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Spring Forward
By John Brodeur

Spring is here, and with it comes an onslaught of new releases. From the towering stack of CDs that has accumulated on my desk over the last month or so, I’ve selected a few that should be sought out with haste, and a few that would be better suited leveling my desk. (If anyone wants to give me a hand with that, just lift the front left corner.)

The Decemberists

Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars)

You may say Colin Meloy is a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. On the Decemberists’ third full-length album, the overproductive Oregonian is joined not only by his usual band, but by a full roll call of dreamers who have aligned themselves behind Meloy’s unique vision. That’s not to say Picaresque is a concept album by any stretch: While the band’s two previous full-lengths (not to mention last year’s 18-minute mini-epic The Tain) were convoluted by an arching sense of purpose, these 11 songs make it clear that Meloy is more Elvis Costello (read: literate and daring, yet durable) than Jeff Mangum (read: visionary and unpredictable, but fires all of his guns at once). “The Infanta” starts things off with a bang, introducing a wild array of characters over an insistent beat, marking the territory with operatic tenor and trumpet fanfare. The bombast is a smokescreen for what follows: “We Both Go Down Together” is a slow-burner, its violin line drawing up shades of Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie; “Eli, the Barrow Boy” is a simple, plaintive tale of labor and heartbreak; “The Sporting Life” marries a classic tale of class alienation to a “Lust for Life” beat. Later, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” raises the question, “Why aren’t more songs set inside the belly of a whale?” Chris Walla’s crisp production makes for the best-sounding Decemberists record to date, with every mandolin strum and tambourine rattle coming across crystal-clear. Meloy’s manic word-lust is at its most strident here, too: A “baroness” is ashamed of her “barren-ness” (“The Infanta”); an accomplice to “The Bagman’s Gambit” sings from his “ten-floor tenement.” With earlier releases, the Decemberists were shifting their pieces into place; with Picaresque, they’ve got their checkmate. This is the best album of 2005 thus far, and it’s going to be tough to top.

50 Cent

The Massacre (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)

On The Massacre, 50 Cent bludgeons us with a lot of information we already knew: He packs heat (“I don’t go nowhere without my strap,” he mumbles), bangs groupies (see: the brutally unsubtle “Candy Shop,” others), and sells lots of records (please, stop reminding us!). He got rich and didn’t die, and now there’s nowhere to go but down. The Massacre is overpacked with weak rhymes, rickety beats, and a palpable distaste for its own audience. Even over the best beats (“This Is 50,” “Gatman and Robbin”), Fitty sounds like he’s phoning it in. Trying to pull the tough-guy act when you sound like you’d rather be golfing? I don’t buy it.

The Game

The Documentary (Aftermath/G Unit/Interscope)

50 Cent must really be pissed that his protégé’s long-awaited debut finally dropped so close to his own album, because The Documentary is, simply, a much better disc. Granted, the Game isn’t blazing any new trails here—the liner photos find him posing with guns, booze, low-rider cars, pit bulls, money, drugs, and the ultimate in gangsta accessories, a baby with an afro—but he knows that, so he spends most of his time paying homage to his heroes (that’s N.W.A., in case you missed his frickin’ tattoo). He’s got all the right connections (“I got niggas in Westside Compton and Southside Queens,” he boasts) and guest appearances (Eminem, Nate Dogg, Mary J. Blige), and much of the production is top-notch (Dr. Dre’s beats are neck-snapping and iconic; Kanye West’s “Dreams” is a standout). Sure, The Documentary isn’t really all that interesting, but at least it has personality, albeit a well-worn one.

Ben Folds

Songs for Silverman (Epic)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Remember how much fun those first two Ben Folds Five albums were? Even Rockin’ the Suburbs and that Reinhold Messner album (goofy as it was) had some great moments. But Folds’ return to the trio format he ditched five years ago confirms the fears he raised with Messner’s “Don’t Change Your Plans,” which a friend of mine once likened to Peter Cetera’s solo material (ouch!). Songs for Silverman should have been titled Boring Songs for Boring White People. Better yet, how about How’s That Elevator Ride Going, Champ? This might be worth the 15 bucks were even one tune on par with Folds’ quirky, early stuff (“Philosophy,” “Steven’s Last Night in Town”), but if you can even make it through the aimless five-minute album-opener “Bastard,” you’ll find little more than a bunch of Songs to Put Your Kid to Sleep By.

 

The High Speed Scene

The High Speed Scene (Star Trak/Interscope)

What the world needs now is another Local H. No, really, I’m serious. The High Speed Scene is a great palate-cleanser, especially after that last one. These guys do a post-grunge hard-pop thing with snarky, occasionally juvenile lyrics that lampoon rock promoters (“For the Kids”) and the kids themselves (“Fuck & Spend”). Otherwise, they’re falling for every girl that comes into their line of vision (the other 10 tracks). As the only rock band on the Neptunes’ Star Trak label, they’re in good hands, but getting this kind of stuff to stick in pop culture’s collective unconscious will be tough. Just ask Local H.

Will Smith

Lost and Found (Interscope/Overbrook Entertainment)

The last thing the world needs is another Will Smith album. Why do we still have to listen to his namby-pamby rap music? The lyrics here say little more than, “Check me out. I’m a big movie star, but I make crummy records, too. Why? Because I can afford it.” Stick to the pictures, Freshy.

Joy Zipper

American Whip (Dangerbird)

This one certainly comes well-recommended: The sticker that adorns American Whip’s jewel case boasts ridiculously high praise from the likes of NME, Q, and Time Out. But then, NME does love to be a Next Big Thing-maker, so can they be trusted? In this case, yup. The husband-and-wife team of Vincent Cafiso and Tabitha Tindale whisper sweet nothings (and songs about drugs) over atmospheres that are alternately warm like Eno’s jets and cold like the Air in Paris, all of them perfect and pristine. I could go on and on—My Bloody Beach Boys! Jesus and Grandaddy Chain!—but why, when you could be tracking this album down for yourself? Go!

 

 

Beck

Guero (Interscope)

Beck Hansen is trying to be all things to all people on Guero, or at least all Becks to all Beck fans, and he hits his mark about 75 percent of the time. By returning with open arms to Odelay producers the Dust Brothers, he’s strayed from his pattern of trying something different each time out, instead using most of the album to recap his first great decade. The backpedaling isn’t always such a bad thing—the pastiche beats and marble-mouthed drawl of “Que Onda Guero” exude a natural grace that Odelay lacked—but straight throwbacks “E-Pro” and “Hell Yes” are among his least interesting recordings. The best moments come when we get a little taste of several Becks at once: “Earthquake Weather” is Mellow Gold with two turntables and some Mutations; the Delta-blues man of One Foot in the Grave turns up for “Emergency Exit”; and “Missing” pairs Brazilian rhythms with a melancholy melody that would have fit right in on his best album, 2002’s perfectly dreary Sea Change. Most importantly, Guero establishes that Beck can flit about between his various personalities with ease, and still deliver the occasional knockout blow (“Broken Drum,” the single-in-waiting “Girl”).


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