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Drama Queen

Mary J. Blige
Love & Life (Geffen)

Almost a decade after they last worked together, Mary J. Blige and producer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs have reunited. The result, Love & Life, has a defiantly retro kind of sound; the production is less complex when compared with the work of the assorted producers who crafted her last album, No More Drama. There are plenty of ’70s-style strings and similar romantic-sounding flourishes, which Combs knows are antithetical to Blige’s tough-girl edge—in this juxtaposition lies the tension. Even better, Combs puts Blige right at the top of the mix, and leaves her smooth-but-rough voice unchallenged by the various background choruses.

In another nod to the past, they even start the album with an answering machine bit à la What’s the 411—and, P. Diddy or not, Blige still calls him “Puffy.”

Her last album may have been a plea for no more drama in her personal life, but, musically, Blige thrives on the stuff. “Don’t Go” begins, deceptively, as a halting plea to a lover headed out the door, but Blige, propelled by the hard beats, quickly switches to a compelling vocal desperation. The effect is startling, and kicks the album into high gear. And so it goes: On Love & Life, big drama equals strong songs. Whether the subject is false “Friends,” or no-good men (“Not Today,” with a blistering guest rap by Eve), or the need to “Press On” in the face of life’s big parade of crap, Blige is never less than convincing. Even the love songs resonate—though “Ultimate Relationship (A.M.),” an ode to Jesus, sounds a tiny bit creepy to these heathen ears.

The guests never get in her way. 50 Cent and Jay Z make little more than cameo appearances; only Method Man—featured on the probable single “Love @ 1st Sight”—gets anything close to equal time. (As usual, he makes the most of it.)

Was the Mary-Puffy reunion worth it? If Love & Life isn’t quite a giant step forward, it’s a nifty enough attempt to revisit the past.

—Shawn Stone

James Kirk
You Can Make It If You Boogie (Marina)

Along with Edwyn Collins, James Kirk formed the band Orange Juice in the late ’70s. Their sound became identified with the Postcard label, and became a noticeable influence on everyone from the Smiths to Belle & Sebastian. Kirk left the music business in the mid-’80s, re-emerging with some cowrites and guest appearances over the past half-dozen years. His first solo album boasts a dozen new tunes and a revamped version of “Felicity,” one of Orange Juice’s most enduring numbers, here expanded with a new bridge from which the album’s title was drawn. He’s joined by a range of fellow Scottish musicians spanning two generations, including Campbell Owens from Aztec Camera and Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub. Full of sly wit, spiritual yearning and a gently insistent worldview, James Kirk’s midlife solo debut is smart, warm, and catchy without ever being too sweet or cloying. Middle-age pop—yeah!

—David Greenberger

Indestructible (V2/BMG)

While listening to this new Rancid stuff, I was reminded of a story that came over the AP wire last month about a construction worker who was wielding a huge drill above his head as his ladder collapsed. He tossed the drill aside (as they are trained to do) but he fell off the ladder face-first onto the drill. It went right through his eye.

Let us suppose Rancid were that drill when 1994’s Let’s Go spun in the boxes of my spiky-headed contemporaries as a natural progression out of the ill-fated ska boom into a more durable, mercurial punk intrepidity. And let the falling ladder represent my interest in punk as the airwaves began and continue to be saturated—bleeding—with it. I know, a predictable complaint about a predictable phenomenon. After all, even early civilizations had only two choices to defeat a formidable threat: Obliterate it wholesale or assimilate it into the culture. We save the former for Third World countries, so I leapt (as I am trained to do) and forgot bands like Rancid, even though it can be argued that despite some commercial success, the band remained pretty tightly nailed to their roots. My loss, but for 10 years that drill waited for me to hit bottom. And I did.

I like Rancid because they have always done what they wanted to do (whether I liked it or not), and this meant experimenting with full-on reggae immersions and 2000’s punishing hardcore fete, simply deemed Rancid. The product wasn’t ever bad, but the band seemed to spend several years looking for something that seemed just out of reach, which is why Indestructible is such a tremendous relief. Beneath back-to-back singles (“Fall Back Down” and “Red Hot Moon”) and dirigible-crashing pit music (“Out of Control,” “Ghost Band” and scores of others) lays some very serious songwriting, as is the case with almost every one of the 19 pieces. All the classic thematic turf-grass is still soundly rooted, but it has been kicked around a bit harder over the past few years. Getting older, seeing more, feeling more, maybe getting a new eye twitch. Rancid have grown harder but more compassionate. There are the classic, reliable Rancid themes, like brotherhood, indignation and the importance of friendship, but now they’ve actually walked through a bit more of personal/professional pain and came out on the other side. This can, of course, make an artist unbearable. Thankfully, this is not the case here.

Lars Frederiksen and Tim Armstrong are civil engineers, basically, having perfected the efficiency of this San Franciscan engine with a dogged songwriting aptitude and a flair for lyrical cadence on the strength of what can only be called a poetry of sorts. Armstrong in particular underscores Darwin’s proposition that the “rhythms and cadences of oratory are derived from previously developed musical powers,” comfortable with the idea that the capacity for music production existed even before speech. Indeed, the title track of the CD makes the claim that “through music, we can live forever.” Armstrong works in his deaf-guy vocals as reggae-
flavored reassurance (“Django” comes to mind), while Frederiksen is forever happy to play the role of the mouth that roared (“David Courtney”). They are the blood and oil for sure, but every bit of the beast’s muscle is provided tenfold by the oft-
overlooked Matt Freeman and Brett Reed. Freeman’s running bass lines are right out of Looney Tunes soundtracks, and, along with Reed’s petulant hammer/meter, are as unwavering as our geologic record of time and space. And speaking of space, when he rose from the fall, the construction worker ran his hands up to his eye, and put his other hand to the back of his head and felt the drill bit coming through. If only all punk rock were this good.

—Bill Ketzer

Magnolia Summer
Levers and Pulleys (Undertow)

Through means of dramatic, metaphoric or poetic overlay, every word in this band’s name and album title are reflected in the music contained within. It’s organically gorgeous while purposefully ordered and propulsive. The shifting lineup is built around songwriter, singer and guitarist Chris Grabau (based in St. Louis, some of the players can also be found in the ranks of such outfits as Waterloo, Nadine, Climber and the Rockhouse Ramblers). The varied instrumentation allows for appropriate settings for a project that is first and foremost about the songs. From the shimmering guitars and incendiary bearing of “Wish You Well” to the laid-back twilight of “Figure: Ground” and “Maybe Someday,” the songs sparkle, as Grabau sings with a fragile urgency, allowing lyric phrases to bob to the surface and then swim away. Levers and Pulleys may be hard to pin down stylistically, but it’s unified by the strength of the writing and the sympathetic arrangements.

—David Greenberger

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