With little space in print for non-local record reviews, I'm bringing the old "listening log" mini-review format back as a regular Sing All Kinds feature. Not sure if it will be weekly or bi-weekly or something more random than that, but it will be recurring. Up first: My two favorite albums of 2009 so far.
The Baseball Project, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails — The Baseball Project (Yep Roc): The Baseball Project is alt-rock journeymen Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) — neither of whom have meant much to me in their previous pop lives — spinning a baker's dozen of terrific songs about what is still America's greatest game. With jangly bar rock as apt a song-for-song's-sake vehicle as solo-acoustic, and with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and forgotten hurler Harvey Haddix as worthy of the troubadour treatment as Pretty Boy Floyd and John Henry, you might call this the best non-Dylan folk record of the decade. And while it's true that you might not respond to it as quickly (if at all) if you've never heard of Bert Campaneris or Oscar Gamble, this lifelong baseball devotee wouldn't have responded to it as quickly (if at all) if it weren't so smart, funny, and unsentimental. Highlights include an imaginary Ted Williams analysis of all the great players of his era who weren't as good as he was, an opening cultural litany-as-mortality lament, and a spirited defense/remembrance of the aforementioned Haddix, who pitched 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves on May 26, 1959, only to lose the game in the 13th. ("Ted Fucking Williams," "Satchel Paige Said," "Past Time," "Harvey Haddix")
Troubadour — K'Naan (A&M/Octone): Immigrant songs have supplied some of the most vital music of the past few years (Gogol Bordello, M.I.A.), but nothing with quite the pop ambition of K'Naan, a Mogadishu-via-Toronto rapper who takes a quantum leap on this second studio album. Vaulting past the folkie constraints of last year's otherwise-excellent The Dusty Foot Philosopher, Troubdour unites the swagger of American hip-hop, the ebullience of Afropop, and the swing of reggae; it combines the pan-cultural appeal of Bob Marley, the razor wit of Eminem, and the detail-rich bootstrap storytelling of Notorious B.I.G.
Documenting a journey from "the only place worse than Kandahar" to a triumphant moment that finds him "on a world tour with Mohammed and them," he's got a story to tell — a cousin left behind in the war, a girlfriend lost to it, a dangerous obstacle course of pirates, "warlords and beardos." He may have been raised on American rap rhymes and may have been involved in gun crimes, but he's seen enough real-life gangsta shit to dismiss American hip-hop's make-believe machismo. Instead, he hooks a beat up to Ethiopian jazz and converts it into hip-hop form, embraces his present with an optimism that, for once, is defiant and far-reaching, not forced and shortsighted. ("Dreamer," "People Like Me," "Wavin' Flag," "Somalia")
It's Blitz — Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Interscope): More a sound band than a song band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are unlikely to ever top their 2003 full-length debut Fever to Tell, which presented the illusion of a band evolving — from noise to tune — in real time. The dearth of songs as memorable as "Maps" has constricted them since, but only so much: Karen O warbles, wails, and coos with equal gravity all across this album while guitar man Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase provide commensurately diverse and expressive counterpoint. And they continue to demonstrate the mutability of their partnership, following the punky assault of Fever to Tell and the stately acoustic foundations of 2006's Show Your Bones with It's Blitz's series of agitated dance-rock reveries. ("Hysteric," "Zero," "Soft Shock")