The Pratt Songs Best of 2007

It's time for a list. My favorite CDs from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, in no particular order. I only started this site in June, so I picked ten albums that stand out against the 50-something I've reviewed so far.

Of course, it's not that tough to figure out what I like and don't like, but being a bona fide music dork, I'm a sucker for a nice list.

  • Tim Hecker: Harmony in Ultraviolet -- Out of everything I've heard from the library's collection, I don't think there's any other album that I come back to more than this one. As I said in my original review, it's a tough listen that won't sit well with most people, but if you open up and give it a chance, you might be pleasantly surprised.

  • Classic Railroad Songs from Smithsonian Folkways -- There is a wealth of incredible music and history waiting out there, and I've just begun to discover it. This, like most albums from Smithsonian Folkways, is a must-hear for anyone who deeply cares about music.

  • Blackalicious: The Craft -- It's a great album, in every sense of the word. I've been listening to it since 2005, and I'm still not tired of it.

  • Josh Ritter: Hello Starling -- This little blog is actually teaching me to listen to music in a new way. Sure, a clever bassline that snakes through some self-loathing Britpop gem still gets my heart all a'flutter, but I notice simple songs with brilliant lyrics more than I used to. And lyrically, Josh Ritter is about as good as gets for this year's crop of EPFL checkouts.

  • Teitur: Stay Under the Stars -- I only gave this one a 3 out of 5, but the first song and his cover of "Great Balls of Fire" refuse to leave my mind. He found something dark and lonely in "Great Balls of Fire," something that most of us never knew was there.

  • Marah: 20,000 Streets Under the Sky -- It reminds me of why I started my other blog, and why it's such a shame that I've been neglecting it. It's one of the best albums I've ever heard about city life.

  • Brandi Carlile: Brandi Carlile -- I only gave her debut album 3.5 library cards, but I don't know if there's another artist I heard this year who has more potential than Brandi Carlile. I'm excited to watch and listen as her career unfolds.

  • My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade -- It's nice when a good but unexceptional band stretches themselves in all the right ways. I don't think anyone who heard MCR's previous albums could have predicted The Black Parade. It's an excellent album that proves these guys are far more talented than any of their peers.

  • Mika: Life in Cartoon Motion -- I understand that the album is pop fluff, but it's charming and infectuous pop fluff that's made from some substantial stuff. Mika seems to have a genuine talent and love for music.

  • Tanya Donnely: This Hungry Life -- "Little Wing" just might be the best song I heard all year.

Here are a few other year-end lists that you might want to check out:
Rock and Roll Meandering Nonsense
Layla's Classic Rock
Imagine Echoes
Bill and Dave from Rock of Ages


Eagles of Death Metal: Death by Sexy

If I didn't know anything about Eagles of Death Metal (which I don't, since I have no Internet access as I write this*), I would guess they're from Texas. They've got that crazy energy that seems to be synonymous with so many Texan bands: The crazy, oversexed fun of ZZ Top; the crazy, anything-goes attitude of Butthole Surfers; and even a bit of the crazy joy of The Polyphonic Spree.

Okay, so EoDM sound nothing like The Polyphonic Spree, but there's more than a passing similarity to the rawer moments of ZZ Top. In fact, Death by Sexy is a nearly perfect blend of stoner rock and basic '70s rock.

If sex-filled fun isn't your bag, don't even bother with Death by Sexy. EoDM mostly stays on the fun side of sexy, and the band only occasionally wanders into moronic misogyny. It's refreshing that "I Gotta Feeling (Just Nineteen)" celebrates the joys of getting it on with a lovely young woman of legal getting-it-on age, instead of the typical underage girls who have fueled rock fantasies since its earliest days.

(* The first thing I did after getting my Internet connection back was to read about Eagles of Death Metal. Apparently, Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age is half the band, and he helped inspire vocalist Jesse Hughes to start EoDM. Hughes and Homme are both from Palm Desert, CA, which must have been founded by a bunch of Texan immigrants or something.)

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
If Death by Sexy had been cut down to 10 songs, it might have been a perfect rock album. "I Want You So Hard (Boy's Bad News)" pulled me right in, and I didn't come up for air until things slowed down a bit on the fourth and fifth songs. "Don't Speak (I Came to Make a Bang)" kicks in with all the authority of a perfect side-2-track-1, and the energy doesn't subside until the final howl of the psychobilly influenced "Chase the Devil." And that's where the album should've ended. The last three songs would've made excellent B-sides or online giveaways, but they don't stand up to the rest of the material on Death by Sexy.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Like the music, the design is lighthearted. A sense of humor pervades the entire booklet, but the words are incredibly annoying to read. It's a shame because Eagles of Death Metal knows how to thank people. (Thanks to James Brown? And England, and ODB, and Memphis, and The Donnas, and boogie pirates everywhere, and babygirls and honeybabies and sweet babies and honey girls and sweet lil' rock'n'rollas? That's how thank yous should be written!)

Listen if you like: It's a perfect blend of ZZ Top, Ted Nugent, and Queens of the Stone Age

If it were food, it'd be: A Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, but with Texas rock instead of peanut butter and stoner rock in place of the chocolate.


Damien Rice: 9

It would be easy to let the magic of the first four songs on 9 fool you into thinking this is a great album. From Lisa Hannigan's opening vocals (Rice proves his courage by letting someone else's voice introduce his album) to the wailing refrain on "Rootless Tree," it is clear that Rice is a talented musician. So it's easy to hear the strummy guitar and tepid lyrics of "Dogs" and think there must be something special happening beneath the surface. Unfortunately, there's not. "Dogs" is just a bland folk-rock ballad that could've been performed by anyone from Train to Bread.

Unlike "Dogs," most of the misfires on 9 are mixed into decent songs, so you can't just skip the crap. "Me, My Yoke, & I" reaches a frenzy that rocks like mad, but it's dragged down by adolescent lyrics that strive to be clever and sexually rebellious. Similarly, the chorus of "Rootless Tree" ("Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you...") is delivered with passion, but its bile relies on generic expressions of rage.

Rice is not a bad lyricist, but he bounces from creativity to cliché with no regard for the well-being of his songs. There are too many land mines scattered across the surface of 9 to ever let the listener sink into the music.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Rice is obviously a writer with very good ideas, but he failed to fully express them here. 9 had the potential to be a great album, in the vein of Jeff Buckley's Grace and Radiohead's The Bends. Instead, its shortcomings make it a good listen that exists in the shadow of what it could have been.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The cover is interesting on its surface, and is reminiscent of 0 (his debut) without rehashing its imagery. But the cover art suggests a meandering pointlessness that is reflected in the music. If this is a reflection of what is going on in Rice's head, it's no wonder he couldn't find a good album in the midst of his mental mess.

Listen if you like: Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke, Ryan Adams

If it were food, it'd be: a homemade chicken pot pie loaded with whole peppercorns that explode like little bombs and overwhelm the other flavors.


Tanya Donnely: This Hungry Life

I'm really confused as to why This Hungry Life won't leave my stereo. I don't like Tanya Donelly as either a solo artist or with any of her former bands. So why can't I stop listening to this? How did this happen?

Perhaps it's because of "Little Wing." This song is a flame in an album filled with sparks. I've played it for a handful of people, and they've all been captivated, regardless of whether they're fans of The Clash or Barry Manilow. There's magic in this song. She pulled fire from the sky.

