WINCING THE NIGHT AWAY (3 1/2 stars) My name is Spencer and I'm a Shinsaholic. I'm not sure precisely when James Mercer and his merry men went from gushed-over critical darlings to the blog world's version of a guilty pleasure—evidently somewhere between Garden State and the mock record clerks driven to YouTubean murder by the "indietastic" soundtrack—but I'm not ashamed to confess that I still listen to The Shins all the damn time. Their breezy, melody-driven tunes are an uncluttered haven from "serious" music, providing the backdrop for playtime with my 1-year-old daughter and keeping me whistling blissfully even when I'm stuck in Spaghetti Bowl traffic.
I felt a bit sucker-punched when three-years-in-the-making third album Wincing the Night Away leaked last October. My first few spins through the 11 tracks (really 10, plus 56-second bridge "Pam Berry") failed to register, the antithesis of my initial reactions to predecessors Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow. Mercer's sugary voice hasn't changed, nor has his playfully penetrative lyrical sense ("We've pissed on far too many sprites/And they're all standing up for their rights," he sings on "Red Rabbits"), but his hooks weren't hooking me, at least not in the instantaneous way The Shins' splendid simplicity always had before.
I kept at it, though, as any good junkie does, and some three months later I can safely say Wincing is exactly what I thought a Shins album would never be: a grower. Although busier arrangements, including a pseudo-hip-hop beat on "Sea Legs," and unexpected instrumentation—yes, that jangle in "Australia" is a banjo—tends to mask it, sweet pop nectar remains. There's nothing quite as punchy as "Pressed in a Book" or as life-changing as "New Slang," but there's no denying the ear-pleasing allure of "Turn on Me," "Split Needles" or first single "Phantom Limb"—cuts sure to command a presence on any happy-time playlist.
Will Wincing the Night Away finish 2007 as my album of the year, as Oh, Inverted World did in 2001? Doubtful, though the way it's gained momentum in my CD changer thus far, I'm not completely counting it out. For now, I can safely report The Shins remain an infectious lot, even if I don't need a 12-step program to cure myself from craving their latest collection.
More Fish (2 1/2 stars)
hiBy now most of you have heard about the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish—you know, good for the heart and all that jazz. And that's precisely what Ghostface's triumphant Fishscale was: an electro-shock to hip-hop's talent-challenged heart. The man born Dennis Coles in Staten Island smorgasborded his entire repertoire—mafioso-style raps, alter egos, masterful wordplay, South Park humor, numerous non sequiturs, that nasally screamy-whiny voice—into the best solo Wu-Tang joint in years.
So the expectation with More Fish, his strike-while-the-iron's-hot sequel, is more good stuff for the heart, right? Eh, eh.
Ghost still does his thing, no doubt, ripping through tracks like a hot knife through butter ("Street Opera" with his real son, Sun God) and weaving crime tales ("Outta Town Shit") like a ghetto Francis Ford Coppola. Of the 17 joints, however, 12 are collabos, making More feel like a posse album and Ghostface like a lead-off hitter setting up his less talented teammates.
Which works well when the add-ons rise above average-rapper status and hit lyrical home runs, as Trife Da God, Cappadonna and Killa Sin do on the Ginsu-sharp, MF Doom-produced "Guns N' Razors"; or as Shawn Wigs and one-time best-rapper-alive candidate Redman do on the funny "Greedy Bitches"; or as Sheek Louch of The Lox does on the thuggish-roguish "Blue Armor."
More often, though, you find yourself digesting the bad guest appearances just so you can hear Ghost spit something scrumptious like this "Miguel Sanchez" verse: "Miguel Sanchez, keep a gun hidden in his pants leg/With armed bodyguards, surveillance around his land spread/He runs a billion-dollar organization, under investigation, plus he's wanted by immigration/Now I'm stuck, crazy look on my face, shocked in amazement/How the f--k I get involved with these federal agents."
If only More had much more of this.
Freedom's Road (2 1/2 stars)
The mark of a good John Mellencamp song is this: Close your eyes while you're listening, and imagine the song playing over images of fields, weather-beaten houses and people, and long, lonely stretches of rural road, all just as the sun is setting in the background. If the song sounds perfect for the closing credits of a movie about hardscrabble small-town folks, it's Mellencamp gold.
