Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Thanx 4 Stayin'

I think it's about time I close this port up for a while. I'm copying everything over to Little White Earbuds, where I've been writing fairly consistently. Join me over there?

Matmos -- The Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth of the Beast
Matador Records; 2006

After birthdays and holidays, many groaning children are made to write thank you letters to those who fattened their wallets and/or piggy banks. With The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast, Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt of Matmos have attacked a similar project with grateful gusto. The album's ten tracks serve both as aural biographies for and sonic tributes to individuals who the duo admires and by whom they've been inspired. With this subject matter, Matmos has created their most accomplished work -- an album that suitably balances concept and aesthetics.

Of course, Matmos are no strangers to concept records. 2001's A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure crafted IDM-styled dance tunes from samples of surgeries. On the 2003 album, The Civil War, the duo worked with more "traditional" musical instruments to construct their sprawling and beautiful interpretation of 19th century music. Both albums exhibited a profound knowledge of composition, as well as a keen sense for interesting sources. But at times the records sacrificed listenability for concept or vice versa -- rarely to the point of serious detriment, but the balancing act was still in the works. After producing portions of Bjork's last two albums and accompanying her on tours, the group seems to have things better sorted out.

The Rose Has Teeth opens with a passage by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, with various vocalists repeating the titular line over a dancehall shuffle of roses smacking tables, farmers shoveling cow shit, and wisdom teeth clicking. That might sound daunting, but it's surprisingly easy to sink into the laid back rhythm and mumble along with the chorus. Other tunes use samples of anonymous sex ("Public Sex for Boyd McDonald"), physically manipulated cow reproductive organs ("Tract for Valerie Solanas"), snails on the move ("Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith"), and the clattering of various typewriters and tape recorders ("Rag for William S. Burroughs"). The human components of Matmos are also under the mic and enduring manipulation. Daniel is recorded masturbating to a James Bidgood porno for the drippy jazz tune "Semen Song for James Bidgood" and being burned with a cigarette by Germs member Don Bolles ("Germs Burn for Darby Crash"). Schmidt gets off easy by comparison, merely having to shave his head for the same song.

What's most impressive about this album is not just its source material or its subjects, but the impressive way the duo assembles all of the above. Avant-garde/musique concrete pieces can easily go wrong and bore listeners, regardless of the conceptual ecstasy. Matmos' musical foresight and painstaking editing make The Rose Has Teeth a compelling listen from front to back. "Germs Burn for Darby Crash" is a blistering IDM track, punctuated by stuttering samples of Daniel's pained yelp. The album's ass-shaker, "Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan," is a wonky disco number Levan himself would be proud to spin. Matmos flex their straight-up musical muscles -- again with more "traditional" instruments and additional players -- all over the record. "Semen Song for James Bidgood" layers eerie string arrangements with Antony's (of Johnsons fame) tearful pipes. The perky and jerky "Solo Buttons for Joe Meek" emulates Meek's surface-of-the-moon surf rock with the Kronos Quartet swinging along in the orchestra pit. The Rose Has Teeth manages to cram naughty funk ("Public Sex..."), smoky jazz ("Snails and Lasers..."), San Franciso booty bass ("Tract...") and delusional ragtime ("Rag...") without ever showing signs of fatigue. And the only track that might strain listeners' attention is the Burroughs tribute, which stretches upwards of 14 minutes.

With The Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth of the Beast, Matmos have again proven to be wise craftsmen capable of turning the ambiguous concept of musical portraits into full realized works of musical art. While their past efforts have also been excellent in a similar regard, the duo's latest work pours out the perfect blend of provocative melodies, rhythms, samples and concept. It's highly suggested that listeners spend time on Matmos' website, wherein they lay out how the album came together and more about the people who inspired such stunning work. Though they might not be able to enjoy this aural "thank you" themselves (as all but one are dead), fans new and old will likely feel compelled to whip out the good stationary after experiencing this record.

