By Jon R. LaFollette
Jack White - Blunderbuss
His minimalistic garage rock glory days seemingly forever behind him (seemingly), Jack White soldiers on with his first solo album, an amalgam of the one band that defined him, and the two bands that simply entertained him. Sound wise, there is more in common with the Raconteurs than the White Stripes; "Missing Pieces," with its polished guitar lines and soulful organ runs, is a haunted jam that fits better in the country-rock scene of Nashville rather than his native Detroit, and "Sixteen Saltines" rocks so hard you'd almost think he doesn't miss is former compatriot Meg as much as you think he should (almost). If you look for anything revelatory in the music you'll come up empty handed, instead look to the lyrics.
Normally cryptic and broad, White has fine-tuned his words to be slightly less general, if not entirely specific. Jack's biggest beef is with unyielding and unbending women - even as a band of talented ladies plays behind him on "Love Interuption," a Dusty Spingfield-esque song where White wishes for the death of his own mother at one point . But that's only the first half. The second half is more, dare I say, personal, especially the last three songs where White seeks the help of a friend, even if they are an unbending women. Something tells me that's unbending woman he misses is Meg White. GRADE: A-
Magnetic Fields - Love at the Bottom of the Sea
With these 15 songs with an average running time of 2:16, Stephin Merritt and company's 11th album is nothing revelatory or ground-breaking. In fact it's more of the same. But when more of the same means enjoying instantly infectious songs straight from Tin Pan Alley that are as fun as they are bubbly and kitschy, it's hard to complain. So complain I won't. Instead I'll keep listening to the one song about that drag queen Andrew, or the other one about that charming Hugh character. Too East Coast or posh for you? Then sample the closing track about that air-headed woman who only dances to mariachi. Not clever enough you say? Try the song that turns Merritt's insatiable neediness into a great metaphor about cell phones. Too tongue-in-cheek? There's the simple ditty about moving to Wyoming, sung by co-vocalist Shirley Simms in her nasally chirp, that shows Merritt doesn't need a drag show, Broadway or 4G reception to be happy, just a ukulele and a melody. GRADE: A-
"Andrew In Drag"
"I'd Go Anywhere With Hugh"
"Goin Back to the Country"
Todd Snider - Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables
A witty songwriter who is capable enough of penning smart political songs with enough humanity to stave off the label of "preachy." The best lines? "Religion only keeps the poor from killing the rich," and "Good things happen to bad people." The grittiness you'll hear isn't in the voice, which isn't anything spectacular, it's in the guitars, which are as gritty and rusty as Snider himself. GRADE: A-
"New York Banker"
"In The Beginning"
"Too Soon To Tell"
Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
On an album that's as schmaltzy as its auteur, Bruce Springsteen continues his lifelong practice of preaching from the pulpit about the down-and-out out common man and romanticizing the glory days when an honest day's work was rewarded with an honest day's pay. The album's first half is muscularly robust and full of anthems as steady as the metaphorical engine he sang about all those years ago on "Born to Run." Lead single "We Take Care of Our Own" is self-explanatory from a lyrical standpoint, but the chiming bells and uplifting violin courtesy of the E Street Band help to give Springsteen's groan of a voice a soft place to land, while "Shackled and Drawn," a Celtic-tinged stomper, hammers home Springsteen's political and personal convictions as best he knows how.
But there the opening songs are propulsive, the second half devolves slightly into ballads about characters so sympathetic and cliché you would think he were penning a song for a campaign commercial - which is exactly what his goal was in all likelihood. Then just when you think he's lost his way, in comes the final measures of Clearance Clemons' saxophone on "Land of Hope and Dreams" just as The Boss shouts "Faith will be rewarded." I couldn't think of a better segway for the finale "We Are Alive." I got a better nickname for him, The Reverend. GRADE: B+
"Shackled And Drawn"
"Land of Hope and Dreams"
"Death To My Hometown"
Tommy Womack - Now What!
