MUSIC: Chieftains, Monkeys and Heads
Admittedly, there are worse fates than having a pile of new CDs you've been desperately meaning to review... But as I clear up the backlog, here's a look at a couple recent reviews I wrote for my second online home at BlogCritics and other ramblings...
The Chieftains, "The Essential Chieftains"
If there's a lack of green in your wardrobe, consider loading "The Essential Chieftains" on your iPod this St. Patrick's Day to celebrate your Irish side ... and avoid any unwanted pinches. This new two-CD, sprawling anthology features the best of Ireland's leading band. For novices unsure where to begin with the band's approximately 40 albums over the past four decades, "The Essential Chieftains" is the place to start. This compilation focuses on their work from the 1960s to 2003, collecting for the first time together their work on several different record labels. "The Essential Chieftains" is nicely split into two complementary discs: "The Chieftains' Roots," focusing heavily on more traditional instrumentals, jigs and reels, and Disc 2, "The Chieftains and Friends," which includes collaborations over the years with a cast of all-stars including Sting, Elvis Costello, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Jackson Browne and many more. If you're wanting that classic pipes-heavy, cheery Irish bounce, Disc 1 offers it in spades. Disc 2 has the sound of a slightly tipsy, mad all-star jam that lasts for hours, and the many voices contributing to the Chieftains sound gives it a nicely diverse feel. Particular highlights include Van Morrison's clarion voice on "Shenandoah," Irishwoman Sinéad O'Connor on the magnificently epic "The Foggy Dew," and Skaggs's countrified turn on "Cotton-Eyed Joe." You'll also find The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Béla Fleck and Nanci Griffith popping up on Disc 2. The Chieftains long ago reached beyond Ireland's borders for influences - you'll find guest stars like a Chinese ensemble in a track from 1987's "The Chieftains in China," or a Spanish flavor to the jaunty "Guadalupe," which features guest spots by Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt. Chieftains aficionados will appreciate the survey of their career this 35-track set offers, but it's perhaps even better for newcomers — who can get a healthy sampling of one of the leading popularizers of world music. (Want the full review? Head over to BlogCritics and read it here)
Arctic Monkeys, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not"
Hype is a two-headed beast. It can bite you as easily as it can help you. Britain's The Arctic Monkeys are Exhibit A in this week's installment of The Hype Show. Their debut CD, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" has gotten enough ink to singlehandedly blacken the entire British Isles. These Monkeys have struck a chord in Britain, where they've become the country's fastest-selling album of all time. In the U.S., not so much -- they debuted at #34 in the first week. The hype probably is leading to a bit of an anti-hype backlash – I mean, NME, Britain's music cheerleader, had a poll of readers who named this album the #5 British album of ALL TIME – greater than any Beatles, Rolling Stones or Who album. Um, yeah, OK. So if you go in with that trivia factoid, you'll probably be disappointed by the Monkeys. But here's the thing – it's a decent CD, full of energy and raw talent. It's nowhere near worthy of the insane hype the British press put on it, of course, but it's a perfectly enjoyable collection of slamming punk-pop songs, taking equal cues from The Sex Pistols, Green Day and Franz Ferdinand to create a gritty, street-level look at being young and foolish in England 2006. It's all launched by crunchy angular guitar riffs, punkish sing-along choruses, and the nasal snarl of frontman Alex Turner's voice. Turner, 19, has that angry teen poet thing down, and his singing is snotty and packed with attitude. Yet there's also a current of sly intelligence running under the Monkeys lyrics. The booklet is filled with grey scenes of their Sheffield hometown, a dull, eternally overcast landscape full of kids with nothing to do. The propulsive first single, "I Bet That You Look Good On The Dance Floor," is full of pogo-worthy guitar licks, while "A Certain Romance" mashes up punk rock with a Kinks-esque look at dreary old England. Will they succeed in America? I can't imagine they'll get beyond cult status, because they feel so very British that the iPod American generation might not identify with them. Yet "Whatever People Say" clearly speaks to a generation of English blokes in the same way that Green Day's epic "American Idiot" is tailor-made for a group of our kids. It may not exactly be novel – it's a brand of the same English angst that's been pimped ever since John and Paul picked up a guitar — but it gets your fingers tapping.
Talking Heads, "Remain In Light" DualDisc remaster
The Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" is often considered their finest moment, and 26 years after its original release, it still sounds as fresh and new as it did in 1980. Rhino Records has newly re-released the entire Heads catalogue on DualDisc, in gorgeously clear sound and with bonus tracks and DVD video extras. "Remain In Light" was called the fourth-best album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine. Its fusion of dank jungle rhythms, chirping electronica and fragmented chanting vocals have been influential on bands for years. "Remain In Light" came as producer Brian Eno, singer David Byrne and company were perfecting their mix of angst-ridden danceable pop. Nervous as hell, filled with hooks and innovation, it's a frantic masterpiece — in fact, I'd argue it was their creative peak, as co-writer and producer Eno moved on after this album, and the unique mix of energy was never quite the same in the remaining Heads records. The remastering here is fantastic. The primal African drumbeats that ground the album are crisp and you can hear every lick by the Heads' sterling rhythm section, led by bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Franz. And then there's the wonderful centerpiece of the album, "Once In A Lifetime." Über-critic Robert Christgau called this "the greatest song Byrne will ever write," and it's hard to argue when it comes to this witty and wise little tune that sounds more relevant to me every passing year, with Byrne's quizzical, stunned refrain: "And you may ask yourself — well ... how did I get here?" What may surprise newcomers to "Remain In Light" is how organically "Once In A Lifetime" grows from the jittery unrest of the entire album. There's also four "unfinished outtakes" on this reissue — "Fela's Riff," "Unison," "Double Groove" and "Right Start." They're kind of like sketches of finished songs, but provide a great insight into the band's creative process. If all you know of the Talking Heads is a handful of great songs, "Remain In Light" is the place to start to get the richer experience. (Want the full review? Head over to BlogCritics and read it here)