Liars -- Drum's Not Dead
Mute; 2006

Three full-length albums into a solid career, Liars has proven to be predictably unpredictable. Stay with me here. The group first burst on to the burgeoning NYC post-punk revival scene in 2001. Its debut album, They Threw Us All In a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top, firmly asserted Liars' talent with ambitious concept and execution. The next testament of the band's vision They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, arrived about two years and two bandmates later. Astonishingly bleak and delectably confrontational, the concept album (based on eerie German folk tales) snuffed many critics' interest in the group. Many couldn't stomach such a vicious assault of atonal guitar work, fractured electronics and shambling drums. "Where are the catchy rhythms?" they cried. Under closer inspection, they were merely pulsating under grimy aesthetics, along with the rest of the band's brilliant traits. Now, two years later, Liars has released its third album, Drum's Not Dead, another concept album exploring the band’s calmer, more melodic side. Drum's also drops hints that its creators may be more vulnerable to criticism and pressure than previously believed.

Drum's Not Dead (based on the fictional characters Drum and Mt. Heart Attack, though it rarely translates into a recognizable plot) was recorded at a government-owned radio broadcasting facility in Berlin. The studios inside have been described as custom built for many different specific sounds; in other words, an audiophile's soaked fantasy. It's peculiar, then, that Drum's sounds so startlingly normal -- like it could have been made anywhere. Repeated listens betray nothing about the studios' elaborate acoustics or specifications, just excellent sound quality. Maybe that's overly nit-picky on my part. But it feels disappointing that Liars didn’t push the limits of what incredible equipment could do, especially when the group has made ordinary studios sound like a mad scientist's lab.

The album opens with the nerve-wracking drone of "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack," a mesh of razor wire guitar lines and imposing floor toms. Singer Angus Andrew calmly emerges from the haze to utter indecipherable and possibly instructional lyrics. The mounting tension gives way to "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack," which ups the ante on furious percussion and guitar work. Things then progressively cool down; percussive elements stay in the foreground, sometimes pitter-pattering on your window and other times persistently pounding at your door. A less frenzied pace helps Liars pull off its most tuneful work. This sort of turn was hinted at on They Were Wrong, but left undeveloped until now. Molasses-paced "Drum Gets a Glimpse" and lushly embellished "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" are melodic almost to a fault, having more in common with folk weirdoes Animal Collective than Liars.

It's difficult not to perceive this shift away from hair-raising noise as Liars' reaction to the deluge of negative press They Were Wrong received. Though the band's cacophonous instincts flare up from time to time, much of Drum's feels constrained in order to be likeable. Coming from a group that scrapped its post-punk aesthetic because it was too well-liked, turning to the sweet side seems contrary to its nature. Perhaps it's actually more difficult for Liars to write for those with sensitive ears than calloused. If that was the self-enforced challenge, I suppose the group succeeded. Drum’s is just as accessible, if not more so, than Liars’ debut.

I'm still incredibly conflicted when it comes to casting judgment on Drum's Not Dead. On a superficial level, there's a lot to enjoy. Songs like "Drum and the Uncomfortable Can," "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" and "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!" demonstrate both the group’s abrasive instincts and its newfound capacity for ear-pleasing melody. At the same time, I can't help but feel disappointed the band embraced its audience's comfort zones instead of hacking them to bits. (Its members' comfort zones, on the other hand, are a different story.) Only a handful of tracks on Drum's keep me interested on a conceptual level, where both preceding albums had my rapt attention. But making bold changes in style, as Liars is wont to do, is always going to present that risk. Regardless, listeners can always count on Liars' records ready to raise eyebrows, whether through ruthless noise or soothing arrangements. With this group, that's a gamble I'm willing to take.

Kelpie -- Hey Friends, It's Kelpie
Birthday Party Records; 2005

When I hear Kelpie, the mental image I get is one of adults having way more fun a their kid brothers' birthday party than the kids: Mashing the buttons in the arcade, stuffing facefuls of cake at a time, and begging Mom for more quarters. This Lawrence, Kansas four-piece (at least at the time of recording) exude that much fun through their music. It's a bustling combination of borrowed Beach Boys harmonies and loose, indie rocker instrumentation (bass, drums, guitar, piano) and near math-rock song structures. Conducted by the band's more than capable drummer, the fluctating tempos and time signatures feel fluid -- never taking away from momentum.

The vocals are equally playful -- clean and well-blended -- fitting nicely in the expanding and contracting structures. It can be difficult at times to follow the lyrics (the booklet, written in some strange phoenetic gibberish, isn't of much help). In fact, without reading the liner notes I was completely unaware of the many musical shout outs to the G.o.d. Hey Friends contained. That said, the group's religious capacity never becomes obtrusive.

