Amy Winehouse: “Rehab” (Republic/Universal): Everything about Amy Winehouse is a screaming defense of binge drinking — even her last name. I’m in love with her breakout single, “Rehab,” a grand R&B song dipped in analog warmth, and propelled by her soulful, deeply knowing voice. “No no no!” sings Winehouse, refusing sobriety and sounding like Sarah Vaughan hopped up for the hip-hop generation. I can’t exactly back the song’s anti-sobriety sentiment, but it’s good to hear someone deny that “recovery” is a one-stop solution to life’s problems. Viz. Representative Mark Foley blaming his sexed-up e-mails to congressional pages on a “secret alcohol problem,” or the tut-tutting Britney Spears received for her abbreviated trips to rehab. Both of them are messed-up people at the forefront of a messed-up culture. Frankly, their drinking is the only sensible thing about them. Amy Winehouse plays Coachella on April 27.
Various Artists: A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Nonesuch): This long-gestating tribute to the eternally cranky but universally respected genius of Laurel Canyon front-loads its best tracks — but who’s complaining when it features a who’s who of universally respected geniuses? Björk’s “The Boho Dance” is pleasantly ethereal; Caetano Veloso’s “Dreamland” is less reverb-drenched and more funky than anything on his recent English-language album, A Foreign Sound, and better for it. On the lead track, Sufjan Stevens rewrites the music to “A Free Man in Paris,” and seems to reimagine Mitchell’s narrator (David Geffen in the early ’70s) as a pop star annoyed by his burgeoning fame. I believe there’s more than a touch of autobiography at work as he sings, “I was a free man in Paris/I felt unfettered and alive/There was nobody calling me up for favors/And no one’s future to decide/You know I’d go back there tomorrow/But for the work I’ve taken on/Stoking the star-maker machinery/Behind the popular song.”
Less interesting are Prince’s too-soft take on “A Case of You” and jazzy covers by Cassandra Wilson and Brad Mehldau.
Tributes are opportunities to re-evaluate an artist’s career, and the covers that stand out here are those that most engage Mitchell’s lyrics. (Prince has the nerve to delete three verses from “A Case of You.”) Where Mitchell’s music is nigh inimitable, her words are more vivid and realistic than the songwriter to whom she is most often compared, Bob Dylan. Great lyricists are usually championed for their “poetry.” Feh! Mitchell’s songs are more like great nonfiction — autobiographical travelogues grounded in experience, festooned with a level of detail that’s more transportive than mere metaphor. Album is in stores on April 24.
CocoRosie: The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn (Touch & Go): Yes, they strike me as trustafarian bohemians with an unhealthy interest in the work of Buffy Sainte-Marie. And yes, it’s easy to make fun of their twee and fantastical lyrics. (“Everybody wants to go to Japan/Everybody just holds hands,” chants a Muppet chorus on “Japan”; “I’ll bathe you in the crystal light that sleeps between my thighs,” goes the song “Promise.”) However, dismissing CocoRosie on lyrical grounds would be like dismissing Thomas Jefferson for fucking his slaves. It’s too easy, and overlooks larger achievements. CocoRosie are delving deeper into the pacifistic, freak-folk vision than any of their peers, and they are trying to reconcile those dreamy, little-girl ideas with the culture at large. When drumbeats appear, they follow the boom-bap beat of hip-hop — not that anyone will confuse this with a Missy Elliott production. Which is not to say the production work here isn’t notable. Manning the boards is Icelander Valgeir Sigurdsson, former studio muse to Björk. Having helmed recent albums by composer Nico Muhly and Will Oldham, he is shaping up as the go-to guy for making diaphanous, sometimes flighty artists focus their dreams in fixed form. Album is in stores on April 10. CocoRosie play the El Rey Theatre on April 29.
Jarvis Cocker: Jarvis (Rough Trade): The former Pulp leader is the poster boy for late-career triumph. He formed his band in 1978, but they didn’t have any significant success until they got caught up in the Brit-pop boom of the mid-’90s. His first solo record hints at why it took him so long. The louche wit informing his songs may be an outgrowth of laziness. While the lyrics on Jarvis are consistently inventive and attention-getting (who else would write a song called “Fat Children”?), it’s musically sluggish, relying on loungy synth lines and unimaginative beats, all masked by too much reverb. It’s swinging where it should be sharp. Perversely, the best track is an unlisted bonus, “(Cunts Are Still) Running the World,” which could be cited as explanation for his lack of ambition. He takes funny/depressing swipes at the machinations of the fat cats in power: “The cream cannot help but always rise up to the top, but I say ‘shit floats.’ ” Jarvis Cocker plays Coachella on April 27.
Las Vegas' the Higher: Timberlake meets Bad Religion? (Photo by Justin Borucki)
The Higher: On Fire (Epitaph): The Higher come from the same burgeoning Las Vegas scene that’s produced Panic! at the Disco and the Killers. These bands are interesting as much for anthropological reasons as musical ones. Their perspective is uniquely American — rooted in a milquetoast exurban landscape that doubles as a seedy boomtown — and the bands coming out of it conjoin influences in ways that are fascinating and bizarre. The Higher, for example, sound like bastard offspring of Bad Religion, a second-rate Justin Timberlake, and some mad scientist trying to make the perfect theme music for ESPN’s X Games. On Fire combines Bad Religion’s patented harmonic thrust with the cheesy come-ons of modern R&B, and, dude, it rocks. Strangely, the Higher find a weird poetry in the debased genre of jock-jams. Sample lyrics: “I’ve been dying to get it into you somehow”; “I thought the way she moved was the way that she tasted”; “We’ll rock you/shock you/drop you/and make you want it more.” They will offend cultivated sensibilities as much as the latest Jackass movie, but it’s certainly not boring, and this band deserves to be the subject of genuine controversy and discussion in the world of emo and punk. The Higher play the Belmont in Fresno on April 16, the Dome in Bakersfield on April 17, and the Boardwalk in Orangevale on April 18.