Hard Candy – Madonna
Perhaps stung by an inability to do anything of interest outside of music and some less-then-stellar albums, Madonna goes back to basics on Hard Candy. It all has a whiff of desperation. On “4 Minutes,” she not only enlists the white-hot Timberland, but also perennial chart-topper Justin Timberlake. All the talent could manage was a rather tired dance-floor beat and a lot of shouting from the guests. Kanye West joins in the fun for “Beat Goes On,” with a smooth, ’70s-disco vibe to it, which works much better. Can you imagine the egos involved in this recording? Did they have to work in different studios to prevent some kind of black hole of pretension forming? In the end, Hard Candy has a slick EP-worth of worthy tunes—such as the bouncy title track—and lots of half-thought-out ideas. Still, I want the album to do well, if only to keep Madonna out of the movie theaters for a couple of years.
Narrow Stairs – Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for Cutie have become one the standard bearers—and one of whipping boys—of modern “alternative” music. Thankfully, Narrow Stairs has the musical goods to back up the band’s lofty reputation and expectations. Album opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge” never shows a moment of musical hesitation, as it builds from a quiet beginning to triumphant, synth-drenched conclusion. I think that confidence is what separates a band like Death Cab from the myriad sound-alikes on the planet. You can hear that throughout these songs, as Ben Gibbard and company craft a set of tracks that pulse with rare energy. One like “Long Division” starts out as a driving bass line and lyric, but explodes into a tremendous chorus that sharpens all the sounds around it. While new bands may try for an epic feel, not many could pull off a four-minute, piano-driven introduction like “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Narrow Stairs feels like the sound track for a rain-soaked road trip.
The Odd Couple – Gnarls Barkley
Apart from the ubiquitous and bubbly sounds of “Crazy,” the charms of Gnarls Barkley’s debut, St. Elsewhere, escaped me. Why? After all, its two artists—DJ Danger Mouse and rapper/vocalist Cee-Lo—have long track records of making innovative and thrilling music. Perhaps I wanted something more than a set of catchy, if by-the-numbers, pop-soul music. That perception has changed just in time for the duo’s sophomore release, The Odd Couple. The format is largely the same: Danger Mouse presents lush soundscapes, while Cee-Lo does his best ’60s-soul-maven vocals. But this time, the formula works. It may be that the edges are rougher here. Or perhaps I’m just used to what the collaboration is supposed to be about, and am able to enjoy the music being produced. Whatever the reason, slabs like “Whatever,” which merge delicate old-school British pop with slick synths, make me want to move, as do some of the moodier bits, including the reggae-tinged (with folkie backing vocals) “Open Book.”
Third – Portishead
I believe a new Portishead record is one of the signs from the Biblical Book of Revelations. OK, perhaps not quite that unexpected, but most observers had given this British collective up for dead as the years dragged on. Now, they’re back, and it sounds like the interceding decade did not happen. The songs are still lush, engaging, and—most of all—creepy. As always, the music on Third is a three-way dance: vocalist Beth Gibbons; guitarist Adrian Utley; and producer Geoff Barrow, who crafts the band’s unique soundscapes. The approach here is a bit more varied: the harsh mechanical pulse of “Machine Gun”; the atmospheric jazz of “Hunter”; and the folksy, ukulele-driven “Deep Water,” which sounds like a song Maureen Tucker would have sung with Velvet Underground. Yet, my favorite would have to be the epic “Small,” where the trio take all the lessons they’ve learned in the past 17 years, and collapse them into one seven-minute track.