All of these releases came out last Tuesday. I had a hard time picking one to highlight, so I've decided to highlight all three, albeit a wee bit late:
Album: The Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
In many circles, this is getting the same best-of-2009 buzz as Animal Collective's excellent Merriweather Post Pavilion and Grizzly Bear's overhyped Veckatimest, all of which fall into the category of slightly poppier outings for oft-experimental bands. Following the adventurous Rise Above album, their 2007 reimagining of Black Flag's Damaged, The Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca offers another selection of quirky indie pop delights. After an opening guitar swirl, their most stereotypically indie pop asset appears in full bloom on “Cannibal Resource,” establishing Dave Longstreth's fey vocals as the type to pronounce “question” as “quest-ay-uhn.” Amidst that peculiar cadence, guitars strum, riff and crunch, joined by handclaps and wild drums. Though many of the tracks, particularly “Temecula Sunrise,” start out sounding like a lost '70s radio relic, they generally wind up following the chaotic aesthetic displayed on the first track. Longstretch's falsetto is a tad tough to take on “The Bride” (and “No Intention,” though the slinky guitar on that one makes up for it), so it's a welcome relief when the females of the group, Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian, take on lead vocals for two of the album's highlights, the funky “Stillness is the Move” and “Two Doves,” highly reminiscent of Nico's “These Days.” The two also offer a beautiful gibberish-sounding refrain on “Remade Horizon” and strong melodies on the album's fierce centerpiece, “Useful Chamber.” While The Dirty Projectors show a strong proclivity toward wild musical tangents on Bitte Orca, they keep it generally low-key on the closer, “Fluorescent Half Dome,” offering a lovely sweeping close to a fun and often frenetic album.
Album: Rhett Miller - Rhett Miller
Based on last year's low-key Blame It On Gravity with his band, The Old 97's and his new self-titled solo album, Rhett Miller doesn't seem to be offering any more country-tinged bashers along the lines of “Big Brown Eyes” or “Timebomb.” The closest he gets here is the surreal rocker, “Happy Birthday, Don't Die,” which kicks things up full-force after a false ending, recalling the brief interludes found in Pavement and Blur albums. For tender love songs along the lines of “Question,” though, Miller's showcases quite a few on this release. Love is central to the album (a quarter of the songs have “love” in the title), and pretty much every song finds him basking in it or begging for it, which is particularly effective with his oft-strained vocals. The best of this yearning batch is the propulsive “If It's Not Love,” though “Caroline,” “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore” and “I Need to Know Where I Stand” are all fine bittersweet numbers. On the sweeter side, “Bonfire” is a lovely acoustic number with atmospherics that give off a lullaby vibe, and “Haphazardly” goes a while in the same vein before a strong build. Miller closes on the two sweetest love songs of the bunch, “Lashes” and “Sometimes,” providing a warm end to a charming if unspectacular album. Miller and The Old 97's (who have a terrific live reputation) will be performing at the Recher Theater in Towson, MD on Saturday, June 27 at 8PM. Tickets are $20.
Album: Mos Def - The Ecstatic
Ten years after his stunning solo debut, Black on Both Sides, Mos Def's strong suits are still intact. From the revolution-themed spoken word introduction on “Supermagic,” it's readily apparently that Mos Def is still as socially-conscious as ever. Based on that forceful opener and the next track, “Twilite Speedball,” which pulses like the score of a paranoid heist film, he appears to be more ready to rock than ever, with many moments on The Ecstatic almost as heavy as the final minute of Black on Both Sides' “Rock 'n' Roll.” As always, Mos owes most of his debt to old school hip-hop, and as always, he treats it with great reverence, giving Slick Rick (whose “Children's Story” he revamped with Talib Kweli on Black Star) a guest spot on “Auditorium.” The first half of The Ecstatic is consistently strong and remarkably diverse, deftly shifting from an organic bounce perfect for the club in one of those Bacardi Mojito commercials on “Quiet Dog” to radio-ready electronic production (complete with canned “Hey!”s) on “Life in Marvelous Times.” While the second half doesn't quite match up to the first, it comes damn close, and though it begins to sound familiar, it's still often fascinating, as when he juxtaposes his singing with a spoken word sample of the same lyrics on “Pistola.” Mos Def saves two of his best tracks for the very end, teaming back up with Talib on “History” and whipping out the horns to end on the exuberant “Casa Bey.” Echoing our Hip-Hop Examiner's sentiments, this is one of the strongest albums of the year.