Grace Potter and the Nocturnals: This Is Somewhere

This is the kind of album that excites rock critics and college radio DJs and in-the-know music fans for two or three months, until the next album that excites rock critics and college radio DJs and in-the-know music fans comes along. This is the kind of album that keeps us occupied while we're waiting for something that blows our minds. And that's totally OK. This Is Somewhere is honest, it sounds heartfelt, and it's good. There are much worse ways to spend a few months than listening to this album.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The musicianship is competent, the songs are well-written, and the hooks almost get stuck in your head. The lyrics are occasionally thought-provoking and occasionally kind of generic. (For what it's worth, "Ah Mary" is one of the most clever, charming, and subtle political songs I've heard in a long time.) It's a good album that does its thing really well, but it doesn't break any new ground.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover photo is strong, and I'm annoyed that the good people at EPFL stuck a sticker right on top of it. The image is a little bit abstract, it shows the band without fully showing the band (I assume it's the band on the cover but I can't tell for certain, thanks to that annoying sticker), and it subconsciously conveys the band's roots-rock sound by using props like an old Chevy truck. The inside photos are simple portraits with a great deal of personality. It would've been nice if designer Lawrence Azerrad hadn't skipped class on the day his art school professors discussed how serif typefaces break up at very small sizes.

Listen if you like: Any rootsy American female singer from the past 40 years: Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Maria McKee, Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow.

If it were food, it'd be: A bag of frozen strawberries on a cold March morning when you're desperately waiting for spring.


Josh Ritter: Golden Age of Radio

There are lots of small moments in Golden Age of Radio that could be used to build a case for Josh Ritter's talent, but one subtle thing about the song "Harrisburg" speaks volumes.

As Ritter's story of a railroad car and a man named Romero builds, the tempo of the song gradually increases. The art of letting a song's tempo ebb and flow has been largely neglected during an era when drummers are judged by their abilities to record with click tracks and songs are so precisely structured that they could be graphed in Excel.

Ritter knows that good stories need to breathe, and one of the many ways he brings his songs to life is by letting them breathe.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Ritter has gotten better since this album came out, but this album is still better than what most musicians will ever record. Golden Age of Radio sounds as if Ritter had one foot confidently planted in his own style, while the other stood tentatively in the pool of his influences. ("You've Got the Moon" could end a mix CD that opens with "Pink Moon;" it's a pretty great compliment even if it does point out a lack of originality.) Unlike his more recent albums, Golden Age of Radio is pretty good with moments of greatness, rather than great with moments of pretty goodness.

As an aside, the tray card of the EPFL's version of Golden Age of Radio mentions a bonus disc. Unfortunately, there is no bonus disc to be found. Hey, EPFL... what's the deal?

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a typical indie release: artsy snapshots, uninteresting fonts, and generic design. Fortunately, the designer(s) had the sense to layout the lyrics in simple columns with lots of white space. There's nothing terribly wrong with the package, but there's nothing special about it, either.

Listen if you like: Nick Drake, Ryan Adams, simple words that pack a punch.

If it were food, it'd be: a promising meal at a new restaurant where things aren't quite perfect yet.


Various Artists: Elizabethtown - Music from the Motion Picture

As a collection of music, Elizabethtown stands tall. The lyrics generally deal with falling apart, picking up the pieces, and moving forward -- a theme that also plays a major role in the movie. Because of this, the music is tied together in a way that is uncommon in even the best soundtracks.

As a soundtrack, however, this CD is lacking. Some key songs from the movie are missing, and they're replaced by music that was buried in the film's background. (A second volume of soundtrack songs and a score were released, neither of which is currently available from EPFL.)

