Tuesday, July 17, 2007

mid-year catch-up: Rufus Wainwright, Prodigy, The White Stripes, Sally Shapiro

Rufus Wainwright, Release The Stars - Some artists layer guitars. Rufus Wainwright layers trumpets, and that confuses people. "Too baroque," scream all the negative reviews, "the arrangements smother the songs." Thank god for my mom then - a classical music professor without even the slightest bit of sympathy for contemporary pop music. I ran the opening tracks of this album past her, and she was unimpressed. "Very conservative," she frowned. So yes, all you carping and caviling types: these aren't Broadway show tunes (thank god) or hookless wonders. These are pop songs, and fairly glorious ones at that, with the least touch of modesty removed: Wainwright is way beyond the point of inserting a quiet, piano-and-voice ballad like "In A Graveyard." An album like Poses appears modest in retrospect. While that's still his masterpiece (the back-to-back combo of "Poses" and "Shadows" is pretty unbeatable), Release The Stars easily trumps the Want duo, which suffered respectively from some plainly shitty tracks and the goofiest damn closer on the otherwise superb Want Two. Release The Stars is consistently excellent in its songwriting and arrangements (and Wainwright proves to be a terrific self-producer), and doing those Judy Garland shows seems to have re-instilled some welcome grit and aggression unseen since "California" aspired to be a single. Particularly weird case in point: "Between My Legs." Wainwright's said that hearing Franz Ferdinand on the radio made him want to start a song in chaos and then bring into his own kind of order. The premise is dubious (if Rufus thinks this is disorder, god help him when he hears Sonic Youth), but the execution is genius: from clunky, shuffling full-band assault to ecstatic chorus, swooning brass nicking the only memorable riff from "Phantom Of The Opera," and what sounds like Gollum dramatically reading out Rufus's lyrics. It's not his strongest album - while never a shitty lyricist, a lot of what's here are placeholder words rather than the strong storytelling he's capable of - but I'll venture that it's his second best. The unconverted need not apply, obviously.

Prodigy, Return Of The Mac - Only recently got into Mobb Deep (The Infamous is a stone-cold classic), but of late G-Unit has destroyed all their inventiveness, turning them from strong storytellers with pungent details into rote threat-mongers. The same applies here, but the producer makes all the difference: DJ Alchemist is kind of a genius, and while this is an album good for about all of 3 listens, those are 3 very entertaining spins. Prodigy mumbles, sounds vaguely 50-ish, and offers to kill you on the slightest provocation, but Alchemist recontextualizes this, offering up not lazy synths and drum machines but lush '70s samples. The idea of blaxploitation-ish rap is nothing new, of course, but on the two best tracks - "Mac 10 Handle" and "Take It To The Top" - it comes to vigorous new life. The former is Prodigy's strongest lyrical performance; he sits in his room, staring at candles, scheming on niggas, and watching Hard Boiled, which seems to be a good night for him. "Take It To The Top" is the strongest track - at first it seems like sliding bass notes, whistles and bongos are all that's gonna happen, but 40 seconds in, stabbing strings and flutes comes in to accentuate every line. It's a well-considered blend of the interplay between flow and production, even if Prodigy has nothing to say ("God bless you and all of your friends/cuz I'm on some bullshit and I'm ready to flip"). Rest is fun, but those are the two tracks I keep coming back to.

The White Stripes, Icky Thump - Of course this is a heartening return to form; it would be nice to pretend that Get Behind Me, Satan being "adventurous" was fun for anyone but Jack White, but most of those songs were a drag. The first four tracks here are as strong as any White Stripes first half; the bizarro freak-out of "Icky Thump" is initially confounding, but with repeated listens the wanky guitar solos and twisty time-changes make sense. White sounds as pissed off as he's ever been - which is a good thing, make no mistake - and then he settles into "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)," one of their most conventional and satisfying stompers, up there with "You're Pretty Good Looking (for A Girl)" and other, non-parenthetical songs. "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues" has White indeed pouring his little heart out (no traditional blues chords though, just mellow strumming), and "Conquest" is a pleasingly bizarre mariachi track. There's some missteps along the way - two bagpipe tracks back to back, egad - but Icky Thump is pretty damn satisfying, even if the middle third occasionally turns into sludge.

Sally Shapiro, Disco Romance - I'm not sure why I don't care much for this; it's basically a wintry, unadventurous Saint Etienne. All I got is that Shapiro's voice is kind of unremarkable, and the arrangements more mood music than stick-in-your-head hooky. I have a feeling there's lots of CDs floating around like this, and I'm not sure why I should care about this one in particular.

The Shins, Wincing The Night Away
The Broken West, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
Fountains Of Wayne, Traffic And Weather
v/a, Do You Trust Your Friends?
Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Twilight Sad, Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters
Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Kanye West, Can't Tell Me Nothing: The Official Mixtape
The Apples In Stereo, New Magnetic Wonder
Bishop Allen, The Broken String
Elliott Smith, New Moon
T.I. T.I. Vs. T.I.P.
Ola Podrida, Ola Podrida
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky


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