To say that none of the other songs on This Hungry Life are as good as "Little Wing" would be like saying no other crab houses in Baltimore are as good as Bo Brooks. "New England" kicks the album open with a celebration of homeward love, the power of "Kundalini Slide" flows upward with a desperate energy, and the forgotten heroine of "Invisible One" is brought to life by the band that screams for her from the darkness of a stage somewhere in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The only song here that could even remotely pass as lackluster is "River Girls," an anthemic closer that doesn't take flight the way it could.

I guess it's time to stop not liking Tanya Donelly, because I absolutely love this album.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The band sounds like a bunch of old friends who've been playing together for years. It's a live album, but it has the kind of richness and depth that I'd expect from a studio recording. (The low end is a bit lacking in regular speakers, but the mix is wonderful in headphones.) The audience mostly sounds indifferent, but I assume it was a production decision to give the crowd an almost ghostly presence. Donelly's voice is strong yet vulnerable, and its timbre reminds me of a trumpet -- a welcome relief when so many female singers conjure the softness of woodwinds.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL)
The version of This Hungry Life at the EPFL is missing the real cover, but the front of the inner jacket is strong in its own right. The line drawings and two-color printing are surprisingly effective, and while they don't convey the depth of the music, they complement it well. The lyrics are included, though they don't shed much light on some of Donelly's more cryptic musings.

Listen if you like: Belly, Billy Bragg, Dolly Parton's Sugar Hill recordings

If it were food, it'd be: Breakfast at Morning Edition on E. Fayette St., with eggs and homefries and pancakes drenched in pure Vermont maple syrup and banana bread and fresh fruit and bacon and just-squeezed orange juice and a couple cups of incredible coffee. There are good friends at the table, and a bunch of friendly faces in the rest of the room. The weather outside is cruel and uninviting, which makes this little pocket of goodness all the more precious. And like Morning Edition (where the service is questionable and an occasional bullet flies past the front door), This Hungry Life has one or two little flaws that keep it from being absolutely perfect, but it is closer to perfect than it has any right to be.


Phoenix: It's Never Been Like That

This is simple, feel-good pop rock that gets more interesting with subsequent listens. It's Never Been Like That has one foot planted somewhere between '80s British punk and '80s British new wave, and the other is standing squarely in the front row of a Strokes show. It's a good mix of influences, and they manage to sound interesting even in the current flood of new wave revivalists.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's Never Been Like That doesn't have sharp teeth or bloody claws or even a fist raised in righteous anger. The music is catchy and the lyrics are smart, but the energy is restrained. Even the instrumental track, "North," adds something special even though its quiet nuances don't fit with the rest of the album. The songs are easy to forget once the CD ends, but as soon as it starts again, they slide into your ears like old friends who've found their way back onto your couch after a long absence. It'd be easy to let It's Never Been Like That slip by and dismiss it as take-it-or-leave-it pop. It'd be easy, and it'd be wrong.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover has that cheesy, homemade look for which people pay a lot of money. The simple red/black/white palette is effective, and the hand-colored accents add a nice touch. It's good to see a band who was willing to give up the entire back panel out of respect for the design, but the artwork isn't so powerful that it needed two panels to work. Likewise, printing the same picture twice on the center pages doesn't work. The background on the lyric pages is subtle, and it creates nice boundaries for the words without being overstated. I'm glad the song lyrics are included; the band may be French, but they write better words than many of their English-speaking peers.

Listen if you like: The Strokes and their many followers, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

If it were food, it'd be: Homemade mac & cheese. It's simple, but it stands out against its mass-produced peers.


Pedro the Lion: Achilles Heel

So very, very, very sad. And a little bitter, and a little envious, and a little self-righteous. But mostly just sad. Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad. Sad.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
"Arizona" is a charming little story of love and betrayal that is so cute and clever, it kind of makes you want to throw up. "Bands With Managers" is on the other extreme of Pedro the Lion's scale, where boring bitterness reigns supreme. The songs on Achilles Heel move between the two sides, at one moment creative and touching, at the next bland and self-piteous. A few songs even show that David Bazan (he is Pedro the Lion, the lucky guy) has some deep roots in classic rock. "Start Without Me" is lifted straight from Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty," and the harmonies in "Keep Swinging" make me think that Bazan has listened to his fair share of Steely Dan records.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The illustrations on the insert tell a story. I'm not really sure what the story is, but a lot of people are crying and a lion is roaring, and then you turn the insert over and the lion is dead and a man is pointing a shotgun at you! So why were all the people crying? Did the lion eat their friend? Were they scared of the man with the shotgun? Were they teary because the lion was singing sad songs with words like, "Who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble, for every stupid struggle? I don't know?" And why aren't there as many people on the back of the insert? Did they run away? Did the man with the shotgun kill them? Did they go back in the house and put on something a bit more chipper, like Joy Division or Dashboard Confessional?

Listen if you like: The Bends, Death Cab for Cutie, Iron & Wine, Morrissey/Smiths songs like "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday" and "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want"

If it were food, it'd be: a bitter pill, and the spoonful of sugar is all ... the ... way ... on ... the ... other ... side ... of ... the ... room ...


Burning Brides: Leave No Ashes

It's tough to make an original hard rock album. It's tough to find a creative new twist when hundreds of wannabe AC/DCs, Aerosmiths, and Alice in Chains have flooded this style of music with mediocrity. It's tough, but every few years someone finds a way to put their own stamp on hard rock.

Burning Brides is definitely not that band.

Leave No Ashes has elements of grunge, punk, horror rock, and metal. That could be a good mix for a more competent band, but Burning Brides is completely trite and unoriginal. We don't need to hear yet another crappy interpretation of the 1990s, especially one from a band who is incapable of separating that decade's wheat from its chaff.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I was going to count all of the lyrical and musical clichés, but there are just too many. If you can think of a formulaic rock trick, it's on this album. Pre-recorded crowd noise? Check. Cheesy guitar solos? Check. Irrelevant swearing? Check. Wrong-side-of-the-tracks imagery? Yep. Tough, bluesy power ballad with an acoustic guitar? Oh, you know it. Leave No Ashes sounds as if someone watched Blue Man Group's "Rock Concert Instruction Manual" and took it a bit too seriously. The sad thing is, the band has energy and there are moments where some genuine talent and creativity shine through the muck. If there were more songs in the spirit of "Vampire Waltz," Leave No Ashes might be an album that's worth hearing instead of ignoring.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover art is strong, and the band deserves credit for not plastering their name across the middle of it. Of course, the cover is the only good part. The faux-handwriting typeface used for the lyrics is just like the music: it's a façade of pain, desperation, and anger that overlies an unoriginal and corporate mentality. The most telling detail of Leave No Ashes is visible on the tray card: one side displays the band/album names (complete with anarchy symbols in lieu of A's) and the other side displays the copyright and legal information for V2 records, All Rights Reserved, manufactured and distributed in the United States by BMG Distribution, a unit of BMG Entertainment, unauthorized reproduction is prohibited by federal law and subject to criminal prosecution. Needless to say, there were no anarchy symbols on that side of the tray card.

Listen if you like: Godsmack, Stone Temple Pilots, Danzig, Alice in Chains.

If it were food, it'd be: regurgitated.


Marah: 20,000 Streets Under the Sky

I wish I could find a way to make this album fit inside this review. I wish I could take the music and the words and every emotion I've felt while listening to 20,000 Streets Under the Sky and cram it all into this measly little blog, but I can't do it. This album is just too big.

