Smog "A River Ain't Too Much to Love" (Drag City) Sounds like: Smog's usual brand of clever acoustic folk-mope songs, yet not quite as sparse as before B+
Smog's new release, his first since 2003's "Supper," sees the one-man outfit progressing musically and stylistically.
Smog, a.k.a. Bill Callahan, has always played simple songs, but on his new record, his guitar parts are very basic: kind of a folk plunkety-plunk, very natural and plain. On some songs Callahan is accompanied by a band of drums, bass, background vocals and maybe a slide guitar or strings.
The focus of every song is his words, sung in characteristic baritone, like Leonard Cohen with a sense of melody. Callahan has always had great imagery in his songs. He breaches topics like love and pain and loneliness but in an honest and genuine way. The views the songs give the listener are unobstructed by idle romanticism or unnecessary emotional clouding.
Such lines as "Getting off on the pornography of my past" give a hint at a man coming to terms with himself and his thoughts. Lines like "I guess everyone has their own things to yell into a well / I gave it a couple of hoots, a hello and a fuck all ya'll," from "The Well" are funny and seemingly meaningless, but the imagery they evoke is more important sometimes than the meaning. The song is about a broken man who happens upon a well, yelling and cursing himself because he is jobless and friendless. It's a sad picture, but one clear as well-water.
"The Well," which admittedly sounds better on Smog's live solo work, is still one of the standout tracks of the album with the addition of drums and strings, as is "Running the Loping," which plods along like the slow canter of a tired horse, a compliment that would be an insult to anyone but Smog. A cover of the oft-covered old blues tune "In the Pines" is also very well done, slowed way down with gently brushed drums and whistle accompaniment.
"A River Ain't to Much to Love" is sparse and slow; some might go as far as to say "boring." Give it time, though, and it'll deliver.
The Dudley Corporation "In Love With The Dudley Corporation" (Absolutely Kosher) Sounds like: Irish rockers with attention deficit disorders and great songwriting abilities A-
With each listen, "In Love With The Dudley Corporation" seems to get better. Hailing from Ireland, the Dudley Corporation plays poppy indie-rock with so many stops, gos and tempo shifts, it's a little hard to enjoy on the first spin. The album races through its 14 tracks in just under 38 minutes and it's occasionally difficult to pinpoint when one track ends and another begins.
The ADD doesn't stop there, as the group often packs three or four musical ideas of conflicting speeds into the same two to three minute song. At its softest, the trio plays songs that could be ballads by Death Cab for Cutie or fellow Irishmen Ash. At their most frenetic, The Dudleys sound like they could be openers at a Futureheads show.
After a few plays, however, The Dudley Corporation's ostensibly chaotic insanity starts sounding not only rational, but actually quite clever. Throw in the occasional banjo segment and some quirky lyrics like "3 a.m. and I'm falling off my stool/How in the hell am I gonna get home?/I dunno," and you have an indie-lover's dream.
The Chris Stamey Experience "A Question of Temperature" (Yep Roc) Sounds like: '80s college rock with a lot of spacey freak-outs and solos B- Chris Stamey likes jamming with his friends. And it happens that his friends are Yo La Tengo.
On his new record, which was actually released in pretty much the same form back in October 2004 as part of a "get out and vote" campaign, the feeling of seasoned musicians just hanging out and playing their favorite songs together for the hell of it is palpable. Five of the 14 songs are covers (six if you count Stamey's old band, the dB's, song "Summer Sun"). All are well done, but not amazing or revelatory in any way.
Yo La Tengo is the backing band for the whole record, with various guest spots by Stamey's pals, including members of bluegrass band and label-mates Chatham County Line.
The highlight of the record is a cover of the Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things," chosen probably to mirror Stamey's liberal politics. The cover of Television's classic "Venus" is a little annoying to the Television fan, as it's slowed down and all the charming interjections and half-sung ramblings are all crooned, making it less interesting, but also a bit prettier. One asks oneself, "But why did you have to do that to an already super song?" I think Stamey would answer, "Because I can and I have really cool friends."
It's most apparent that Yo La Tengo plays on the record when guitarist Ira Kaplin is allowed to wail out his signature fuzzed-out spacey solos. Four minutes or more of the 10 minute "McCauley Street (Let's Go Downtown)" are seized by Kaplin and his e-bowed guitar, proving that a middle-aged man can sure make a fiery ton of noise, for good or ill.
Overall, "A Question of Temperature" is solid and reliable, but not necessarily interesting or amazing. It's pop, it's jangle and it's nice, but elicits few strong feelings. This album's just chillin'. Unflappable.
Goldfinger "The Best of Goldfinger" (Legacy) Sounds like: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones on their fourth root beer mixed with Pop Rocks and Pixie Sticks. C+
A "best of" compilation doesn't lend itself well to the fast paced style of ska/punk mainstays Goldfinger. Ever since enjoying a modicum of success in the mini revival of their genre in the mid-'90s, they've managed to cultivate a respectable following outside of their west coast base of operations. They've always been solid on all their releases due to a tentative balance between high-energy guitar work and tangerine sweet vocals between founding members Simon Williams and John Feldman. As lineup changes plagued the band of the years, it was this continual balancing act that maintained Goldfinger's artistic merit, keeping them above the pop-punk trappings that seduced others in their field, most notably No Doubt.
So naturally, taking the most skull-frying tracks and grouping them onto one CD serves little purpose. Fans undoubtedly own all this material already in a more accessible format, and those introduced to Goldfinger for the first time will get exhausted by the time their rendition of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" is completed by track seven of 17. The extra DVD attached is fun, but Goldfinger's music videos aren't engaging enough for more than a cursory glance; with the exception of a live House of Blues performance of "Spokesmen" and "Stay."
If you want a true time warp to the time when ska meant more than a reason for your high school's trombone player to jam in his garage every Friday night, take a pass on "The Best of Goldfinger" and dig into their 1996 self-titled debut instead. This compilation drains the character out of their appeal and asks too little of fans and casual listeners alike.