A self-described pimple on Dylan's ass, Tommy Womack is a singer/songwriter who has approached being middle aged with an attitude that's as unassuming as his nasally voice. He's not looking for any kind of escape from a midlife crisis mostly because he's not in a midlife crisis at all. In fact, I'd say he's at his best on Now What!. From the opening stutter of "Play That Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick Play," where he openly admits he's OK with not being famous, to the closing "Let's Have Another Cigarette," Womack seems content to roll with the punches and take life as it comes. Love doesn't have to be good, it just has to be. The pot just has to create a buzz, not an escape. Beer and cigarettes aren't vices, just cruxes of good conversation. I hope I'm this laid back and optimistic when I get to be his age. GRADE: B+
"It Doesn't Have to be That Good"
"Wishes Do Come True"
"Let's Have Another Cigarette"
Vacationer - Gone
After plenty of time spent researching just who exactly the members of Vacationer are, all I got was some first names (Brad, Matt, Stite, Andy) and a location (Baltimore). Whether or not they're vague on purpose is yet to be determined, but what is determinable is their love of concise, gorgeous, plainly stated indie pop. With 10 of 11 songs under the 3:30 mark, this band's debut is brisk, bubbly and brimming with polished synth hooks. But what's more refreshing than their sound is their direct lyrics devoid of almost any vague metaphors. "Good As New," isn't just a song, it's a manta. The understated, and well-executed, falsetto runs in the chorus sound like a band breaking out of their shell and conquering wherever it is they decided to venture on the following song "Trip," a self-explanatory title. But where the first six songs are a check list of solid pop jingles, the final five don't quite reach for the same heights and underwhelm when compared to their more infectious counterparts. Yet, despite their shortcomings, Vacationer have what it takes to be not only the best at what they do, but the smartest as well. The key ingredient is simplicity. Refreshing simplicity. GRADE: B
"Good As New"
Loudon Wainwright III - Older Than My Old Man Now
Rufus's daddy is preoccupied with death, which is something a lot of musicians past the age of 60 think about. But he's not whiny, just curious and, at times, pretty funny. Especially when he sings about his erectile dysfunction. GRADE: B-
Madonna - MDNA
For an album that's supposedly about her ex-husband, Madonna's twelfth album seems more preoccupied with the dance floor than divorce court. "Turn Up the Radio" is an escapist's anthem that finds salvation and peace in a groove, "Superstar" is plainly stated, and concerned with a love as simple as its melody. But when she does delve into her love life, as she does on the overly long "Gang Bang," the pace becomes too deliberate, the music too stiff and the vocals too grating. Yet she's at her most playful on "Give Me All Your Lovin'" where she assumes command over a new man, and Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. underwhelm on their respective cameos.GRADE: B-
"Turn Up the Radio"
"Give Me All Your Lovin'"
Dr. John - Locked Down
Swamp blues that's as musty as always, but nothing revelatory or new. Still, those groves are rather robust. GRADE: C+
Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
"Hang Lose" "Boys & Girls"
Screaming Females - Ugly
"Expire" "Crow's Nest"
Macy Gray - Covered
"Here Comes The Rain Again" "Teenageres"
DUD OF THE MONTH
Nicki Minaj - Roman Reloaded
The first four tracks of this bloated, schizophrenic record are so ear-gratingly awful you'd almost think the stronger songs on 2010's Pink Friday were a fluke. Opening "Roman Holiday" staggers its way through a demented Christmas carols, African tribal beats and empty synth pop before collapsing under the weight of its own ambition. Then she follows it with "Come on a Cone," where I immediately pressed the skip button after she started sincerely singing "Put my dick in yo' face," a joke that falls flat on arrival. The rest of the 19 tracks border on passably generic to just more of the same. GRADE: D+
The Shins - Port of Morrow
Eve 6 - Speak in Code
Bonnie Raitt - Slipstream
All-American Rejects - Kids In The Street
Death Grips - The Money Store
Odd Future - The OF Tape Vol. 2
The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet
Train - California 37
Jason Mraz - Love Is A Four Letter Word