This is urban music, or at least, it's what urban music was before the phrase "urban music" was hi-jacked by record companies and filled with racist overtones. This is music about urban life. These are songs about living and dying and growing up and growing old in crappy streets filled with run-down rowhouses and Chinese take-outs and drug dealers and sunsets that tease you with promises of a better life.

Unlike most rock (and "urban") artists, Marah understands that joy and pain are soulmates who walk hand-in-hand through our lives. It almost seems like the darker the subject matter of the words, the harder the band worked to infuse the music with light. They understand that the city is a tough place, a place of perseverance, but it's also a place of hope and magic and love... sometimes even when you're an addicted tranny hooker or a kid who is dying in the arms of the only girl who loved him.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The music is everything great rock music should be: passionate, energetic, and genuine. The album would shine even if the lyrics were generic moon-june-spoon crap, but these words are exceptional. Most of them can stand on their own as poetry, a feat that few lyricists ever achieve. David Bielanko has a genuine gift with words, and in a fair world, he would be held in the same esteem as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL?)
The artwork is a bit boring, at least on the EPFL's version. (Versions I see online are slightly more compelling.) The band offered an incredibly deep pool of lyrical imagery (not to mention an obvious reference to the original Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou illustrations of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and a more gifted designer could've done wonderful things with the cover and liner notes. But the lyrics are included, and with an album like this, that's the most important thing for the package to contain.

Listen if you like: Bruce Springsteen is an obvious comparison, but the band sounds as if they're channeling The Boss' spirit instead of ripping off his notes. Fans of Dylan, Waits, and other great lyricists should absolutely give this a listen. Anyone who simultaneously loves and hates living in the big city will find many friends and neighbors in the characters who inhabit the songs.

If it were food, it'd be: A couple of slices of greasy pizza from the mom-and-pop take-out joint on the corner.


The Sadies: In Concert, Volume One

This is the kind of concert that you regret missing. The recordings suggest the live shows were insanely exciting, and the million or so guest musicians surely added to the good times.

There's nothing musically groundbreaking here, but it's a fun listen with a lot of energy. The album maintains a consistency from start to finish, with only a couple of songs that don't really fit. "Lonely Guy," which sounds a bit like Radiohead's "Creep," is an unnecessary dark spot that -- based on the lackluster crowd noise -- was as out of place live as it is on the CD. The same problem arises on disc two, where the psychedelia of Syd Barrett's "Lucifer Sam" drags down the energy without contributing anything meaningful.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The instrumental tracks that are interspersed across the first disc are the high points of In Concert. They're nearly all upbeat and driving, and they show talent and a genuine appreciation for traditional country and bluegrass. The vocal performances all sound decent until Neko Case starts singing "Hold On Hold On," at which point the beauty and strength of her voice makes every other singer pale in comparison.

Packaging: n/a (Missing and/or altered by EPFL)
The cover is very cool, in a trippy, homemade kind of way. The back tells us that the album was recorded on Feb. 3rd and 4th at Lee's Palace in Toronto (not surprising, since Toronto is The Sadies' hometown and a large number of the guests are Canadian), and the guests ranged from Garth Hudson to Neko Case to Steve Albini to Margaret Good (the mother of The Sadies' Dallas and Travis Good). There is no booklet and no other information included, so it's virtually impossible to determine who played what on what song. If there were any neat little tidbits that The Sadies included for the listeners' enjoyment, patrons of the EPFL won't know about them.

Listen if you like: The Band, Gram Parsons, Wilco, Neko Case, Americana (or maybe Canadamericana?)

If it were food, it'd be: Fresh sausage and grits, along with a bunch of coffee from Tim Hortons.


Various Artists: Classic Railroad Songs from Smithsonian Folkways

Classic Railroad Songs understands that, even today, when rail travel is nearly obsolete and we can communicate internationally by clicking a button, trains hold a powerful place in the American conscience. Trains represent freedom and independence and the possibility of an adventure. Trains are the sadness of a lonely whistle in the middle of the night, and the excitement of a passionate kiss on a crowded platform.

Sometimes we forget that humanity didn't begin with cell phones and iPods and TiVo. People in the 19th century were just as captivated by technology, romance, tragedy, humor, joy, sadness, society, politics, and religion as we are today. The music on this collection deals with nearly everything that happens between birth and death, and it manages to do it all in the context of trains.

One thing we share with our ancestors is a fascination with disasters, and this CD is like the 19th century version of a disaster movie. You've got trains crashing into each other, trains going off the tracks, passengers getting mutilated and dying by the dozens, engineers getting mauled when they're supposed to get married... this is some gory stuff. If you remember the train wreck in the movie Unbreakable, well... this CD is like that. Except without Bruce Willis as an immortal superhero.

Of course, this music is about more than just train crashes. There's the awe-struck wonder of amazing machines, the sadness of a child lost at war, the pain of a job that was as likely to kill you as pay you, the class struggle between a wealthy man's daughter and the impoverished men who existed outside her windows, and the humorous look at an engineer who had a wife in every town on the Denver and Rio Grande line.

Humor and joy are a big part of this music. Many of the saddest songs on the CD are accompanied by uplifting music, an acknowledgment that sadness and joy co-exist in life. This art has been neglected by modern artists like Metallica, Taking Back Sunday and Jay-Z, whose songs are almost always a one-dimensional expression of emotion. But the songs on Classic Railroad Songs are not afraid to see the seeds of joy that exist in every moment of pain, and vice versa.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Last 4-5 tracks of EPFL version won't play)
Like most compilations from Smithsonian Folkways, the music is exceptional. Some of it is very difficult to listen to, especially for those of us who like our music to come from fancy studios where everything is overdubbed and underflubbed and moneygrubbed. But it doesn't matter whether or not this music is difficult, because it's worth hearing. This CD is not just educational (for instance, I never knew that Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Midnight Special" was originally written in Sugarland Prison in Texas, and was recorded by multiple prisoners in the South before Lead Belly's recording became the definitive version), but it is a link to the passions that drove our ancestors -- and drive us. There's not a song on here that should be skipped (which is very frustrating, considering that the EPFL's version of the disc is damaged), and there are several that have as much energy and life as the best music being recorded today.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The design isn't particularly special, but it's effective. The text is easy to read, and it's nice that the designers didn't get caught up in trying to use decorative typefaces or eye-catching layouts. Given the amount of content that's in the booklet, function over form was the right way to go. The text is broken up by photos, but there aren't any captions to describe the context or relevance of the images. Given that the music is about trains and the booklet is a miniature history lesson, it would've been nice to see at least some basic descriptions of each picture.

Listen if you like: Bob Dylan, Josh Ritter, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs. (They're not on here, but their roots are.) Also, listen if you like freedom, independence, adventures, lonely whistles in the middle of the night, passionate kisses on train platforms, and sitting in stations until it's your turn to get on and ride.

If it were food, it'd be: served in the dining car as the world races past the windows.


Secret Machines: Ten Silver Drops

Almost every song on Ten Silver Drops can be traced to one of the rare '80s bands whose songwriting transcended their hairstyling. "Lightning Blue Eyes" brings back memories of Sparkle in the Rain-era Simple Minds, while "I Want to Know If It's Still Possible" is reminiscent of Tears for Fears' more Beatle-esque moments. Yes, Ten Silver Drops was obviously recorded after the world heard Jane's Addiction and Flaming Lips, but its roots lie in the '80s.

