Albums of the week: New records from Lee Ranaldo, the Shins, Brad Mehldau
The top five
Lee Ranaldo Between the Times and the Tides
Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon get all the attention, but it's amazing how much "the Sonic Youth sound" materializes when Lee Ranaldo's shimmering strums lay over Steve Shelley's pounding tom-toms. When you think "solo Lee Ranaldo," your might imagine some beatnik street hassle or John Cage–ian shard tossing. But, no! The 56-year-old has delivered the best extracurricular work yet from the SY crew, and the poppiest take on the band's inimitable formula. BTTATT slots nicely between the silvery Murray Street and the clean-noise jamming of Sonic Nurse. He's even singing about girls! And not as some omnipotent observer of junkie runaways. Like, sweet love songs. Go figure.
Sort of always a de facto rhythm player, Ranaldo needs an unhinged foil. Here, Nels Cline fills in wonderfully for Moore, laying screaming squiggles on "Xtina As I Knew Her" and "Angles." The two acoustic songs could go. With Shelley on board, it's essentially a Sonic Youth album with Lee doing all the singing. That's the best we can hope for with the group's future uncertain.
The Shins Port of Morrow
I wrote up James Mercer's sailboat album last week. After a few more listens, I haven't budged. I will add that the oddly excluded bonus material, "Pariah King" and "The Waltz is Over," would have provided some needed variety and old-Shins elan.
Brad Mehldau Trio Ode
Eleven bop tracks, each streching for the nine-minute mark? In the golden days of Blue Note, that counted as two, three LPs. On Ode, the crossover-hungry pianist is back in his strongest mode, playing in a straight-up jazz trio, and gushing with material. Mehldau steers clear of the orchestras, Radiohead covers and Pearl Jam drummers that steal attention on his recent work. He's showing off his understated virtuosity, yes, but putting just as large a spotlight on firecracker drummer Jeff Ballard. After a rain-splashed first act, the second half packs the action and flashy solos. So, yeah, two albums.
Melania Fiona The MF Life
The Canadian Alicia Keys loves to play the role of the dumped. The MF Life is a fantastic album title, but she's aiming for sympathy, not envy, on the sophomore LP. When Beyoncé's pretend relationships end, she acts defiant, sometimes triumphant. Keys examines broken hearts like they were sunsets. A lovesick Fiona, in contrast, wallows and pleads in the wake of failed romances, in perfect pitch. Those kind of sentiments are just as much a throwback to the '60s as the dusty grooves. Which is why the diva strut of "Watch Me Work" feels so out of place here. She is not Beyoncé. The low-down soul of "Bones" cuts deeper. The 28-year-old rounds up a herd of A-list hip-hop producers and MCs on a platter of quasi-retro Grammy bait. No ID, Saleemi Remi, Nas, B.o.B, T-Pain all chip in. Like most modern R&B albums, it's a bit overstuffed, with a dip into shitty sunshine reggae, a histrionic ballad and Snoop Dogg.
Margot & The Nuclear So and So's Rot Gut, Domestic
Gosh, that title is really Pavementy, isn't it? But aside from displaying some nostalgia for Clinton-era Portland Trailblazers centers ("Arvydas Sabonis"), Margot and the So and So's are far from Malkmus territory here. They're mining a different and achy '90s sound. The chamber-pop act has gone grunge. Frontman Richard Edwards wrote the album while suffering from chronic stomach pain. Sound familiar? "I wanna float on a river of booze," he sings, later confessing, "I hate my friends," like Andrew Bird whistlin' over Melvins. Steve Albini leaves such an unmistakable imprint that this record sounds exactly like everything else he's touched, even though he didn't lay a finger on it. John Congleton produced it, in Albini's Electrical Audio studio, leaving it shellacked with the chunky, leaden and static-charged fuzz of some old Tar LP.
Reissue of the week
Bo Diddley The Black Gladiator
By the late 1960s, a generation of early rock & rollers and electric bluesmen were washed up and desperate. Relegated to the undercard below a bunch of white British kids who ripped them off, guys like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley were forced to dabble in trends. Like funk and psychedlic. Or sometimes both, awkwardly and thrillingly. At the time, critics loathed the stuff. Today, records like Electric Mud and San Francisco Dues are some fascinating and heavy shit. And 1970's Black Gladiator is that album for Bo. He started dressing like the accountant for the band of gasoline pirates in The Road Warrior and sank his trusty, rusted riffs in a sludge of organ and ramshakle percussion. He even sings opera over scuzzy chicken-coop guitar, arguing with a woman, on "I Don't Like You." Dan Auerbach wishes he could get this loose.
Stinker of the week
There's a game I play with friends on Gchat, "The National or John Mayer?" The rules are simple. I post lyrics and ask whether the National or John Mayer wrote them. You laugh, but you would lose. Point is, it's all white-bread soft-rock for reconciliatory hugging montages at the end of NBC's Parenthood. Bon Iver is the new James Taylor.
Seemingly existing just to prove my point, the debut of trembling British songbird, um, Birdy is a collection of Prius-pop covers—Fleet Foxes, the Postal Service, Bon Iver, the National, etc. It might as well be one songwriter, and in a way it is. Birdy sings this sop from her tear ducts. But at least emo platitutes sound more convincing coming from a 15-year-old.