Album Reviews

Album Review: Damien Rice’s 9
by: Jeff Montgomery

First came Bob Dylan, then Cat Stevens, then James Taylor, then … Damien Rice?

It might be a stretch to place Rice in such an elite league of musicians – as U2’s Bono recently did at one of Rice’s concerts – but, it is becoming abundantly clear that he is an artist worth paying attention to.

On Nov. 14, Rice released 9, the follow-up to his debut album O. The album is neither alarming nor innovative; and – as critics of the album will surely point out – it has a lot in common with Rice’s first release: the songs are extremely sad, skillfully written and performed with a sparse, delicate beauty.

The record begins with “Nine Crimes,” a piano ballad sung from the perspective of an unfaithful lover. “Leave me out with the waste/this is not what I do/it’s the wrong kind of place/to be cheating on you,” Rice sings in the second verse. The song has received more attention – from critics and fans alike – than any other song on the album. There are however, higher points on the record.

“The Animals Were Gone” is an excellent song that takes the clichÇd theme of love-gone-bad and turns it into something lovely and authentic. A cello rises and descends in the background as Rice declares that “waking up without you is like drinking from an empty cup.”

“Elephant” is the best song on the album. Originally titled “Blower’s Daughter 2” (a reference to the third track on O), the song emphasizes Rice’s best gifts as a musician. Accompanied by a quiet cello, Rice strums his acoustic guitar and unveils the story of a frustrating and confusing relationship. His emotions are conveyed not by what he’s singing, but by how he’s singing it: reserved, delicate and clearly upset.

The music on 9 is solid, but Rice’s lyrics are the most intriguing part of the record. He’d rather be honest than subtle, and the result is an album packed with straightforward songs about sadness, sex, longing and anger.

His blunt honesty reaches new heights on, the downright depressing, “Accidental Babies,” a track on which Rice ponders the state of his ex-lover’s new relationship. “Does he drive you wild/or just mildly free?” Rice asks, as a gentle piano line echoes his despair.

On “Rootless Tree,” Rice casts aside the melancholy and starts to get mad. “Fuck you/fuck you/fuck you and all we’ve been through,” he yells through a wall of distorted guitars. “I said leave it/leave it/leave it/there’s nothing in you.”

It would be negligent to talk about 9 without mentioning the contributions of Lisa Hannigan and Vyvienne Long, who also appeared on Rice’s first record. Hannigan’s voice, muted and vulnerable, is the perfect compliment to Rice’s songwriting style, and Long’s cello adds a necessary element to the mood of the album.

Damien Rice will probably never write a brilliant album – his music thrives on simplicity, and he seems disinterested in creating a record that caters to critics’ desires. With 9 however, Rice has created an intimate, moody and worthwhile record.

Maybe the Dylans and the Taylors are not so far out of reach after all.

Album Review: Jay Bennett’s The Magnificent Defeat
by: Jeff Montgomery

Few departures have been as well-documented as Jay Bennett’s split from Wilco during the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. When Bennett’s differences with the rest of the band became irreconcilable, a film crew – there to film the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart – was there to catch Bennett’s reaction.

Bennett was brash and unapologetic as he declared that Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy had become jealous of the attention Bennett was getting. It was an interesting statement to say the least, and Bennett appeared to be disillusioned about his role in the band.

Bennett’s solo career has been observed with curious interest. His first three solo albums – yes he’s already released three albums – have not exactly taken off. And his fourth album, The Magnificent Defeat, probably won’t be a breakthrough record either.

The Magnificent Defeat can be good at times. But, as a whole, it is disappointing.

On “Slow Beautifully Seconds Faster,” a pleasant pop song is engulfed by an onslaught of swirling synthesizers and crashing piano chords. The song is reminiscent of Foxtrot-era Wilco songs; where simple chord progressions are tweaked and deconstructed into something less accessible but more artistically intriguing. It is the best song on the album, but the rest of the CD is far less impressive.

