Issue July 22, 2008

Music Reviews

Shawn Telford, Aaron Frank, Caitlin Bowling

Music Reviews

Modern Guilt

Beck

(DGC)

<crank it>

For as laid back and bitchin’ as Beck’s latest collection of amalgamated pop, lo-fi folk and fuzzy rock songs is, Mellow Gold would have been a perfectly apt title. He’s already used it, so Modern Guilt it is. Yes, the electronic minimalism and light touches of orchestration feel modern. Which leaves “guilt.” Should one feel guilty for listening? No.

Produced with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, the two seem to highlight one another’s strengths: Danger Mouse’s keen sense of pop-song structure within a vast strategic toolkit, and Beck’s experimental-friendly ethos.

The album’s 10 tracks cover a lot of ground, moving among lean, fat and groovy compositions. In fact, with all the changeups, only Beck’s cool voice is consistent.

“Soul of Man,” for example, takes a dirty blues riff and covers it with syrupy, underwater distortion and a freight train of a rhythm. Yet it still raises its head above the fray to shout a few clear, opulent notes. The fuzz doesn’t get much thicker than “Profanity Prayers,” which delivers oversized truckloads of swagger and sway.

Like a good Catholic, good listeners should say no to bad feelings. Enjoy Modern Guilt loudly and often. —Shawn Telford

Partie Traumatic

The Black Kids

(COLUMBIA)

<dance factory>

At first, Partie Traumatic sounds like a bunch of rerecorded demo songs with flashy production and a few new tracks thrown in. That’s partly what it is.

Beneath the surface is a well-woven collection of fun dance-rock songs, released right in time to be the soundtrack for your summer dance party.

“Hit the Heartbrakes” is a three-chord rip that finds them making the most of what they’ve got. Reggie Youngblood trades vocals with female backup Ali Youngblood and keyboardist Dawn Watley throughout, making for a catchy opener where the backups consist of “Abracadabra!”

There’s little to no lyrical substance on Partie Traumatic, save for the love song “Hurricane Jane,” and “I’m Making My Eyes At You” takes a cue from New Wave: glaring synths, handclaps, spastic drum machine shine — but it’s a bit bland and redundant.

Whatever fans the Black Kids have amassed over the past two years with the Wizard of Ahhhs EP and constant touring should be pleased with Partie Traumatic, though cracks can be heard. —Aaron Frank

Stay Positive

The Hold Steady

Vagrant

<bromance>

The title of The Hold Steady’s fourth album is a bit of a misnomer. It excels to new heights, highlighting their lighter side, while at the same time maintaining their signature dark blend of indie, classic and punk rock.

In “Constructive Summer,” vocalist Finn takes on the first-person role of a small-town sinner with good intentions. His character has big plans for his summer from the outset, but gives up quick in a town where people Work at the mill until you die, and he ends up asking for the Power to drink on top of water towers.

The Hold Steady walk a fine line between lighthearted reflection on past mistakes and dark, twisted stories. On “One for the Cutters,” Finn regales us with the tale of a girl home from college who ends up being tried as an accomplice to a murder after giving a killer, who she happens to have a crush on, a ride to a safe haven. The backing harpsichord adds a nice touch to the already thunderous production.

With their new album, The Hold Steady have managed to grow considerably in songwriting, lyrics and production. They deliver a cleverly packaged album that makes you feel human again. —Aaron Frank

A Certain Feeling

Bodies of Water

(SECRETLY CANADIAN/THOUSAND TONGUES)

<luscious>

The most fitting adjective for L.A.-based Bodies of Water: harmonious. The runners-up: grandiose, dramatic.

As on their debut, their second LP of huge, sophisticated choral movements is ripe with sweeping gospel-powered songs that generally rise from folksy intros into triumphant, quasi-religious celebrations. Opener “Gold, Tan, Peach and Grey” is a perfect example. Surrounded by a corps of extra players (the four often work with as many as 11 in the concert setting), the luxurious, six-minute song builds toward, then toys with, crescendo, as his and hers harmonies are traded within a cathartic instrumental crossfire. It’s hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm, or at least ponder the song’s zesty contemplation of the afterlife: And let us return to dust/And be at last made whole.

By the end, “A Certain Feeling” is still meditating on the meta-physical, this time considering what it would be like to be born again, not as a human but as something else: “If I Were a Bell.” It sounds funny, but the music accompanying the idea is anything but. Yeah, they’re serious. Listen to this delightful album and you will be, too. —Shawn Telford

Aloha From Kentucky

Li Li Can’t Drive

(ITSOFFICIAL)

<chill’n>

Not subscribing to any one genre, Li Li Can’t Drive’s latest album, Aloha From Kentucky, touches on everything from alt country to electronica. Li Li, a two-member band from Louisville, keeps it simple with steady beats and a rustic voice.

The lyrics are consistently good. The strong words from “Honor” are most notable: Looks like you’ll be spending that dollar hanging up on the wall/looks like you can’t stay clean/clean at all. From substance abuse to sinners and war, the album covers a number of subjects. “Time Will Tell” shows what Li Li can do instrumentally, but maintains the album’s overall simplicity: few tempo changes, steady beats.

Recorded in a basement, Aloha’s sound is scratchy, which can leave the lyrics sometimes lost behind the music. Despite the substandard sound, it is not hard to find a good song on the album: Quality chill-out music marked by a few standouts. —Caitlin Bowling

Untitled

Nas

(DEF JAM/UNIVERSAL)

<good and bad>

On his ninth album, Nas takes on the hefty task of discussing race relations in America in 2008. The title of the album was changed to Untitled at the last minute, and while it holds an important presence in pop culture and carries a generally positive message, Untitled is a novel concept that was, unfortunately, poorly executed.

The album opens with “Queens Get The Money,” where Nas raps over a Jon Brion-inspired Jay Electronica beat, with nothing but a lonely, fleeting piano melody. The simple beat highlights Nas’ elaborate wordplay. “Make The World Go Round,” with Chris Brown and The Game, is a low point. The production is a failure, but the vocals from all three artists give the impression that this song could have been something special, had the production not been so corny and overbearing.

Nas gets serious on “America,” bringing the focus back to the main theme of modern-day race relations, which isn’t all peaches and cream, as Nas clearly informs us. Along with Busta Rhymes, Nas also delivers some creative and compelling material on “Fried Chicken,” discussing the unhealthy food that has become part of an African-American stereotype over the years.

With Untitled, Nas has released an album that may go beyond the general public. On the upside, it will resonate well with longtime Nas fans, even though it veers off course several times and doesn’t hold as a coherent conceptual piece. —Aaron Frank