"Fruitful" is a cheeky indie pop tune with concise, yet expanded instrumental section; "Rail" and "Dubai" follow suit. Some songs are mere slivers, cleverly getting in and out before they have a chance to wander into boring territory. (However, the first and last tunes, both smacking of Beach Boys worship with echo-tastic production, might have been better left off the record.) More Of Montreal and Faraquet than E.L.O and King Crimson, Kelpie have stumbled on to an incredibly catchy sound few have managed so joyfully. I know the band had a line-up shake up within the last year, and now the pianist has been replaced by a second guitarist. At a recent live show the band's sound took a turn for the blooze, which was not an unwelcomed shift. Kelpie deserves the adoration that bands with half their talent currently enjoy (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, I'm looking at you). With a new record being put to "tape" this summer, the group's time may be nigh. That aside, Hey Friends, It's Kelpie is a solid effort, and a good starting place for soon-to-be fans of the group.

LISTEN: Kelpie "Fruitful" and "Rail"

Destroyer -- Destroyer's Rubies
Merge Records; 2006

For the last 11 years or so, Destroyer has been the musical alias of Canadian songwriter Dan Bejar. You might also recognize Bejar's nasal pipes from his work with The New Pornographers, whom he's written a handful of songs for and with. As Destroyer, and with the help of friends and associates, Bejar has released his seventh album, Destroyer's Rubies. Bejar has seen critical praise from the independent scene since Destroyer’s inception, but has yet to be recognized "above ground." While Rubies won't initiate a hostile takeover of your local rock radio station, it might prove to be the record that breaks Destroyer to an audience sizable enough for its talents.

Not as highly caffeinated or as scrupulously edited for pop-readiness as The New Pornos, Destroyer sounds like Bejar buying Christmas presents for himself -- exactly as he pleases. On Rubies, Destroyer consists of Scott Morgan (drums, baritone sax), Tim Loewen (bass, guitar, harmonica), Nicholas Bragg (guitar), Ted Bois (keyboards), Fisher Rose (vibes, trumpet), and of course, Bejar. Acoustic guitar often serves as the base, upon which a piano playfully twinkles, an electric guitar growls its leads, and a host of vocalists "la la la" themselves silly. The band's scattered use of percussion is slightly unconventional and a perfect fit for the sprawling Rubies. Bejar's untraditional voice is an aspect of Destroyer that might take some getting used to. Whether attacking his lyrics with dramatic fury or taking his time, Bejar's sinus-derived vocals tend to break and squirm around exact pitches. Sometimes he speaks his lyrics as much as he sings them. As his songs' tipsy narrator, he'll rush through lyrics with excitement or deliver them as somber as can be.

Rubies opens with an epic song of the same title -- an all-encompassing 9 minute long preview of the sounds to come. The majestic "European Oils" quickly reveals its massive charms in the form of a sparkling piano line flanked by many vocal parts singing "ba-da ba-da." Bursting with pep, "3000 Flowers" threatens to fall apart several times, held together only by a searing, Pavement-esque guitar lick and radiant bari sax jabs. Destroyer shows its ability to scale things back on the comparatively spare "Painter In Your Pocket." Relying on nimble guitar melodies and low-key drumming, Bejar delivers his confounding and accusatory lyrics with noticeable restraint. Perplexing, poetically attractive and curse-filled lyrics are par for the course in Destroyerland. Asking listeners to let go of concrete meaning is a bold move, one Bejar relishes and indulges in constantly.

Even though Rubies is a strong album, it also contains a handful of weak points and reliance on a particular song structure. "European Oils," "Looter's Follies, "Woman Up To A Point" and "Priest's Knees" all use "la la lal choruses in lieu of lyrics. Itls almost as if Bejar forgot to write lyrical hooks for his choruses, and decided on "la's" as a last minute substitute. This doesn't detract from the album's pleasant, easy-going aesthetic, but it leaves the otherwise heavily-adorned tracks feeling needlessly unfinished. Destroyer fumbles on "Your Blood" and "Priest's Knees," two songs that lack the lush, colorful tone that Rubies succeeds with. In the context of a less straight-forward record, these tunes might do better; in their current context they stick out at jagged angles.

