Ani Difranco .:. Reprieve

Monday, December 21, 2009 |

Reprieve is the latest entry in Ani Difranco's astonishing catalogue of music. It sounds more like a diary than an album, and it's no surprise. In addition to touring nonstop with a crew of musicians as diverse as former members of James Brown's and the Indigo Girls' bands, she manages to record an album every eleven months or so, chronicling everything from her disgust with the current political regime to her shaky relationship to those friendships that seem to never stop going.

Reprieve is a mix of both. It takes the slow, meandering tone of her recent albums, which works well with Difranco's emotional songs, which are always stabbingly effective ("I was homesick and I was high/surrounded by a language/in which I could only say hello"). But that same approach falters when she applies it to politics, and we're left with almost laughably random lyrics like "Ramadan orange alert/everybody put on your gas mask." Not that I disagree with her politics, but it's a point that's already been made better and conglomerations of catch-phrases like "trickle down Israel, patriarchies realign" are something that no one understands and no one wants to hear. Still, it's worth listening and using the "skip" button for the good songs, which are plenty.

Regina Spektor's third proper album is like that cynical older cousin who you love to sit next to at family functions. Totally funny, mostly good-natured, and both angry and delicious -- angrilicious? -- like the kind of person who says all the things you want to say but don't.

And -- uh -- says them all in cute, random metaphors and rhyming couplets and sweet, sweet melodies.

After the meandering intro of "The Calculation" -- a good, mid-tempo, semi-funked-out song about relationships, technology, and emotional indifference -- we get a virtual onslaught of Regina with the instant hookiness, smileyness, and spine-tingling anticipation of the piano chords that lead into "Eet."

The song might be named for its homonym, or it might be the way Spektor writes down her own whimsical non-word singing on paper. Then, when the drums come in -- "You spend half of your life/trying to fall behind/using your headphones to drown out your mind" -- the song becomes simultaneously triumphant and snarky. And it's especially victorious when you consider it's a song about hipster kids who are so preoccupied with looking cool that they forget how to dance. (That's what I think it's about, anyway.) Really, it's a self-defeating argument -- by the time you're done analyzing, you're hopping up and down in your desk chair, anyway.

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Whether you like slow jams or not, you have to hand it to Avant—he is a boy who gets the girl. On songs like “Av” and “Hooked,” Avant drips with a sophisticated sleaze. He’s a smooth rider. There’s only one reason to buy this CD, and if you need me to spell it out, you probably don’t need to own it.

The rhythm behind producer Stizzle’s beats spell out a slow grind, and Avant’s lyrics—reproduced in full in the lyric book, down to “You will be my feast/Mm mm/something sweet to eat/Mm mm”—are designed to fast-forward the evening straight to an intimate moment on a very comfortable couch. Avant has exactly one mode, and that’s sexing U up. We get to hear the whole thing on two different songs, first on the interlude to the lush “Phone Sex (That’s What’s Up),” and then on “Read Your Mind,” as Av convincingly lays down the law—“I know you wanna rub/I know you wanna touch/I know you wanna see/I know you wanna be/in my B-E-D.” Tell it, Av.

Clues that Marilyn Manson has sold out (again):
- Currently dating someone younger (and possibly more depraved) than he is.
-There’s a picture of a heart (okay, a spooky one, but still—a heart?!) on the front of his new CD.
-Only eleven tracks—a restrained, toned-down number of tracks which we associate with Celine Dion, not the angel of chaos who brought us bazillion-song fiascos like Antichrist Superstar and Portrait of an American Family that just seemed to keep the fucked-uppetry coming.

On Eat Me, Drink Me however, Manson seems to be trying for a more sinister, cerebrally-dark (as opposed to, you know, slam-dancey-dark) worldview and corresponding sound. There’s still the metal guitar riffs, still the industrial tear-down-the-house drums, but Manson, no stranger to self-reinvention, seems to be pulling on layers instead of stripping them off. It can get cheesy and even sometimes sappy—what do you expect with an album that opens with the lyrics “6 A.M. Christmas morning/No shadows, no reflections here”?

Current collaborator Tim Skold (formerly of KMFDM) holds up the musical end, and Manson’s pop-inflicted choruses still give him that sense of fun that borders on self-parody. It’s a little more poetry-writing-15-year-old than suicidal-15-year-old. But, hey, it’s Manson in love. What do you expect?

Regina Spektor comes from the New York City anti—folk scene, that curious bisection of painfully earnest singer-song writing and hipster cool. After an unexpected tidal wave of popularity with her eponymous debut album, this -— her major label debut -— is a weird and kind of cool ground between the ethereal weirdness of Kate Bush and the put you to sleep laziness of, I don’t know, Paula Cole? The opening track (and first single), “Fidelity,” is a soft, dreamy orchestral sample that’s trip-hop and electronica-ish and catchy as hell.

There’s a definite line that Spektor could step over and cross into boring-girl soft-rock territory, but, for the most part, she manages to sidestep it. After all, she puts lines like “I went to a protest/just to rub against strangers” together with “Summer in the city means/cleavage cleavage cleavage,” and starts singing in French and then falls into Russian. She’s tricky and playful and, as an indie-folk secret, Regina Spektor totally held it together without being trite. Will the big time kill her? So far, it hasn’t—and here’s hoping it won’t.