Disappointingly, Secret Machines suffers from the same shortcomings that plagued many '80s bands: the songs are well-crafted but they never shine, and the production masks the album's strengths rather than highlighting them. There are good ideas on Ten Silver Drops, but they should've cooked longer before Secret Machines tried to serve them up to the public.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The songs are anthemic but quirky, and the musicianship is strong without being flashy. As a whole, though, Ten Silver Drops is forgettable. On the few occasions where the songwriting is compelling, sub-par production and/or performances strip away all the emotion. The album is short, however, so even with the weaknesses, it still makes for an enjoyable listen.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL?)
The cover, as I've seen it online, is a white-on-green design that is strong and simple. The EPFL version has the same cover art, but it's printed in metallic silver ink over a photo of a tree standing in dense undergrowth. The image is the far-right panel of a five-panel photo of the band standing by a lake in the woods; the back side of the insert is a five-panel photo of the band standing in front of the New York City skyline. It takes courage to devote so much space to two photos, and limit the text to a mere 67 words on the inner tray card. It would've been nice if they'd included the lyrics, but that would have destroyed the aesthetics of the design and the symbolic representation of the band's organic and synthetic alter-egos.

Listen if you like: '80s bands like Simple Minds or The Alarm, and/or indie rock like Flaming Lips or My Morning Jacket.

If it were food, it'd be: a hearty stew that's undercooked, leaving you with a mouthful of tough meat and crunchy potatoes.


Josh Ritter: Hello Starling

Josh Ritter understands things. He understands that we often love the wrong people. He understands the power that places can hold over us. He understands that songs are magical. He understands that stories need to be told.

Ritter knows how to tell a story. The opening line of "Kathleen" ("All the other girls here are stars, you are the Northern Lights") speaks volumes, not only about the subjects of his songs but also of his ability to compose words that make the world seem a little better than it really is. When Ritter sings about Kathleen and her paramours, I can feel the ache in a young man's heart for a girl who will never dream of him the way he dreams of her.

In "Snow Is Gone," Ritter sings, "I'm not sure if I'm singing for the love of it or for the love of you." If any single line summarizes Hello Starling, it is this one. Ritter needs to sing. He will sing about anything. If it seems mundane, he will dig into it until he finds its heart, and then he will sing of its heart. Not all of the lyrics are great, but every single song contains at least one line that deserves to be written on a notebook cover or whispered in deceitful darkness.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The songs are well-written, and each one has its own personality. A few veer dangerously close to blasé '70s folk rock, but Ritter and his band always recover. There are dozens of subtle instrumental touches that offer new discoveries even after repeated listens, but Ritter's words are the light that shines most brightly. He brings knowledge and empathy to each song, and he trusts his listeners. (In fact, he might even trust the listener a bit too much, because I know there's a lot here that I just don't understand. However, I'm looking forward to spending some time with Hello Starling so I can try to figure it out.)

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The designers had the wisdom to devote the vast majority of the package to the words. One panel of the CD jacket is the album cover (a bland treatment of an almost-not-bland photo), one panel is credits, and the other panels offer a simple but effective rendering of Ritter's lyrics.

Listen if you like: Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan. But also listen if you don't like them; I don't particularly care for any of the four, and I really like Josh Ritter's music.

If it were food, it'd be: A sandwich, a pickle, and a cold glass of Coke, eaten at a table in an empty roadside diner after a long day's drive, and served by a waitress whose eyes hold a thousand fascinating stories that she's yearning to share.


Andrew Bird: Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs

A while back, I wrote about the way Mika's Life in Cartoon Motion appeals to both kids and grownups, and that, if he chooses his future path carefully, he might make some monumental records that cross all sorts of age boundaries.

Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs sounds like the endpoint of one of Mika's possible paths. Bird's music is intelligent, sophisticated, adventurous, and relatively fun. But he is kind of like the narrator of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince: he's a little too much like the grownups. Somewhere along the way, he lost the ability to see a sheep through the sides of a crate. Somewhere along the way, Andrew Bird must have grown old.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Bird's lyrics make him sound like either the kind of smart guy who hangs out with other smart guys and talks about smart stuff, or the kind of smart guy who soliloquizes with multisyllabic morphemes in order to prove his prodigious perspicacity. (Uh, yeah. That kind of smart guy.) Not to suggest the lyrics are bad, because most of them are quite good. But, occasionally, I'll be listening to interesting lines about threatening to be a threat or something hitting you like an act of God, when WHAM! I stumble over a word like fratricide or cephalopod. C'mon, Andrew... are you really that desperate to impress us?

The instrumentation is thick and lovely, and Bird doesn't over-reach with the music nearly as often as he does with the words. ...Eggs depends heavily on strings and organs and odd little percussion doo-dads, but it's unquestionably a rock album. Unfortunately, it's a rock album for rather intelligent grown-ups. And last time I checked, the best rock and roll in the world doesn't have age restrictions or educational requirements.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Despite what the music implies, the cover art suggests that Bird might still remember all the grandeur and magic and terror of being a kid. The artwork looks like a bad psychological episode from Dr. Seuss or Saint-Exupéry. It is bright and colorful and delightfully imaginative, yet it has a darkness that is undeniably disturbing. Each song was given its own page in the booklet, with legible lyrics and a unique piece of artwork. It's the kind of package that allows you to sit down while the CD is playing and immerse yourself in the experience of Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs.

Listen if you like: Rufus Wainwright, The Divine Comedy, Morrissey, Antony and the Johnsons, Sting

If it were food, it'd be: birthday cake with too many candles and not enough ice cream.


Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Ballad of the Broken Seas

Isobel Campbell (formerly of Belle & Sebastian) and Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age) are walking a difficult path. The music on this path depends not only on literary narratives about love and loss, but also on richly textured instrumental accompaniment. The best artists in this style -- people like Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen -- create simple music that reveals deeper complexities with each consecutive listen.

Lanegan's baritone is bound to the earth, while Campbell provides the oxygen. Lanegan's vocals in the opener, "Deus Ibi Est," bring to mind the somber storytelling of Cave. Campbell takes the lead on the second song, "Black Mountain," and despite the old indie-rock trick of drowning mediocre vocals in layers of echoing reverb, her warm voice adds melancholy to an already dark track. The next six songs continue in this vein, each an exploration of some lonely or troubling facet of the human condition. None of them are perfect, but they all flirt with greatness.

Sometimes we need contrast to appreciate beauty. On Ballad of the Broken Seas, that contrast comes on tracks 9 and 10. "It's Hard to Kill a Bad Thing" is almost entirely instrumental, and reeks of a bunch of wannabe musicians sitting around a campfire, feeling each other's vibe, man. "Honey Child What Can I Do?" has nothing to do with the rest of the music, and sounds more like The Carpenters than Cash or Cave. (Perhaps coincidentally, these are the only two songs that were written either by or with other songwriters. Not counting, of course, the absolutely stellar rendition of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man.")

Campbell and Lanegan are walking a difficult path with this album. Even if they stumble on a few occasions, they walk the path with grace and dignity.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The musicians understand the music, and they do it justice. "(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?" is a deceptively simple duet that not only portrays two flawed and independent people reaching out to one another, but also demonstrates how perfectly these two imperfect voices fit together. "Revolver" might be the most haunting song on an album of haunting songs. Campbell's lyrics are occasionally perfect, but often fall short; I cannot imagine Cohen or Cave ever singing, "I looked to you and saw my desire, went from the frying pan into the fire," when singing about a man who awaits a permanent escape from the life and love he cannot leave.

