rapid change in technology, it’s unlikely to have a flea market afterlife. This is the record that, in effect, defines pop music in 2010. No one I know thinks of Whipped Cream and Other Delights as the music that best captures the essence of 1966,

but it was the best selling album in the US that year. It’s unlikely Need You Now will be as well-remembered as its chart success would suggest. Since its legacy isn't guaranteed by an overwhelming quantity of physical media, how will we remember it at all?

19 May 2011

2010: Justin Townes Earle, Kanye West

Justin Townes Earle
Harlem River Blues

Released September 14, 2010 (Bloodshot)

Short Notes: Steve’s kid grows up.

Brandon: B+

I’ve got a soft spot for Justin Townes Earle. He’s Steve Earle’s kid, and named after his dad’s good friend (and SMWiH hero) Townes Van Zandt. He’s also best known around these parts for his revelatory cover on pretty much my favorite song ever: The ‘Mats’ “Can’t Hardly Wait”. But honestly, my first couple times through this record, it really wasn’t working for me. Growing out of his more youthful alt-country sound and into a retro sound that sounds a little like the recent Preservation Hall Jazz Band (the one with Andrew Bird, Jason Isbell, and Buddy Miller) album stripped of (most of) the horns. It’s a little dixieland, really. But it’s grown on me substantially--most notably the lilting, romantic “One More Night in Brooklyn” and the swinging blues “Ain’t Waitin’ ”--and I’m inclined to think it’s a nice album for a Saturday afternoon.

Lin: B-

Earle had been on my "List of Artists to Check Out" for some time, but before this album came up in the list I hadn't heard any of his work. This should be right up my alley: Earle's dual namesakes (both of whom I like), signed to Bloodshot, and spoken well of by friends with similar taste. But I find this more unexciting than anything. It's fine, but it's not as interesting as, say, the recently reviewed Joe Pug album. In a way, it reminds me of why it took me so long to get into Lucero: excellent on paper but merely competant and boring in execution. I can get why people like this, but I need something just a little bit more.

Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Released November 22, 2010 (Def Jam)

Short Notes: A motherfucking monster.

Lin: A

I want to hate this album. I find Kanye's previous albums extremely overrated, with something like 6 good tracks spread among the four albums. His public persona and actions are ridiculous. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy appeared on nearly every end of the year best of list, usually near the top. I want to hate it, but I don't. This is the album where I finally see the same genius that everyone else does.

So, at this point, there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said by critics more talented than me. Cultural zeitgeist, critical darling; one of the most vital albums of the year, forcing you to pay attention as it spins not uncontrollably but purposefully into inextricable self-psychologizing and ultimately a self-destruction or, probably more accurate, a de-mythologizing. (Or is it the opposite?) Yes, the title is appropriate.

I mean, seriously:

I have no idea what that is, but I’ve watched it about two dozen times over the last 3 days. It's not properly a music video (2 minutes long?), more like promo for a video. Or a teaser for the album. Regardless, it’s utterly fascinating and seems oddly indicative of the album-as-listening-experience. "POWER" is one of the highest highlights on the album (even though I'm tricked every time by the riff-less Crimson sample) and that video is ridiculous in every awesome way. But there's also "Monster" with the somewhat disturbing video and fantastic verse by Nicki Minaj (who also provided the best moment on Drake’s album). And “Runaway” -- entirely deserving of Pitchfork’s “second best track of the year” designation. There’s exactly one less-than-good track and my biggest complaint is that the highs are so high I don’t have the patience to listen to the merely great tracks and skip ahead.

Highly recommend. This is a pick that everyone got right.

Brandon: A+

This record is a lot of things. Kanye West is a complete and total asshole--a terrible person whose misogyny is irredeemably banal (and brutally violent), a casual, almost lazy racist (there’s a lot in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ rather brutal takedown of this record for The Atlantic Monthly to agree with) and a remarkably narcissistic man, even in the golden age of over-exposed celebrity. Parts of this album make me a little sick.

