Eminem Relapse (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)
The haters have been laying for this one, and there's no denying that Eminem has provided them with plenty of ammunition. Devoting an entire album to his drug problems and rehab struggles invites accusations of solipsism (yeah, yeah, it's a hip-hop tradition, but let's stay on point), and his out-of-date pop-cultural references to everything from Silence of the Lambs to Jessica Simpson suggest that he's about as current as music-master Dr. Dre's largely retro loops. But his wordplay and delivery are still the most distinctive in the genre despite his long layoff, and his devotion to spewing out whatever thoughts enter his noggin without fear that they might make him look like a dipshit (e.g., "My Mom," in which he blames the woman who bore him for his pill habit) is a helluva lot more interesting than the sort of self-censorship most celebrities prefer. Sure, there are plenty of times here where Em seems whiny, defensive or played out ("Old Time's Sake" is one title he should have avoided), but he remains a car crash impossible to drive past without rubbernecking. It really did feel empty without him.
Two Tongues Two Tongues (Vagrant)
The lack of attention this disc has received since its arrival a few months back is positively astonishing. The pairing of Say Anything's Max Bemis and Saves the Day's Chris Conley (joined by one pal apiece from each of their regular bands) easily transcends the usual side-project stopgappery thanks to a slew of worthy songs that truly sound like a merging of the main men's styles as opposed to leftover tunes they cut on a lark. Bemis' often-gruff proclamations contrast effectively with Conley's piercing tenor on the likes of the driving "If I Could Make You Do Things," the spare/chunky "Silly Game" and "Come On," a minute-and-a-half's worth of romantic angst that gives this most overused of topics a much-needed dose of vitality. Impressive stuff likely to fascinate fans of both groups -- and to win over those who don't know jack about either.
Sex Mob Meets Medeski Live in Willisau 2006 (Thirsty Ear)
Sex Mob and John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin and Wood fame) are kindred spirits, in that they would rather be attacked by jazz purists than allow the music they love to become staid, dried out and irrelevant to anyone too young to have seen John Coltrane before the liver cancer got him. It's no surprise, then, that their teaming works so well -- and the predictability of their rapport certainly doesn't dampen the disc's pleasures. The Mob offers up its usual number of reworked covers, which range from Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy," presented with a distinctly woozy sass, to a couple numbers by Prince -- an enjoyably chaotic "Sign O The Times" and a stop-and-go "Darling Nikki." Yet top marks go "Down on the Farm," in which Medeski's organ playing dances so energetically with Kenny Wollesen's beats that sitting still isn't an option.
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Marianne Faithfull Easy Come Easy Go (Decca)
Ms. Marianne is long past the point where she worries about singing in any technical sense of the term. Her Faithfulness is all about glorying in the damage her voice has sustained over the years -- a display of indefatigableness that allows her to transform virtually any composition into a signature song. On Easy Come Easy Go, she has the perfect partner in veteran producer Hal Willner, who's blessed with exquisite taste, an outsider's sensibilities and no compunction about keeping the bummers coming. Together, they turn Dolly Parton's "Down From Dover" into a memorable dirge, wring every bit of pathos and creepiness out of Randy Newman's ultra-dour "In Germany Before the War," demonstrate their contemporaneity in a reimagining of "The Crane Wife" by the Decemberists, and sign off with a version of "Sing Me Back Home" that conjures images of Marlene Dietrich and the last-call crowd forlornly crooning at the most popular dive in Purgatory. One more for the road, barkeep.