Packaging: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
A run-down motel room is the right setting, but these pictures don't capture the spirit of the album. It looks as if photographer Autumn De Wilde had a photo shoot scheduled, and everyone drove around until they found a motel where they could snap some pictures and then go have lunch. There is no despair in these photos. The only one that even begins to succeed in context is the splintered door that sits in the CD tray. The rest of it is completely flat. Oh, and it was a bad decision to leave out the lyrics.

Listen if you like: American Recordings-era Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Leonard Cohen, Jessye Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter

If it were food, it'd be: Two slices of day-old pizza, eaten out of a box that sits on the passenger seat while you drive alone at night on a dark road that leads to the last place you should possibly be going.


Boris: Pink

Boris is heavy. They are really, really heavy. That's a good thing, especially if you like heavy music. Boris is also experimental, and they incorporate lots of droning guitars and screeching feedback into their sound. They're reasonably talented on their instruments, and did I mention that they're heavy?

Unfortunately, they still manage to sound like a bunch of high school wankers sitting in a garage with a baggie of pot and a blacklight.*

It's hard to create experimental music. To do it well, you usually need either an innate and genius-level understanding of music, or the ability to master an instrument and then forget every rule you ever learned. Tuning your guitar down and cranking up the distortion might have been cutting-edge a few decades ago, but it doesn't cut it anymore.

(* Boris has released a whole bunch of albums in the past 15 years, many consisting of just a few very long songs. Pink is supposedly a significantly different album for them, so it's quite possible that they are a superb experimental band who fell short on this release. Or they could just be a bunch of wankers who are superb at giving woodies to record critics and insecure metalheads who feel the need to prove their intelligence and diversity.)

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is a good album if you are a big fan of doom metal, particularly its more ambient aspects. However, once you go outside the relatively narrow scope of that genre, this is mediocre at best. If Godspeed You! Black Emperor made a doom metal record, it would crush Boris under their own fuzzy limitations.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Kudos to the band for embracing the most un-metal of colors. The cover art features one of Blake's watercolor depictions of Milton's Paradise Lost, filtered in a cheery pink. The font color for the inner text is aesthetically nice, but it makes the words virtually impossible to read.

Listen if you like: Sunn 0))), but find Altar (which was recorded with Boris) too difficult; Black Sabbath, but find their early songwriting to be too mainstream; Tia Carrera, but find their Hendrix-inspired sound a bit commonplace.

If it were food, it'd be: ground hamburger being passed off as filet mignon.


Tres Chicas: Sweetwater

On Sweetwater, it's all about the singing. The voices of Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary, and Tonya Lamm meld beautifully, forming a rich whole that never loses the essence of each individual singer. Whether they're having fun (as they obviously are on Loretta Lynn's "Deep as Your Pocket") or singing of a broken heart (pretty much everything on the album), their voices collide and bring the music to life. Each woman's voice possesses a different character, and their respective imperfections complement each other perfectly.

The fact that the harmonies are built upon creative, poetic, and occasionally clever words makes Sweetwater even better. The descriptions of loneliness and aging that fill the album are often touching and insightful ("You bring the bar home in the smell of your hair / It wilts the flowers that girlhood put there"), and the wordplay in "Desire" is a highlight in the already bright landscape.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The instrumentation and arrangements are solid, but there's nothing particularly notable about them. The pacing and tempos become somewhat repetitive by the end of the album, and the songs written by Blakey, Cary, and Lamm are all very similar. Thankfully, the voices of the three women (and the production skills of Chris Stamey) breathe life into what would be a lackluster recording in the hands of many alt-country artists.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Like the music, the package isn't particularly special, but the whole thing is solid and the strong points stand out. The cover image, apparently a mid-'60s photo of the Gospel Light Ladies Trio, sets the tone for the album in an accurate and lighthearted way. The notes on the back of the cover give a great introduction to the band and the music; the act of including a short commentary about the music has been mostly lost for the past few decades, and it's refreshing to see a group -- particularly one that is largely unknown -- include this descriptive blurb.

Listen if you like: Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Wilco, Tanya Donelly's more recent albums

If it were food, it'd be: a mild but tasty chili


Sparklehorse: Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain

It's obvious that Sparklehorse has a deep admiration for The Beatles. What Sparklehorse doesn't show on Dreamt... is an understanding of the spirit that made The Beatles a great band.

At their best, The Beatles swallowed everything under the musical sun and spit out an eclectic batch of songs that demolished then rebuilt the boundaries of rock. At Mark Linkous' best (Linkous is the heart and soul of Sparklehorse), he writes songs with pretty chord progressions and emotional vocals. It's very good background music that does absolutely nothing to even question the boundaries of rock music, let alone redefine them.

This is an album that I wouldn't mind owning. I'd keep it on my shelf, and I'd happily listen to it if someone else asked, but I would never play it on my own. There's nothing wrong with Dreamt..., but there's nothing particularly right about it, either.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Different songs have struck me at different times, depending on my mood and the time of day. Whenever I went back to listen to a song more closely, however, I was always disappointed. The problem isn't that the songs are subtle; the biggest flaw is that they're just kind of boring.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The artwork is interesting, but they skimped on the jacket. While it's easy enough to understand the words, the lyrics seem to be an integral part and should've been included. Also, a few more pages of artwork wouldn't have hurt.

Listen if you like: Dreamt... makes so little of an impact on me, that I'm not certain what bands to compare it to. Maybe other acclaimed bands who I'm supposed to love but leave me cold, like Gomez and Grandaddy?

If it were food, it'd be: A salad with iceberg lettuce and grape tomatoes. A tender piece of tasteless meat. Jarred spaghetti sauce. It's all good, but none of it is memorable or worth going out of your way for.


Fela Kuti: The Best Best of Fela Kuti

If you love music and haven't heard Fela Kuti, you should check this out.

Fela Kuti wasn't a rock musician, but his music rocks. It is passionate and exciting, and like the greatest rock music, it feels like it could lose control and explode at any moment. His music is both chaotic and controlled, and there is always fire simmering just beneath the surface. He was a very influential man in both rock and jazz, and although his name isn't widely known, his presence can be felt in virtually every style of popular music.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This isn't necessarily a 4-star collection, but it's tough to make a "best of" for an artist like Kuti. Seminal Fela tracks like "Lady," "Zombie," and "Coffin for Head of State" are included. More than half of the songs on this two-disc set have been edited, but since this is presumably an introduction, that was a reasonable decision and each edit maintains the essence of the original song. My only complaint is that one or two of the (relatively speaking) less exciting tracks could've been sacrificed to make room for something from Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa '70 with Ginger Baker - Live!, a stellar live album featuring the drummer from Cream.

Packaging: n/a (Damaged)
It's a shame that the booklet is missing most of its pages, because it looks like it offered a good overview of Fela Kuti and each of the songs. There's enough text in the EPFL copy, though, to give an idea of the demons and desires that drove this man, both musically and politically.

Listen if you like: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Sun Ra, Bad Brains, Bob Marley, Talking Heads, Public Enemy, The Clash, Billy Bragg, Ornette Coleman, The Good The Bad & The Queen, James Brown, etc.

