Rock critics get (most of) their records free and, as a result, have a responsibility to tell people about them. I've always believed this to be an important service, especially with major-label control of radio and MTV putting a serious limit on information music consumers have to draw from. Long before I ever wrote a word about popular music, it's how I discovered most of the records I cared deepest about.
And along with this service is the advocacy function of trying to convince readers to take a chance on music they've never heard. I go into all of this because I can't think of a single contemporary pop-music artist I want to turn readers on to as much as Nashville-via-New York singer-songwriter Amy Rigby: In Rigby's case, it isn't a matter of her merely deserving a wider audience; it's the certainty that the audience is out there and just hasn't discovered her yet. Apparently, her record label feels the same way. Why else release an anthology of previously released material (with two exceptions) after only three solo albums?
A post-punk grad (the ex-wife of dB's drummer Will Rigby and member of a band, the Shams, who released a couple of records for indie-rock label Matador in the early '90s), a former temp worker, and a single mom, Rigby made her bid to be American music's poet laureate of structural underemployment and bohemian domesticity with her 1996 debut Diary Of a Mod Housewife. A much-cherished cult item that became an unlikely critical smash, Diary was Exile In Guyville for grown-ups. But if Diary Of a Mod Housewife was about saving a life, subsequent efforts (1998's Middlescene and 2000's The Sugar Tree) were merely about living one.
18 Again taps six songs from Diary but holds off introducing them until track five, with her definitive anthem "Beer and Kisses." And while the considerable triumph of 18 Again may be how it integrates flawlessly chosen highlights from Middlescene and The Sugar Tree into the ubernarrative of Rigby's career album, you can hear the difference immediately. "Beer and Kisses" sounds like a standard now, a (tough)love song that begins "We met in the supermarket" and somehow turns "Get home from work/Turn on the light (Get in a fight/Make it alright)/Sit on the couch/Spend the whole night there" into one of the decade's great sing-along choruses.
Musically, Rigby works in a residual-culture milieu that anyone but the most tight-assed avant-gardist should be able to feel: sturdy bar-band rock-and-roll occasionally spiked with sharp flourishes, like the subtle Spectorisms of "All I Want," the Chuck Berry moves of "20 Questions," and the steel-guitar accents on "Beer and Kisses."
And in the course of finding the right balance between "All I Want" and "What I Need," Rigby traces what happens when urban daydreams of art and freedom dissolve into workweek monotony and how relationships take a hit along the way. If you've ever had a day job that subsidized a dream and felt the dream slipping away, put your liberal-arts degree to work in the service industry, felt adulthood and domesticity creep in on your fantasy of never-ending nightlife, tried to patch together a marriage that's falling apart, or just felt like stopping in the middle of your daily routine to shout something like "I'm not just some soulless jerk/Hey, I got a band/I know what life is for!" then Amy Rigby writes songs for you. -- Chris Herrington
It probably wouldn't have mattered if the Breeders had waited one year or nine to release a follow-up to their popular 1993 career album Last Splash. It was destined to live up to its name, at least commercially: Despite its kick-ass attitude and crunchy guitar pop, it was the single "Cannonball" -- a novelty hit from a serious band -- that put twins Kim and Kelley Deal on the pop-culture map. And novelty songs have little return value careerwise, so any subsequent release from the sisters was likely to garner critical praise but sell only to diehards.
So don't expect that long-long-awaited follow-up, Title TK, to fly off the shelves. It may not prove as popular as its predecessor, but in place of commercial success comes invigorated artistry. Instead of updating their sound to the Noughts or reliving their glory days of the Nineties, the Breeders find a place somewhere in between: The new album is somber, more mature, but no less alive. It's as if they traveled back to '93 and imagined what sort of album they might make nine years later, if things had gone a bit differently.
The Deals were never afraid of a pop hook or a catchy guitar riff, and Title TK is full of both, from the instantly memorable choruses of "London Song" and "Son Of Three" to the countryesque angularities of "Full On Idle." But it's "Off You" that leaves its mark on the few of us left listening; it's a disarmingly quiet moment, all gently strummed guitar and harsh vocals. "I am the autumn in the scarlet," Kim sings almost tenderly, "I am the makeup on your eyes." Time has ravaged her voice, which sounds torn with sandpaper, but it is all the more evocative and vulnerable for its imperfections.
If nothing else, Title TK shares with its predecessor a loose spontaneity and a musical adventurousness that ensure surprises, one of which will hopefully be a quick follow-up. -- Stephen Deusner
The Land Beyond the Mountains
Ever wonder where the White Stripes got a big chunk of their stripped-down blues-skronk approach? Chances are Jack White's record collection contains more than one title by Don Howland's rockin' guitar and drums duo the Bassholes. If you were being particularly uncharitable, you might say that the White Stripes completely co-opted the Bassholes' sound and turned it into dollars and sex in much the same way Jon Spencer used his experience playing with the Gibson Brothers (an influential band Howland formed with transplanted Memphian Jeff Evans) into something eminently marketable in the form of his Blues Explosion.
By now, Howland and Evans are probably resigned to their roles as crud-rock pioneers ripe for plunder as source music. Too bad there's no copyright law covering musical-style infringement, because Howland and Evans might have a pretty good case against pretty boys White and Spencer.
Such legal action ain't likely to happen anytime soon, so Evans and Howland just keeping making darn fine records that deserve a wider audience. Now, it's Howland's turn to make another good 'un, and he does with The Land Beyond the Mountains. It's just Howland on guitar, bass, and organ and in spooky voice (he sounds a lot like Iggy Pop on "Gimme Danger" on several tracks here -- nothing wrong with that). Funny thing is ... Howland sounds like a full band because he uses a kind of layered lo-fi production approach that is amazingly rich and horribly distorted at the same time -- a Southern gothic Pet Sounds for the four-track home-recording set. n -- Ross Johnson