The Black Eyed Peas The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies) (Interscope)
For the most part, the critical intelligentsia has looked askance at the Peas' latest due to its backburnering of the hip-hop style on which the act was founded, as well as the presence of more party-hearty exhortations than conscious comments. Frankly, though, I felt relief, not disappointment, over the approach. Frontman will.i.am's hip-hop productions have grown stale over the years -- the use of Dick Dale's "Miserlou" in "Pump Up" may have been the nadir -- and I don't think the world needs that many more rhymed paeans to Barack Obama at this point. Moreover, the album's lead single, "Boom Boom Pow," is among the most brainlessly exciting radio smashes in recent years. Predictably, nothing else here tops it, and "Now Generation" represents a different sort of brainlessness -- the kind that's capable of inspiring self-lobotomy as a defense mechanism. But thumping efforts such as "Rock That Body," "Meet Me Halfway" and "Missing You," which cleverly recast Fergie as a club diva, are divertingly superficial -- an invitation to dance your troubles away, or at least to ignore them as long as the beats continue. And in times like these, what's wrong with that?
Busdriver Jhelli Beam (Anti-)
In many ways, Busdriver's latest is no more a hip-hop album than is the Black Eyed Peas' new recording. But whereas the Peas have cut back on the word count of late in favor of groovaliciousness, the man born Regan John Farquhar ratchets up his couplet quota to ridiculous extremes, spitting with such stentorian precision that the results are simultaneously ridiculous and jaw-dropping. Take "Least Favorite Rapper," featuring Nocando, in which he manages to announce that "Your favorite rapper's got Alzheimer's/Repeats himself like an old-timer/He works harder than a gold miner/When it comes to picking ghostwriters" in just six seconds (I know, because I timed it). He's certainly aware that what he's doing takes him so far out of the mainstream that even eccentrics might consider him to be bizarre: "World Agape" begins with him barking the phrase "Art rap! Art rap!," after which he blows a self-deprecating raspberry. Nevertheless, his wit, his incisiveness, his fondness for surrealism and his sheer loquaciousness produces work of frequently inspired lunacy.
Bill Evans Trio Turn Out the Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recording, June 1980 (Nonesuch)
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Pianist Evans' music could be florid and romantic -- qualities that can often lead to excess, particularly in jazz, a medium in which the deconstruction of melodies is embraced rather than reviled. And yet he consistently steered clear of banality thanks to his exquisite taste, finely tuned sensibilities and instinctual balance that allowed him to explore areas many of his contemporaries avoided. These qualities come through clearly over the course of this abundant, six-CD box set, which finds Evans still creatively vibrant mere months before his September 1980 death of cancer, at the far-too-young age of 51. Granted, only true aficionados will be fascinated by every nuance heard in multiple versions of Miles Davis' "Nardis," all of which clock in at fifteen-minutes plus -- although Bob Blumenthal's excellent liner notes offer insight aplenty for those willing to extend the effort. But the interplay between Evans, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera remains absolutely extrasensory throughout, and the band leader's inquisitiveness distinguishes even the roster's lesser material. Take his rendition of the "Theme from M*A*S*H." Even three decades ago, few could have thought such a cover was a good idea -- but damned if Evans isn't able to create something lovely and vibrant from even this overly familiar ditty. On that cut and elsewhere, his playing is lavish, enveloping the listener in warmth and beauty that hasn't faded with the years.
Sonic Youth The Eternal (Matador)
For their first album on an independent label in nineteen years, the members of Sonic Youth have come up with a collection of songs that seem to have been culled from all the records they've made since then. Which isn't a terrible thing. At this point, there aren't many other bands engaging in this particular brand of art/noise merger. But it's a mighty conservative tack for a group that once prided itself on the outré nature of its creations. On the opening song, "Sacred Trickster," Kim Gordon makes light of continuing queries about her gender via the lines, "What's it like to be a girl in a band?/I don't quite understand/That's so quaint to hear." But "Anti-Orgasm," which follows, is a different kind of quaint: The song showcases veteran outsiders seemingly unaware that the sort of social/sexual agitprop that shocked stiff-collar types during the Reagan administration now seems passé. Sure, the likes of "Antenna," "Poison Arrow" and the concluding "Massage the History" will hit the sweet spot of those who actually liked Sonic Youth's offerings, as opposed to the ones who only listened because doing so was once considered chic. In the end, though, The Eternal feels dated, not timeless.