Cat Power | Jukebox | Matador
With Britney's free fall showing no sign of an old-Hollywood ending, only a creep would wish upon a pop star the kind of real-life hardship pop stars tend to turn into art. (I say this as someone who loves Blackout not just for its beats.) But it's hard to deny that on Jukebox— her covers-record sequel to 2000's The Covers Record— Chan Marshall seems healthier than perhaps she ever has, and that doesn't do her music any favors.
Over her decade-plus making records as Cat Power, Marshall has succeeded where 99.9 percent of singer-songwriters fail, describing substance abuse, romantic trouble and plain ol' fucked-up times with an intensity that provokes sympathy and wonder in equal measure. At this point, for better or for worse, Marshall's fabled instability is inseparable from her music. For proof, poll the audience at your next Cat Power show and see how many folks bought tickets in order to witness one of her infamous onstage meltdowns.
Performing songs penned or popularized by vocal idols, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Brown and Billie Holiday, Marshall sounds like a new woman on Jukebox, the likely result of an action-packed two years in which she released her commercial breakthrough, The Greatest; reportedly kicked booze; signed up to be the face of Chanel jewelry; and covered Blondie in a Cingular spot. As always, her singing is gorgeous. Though she's backed by a quartet of New York indie-rock dudes here, she still utilizes the sly behind-the-beat phrasings she picked up playing with Al Green's Memphis-soul vets on The Greatest; let's hope she always will.
Yet unlike the radical reworkings of "Satisfaction" and "Wild Is the Wind" on The Covers Record, her interpretations of "New York, New York," Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man," and "Silver Stallion" by the Highwaymen don't reveal profound truths hidden deep inside familiar material. Even Marshall's reworking of her own "Metal Heart" (from 1998's devastating Moon Pix) eschews interior tumult for surface sheen. It all could be the work of a really good bar band on a really good night, but if art imitates life, I'll drink to that. (Mikael Wood)
Instruments of Science & Technology | Music From the Films of R/Swift | Secretly Canadian
L.A.-based singer-songwriter Richard Swift is something of a Cole Porter–Paul McCartney hybrid, constructing pop tunes built upon a solid base of Americana and Tin Pan Alley. But his latest project, Instruments of Science & Technology, flips the script, focusing on quietly throbbing experiments in Enoesque ambiance and Kraftwerkian beat journeys. The careful laying of sounds, evident on "Shooting a Rhino Between the Shoulders," offers proof that Swift understands his Krautrock, even if the striking similarities among songs and uniform track sequencing (ambient noise, pulsating tech-rock, rinse and repeat) prove problematic. But this early-electronic excursion is meant more for hypnotic relaxation than as variety show. Before he launches into a bed of live drums and Trans Am vocoder vocals, the opening sample of the driving "INST" captures the essence of the project: "The best way to relax is to lie down upon your bed and stretch out." Ditto this mostly instrumental affair. Fleeting bits and pieces of dub, hip-hop and even '90s illbient make their way into the mix, but for the most part, Swift sounds like he's found his comfort zone by venturing completely out of his element. (Jonah Flicker)
Drive-By Truckers | Brighter Than Creation's Dark | New West
As long as the Drive-By Truckers make new albums, there's a solid chance the accompanying reviews will quote Patterson Hood's line about "the duality of the Southern thing." It's tough to blame us, really. While their willingness to tackle Dixie icons is certainly their biggest hook for listeners outside of SEC country, straight-up hagiography has often resulted in Drive-By Truckers' weakest songs. It's a tough row to hoe, because said hagiography is the very thing that made them indie-famous. Meanwhile, 2006's A Blessing and a Curse was their least geographically specific album, their shortest, and the first they wrote in the studio — and it managed the least enthusiastic reviews of their career.
To top it off, Jason Isbell, who arguably wrote the best songs during his time in the band, left to pursue a solo career. But the Truckers, if nothing else, are a band that know how to deal with hardship, and Brighter Than Creation's Dark feels like a return to form, even if it's not the band's strongest. Still, perhaps feeling relief from no longer being an "it" band for carpetbaggers, the Truckers have made their most comprehensive record, tying up nearly every loose thematic thread from home and hearth-ache ("Two Daughters and a Wife") to a more sharply refined political edge ("The Man Who I Shot").
They do recapture their trademark dry wit (Mike Cooley's John Kennedy Toole-ish character study "Bob"), balanced with deeply hued acoustic weepers (Hood's pitch-perfect "Daddy Needs a Drink"), but Brighter Than Creation's Dark doesn't exactly have brevity on its side. Perhaps they would've been better served by splitting up into two separate platters Ã la Southern Rock Opera; it's almost impossible to believe that these 19 tracks could possibly fit on a single LP. While the quality of the tracks never falls below a certain base line, this abundance is a problem for a band that has always been far easier to quote than to sing along with. With an echoing piano loop, "You and Your Crystal Meth" is the lone breakout from their holding pattern of close-vested boogie and tuned-down country, but lyrically, the song illustrates Hood's increasing tendency to take on straw men with blowtorches (to say nothing of the composite sketch offered on "The Righteous Path").
Cooley fares better, mostly because his straight-shootin' style fits the laid-back vibe. And while the democratic songwriting arrangement often caused Hood and Cooley to step up their game in the past, newly permanent member Shonda Tucker adds a nice female counterpoint to a heavily masculine aesthetic. As a writer, however, she's definitely the least of equals ("Home Field Advantage" flirts with "Bagged Me a Homer" obviousness). Conciseness has never been the Drive-By Truckers' strength, but Brighter is ultimately what a DBT record should be: source material to be picked apart for one of their marathon live shows. (Ian Cohen)
Black Mountain | In the Future | Jagjaguwar
Nostalgia isn't always a bad thing in rock. No, it doesn't always result in great art, but it can sound pretty bitchin' blasting from a car stereo. Such was the case last year, when, in an era infatuated with new-wave revivalism, a surprisingly soulful slab of guitar rock arrived drenched in brown acid. The source wasn't some old reel-to-reel tape recovered from the musty basement of a boarded-up head shop, but the contemporary Vancouver band Black Mountain and their song "Druganaut."
Black Mountain's second album, In the Future, provides more proof that for these five Canadians, led by bearded songwriter-guitarist Stephen McBean, the future sounds like a hazy black-lit garage in the early '70s. But while it may offer similar heavy riffage, Black Mountain don't do "stoner rock." Rather, they're on a far more varied and nuanced excursion: an audio journey from warm Summer of Love psychedelia to the cold, anguished Vietnam-vet winters, rampant with narcotics and suicidal cults — a tableau with an understandably modern appeal. That three of the band members have day jobs providing social services to Vancouver's homeless drug addicts makes perfect sense.
While the epic prog-rock musings of songs like "Tyrants" and "Queens Will Play" have an exotic, tripped-out appeal, they also serve as reminders of how absolutely necessary punk rock once was as an elixir. Black Mountain truly find their groove on the slower songs. On both "Wild Wind" and the excellent "Angels," McBean and his cohorts snarl confidently à la early Alice Cooper and Goats Head Soup-era Stones, sounding powerful, and surprisingly contemporary. Taken as a whole, In the Future seems less an ode to some mythical past than a passionate love letter to an amazing record collection. (John Albert)