Afro Celt Sound System: Pod

Some artists make music that people can dance to, while others make "dance music." ACSS is the former, but with the remix album Pod, they try their hand at the latter. In places, they almost succeed: "Rise Above" taps into some classic traditions of house music, the beginning of "Persistence of Memory" nods at techno giants like The Orb and Underworld, "Riding the Skies" establishes a reasonably authentic drum and bass feel, and the Bipolar remix of "Release" would easily fit on an 18th Street Lounge compilation.

So why does it fail when so many ingredients are present?

First and foremost, these remixes never channel the strongest elements of great dance music. We never feel the passion of Kerri Chandler's gospel-inspired house sets, we never bask in Carl Cox's gaptoothed smile at 8:00 in the morning, and we never share the love that spun out of Larry Levan's speakers at the Paradise Garage.

Second, these songs don't gel into a complete unit. The greatest dance compilations tell you where they are going to take you, then they take you there. The DJ may throw in some unexpected twists and provide some downtime along the way, but he never strays from his established course. This album is so busy trying to be everything to every style of electronic dance music that it never reaches a final destination.

Third, the producers strip away the unique elements of ACSS rather than building upon them. The single exception is the album's strongest track, "Whirly 3." From the moment the song starts, everything comes together in a way that is both exciting and extremely danceable. Ironically, this is the only track that I can't directly trace to some existing form of dance music; it doesn't try to be house or trance or ambient or anything other than Afro Celt Sound System, and that is why it succeeds.

Why does Pod fail when so many ingredients are present? Because producers Simon Emmerson, James McNally, and Mass forgot to include the most important ingredients of all: fun, passion, and a love for great dance music.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'm judging the producers who used pre-existing recordings as their instruments (as opposed to the musicians who recorded the original songs), and they're lucky to get a 1.5. This is the kind of crap that comes from people who listen to great music but don't understand why it's great. The lyrics have the going-through-the-motions positivity that marks so much third-rate dance music. Everything here has been done a thousand times before.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The cover has an interesting image of (I assume) sleeper pods on a Japanese train. The design steals largely from other sources, particularly the early Global Underground releases. Their moronic inclusion of the word "phat" in the thank-yous simply proves how "unphat" this album is.

Listen if you like: Remixes of people like Jewel, Dido, or Sarah McLachlan.

If it were food, it'd be: Wheat Thins - They're not bad, but there's just not much to them.


Robert Randolph and the Family Band: Unclassified

I was in a bad mood when I started listening, so I was prepared to rip into this one. I maintained my cynicism through the first song, but I appreciated both the guitar playing and the positivity of the lyrics. (Although Randolph directs much of his energy toward praising God, the words rarely spell that out, which is a good thing in my eyes.) However, as soon as "I Need More Love" kicked in with that coffee-pot bass tone and some subtle guitar riffs, a huge smile broke out on my face. Since I was sitting at a big wooden table in the Social Sciences room of the Pratt Central Library, I probably looked a little bit crazy.

The lyrics of "I Need More Love" are short, but they tap into a lot of things that are relevant to living in Baltimore: A financial and spiritual poverty that devastates our neighborhoods, perceptions of racism that hang over all our residents, a perpetual tension that plagues many of us, and a dearth of love that is literally killing us. When he sings, "And help me get my mind right," I know what he's saying. Sometimes I think every single one of us in this city needs some serious help getting our minds right.

The rest of the album delivers on the promises of the first couple songs. No, it's not consistent from front to back ("Soul Refreshing" and "Problems" are weak throwbacks to the washed-out gospel-funk of the late '80s and early '90s), but it's a good listen. The steel guitar in "Smile" helps pull the song out of the doldrums of generic positivity, and the musicianship throughout the album -- particularly Randolph's guitar work -- is excellent.

Unclassified isn't breaking any new ground, but sometimes that's okay. Sometimes we just need to listen to music that makes us feel good for a little while.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Consistently strong playing from the whole band from start to finish, but the slower songs fail to achieve the emotion that is necessary to make slow songs work.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's average all the way around. Nothing to condemn and nothing to celebrate.

Listen if you like: Sly & the Family Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, gospel from the 1990s.

If it were food, it'd be: Chicken soup.


Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around

It's tough to review anything by Johnny Cash. Do you review the music or the myth? Do you hold it to the standard of his best religious work or his best murderous work? Do you judge the songs written by rock legends the same way as you judge the songs written by Cash?

Producer Rick Rubin probably understood the mystique of Johnny Cash better than anyone else. Like Cash, Rubin is legendary for being a musical badass, and that makes it even harder to objectively critique the music these two men created together.

