As the Eternal Cowboy
(Fat Wreck Chords)
I have no clue whether the band (or its fans) would appreciate or disdain the comparison, but Gainesville, Florida's Against Me! (labeled a "Next Big Thing" in the current issue of Spin) reminds me a lot of Rancid. They don't necessarily sound like Rancid (nor do they exactly sound like the Pogues or the Mekons, other bands they evoke), but I hear some of the same spirit in As the Eternal Cowboy, the band's first album for venerable punk label Fat Wreck Chords, which was recorded locally at Ardent Studios. (I've never heard the band's highly regarded debut, Reinventing Axl Rose, but you better believe I'll be tracking it down soon.)
There's the deeply felt if not always entirely coherent political bent in the band's lyrics, for starters, and Tom Gabel's end-of-the-evening vocals convey the same kind of hardscrabble bonhomie as Rancid's Tim Armstrong. But mostly the connection comes from the warmth and interplay (especially vocal) that burns brightly in the cracks of this band's furious punk-folk sound. I love that this band isn't afraid of anthemic grandeur, that they don't think old-style rock-and-roll musical verities are at odds with their punk principles.
This can be heard perhaps most clearly on "ClichÇ Guevara" (Against Me! seems to believe in the old Minutemen axiom that a song title is worth a thousand words; other faves: "You Look Like I Need a Drink" and "Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists"), where an echoey guitar chord (a guttersnipe's take on "A Hard Day's Night," perhaps?) opens into an irony-free "1-2-3-4" count-off that blasts into a last-chance-power-drive surge that's missing only a Clarence Clemons sax break. By the time the band reaches the end of the song's frenetic 2:09 with a chant of "With plans of invasion and arms races racing/Yeah, we-rock-we-rock-we-rock to the new sensation!" it's hard to tell whether to raise your angry, balled fists in defiant celebration or clap your hands with sardonic derision. And this neat little trick evokes yet another classic-rocker this band probably doesn't care about --Neil Young, whose insistence on "rockin' in a free world" during a different Bush administration was similarly disorienting. As Gabel sings on "Mutiny on the Electronic Bay," "When an invasion can bring a country its freedom/Then unconsciousness is true happiness/No, I don't know what to say." A sane reaction, but it doesn't mean he won't keep on searching for the right words anyway. -- Chris Herrington
Against Me! is currently on tour with locals Lucero. Both bands perform Tuesday, February 24th, with the Grabass Charlestons at the Riot at 296 Monroe Avenue.
Mississippi to Mali
Corey Harris single-handedly redeems the entire "Year of the Blues" debacle with this graceful offering. The simple concept -- tracing Mississippi blues back to African roots music -- was muddied by the ineffectual storytelling of Martin Scorsese's The Blues series that ran on PBS last fall. Luckily, Harris has stripped the project of unnecessary weight and allowed the tunes and traditions to speak for themselves. Boundaries are traversed again and again, allowing listeners to compare such tracks as Ali Farka Toure's "Rokie" with Sharde Thomas' "Back Atcha." Rhythmically, at least, these songs are close cousins, even though an ocean and entire cultures separate the two.
It's like one of those confounded SAT questions: "Senatobia is to Senegal as Skip James is to --." Harris nimbly dances around the subject, presenting his case again and again as he lines up James' "Special Rider Blues" for assessment alongside Toure's "Tamalah" and his own original "Charlene." And whether Harris & Co. were playing outdoors in Como, Mississippi, or in Toure's hometown of Niafunke, Mali, the material sounds equally crisp, further blurring the distinctions between blues music and African drones. The 15-track Mississippi to Mali provides the most important -- and by far, the most elegant -- blues lesson that anthropologists will ever need. --Andria Lisle
The Diary of Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys' appeal lies in her old-school approach to new soul music. She's learned her chops from Aretha and Gladys, but the woman who famously proclaimed Chopin her "dawg" isn't afraid to learn some new tricks. On "So Simple," a standout track from her second album, the quaintly titled The Diary of Alicia Keys, she duets with a distorted, sped up tape loop of her own voice singing the chorus. The effect is eerie, and the song sheds its influences to become something much more memorable than your typical radio-ready diva ballad: "So Simple" is a meditation on loss and regret that is every bit as baring and personal as the album title promises.
Equally risky is the first single, the sublimely erotic "You Don't Know My Name," in which producer Kanye West wraps Keys' dusky voice in candlelight and a descending piano glissando that sounds like a dress falling to the floor. But it's the lyrics that really heat up the song: "I can hardly wait for the first time/My imagination's running wild." The song's all the more captivating for being so understated, overshadowing more blatant come-ons like Tweet's "Oops (Oh My)" and Kelis' ludicrous "Milkshake." When Keys stops midsong to call up the man of her daydreams, you might think you've got a date with her.
It's when the balance between new and old teeters that Diary becomes something less than fabulous. "If I Was Your Woman/Walk on By" promises a Bacharach cover by way of Hot Buttered Soul, but it's just Isaac Hayes' insistent beat that gets used -- obviously enough to justify the double song title. Nothing says soulful like legal obligation.
Keys wants it both ways -- old and new school. And most of the time she has enough personality and imagination to get exactly what she wants. --Stephen Deusner