"Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" (Saddle Creek)
Unlike Bruce Springsteen and Guns N' Roses in the early '90s, Conor Oberst isn't releasing separate albums on the same day just because he had too much similar material to fit onto a single disc.
Oberst, who records with a rotating cast of musicians under the group name Bright Eyes, had already finished the mostly acoustic "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" album when he decided last year to postpone that album's release while he embarked on a substantially different musical excursion.
Hoping to find rhythms and textures as ambitious and personal as his songs, the most captivating young singer-songwriter in years went into the studio with an all-star cast of indie musicians, including members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Rilo Kiley, to record in a more experimental, electronica-tinged rock style.
The contrast between the albums, both being released Tuesday, is quickly apparent.
Unlike "I'm Wide Awake," where the only thing you hear for the first minute is the intimacy of Oberst's words, you don't hear his lyrics at all in the opening two minutes of "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." The CD begins with a sonic landscape as dark and apprehensive in places as a horror movie soundtrack.
Even without the alarm clock rings at the end of the first track, the number makes you feel like you've been through someone's nightmare. That makes it all the more evocative when Oberst later speaks longingly in the song "Hit the Switch" about trying to overcome crippling anxieties:
Each morning she wakes with a dream to describe
Something lovely that bloomed in her beautiful mind
I say, "I'll trade you one, for two nightmares of mine."
But Oberst has not delivered his equivalent of Radiohead's "Kid A." He hasn't turned his back on the traditional songwriting approach. In fact, things brighten considerably as "Digital Ash" proceeds -- achieving a downright pop infectiousness on "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" that borders on something from the Cars. Yet the lyrics of salvation and hope in the CD are frequently surrounded by references to death and depression.
Though not as classically framed as "I'm Wide Awake," this CD is not as digressive a work as the "experimental" goal suggests. The arrangements compete at times with Oberst's lyrics on early listenings, but the individuality and power of his vision do assert themselves.
A few of the tracks, including "Theme From Pinata" and "Easy/Lucky/Free," are even delicate enough to fit comfortably on "I'm Wide Awake." In the "Theme From Pinata," Oberst is as personal and revealing as he's ever been -- trying to find a way to break his own emotional shell.
I feel like a pinata won't you take a swing at me.
If you could just crack the shell open
I think inside you would find something sweet.
Later in the same song, Oberst defines his personal search for comfort and self-worth with a declaration that defies the recurring confusion and despair.
Winter came to Omaha and left us looking like a bride
A million perfect snowflakes now and no two are alike.
So it's hard for me imagining the flaws in this design
I know debris it covers everything.
But still I am in love with this life.
The instrumentation, from synthesizers and drum machines to chimes to guitars, complement richly the often conflicting emotions in Oberst's songs, creating moods that are sometimes lovely, sometimes shrouded in dread. These touches also give the album an adventurous, decidedly modern aura.
"I'm Wide Awake" is a more riveting collection -- an album with the simmering glow of a masterpiece. But "Digital Ash" too is a bold, essential chapter in this young man's inspired body of work.
It's the easy life for Chesney
"Be as You Are" (BNA)
The Country Music Assn.'s reigning entertainer of the year deserves credit for taking what amounts to a bold step for someone in his position at the top of the commercial country heap.
Rather than sticking with the formula that's made him one of country's three hottest male performers today (along with Toby Keith and Tim McGraw), Chesney takes a long look at a single subject -- which makes it about as close to a concept album as mainstream country gets.
It's just a shame that the focal point -- the lure of the carefree life lounging on a Caribbean beach -- isn't one that seems to require a whole lot of thought.
In fact, it's pretty much a no-brainer that if given the choice, probably 99% of humanity would choose a lazy day in the tropical sun over a stressed-out day at the workplace.
Chesney examines various facets of what pulls him, and others, back to the islands time and again, but what's missing through these dozen songs is any sense of struggle or personal growth in the characters he touches on.
Instead, he's seemingly throwing his hat in the ring as the heir apparent to Jimmy Buffett's good-times-all-the-time crown.
Not surprisingly, the music is heavy on acoustic guitars and steel drums, light on powerhouse percussion, making for a musical tour as relaxing as a ride in a hammock strung between two palm trees. And about as uneventful.
If only Chesney's powers of perception were as keen as his undeniable ambition.