I’m also increasingly convinced, after listening to it a couple dozen times, that he might have made the greatest hip-hop record of all time.* My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is clearly rooted in his earlier work--the soul samples, the electronic thump, the biting self-criticism that undermines the bravado. But it’s also something different, something more. Musically, it’s without a weak or slow moment. The beats are huge, and even the non-singles bring me back for repeats. Lyrically, this is ‘Ye’s best rapping. His style is plastic, and despite his unquestionable talent, is without a clear identity of its own--affecting a Lil Wayne-style flow on “Monster,” technically proficient if not silky smooth most of the time, and without a distinctive characteristic. In terms of the flow, most of the guests here--Raekwan, the remarkable Pusha T, Jay-Z, especially--are demonstrably superior. But Kanye blows everyone away on every single track here, mostly with sheer bravado and pathos. Has there ever been a more pathos-laden rapper than Kanye? He’s a master producer, but nothing he does feels technical. That doesn’t mean he’s not calculating, but he has a remarkable talent for sounding immediate.

I’m not inclined to waste more time trying to describe the record, because I’m not sure I can communicate just how remarkable it is. Let’s just say that “Runaway” is probably my song of the year. It’s 6 minutes of Kanye viciously undermining himself and his less self-conscious doppelganger Pusha T (of the mighty Clipse), followed by what amounts to Kanye’s version of Neil Young’s Trans--his painful lament, pitchshifted into incomprehensibility with Autotune, as though he wants us to know how much he hates himself, but he just can’t quite bear to say it out loud. And truthfully, self-loathing is the dominant theme of this record. Kanye seems to genuinely hate himself--he’s constantly chipping away at his own arrogant bravado, even when, as in “Monster,” he spends most of the song in classic self-promotion.

This is rap’s White Album: a big sprawling, genius mess, with Kanye’s personality crisis providing the John, Paul, and George parts (Rick Ross is Ringo. I kinda hate Rick Ross). Absolutely crucial.

*Note: If it's not this record, what is the greatest hip-hop album of all time? Illmatic? The Chronic? Ready to Die? Something old school, like It Takes a Nation of Millions... or Paid in Full? Hip-hop is increasingly (hell, popular music is increasingly) a singles game, and I'm not sure how many more defining album-length statements hip-hop as we know it right now has in it. The strongest argument for this record as opposed to the finest 90s records is that Kanye seems to be aiming for something--musically, obviously, but lyrically, too--more complex, more universal (by way of the particularity of our fame culture), more ambitious. If this is The White Album (or maybe hip-hop's Dark Side of the Moon, in its ability to be proggy but hit the mainstream), then Illmatic sounds like Elvis's 1956 self-titled--great on its own terms, but clearly the product of an earlier time.

14 May 2011

2010: Jonsi, Josh Ritter


Released April 6. 2010 (XL)

Short Notes: Sigur Ros frontman makes a pop record, mostly.

Lin: B+
A solo album essentially in name only, where the best moments are those that come closest to his main band. It's more accessible than Sigur Ros, probably, but accessibility was never their problem. There's still the majestic chord progressions and non-English singing, but the songs are shorter and generally less complex. It's real easy to say that if you're a fan of Sigur Ros, this is a worthwhile purchase, though it doesn't reach the level of Sigur's better albums. Indeed, this is a "throw it on and don't think about it too hard" album that doesn't require much active listening as many of the tracks blend together in one long drone-y atmospheric. The one track that stands out here is "Tornado," which has the pathos of the first Sigur Ros album.

Brandon: B-
Among the many terrible things I have to publicly admit in order to write for this blog, I must confess that I never enjoyed Sigur Ros. Most of my college friends and a number of my grad school friends absolutely loved them--bought rare releases, saw them in concert, described the rapturous experiences they had with the music. I just never felt it. And so in as much as this isn’t like Sigur Ros (and Lin’s right--Jonsi brings the pop here alongside the weird), I prefer it. The lead track and single, “Go Do,” is a piece of commercial-ready post-millennial dream-pop, its insistent happiness and upbeat attitude verging on The Polyphonic Spree. The rest is a little more eclectic--lots of blips and beeps and vocal manipulations alongside the soaring verses-as-choruses and cheery orchestration. It’s a little saccharine for me (even with the weirdness), but it has it’s charms. It sounds like something a Cirque de Soleil performance could be built around, if they were so inclined. I’m not sure if that’s an endorsement or not.

Josh Ritter
So Runs the World Away

Released May 4, 2010 (Pytheas)

Short Notes: Much-loved singer-songwriter mostly succeeds

Brandon: B-
Josh Ritter’s 2003 record Hello Starling is much beloved by the the indie singer-songwriter community. It’s a justifiable classic of the last decade in songcraft--wordy, clever, built less on hooks and more on long, intricate verses that tell simple stories with lots of memorable lines. His newest outing isn’t nearly as strong, although it has its rewards. Sonically, Ritter’s work is a lot more diverse now--more orchestration and a much more dynamic mix of tempos and sounds. When this plays to his strengths as a storyteller (“Folk Bloodbath”), his way with a slow crescendo (“Change of Time”), or he works out a relatively straightforward hook (“Lantern”), this works out. But too often, the music is too busy when the songs are least interesting (“The Remnant”), or his use of drone-y keyboards for atmospherics (something one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Richard Buckner, has done expertly) falls flat (“See How Man Was Made”).

