Beyond Playlist: Green Day and more
21st Century Breakdown
The five years since the release of American Idiot, an album so strong that most critics didn't believe the Green Day crew had it in them, have only added to the burden of expectations for 21st Century Breakdown, as Billie Joe Armstrong and pals understand all too well. Each note echoes with so much diligence and dedication that the material can't help but feel a little self-conscious, like a term paper turned in by a rapidly maturing student determined to get an even higher A than he did last time around. Which is not to say the recording's a bore. Tracks such as "¡Viva La Gloria!," "East Jesus Nowhere" and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades" are propulsive and powerful, and statement songs such as "21 Guns" earn their drama. But the themes at the heart of the three-part quasi-narrative tend to look back to the Bush era rather than anticipating what lies ahead - the chant of "I don't want to live in the modern world," from "American Eulogy," is a case in point - and the arrangements of "Before the Lobotomy" and the like are so willfully "classic" that they can feel calculated. These guys are still working at a high level, and the care with which the album has been constructed may well mean that the tunes will sound better over time. But some more spontaneity would have been welcome. After all, this is punk rock, not the Eagles.
Hard to call Mingus underrated, given that he's regularly referred to as a genius in jazz circles. But with each passing year, the scope of his accomplishments becomes more clear, particularly in regard to his finest recordings - of which this is one example. In 1959, when this material was captured for albums originally released under the titles Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, the genre was undergoing a tectonic transition, shedding the last remnants of the big band era in favor of smaller ensembles that embraced freedom with tremendous verve and enthusiasm. Mingus, however, was able to make the past and the present work together. Songs such as the wonderfully effusive "Better Git It In Your Soul" are composed in the classic sense, yet they also vibrate with a new spirit of adventure and independence. "Boogie Stop Shuffle," "Fables of Faubus," "Diane" and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" sound as bold, smart and joyous as they did a half-century ago, and the other numbers are equally unimpeachable. This collection arrives at the same time as several other worthy Legacy offerings, including a Time Out box set by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and a deluxe rendering of Miles Davis' rich, idiosyncratic Sketches of Spain. But if you get just one, make it Ah Um.
The Mirror Explodes
(Tee Pee Records)
After a solid decade of immersion in the neo-psychedelic scene (which sounds a whole lot like the psych-revival of the '80s at this point), Bobby Hecksher and his fellow Warlocks have developed a quiet confidence that's both subtle and bracing. Rather than feeling the need to rub their fuzztone in anyone's face, they lay back and trip amid the swirls and eddies of songs that manage to be enduringly droning and pleasantly melodic at the same time. Granted, a few numbers, including "There is a Formula to Your Despair," take the whole sleepytime mandate a bit too literally. But "Red Camera," the roiling yet strangely furtive opener, and "Standing Between the Lovers of Hell," with its zombie-stomp beat and rough-hewn guitar meanderings, exert a hypnotic attraction that pulls listeners into the players' knotty sonic labyrinth. The music explodes, all right, but in slow motion, like a building rigged to collapse with a single push of a plunger.
Although this recording came out in December, I didn't pay it much mind until "Blame It" reached maximum radio ubiquity. That song, of course, is a triumph of production, not performance, with dial-twister Christopher "Deep" Henderson (supplemented by everyone's favorite guest vocalist, T-Pain) turning the first syllable of the word "alcohol" into the most persistent kind of ear worm. Oh yeah: Jamie Foxx is on it, too - and throughout Intuition, he's equally tangential to the best tunes' effectiveness, despite the fact that he's the ostensible star of the show. The album is heavily front-loaded thanks to the presence of ultra-accessible tracks featuring T.I. ("Just Like Me"), Lil Wayne (he's typically whacked on "Number One"), Kanye West and The-Dream (the only okay "Digital Girl") and "I Don't Need It," a highly enjoyable return to form by Timbaland. As time goes on, however, the cameos drop off, leaving listeners with a slew of indistinct slow-jam-R&B cuts such as "Rainman," which even Dustin Hoffman's character from the film of the same name would have had a tough time remembering. Foxx boasts a pleasant-enough voice, but he wouldn't be experiencing chart-topping success without a lot of help from his friends.