The New Pornographers “Electric Version” (Matador Records) ****
Perhaps the only thing more absurdly incongruous than the utter listenability of The New Pornographers 2000 debut, “Mass Romantic,” was the band’s name: as if porn-nouveau had suddenly concerned itself with delivering happy, charging chunks of pop perfection instead of your standard smut-merchant wares.
The album inspired as much head scratching as it did hand clapping, with listeners wondering where this “Canadian supergroup” (among their members are parts of Destroyer, Thee Evaporators and Zumpano, not to mention alt-country crooner Neko Case) had been all their lives.
The answer, it seems: Off devouring the catalogs of bands like The Kinks, The Zombies, Blondie and Cheap Trick — all immediate touchstones for The New Pornographers’ sound. But “Mass Romantic” was in no way a stroll down memory lane, and as the band proves on this recently released follow-up, neither was it a fluke.
A suitably hyper drumbeat opens the album on the title track, quickly followed by some quirky synths and vocals before exploding — just 42 seconds in — into the first of approximately ten thousand joyous hooks planted throughout the album.
“Chump Change” almost brags about its charming simplicity, while “The New Face of Zero and One” dares to go where new wave should have. “The Laws Have Changed” is this album’s “Letter From An Occupant” (from “Mass Romantic”), meaning it’s the Case-driven standout with enough “do-do-do” and “na-na-na” backing vocals to virtually demand that it blast through every open window from every FM radio this summer. The fact that radio is too dumb to notice this (or thinks that you are) is the only thing that can bring you down from the natural high of “Electric Version.” — Ryan Muldoon
The Gossip “Movement” (Kill Rock Stars) ***1/2
It’s unlikely that there will be a more properly named album this year than the latest from the Arkansas-by-way-of-Olympia, Wash. trio, The Gossip. Though “Movement” opens with a flat-out dirge (“Last Nite,” with singer Beth Ditto using her raw, gospel-tinged voice to bitterly intone that “lonely is a friend of mine”), nearly every second of the remainder of the album seems hellbent on driving the listener to react in movement, any sort of movement, whether it be simple head-bobbing or convulsions of joy.
“Jason’s Basement” is the opening salvo in The Gossip’s personal war against ambivalence, daring the listener to get past — or get over — the dissonant guitar riffing and downright primitive drumming, asking “What’s your hang-up? Come dance with me. No inhibition? Come dance with me!,” all the while turning the track into the best copy of a Motown standard that never existed.
“No No No” follows and makes the perfect one-two punch featuring even more ridiculously rude riffs, and confirms that the energy of “Movement” won’t let up for 20 straight, sweat-inducing minutes (in total, all 11 songs clock in at just more than 30 minutes). That’s when the album closer “Light Light Sleep” finds Ditto back into dirge mode, firing off throat-killing lines like, “I got trouble, yeah, I’m losing sleep,” before the whole song collapses upon itself and takes a minute of silence — literally — before rising from the grave for one more abrasive testimonial. If “Movement” doesn’t get a reaction from you, have your mother send flowers; you’re already dead. — R.M.
Molly Johnson “Another Day” (Narada Jazz) ***
After Norah Jones’ deserved Grammy, record executives probably ordered staffers to “find the next Norah.” Canadian Molly Johnson is no Norah Jones. Then again, Jones is no Molly Johnson. But thanks to Jones’ success, recordings like “Another Day” will now see the light of day, making fans of sophisticated pop-jazz rejoice.
Johnson confidently emotes a swaggering jazz/blues phrasing somewhere between Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae. There’s a sweet rasp to her voice that effectively charges this eclectic collection of songs with emotion and feeling. A veteran of several Canadian rock outfits, Johnson brings a freewheeling attitude to the recording.
The disc’s title track jumps with a Steely Dan pop veneer. Her version of “Summertime” sports a minimalist bounce. Album highlight “Ooh Child/Redemption Song” features Johnson in a duet with keyboard player Andrew Craig, whose clear tenor effectively combines the Five Stairsteps and Bob Marley into a gentle, swaying anthem of hope. Backed by a skin-tight combo that can switch from pop melodies to swing, the disc includes elegant jazz, Dixieland, languid torch, melancholy melodies and vintage swing.
Sure, music fans may now have to endure a string of colorless Norah-clones, but if it brings someone like Molly Johnson to the scene, it’s worth it. — Eric Feber
Lucinda Williams “World Without Tears” (Lost Highway) ****
There’s a thrilling edge to Lucinda Williams’ music, a rawness that can teeter on the brink of despair or verge on heatedly sensual.
They are qualities that have become more pronounced as Williams’ career has progressed, and she displays them in abundance on her sixth and latest album, “World Without Tears.” It’s a strong record that grows more compelling with each listen as the subtleties of her always-powerful songwriting emerge.
Written as Williams relocated from Austin, Texas to Los Angeles, broke up with bass player Richard Price and reacted to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, “World Without Tears” comes off as less relentlessly downbeat than its predecessor, 2001’s stunning “Essence.” There’s still no shortage of heartache and remorse — she mourns for broken love on “Minneapolis” and tries to reassure herself that heartache will fade on “Over Time” — but “World Without Tears” somehow feels transcendent.
A notorious perfectionist in the studio, Williams and her three-piece band recorded most of the 13 tracks without overdubs this time. The spontaneity shows in the balanced, airy arrangements, which are enhanced through the exquisite production of Williams and Mark Howard.
Williams’ songwriting has generally come from an intensely personal perspective, but she addresses a few broader social themes this time out. She wrote “American Dream” after 9/11.
Maybe so, in a social sense. But for fans of the craggy-voiced singer-songwriter, everything about “World Without Tears” is so right. — Eric R. Danton
Bio Ritmo “Bio Ritmo” (Self-released) ****
Bio Ritmo is the antidote to the typical pop salsa, which often comes smothered in a thick coating of sonic syrup. Lean and rhythm-driven, the band plays music stripped to the essentials, losing nothing in the process.
In the five years since “Rumba Baby Rumba,” the band’s last release, Latin music has become more mainstream. The heavily produced pop tracks of Ricky Martin and Shakira may have whetted the public appetite for the undiluted Cuban forms that are Bio Ritmo’s specialty. The lineup is almost completely new; only trumpeter Bob Miller was on “Rumba.” But if anything, their eponymous new release is even closer to the music’s unadorned roots than the last.
The nonet, featuring two trombones, two trumpets, two percussionists, piano, bass and singer, get a big sound out of the twinned instruments. Lead singer Rei Alverez’s Spanish vocals float above the Afro-Cuban rhythms. One of the pleasures of this music is the tension between the fixed complexities of the groove and the dynamic freedom of the soloists.
The songs are all originals, although they have the timeless quality of traditional music. Only a few swashes of modern sound give any clue to when this CD was recorded. The driving percussion, massed horns and insouciant singing add up to a CD that is fundamentally, authentically danceable. — Peter McElhinney
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