The Man Comes Around contains some of the most inspired work of Cash's career. And it, uh, has some other stuff that probably doesn't even deserve to be called "less inspired." Which, again, brings up the question of how to rate a Johnny Cash album?

Does his chilling performance of "Hurt" make up for the comparatively bland "Bridge Over Troubled Water?" Do the self-penned "The Man Comes Around" and "Tear Stained Letter" (both of which can stand with his best work) make up for the lyrical clichés of Sting's "I Hung My Head?" Does his heartbreaking delivery on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" make up for the flaccid renditions of "In My Life" and "Desperado?" Do Nick Cave's striking backups on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" make up for Fiona Apple's bizarre harmonies on "Bridge Over Troubled Water?" What is a listener to do with "Sam Hall," which sounds like it could've come straight from the Folsom or San Quentin sessions, or "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," which hints of a man who knows his time with his beloved wife is drawing to a close?

With these kinds of contradictions, what is a listener to do? It's simple, really: just listen.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There's nothing on The Man Comes Around that shouldn't be heard. There's a lot of filler, but there are some extremely strong moments, too. The strongest of those -- "Hurt" -- defines both the music and the myth of Johnny Cash as well as anything he ever recorded.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The design is stark, the photos are beautiful, and Cash's liner notes give insight into the man's mindset during these sessions.

Listen if you like: music.

If it were food, it'd be: Thanksgiving dinner. You may not like every part of the meal, and somebody obviously cooked the corn way too long, but the turkey is perfect and the sweet potatoes melt in your mouth. Best of all, Uncle John is sitting at the head of the table and telling some of the best stories you'll ever hear.


Jimmy Eat World: Futures

Some bands have big feet. They leave footprints in the rock world that other bands must follow. The Beatles are the most obvious example, but there are hundreds of others. It has nothing to do with popularity or money or how cute the singer is; it's all about the shoe size.

I really like Jimmy Eat World, but they don't have big feet.

Futures isn't really any different than any other Jimmy Eat World album. They alternate joyous celebrations of life with navel-gazing songs about being lost and alone, and they do it in a way that makes you want to tap your foot and sing along. With the possible (and ironic) exception of "Nothingwrong," there's nothing wrong with these songs. Unfortunately, they don't inspire me the way the band's last few CDs did.

"Drugs Or Me" walks a fine line between heartfelt sentiment and melodramatic cheese. The arpeggiated chords and whimpering vocals come dangerously close to some horrible anti-drug tragedy from the mid-1990s. The demo of "Drugs or Me" (the version of Futures at the EPFL contains a second disc with demo recordings) has a more haunting production and arrangement, and it's one of the few demos that sounds better than the final product.

The only time the band stretches out and gives a song room to breathe is on the closer, "23." At times, it is reminiscent of both U2 and The Cure, but in a way that makes me want to listen to more Jimmy Eat World instead of taking out the CD and putting in something else.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Everyone can play their instruments, and nobody lets their ego overshadow the strength of subtlety. The songs are good, and if they weren't following Bleed American and Clarity, I'd probably be heaping praise upon them. The lyrics sometimes work, but are often just words.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL?)
The version I checked out doesn't have the phone booth on the cover, which is a shame because that's a good image. This design isn't terrible, but it's not special. In the liner notes for the demos, they kindly wrote a bit about each song, how it evolved, and how it's different than the final version.

Listen if you like: Jimmy Eat World, because it's not much different than what you've already heard. Also, Sunny Day Real Estate, Foo Fighters, emo without the screamo.

If it were food, it'd be: Beans and rice. It tastes good and you can live on it for a long time, but after a while it just doesn't inspire you anymore.


My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade

A few years ago, I decided that MCR was to the '00s what Mötley Crüe was to the '80s. After listening to The Black Parade, I think I sold them short.

There's nothing wrong with Mötley Crüe, mind you. Shout at the Devil is one of the few L.A. metal albums I still like, but their subsequent descent into overtly commercial pop metal bored me. MCR, however, made no such descent. With the help of producer Rob Cavallo, they added a healthy dose of German cabaret and Broadway showtunes to their self-loathing goth/emo persona. It's the same kind of reinvention that The Killers tried with Sam's Town, but MCR struck much closer to their target.

