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.


Balkan Beat Box: Balkan Beat Box

BBB attempts to merge traditional music from the Balkans and the Middle East with Western rock, DJ, and electronic music. In spirit, it's not all that different from Talvin Singh's noble attempts to merge bhangra and electronica. And like Singh, BBB doesn't entirely succeed. Their debut sounds like a well-behaved DJ spinning records in a falafel shop.

Maybe my hopes are to blame. I want to hear that DJ run amok in the falafel shop. I want to hear him tear the place up. I want him to laugh like a lunatic while he guts the cheap cassettes in the shop's soundsystem and drenches the whole restaurant with a thick sauce of electronic mayhem. I want the owner to run screaming because some giant maniacal freak who looks like he'd belong on the cover of Massive Attack and Mad Professor's No Protection has pulled out his turntables and is demolishing the joint.

None of that's happening here. Yeah, "9/4 the Ladies" brings in some dub influences, "Shushan" taps into some good energy, and the horns in "Boom Pak" hint at the spirit of Charles Mingus. Tracks 4 through 7 are pretty solid, and they show that BBB can create some musical magic when they set their mind to it. But the first three tracks are boring, and I've struggled to get through the second half of the album everytime I've listened to it.

BBB has potential to be a great band, but Balkan Beat Box leaves me unfulfilled. Maybe they achieve it on their second album, and maybe they're one of those bands that is transcendental in concert. Or maybe, like Talvin Singh, BBB is a great idea that will never be fully realized.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
BBB is trying to do something incredibly difficult. They didn't exactly fail, but Balkan Beat Box isn't a success, either. The musicianship is strong, and they occasionally meld disparate styles into a compelling whole. But the album suffers because, even at its strongest moments, the band doesn't push hard enough against established boundaries. It's worth a listen, though, and it definitely benefits from good speakers that are cranked up loud.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The cover reminds me of riding buses in Queens, where well-dressed yuppies and crated chickens competed for precious space in the aisles. The liner notes are mostly unreadable, since the original packaging was cut up by EPFL to fit inside a jewel box.

Listen if you like: Gogol Bordello, Natacha Atlas, Talvin Singh

If it were food, it'd be: a falafel sandwich that tries to cross cultures by using Wonder bread instead of a pita.


Nellie McKay: Pretty Little Head

Nellie McKay's music moves in leaps and bounds, and is constrained only by a mind that was raised on equal parts of Gershwin and Eminem and Billie Holiday. It takes two CDs for her to say what could be said, arguably with more impact, on one. It is wildly inconsistent in style and in quality, which gives it a strange sort of consistency. It is simultaneously arrogant and accessible. With Nellie McKay, you have to expect the unexpected.

She seems to have a personal story behind each song, whether it's a political plea or a playful romp. The vitriol of "Columbia is Bleeding" attacks the integrity of nearly every player in the animal-rights battle (an issue with which McKay is closely involved). "Mama & Me" is the antithesis to Eminem's "Cleanin' Out My Closet," and is followed by the sexy and playful "Pounce." The Latin-tinged "Pink Chandelier" lovingly conveys a desperate sexuality, and the pained vocals of "I Am Nothing" conjure a sadness that wasn't present on McKay's debut. "The Big One" might seem toothless on a casual listen, but the call to revolution is unmistakable in both her lyrics and her low-key delivery.

The refrain in "The Big One" ("That's why they took Bruce Bailey down") brings to light one of McKay's greatest strengths: she layers complex messages deep within her songs, and she trusts her listeners to find them. There are no explanations of who Bruce Bailey was, but the lyrics suggest he was a man who died fighting against gentrification. A few minutes with Google reveals that Bailey was a tenant's rights activist in New York City who spent his last day alive attending court with McKay's mother, and was then murdered and dismembered, allegedly by apartment owner Jack Ferranti and/or his brother, Mario. The Ferrantis were charged with setting a fatal fire in one of their other buildings in 1992, so they could collect insurance money. (The line, "looks like the jack is back," seems to be a reference to Ferranti, despite the lack of capitalization.) This is just one of the many stories hidden beneath the surface of Pretty Little Head.

If Pretty Little Head were trimmed down to one CD, it would probably be a great album. Of course, there's always the chance that, with all of its mood swings and pace changes and good moments and misfires and valiant attempts to break through some barriers, Pretty Little Head is absolutely perfect as it is. For what is life, but a series of mood swings and pace changes and good moments and misfires and valiant attempts to break through some barriers?