Of our run of singer-songwriter albums, I like this rather less than the Joe Pug album, or even than the Ben Weaver or Doug Paisely albums--all of which are less Randy Newman, or even Freedy Johsnston or Ron Sexmith (read: less polished and literate) and more, well country. Ritter’s strengths are his quirks as a writer, but I think he works best musically when he plays it simple and straight.

Lin: B+
Even now, after I've spent such an inordinate amount of time learning about popular music, I can name only two and a half good musical acts from my home state of Idaho. So, I have a particular nostalgic love for Josh Ritter's music, even though someday I'll end up owning this shirt and didn't hear him until I left the state. (Nonetheless, Ritter's 2006 track "Idaho" always heightens any remaining homesickness.) Despite having some wickedly good tracks in his oeuvre -- Hello Starling's "Kathleen" is one of my all-time favorite songs -- Ritter's never made a front-to-back great album. That's not changed with So Runs The World Away, which follows a similar format to his previous work: fairly inconsistent but with a couple of pretty great tracks. The highlight is "Folk Bloodbath" a reworking/retelling of the Stagger Lee and Louis Collins fables. (There's some meta elements at work here, too, if you're familiar with the Mississippi John Hurt 'originals.') If you're already familiar with Ritter's work, this is a worthy pick-up. If not, there are better places to start (Hello Starling) or, better yet, get someone who knows to make you a mix.

12 May 2011

2010: Joanna Newsom, Joe Pug

Joanna Newsom
Have One On Me

Released February 23, 2010 (Drag City)

Short Notes: The big indie star neither of us get.

Lin: C-

There is so much hubris on display here that I don't know if I should respect it more or less. First, the inevitable: a triple-disc? Over two hours worth of music? Of all the albums our preliminary 'To Review' list, this was the one I was dreading the most. I do not like The Milk-Eyed Mender at all -- it would be in the running for a top-10 slot of the worst albums I have. Ys is better, mostly because the first track there ("Emily") is somewhat good, but I still want to never ever put it on.

Like the Girl Talk album -- or any album that evokes such strong dislike -- I feel I ought to offer more details as justification. And like Girl Talk's All Day, Have One On Me is the best album by an artist that hasn't put out any good albums. Unlike Girl Talk, though, I dislike Joanna Newsom not because of some philosophical disagreement, but because the music just isn't good.

That's not entirely fair. Newsom is a talented arranger and player, and there are moments where I can start to see the beauty that other reviewers have mentioned. There are other moments where I wish someone I liked covered the song. This is where the bad part of hubris comes in: someone just needs to say "no" to her -- or at least be a sounding board. Example: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien is one of my favorite pure rappers, but none of his solo stuff is particularly good. But throw him in with another strong musical personality that can bring out the best and leave the worst -- someone like Dan The Automator -- and you get the genius of Deltron 3030.

Then there's also her singing, which I just find grating. Now, this is where I prove my cred by pointing out that Tom Waits is my favorite artist, I own and listen to a half dozen Beefheart albums, and I listen to more black metal than most folks you know. I'm not opposed to difficult music or singing. But while Waits' growl works when you're banging on chairs or engaging in whiskey-soaked mourning, the piercing aspect of Newsom's voice is never really at home over stately music. This is a personal preference of mine. YMMV. I will say that it's more appealing on this album, which goes a long way in explaining why I think it's her best.

To this album specifically: it's rambling and never gets into any sort of groove, either musically or narratively, so it feels exactly as long as it is. There are some moments that could someday form the basis for some sort of reverie, "You and Me, Bess," for example, with it's lone trumpet accompanying Newsom's harp. And the harp is less central than on her previous works, which is better: it's a good sound, but isn't full enough to base a song (let alone an album) around.

Brandon: C

So, I like it better than Milk-Eyed Mender, for what it’s worth. A lot of the “rough” edges (or, at least, as rough as the edges of a shrill-singing harpist can be) have been smoothed out, and although these are longish songs, they aren’t the epic ten minute long tracks of her last record, either. In all honestly, what I spot here are hints of Joni Mitchell (which, I’ve discovered, is the same point Pitchfork made when this came out. I swear, I came up with it on my own before I read the review), especially in terms of her phrasing, her way of dancing around the note in a not-quite jazzy way.