Bennett’s vocals – often delivered with disturbing bravado – clash with the music he writes. On “Wide Open,” Bennett’s vocal gymnastics sound cartoonish alongside a strummed acoustic guitar and steady drum beat. “Thank You,” and “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” are more reserved ballads but cannot carry the weight of their own seriousness.

Bennett is a good songwriter and an even better musician, but he cannot go at it alone. In his days with Wilco, he was a necessary part of an important band. Now, as a solo artist, it is becoming clear that Jay Bennett will always be “that guy who used to be in Wilco.”

Album Review: Robin Thicke’s The Evolution of Robin Thicke
By: Jaron Birkan

In the ’80s, when soul was inundated with pasty British boys like Style Council and Scritti Politti doing their best Smokey Robinson imitations, it was easy for a white man to sing about love’s hardships.

Today Justin Timberlake tries, but his falsetto blustering becomes disinteresting after a while, too muddled in the dissimilar world of hip-hop. Pharrell Williams, though, knows how to open and re-open a career, be it Timberlake’s first album or Snoop Dogg’s brilliant comeback a couple years back.

Robin Thicke clearly listened to his instructions. The Evolution of Robin Thicke is a clear offspring of The Neptunes-style, staccato beats layered with synthesizers, but without the verse, chorus, verse of rap it’s almost fresh.

Thicke’s a professional singer, the kind American Idol tries so hard to produce, and his voice is easily adaptable to Pharrell’s wanderings. On “Lost Without U,” his voice quivers over a breathy classical guitar, and even adapts slightly to Lil’ Wayne’s boasting on the club-ringer “All Night Long.”

The most applicable (and inevitable) comparison is Justin Timberlake. They both move through genres, attach themselves to producers and both have accurately appropriated soul music to their voices.

If anything, though, Thicke’s the better singer; his voice has a greater range and, unlike Timberlake, does not compensate his shortcomings with an overreaching falsetto.

“Wanna Love U Girl” is a showcase for these talents. Not surprisingly, it’s a thug love anthem, the joke being Thicke has the most harmless voice this side of Michael McDonald. What he’s doing is murmuring, but when he tries to growl “And now my life is sweeter than berries/I guess if we have sex our love will turn to wine,” it’s sadly captivating.

Pharrell’s guest verse is grating, sadly exhorting his unwavering narcissism, but a necessary evil. The slinky, airy beat is too good to ignore.

If not for Pharrell, though, Thicke would be a middling, tame singer-songwriter. And often he does sound out of place, but when he finds a groove, only the coldest of hearts could reject his charms.

Album Review: Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen
By: Caitlin Cremer

If you are going to listen to Joe Cocker sing, then there isn’t any other way but to listen to him live. Listening to this man sing when there is no studio production getting in the way is … unreal. But that’s no news to anyone. Cocker’s 2005 re-mastered version of Mad Dogs and Englishmen leans more towards a recreational drug for rock lovers than a meager 2-disc CD set.

The album, originally released in 1970, now rocks on with even more tracks and extended versions of songs. Incredibly enough, a few of the previously unreleased songs included “Cry Me a River” and “Feelin’ Alright.” It’s crazy that these classics would be eliminated.

Leon Russell, as the band leader, rocks out on some of the most outstanding rock piano ever heard. Russell’s version of “Hummingbird” and his southern charm in “Delta Lady” is nothing short of phenomenal. Russell’s musical talent by far overshadows the rest of the band, and in many cases, overshadows Cocker – as hard as it is for me to say that. But thanks to Russell, the album encompasses the songs with a timeless rock that all generations can appreciate – even those unfortunate souls who were unable to go to Woodstock in ’69.

By the end of the set, you may find yourself yelling “Long live Joe Cocker!” Or maybe not. But I know I did. His fanfare seems to be diminishing, but I hope that with this relatively new release, the Cocker love is revived. With that in mind: Thank you, Leon Russell. Thank you, Claudia Lennear. Thank you, Don Preston. Thank you, Rita Coolidge. Thank you, Joe Cocker. This album is a gift.

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