CD Reviews for 1-16

The Magnetic Fields
<bruised beauty>

The group that feted you with 69 Love Songs still has its tongue planted firmly in its own cheek, and their latest work of art is just as deadly. For the Magnetic Fields, hope, heartbreak, loss and the occasional debaucherous evening are part of what makes life worth living, and if you meet these challenges with the right amount of wit, all the better.
Individually, Distortion’s tracks tackle a range of afflictions to the human condition, but as a whole, they fit like fuzzy, dreamy puzzle pieces. Some are slow, lumbering trips; others are short, taut and, in the case of “Too Drunk to Dream,” wickedly hysterical. “Drive On, Driver” hooks you instantaneously, while “Zombie Boy” and “Courtesans” are untethered beauties.
One dependable theme — and Distortion’s ambling, racket-driven guitars are the evidence — is that Magnetic Fields write solid pop movements that sound intentionally bruised, battered and otherwise damaged. The genius is they make these sonic injuries feel attractive. —Mat Herron
North Mississippi Allstars

Hernando is the town in Mississippi where brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew grew up. And since you now know that, you know much of what informs these punks-turned-country-blues funksters.
    Not content to reprise 2005’s Electric Blue Watermelon, the trio relegated Hernando to barest-of-the-bare instrumentation. Guitarist and singer Luther has said Hernando is what it appears to be: a blues-rock record, and the listens reinforce that statement, however limiting it seems. Eleven years of doing anything is a long enough time to shut down for a minute, impose some discipline, realize where you come from and what it is you stand for. Luther’s warm, Hendrix-influenced guitar solos shows he isn’t short of exuberance, while brother Cody’s backbeat is authoritative, and Chew’s bass is as thick as a Mississippi bog. —Mat Herron

Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Drive-By Truckers
New West
<shoal ’nuff>

This is the Truckers’ eighth record but first without third writer Jason Isbell, who departed on good terms and now enjoys a nice solo career. No worries; the core duo of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley remains, and bassist Shonna Tucker has moved nicely into the third songwriter’s seat, contributing three of 19 tunes here. The Trucker formula is well established — Hood’s penchant for Southern gothic themes and nearly fraught singing style; Cooley’s rockabilly structures and fondness for dark characters. Tucker’s voice is sweet, on lead and harmony, and her songs have a breezy rock feel. Founding member John Neff returns full time on guitar and pedal steel. His contributions, coupled with those of legendary Muscle Shoals keyboardists Spooner Oldham, lend nice shadings that broaden the overall attack. That’s a good thing; the band knows its sound well, and they still rock hard, but they don’t rest on their laurels. That makes them continually interesting.
    Drive-By Truckers return to Louisville (Headliners) on March 1. On Feb. 5, five Truckers’ titles will be reissued on limited edition vinyl. —Cary Stemle

8 Diagrams
Wu-Tang Clan

Put your W’s in the air! Wu is back!
Well, “back” is a relative term, as 8 Diagrams sounds more like a whimper than a battle cry. I have tried hard to like this. I’m on listen No. 12, and, with few exceptions, this is so massively disappointing, that this will go on the shelf, lost like Noah’s Ark and forgotten like child abuse.
Several Clan members have been vocal about their dislike of the album, and while I agree, I do so for different reasons. The production is not the problem so much as the overall tempo of the album. Few tracks are faster than your heart rate, which gives a plodding feel, and no less than two are eulogies for the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, spaced evenly throughout the album, giving it a funereal vibe. I miss ODB as much as the next guy, but the eulogizing is overkill, leaving the listener stuck at a candlelight vigil.
Method Man shines, with newfound energy and a hunger that was missing on his last albums. George Clinton, John Frusciante and Erykah Badu guest. —Damien McPherson

Cat Power

The woman that Christina Ricci wanted to be in the accidental comedy “Black Snake Moan,” Catherine Power has lately found new strength in her Southern roots. Thankfully, her father must be Dan Penn or Steve Cropper, and her brother isn’t Kid Rock.
Once perceived as an indie rock/folk bird, time has revealed Chan Marshall (Cat Power’s lone constant) to have more in common spiritually, if less so sonically, with Mary J. Blige.
While cover albums are usually horrible, and no one should ever do them, ever, Marshall is one who should do more. On this, her second covers album, she proves again able to pump blues, jazz and soul into moribund songs like “New York, New York” (trust me), dares and wins taking on Janis and Joni, and, OK, like everyone else, attempts to jump genders and become Bob Dylan — by singing his song, singing a new song about him and singing everyone else’s songs kinda like him. —Peter Berkowitz

Inna Heights 10th Anniversary Edition
Buju Banton

Buju Banton is modern reggae and dancehall. His is one of the great voices in the genre; his gruff rasp has surprising versatility and range. You can keep Sean Paul, Beenie Man and whoever else charts in America with their watered-down hip-hop-dancehall hybrids. From 1992 to today, reggae music’s flag has been carried almost solely by Buju.
Beginning his career with dancehall-and-slackness, Banton converted to Rastafarianism in 1995 and moved to roots reggae with that year’s masterpiece, Til Shiloh, arguably the greatest reggae album of the ’90s.
Though he has dipped a toe back into the dancehall waters on occasion in the following decade, Banton has eschewed the recurring themes of violence and misogyny prevalent in much of that genre’s history in favor of a refreshing positivity and spirituality not typically seen in dancehall’s modern stars.
This month marks 10 years since Shiloh’s follow up, Inna Heights, and VP Records reintroduces the album to a new generation via a re-master with bonus tracks and a DVD. Heights is a worthy successor, and is in many ways the superior record. “Destiny,” “Hills and Valleys,” “Small Axe” (not the Marley song) and “Circumstances” are classics. Rush out and buy this immediately. —Damien McPherson