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Pretty Little Head is better than her debut, Get Away from Me. The worst song on here is better than the worst track on her first album, although the average songs take up more than their fair share of time on both albums. But the good songs on Pretty Little Head are where McKay shines more brightly than she ever did on her debut. She hasn't quite come into her own as an artist yet, but she's getting closer. And if we're lucky, as soon as she reaches perfection, she'll do what all great musicians do: she'll tear it down and start all over again.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There's nothing here that's groundbreaking, but it's a very good companion to the music. There are lots of pictures, and they show many different sides of Nellie: the chanteuse in a pink gown gorging on food; the femme fatale brushing her long, blonde hair; the animal lover caught in a spontaneous smile; the girl laughing as she plays her piano; the musician loving the very fact that she is a musician. As fits her music, McKay is always somewhat sophisticated, even in the most casual of photos. The lyrics are included, which is an absolute must since they are the cornerstone of McKay's work.

Listen if you like: In spirit, she reminds me of They Might Be Giants, and anyone who remembers Poi Dog Pondering should give her a listen. She's one of those artists who could appeal to anyone or no one, and she seems like someone who could have a breakout smash hit or go her whole life making meaningful music that only a few people hear.

If it were food, it'd be: Rice surprise. It was a spontaneous stew that I used to whip up as a poor vegetarian with a big appetite. It was equal parts gourmet snob and impoverished desperation, as it could include anything from shiitake mushrooms to a sack of potatoes, depending on what was available for cheap at the farmer's market. I never knew how it would turn out (thus the surprise), but it was healthful and provided sustenance when I desperately needed it.


DJ Icey: For the Love of the Beat

Dance music is strange. There is no other genre of popular music that is so homogeneous on the surface, yet splinters into countless sub-categories. There are the basic sub-genres (house, trance, IDM, ambient, etc.), each of which splits into myriad sub-sub-genres (house splits into progressive house, hard house, acid house, deep house, etc.). Of course, the proponents of each will endlessly debate the relative merits of their preferred style.

DJ Icey is usually classified as either "funky breaks" or "big beat." These similar styles are probably the most well-known type of dance music to emerge in the past few decades, and are best represented by artists like Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, and The Prodigy. Some electronica aficionados have referred to this sound as being big and dumb, sort of the lowest common denominator of dance music. It's relatively basic, and it typically relies on heavy beats that pound beneath simplistic vocal melodies and aggressive chordal structures. Imagine if AC/DC played dance music, and you'd have big beat.

If you like this style, DJ Icey is about as good as it gets. His music is straightforward, fun, and great for dancing. If you like textured layers of sound, experimental rhythm tracks, uplifting vocal melodies, and spiritual soulfulness, however, that stuff isn't really anywhere to be found on For the Love of the Beat. But to complain about that would be like complaining because AC/DC doesn't sound like The Beatles.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
DJ Icey occasionally moves beyond the basic structures of big beat. He brings in the gospel vocals that characterize deep house on "Storyreel," "Playgroup" taps into some basic reggae and dancehall energy, and "Do It to the Music" builds around a classic track from West End Records that epitomizes the sound of the Paradise Garage. But the vast majority of what's here is somewhat formulaic.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is an inspired homage to Herb Alpert, and designer Joel-O captured a subtle bit of retro sexiness. It's nice that Icey wrote about some of his favorite tracks, and it's pretty much impossible to go wrong with a Shakespeare quote.

Listen if you like: Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, The Crystal Method

If it were food, it'd be: a cold beer on the dancefloor.


The Academy Is...: Santi

If TAI came out 10 years ago, they'd be Fuel. 20 years ago, they'd be White Lion. Both were decent bands who wrote decent songs, received decent reviews, earned decent followings, and were completely inconsequential.

There's nothing wrong with TAI. They're earnest, passionate, serious, sentimental, and they write good pop songs. They've listened to The Police a little bit more than most of their peers have, and it's rare that listening to The Police can be a bad thing.

But who really cares? These guys aren't any different than a dozen other earnest, passionate, serious, sentimental bands who write good pop songs. At least Panic! at the Disco took some musical chances on the second half of A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, which is something that TAI never does. (And no, copping Sting's bass lines, name-dropping Lemony Snicket's novels, and speeding up the vocal hook from "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" don't qualify as taking musical chances.)

