On the record

On the record

Steve Earle

Washington Square Serenade

New West

Grade: A

In l974, Steve Earle left Texas for the Greenwich Village he saw on the cover of Bob Dylan’s classic Freewheelin’ record. He landed in Nashville instead, where he found success, but also alcohol, heroin and politics. After jail, rehab and a spiritual awakening, Earle finally arrived in New York, and never has he sounded so happy. This is a gritty-but-sweet record in early Dylan mode. Earle sings to girls (“Sparkle and Shine”), New York (“Down Here Below”) and immigrants (“City of Immigrants”), among other loves. Just when America gives up the long quest for the fabled “next Bob Dylan,” here he comes — and where should we find him but in Greenwich Village?

Download: “Down Here Below,” “City of Immigrants,” “Sparkle and Shine”

— Kit Stolz

Bettye LaVette

The Scene of the Crime


Grade: B-

In 1972, Bettye LaVette put out a soul record Atlantic thought would be big. When that deal fell apart, she sings on The Scene of the Crime, “it nearly broke my heart.” She pours her soul into this record, sounding a bit like Tina Turner, with a bigger catch in her voice. She plumbs the depths in songs like “I Guess We Shouldn’t Talk About That Now.” So why isn’t this more enjoyable? Maybe it’s the seriousness: Even Aretha Franklin (back then) or Amy Winehouse (now) showed flashes of wit, but this record is always earnest, be it loving, regretful or proud. Impressive, but not much fun.

Download: “Choices,” “I Guess We Shouldn’t Talk About That Now”

— Kit Stolz


Wasted Orient (DVD)


Grade: B-

“I think the whole world is a toilet,” opines a member of Beijing-based punks Joyside. That statement surmises the band’s good natured nihilism, on display throughout Wasted Orient, a document of the group’s tour through the dingiest rock clubs in China. Director Kevin Fritz may have gone in hoping to capture something unique about Chinese youth culture, but aside from the food — which includes roasted dragonfly and, yes, cooked dog — this could be anywhere. The subjects eat, drink, puke, fart, drink, play sloppy, shambling rock’n’roll for small but enthusiastic young audiences, and drink some more. No political discussions, though the musicians do offer some personal philosophizing. “If you love something, you must also hate it,” says one — which must explain their song “Music Sucks.”

— Matthew Singer

On the Record

On the Record

Kanye West



Grade: B

This whole Kanye West-50 Cent sales contest is kind of a joke: At this point, West’s only true competition is himself. That being said, Graduation is not the transcendent pop album Late Registration was. Blame it on the absence of Jon Brion, who pushed the already talented West to new levels of musicality on Registration, but Graduation feels more like a standard rap record. It’s still better than 99 percent of the standard rap records that will be released this year, though, with lush, layered beats and hooks galore. Lyrically, West thinks he’s more clever than he actually is (example: “I’m like the fly Malcolm X/Buy any jeans necessary”), but the effort is there, and that’s what makes him so appealing.

Download: “Champion,” “Barry Bonds,” “Flashing Lights”

Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers


Yep Roc

Grade: A

Soaked in whiskey and spun on meth — figuratively speaking, of course — Nashville’s Legendary Shack*Shakers are the sound of the old south poisoned by new toxins. Swampblood is the closing chapter of what the group has named the “Tentshow Trilogy,” a three album exploration of America’s musical swamp, and the disc practically has moss growing out of it. It’s a manic record, lurching from swinging Delta funk (“Hellwater”) to snarling blues (“Swampblood”) to riff-driven rockabilly (“Easter Flesh”) to a weird jug-band stomp (“Jimblyleg Man”), held together by a squealing harmonica, frontman Col. J.D. Wilkes’ vicious twang and a sticky, humid atmosphere that seems to cling to every song. One of the best — and grimiest — roots releases of the year.

Download: “Hellwater,” “Easter Flesh,” “Swampblood”

Various Artists

All My Loving (DVD)
Music Video Distributors

Grade: B-

As late as 1968 — a full decade after Elvis and “Roll Over Beethoven” — the old cultural guard still clung to the idea of surviving the nuclear blast of rock’n’roll. It wasn’t until the late ’60s, apparently, that high-art buffs finally accepted their annihilation, with the Beatles proving to be willing executioners. To celebrate the end of that particular world, director Tony Palmer made All My Loving, a one-hour made-for-BBC documentary that presents the rise of pop music as an abstract horror movie. Kaleidoscopic images of the psychedelic nation at full flower mingle with visions of brutality — the Holocaust, self-immolating monks, the famous footage of a Vietnamese officer executing a member of the Viet Cong — and some truly apocalyptic performances from Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and “the Cream.” Trippy, yet still a bit boring.

On the Record

On the Record


Escape From L.A.


Grade: B

Why do American bands need to fake English accents? I guess we owe the Brits one, since they faked our accents throughout the 1960s and ’70s. In Orange’s case, it works pretty well with their SoCal-surfer-meets-Manchester-hooligan sound in anthems like “What I’m Looking For” and the charming “Get the Fuck Out of My Way.” In the crowded “pop-punk with English accents” genre, these boys measure up. Singer Jack Dexter’s scowl has some range to it, and they show more chops in their dual guitar attack than most bands of their ilk. They also show promise as songwriters. But seriously, guys, lose the bad accents.

Download: “Get the Fuck Out of My Way,” “What I’m Looking For,” “Too Scared to Fall in Love”

— Steven Booth

Black Lips

Good Bad Not Evil


Grade: B-

Atlanta’s Black Lips aim for the charming ineptitude of late ’60s garage — only, instead of incense and peppermints, it’s pills and penis drawings. Obnoxiousness is like a fifth instrument for these guys, but more often than not, on Good Bad Not Evil, it blows up in their face. Or, more appropriately, comes back to kick them in the balls. Songs like the faux-country “How Do You Tell a Child Someone Has Died” are too jokey for their own good. “O Katrina!,” on the other hand, hits the mark: sloppy, catchy and, by referring to a natural disaster as if it were a menstruating woman, just immature enough to be as offensive as they would hope.

Download: “O Katrina!,” “Veni Vidi Vici”

— Matthew Singer

Aesop Rock

None Shall Pass

Definitive Jux

Grade: C

Aesop Rock’s problem isn’t that he has nothing to say. It’s the exact opposite: He’s got way too much. Like many underground emcees, his whole style is a reaction against mainstream hip-hop. Instead of basing songs entirely around a chorus, his verses are endless. Instead of riding beats, he buries his thoughts in an avalanche of words. Instead of blabbering about cars and jewelry, he references Snake River Canyon and the “jittery zeitgeist.” For his fans, of which there are many, these things are expected and welcomed as an alternative. But for the uninitiated, it’s too dense to appreciate, and the abstract, barely-there production of Rockhead and Aesop himself give you nothing to hold on to.

Download: “None Shall Pass,” “39 Thieves”

— Matthew Singer






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