These facts make this album both a sub-par and superb soundtrack. A casual fan who wants to relive the movie will be disappointed, but this is a good record that honors the film's spirit. It's obvious that director Cameron Crowe -- a former Rolling Stone writer who is a music nut in his own right -- put a lot of thought and heart into choosing these songs.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
While some songs are absent from the Elizabethtown soundtrack (notably The Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You," Fleetwood Mac's "Big Love," and the live performance of "Freebird"), the CD focuses on others that I never noticed while watching the movie. "It'll All Work Out" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Don't I Hold You" by Wheat, "Hard Times" by eastmountainsouth, and "Shut Us Down" by Lindsey Buckingham are strong songs that deserve a serious listen or three.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The package is designed to look like the box of music that Claire (Kirsten Dunst) gives to Drew (Orlando Bloom). The theme fits, but the package lacks substance. With the exception of the inside-back cover (a quote by J. Bebe and R. Hammond, two members of the fictitious band Stillwater from Crowe's Almost Famous), the booklet doesn't contain anything worth reading or even looking at twice. Considering the importance Crowe places on the music in his films, this is a disappointing package.

Listen if you like: American roots rock like Tom Petty or Patty Griffin, Cameron Crowe movies, discovering that sometimes bad things happen in our lives so we can make room for what we really need.

If it were food, it'd be: a casserole your neighbor sends over after a loved one dies. It may not be what you want or what you were expecting, but when you're racked with grief because your whole world just fell apart, it fills you up the way few meals possibly could.


Danielson: Ships

I'm glad Danielson exists, and I'm glad they're trying to push the limits of quirky underground music. It gives isolated, twenty-something indie fans something to feel smug about ("Who am I listening to on my iPod? Oh, it's a band you wouldn't know.") without forcing them to take on the challenges of truly difficult music like Mahavishnu Orchestra or Captain Beefheart. I only hope that either Daniel C. Smith's (the Daniel behind Danielson) talent catches up with his ambitions, or another group of musicians hears Ships and is inspired to do the same thing. But better. Much, much better.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The music is ambitious. The lyrics are intelligent and clever. The performers are a hipster's who's-who (Sufjan Stevens, members of Ladytron and Deerhoof, Steve Albini, etc). The performances are somewhat energetic. And the songs are boring. They sound as if Smith had a bunch of wacky ideas, but couldn't turn them into cohesive musical creations.

On a Baltimore note, "Bloodbook on the Halfshell" reminds me of how I felt the first time I stepped into the Book Thing. "These lovely bloody books, arms full of lovely books, freely collecting books, we're getting funny looks, while we are stacking organizing filing piling way up high and rising Dewey dusty decimalizing sorting tracking systemizing, can't believe we found this vintage, we now have such great advantage, great they'll look in our library." The song made me smile, but I was smiling because of my own life and my own memories. Without those, this song would have been as empty for me as the rest of the album.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The booklet is aesthetically beautiful. Unfortunately, it's functionally useless. On one side of the insert, the lyrics are printed down the length of the full six pages, which looks neat but is annoying to read. The other side is filled with words that end with "-ship," and is even more annoying to read. Perhaps the worst example of form over function is the album credits: the names of everyone who worked on the album are written in tiny and nearly illegible print along the masts of the sailboat on the cover. Smith obviously loves words, but his booklet doesn't give them the respect they deserve.

Listen if you like: Flaming Lips, Sufjan Stevens, quirky and overhyped underground rock that's big on presentation on short on substance.

If it were food, it'd be: Tomatoes from an urban community garden where flavorless vegetables are grown by hipsters in soil rich with smug self-righteousness.


Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy

I've known about Okkervil River for awhile, but until now, I've been unable to listen to them. It's not because I hate their politics, or because they were playing when my girlfriend dumped me, or because the singer kicked my dog. No, it's because... well, it's because their name looks like it should have umlauts in it. Something like Ökkervil Rïver, maybe.

Okkervil River is not the kind of band that puts unnecessary umlauts in their name. As far as I can tell, the singer doesn't wear assless leather chaps and they haven't written any songs with titles like "Stick It To Ya" or "Sweet Teezer."

