GNARLS BARKLEY | St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
There are reasons to be leery of a collaboration between Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo. DM's intuition allows him to flatter a vocalist's intentions--he turned The Grey Album into more than a gimmick by jiggering Beatles beats till they actually seemed to subtly alter Jay-Z's inflections. But when he's working with a live human instead of a recording, his empathic style lets a lazy collaborator take advantage. Last year he crafted two wildly different cartoon sound tracks: Gorillaz's Demon Days, with its intricately shaded chiaroscuro, and Dangerdoom's The Mouse and the Mask, rendered in splotchy primary colors. They're both excellent, but the vocalists got away with two-dimensional performances--Damon Albarn slumped into slinky sulkiness while MF Doom relaxed into pothead absurdism.
The good news: on St. Elsewhere, DM reclaims his mashup aesthetic, stirring up tension rather than merely complementing his partner's proclivities. And Cee-Lo could certainly use a challenge. Since stepping out on the Goodie Mob to try his hand as a solo artist, the effusive Atlanta MC has released two good-to-great albums as a soul belter, but his buoyant Otis Redding mimicry--not to mention his contradictory jumble of professed humility and good-natured egotism--is threatening to ripen into shtick. Though Danger Mouse's tracks are plenty soulful here, his disorienting mix of samples and live instrumentation isn't just a redux of the down-home Stax trappings on Cee-Lo's solo discs. Instead he channels the jaunty yet neurotic vibe of a claustrophobic old-school Motown mix, sometimes quite specifically: on "Smiley Faces" a James Jamerson-style bass line absorbs a barrage of video-game laser sounds, then drops out entirely to leave an eerie hole in the rhythm.
In this context, Cee-Lo's gregarious delivery sounds creepy, even lecherous. He's definitely coming on too strong with the ersatz nerd-gothic of "The Boogie Monster" ("Dracula's the name . . . ") and "Necromancer" ("I think I like her better dead"), but his deadpan cover of "Gone Daddy Gone" has an appeal that outlasts the initial novelty of a rapper doing the Violent Femmes. The lead single, "Crazy"--the first track to hit number one in the UK based on downloads alone--plumbs a mental state that's entirely unknown to Seal, and on "Just a Thought" heavy drums periodically puncture a dreamy rhythm track as Cee-Lo sings, "Well, I've tried / Everything but suicide / But it's crossed my mind." As introspective as his lyrics seem, though, he isn't really letting us inside. He's flaunting his doubts the way he's previously flaunted his exuberance; he only creates the illusion of psychological depth. DM seems to have pushed him from one shtick to another--and this time he's gone one better, playing a two-dimensional character who's playing at being three-dimensional. --Keith Harris
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS | A Blessing and a Curse (New West)
I keep hoping each new Drive-By Truckers album will hit me between the eyes on first listen, the way their 2001 breakthrough Southern Rock Opera did. But though their sixth studio disc, A Blessing and a Curse, shares SRO's devotion to southern rock, it's clear the Truckers are making records to settle down in these days.
Like 2003's Decoration Day and 2004's The Dirty South, the new one doesn't rock out the way SRO did--in fact it's the most muted of the bunch. Like southern speech, with its famed slowness, these albums give up the goods in their own sweet time--and as with southern speech, this is partly a natural feature of the idiom and partly a form of passive-aggressive resistance. (If you've ever found your patience pushed to its limits in conversation with a southerner, you probably weren't just imagining you were being fucked with.) This would be a self-defeating strategy if the Truckers weren't sitting on such an embarrassment of riches: they have three powerful songwriters, any one of whom could serve as the sole driving force of a lesser band, and all of them are gifted guitarists to boot. If you give their music the time it's asking for, one day a song will zing you like it never did before--you'll notice a guitar line that winds its snaky way just so underneath a word-perfect phrase ("smell of musk and deception," for instance, or "like a virgin's idea of release").
I don't mind the Truckers' increasingly brooding lyricism or their creeping impulse to blues-rock balladry, mostly because they play that classic sound so classically well. My biggest trouble with A Blessing and a Curse is a certain weakening of specificity: "Goodbye" is an uncomfortably generic sad song for all occasions, and "Easy on Yourself" is a sucks-to-be-you number whose insults are toothlessly vague. I hope this is an aberration, not a trend--the Truckers have always flourished on the literary quality of the particular, whether the characters in their songs were tornado victims or layoff casualties or Ronnie Van Zant watching the ground rush up at him.
