Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Courtney Love -- America's Sweetheart
Virgin Records; 2004

The second I heard that Courtney Love's solo debut was going to be entitled America's Sweetheart, I sprayed my drink all over my friend, flipped my meal tray, and got on the table to scream "YOU MUST BE KIDDING ME!!" Ok, so I didn't do that, but you can sure bet I wished I had. From her time as Cobain's leeching wife to her tenure in the slightly talented Hole, America hasn't really shown a lot of adoration to Ms. Love. What made her inclined to make a solo record, you ask? Probably a litany of things, but most likely for the attention it will garner her.

To be blunt, Love has very little, if ANY, musical talent to speak of. Her voice is so shredded and repulsive that you'd think she gargles with broken glass and flosses with barbed wire. There are points on the album where it's overtly evident that the producers tried to tweak her shriek into something more livable, but only managed to give her a digitized vibe that recalls -- don't ask me how -- Metallica's James Hetfield. Good try, boys, but there isn't anything that's going to make her sound good.

Her guitar playing -- that is, if she actually did any on the album -- is so hopelessly simple that most of the dudes that hang out at Guitar Center could write/riff circles around her. Every song off America's Sweetheart is chock full of melodies that would feel comfortable in the company of Nickelback or any number of washed up 90s alterna-rockers. To her credit, though, she made one good move on "I'll Do Anything" by aping her late husband's most renowned guitar line from "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I can just imagine her saying, [insert tar-filled voice for fun] "Do you think anyone will notice?" followed by gulping a handful of Vicodin.

Unsurprisingly, that cute vignette brings us to her lyrics. Listeners are going to need much more than a spoonful of sugar to swallow the insipid lyrics Love gurgles at them. "I see Paris I see France / I can see your underpants / Yeah, I see Paris I see France / Yeah, I hear London calling." What the hell is that? In addition to being unbelievably stupid, it's not the only time on "But Julian, I'm a Little Older Than You" that she plunders punk's past for lyrics. Love even goes so far as to scream "Oi oi oi! Gabba gabba, gabba babba hey!" which would surely make Joey and Dee Dee Ramone spin in their respective graves.

The worst part about the album is that with the exception of one song, she claims to have written it all. At least if she had other people writing her songs, she could blame them for sounding this horrible. Hell, if other people were writing for her, they might even be listenable! It seems doubtful that would be the case, as Love put her filthy touch all over the album.

I think Courtney Love is 100% aware of how brutally awful she is musically. She knows it and loves it; and if it means getting another few minutes in the media's gleaming limelight, she'll exploit it. After all, she is "America's sweetheart."

Kanye West -- The College Dropout
Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam; 2004

If you go to (a site I recommend for anyone) and type in Kanye West, you get a bio, a list of influences, and a laughable picture. The dude is dressed in some pretty average clothes, has his Roc-A-Fella necklace on, and a backpack. Not any ordinary backpack, mind you, but a Louie-freakin'-Vuitton backpack. I'm positive of the persona West is trying to show us here: he's a totally hot producer/rapper that can afford any number of luxurious things, and yet he's still an emotional, everyman backpacker. You know, down with the underground. Unsurprisingly, that's exactly what West's solo debut The College Dropout presents as well; the synthesis of which makes for a fantastic album.

The College Dropout is the first time many people get to hear West actually rap. Although "Through the Wire" is all over the radio, truthfully it's one of his weakest songs -- even if the subject matter of having one's jaw wired shut is kind of heavy. On "All Falls Down," West addresses the self conscious nature of hip hop culture with an easy-going flow, much like latter day De La Soul material. West teams up with Mos Def and Freeway on the album's first standalone single, "Two Words," and it's a barnburner. While Def sounds like he's ready to punch the mic, West is a bit more reserved -- almost like he's plotting revenge while he rhymes. Kanye's blood-boiling testament on law enforcement versus the streets solidifies "Jesus Walks" as the album's finest track, especially with the call-to-arms beat perfectly setting the tone.

As with all Kanye productions, the real meat of the album lies in the production, which on The College Dropout is as diverse as a 28 ham buffet. "All Falls Down" is carried by the sugary wails of guest vocalist Syleena Johnson and some nimble blues guitar -- breaking new ground for West. The most "out there" track on The College Dropout is easily "The New Workout Plan." Packed tightly with a gajillion propulsive bass hits and hyper fiddles, the song abruptly pares down to a simple big beat and synthesized voice a la Daft Punk. Talk about mixing it up!

