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Turkeys and Gravy

More Thanksgiving leftovers; or, some stuff(ing) that got by us this year

By John Brodeur

With the holidays approaching, it’s time to empty out the old Xmas stocking and see what got stuck down there in the toe. Here’s a recap of some records that we (almost) missed in 2006.

Tom Petty

Highway Companion (American)

It seems like a cop-out to rate artists’ new work against their catalog, but with Tom Petty’s body of work, there’s really no other way. It’s a Petty record, man! There are good Petty records, and there are not-as-good Petty records. (Fact: There are no downright bad Petty records—a stunning achievement for someone of his vintage.) His latest solo release fits neatly into the grand scheme between his only two other solo releases (Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, both outstanding). Highway Companion isn’t as good as either of those, but Petty, working again with Full Moon Fever producer Jeff Lynne, has packed it with so many references to those earlier recordings that it plays like one of those greatest-hits packages where the artist has to rerecord all the old songs to avoid a contractual dispute. Familiar, but disorienting. For instance: “Turn This Car Around” borrows a familiar cadence from “Into the Great Wide Open”; “Damaged by Love” practically is “Walls.” On “Big Weekend,” the ripped-off hook is so obvious, you can imagine the conversation in the studio:

Lynne: “That’s ‘Yer So Bad,’ Tom.”

Petty: “Yeah. Guess it is.”

Lynne: “Alright, then. Take two.”

That said, there are some classic Petty moments, including the shimmering “Square One” (on which he dons that weird Spanish mafia voice from “Breakdown”) and “Flirting With Time,” which finds Petty and Lynne in full-on Byrds mode.

Christina Aguilera

Back to Basics (RCA)

If I had any indie cred to begin with, I’d be bracing myself right now: This excellent two-disc release borrows many of its ideas and hooks from the WWII era, and recasts them as Top 40 gold. The smart, beat-driven first disc is tons of fun, with Aguilera pledging allegiance to her one and only (A&R) man, but promising that she is, in fact, “Still Dirrty.” The Linda Perry-produced second disc gets bogged down by theatrics early on, but it perks right back up when Aguilera extends an invitation to “put your icing on my cake.” Dirrty, indeed.

 

 

New London Fire

I Sing the Body Holographic (Eyeball)

Dave Debiak, former brain of Per-nice Brothers-like retro-pop outfit Sleep Station, assembled a team of multi- instrumentalists to create his latest project, New London Fire. The title of their debut disc—I Sing the Body Holographic—gives the game away before it begins: It’s a dance record. While Debiak’s way with a breathy pop melody is intact, those melodies are now swathed in taut, melodic basslines; heavy-on-the-kick-and-hat drumming; the kind of guitar playing that we critics like to call angular; and the synths (and beats, often) of ’84—which means it sounds very current, and, thanks to Debiak’s often-on writing, very good. Fans of the Killers and Snow Patrol should take to this like a goth to fishnet.

 

 

Akron/Family

Meek Warrior (Young God)

A meek release. These guys can do so much better. Their 700th album in two years is due next spring—here’s hoping they’re back up to par by then.

Various Artists

Big Star Small World (Koch)

After being shelved for eight years, this neat tribute to Alex Chilton and company finally saw the light of day last spring. With the exception of Big Star’s own stiff and unremarkable reunion recording (“Hot Thing”), nothing stands out as below par, but merely so-so. Only the Afghan Whigs’ macabre “Nighttime” and the Posies’ clever reconstitution of “What’s Going Ahn” make attempts at screwing with the tunes; otherwise, the results are mixed: Kelly Willis’ country-fried “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and the Gin Blossoms’ straight read of “Back of a Car” are both reverent and fine. But while it’s fun to hear Juliana Hatfield belt it out on “Don’t Lie to Me,” you won’t need to hear it twice, and Matthew Sweet’s “The Ballad of El Goodo” is note-perfect but lifeless. (It benefits, however, from having Big Star drummer Jody Stephens on board, and pushed way up in the mix.) Big Star devotees might want to give this a spin or two, but they’ll return to their CD copies of #1 Record/Radio City in a heartbeat.

 

Mark Eitzel

Candy Ass (Cooking Vinyl)

Candy Ass is a pointless toss-off coming from such a generally reliable songwriter. While Love Songs for Patriots (2004’s American Music Club reunion record) is Eitzel’s latter-career triumph, this one ranks at the other end of the spectrum. The programmed beats and electronic chatter that provide the background (and much of the foreground) of Candy Ass are simply off- putting. “Sleeping Beauty” is the album’s sole keeper because it steers (mostly) clear of the clunky electronica. Download that and skip the rest.

 

 

Prince

3121 (Universal)

Hot damn. Half of this album sounds like Ween, which means it sounds like old Prince, which means it’s the best Prince release in ages. Way more fun than Musicology. Even the ballads are good.

 

 

 

Frank Black

Fastman/Raiderman (Back Porch)

An overstuffed disappointment. Black packed nearly as many songs (22, to this album’s 27) into his 1994 solo high-water mark Teenager of the Year, but those were filled with enough stylistic schizophrenia to float the project. The tracks here, drawn from four separate sessions (including some left over from last year’s very good Honeycomb) match Black with some of the finest studio cats in the industry, but while the players are top-of-the-heap, the songs aren’t always so hot. With Black in full-on Nashville Skyline mode, there’s precious little variety to keep things interesting for two whole hours, and a great many of the tracks fall somewhere between loping and plodding. However, there are flashes of brilliance throughout that, compiled, would have made an excellent single disc.

Various Artists

The Killer in You: A Tribute to Smashing Pumpkins (Reignition)

Really? Does anyone really want to hear this? I’d bet that, of the 250 copies this thing will move, Billy Corgan buys 50 of them.

Greg Laswell

Through Toledo (Vanguard)

Cali-based singer-songwriter- producer Greg Laswell falls in line somewhere between Pete Yorn and the late Elliott Smith. To specifically call on those two one-man bands isn’t a mistake: Laswell plays all but violin and a few guitar tracks on this, his second solo release. All the classic pop sounds—backward guitars, Mellotron, Fender Rhodes, keyboard percussion—are employed here, as are some more modern, er, alternative touches, like the Siamese Dream wash of guitars he lays on “Worthwhile.” His reedy tenor sometimes recalls Rufus Wainwright and Thom Yorke, and the songwriting, especially lead track “Sing, Theresa Says,” can be borderline gorgeous. Don’t let this one slip through the cracks.


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