KMFDM .:. Tohuvabohu

Sunday, February 1, 2009 |

When someone talks about German industrial goth-dance bands, KMFDM will inevitably come up—whether because of talent, iconoclasm, or simply because of their ubiquity—who the hell else has made this much music for this long?—no one could say. Almost 25 years since their first album came out, Tohuvabohu really doesn’t sound that different. In fact, the most significant departure is the title, which abandons KMFDM’s standard five-letter moniker for the mysterious-sounding but grammatically-incorrect Hebrew expression for the creation of the universe.

Musically, however, the band’s current lineup strikes a tenuous balance between their characteristic industrial, as well as elements of funk, R & B, and metal. Whether it’s that half-growl, half-Elvis sneer in Sascha Konietzko’s deep, robotic vocals, or the weirdly sexy addition of diva-of-the-moment Lucia Cifarelli, the songs are mostly interchangeable but uniformly tight, lacking any standout single or career-making track, but that’s okay, mostly; they’ve made their contribution to greatness. Tohuvabohu succeeds in being solidly good, and maybe that's just as important.

Maritime plays a pleasant, airy batch of intellectually-minded pop songs on Heresy and the Hotel Choir, their third full-length. I mean, how many other bands’ press releases would note that their former bassist left to pursue a career teaching high school English?

Not to worry. Despite the loss of that bassist — former Dismemberment Plan bassist and general mischief maker Eric Axelson — singer/guitarists Davey and Dan from the Promise Ring, along with a new rhythm section, put forth all their characteristic charm, wit, and good-natured pop-tinged rawk on Heresy.

The album’s opener, “Guns of Navarone,” with its feel-good chorus “Sticks and stones may break my skin/but...” named after the Alistair MacLean novel, drops us instantly in and out of the emotional tumult, half shake-your-ass dancey and half first-day-of-a-crush jubilant, that give you the emotional surge that the Promise Ring was so expert at delivering.

The rest of the album follows suit, with songs like the low-end jam of “For Science Fiction” and the surprisingly beautiful drone and static of “First Night on Earth” rounding out a bill of songs that capture the emotional range of getting older, of walking down a busy late-night street, and everything that comes between. It won’t change your life, but it’ll make you feel good about it.

Dalek, the hip hop duo, or the instrumental group with a vocalist, or the industrial group—or whatever you want to call them—comes alive and seems to almost actively duck the “rarities” moniker that’s attached to Deadverse Massive. It’s a sprawling collection of songs that is hip hop at its core, but shrouded in shadowy vocals, layered and echoed, together with grinding music that sometimes sidesteps the beat but never loses it. This is Massive Attack before they became a party band: slow, loud hip hop that specializes in ambient noises that shouldn’t work but do. Their beats are made of guitars and synths alongside crashes, wheezes, frequently disconcerting noises that sound like a 1950s computer going crazy and rampaging Manhattan—and yet, the Dälek duo never let up sounding slow, sultry and darkly, fiercely sexual. Reminiscent of Dan the Automator, but only in a good way—like, in their New Jersey basement, they stumbled upon the first Dr. Octagon album, decided that it contained the secrets of the universe, and retold it in their own image. And they keep on telling.

If you’ve heard “Let It Go,” the now-ubiquitous single featuring Missy Elliott, Li’l Kim, and that damn “Damn, that’s hot” chorus, feel free to use that song as the review for this CD.

If you’re one of the five people who haven’t, OK, pull up a chair, grab a cup of joe…are you with me? Cool. Keyshia Cole is one of the most powerful voices in contemporary hip hop/r&b/“urban” music, which is another way of saying black people who sing and aren’t Peabo Bryson. This record is kind of the opposite of a gangsta album—it’s more a gangsta widow album. “Let It Go” is a song that’s addressed to another woman, letting her know that her man’s been coming on to Keyshia, and he isn’t lovin’ her right...and she needs to get rid of him.

These are super-cheesy songs that tear straight to the heart of relationships. Songs that call people out on things that people do, and don’t hold back. “Didn’t I Tell You” retreads the thematic backdrop of “Let It Go,” and “Fallin’ Out” is, well, exactly what you think. The brilliant Anthony Hamilton shines on “Losing You,” and Diddy even shows up for good measure. At this point, his appearance does just as much for his image as it does for Keyshia’s, maybe even more. As she lets us know straight from “Let It Go”: she don’t need nobody.

Siouxsie .:. Mantaray

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Siouxsie Sioux — previously of the Banshees, the Monsters, and the comic books Sandman and Death — has been through more iterations than I can accurately describe. From adorning my bedroom wall to mixing into both my teenage too-goth-to-handle fantasies, as well as those other teenage fantasies, to call her an icon is an understatement. She's a force of nature.
In the '80s, she seduced both the popular kids and the kids who wouldn't be caught dead listening to anything resembling popular. Her solo debut, Mantaray, is equal factions Madonna electropop, KMFDM bass-synth-brass bombast, and Sarah Vaughan swagger. "I feel a force I've never felt before/I don't want to fight it anymore" she sings. If you believe Pitchfork, she's talking about the breakup of her marriage and her bi-curious tendencies; or you can see it as a new exploration of her inner pop diva stepping out, taking over, and having creepy and beautiful Björk-like spiders and butterflies crawling all over her, as they are in the cover, and being awash in the glorious—and unapologetically catchy—songs on this album.