If the title suggests an earful of Christina Aguilera and other current songs playing on high rotation at MTV, fear not. Instead, MTV - Handpicked Vol. II presents a sampling of the best new alternate-pop groups around.
Every group represented on this album is one you should know, not just because they may be enormous in a few years, but because they write genuinely good music. This is reflected in the quality of the song selection on the album—from Coldplay’s fragile Brit-pop ballad “In My Place” to the raw energy of The Next Big Thing in Rock, The Vines’ “Get Free” and The Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So.” They battled at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards and already have a huge following in high schools and universities around the globe.
You’ve probably heard by now of John Mayer and Jack Johnson, the acoustic balladeers whose quiet, melancholy songs have taken off in the past year. They’re represented by lesser-known but still enchanting songs. But the highlight of the album is the crooner Norah Jones, with ‘Don’t Know Why’. It’s one of those perfect pop songs—catchy yet with a distinct character of relaxed jazz and perfectly composed.
MTV - Handpicked Vol. II may be full of great songs, but it doesn’t quite hold together as an album. It feels more like a college student’s mix CD, which is fine, but the flow of the tracks could have been tighter. You may well have most of these songs on MP3. But if you haven’t heard of Phantom Planet, Norah Jones, or The Music, or in fact any of the other bands on this album, it’s definitely worth a listen. MTV has ‘handpicked’ some classic songs from bands that know how to write music.
—D. M. S. Raper
One By One
Dave Grohl is on a roll: not only has he been drumming with the Queens of the Stone Age and finally released the final Nirvana album, he is fronting one of the most reliable and melodic rock bands known to man. Though album opener and lead single “All My Life” is clearly informed by grunge’s grimy sense of grievance, Grohl’s voice is distinctly smoother than Cobain’s, at least until he looses his trademark, teeth-baring howl. One By One is a rock album far more than a grunge hangover, from the glammy sheen of “Have It All” to the bluesy solo on “Come Back.”
“Halo” could sound like a U2 track, were it not for Grohl’s snide, tossaway lyrics (“Good and bad, I swear I’ve had / Them both, they’re overrated / But isn’t it fun, when you get hold of one”) and his hoarse scream in the chorus. The Foos do cynicism and disenchantment with both more of an ironic sparkle and less pretension than many pretenders to the rock throne.
Grohl, an only partially reformed drummer, uses his guitar at least as much as rhythm instrument as for melody and the result is relentless stream of power-chord headbangers. As the tattered black heart on the cover illustrates, the album is a tribute to disaffected love: “I may be scattered, a little shattered / What does it matter? / Noone has a fit like I do / I’m the only one that fits you.” The lyrics even border on kitsch sometimes, though only because Grohl couldn’t care less. Here the guitar and throaty wail are king and words are just a convenient framing device.
The album will surprise noone except the goldfish-memoried few who persist in expecting rock to lie down in its grave. For the rest, enjoy another dose of bright-shiny anguish and riveting riffs.
—A. R. Iliff
The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats’ latest album may come as a shock to longtime Goats listeners. Gone is the trademark boombox-taped lo-fi Mountain Goats sound and in its place is full-blown studio sound courtesy of well-respected producer Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian) and on well-respected label 4AD (Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses). While the sound on Tallahassee may be much more polished than any prior Mountain Goats release, all of their strengths are plainly apparent. Frontman and only permanent Goat John Darnielle bolsters his claim to the title of indie-rock’s poet laureate with witty and insightful lyrics about a doomed-from-the-start marriage lying stagnantly in Tallahassee, Florida. His furious strumming is matched by his nasal voice, passionate and confident, making lyrics that other artists would be hard-pressed to pull off sound beautiful and perfectly fitting.
“Our conversations are like minefields,” Darnielle wails on the album’s standout track, “Southwood Plantation Road,” “No one’s found a safe way through one yet.” His penchant for the Homeric simile is nowhere more apparent than on the slightly over-the-top “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” with its memorable comparison “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania … there is a shortage in the blood supply, but there is no shortage of blood.” Tallahassee’s concept grows tired at times—one wonders in just how many ways this relationship can be described, but the arch to the album is successfully completed with the blithe closer “Alpha Rats’ Nest,” a hopeful plea for a happy perpetuation of this love/hate relationship.
Tallahassee is a fine introduction to the Mountain Goats for those that might have been turned off by their rougher, home-recorded releases, and for fans weaned on these, the record is a compromise easily made. Most of the tracks feature only Darnielle and his guitar and when a song is heavily produced, such as the stunning, piano-laden “No Children,” the song is so good that to complain about the sellout hi-fi rendering would be pointless. Songs as well-written as these shine through no matter how they’re produced.
—C. A. Kukstis