The Mountain Goats
The second-most quotable album of 2002, after the Streets' Original Pirate Material, comes from what would seem, outwardly, like a diametrically opposed source. Rather than a brash, beat-driven geezer, John Darnielle is a 'zine writer (Last Plane to Jakarta, now available on the Web with a .com after its title), death-metal fan, and acoustic-guitar-wielding singer-songwriter. As the Mountain Goats, Darnielle has nurtured a fervent cult, and Tallahassee, his first album for 4AD, allows newcomers the privilege of discovering what the fuss is about.
To call the album "literary" is to shortchange both Darnielle's cognac-dry melodies and pinched-but-urgent vocals. But every line of every song is so meticulously composed and manages to sound so un-self-conscious, if you love words it can make your head spin. And that goes especially for his metaphors: On "International Small Arms Traffic Blues," he evokes both unrequited love ("My love is like a powder keg/In the corner of an empty warehouse/Somewhere just outside of town/About to burn down") and the uneasy peace of a longstanding relationship ("Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania/Trucks loaded down with weapons/Crossing over every night, moon yellow and bright/There is a shortage in the blood supply/But there is no shortage of blood/The way I feel about you, baby, I can't explain it/You've got the best of my love").
"No Children" sharpens the knife further: "I hope if you think of me years down the line/You can't think of one good thing to say/And I hope if I found the strength to walk out/You'd stay the hell out of my way." Pretty damn lucid for a guy who notes earlier, on "First Few Desperate Hours," that "I speak in smoke signals and you answer in code." Don't bet on it.
-- Michaelangelo Matos
The Bootleg Series Vol. 5:
Live 1975 -- The
Rolling Thunder Revue
By 1975, Bob Dylan was no prophet. His most celebrated work was nearly a decade behind him. He had looked lost as Alias in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, had appeared onstage only a handful of times from 1966 to 1973, and was already gaining a stage and studio reputation as more of a holy presence than a bandleader. In short, he was quietly evolving into his current role as a tireless touring musician who happened to be one of the most compelling figures in rock-and-roll.
Although I was shocked and delighted when he regrouped with 2001's "Love and Theft," I've never been particularly interested in noncanonical Dylan. Life's just too short. And that goes double for the whole Rolling Thunder medicine-show-circus-fantastic-voyage-look-Bob's-back -with-Joan-Baez-and-Sam-Shepard's-there-too! fiasco. The official document of the second "Rolling Thunder" tour, 1976's Hard Rain, was a gigantic disappointment after his four previous LPs -- Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, and Desire. But history is mutable. Thanks to Columbia's The Bootleg Series -- the outstanding archival Dylan project that illuminated a shadow career with its first three volumes and officially released the epochal 1966 Manchester Free Trade/"Royal Albert Hall" concert as volume four -- two previously unreleased CDs of the original Rolling Thunder lineup have been brought to the public for the first time.
Culled from shows in Massachusetts and Canada, the composite concert is a wild ride, and the most compelling and dynamic material connect from some unlikely angles. "Isis" and an enraged "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" turn into waltz-time maelstroms courtesy of the 13-piece, seven-guitar(!) backup band. The solo acoustic "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" emphasize the feral, gritty, and wry vocal style Dylan favored at the time. And an electrified "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is much more palatable as music and jeremiad. Through it all, including the interminable "Hurricane" and a lugubrious finale, Dylan's ease as an artist and power as a public musician sound as clear as they will be for nearly 20 years. When he sings "So easy to look at/So hard to define" during "Sara," he could be describing his own post-Rolling Thunder career. It's almost proph well, you know. --Addison Engelking
Kings of Crunk --Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz (TVT): Macho belligerence as predictable as it is largely incomprehensible and generally devoid of social purpose, only saved by the occasional cameo appearance by far more talented cohorts. Stupidest lyric among the countless contenders, from "B***h": "Who we talkin' about? Any nigga that act like a woman." Oh no! Not a woman. ("I Don't Give A " [with Mystikal])
Girl Interrupted -- Ms. Jade (Beatclub/Interscope): The Timbaland/Missy formula delivering the goods, even in its most generic form. ("The Come Up," "Ching Ching," "Feel the Girl")
G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories --Swizz Beatz (Dreamworks): This serviceable guest-star-laden producer's showcase only proves that the Ruff Ryders-associated Beatz is a second-tier force in what is rapidly becoming a producer's medium, without the recognizable sonic personality of a Timbaland or Neptunes, much less Mannie Fresh. Not bad, but this "story" collection only delivers about half of what the more provocative cover art promises. ("Shyne," "Good Times," "Guilty")
200 KM/H in the Wrong Lane -- t.A.T.u. (Interscope): American debut from Russian, teenaged, lipstick-lesbian-lovers dance-pop duo who have already gone platinum across the Eastern Bloc -- now that's marketing. Turns out "Russian" is the problem, though, since this stuff is so lacking in the funk department that it makes for better magazine fodder than radio play, though their vocals have more life in Russian than English. On the other hand, the lead single, on which one teenage girl professes romantic love for another, is a first of sorts, and how many other teen-pop acts would cover the Smiths to communicate their social agony? ("All the Things She Said," "Show Me Love," "How Soon Is Now")
Mollie's Mix --Various Artists (Kill Rock Stars): Kill Rock Stars is arguably the best punk record label of the last decade or so, not that you'd know it from this disappointing roster sampler, which is too often as amateurish-in-a-bad-way as scoffers believe all such music is. In this context, Sleater-Kinney sound even more monumental than they really are, and second-tier contenders the Bangs and the Gossip offer the kind of subpar performances more likely to ward tourists away than spur their interest. Nice to hear ex-Geraldine Fibbers frontperson Carla Bozulich back on wax, though. ("Bless Me" --Tight Bro's From Way Back When; "Oh!" -- Sleater-Kinney; "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" -- Carla Bozulich)
Nuclear War --Yo La Tengo (Matador): Hoboken's finest use a long hiatus between proper albums to cover Sun Ra four times over in a too-prescient-for-comfort single/EP. Highlight: the call-and-response kiddie-chorus on "Version 2," the tots singing with discernible potty-mouth glee, "It's a motherfucker/Don't you know?/If they push that button/Your ass got to go!" n
-- Chris Herrington