Still, many songs use West's patent calling card of a sped up soul sample over stammering drums and thick basslines, and yet it never seems to lose effect. Even though "School Spirit" might not bring the goods lyrically, the song still takes flight, lifted by the charming piano and Aretha Franklin's chirpy vocal sample. The ridiculously popular "Slow Jamz" utilizes the same sample trick, dropping in Luther Vandross alongside Jamie Foxx and -- unfortunately -- Twista. It's bad enough that Twista's a gimmick rapper to start, but why let him taint such a great, cheeky song?

What West struggles with on The College Dropout is choosing tracks that will be attractive commercially and represent his underground roots. Songs like "Jesus Walks" and "Two Words" are awe-inspiring tracks all around, but aren't exactly club bangers or pop star vehicles. It's because of this that West includes the pointless "Breathe In Breathe Out," kept especially stupid by Ludacris's ho-hum hook. Even Jay-Z's guest track "Never Let Me Down" is rote, providing yawns musically and snores lyrically.

Thankfully, the small missteps of The College Dropout are greatly outshined by Kanye West's fresh, soulful production and surprisingly adept MC skills. The album proved that he's not just a producer/wannabe-rapper like Jermaine Dupree; he's got talent in both domains. At the same time, he kept up his persona of being the now-rich everyman by offering heartfelt songs about the streets that he's loved and experienced. I have a feeling this is just the first of a number of fantastic achievements yet to come from Roc-A-Fella's newest talent.

Air -- Talkie Walkie
Astralwerks; 2004

If you took a photo album and shook it of its contents -- the important occasions captured on chemically developed pieces of paper -- you would have Talkie Walkie. If you thumbed through a diary or journal and tore out the pages -- hand-written memories carefully captured by pen-stroke -- you would have Talkie Walkie. If you were to make tape copies of a family's home videos -- hundreds of feet of film of treasured moments -- you would have Talkie Walkie. In a way, the latest album by Air is a collection of joyous moments; a sonic document that exhibits members Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin's love of life.

This might be a bit tough to swallow at first. How could Talkie Walkie, an album of electronic music (not exactly well-renowned for its emotional properties) do so well to portraying these French musicians' joie de vivre? First, we have to think of what this album is not. It's not a collection of hazy lounge songs like Air's debut Moon Safari or a hodgepodge of robotic copulation hymns of later album 10,000 Hz Legend (mercifully).

Instead, Talkie Walkie is an introspective look on love, desire and adventure through an icy cool lens. With famed Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich behind the boards, Air creates soundscapes that call to mind everything from snow-enveloped forests to fireplace lit bedrooms to the streets of Japan.

The instrumentation of Talkie Walkie ranges from relatively simple to lush. "Universal Traveler" is an example of the former, its structure of micro-click drum programming and finger-picked guitar being lapped at by waves of swelling synths. The album's opener, "Venus," hits both ends of the spectrum. Starting with only bass drum, piano, and handclaps, the song expands to a mess of wiggling synths, making it the sweetest dirge I've ever heard.

Some of Talkie Walkie's best tunes are also its most ornate and use Godrich to the extent of his abilities. The instrumental tune "Alpha Beta Gaga" is packed to the gills with instruments, featuring most prominently a banjo, string arrangements, and some very merry whistling. The guitar-led melody of "Cherry Blossom Girl" is beautiful on its own, but becomes sultry by adding a flute's velvet tone and Air's gentle cooing.

In fact, one of the most enrapturing parts of the album is Air's vocals. Opting not to use any guest vocalists, Dunckel and Godin sing like digital angels with thick French accents. Oftentimes the duo's blissful vocals emulate a shoegaze-style of singing pioneered by My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain; with whom their track "Alone in Kyoto" shares space on the Lost in Translation soundtrack.

Despite the groups' heavenly vocals, the topics that Air muses about aren't entirely saccharine. On "Run," the guys lament in broken English about missing their significant others and hating to see them leave. The excellent "Cherry Blossom Girl" is about loving someone from afar because of an overwhelming shyness. And while "Surfing on a Rocket" seems like a happy-go-lucky tune, the lyrics "No one can stop me to go / You'll never see me again," allude to doing what you have to do, even if it means encountering unpleasantries. These instances are a part of life, too, just like love and desire, and have to be loved equally.