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is fine if you like emo or indie or pop-punk. If you're the kind of person who gets all worked up explaining why emo or indie or pop-punk is the greatest form of music ever, period, then you'll probably love Santi. Otherwise, it's pretty forgettable. The lyrics are simple (although they try to be smart), the music is predictable, and the production is thin despite being slicker than snot.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The same cover idea was executed much more effectively by Pet Shop Boys on Fundamental, but it's not bad here. Any band that tries to cram two or three songs' worth of illegible, hand-written scrawl onto one panel of a CD jacket doesn't deserve to have their words read. Photographers Marvin Scott Jarrett and Jack Edinger caught some creative images of the generic "band in a rehearsal studio" scene, and the back page of the insert contains a nice bit of graphic design.

Listen if you like: Fall Out Boy or Panic! at the Disco.

If it were food, it'd be: McDonald's.


Built to Spill: You in Reverse

The first song on You in Reverse, "Goin' Against Your Mind," has over two minutes of frantic instrumental energy before the vocals start. It's both a fitting introduction and a promise that fails to deliver.

The guys in Built to Spill are at their best on the guitar-heavy You in Reverse. They are eclectic without being unapproachable, difficult without being unlistenable, and thoughtful without being sentimental. They are, in many ways, a perfect fusion between self-indulgent experimentation and user-friendly pop. If I had to draw a parallel, I wouldn't compare them to peers like My Morning Jacket or Modest Mouse; instead, I'd liken them to a lovechild of indie icon Neil Young and soulful guitar virtuoso Duane Allman.

So why does You in Reverse fall short? It could be because they have a strong vision and good musical hearts, but they're limited by their musicianship. (That's a complaint I'll rarely throw at a band, because I'd much rather hear heart than chops.) It could be the monotony of Doug Martsch's voice. It could be that the rhythm section is boring. It could be that the songs bounce between creative adventures and disjointed indie clichés.

Or it could be that I've listened to this album dozens of times since it came out, and it took probably 10 listens before I could remember a single thing about it. Each time, I felt like an Alzheimer's patient finding an old friend: the experience was enjoyable but ultimately forgettable.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Some of the songs are wonderful. I could listen to the first two tracks over and over again, and "Gone" is a pleasure every time it hits my ears. There are more than a few weak moments, though. "Liar" (whose insipidly memorable hook is the closest thing to a pop song on the album) and "Conventional Wisdom" are grating, and "Mess With Time" tries to sound spooky and Egyptian but succeeds only at sounding stupid and clichéd. Overall, the guitars are the shining point, and it was wise to focus so much attention on them.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Mike Scheer's artwork is fun to look at, although it doesn't speak to me the way other similar artists do. To me, the art doesn't reflect the music, but it does force me to listen (and look) in a different way. As a result, I heard (and saw) things that I hadn't noticed before.

Listen if you like: My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse, Pavement, Neil Young, and I'd even say Allman Brothers (as long as you keep an open mind).

If it were food, it'd be: Fried okra. It's good, it's off the beaten path, but it's kind of forgettable.


Slum Village: Fantastic, Vol. 2

This looked promising. The guest artists include Pete Rock, Busta Rhymes, D'Angelo, and one of my personal favorites, Q-Tip. Member Jay Dee was a well-respected, commercially successful hip-hop producer known for his soulful touch. And while I know you can't judge an album by its title, both the names "Slum Village" and "Fantastic, Vol. 2" resonate with me.

This looked promising, but it isn't. The lyrics are ignorant and uninteresting. The production is an irritating re-hash of sounds and styles that have been done (and done better) countless times over the past 20 years. The catchiest song -- and it is catchy, as much as it hurts to admit -- is "I Don't Know," with its chorus of "I don't know why the fuck I'm fuckin' wit'chu."

That's how I feel. I don't know why the fuck I'm fuckin' wit' this.

Music: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's 20 tracks of generic vibey jazz samples, awkwardly syncopated vocals, flaccid guest spots, inane lyrics, played out DJ work, canned R&B sexiness, and vocal performances that shouldn't have made it off the demo tapes.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover photo is good and the cover design is intriguing, but they have nothing to do with the music contained within. The rest of the jacket is bland.

Listen if you like: The many misfires of the aforementioned guest stars over the past decade.

If it were food, it'd be: Instant mashed potatoes from a box.