It seems music is either feast or famine for me these days. I feel a little uncomfortable giving out so many A’s this summer, but it really has been a fantastic season. Case in point: Here are three more albums in the “A” range, and two I probably won’t listen to anymore.
• “B’Day,” Beyoncé—Wow, happy b’day to us, because Beyonce’s second solo album is what I was hoping for three years ago on “Dangerously in Love.” That album featured the perfect opening trifecta of “Crazy in Love”/“Naughty Girl”/“Baby Boy” but drifted the rest of the way through too many listless Mariah-esque slow jams. “B’Day,” on the other hand, mashes the pedal down nearly all the way through its breezy 10 songs (plus two hidden tracks). Leaving Destiny’s Child way back in her rearview mirror, Ms. Knowles unleashes her inner Aretha throughout this set, peeling paint off the walls at the top of her lungs in shredders like “Ring the Alarm,” “Get Me Bodied,” and lead single “Déjà Vu,” the latter teaming her once again with beau Jay-Z. Speaking of, I was worried for him the first time through “B’Day,” because Beyoncé seems on a rampaging mission to decimate every lowdown man in her life (especially on “Irreplaceable”: “I could have another you in a minute/Matter of fact, he’ll be here in a minute”). And then I listened through past the end of “Resentment,” the final track on the album; in the beginning of the “hidden” section, B’ explains this album was spawned in the afterglow of her work in “Dreamgirls,” the Oscar-baiting movie in which she stars (it opens Christmas Day). She loved that character, Deena, so much she didn’t want to let her go and thus wrote a batch of songs from her perspective—saying all the things Deena should have said in the film but didn’t. Beyoncé then throws in “Listen,” apparently the pivotal song from the movie. This message puts a deeper level of context on an album whose lyrical content would otherwise seem run-of-the-mill. It’s a stellar sophomore effort that makes “Dangerously” sound tame and cements the fact that there’s way more to Beyoncé than simply being the pop diva of the moment. Grade: A-
• “Happy Hollow,” Cursive—Setting aside for a moment this is a concept album that attempts to rip Christianity to shreds in every song, I still can’t connect with it. Lead singer/songwriter Tim Kasher has an abrasive voice that just hits me the wrong way. Musically, “Happy Hollow” is quite interesting, but I just can’t get past that grating vocal (in that way, Cursive reminds me of Thursday and Say Anything). And even if I did like Kasher’s voice, there’s no way I’d listen to this album ever again. My beliefs are challenged on a continual basis by pop culture and I’ve made my peace with that. “Happy Hollow” goes beyond what I’m willing to put up with—there’s nothing I can personally find redeemable in these albeit quite literal lyrics. I can understand why this album is one of the best reviewed of the year, but I’m in no position to give anywhere close to an objective opinion. Grade: N/A
• “Modern Times,” Bob Dylan—I don’t know nearly enough to put Dylan’s new album in context as a career achievement—I leave that for the experts (although Rolling Stone handing out yet another five-star review seems excessive). What amazes me, the novice, is how after 40-plus years and 40-plus albums he somehow conjures up his magic for yet another sterling set. In a time when so many of Dylan’s contemporaries are dead, retired, or irrelevant, he remains at the top of his game (how cool is that iPod commercial?). It’s strange to think Dylan’s last album, “Love and Theft,” was released on Sept. 11, 2001, because that album is loose and full of joy, so at odds with that awful day. Like so many Americans, the past five years seem to have worn on Dylan; while “Modern Times” maintains the same sound of its predecessor, the tone is much different. It’s mellower, more contemplative. “Love and Theft” seemed to stretch out and fill the room, while “Modern Times” draws in on itself, sucking you in with it. Dylan and his band make room for plenty of old-school rockin’ and rollin’ on great cuts like “Thunder On The Mountain,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” But it’s the quiet moments that really make this record. Like all 8 minutes and 48 seconds of “Ain’t Talkin’,” which doesn’t waste a heartbeat. Grade: A
***On a side note, anyone who still hasn’t purchased this CD, I recommend picking it up at Best Buy so you can have the exclusive booklet from that store which includes cover art and tracklists for every single Dylan album. It’s pretty sweet.***
• “Another Fine Day,” Golden Smog—I’m ashamed to admit I’m only well-versed in one piece of the three main bands that make up super-side project Golden Smog, featuring members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Wilco. Nor do I own any of Smog’s previous recordings, which date back to 1992. But that may not be a bad thing, because I’m guessing there are a lot of people in my same situation, meaning there’s a little something for everybody on this excellent set. For the past couple months since its release, I’ve been trying to find a bad song on this record and there just isn’t one—the only flaw may be, at 15 tracks, it’s a bit overwhelming. To mention one highlight, though, is to leave out five others equally deserving (but, okay, “Beautiful Mind” and the Kinks cover “Strangers” are particularly awesome). The influences are wide-ranging: classic rock, roots rock, pop rock, folk, country, alt-country, it’s all here—and it all sounds really good. So good, in fact, you won’t believe this is “just a side project.” Grade: A-
• “Illinois,” Sufjan Stevens—This is not a review, per se, because “Illinois” was last year’s IT indie album. I just thought I’d mention I’ve been trying for all of 2006 to like this record and finally, just this week, gave up and deleted it from my iPod. It’s just too cute, too perfect, too … I don’t know … too cold, maybe? I can see why people go crazy for Sufjan—he fits perfectly into the post-“Garden State” soundtrack world in which we all live—but it didn’t do much for me (although I do enjoy “Jacksonville”). I guess this means I have to turn in my Christian I.D. card now.