(Ed Banger/Big Beat/Atlantic ***)
nolead ends After years of singles, EPs, and hothouse remixes for fellow Frenchies Justice and Daft Punk, SebastiAn has his own artist album to burn through. As an architect of the steely French house aesthetic, SebastiAn makes tracks with stammering robotic rhythms such as "Mean Games" and "Embody" in his sleep. When he awakes, the filtered Vocoder-filled voices like the ones that populate the messianic "Love in Motion" (featuring L.A.-based soul sensation Mayer Hawthorne) act like mourning doves and greet SebastiAn with tweets.
Gaspard Augé of Justice stops by for the kink of "Tetra." There are gimmicky moments that sound like revved-up motorcycles, and the day is complete. Knowing that he contributed to the soundtrack of 2010's Notre Jour Viendra, this album is not all slamming and dancing. SebastiAn, the producer and composer, knows his way around a sensuous, ambient interlude and a melancholic chord passage. Ultimately, though, it's all about the banger and the British-Sri Lankan mistress of song, M.I.A., who goes from bhangra to rave on Total's best tune, "C.T.F.O." Vive le France!
- A.D. Amorosi
nolead begins Arctic Monkeys
nolead ends nolead begins Suck It and See
nolead ends nolead begins (Domino ***)
nolead ends It's unreasonable to expect Arctic Monkeys to retain the breathless teenage verve and vitriol of their classic debut, 2006's Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. On their subsequent two albums, they turned heavier and grungier, even drafting Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age to help with 2009's Humbug. The superior Suck It and See lets back in more light, humor, and melody, although for those who prefer it, there's pummeling power, too.
Echoes of Brit-pop touchstones abound - the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, Franz Ferdinand - but Suck It also features some of the Brill Building archetypes that leader Alex Turner brought to his Last Shadow Puppets side project. Turner's a streetwise wordsmith, and the lyrics bustle with bon mots. "I poured my aching heart into a pop song / I couldn't get the hang of poetry," he sings in the title track, and poetry's loss is pop's gain.
- Steve Klinge
nolead begins Owl City
nolead ends nolead begins All Things Bright and Beautiful
nolead ends nolead begins (Universal Republic **)
nolead ends The worst thing about Adam Young is that he's tuneful: The absurd number-one hit "Fireflies" was as hooky as it was insipid, a feat. Let the record show that his new "Dreams Don't Turn to Dust" plagiarizes "Fireflies" more blatantly than "Fireflies" did any Ben Gibbard song. From "Reality's a lovely place but I wouldn't want to live there" to "Or else I'd make like a tree and leave," Young's idiotic turns of phrase cost his songs more than was the case with any other pop celeb in my lifetime. Sometimes they're illogical, as in "If love was a game it would never play nice" (how can a game play itself?). "Deer in the Headlights," the best music-as-music here, turns out to be the creepiest love-at-first-sight song I've ever heard. "Her pepper spray/ Made it rather hard for me to walk her home" reads more like court testimony than hapless-guy comedy. Whereupon "Alligator Sky" makes his rap move.
- Dan Weiss
Continued from H9
nolead begins F-ed Up
nolead ends nolead begins David Comes to Life nolead ends nolead begins
nolead ends A shark fin was spotted when talk leaked of Toronto punk band F-ed Up making a rock opera set in Thatcher-era England. Punk rock may have a surprisingly strong track record when it comes to concept albums (Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade; Green Day's American Idiot), but for two raw-powerful albums, FU has thrived on restlessness, not plot development.
That said, it's not storytelling that makes David Comes to Life such an air-punching triumph. It's the way the story - involving the redemption of lonesome David, a lightbulb-factory worker - informs the songwriting, which has more melody and emotion than anything the band has ever done.
- Michael Pollock
Ramble at the Ryman
nolead ends Levon Helm gets sole billing on the front cover of this live set recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in September 2008. But as with the group in which he became famous, the Band, Helm is actually part of a highly accomplished and well-oiled ensemble. The 71-year-old singer, drummer, and mandolinist can't handle front-man duties all the time because his recovery from throat cancer has robbed his Arkansas tenor of much of its robustness. He sings on only about half the tracks here, and you can hear the strain, even if he does bring his usual soul.
Still, Ramble at the Ryman is a rich, freewheeling foray through American roots music, from R&B, jug band, and rock-and-roll through country, folk, and Cajun - including, of course, Band classics such as "Rag Mama Rag," "The Shape I'm In," and "The Weight." Helm's 12-member band, including daughter Amy and multi-instrumental virtuoso Larry Campbell, is augmented by guests including Buddy Miller, Sheryl Crow, and John Hiatt, who all make strong vocal contributions to an evening of joyously spirited music.
- Nick Cristiano
Jane Bunnett & Hilario Durán
nolead ends Soprano saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett joins with pianist Hilario Durán on what is likely to be one of the top recordings of the year. Their duets cover compositions from the 19th century to the 1960s; that means they are romantic and unspoiled.
Bunnett comes by her love of Cuban music honestly. She's Canadian, and compensates by having a 25-year obsession with the island's amazing vibe. Durán is a much-lionized native Cubano whose Latin Jazz Big Band is a going concern, and their duets are just the lightest thing going.
The two wend through the Cuban canon with such deftness that you find yourself yearning for a mojito. Duran is a subtle cat who continually lands on intriguing stuff. Bunnett revels in the lightness of being that results.
- Karl Stark
Son of Chamber Symphony and String Quartet
International Contemporary Ensemble, John Adams conducting. St. Lawrence String Quartet.
nolead ends Is this the most nervous music to ever arise from the West Coast? Forget the misty, dreamy terrains of John Adams' Harmonium and Harmonielehre. Both these works are powered by insistent rhythms and a density of invention that shows the composer in peak form. The 2007 Son of Chamber Symphony, a follow-up to his 1992 Chamber Symphony, is scored for a wind-dominated group of soloists, all with distinctive timbres and personalities that allow the piece to spin off in many directions simultaneously.
And spin it does, with Adams' characteristic wit and giddy, obsessive rhythms, and each instrument rampaging with a mind of its own through musical references from the edgier moments of West Side Story to Salvation Army music, each of the three movements ending with a loose thread still hanging (and pulsating).
The even more intense String Quartet is strangely configured with a 20-minute first movement and only a nine-minute second movement. Though written in the tightly packed fashion of the chamber symphonies (imagine over-caffeinated Debussy), the piece seems to pride itself on a surprisingly logical juxtaposition of things percussive and lyrical. As with its disc mate, you know you'll return to this music often without tiring of it.