I'm sure I'll love the new album more in three months than I do now. But if you really need a song beaten into your head, the Truckers' next Chicago stop is just two weeks away, at the Vic on May 19. At their full-throttle three-hour shows, they go louder and longer on roundhouse-kick rockers like "Where the Devil Don't Stay" and "Lookout Mountain" (both from The Dirty South) and even crank up the relatively genteel songs. Even if they'd just put out a record of dance remixes, I wouldn't dream of missing them live. --Monica Kendrick
VARIOUS ARTISTS | Fonotone Records (Dust-to-Digital)
This box set isn't just a survey of the output of the last label in North America to devote itself exclusively to 78 RPM records--it's also an unabashedly fetishistic tribute to Joe Bussard, Fonotone's founder and one of the greatest record fetishists alive. The set is a packaging geek's dream: five splendid CDs of lively, lived-in gospel, bluegrass, blues, and old-timey string-band music, all recorded between 1956 and 1969, are tucked into a cigar box alongside a folder containing three reproductions of center-hub labels and 17 color postcards (mostly pictures of people who recorded for the label) and a 160-page book that scrupulously annotates every track and tells the Fonotone story with leg-pulling articles from fabricated publications (one such piece, "The Greatest Music in the Whole World," allegedly appeared in the monthly newsletter of the Folkslag Musik-Motorcykel Club, "a Swedish folk music and biker association"). To top it off there's a nickel-plated bottle opener--Bussard often blew jug-band tunes on a Pepsi bottle.
It's the sort of thing you want to put in a glass case, or at least up on a high shelf, which is ironic considering the way Bussard has treated the original music: the Fonotone master tapes have spent the past 40 or 50 years sitting in the same cigar-smoke-saturated basement in Frederick, Maryland, where he keeps his personal collection of nearly 25,000 78s. ("Bussard's got shit that God don't have," a fellow record fiend has marveled.)
The son of a farming supply shopkeeper, Bussard was born in Frederick on July 11, 1936. In 1947 he heard his first Jimmie Rodgers record, and within a year he'd begun canvassing old neighborhoods and rural backwaters for unwanted 78s. He turned 18 six days after Elvis Presley cut "That's All Right" at Sun Studios, but unlike the young men who saw rock 'n' roll as a way to escape their buttoned-down culture, Bussard hated the stuff--he's called it a "cancer of music." While still in his teens he bought a record lathe and started Fonotone. During the label's 15-year run he made thousands of acetate 78s in his basement, cutting the discs as people ordered them, one or three or ten at a time. Later on he switched to cassette tapes, and if you mailed him 50 cents for each side you wanted, he'd record Fonotone material or tunes from his own collection for you.
Bussard sings, strums, or blows the jug on 47 of the box's 131 tracks, in bands with names like the Tennessee Mess Arounders, the Possum Holler Boys, and the Bald Knob Chicken Scratchers, but Fonotone was never meant solely as an outlet for his own music. Collectors and archivists from all over were wont to show up on his doorstep, and he liked to plant them in front of his microphone too. Mike Seeger, Pete's brother, cut a few sides under the name Birmingham Bill in return for permission to tape some of Bussard's old 78s, and a teenage John Fahey made his first records in Bussard's basement. Even then his playing was great, though his wayward moan on "Some Summer Day No. 2" makes you glad he got singing out of his system early.
Bussard also recorded many of the people he met while searching for 78s, and they contribute some of the best tracks. Mason O'Bavion of Marshall, Virginia, turns in a version of "John Henry" that makes that old chestnut sound startlingly strange; his singing sounds so haunted and worn he could be the exhausted ghost of the legendary steel-driving man, and his creative use of dissonance on slide guitar tops anything Fahey did in the 50s or 60s. And the stirring fiddle of one Uncle Bern Whitacre, a former wagon driver born in 1873 and recorded in Pleasantdale, West Virginia, 92 years later, propels the lively "Whitacre's Hornpipe." Before the spread of the phonograph, the only practical way to learn from other players was to seek them out, as Bussard still did in the 50s and 60s--and singular performances like the ones he captured are a direct link to the irreplaceable and unself-conscious music of that era. --Bill Meyer