If you’re not familiar with Joanna Newsom (not that any of our 5 regular readers are), what can you expect? She composes delicate, sometimes intricately-arranged, sometimes sparse and airy songs on the longish side, tied together by her harpwork (and, on this album, her piano-playing) and her high, heavily affected voice. Some people find her work to be transcendent, and after 3 full listens (and for any triple album, let alone one you don’t like, that’s a chore), I’m starting to understand why some people like her so much. This is serious music, composed carefully to set a mood. It’s expertly sequenced, moving from the whimsical (‘81) to the plaintive (“Baby Birch”) in a few careful moves.

The problem is that I find it empty, and well, boring. Newsom’s voice is, well, different--challengingly shrill, if you will, and her earlier work verged, vocally, at least, on freak-folk--intentionally meant to be a little off-putting. She sounds a lot more in control of her instrument now, but a lot of the squeakyness remains. But my real problem is that her music is “precious”--too delicate, too understated (in all aspects except her voice), too cute, for me to engage with. Unlike Joni, or Laura Nyro (another touchstone, now that there’s more piano, although Newsom is much more intentionally avant-garde), she just doesn’t have a voice that gives the music depth and soul. Instead, it just sits on top of the pleasant but not terribly exciting music, demanding I listen actively to something that’s otherwise not terribly exciting.

Joe Pug

Released February 16 (Lightening Rod)

Short Notes: If you're buying one singer-songwriter album this year by an artist who's name starts with a "J," buy this one.

Brandon: A-

This is a remarkably strong offering from a young alt-countryish singer-songwriter who writes in a remarkably immediate, personal voice. Because his palette is rather limited (fairly simple acoustic guitar, some harmonica, drums on just a couple tracks), there are moments when the formula pops its head through--Dylan, when he’s at his best (“How Good You Are,” “Unsophisticated Heart”), Paul Simon or James Taylor (both of whom I really don’t enjoy) when he’s less musically or lyrically sharp (“Disguised as Someone Else”). The real treats here are the last two tracks, though, which are unrepresentative of the rest of the album. “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)” sits alongside Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” and Kasey Anderson’s “I Was a Photograph” as one of a collection of remarkable songs about my generation’s wars and their personal consequences coming out of the alt-country movement. Perhaps better still is “Speak Plainly, Diana,” the only track here recorded with a full band. Highly recommended.

Lin: B+

Wasn't initially that impressed with this album, figuring it would just add to the pile of good-but-unspectacular alt-country/folky releases we've reviewed for this project like, for instance, the Charlie Parr or Doug Paisley albums. I agree with Brandon that the two best tracks are the final duo, but it's the second track ("How Good You Are") that convinced me my initial assumption was incorrect. The rest of the songs here are strong enough to hold the middle from sagging. It's not quite remarkable enough to be an every-week type album for me, but it's definitely one of the stronger 'dude with a lone guitar' albums from 2010.

01 May 2011

2010: Jamey Johnson, Janelle Monae

Jamey Johnson
The Guitar Song

Released September 14, 2010 (Mercury Nashville)

Short Notes: "Outlaw" country in the 70s vein gets a post-millennial update.

Lin: B+

Of all the country albums we've reviewed and (presumably) will review, this is the most capital-C Country of them: there's no "alt" or "pop" here, just grounded in the early 70's outlaw scene of Waylon, Merle, and George and brought through the years by the likes of Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam. The easiest thing to say is that, if you like those guys, this is a must-get. I like modern pop country more than I'm usually willing to admit and more than, I imagine, most music geeks, so I'm probably more willing to overlook the steps closer to the CMT end of the country spectrum. Indeed, my favorite track here is probably "Cover Your Eyes" which reminds of (and I cringe a bit when I say this) Garth Brooks.

For an album as long as it is (105 minutes) it's surprisingly consistent: a few unexciting tracks here and there, but nothing terrible and not more than two in a row. That said, like nearly every double album ever made, it'd make a better normal length LP. There are a bunch of really great songs to choose from: "Can't Cash My Checks," "Heartache," "Even the Skies Are Blue," "Macon," ... and especially "My Way to You" and "California Riots."