With lyrics that expand on the limitations of Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and guitars that owe more than a nod to Queen's Brian May, "The End" is a strong opener that sets the tone for the entire album. The intensity of the first few tracks peaks on "Welcome to the Black Parade," which is arguably the best song of the band's career. There's a slump in the middle of the album, but it picks up with "Mama" and doesn't stop until the last notes of the cathartic closer, "Famous Last Words." As for weak tracks, "I Don't Love You" and "Cancer" both sound contrived, and "Teenagers" smells of a conniving attempt to score an us-versus-them anthem for disaffected... uh... teenagers.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Not everyone will like The Black Parade, but it's excellent for its genre. At times the lyrics are interesting, but the generic angst masks whatever concept is supposed to lurk within this 'concept album.' The band chose well when selecting Cavallo as producer, and he helps their experimental side shine without overshadowing their core sound.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL?)
This cover appears to be different than the real cover, which is a shame because this is phenomenal. The artwork is how I imagine The Wall would've looked had it been designed by Tim Burton. It's one of the best rock packages I've seen in a long time.

Listen if you like: The Used, Hawthorne Heights, Mötley Crüe. If you're a fan of Queen or Pink Floyd, and you actually care about new music, give it a shot but don't hold it to unreasonably high standards.

If it were food, it'd be: A 13-course meal with one common ingredient. Kind of like the Emo Chef or something.


The Cars: Panorama

Listening to this reminds me of watching the clock during the last 10 minutes of a boring high school English class on a bright spring day. Tick... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... Tock ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... Tick ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

I needed a break after struggling through the first five songs. I ejected Panorama from the car stereo, and The Pretenders were playing on WTMD. It was a breath of fresh air. Chrissie Hynde's voice was rich, the production was clear, and the song was a pleasure to my ears. In other words, it was everything that Panorama is not.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
If The Cars were trying to capture what was wrong with new wave, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Don't bother with this unless you're a fan of boring music, insipid lyrics, bad production, and a complete absence of hooks.

Packaging: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover art is okay, but they completely chintzed out on everything else.

Listen if you like: The unfocused stumblings of decent bands.

If it were food, it'd be: Something I'd never, ever eat again, like boiled steak or microwaved oranges.


Jamie Cullum: Catching Tales

I'm coming into this one with mixed expectations. Some friends said he was incredible live, but he seems like the kind of overhyped young artist who is worth ignoring.

The light jazz of the opening track, "Get Your Way," makes me nervous, but I have to admit that it's kind of catchy. If I'd known that Allen Toussaint and Dan The Automator were both playing on this song, however, my expectations would have been much higher -- and the song wouldn't have met them.

The second track, "London Skies," sets the tone for much of the album. His voice carries a raw waver that suggests he's not afraid to let an imperfect vocal performance shine, a rare and courageous move for a young singer. Unfortunately, the chorus devolves into the kind of generic pop that lends itself to supermarket play lists.

We don't hit a true ballad until Track 8, "I'm Glad There Is You." His delivery and the arrangement remind me of Annie Ross, but without the toughness that she had late in her career. So far, it's the best song on the album, but that's not saying a lot.

"Oh God" sets up a nice piano groove, and the drums quietly push up the intensity. His vocal delivery is good, but this is a song that requires some wailing and he never lets go. This might be the biggest failure on the album, if only because it had the potential to soar above the rest of the songs.

Jazz-inspired music is rarely fun, but Jamie doesn't have this problem. The playfulness of "7 Days to Change Your Life," with its snake-oil salesman and desperate consumers, makes me smile. But when his playful side fails, it fails hard. "Our Day Will Come" is a fusion of samba, reggae, and unhip white dude. It's not a good mix, and the album would've been better if this one had been saved for the posthumous box set.

I like the openness of the lyrics in the closing track, "My Yard." A guy is inviting his girl over for some DVDs and conversation and maybe something else. The playfulness remains, and the music is light and catchy. But that's probably the biggest flaw with this album: it's too damned light. Not that music should always be heavy and serious, but this consistently falls short. I feel like I'm trying to satisfy my hunger with a can of diet soda.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Everyone on the album can obviously play, and play well. Cullum understands that vocal flaws should be treasured, not erased. However, the performance as a whole never delivers anything outside of the ordinary. He writes good songs, but he does the same thing with nearly every chorus. With that said, it's tough to make a unique songwriting impression in this genre, and he proves that he can hold his own against some serious heavyweights. The lyrics are clever and funny and sometimes bitter, with occasional touches of wisdom like "When I look back on my ordinary, ordinary life / I see so much magic though I missed it at the time."

Packaging: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
He's a cute kid, but the cover is ass-ugly. The liner notes contain lyrics and the obligatory thank-you's, but nothing else. The lyrics are neat looking, but they're annoying to read. Fortunately, he enunciates clearly and the album is well-produced, so it's easy to hear what he's saying without ever referring to the lyric sheet.

Listen if you like: Stevie Wonder, Harry Connick Jr., Level 42

If it were food, it'd be: Unripe strawberries. You can imagine how good it could be, but you're stuck with how it really is.