Unfortunately, they've almost gone too far in the opposite direction. The songs are sweet and sad and smart and clever and charming and well-produced, just like a sensitive guy who wears black turtlenecks and quotes Dostoevsky at parties. Frankly, Okkervil River could benefit from feeling a breeze blow across their exposed butt cheeks. Okkervil River could maybe use an umlaut or two.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
At its best, Black Sheep Boy sounds like Bright Eyes; at its worst, it sounds like Robert Smith doing a guest spot with Bright Eyes. Overall, the lyrics are well-written, and they possess a sense of rhythm and rhyme that most lyricists never achieve. Songwriter Will Sheff's intelligence and/or thesaurus occasionally cloud his better judgment, though, and he sneaks in words like abecedarian and oubliette -- something that will charm overwrought English Lit students and annoy the rest of us.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
William Schaff and Darius Van Arman did a superb job on the artwork and design, respectively. The images are intriguing, and they're an important part of a comprehensive package. The text is easy to read, and the layout clearly conveys that these aren't just random words. From a practical perspective, the contrast between the text and the paper makes the booklet a bit difficult to read, but from an aesthetic perspective, it's obvious why Van Arman choose these colors. It was a wise decision not to clutter up the package with a bunch of band photos.

Listen if you like: Bright Eyes fans should definitely check this out, because it's playing the same game without being completely derivative.

If it were food, it'd be: A lonely beer late at night with tears of sweat trickling down its sides that reflect the streaks that bleed beneath your watery eyes as you realize she will never be here to share this lonely beer.


Jacqueline du Pré: A Lasting Impression

I don't know much about classical music, but I can hear that cellist Jacqueline du Pré was different. She was kind of like Jimmy Page. She could play all the notes and make them sound pretty, but she understood that sometimes, when you were feeling the music in your blood and your bile and your sex and your soul, it didn't matter whether or not the notes all sounded pretty. She understood that sometimes, the notes are the least important part of music.

In my book, that means Jacqueline du Pré understood what it means to rock. And in my book, that makes her worth listening to.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The first track (Dvorák's "Cello Concerto in B minor") and the last track (Franck's "Sonata in A") are good starting points. The symphonic Dvorák piece is big and dark and dramatic, and du Pré's cello solo is fiery and passionate. The Franck piece is just her and her husband, pianist Daniel Barenboim. It sounds like a journey through a difficult relationship, and the performances make me wonder what went on in the private lives of these two very talented people.

Oh, and when you're listening to this, listen loud. Forget about that mentality that says classical music should be in the background of some hoity-toity bookstore or café. No, turn the volume up on this one, turn it as high as you can handle it, and immerse yourself in the music. Then and only then should you decide whether or not this is any good.

Packaging: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The liner notes prove that there was at least one completely incompetent graphic designer working at EMI in 1996. If you can get past the ugly colors, difficult typefaces, and useless layout, you'll be rewarded with a minuscule bit of substance.

Listen if you like: Jimmy Page, but are open-minded enough to appreciate something different; classical music, but aren't married to the notion that technical proficiency equates soul.

If it were food, it'd be: I used to eat at this fancy little restaurant in New York. The guy who ran it was a world-renowned chef, but he also happened to be a hard-drinking biker who would scare the living bejeezus out of anyone who mouthed off to his waitresses. du Pré's music reminds me of his food; it's beautiful, but its heart and soul and bicep are never afraid to make an unannounced appearance.


Various Artists: That's Why We're Marching - World War II and the American Folk Song Movement

Good compilation albums tell a story. It's not a story that can be told by any single song on the compilation, but a story that recognizes each song as a vital part of something larger. Good compilation albums find a big truth within the voices of small songs.

That's Why We're Marching finds the big truth within 25 small songs. The individual songs might be about political hypocrisy, racial inequality, unions, war, or Fascism, but the big picture is about love. Each of these songs is about a powerful love for the poor people and the tortured people and the neglected people and the black people and the Russian people and the Jewish people and the people who worked in factories and the people who joined unions and the people who bought war bonds and the people who enlisted and the people who fought and the people who buried their children and the people who sacrificed their own lives in order to help save the lives of strangers who were being slaughtered on the other side of some mighty big oceans. These are songs of love for all of those people and countless others.