Until recently I never spent much time with Destroyer, and wasn't even aware of Bejar's Pornographic ties. But after taking in the glowing sounds of Destroyer's Rubies, I find myself curious as to what I’ve been missing. Bejar is an intensely talented musician and composer who makes great use of his ever-changing musical desires and "unusual" voice. Rubies seems like a proper jumping-on point for new listeners and a satisfying addition to current Destroyer fans' collections.

The Subways -- Young For Eternity
WEA; 2006

Dear members of The Subways,

What the hell happened? In 2004, you guys and gal soundly trumped the competition at Glastonbury Fest's "Best Unsigned Band" contest. Full of piss and vinegar (or Red Bull and vodka), your supposedly electrifying performance was enough to score a record deal and an absurd amount of hype. Whether or not one of your dads slipped the judges serious paper for the win (or maybe the judges are hard of hearing; I'm investigating both), the three of you should be able to record an album indicative of your songwriting talent, if nothing else. And yet, here's Young For Eternity, a debut record that falls flat and finds its creators prostrated at the feet of their influences.

Let me start by saying how much I appreciate hard work. Getting a band together, writing original songs, practicing so said songs don't suck, gigging relentlessly, fighting to get noticed, recording a record, promoting said record -- all of it requires a hefty dose of dedication. By the time an album gets to reviewers, the band that released it deserves nothing less than serious props for getting that far. It honestly pains me, then, when records from new bands sound like referential, contrived garbage. But as guilty as I may feel taking the piss out of them, music this insipid deserves nothing less.

This English trio makes a mishmash of up-tempo rock and roll and more delicate acoustic tunes -- all smoothed over with an exceptional amount of studio gloss. Guitarist and lead vocalist Billy Lunn strums modest and unimaginative melodies; bassist and sometimes singer Charlotte Cooper does the same on her four-string.
Only Lunn's brother, drummer Josh Morgan (it's a long story, they're brothers all the same), brings any zest to his instrument. Whether keeping the beat or showing some technical flair, Morgan hits the skins with an intensity to which the rest of his band-mates seem immune.

Like most bands, The Subways are influenced by a handful of groups that led the music scene during its members' younger days. But in this case, the heroes that inspired The Subways to "rock out" are subject to some ruthless and conspicuous cribbing to cover a lack of ingenuity. From the opening build up to the perfunctory screams, lead single "Rock & Roll Queen" could be a tune penned by Aussie post-grungers The Vines. "Mary," the lazy tune following it, makes a pass at being the younger siblings of Oasis. Tracks like "Oh Yeah," "Holiday" and "City Pavement" all channel Kurt Cobain's work without his talent. Of the 12 songs on Young For Eternity, only two escape the comfort zone of other people's work.

Devoid of the adroitness necessary to develop their own aesthetic, it's hardly surprising the lyrics are just as basic and atrocious. Consider lines from "Mary": "Mary is my best friend / She makes me my tea / She let's me stay around her place / When there's nowhere else to be." The gauzy "Lines of Light" offers no reprieve: "The lines of light / They tell my mind I'm a child / Time passes by / And from it, I cannot hide." And just when you thought it could get no worse, there's "Rock & Roll Queen": "You are the sun / You are the only one / My heart is blue / My heart is blue for you." These poor attempts at nursery rhyme lyricism would be cute if the band's members were 8-years-old, not brain-drained early 20-year-olds.

Two ballads redeem Young For Eternity from becoming grist for a coaster. Semi-electrified love song "Lines of Light" requires listeners to ignore the words and concentrate on the lulling melodies, which are surprisingly enjoyable. "She Sun" employs the same caveat, but is hazy enough to call to mind a particularly satisfying summer nap. It's just enough to suggest The Subways may have more decent songs in them, provided they ditch the rock shtick and take a poetry class.

The Subways is yet another example of a band that confuses the ability to make music with talent, the ability to mimic as the only necessary skill for success. And if you want to make mindless records that set the curve at ankle level, sure, that'll do. But good music, truly inventive and enjoyable music, requires vision that turns influences into starting blocks. Young For Eternity is only The Subway's debut, and the group has an entire career ahead to learn and come into its own. I hope the next time I ask "what the hell happened?" about The Subways, the tone is one of pleasant surprise.