If it were food, it'd be: Some imaginary food that combines efo (a Nigerian stew made from leafy green vegetables) with fried chicken and hamburger and good lager and hot peppers and fresh corn and potatoes and about a thousand other ingredients from all over the world, and somehow it all tastes delicious and when you're done eating, you're a little bit smarter and a little bit tougher and a little bit sexier and a little bit closer to starting a revolution that will tear down injustice and replace it with truth.


Brandi Carlile: Brandi Carlile

It's obvious that Brandi Carlile loves the wonderful, magical beast that is rock and roll. She's not just a performer, she sounds like a fan who's done her time with Led Zeppelin and Elton John and Heart and Jeff Buckley.

It's disappointing, then, that Carlile doesn't take any of the risks that rock's greatest artists took. Zeppelin started as a blues-rock band, then broke every rule in the blues-rock book. Elton took his exceptional songwriting and extravagant personality and created something magnificent. Heart had the courage and conviction to rock in an unprecedented way. Jeff Buckley found the spirit of Zeppelin and remade it in his own unique image.

Carlile and her talented bandmates, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, do none of that. This album isn't Zeppelin and Elton and Heart and Buckley, it's Great White and Five For Fighting and 4 Non Blondes and Blind Melon. And that is a shame, because Carlile and Co. might have some great rock inside of them, if they'd just be brave enough to let it out.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Everything about Carlile's songs and performances is good, but nothing is great. She doesn't tap into any of the magic, wildness, or passion of the bands who paved the road upon which she walks. She doesn't push any boundaries or break down any walls. Nothing on this album reaches out and says, "I am Brandi Carlile, dammit, and I am going to blow your mind." And after hearing her music, I really want her to reach out and blow my mind. I think she can do it, and I hope someday she decides to try.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is a poor representation of the music inside. It makes Carlile look as if she's peers with Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne. Otherwise, the package is very good. The lyrics are included, which is a nice thing in this case. The photos are all very flattering to Carlile, but the only picture that captures the essence of the music is the live shot on the back of the jacket. The paper stock is a pleasure to hold, even if the muted colors are bland and uninspired.

Listen if you like: Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Heart, and Jeff Buckley, as long as you're open to an artist who isn't as great as they are.

If it were food, it'd be: Taco Bell. It's good, it's cheap, it's quick, and it's mighty enjoyable. But if you want the real thing, this just doesn't cut it.


The Almost: Southern Weather

Aaron Gillespie is an emo Renaissance man. He's best known as the drummer for Christian screamo superstars Underoath, but he has a decent voice and can play pretty much any instrument that falls within the realm of this almost played-out genre.

Southern Weather is very good third-generation emo. It lacks the anguished screams of Underoath, which is a welcome relief. The songs are strong, but mostly don't stand out as being better -- or different -- than the music from most of Gillespie's peers.

But Gillespie has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. On "Dirty and Left Out," Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate) contributes backing vocals that add heart to Gillespie's devotion, and the pedal steel brings in a traditional country flavor that helps the song transcend emo's very limited boundaries. "Amazing, Because It Is" begins with a somewhat faceless acoustic shell, but it builds into a crescendo of music and voice -- based around "Amazing Grace" -- that reaches far beyond the constraints of what Gillespie normally creates.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Pretty much every track, particularly "Everyone Here Smells Like a Rat," could be a minor emo hit. Few of the songs have the potential to reach a broader audience, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Dirty and Left Out" and "Amazing, Because It Is" prove Gillespie has a broad musical vision. He might make some incredible music in the coming years, particularly if he chooses to stretch his musical wings.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Parker Young's photos convey a mood reasonably well, although they border on generic images of Christianity mixed with generic images of loneliness. It's nice that the lyrics are here, but Southern Weather's words aren't so amazing that they needed to be reprinted. The design is clean, and everything -- even the extremely cluttered credits page -- is easy to read.

Listen if you like: Taking Back Sunday, Sunny Day Real Estate, Underoath, the song "Amazing Grace" (Bob did an interesting post a few years ago, where he compared several versions of the song).

If it were food, it'd be: The cup of cheap, black coffee that helps you recover from an anxious Saturday night, but leaves you feeling a little restless during church on Sunday morning.


Snow Patrol: Eyes Open

Based on the few Snow Patrol songs I've heard, I expected a low-key album layered in muted shades of melancholy. What I got was mainstream rock with rhymes that were predictable and songwriting that was almost -- but not quite -- exciting.

"You're All I Have" (and an unfortunate number of the other songs here) sounds like the Gin Blossoms with a singer from the U.K. "Shut Your Eyes" and "Make This Go On Forever" bring to mind every ill-fated band who was neither talented nor sappy enough to pull off an anthemic, chart-topping power ballad. "You Could Be Happy" should be titled "You Could Be Coldplay."

Not to say everything on Eyes Open is calculated and dull. The single, "Chasing Cars," deserved all the mainstream attention it received. The duet with Martha Wainwright on "Set the Fire to the Third Bar" slowly crescendos into a captivating tension, despite lyrics that leave me wondering what happened to the Second Bar, and an ending that just, well, ends. One of the more boring songs, "Headlights on Dark Roads," opens with what might be the strongest words on the album: "For once I want to be the car crash, not always just the traffic jam."

It seems Snow Patrol is trying to create a musical metaphor for paying attention to our lives as we travel through our personal adventures. We need to open our eyes and see the beauty that surrounds us on our journey. We must continue to move and to grow, without sacrificing the treasures that have already blessed us. It's a great message; I just wish they'd found a more interesting way to say it.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
As a whole, the music is a variation on the same old arena rock formula that bands and record labels have been shoving down our throats for decades. The lyrics are pedestrian, and rely on simplistic and unnecessary moon/June/spoon rhyme schemes. The slow songs are the only places where Snow Patrol shines, but even that brightness is inconsistent.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is pretty good, but the rest of the package is dull. Although it's obvious that the designers are skilled, the digital imagery is one step above the homemade Photoshop art that graced a zillion CD jackets throughout the 90s. The typeface on the back cover was overused by 1994, but then again, so was most of the music here.

Listen if you like: Gin Blossoms, Goo Goo Dolls, Foo Fighters, Train

If it were food, it'd be: canned corn with lots of margarine.


Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady

Until checking out Singles Going Steady from the EPFL, I'd never knowingly heard The Buzzcocks. Now, punk isn't really my thing, but still... I'm pretty embarrassed by this omission. It's like saying I've never heard Janis Joplin or LL Cool J or Soundgarden. You rock snobs out there know what I'm talking about; our smug personae are built upon the arrogant belief that we know more about rock than, well, anyone. Facing the fact that I've never heard one of the fundamental building blocks of punk rock forces me to accept that all of my self-righteous rants about music are nothing more than compensation for a very, very small record collection. It's so small, I probably couldn't even get a girl from the record store in the Towson Town Center to go out with me. We're talking tiny.

Anyway. This isn't about me, this is about The Buzzcocks.

On first listen, I was simultaneously blown away and disappointed. Let's deal with the disappointment first. This is simple pop-punk, before such a thing as pop-punk existed. It's snotty and fun and a little pissed off, kind of like The Ramones were. That's fine, but so what? How much snotty punk music does the world really need? Yeah, you're white and middle class and smart and gosh durnit, it's just not fair. Blah blah blah, whine whine whine, whatever. You're not the first person to discover sex or think your parents are kind of lame, so just shut up already and do something with all that money and intelligence and pearly skin with which you were cursed.

