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April 22, 2008

Music Reviews for 4-23-08

Elephant ShellTokyo Police Club(SADDLE CREEK)    No one would accuse Canada’s Tokyo Police Club of overstaying its welcome. The band’s 2006 EP, A Lesson in Crime, packed eight songs into a Minor Threat-approved 16 minutes, and their debut long-player Elephant Shell is in and out in 28. As it happens, this actually works in the band’s favor. Since the group’s sound is fairly typical of modern indie rock (urgent tempos, aching melodies, the ghosts of “This Charming Man” and “Academy Fight Song” always looming in the distance), their penchant for brevity tends to downplay the inherent sameness that frequently plagues their contemporaries’ work. Elephant Shell does fall prey to that sameness on occasion: Tempos hardly vary throughout, and the assault is so bracing that when the pace slows ever so slightly for “The Harrowing Adventures Of …” and “Listen to the Math,” one immediately takes notice. By and large, TPC’s craftsmanship is strong enough to keep the listener engaged. Elephant Shell is not without its flaws, but its strongest moments, such as the back-to-back highlights “Juno” and “Tessellate,” make a convincing case for their potential. —Eric CondonHelp WantedEric Avery(DANGERBIRD)He was the bassist for who? Jane’s Addiction? Sounds like he went from a daily dose of hallucinogens and stimulants to a regular cocktail of Quaaludes and repeated screenings of Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny.”    Help Wanted is certainly not an unpleasant sounding record — it is, however, aptly titled in many ways. Avery sounds miserable here … like Mark Lanegan complaining about a bad day. While it’s mostly lethargic and enveloping, it’s not entirely so. There are some upbeat tracks like “All Remote and No Control”; but Avery never reaches beyond the emotional range of his own monotone misery.    A major ill-conceived idea on Help Wanted is that Avery included the marginally interesting framework of what seems to be a grandiose rock-opera called “The Man Who Can Fly.” He includes three nonlinear movements from the complete work, parts: 5, 2 and 7 — in that order. Presumably they are taken completely out of context as far as their particular roles in the larger suite, but here they feel aimless and off-balance.    Avery is not as musically trustworthy as his former band mates Perry Farell and Dave Navarro, so don’t expect anything more here than an odd, middle-aged man experimenting in his basement studio. —Brent OwenJimJamie Lidell(WARP/Redeye)Why do the British understand American soul better than we do lately? From the great Lewis Taylor to Ms. Winehouse and beyond, it seems the redcoats have been really studying the craft of classic soul, as opposed to the American R&B tendency of “Tab A into Slot B” sex-education songs. Jamie Lidell is no different, another goofy-looking, blue-eyed soulster with an accent, but with Jim, the modern soul music bar has been raised yet again.    Equal parts Sam Cooke, Otis, the aforementioned Lewis Taylor, and even a smidge of Terence Trent D’Arby, Lidell’s voice is chameleonic, familiar and sincere. His production is two parts Motown, one part Prince, one part Jerry Wexler, and a little bit of Beck thrown in for spice. I dare you to play songs like “A Little Bit of Feel Good,” “Another Day” and “Figured Me Out” and not start banging on your steering wheel and trying to hit the high notes. Lidell should be a household name in this country, but too many of us are waiting for chapter 432 of Trapped In The Closet to come out …     Jim is already a contender for one of my albums of the year. —Damien McPhersonArm’s WayIslands(ANTI)Islands, the post-Unicorns project of Nick Thorburn, has endured a turbulent history. Following the dissolution of the Unicorns and the exit of Jamie Thompson after the success of 2006’s Return to the Sea, Thorburn has been left alone at the helm. Arm’s Way expands on the sound of their previous work, but the songs this time feel more cautious, closer to the Unicorns in many ways than Islands’ first effort. “In the Rushes” echoes the chorus of “Jellybones.” This return to a more conventional style — if anything about Islands can be called conventional — isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Return to the Sea had its gems, but as an album, felt inconsistent, perhaps the product of Thorburn and Thompson’s creative struggle. Arm’s Way, on the other hand, is wholly Thorburn’s project. Gone are the keyboard-driven tracks that defined Islands’ earlier sound, replaced by guitars (gasp!) and strings. The arrangements are thoughtfully layered, if somewhat repetitive by the middle of the album. Still, “The Arm” and “I Feel Evil Creeping In” really shine. —Justin KeenanOne Hell of a RideWillie Nelson(COLUMBIA/LEGACY)Four discs, 100 tracks … and they still couldn’t properly sum up the man’s story and his music. A slightly more imaginative approach (and the rights to the proper recordings) and this would’ve blown away the typical country-artist box set.The first disc survives the occasional cornball production to show the early Nelson as a restless balance of twangin’ mainstream and odd edges. Naturally for that timeframe, he was admired but struggling. But with the ’70s, he jettisoned any allegiance to trends — and before you can ask how “Shotgun Willie” landed on a country record, the man had become his own genre. Then he co-founded the Outlaw Country movement in his spare time, and commercial crossover success followed.Eventually, someone in this business owes Nelson a genuine full portrait — with tracks reflecting his sitting-in at Farm Aid and maybe his Texas uber-picnic that presaged regional music fests. The biographical liner notes here refer to recordings that would’ve rounded out these discs better than the overkill of singles and middling duets. But in the meantime, this 75th-birthday box will do. —T.E. LyonsMr. Love & JusticeBilly Bragg(ANTI)Long before he was given the keys to the repository of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics (which he and Wilco brought to life on the Mermaid Avenue projects), Britain’s Billy Bragg had established himself as a credible social justice folkie in the tradition of Guthrie and Pete Seeger.However, Bragg is also known to bring a little punk rock anger (a la the Clash) and, paradoxically, a genuine vulnerability to his style of politically informed folk. So, Mr. Love & Justice seems an appropriate title to describe the writer of this record.This release (Bragg’s first in over five years) explores romance, war, land rights, faith and much more. Throughout these 12 tunes, the musical undercurrent is pleasant and endearing, which works well when juxtaposed with Bragg’s often heavy words. Though there are many highlights here, “If You Ever Leave” is an early favorite. —Kevin M. Wilson