-- Your slightly friendly music critic

Arctic Monkeys -- Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
Domino Records; 2006

The tale of the Arctic Monkeys' smash success is one that may elicit bitter epithets and flushed faces from veteran underground rockers. This four-pack of working class post-teens from Sheffield, England signed with Domino Records in 2004, only a year after picking up guitars for the first time. A year later, their rambunctious single "I Bet That You Look Good On the Dancefloor" tackled the UK singles charts, debuting at No. 1. And if Joe Indie Rocker hasn't already blown steam out his ears, here's the kicker: This January the band's debut record, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, sold 118,501 copies on the first day. It went on to sell more copies in its first week than any other debut record in UK history.

But fanatic consumerism doesn’t always mean a group is talented, right? After all, people still buy P.O.D. albums in droves. Thankfully, this isn't the case for the oddly-named Arctic Monkeys. Full of youthful vigor and whatever lager is cheap, the group makes taut rock and roll fit for dancing or whatever debauchery is clever at the moment. Mouthpiece and lead guitarist Alex Turner yowls his lines with an expert's sense of timing and a hoarse set of pipes. Backing his spiny guitar leads is guitarist Jamie Cook, who fills out melodies with steady rhythmic swipes. Behind the kit is Matt Helders, a drummer who propels the band into action and keeps it in check with the beat of his popping snare and thumped toms. Bassist Andy Nicholson is a decent time-keeper as well, but his duties mean rarely deviating from the guitar lines he follows.

Arctic Monkeys first announced its presence with the slightly witty "I Bet That You Look Good On the Dancefloor," a tune that’s fun and catchy, but barely alludes to the potential shown on Whatever. There's the bawdy bum rush of “Still Take You Home,” angular dance number "Fake Tales of San Francisco" and the brusque, hipster-slaying "Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But...." The group can do more than bash out chords, too, as slow-burners like "Mardy Bum," "A Certain Romance" and the languid "Riot Van" inform us. "From the Ritz To the Rubble" is easily Arctic Monkey’s greatest achievement -- a blistering song best used to incite mutiny or vent teenage angst.

And this is a subject the band is more than familiar with, having only exited their teens about 30 seconds ago. Turner, the group's lyricist, is fantastic at capturing the ennui brewing in all young folks with no money to spend and nothing to do. His lyrics call to mind master wordsmith Morrissey if he were growing up in 2006, significantly less depressed and craving the female form. In "View From the Afternoon" he considers the perils of drunken e-mailing ("You can pour your heart out around 3 o' clock / When the 2 for 1's undone the writers block"). Turner loves jabbing back at scenesters on songs like "Fake Tales" ("You're not from New York City, you're from Rotherham / So get off the bandwagon, and put down the handbook.") and "Perhaps Vampires"("All you people are vampires / All your stories are stale / Though you pretend to stand by us / Though you're certain we'll fail.")

When not scrapping with bouncers or discussing his night at the pub, Turner often has some form of romance on his mind. Sometimes he settles for what's available ("Still Take You Home"); sometimes he's singing his most enticing come-ons ("Dancing Shoes"). He even lowers his cards and shows his tender side on the pleading "Mardy Bum," trying to convince his better half to stick around. Turner's wordplay is concrete and arresting, much like a friend relaying his past three months in the form of an album. For his first record -- and even if this was his fifth -- Turner shows a great deal of promise as a writer.

However, Whatever is not without its flaws. Being the Arctic Monkeys’ first full-length foray, the group shows promise and room for improvement. Besides the absurd title, "You Probably Couldn't See For the Lights, But You Were Staring Straight At Me," is incredibly amateurish and skip-worthy. The combination of massive power chords and little backbeat portions on "The View From the Afternoon" is disjointed and cumbersome. A few tracks (like "I Bet" and "Still Take You Home") are unnervingly similar in style. Nothing major; these are the earmarks of a band still coming into its own.

Right now, the Arctic Monkeys have the distinction of being bigger than The Beatles in the UK (sales-wise, at least). It's difficult to say if they'll have even remotely the same impact on this side of the pond. Considering how fickle and unpredictable America has been in the past for British bands, they might end up pulling a T. Rex and maintain only a cult status. But the possibility for a full-scale takeover is there. They're capable enough to write the catchy, hook-laden track ready to lodge itself in America’s ears. Even if they don't, Arctic Monkeys have made a surprising and solid debut with Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. I hope their contrary nature won't disagree with me.

