Late Registration (Roc-a-Fella)
Everybody's favorite truant is back in all his Louis Vuitton and Paper Denim glory. Kanye West, überproducer and lukewarm MC, is going back to school with his second offering, Late Registration. Better late than never, right? Fortunately, West is anything but behind the times with Registration. In terms of production, it's a stellar achievement slightly ahead of its era.
The intro revisits last year's College Dropout, with Bernie "I ain't scared of you muhfuckas" Mac kicking it off in his trademark drawl. The listener is then pulled right into West's vision with "Heard 'Em Say" (featuring Adam Levine of Maroon 5), sporting sweet keys and an easygoing vibe in spite of West's occasionally serious subject matter, which ranges from racism to music-industry pitfalls.
"Touch the Sky" is next to bat, and it's perhaps the highlight of the album. West flips and slows Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" into a celebratory masterpiece. He hits a few snags on the next handful of forgettable tracks and lyrics, although Paul Wall shines on "Drive Slow," and the screwed and chopped segment at the end of the song adds some Houston flavor. However, Common's all-too-common verse on "My Way Home" begs for the FF button.
The skits, all four of them, suck as always. West probably displays the most lyrical prowess on "Roses," spitting a cappella about visiting his dying grandmother in the hospital. "Instead of sending flowers, we're the roses" is his explanation for his family. A dope concept and introspective verses to match make this one a winner.
Everyone's heard the Sierra Leone song, so that gets the skip button. Besides, the following track features a guest appearance from ... Nas?! That's right, on "We Major," West enlisted his mentor Jay-Z's onetime arch-nemesis. Who knows if they still have beef, but it still must have been awkward to present the idea to the Def Jam president. The track itself is invigorating in a cinematic sense, but it grows a tad lackluster when it becomes evident that the "crescendo" goes nowhere. Which is pretty much the overall trend on Late Registration. It's often on the brink of inducing goose bumps but ultimately falls short, though not by more than mere inches. (Juan Pablo)
The Saga of Mayflower May (Eclipse)
Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, CocoRosie, and others tickle and annoy me to varying degrees, depending on how far into the land of whimsy they travel and how willing I am to traipse along with them. In Marissa Nadler, however, I've found a singer-songwriter whose more traditional approach inspires consistent admiration or downright enthrallment. A balladeer in the classic sense, Nadler spins chilly melodic patterns, then blankets them with a crushed-velvet voice like Hope Sandoval's, though not as drowsy she doesn't sound doped, but rather as if she just swallowed a fatal poison masked in a delicious drink.
Such a scenario is fitting, because her second album is populated with more doomed maidens than Verdi's songbook. Rife with the tiny rituals of lonely women, The Saga of Mayflower May's songcraft might not be struck by lightning à la Banhart's, or as funny as CocoRosie's perversity, but Nadler spins tales with an unnerving concentration that just might make her the best of the neo-folkies. In "Mr. John Lee (Velveteen Rose)," the narrator is more interested in a gal named Marie than she is in the title figure, maybe because Marie was his wife and she was the other woman. There's more to the story suffice it to say that one of them has a date with a river. "Lily, Henry and the Willow Trees" also explores murderous terrain, although curiously, Nadler chooses not to sing a (admittedly alternate) brutal conclusion printed on the lyric sheet.
Nadler's use of archaic language isn't as precious as her peers', and while her guitar playing is delicate, there's always something sinister and decadent at the edges of the finery. "Yellow Lights" could be the loveliest of all the lovelies here, perhaps because she allows the tiniest bit of modernity into her compositional approach, with Brian McTear's Hammond organ glowing behind her voice as it swings to and fro. Each of these 11 songs is like a perfume, intoxicating before it vanishes into thin air, leaving you with a lingering memory of being seduced and the desire to be spoiled again. Marissa Nadler plays Sept. 7 and 15, Hemlock Tavern, SF. (415) 923-0923. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Twin Cinema (Matador)
I never cared much for the New Pornographers: The buoyancy seemed forced, the gang vocals too cheerily over-the-top, the pop too glossily brazen. Wasn't the indie-rock supergrope simply the Polyphonic Spree on a manic breakfast-cereal high, without the cultie getups? With more pie-eyed Paul McCartney than beatific Beach Boys?
Perhaps I like the new New Porn, Twin Cinema, better because A.C. Newman made one of my favorite indie pop albums of 2004 and now has so thoroughly left his scent all over Twin Cinema. Despite a handful of tracks by Destroyer's Dan Bejar and a collaboration between Newman and John Collins ("The Jessica Numbers"), Twin Cinema does, in many disrespects, sound like a particularly full-bodied Newman solo release. "The Bones of an Idol" plugs into Newman's familiar chord changes and blows them out into choral ecstasy. The title track and "Use It" bounce with typical NP aggression as if they're raring to be the alpha pups on the team-spirit troupe before spinning off into unexpected tangents, with cellos strewn throughout the former and a well-tempered piano grounding the latter. Judging from the endless zeal and punch they bring to nearly every song, Newman or should we say New Man and the New Pornographers still seem to be up for a good wallow in the electric wonderland of power pop.
All of which might add up to the equivalent of gorging on quality junk food barring the mind-cleansing chime and Tijuana Brass textures of the closer, "Stacked Crooked," and Bejar's more eccentric contributions. Bejar's "Jackie Dressed in Cobras" drags you along with its melody, kicking and singing, while "Broken Beads" brings a proggy Brit dignity to the overwrought stop-and-start proceedings. "I suppose father always knows best," he creaks like a courtly, constipated David Bowie. "Yes, there is a war. It's much like the one I've been waiting for. Boys versus girls." Does pop this powerful the Pornographers certainly never shy away from ditching the subtle and grabbing for the source need a purpose to exist? It helps. New Pornographers play Sept. 27-28, Bimbo's 365 Club, SF. (415) 474-0365. (Kimberly Chun)
No Earthly Man (Drag City)
Scottish songwriter Alasdair Roberts drifts ever deeper into the territory of British Isles balladry with his third solo album, a collection of traditionals (along the lines of 2001's In the Crook of My Arm) circulated over the centuries in Scotland, England, and Ireland. There isn't much frolicking in the greenwood to be found among these eight solemn tracks, No Earthly Man being mostly devoted to tales of shipwreck, lost love, fratricide, infanticide, and sweetheart-icide. In "Lord Ronald" a young man sickens and dies, offering a gallows punch line to a tale of poisoning; in "Molly Bawn" an equally unlucky fellow shoots and kills his intended, having mistaken her for a swan hiding in the brush; and Roberts finishes things off with a nice funeral dirge. Nodding to folk musicology tradition, the liner notes offer careful notations of the songs' provenance, including the recordings (largely from the 1960s and '70s) Roberts used to learn them.
It's not an easy album to love too dismal to warm to quickly, the slow, discomforting tales of heartbreak and foul play left sparsely arranged. They take repeated listenings, and letting the chill of the stories sink in. Also, obviously, they've been told before, and Roberts's interpretations don't shine out the way so many tracks on 2003's Farewell Sorrow did. That album's original recordings, heavily traced with traditional phrasings, vocal mannerisms, and instrumentation, show what Roberts can do when he's not so much playing by the songbook as leaving it open while he works. Alasdair Roberts performs Sept. 14, 21 Grand, Oakl. (510) 444-7263; Sept. 15, Hemlock Tavern, SF. (415) 923-0923. (Lynn Rapoport)