The songs on That's Why We're Marching might be about politics and race and war and fighting and dying and working. The album, though, is simply a collection of great love songs.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I can't imagine how this collection of songs could be any better. Everything on here is good, even the stuff that's kind of tough to get through. What might be the best song on the album isn't even a song, it's a story by Jimmy Longhi about being with Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston on a ship that was under attack. When the story ends and "When the Yanks Go Marching In" begins, it is a joyous musical moment that literally gave me a chill.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Like virtually everything from Smithsonian Folkways, the booklet in That's Why We're Marching is superb. It's 28 pages long, with two columns of small print on each page. There's an extraordinary amount of detail, even by Smithsonian Folkways standards, and it's fascinating to read. There are a couple of minor typos and factual mistakes, though, and for a CD that acts as a historical document, errors like that can bring its credibility into question. In the EPFL's version, there is a hand-written correction on the first page of the booklet, which means that someone checked out the CD and cared enough to fix a mistake. That's the kind of thing that can only happen with CDs from the library, and that's the kind of thing that makes the EPFL so wonderful.

Listen if you like: folk artists like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly; folk revivalists like Billy Bragg and Wilco; protest songs; love.

If it were food, it'd be: the kind of homemade stew that simmers on the stove all day long and contains pretty much everything that's leftover in the fridge and the pantry, and it tastes like all of those things but it tastes like something more... perhaps it tastes just a little bit like love.


The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico

Admission #1: To the best of my knowledge, I have never heard a single song by The Velvet Underground. Until today.

Admission #2: When I checked out The Velvet Underground and Nico from the EPFL, I really wanted to trash it. I hate VU followers like The Pixies, and I think Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" is one of the lamest rock songs ever.

Admission #3: I think this album is amazing

You don't need me to rehash what's been said a thousand times about The Velvet Underground and Nico. Is it melodramatic and scarier-than-thou? Yes. Is it nihilistic and self-absorbed? Yes. Is it caught up in some ignorant and short-sighted viewpoints about life? Yes. Does it push boundaries? Absolutely. Do Lou Reed and Nico have annoying voices? Yes, but they're the right voices for the music. Is it difficult to listen to? At times, but in a good way. Is it unlike anything that came before it? No, but it changed everything that came after it.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The album possesses a timelessness that eluded most bands from the late '60s. Sure, a few of the songs are dated: "Run Run Run" sounds like a Stones throwaway, and the backup vocals in "There She Goes Again" are generic trippy drivel. As a whole, though, this could've been recorded at any point in the past four decades. I understand why it's received so much praise over the years.

My favorite moments are when the band sinks into an almost abstract sonic assault, like on "European Son." They weren't relying on mounds of guitar effects, impenetrable layers of electronic samples, or overdeveloped technical prowess to create a dense wall of noise; they were simply taking what they had and wrecking shop with it. Hearing this song makes me realize that I was correct in dismissing Boris as a bunch of wankers.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover, Banana by Andy Warhol, is pretty awesome, even if you're not a Warhol fan (which I'm not). It's simple, it's unique, it's eye-catching, it's immediately recognizable, and it's impossible to imitate. It has to be one of the greatest album covers in the history of rock. The inside of the CD jacket isn't nearly as impressive, though. Some of the photos are dark portraits of forboding characters staring at the camera, while others are dark portraits of forboding characters staring at the camera with cheesy lighting effects on their faces. It was probably cool at the time, but now it just looks corny.

Listen if you like: art rock, punk, indie, goth, noise, doom metal, experimental music, drug music, psych... really, I guess you should just listen if you like any rock music from the past 40 years.

If it were food, it'd be: A Twinkie. It's as fresh today as it was 40 years ago.