-- Randy Lewis
Breakthroughs from their lab
Push the Button (Astralwerks/Virgin)
The Chemical Brothers have crafted an inconsistent coup, an evolution in big beat and sweet dance-pop loyalty as hard-hitting as their mid-'90s works "Exit Planet Dust" or "Dig Your Own Hole."
The first single, "Galvanize," makes it plain the brothers have left breakbeat behind for pop radio takeover. It's a well-made hip-hop pastiche designed to further upset the modern-rock-hip-hop-dance club balance, with Q-Tip rapping over a Middle Eastern string hook and tabla beat.
It vies to be the future of rock radio with the second track, "The Boxer," the kind of epic drubbing we've come to expect from Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons: a massive beat, a melody that's pure pop, and Tim Burgess' soft and loutish Britpop vocal. And then they kick it up a notch. "Believe" is straight and towering Chicago house, and "Come Inside" has a bass line just a hop, skip and thump from the classic "White Lines."
Along the way there are soft electro-pop wonders and even a kind of psychedelic alt-country manifesto. But it's at the very end that you find the real crowd-pleaser, "Surface to Air."
What starts off like a satisfying Tangerine Dream faucet-dripper evolves organically into the most ecstatic and uplifting traveling song that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark never wrote. Except better -- a straight-up new wave catharsis. If entire car ad campaigns are not built around this song, I'll eat my hat. And if this isn't one of the best albums of this fresh year, I'll eat yours too.
-- Dean Kuipers
A game effort at rap stardom
"The Documentary" (Aftermath)
THIS Compton rapper is like Frankenstein's monster: Spawned by a mastermind (Dr. Dre, who signed him to his record label), the former gangbanger and the only West Coast member of G-Unit is poised to be big.
And like the fictional monster, the Game is a derivative creature on his debut album -- a composite of rappers, styles and stories we've heard before. His genre evokes 50 Cent -- genial gangsta pop, or gangsta rap you can sing along to. His throaty vocal style, unremarkable and chameleon-like, echoes 50, Nas and Eminem.
The Game (whose real name is Jayceon Taylor) might have distinguished himself via setting: He sees himself as the long-awaited reincarnation of California gangsta rap. But instead of demonstrating that musically, he tells us so in lyrics so weighed down by hip-hop nostalgia and industry name-dropping that they're not rap but meta-rap.
And instead of richly documenting his travails, the Game often shrugs them off with boastful gangsta cliches: "Been there / done that /sold crack / got jacked / got shot / came back / jumped on Dre's back."
But in contemporary hip-hop, lyrics and flow can be mere side dishes; studio wizardry produces a gratifying main dish. "The Documentary" is proof of that.
It redeems itself via the ominous allure of Dre's keyboard-backed beats or, in the stellar "Dreams," the lush, layered production of Kanye West. This CD is easy to enjoy because it's a triumph of production and persona over performance.
-- Baz Dreisinger
Allies leap to Faithfull's aid
"Before the Poison" (Anti-)
For a veteran artist whose style is firmly fixed and not about to change, the trick is to avoid repeating yourself. Marianne Faithfull, the '60s Swinging London thrush who resurfaced in 1979 as pop's matriarch of misery, has hit on a pretty good method: Find some young collaborators.
On her last album, 2002's "Kissin' Time," she enlisted Beck, Billy Corgan, Bonnie Prince Billy and other writer/musicians. The results didn't quite live up to the promise of the premise, but for "Before the Poison" (in stores Tuesday), Faithfull has more sympathetic partners, teaming with PJ Harvey and Nick Cave to form an unholy trinity of musical grim reapers.
Jon Brion and Damon Albarn also have a track each, but Harvey is the main helpmate, producing, writing (or co-writing), playing and singing backup on five of the 10 songs. Harvey generally toils in the realm of cathartic release, but Faithfull mingles in her cabaret/chanteuse qualities to create a subdued tension in such songs as "The Mystery of Love" (about slavish longing) and the venomous "My Friends Have" (about friends who really aren't).
Cave, who co-produced his contributions with Hal Willner, serves Faithfull a couple of his elegant, melancholy ballads, but it's his "Desperanto," a fevered, organ-fueled blues conflagration, that jerks the album out of its somber tone. The title, as explained in the lyric, could be the watchword for this whole gothic gathering: "Today I hear it everywhere / It is the language of despair."
On the Web
To hear samples from Bright Eyes' "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" and Marianne Faithfull's "Before the Poison," visit calendarlive.com/rack.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.