Talkie Walkie is a prominent milestone in Air's career; an album that combines the splendor of Moon Safari with a sense of emotion that is often devoid in electronic music. The duo has made something incredibly personal with Talkie Walkie, a sort of musical list of reasons that Dunckel and Godin get up every morning. As the warm piano line of "Alone in Kyoto," the album's final track plays out, it all becomes clear: life -- or at least as Air sees it -- is beautiful.

Will Someone Get Me Another Pepsi?

Or Janet Jackson's new single, "Just a Little While"

Janet, oh Janet, you and your $3 trillion dollar crack team of lawyers and hype-mongers are so clever. No one is going to ever correlate your teat-bearing with trying to drum up publicity for a new album, are they? Nahh. Regardless whether you view her boob show and tell as a stunt or scandal, it's hard to deny that this ought to help out Janet's otherwise sagging (groan) career.

Looking to revitalize her sound, Jackson's new single rips a page from the recent work of Liz Phair, Avril Lavigne and P!nk (damn, that's dumb) and utilizes the Matrix songwriting book. Except... with the cheese factor turned up to eleven. It's such commercial pop that it's actually circled around the spectrum and become an ad for Pepsi. It's all rock and roll! Janet can rock too -- look, there's a guitar line! See! The best part of the song, obviously, is the guitar's "so-simple-my-cat's-furball-could-play-it" chord progression playing relentlessly behind Janet's perfect-pitched "ooh ooh ooh ooh!" The wanking solo at the end is so DAMN awful that it's obviously played by someone that invariably looks like the guitarist of Creed. God + Pepsi + The Matrix = winning single, at least in Janet's breast-I mean brain.

Phantom Planet -- Phantom Planet
Epic/Daylight; 2003

The third and newest album from Phantom Planet is an eye-opening departure from their patent sound. Although best known for their sunny power pop, clean, Weezer-ish guitar riffs and odes to The Golden State, it seems the band has had enough of the beach and has taken a new path to dirtier, more abrasive pastures.

The band's new found scuzziness is a concoction of the brash post-punk attitude of The Fall and Wire and the dusty fuzz tone of garage rock kings, The Stooges. Despite these admirable influences, Phantom Planet have managed to make a record that sounds, well, very much like The Strokes.

It's somewhat impressive how well Phantom Planet mimics New York's favorite sons. Album opener "The Happy Ending" sounds like its guitar line was lifted off the Is This It master tapes with love and rusty pliers. Vocalist Alex Greenwald proves that practice pays off as he imitates Casablanca's "too lazy to pay the rent" delivery with the exact same lack of joie de vivre on "Badd Business," "Making a Killing," and "The Meantime." To round out their cribbed sound they even include drum machine-precise rhythms, courtesy of Jason Schwarztman (replaced post-recording by Jeff Conrad).

Even though the band now sounds like the west coast step-brothers of The Strokes, Phantom Planet has a few quirks that make it a worthwhile listen. The driving force of many of the album's tracks is Sam Farrar's fierce bassline which can both boogie and bombard. The band experiments with dissonance on the pounding "You're Not Welcome Here" with a surprisingly pleasant result. The bitter break up lyrics are circled by nashing guitars and swathed in feedback, perfectly portraying Greenwald's crushed state.

The crown jewel of Phantom Planet is "Big Brat," the album's first single. Everything from punchy saxophone to blistering drum programming to crackling bass to waffle irons to god-knows-what-else is utilized to its fullest. The end result turns an otherwise silly song (with an excellent, yet sillier video) into a turbulent debauchery anthem.

The problem that Phantom Planet runs into with discarding their signature sound for one akin to The Strokes is twofold. Fans expecting the band to reprise their sun-soaked success from The Guest may be turned off by the abrasive nature of their musical U-turn. In addition, Phantom Planet offers little innovation from what The Strokes have championed for two albums. Why should consumers buy this instead of Room On Fire?

For one, Phantom Planet is still filled with dark and catchy tunes, even if they aren't particularly groundbreaking. There's also a certain curiosity listeners have about bands that can make 180 degree turns in style, and Phantom Planet may pick up listeners on that merit. Still, these fingers-crossed hopes don't necessarily erase the fact that Phantom Planet nicks aggressively from their peers and may be too different for their fans to swallow without hesitation.

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