Here is another installment of my quasi-regular (so: irregular) feature "In the Changer" in which I review some of the stuff I've been listening to lately.
The B-52's -- The B-52's: Before they turned into cartoon figures in their later years, Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and the rest of the B-52's (named after the 50's hairstyle donned by their female protagonists) were glorious weirdos who must have really seemed like they were from another planet, even in musically progressive Athens, Georgia. Merging surf and rockabilly and 50's space kitsch into a danceable sludge the B-52's (in later years they would drop the apostrophe) probably got most of their propulsion from guitarist Ricky Wilson, who would later succumb to HIV-AIDS. What I love about this album is an almost desperate intensity that underlies all of the froth. Sure. I don't ever need to hear "Rock Lobster" again, and neither do you. But check out the buildup of "Dance This Mess Around," with Cindy Wilson's banshee scream breaking through to the other side. The album doesn't (couldn't possibly) maintain this sort of controlled howl, but at it's best The B-52's still sounds like a retro-revolution. Grade: B+
Sam Baker -- Pretty World: Some people cannot get over the voice. It's an atonal drawl-talk-mumble that represents no one's idea of singing. But oh, the songwriting. The two absolute highlights are called "Odessa," (yes, about my Odessa, though I learned about Baker from my friend Dan, in Charlotte and have never heard him here; he is from East Texas) and "Broken Fingers." "Odessa" is about a spoiled scion (who "played for Mojo in the boom") of an oil-rich daddy who gets away with whatever he wants to because of Daddy's money. He kills his girlfriend in a high-speed car crash and never really recovers. The latter I still cannot listen closely to without tearing up and informs Baker's back story. In 1986, while traveling through Peru on one of those trips people take to "find themselves," Baker "got in the middle of somebody else's war" when the "Shining Path" terrorist group blew up the train he was traveling on. The result was injuries he's never recovered from (thus the singing voice and as important the delivery) and an indelible story about a little German boy and his mother who died next to Baker. Baker's fingers were also mangled in the explosion and he had to learn to play the guitar with his opposite hand. But while the fingers are the immediate reminder it's the child's face, "etched like a crystal vase," that haunts him. Both of these songs are achingly beautiful. Track this album down (or download his stuff). If you love powerful songwriting I promise you will not be disappointed. Grade: A
The Decemberists -- The King Is Dead: I am not the first to point out that this is the most accessible album yet from this great Portland band. Lots of people have been turned off by Colin Meloy's baroque MFA-in-literature lyrical stylings, (not me -- I've bought in from the outset). For those people I'd recommend this album. Ten songs, only one longer than five minutes, this practically qualifies as a pop album. The lyrics are still worth perusing (Meloy has long talked about getting that English graduate degree and his sister is the acclaimed novelist and short story writer Maile Meloy). And you have to like a guy who insists that all of his tours go through his home town in Missouri because growing up he felt a million miles away from the music and pop culture he loved. There are rumors that The Decemberists may not be together forever, an amicable split possibly being on the horizon. I hope not. But if this ends up as the topper for their discography, well, it could have been worse. Grade: A-
Eminem -- Recovery: The world's a better place with Eminem back in it. he disappeared for a while, seemingly a casualty of his meteoric success. then he had a comeback album. And it sort of sucked. Which created something of a guilt complex in anyone who cared to consider that they needed Eminem to be fucked up for their enjoyment. This comeback redux assuages that guilt. Eminem is back on his game, schizophrenically bleating out apologies in one line and spewing vitriol in the next, taking back his title as the most fascinating figure in hip hop, a title he has earned at least in part by not giving a shit whether he fascinates you -- there might be a lesson in there for some of his peers. (Kanye? You listening?) My one concern is that Eminem will fall into a rut of apologia and introspection. There is some very good angst here, but it could get old fast if it becomes a go-to move. Still, Eminem is back to venting his spleen, and that's a very good thing. Grade: B+