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WILCO • Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch) If you’ve paid any attention to the music business for the past year, it’s a story you know: After turning over the master tapes of their new album, Wilco—arguably the best band working in America today—was dropped from Reprise. Their loss. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, while not quite at the level of 1999’s masterpiece, Summerteeth, is nevertheless a beautiful record.
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which opens the album, is perhaps the most gorgeous song Jeff Tweedy has ever written. Built upon a lush, jagged drum beat, the song mines Tweedy’s favorite theme—twisted, bitter love. He is one of the premier lyricists working in rock music today; few songwriters take as much joy in manipulating words. “I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue/ I’m hiding out in the big city blinking/ What was I thinking when I let go of you.” Tweedy’s gift is finding precisely the right moment to let that naked emotion drop within a verse. Until that last line, it could all be nonsense—but when he allows his heart to show, it all somehow makes sense.
Perhaps the executives at Reprise thought the album was too quiet. But while songs like “War on War, the quirky “Jesus, etc.” and the quiet wiggle of “Radio Cure” take a few listens to sink in, there is no denying the sunny glee of “Kamera” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” —Ian MacKenzie
SNEAKER PIMPS • Bloodsport (Tommy Boy Records) On the Sneaker Pimps’ third album, Bloodsport, they dump their vocalist, Kelly Dayton, the voice of their most recognizable hits, “Six Underground” and “Low Five” and adopt a more raw male vocal sound. The feel of the album can’t be described as alternative. It lies somewhere between indie and electronica, informed as much by the smooth beats of Moby’s relaxed moments as by Apollo Four Forty’s frenetic, guitar-based electronica.
The combination of distorted guitars and trip-hop beats is off-putting at first, but the floating melodies are irresistibly infectious. The strength of the melodies carry the album, and the highlights come when they are combined with unexpected harmonic progressions, as on the chorus of “M’Aidez.” The first single is “Sick,” a track with angsty vocals and guitar accompaniment that is catchy but in no way representative of the smooth production of the rest of the album. It is difficult to characterize Bloodsport as a whole and this lack of coherence may be what stands between the album and its potential. The Sneaker Pimps do manage to find some moments of brilliance, but they are overshadowed by an experimental sound that prevents them from being entirely accessible. ––Daniel M. S. Raper
ELVIS COSTELLO • When I Was Cruel (Island) Elvis Costello, lost for the last decade or more in a quagmire of overwrought pretensions and ill-suited collaborations has finally returned to form—and how. When I Was Cruel is the true successor to such Costello classics as This Years Model and Armed Forces. “45,” the first track, could have been an outtake from the latter. Candy-coated organs and big drums abound on this record alongside the trademark rhythmic tics for which Costello is so highly regarded. Never has neurosis been as danceable as on the back-alley jam “Spooky Girlfriend.”
The set piece here is “Tart,” the best thing Costello’s written since 1978. It’s constructed atop a beautiful piano line and a fuzzy, walking bassline. Costello has always loved a pun, and he has more fun than he’s had in years: “Is it something you crave?/ ’Cause you say that you only feel bitterness/ Would it kill you to show us a little sweetness?” The song is most impressive for its dynamics: Costello dryly lights into the unnamed woman over the nudge of the bass and the soft support of the drums. Halfway into the song however, everything explodes—cymbals crash as Costello screams, “But the flavour is tart, and the flavour is tart.”
Costello has lost none of his edge. It only makes one want to ask Costello, who called this return to form When I Was Cruel—“Elvis, you mean you’re not anymore?”
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