But I kept listening, because I wasn't only disappointed, I was also blown away. These songs are phenomenal. Pete Shelley either learned about music composition somewhere in his pre-Buzzcocks days, or he's got an innate talent and a gifted ear. When you skim away the snotty punk attitude and the unrefined surface, these songs are compositionally closer to The Beatles or The Beach Boys than they are to The Ramones. No, there's nothing like "Tomorrow Never Knows" or "Good Vibrations" on Singles Going Steady, but every single song has an enormous pop sensibility. Really, there's not a bad track on the album, and the best songs are as good as (or better than) any punk song ever written.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
As much as I love ripping apart sub-par rock albums that are considered to be great, Singles Going Steady lives up to its reputation. Every track is good, if not great, and everything here stands up against anything that's come out in the subsequent three decades of punk. What's kind of neat about this album is that it wasn't recorded as an album; it's a collection of singles released between 1977 and 1979. Songs 1-8 are the A-sides, and 9-16 are the respective B-sides.

Packaging: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Don't even bother looking at it, because there's nothing worthwhile other than the track listing and the dates the original singles were released.

Listen if you like: Any punk band that's recorded an album in the past 30 years. But also listen if you like well-written songs with a fair share of attitude, because if you get past the angst, the music is on par with some of the greatest pop/rock ever written.

If it were food, it'd be: Fresh lemonade. Sour, sweet, delicious, and refreshing... all at the same time.


Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream & Other Delights Re-Whipped

I can't imagine defending Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream & Other Delights as being anything more than, well, whipped cream. The original album from 1965 is light, Latin-jazz that was accessible in a world of bizarre artists who were pushing every musical boundary they could find. It sold a zillion copies, and the album cover has to be one of the most famous in the history of recorded music. It was safe music for a chaotic time.

As Whipped Cream & Other Delights Re-Whipped proves, it's tough to make a good remix album when the source material is full of empty calories and sugary-sweet safety. There's nothing with any substance here. This is dessert without a meal, and it's not even a good dessert.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Mocean Worker's version of "Bittersweet Samba" is probably the best track on the disc, but that's not saying much. Ozomatli, Medeski Martin & Wood, and Thievery Corporation are the only artists who bring their unique sounds to the remixes, on "Love Potion #9," "El Garbanzo," and "Lemon Tree," respectively. DJ Foosh's take on "Tangerine" isn't awful (but it's certainly not good), John King's nifty production tricks on "A Taste of Honey" can't save it from being dull, and with the exception of "Butterball," executive producer Anthony Marinelli's multiple mixes aspire to mediocrity.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The photo is sexy, but it doesn't capture the vibe of the original. It's a cute update on a classic image, but the inside photo would've made a much better cover. The woman's body wrapping around the spine to the back cover is a nice design touch.

Listen if you like: Generic chill-out/lounge compilations.

If it were food, it'd be: Reddi Wip. It wants to be whipped cream, but it's a paltry imitation of the real thing.


The Cardigans: Super Extra Gravity

No matter how hard The Cardigans try to escape the sugar-coated pop of their 1996 breakthrough, First Band on the Moon, they can't get away from it. If Super Extra Gravity proves anything, it proves that The Cardigans are a very good pop band, even when they try not to be.

The songs on Super Extra Gravity are cloaked in disappointed words, melancholy melodies, and downtrodden chord progressions. They reek of loss and disappointment, not just physically and romantically, but also spiritually. Despite all this darkness, though, each song is a splendid example of The Cardigans' super extra poppiness.

Interestingly, when the band embraces their skills as pop musicians, they churn out their weakest tracks. "Godspell" is catchy, but the lyrics are predictable and the guitar solo serves no purpose. The undeveloped "Holy Love" launches directly into an awkward hook that never settles in with the rest of the song. "I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to be Nicer" is the standout single on the album, but the lyrics fall just a bit short of successful.

But these three are the exceptions. "Little Black Cloud" is the best Pretenders song that never was. "Overload" possesses a yearning sweetness that is both sad and lovely. The upbeat "Good Morning Joan" is a fairly standard rock song that the band pulls off incredibly well. They saved the best for last, though: "And Then You Kissed Me II" is the musical antithesis of the band's breakthrough 1996 hit, "Lovefool," but its quiet pain is one of the Cardigans' greatest recorded moments.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The lyrics are decent, the arrangements are captivating, and the performances are excellent. Nina Persson's voice is as inviting as it has ever been, and it maintains the thin reediness that makes her singing so compelling. (Imagine the confident power of Chrissie Hynde combined with the girlishness of Cyndi Lauper.) While these songs don't coherently fit together the way 1998's Gran Turismo did, the ones that work contain a warmth and a quality that is unprecedented for The Cardigans.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The photos are contrived, and the subtle use of color doesn't convey anything special. The occasional black and white photo or plain white panel seem like an afterthought. The font makes the lyrics difficult to read. The cover photo expresses the tone of the music reasonably well, but the corresponding typeface is out of place. The photo on the back of the jacket is probably the best one in the package; it's still contrived, but there's a story in the woman's expression.

Listen if you like: Rilo Kiley / Jenny Lewis, The Pretenders, The Cardigans' Gran Turismo

If it were food, it'd be: The glass of cheap red wine that ended in divorce.


Herbert: Scale

If I didn't know about the brilliant madness behind Scale prior to hearing it, I would dismiss it as nothing more than run-of-the-mill R&B. And that might be Matthew Herbert's biggest failure with this album: it's a stroke of genius that comes across as a stroke of mediocrity.

Apparently, this album was recorded using 723 different samples. Drums were recorded underwater and in a hot air balloon, background noises were comprised of nearly 200 telephone messages, and one poor guy's barftastic expression outside of a London bar has been immortalized in the hallowed halls of house music. It's very cool stuff. As for the music: the vocals are smooth and sweet, the melodies ride on flowing chord progressions, the beats are subtle yet dancable, the arrangements are impeccably rich and full... and the whole thing is completely forgettable.

The problem is that Scale is all brains and no heart. As much as I admire Herbert's ambition, there are very few moments on the album where I feel anything. The political songs have all the anger of a love song by Chicago, and the love songs have all the heart of Chicago's political repertoire.

There are a few bright spots, though. The low-end melody on "Birds of a Feather" supports a pretty but unsettling vocal melody, and the entire track builds to a quiet climax that leaves me wanting more. "Just Once" is one of the few songs where the experimental nature of Scale shines through, and its marriage of non-traditional sounds to simple, catchy melodies makes it the most interesting song on the album.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I wonder if the critics who gave glowing reviews to Scale would have done so if they hadn't known about Herbert's methods. Whether the end result is pop or abstract, experimental music should be able to stand on its own, without a piece of paper to tell the listener why it's good. Most of Herbert's tracks sound like outtakes and b-sides from the heyday of West End or Casablanca, tracks that Larry Levan might have passed over in lieu of Billy Nichols' "Give Your Body Up to the Music" or Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait." Scale lacks the sexy funk of early Prince, and even with Herbert's stellar arrangements, it lacks the romance of even the cheesiest tune from Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra.

Packaging: n/a (Missing)
The librarians at the EPFL were kind enough to photocopy the front and back covers, but there's no original artwork here. I imagine the booklet would be an invaluable companion, but I've never seen it so I don't know. The design on the actual disc looks neat but is virtually impossible to read, making it a perfect companion to the music: a neat idea that is more form than function.

