Identity Crisis is perhaps the most fitting album title of the year. After toiling in the Nashville music industry for almost a decade, Shelby Lynne reintroduced herself on 2000's career-making I Am Shelby Lynne, which won her a Grammy for, inexplicably, Best New Artist. Her quick, slick follow-up, Love, Shelby, was a dud, mostly because Glen Ballard's commercial-minded production made her sound more like Shania than Shelby.
So, for Identity Crisis, Lynne goes back to the aesthetic of I Am -- back to her old self, one that's independent and shows no lack of confidence. She produced the entire album, sang every lead and backing vocal, and played all the guitar parts, so this album should be the truest account of Lynne's musical identity.
Lynne has a particular genius for lightness: Her best songs have a breezy feel built on her easy voice and minimal instrumentation. "Telephone," the lead track, drifts by smoothly in midtempo without much fuss; it would be a mere trifle if the lyrics and her performance didn't express her regret and self-blame so perfectly. Lynne's is the classic heart-versus-head conundrum -- one song is built on the couplet "If I was smart/I wouldn't have a heart" -- and few singers are confident enough to play that up so directly and plainly.
However, whenever Lynne strays from that sound, Identity Crisis lives up to its name. "10 Rocks" has all the gospel realness of a Michelle Shocked b-side, and "Lonesome" resorts shamelessly to mimicking Patsy Cline, right down to the tinkly piano and heavily layered vocals. It's admirable that Lynne wants to expand her sound to reflect various influences, but she sounds best when she sounds like herself. --Stephen Deusner
Chain Gang of Love
It's tempting to say the Raveonettes do for '50s pop and juvenile-delinquent films what another boy-girl group -- the White Stripes -- do for blues and Orson Welles. But on Chain Gang of Love, their first proper album, Soon Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo aren't just reanimating an old genre as a balm against the new pollution.
A more useful comparison is Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, which sought to widen the boundaries of the Douglas Sirk Technicolor melodrama. Likewise, Chain Gang of Love expands the culture of midcentury delinquency -- cuffed jeans, stolen smokes, and black leather jackets -- into territory that is more explicit and compromised than it was 50 years ago.
What was only hinted at in those youth-gone-wild films is spoken outright on Chain Gang of Love. Sex, drugs, crime, and more sex -- the staples of rock-and-roll -- saturate these songs, but the Raveonettes remove all the consequences that film peddlers once attached to them. In their world, teenage lusts and vices no longer result in VD, addiction, and death.
Free from the moral restraints of the 1950s, the Raveonettes not only resurrect this lost subculture, they also recognize the potency of adolescent recklessness and give it full respect. With its "two delinquents in love," "The Love Gang" depicts the couple's feelings as impossibly intense, their romance parentally forbidden, their chances heartbreakingly nil. But, for a short time, there is precious refuge in "chains, black leather, and sex/Yeah, it's not that complex."
The irony is that very few teenagers will hear this album; its antiquated aesthetic, albeit empowering, won't translate to Clear Channel playlists. Undaunted, the Raveonettes make being a juvie seem like a noble calling. The louder you play Chain Gang of Love, the more delinquent you are. --SD
Ha Ha Sound
Here's to aging gracefully. In 1997, when Broadcast's singles collection, Work and Non-Work, made tiny ripples in the States, it was timely but far from timeless. Still an unapologetically derivative middle ground between Stereolab's experimentation and Stereo Total's bubblegum Euro-pop, Broadcast is less a great band than a band that is great at what it does. The music might be called a technological and cultural update of '60s espionage-pop. You might also think of it as a harsh reinterpretation of Martin Denny, with gorgeous female vocals and the light scraping of keyboards and anonymous noises.
The gap between Ha Ha Sound and 2000's The Noise That People Make is reflected in the elegant layering and careful album arrangement. In 2003, it must be applauded when a band comes up with fresh hooks for a pop song, and maybe I'm just missing an act of blatant thievery or maybe Broadcast are good songwriters, it doesn't really matter when it's this infectious. Just enjoy it.
One complaint: The grating habit of brief snatches of instrumental dorking around in between the real stuff is a habit that, sadly, Broadcast can't seem to shake. Program out that crap and you've got an album that's unlikely to leave your whistling schedule any time soon. -- Andrew Earles
Four Thousand, Seven Hundred,
Sixty-Six Seconds: A Shortcut to Teenage Fanclub
Back in 1992, Spin named Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque its album of the year, famously commenting that it was the most important music being made by white people. Such praise can kill a band's career more than any criticism. Number two on the list was Nirvana's Nevermind, which unleashed the grunge monster that ruled the '90s and squashed the little Scottish pop band in its scaly claw.
Rock history has more or less forgotten Teenage Fanclub, but looking back, I'll stand up and say that Bandwagonesque can hold its own against Cobain & Co. The first single alone -- "The Concept" -- is not only one of the most endearingly candid assessments of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, it launched a thousand-and-one Big Star-ryeyed pop bands, which makes Teenage Fanclub mightily influential. Plus, that monumental coda -- an epic in miniature -- out-guitars even "Layla."
"The Concept" kicks off the clunkily titled Four Thousand, Seven Hundred, Sixty-Six Seconds: A Shortcut to Teenage Fanclub, a greatest hits that may not be highly anticipated but is certainly highly deserved. Some of the songs here are familiar -- especially "What You Do to Me" and "Starsign" from Bandwagonesque -- but Teenage Fanclub have been busy since we saw them last, cranking out songs like "Don't Look Back," "Ain't That Enough," and the truly sublime "Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From."
While the compilation starts to lag toward the last of its 21 tracks -- more from sheer overkill than from the material itself -- Teenage Fanclub prove impressively resourceful in making each jangly guitar riff and romantic-pop hook sound impossibly fresh and distinct, carving out a particular sonic niche while very rarely repeating themselves. If nothing else, Shortcut is a testament to Teenage Fanclub's consistency over more than a decade. They may have faded away, but they never burned out. --SD