In an attempt to play catch-up, here's the first in an occasional series of capsule reviews of new stuff I've been listening to. When I wrote for Splendid, we called 'em At-A-Glance reviews. In other words, these are albums I don't feel like writing more than 200 words about. Although I've been bitching about not yet having heard anything that's blown me away this year, I have to admit that's not entirely true. Look for longer reviews in the coming weeks on stuff I love. For now, stuff I merely like.
STEVE WYNN AND THE MIRACLE 3: Tick, Tick, Tick
I’m at that tricky place with this venerable (if obscure) legend that I was with Pizzicato Five six years ago (right before they broke up): I have so many of his albums; do I really need any more? Ostensibly the final act in a trilogy, his ninth album overall is a little weaker than the last two. Given that one (HERE COME THE MIRACLES) was his masterpiece and the other (STATIC TRANSMISSION) wasn’t that far off, I’m not sure whether I should be more understanding or disappointed. Or perplexed, as it’s packed with lots of good stuff: the ultra-catchy and concise “Bruises”, the snide, hand-clappy garage rock of “All the Squares Go Home” and “No Tomorrow”, a two-part epic that works because it feels both ambitious and somehow tossed-off, a paradox always key to Wynn’s charm. While the rest isn’t necessarily a mere toss-off, most of it you can live without—at least as long as those two previous albums remain in print.
CAT POWER: The Greatest
Mid-level hype and repeated spins of the title track on WERS finally convinced me to check out this formerly shambling artiste, of whom I’ve long been apprehensive. Pop aesthete that I am, I’ve never understood the concept of sounding like you’re psychologically falling apart on record. Maybe Chan Marshall’s tired of that, too—enough to pull herself together and make this relatively normal tribute to DUSTY IN MEMPHIS. Sure, she certainly doesn’t have Springfield’s chops, making this less a tribute and more a diversion. Simple and soulful, it’s safe enough for Starbucks and commercial radio and a far subtler, palatable Alanis alternative to boot. With Tracy Thorn apparently retired and Beth Orton still unable to recapture that spark of her earlier records, it fills a female pop-jazz niche—she’s become a distaff, slightly less depressive Nick Drake, fodder for a pleasant, subdued Sunday morning soundtrack.
CALEXICO: Garden Ruin
Eschewing their distinctive mariachi horn and instrumental-heavy palette of yore, this initially straightforward rock effort nonetheless has Big Transitional Album seeping from its pores, which means it’s not all that straightforward or, for that matter, successful. The first time I heard opener “Cruel” on the radio, I couldn’t identify the band until more than halfway through the song, which was unthinkable with their previous work. The horns eventually kick in on “Cruel”, but now they’re an enhancement rather than a base, wrapped up in pianos, guitars, vocal harmonies and an especially strong melody. The song is one of the album’s two Great Leap Forwards; the other is the closer, “All Systems Red”, which plausibly builds from quiet, acoustic balladry to blazing, apocalyptic fury over six gripping minutes. Between those two bookends lie a few miniaturist gems like “Lucky Dime”, bringing late-Beatles into their ever-expanding repertoire, and “Bisbee Blue”, the least challenging song they’ve ever written, and one of the most affecting. But the remainder doesn’t gel yet like the far more polyglot FEAST OF WIRE did. I hope the next one will take such encouraging advances and spin them into something more solid.
SPARKS: Hello Young Lovers
Briefly famous in England three decades ago and never so here in their home country, Ron and Russell Mael enjoyed a bit of an unlikely late-career renaissance with their last one, the wondrously titled LIL’ BEETHOVEN, which was opera-flavored rock as opposed to a rock opera. Although spotty, when it clicked (as on the ingenuous “Suburban Homeboy”), it really connected, despite its overly quirky self. Nothing here clicks so quickly, but maybe that’s the point. This contains more opera rock (with a stronger emphasis on the second word), but it’s less a sequel than an expansion. “Dick Around” mercifully, thrillingly takes all the pomp out of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Perfume” efficiently obliterates fragrance-as-social-status, “(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country” dissects imperialism and has the balls to liberally borrow from Francis Scott Key, and in “Rock, Rock, Rock”, the Maels even deflate their quirky selves. Following the warped gospel call-and-response novelty “Here Kitty”, the record goes off its rails a bit (and how could it not after that?), careening into dementia and self-indulgence of a kind that makes “Dick Around” seem restrained. Until then, the clever smartasses remain in control, and on occasion follow their own advice about “Metaphors”: “Use them wisely, use them well / and you will never know the hell / of loneliness.”