Listen if you like: Early 80s R&B, Parade-era Prince, Larry Levan, experimental music in all of its many shapes.

If it were food, it'd be: A miraculous, organic, high-fiber, low-fat, fruit-filled, well-balanced, inexpensive new food that looks and tastes exactly like Wonder bread.


Tim Hecker: Harmony in Ultraviolet

I was driving along Washington Blvd. in West Baltimore at dusk when I first listened to Harmony in Ultraviolet. The pulse of the bass in "Dungeoneering" was perfectly synchronized with the flashing blue light of the police camera that watched over the drug dealers who worked the corners. The rose-tinted light of the setting sun shone on two hookers waiting for a passing car to stop and pick them up. It was a Moment, and no other music could have possibly fit as well as this did.

This isn't easy music. It's entirely instrumental, and it's a combination of electronic and organic sounds that come from both traditional instruments and found noisemakers. Hecker has an obvious appreciation for both pop song structures and classical theory. His arrangements are simple on the surface, but contain layers of complex harmonies, dissonant instrumentation, and subliminal rhythms. He creates an aural wall that is simultaneously impenetrable and inviting. For lack of a better comparison, Hecker's music is like finding the perfect featherbed tucked behind a maze of razor wire.

This is one of the best CDs I've heard from the consistently strong record label Kranky. They should be credited for supporting Hecker's vision, the EPFL should be credited for including this in their catalog, and most of all, Hecker should be credited for having the spark that led to Harmony in Ultraviolet's creation.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's not music that most people will want to listen to everyday (if ever). But if you invite it in, it will wrap you in sound and create a surprising accompaniment to the most mundane events. Try it in the car, try it at home late at night, try it during dinner or sex, and try it in headphones while you're working. You can let it fade into the background if necessary, but there are adventures to be taken if you care to pay attention.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The cover photo and the photos on the back are striking, but the original package was destroyed to fit into a jewel box. There is no booklet included with the EPFL version, but if there was one in the original release, I'd love to see it. It looks like it would offer an interesting glimpse into Hecker's mindset. Of course, sometimes with music like this, it's much better to leave the artist's vision behind and immerse yourself in your own mindset.

Listen if you like: artists on Kranky or Pehr records, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Brian Eno. Skinny Puppy fans who like the grating depths of albums like Ain't It Dead Yet but aren't addicted to the industrial rhythms might be drawn to Hecker's music.

If it were food, it'd be: a bowl of rice for a monk who is trapped in the heart of a city.


The New Cars: It's Alive!

I'm certain that former Cars members Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr, and David Robinson were spinning in their graves when they first heard this pseudo-reunion band. The fact that Ocasek and Robinson aren't even dead yet is a testament to how awful this album is -- and how intelligent they were for avoiding this stinker as if it were the rear end of a '74 Pinto.

It's Alive! is so bad that I'm not sure which aspect of awfulness to focus on. Should I look at Todd Rundgren's pitiful attempt to recreate the vocals of Ocasek and Orr? (He kinda sorta not-really pulls it off, except on "Drive, where he -- or maybe bassist Kasim Sulton -- sounds like an unshaven female impersonator.) Or do I look at Elliott Easton's shreddertastic guitar solos that reek of an insecure man who spent years standing in Ocasek's shadow? How about their need to record a "live" album at a private soundstage outside Los Angeles instead of on the road? Or maybe the generic 12-bar-blues of the newly composed "Not Tonight," with awe-inspiring lyrics like "So put me in your Blackberry / and I'll take your email."

So what's good about It's Alive!? Well, the only obvious thing is that it's very easy to spot which Cars songs (almost all of which were written by the absent Ocasek) haven't stood the test of time. "Candy-O," "You're All I've Got Tonight," and "Dangerous Type" are all songs that I remember liking, but they're relatively weak and their cracks really show in this context.

Music: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
A more apt title would've been It's A Steaming Pile of Crap! The New Cars can't ruin pop gems like "Moving In Stereo" and "My Best Friend's Girl," but they have all the heart and soul of a cover band at a sports bar in Hagerstown. If you want to hear these songs, pick up one of the greatest hits collections from The Cars. I still feel cheated for the hour of my life The New Cars stole from me.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Completely generic, but competent. This is probably the edgiest thing that dodgy-jazz album cover designer Kurt Sievert has ever done.

Listen if you like: masochism; living in the past; attending high school reunions so you can mock people who live in the past.

If it were food, it'd be: those rotten leftovers in the back of your fridge that you brought home last year and then forgot about.


Blackalicious: Nia

Blackalicious makes me believe that musicians can make a difference in the world around them. If, by some bizarre and improbable chain of events, their music became ingrained in the psyche of Baltimore, this city would be better. More people would think about who they are and what they do, and would demand excellence of their children, their schools, their leaders, their neighbors, and themselves. Fewer people would get caught up in the small-minded violence that's resulted in a skyrocketing homicide rate and a generation of kids who believe guns are legitimate tools of negotiation.

With all that said, I'm a wee bit disappointed by Nia. That's probably not fair, because 2005's The Craft is one of my favorite albums of the past few years. Most artists get better with time, and I shouldn't expect Blackalicious to have had a fully formed vision on their 2000 debut, even if it was released after nearly a decade of 12" singles.

But I'm still disappointed.

There are some really good songs on Nia. "Cliff Hanger" sounds like a musical version of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, and suggests that maybe DJ Shadow and The Gift of Gab should've done those soundtracks instead of RZA. The various interpretations on "Nia" that are scattered throughout the album help to cement a theme while dabbling in different musical textures. "Shallow Days" and "As the World Turns" reflect a reliance on strength and spirituality that is desperately necessary as we begin the third decade of NWA-inspired thug-kill-thug idiocy. "Sleep" is a nice way to wind down into a mellow frame of mind, and it would have been an excellent way to close the album -- although "Finding" does work better as a closer, given the musical scope of the entire project.

The strong points are offset by songs that are almost -- but not quite -- special. "A to G" is fun, but it feels like the musical equivalent of a project that an art professor would assign to a freshman color theory class. "Dream Seasons" and "Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme" both have great grooves, but they fade into ambient background noise. Songs like these, songs that just miss the mark, are the rule on Nia, not the exception. (On a personal note, it's nice that they included Nikki Giovanni's "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)," because their interpretation is interesting and it will introduce her work to a new audience. But Giovanni irritates me. I heard her speak many years ago, and she came across as an arrogant pseudo-intellectual with poorly formed ideas who talked down to her audience. I don't do well with self-important elitists who feel the need to prove their superiority in front of 20 people at a bookstore in Jersey. Who knows... maybe she's come down from her ivory tower since then.)

Nia's baseline is set early, and the music never falls below that mark. It's consistent, and it's consistently good. It's just not as exciting or cohesive as what they would do a few years later.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
If I hadn't heard The Craft first, I'd probably love this album. The production is strong, the words are creative, the messages are meaningful, and the music is soulful. Nia is a very good album, but it's a bit too self-conscious and contrived to reach greatness.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The artwork is striking. I love the studio shots, and the collage and color effects work well. I only wish they'd included lyrics.

Listen if you like: Jurassic 5, A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Shadow, Wu-Tang Clan, The Coup, Nikki Giovanni

If it were food, it'd be: I'm still waiting for that Blackalicious Burger at Soul Vegetarian.