I'm often on the look out for albums that I think most people would like. In particular, my family and I have widely divergent music tastes (they like the pop-country stuff and I like, well, see this blog) and finding things I think we could agree on is really quite difficult. But I do think this one will appeal to fans of any post-1960s subgenre of country. That the album was nominated (but didn't win) for a 'Best Country' album should explain a lot: traditional enough to appeal to the purists, contemporary enough to appeal to Grammy voters, but not horrible enough to actually win.

Brandon: B

Jamey Johnson is making more of an effort to replicate what people my age raised on country music (as an aside, I most definitely was not raised on country--I came to it in high school via the Chicago alt-country scene, Social Distortion’s post-1987 output, and Steve Earle) think of as “classic” country--Lin’s Alan Jackson reference is right on, Waylon is obvious, and I’d also throw in Gary Stewart. But what’s most interesting about him is what you (mostly) don’t hear on this 25 song paean to the outlaw country sound--his separate career as a Nashville Row hack, cranking out rather more standard pop country fare (most notably, the execrable “Honky Tonk Badondadonk” for Trace Adkins). This makes him, in some sense, more authentic, rather than less--more rugged, quirky performers like Willie Nelson started in precisely the same way, and Nashville has always been home to hitmakers like Bob McDill, writers who cranked out pulp songs for the latest fads right alongside material that has rightly become classic.

It’s this characteristic that makes a double album seem like a natural step for Jamey Johnson--he’s clearly prolific and capable of writing for a variety of voices. And it goes without saying that, for a mainstream country record, this is a ridiculously diverse outing--veering from Ernest Tubb-baiting (“Set ‘Em Up Joe”) and a duet with old timer and Opry legend Bill Anderson (“The Guitar Song”) to nondescript topical songs (“Playing the Part,” which is one of the album’s stronger songs and its lead single, which doesn’t mean it’s not actually middle of the road, readable as a conservative or liberal track, and the fairly reactionary “California Riots”), clever wordplay songs in the general vein of Jerry Reed (“Macon”) and, ultimately, nostalgic, maudlin Nashville schmaltz (“By the Seat of Your Pants,” “I Remember You”). And lest you think I’m being too critical, nearly everyone he’s patterning himself after released some schmaltz. That’s just how you do in Nashville.

Aside from the obvious (it’s too long, too uneven), there are a couple things that I don’t love here. One is that the otherwise pleasant assimilation of the Allman Brothers/Skynyrd southern rock sound a lot of “rebel” country goes for these days leads to a number of otherwise tight songs wrapping up with 2:30 of riffing at the end. The other is that the arrangements aren’t always ideal for the songs--a lot of “Nashville Cats” super-clean playing here on songs that are supposed to be gritty. That said, this is a worthwhile record for folks not afraid of the twang. Jamey Johnson isn’t the revelation he’s being treated as in Nashville--Uncle Tupelo were covering “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” back in the early 1990s--but he’s not terrible, either.

Janelle Monae
The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)

Released May 18, 2010 (Bad Boy)

Short Notes: Big Boi protege. Signed by Diddy. Releases genre-hopping Afrofuturist debut LP. It's like Ma$e meets Sun Ra.

Brandon: A-

The first half of this record is a flawless slice of modern (post-Prince) R&B, with Afrofuturist images, a little bit of warm disco ("Locked Inside"), and a lot of brassy, 60s-style soul over some great Stankonia-style production. But the second half is almost entirely devoted to the musical interludes and drawn-out, sonic experiments of the sort than begins the album ("Overture II," "BaBobBaYa," "Say You'll Go"), or simply less effective (if not unpleasant) mid-tempo weirdness ("Wondaland"). It's still a remarkable, singular record--an unmistakable statement of purpose for a debut LP (there was an earlier, conceptually linked EP). But in adding some sonic variation, some of the manic propulsion of the earlier, standout tracks is lost. Highly recommended.

Lin: B+

I agree with Brandon's breakdown of the album, though I don't like either half near as much. The second half -- Suite III -- doesn't offer much for me on repeated listens, with only "Wondaland" standing out at all. As it is, nearly the entirety of Suite II is better than III and makes for an above-average 40-minute listen. It helps having a such a solid center around which to base the rest: the singles "Cold War" and "Tightrope" are a couple of brilliant neo-soul/dance tracks that almost make my leaden feet want to take a spin on the dance floor. "Come Alive (The War of the Roses)" is the other standout track here, starting off with a big band-like jazz like feel and adding in equal portions of madness and menace. This is an album, though, and should probably be listened to it as such; it makes more sense as a whole.