The Strokes -- First Impressions of Earth
RCA Records; 2006

After The Strokes released Room On Fire, its follow-up to debut, Is This It?, audiences and critics alike politely smiled and scrunched up their noses. Room was very similar to its predecessor, and all the subtle refinements the band made were hastily overlooked. If the band's new record, First Impressions of Earth, is any indication, The Strokes took the hint. Like hipsters given a key to the local liquor store, the boys treated themselves to satisfying all their musical whims. There was no chance Impressions would garner direct comparisons to the group's past output.

The risk associated with venturing into distant sonic territory is scaring away fans like flighty white-tailed deer. Accordingly, Impressions is likely to be an album that discerns who is interested in The Strokes’ artistic vision and who just liked the band’s taste in clothing. It’s a startlingly intimate look at a songwriter redefining his comfort zone and a band gripping tighter to its talents and aspirations. Impressions finds the group at its most ambitious and least referential; 14 uncompromising and varied songs that are as much for the band’s edification as the listener’s.

Impressions opens with the shimmering "You Only Live Once," a track so lovingly status quo for The Strokes it serves as a bookend for the band's past and a warm welcome back to fans. Of course, this doesn't last. "Juicebox" follows it with an unexpected blow to the gut as the band thrashes through a mind-bending combination of Batman theme song and pop prog-rock. The album winds through nerve-wracking guitar assaults, bipolar shifts between pleading coos and throat-wrenching yells and cheerful chats on self-mutilation without so much as batting an eye.

All of these radical departures sound shocking out of context, but come together well with the all-too-capable Strokes at the helm. Julian Casablancas, the band's sole songwriter and mouthpiece, writes with a confident zeal that his bandmates run wild with. While Jules fires vitriolic lyrics (now without the vocal filter you love to hate), guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. boldly tackle their task of bringing his creations to life. They set an imposing tone for "Electricityscape" with dark, interlocking strums; they finger-pick tension into "Heart In A Cage"; and they turn drunken fumbles into hypnotic rhythms on "The Ize Of the World." The Strokes' rhythm section isn't exactly slouching either, powerfully setting pace for the band’s most pulse-pounding tracks yet. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti gives up sounding like a drum machine in order to clobber his kit, offering a fuller, more arresting sound. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture steps up to the plate, too, delivering his most commanding and creative performances to date.

Thematically, Impressions is a darker, more biting record. Casablancas lashes out at everyone around him with a bruised vernacular, barely sparing his new bride from the same treatment. He sounds paranoid on the brilliant "The Ize Of the World," warning someone – possibly himself? -- "I think I know what you mean but watch what you say / 'cause they'll be try to knock you down in some way." Bitterness ("Heart In A Cage") and loathing (the brutal "On the Other Side"), self-doubt ("Fear of Sleep") and self-hatred (many songs), Julian seems deeply entrenched in a troubled period of life. Compared to the almost light-hearted material that comprised the previous albums, one wonders what flicked the switch in his head to let these sardonic feelings reach paper.

The easy and most probably incomplete answer is Casablancas' love affair with booze. Instead of shelving the bottle while writing like he did on the previous albums, Julian has embraced it. The results are clear: a lack of self-conscious editing (hence all the ire), some unusually slovenly vocal performances and a newfound love of screaming himself hoarse. But combining intoxication with aspiration doesn’t always pan out golden nuggets. Wonderfully spare but lyrically uninspired, "Ask Me Anything” finds Casablancas alone with a harmonium, mumbling charming nonsense like "I've got nothing to say" and "don't be a coconut." "Killing Lies" and "Fear Of Sleep" are just as vapid and add nothing to the record. Impressions' greatest stumble is the drunken ranting of "15 Minutes," which is not unlike a 21st birthday party taking its course.

And yet, I'd rather call these missteps beauty marks instead of blemishes. In the context of the whole record, the whole scope of The Strokes as a band, these "mistakes" are meaningful and necessary. They also further elaborate on the frame of mind Julian Casablancas was in while writing. First Impressions of Earth is still a great achievement for The Strokes; it's evidence of a band growing as musicians and artists. Packed with a host of songs that rank among the band's best, Impressions is a promise that good things are still to come from this band.