Freedom's Road, Mellencamp's first album of original material in more than five years, has too few of those moments. Sure, "Our Country" has already begun playing in front of exactly those sorts of images in a new ad campaign for Chevrolet, and "The Americans" is an evocative bit of Americana, but too many of the songs on Road are dour and downbeat, from the Joan Baez duet "Jim Crow" to the somber "Forgiveness." Even "The Americans" eschews Mellencamp's usually strong storytelling for bland description and boring platitudes: "I'm an American/I respect you and your point of view," Mellencamp sings; not exactly firebrand political rhetoric or poetic chronicling of the American experience.
Hidden track "Rodeo Clown" has more bite, declaring "There's blood on the hands of the rich politicians," but it's the only song that combines Mellencamp's effective roots-rock songwriting with something resembling an interesting point of view. The rest of the album is either moody and murky or bright and forgettable; Jack and Diane would be disappointed.
Stars of Track and Field
CENTURIES BEFORE LOVE AND WAR (3 stars)
Stars of Track and Field can do epic and they can do morose. They're a little better at morose. Examples: the quiet, repetitive beauty of "With You" and the shimmery and correctly named "Fantastic."
As for the rest of the album, things often get real loud as the guitars collide with the synth sounds and other computer tricks. (Daniel Baker Orvik is credited for programming before he's credited for drums on the album.) Then they get real quiet.
The range is pretty fun. There are anvil-dropping moments on songs like "Real Time" that sound like they could have created by Mono or Mogwai or Secret Machines, but when Jason Bell sings, comparisons to Muse or Coldplay seem more apt. And when Bell whispers like he does on "U.S. Mile 5," he's veering toward Interpol territory.
Sweet ballads, though, seem to be what these Portland boys do best. "With You" and "Fantastic" are two of the simpler songs on this album, but they're also the ones that will endure.
HISSING FAUNA, ARE YOU THE DESTROYER? (4 stars)
"Eva, I'm sorry, but you will never have me," Kevin Barnes chides on the comically catchy "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider." "To me you're just some faggy girl, and I need a lover with soul power."
Soul power he may need, but power pop's what the Of Montreal mastermind is blessed with. Having left behind a more straightforward, lo-fi indie sound for the shimmery siren of electropop over the course of seven albums and scores of departed members, Barnes continues on the course he recharted with 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic and 2005's The Sunlandic Twins. Packed with clap-happy dance beats, fuzzed-out synths and glammy falsettos, Fauna channels the decadence of the '80s without all the inconvenient cocaine-induced paranoia. A hint of that decade's darkness is here, too, in the narrative lyrics smuggled beneath such up-tempo tracks as "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger" ("I spent the winter on the edge of a total breakdown while living in Norway/I felt the darkness of the black-metal bands") and the 12-minute "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" ("I'm flunking out, I'm gone, I'm just gone/But at least I author my own disaster").
Elsewhere Barnes lets his inner Disco Duck out and channels Prince on the stuttery one-two punch of "Faberge Falls for Shuggie" and "Labyrinthian Pomp." There's even a ditty about the transient nature of the music industry. "We don't want these days to ever end, we just want to emasculate them forever," he pouts on "Suffer For Fashion." "Pretty sirens don't go flat. It's not supposed to happen like that." The tongue-in-cheek approach is admirable and all; it just doesn't groove with Fauna's throwback vibe. Post-ironic music about music, after all, is sooo 2006.
Cake or Death (3 stars)
Las Vegas resident Lee Hazlewood, a country singer-songwriter and producer who might be best known as the writer of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walking," has just made his last album.
Hazlewood calls Cake or Death his final album in part because he is fighting cancer. For Hazlewood, a gifted lyricist with a caustic wit, the promise of Cake or Death as being his last album is also a provocative poke in the eye to his audience.
The rebellious Hazlewood is no singer. His brand of crooning is less vocal ability and more talking along with a melody. But what melodies Hazlewood can write. "Baghdad Knights" isn't just a political statement, it's a '50s rock 'n' roll anthem with a chorus that soars with horns, background female vocals and the slightest flute coda.
"Please Come to Boston" is a gorgeously sad ballad sung with jazz singer Ann Kristin Hedmark that sounds like something Johnny Cash might have recorded if Rick Rubin would have been around in the '60s.
Although Cake or Death is flawed, it's also something a lot of new music isn't anymore: interesting. And I bet that's exactly what a guy like Hazlewood was aiming for.