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.