Madonna -- Confessions on a Dance Floor
Warner Brothers; 2005

Before Ashlee, before Kelly, before Christina or Britney, there was the Material Girl. Becoming the queen of pop by deftly ignoring rules about content, context and sound, Madonna firmly planted herself as an icon of American pop music. And though her kung-fu grip on that sacred title has held strong for 20 years, the very performers she's inspired have started to make attempts on her thrown. Her last album, American Life, did little to fend them off, barely even making a blip on pop radio’s radar. A little scared about her own relevancy and unsatisfied with the already substantial impact she's had on music, Madge has put up her dukes on her latest record, Confessions on a Dance Floor. No one will fill her boots without a fight.

If blood is going to be spilled in the battle for pop queen-dom, it'll be on a dance floor. More of a clubbing soundtrack than a collection of Madonna's been up to musically, Confessions is ballad-free and constantly in motion. Its tracks are seamlessly blended together so the fun, in theory, never has to stop. Long in form and often repetitive, the tracks on Confessions come together more like a house DJ's set than 12 independent songs. An album as cohesive as this is hardly for the faint of heart or those lacking stamina.

That being said, Confessions contains some incredible ass-movers. Noted producer Stuart Price is largely responsible, as he co-wrote (read: he wrote, Madge co-signed) the majority of the record. The album starts with the galloping "Hung Up," the massive first single. Built around an ABBA sample, the dark and pulsating disco-house aesthetic is as much 1979 as 2005. The Mirwais-penned "Future Lovers" is burbling and subtly ferocious, and also one of Madonna's best dance songs. It's guaranteed to get boys and girls sweaty, but only if they can ignore the breathy babbling that haunts the first minute and a half. "Jump," "I Love New York" and "Forbidden Love" are all likewise excellent, uplifting and smile-inducing. Of course, Madonna's vocal work is flawless (thanks, Auto-tune!) and full of her bubbly personality.

Only a small handful of tracks fail to meet Madge-level expectations. "How High" is greatly nuanced, but strikes the ear in a hardly-tuneful way. "Isaac" does a poor job of balancing Eastern flair and Western pop sensibilities. While props are due for the effort, it's not nearly strong enough to be included on Confessions. The undulating "Push" is also a misstep, sounding like a Gwen Stefani castoff.

What keeps the delectable portions of Confessions from overshadowing the gristle are the lyrics. Although the Material Woman (let's be real here) has never been a pop Shakespeare, it's unusual that her words are such a stumbling block. The worst offender is "I Love New York," a track that's otherwise fiyah. Only two years after penning the U.S.-deriding album American Life, here's Madge trying to cozy up to her homebois in NYC. She also sings awfully juvenile lines like "Other places make me feel like a dork" and "If you don't like my attitude / Then you can F off / Just go to Texas / Isn't that where they golf?" Who let Madonna's kids have so much input? The overtly Kabbalah-influenced "Isaac" is like an awkward commercial for the celebrity-filled religion. Some songs like "Get Together" and "Push" say almost nothing worth listening to, bilking content for ignorability. Madonna’s past lyrics used to be as much a part of her as the music. Now it feels like she’s on auto-pilot, coasting her way through songwriting.

As a grab at the reins of relevancy, Confessions on a Dance Floor manages to hold on, but the grip is rather loose. Madonna's time left wearing the pop queen tiara is running out, and Confessions merely slows the process. As an album, Confessions is entertaining and will keep rumps shaking, but not among Madonna's best. Her reign has been incredible, genre-defining and an inspiration to many. As long as she acknowledges that and bows out gracefully, that’s how she'll be forever remembered.

Hometown Heroes To Whom?

We've all heard the stories about celebrities who think they're better than everyone else. The sense of accomplishment that comes with defeating the overwhelming odds against "making it" can be like a bicycle pump, inflating the ego with each further achievement. Not to say the famous are bad people for letting this happen, especially when we ourselves haven't a clue what we'd be like with a little fame. Nonetheless, it's always the hope that successful people will remember their less glamorous upbringings when dealing with us plebeians.

Mudvayne sprung from the loins of the Peoria area in 1996. The group toiled in town, gigging and doing all the things that a local band should. One bassist and four years later, the band released its major label debut, L.D. 50, which was lightly embraced by metal fans. The band's sound was part chug-metal, part technical riffing and a whole bunch of screaming about depression, mental anguish and everyone who’d ever wronged them.

Mudvayne scored its first single with "Dig" and received some radio love. Since then, it's made a bigger splash in the metal scene, playing the first stage of Ozzfest and the "Summer Sanitarium" tour with Metallica and Linkin Park. The group has also released three more albums, including its latest, Lost and Found. The band made its biggest impact this year with "Happy?," the second single from the same album. The song is a vitriolic retort to detractors and enemies, but maintains a highly radio-friendly vibe. In fact, it's Mudvayne's most accessible single yet, as it all but eschews screaming and technical skill for utter blandness. It's a shocker coming from Mudvayne, considering the group's past and the rest of the record. But "Happy?" has done wonders for the group, whose album sold more than 150,000 copies in the first week. One would imagine that yes, they are happy.

"We're the band that everybody wants to be," said Ryan Martinie, Mudvayne's bassist. "We do what we want to do, when we want to and how we want to." Martinie said he is acutely aware of how lucky he and his bandmates are. What's missing is humility. Coming from a city that's not exactly a hotbed for creative minds (Richard Pryor notwithstanding), it seems reasonable to think the band's members may still remember what it's like to be one of us. One conversation with Martinie and you'll find he's forgotten.

Martinie speaks as if being in a popular-yet-musically-uninteresting band affords him the right to be stuck up and dismissive of influences. His interest in his hometown is minimal at most.

"Coming from Peoria really didn't affect us all that much," he said. Martinie said he thought the band's development and growth was typical of most other locations. It seems curious that Peoria didn't play a major part in shaping its dark, aggressive sound. Martinie didn't even know when the group would be playing in Peoria next. "I don't really care about dates," he said, only moments after disclosing when the band would be in Kansas City. "You can find that out on the Web site," he suggested. Sure, that information is available online, but it would be germane to know when your highly-hyped homecoming show will take place.

What brings out arrogance in Martinie also brings out defensiveness: the suggestion that the members of Mudvayne try to draw attention to the group. It wasn't until last summer that the band put away its claim-to-fame make-up and costumes. Members also simultaneously ditched their goofy pseudo-names – Martinie used to go by Ryknow and R-uD. Why would the band do any of these things unless it wanted people to notice?

"or people to think, 'this is the new Mudvayne,' or 'Mudvayne is trying to reinvent themselves,' I think that's an oversight. I think that's been fueled by the media," Martinie said. What exactly does that overlook? In terms of appearances, the band’s members have made extensive changes -- changes that can easily be construed as attempts to both be taken seriously and to draw eyeballs in Mudvayne's direction. Try as Martinie might to blame the media for people’s interest in the band’s appearances, Mudvayne drew the attention to itself and loved every minute of it.

Another change that has garnered Mudvayne attention is its willingness to write rock radio-friendly material. While most of the songs on Lost and Found aren't exactly something you'll find soccer moms buying their kids, "Happy?" certainly is. It's three minutes and 37 seconds of mindless mush that fits well between Nickelback and Disturbed, but not among Mudvayne's back catalog. Perhaps the group was tired of waiting for fame to come to it.

"I think that's assumptive and narrow [to say]," Martinie said. "If people are familiar with the band, they would hear songs that have a lot of melody and different arrangements." But the proof is in the pudding. No other song from Mudvayne's repertoire has been as appealing to rock radio's palate or has sold as many records for the group. "If you have some idea that you're going to please the public with a way of writing a song, I think you’re going to miss the point altogether," he said. And maybe they have, too.

Between trying to defend its single, Mudvayne's image-consciousness or its lyrics -- check out the cliche "screw the media" rant in "TV Radio" to hear Mudvayne ask listeners to turn off the media that advances the group -- fame has made the band a mess. With hard work, members worked their way through the chutes and ladders of the music industry. And through Mudvayne's success, the group's members have taken on a holier-than-thou mindset, denying any credit to their hometown and their tricks of the trade.

"Maybe we take ourselves too seriously," Martinie said. Considering he thinks enough of himself to brag about his lack of television-viewing or to refuse to disclose his Halloween costume, it seems fair to agree with him. Mudvayne has become a commercial success and one of the new stars of radio metal, but it's resulted in swollen egos and a detachment from the truth for the band.

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