Hootie & The Blowfish – Looking for Lucky (2005)
Once, when asked to explain his fondness for Beavis & Butt-Head, David Letterman remarked that there was something comforting in knowing that he could come home at the end of a whirlwind day, turn on the TV, and know that some things never change: No matter what kind of upheaval happened to be going on in the rest of the world, Beavis & Butt-Head would still be just as stupid as they’d always been.
That’s sort of how I felt listening to “State Your Peace” (download), the first song on Looking for Lucky — not that Hootie & The Blowfish are stupid, necessarily, but that they sound exactly the way they did in 1994. Regardless of how much I hated their inert brand of golf rock when it was popular (and I hated it very much), it’s still better than, say, Staind. I caught myself wondering why I had such a problem with Hootie and his Blowfish all those years ago.
I remember now. They’re boring. No, they’re really boring. Five songs into Looking for Lucky, I felt like I’d been listening to the album for an hour; by the time it was over, I was ready to crack their rear view all over again. Some people really, really love this music, and I can accept that — it’s still better than Staind — but I can’t understand it.
You know what, though? Give me a van full of kids, and I bet something like “One Love” (download) would make the perfect soundtrack for our trip to the soccer field. That isn’t an endorsement of the band or the album, just more proof that God hates parents.
Pelican – The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw (2005)
If you like your metal with a proggish tint, but you can’t listen to lyrics about Greek mythology or fairies without snickering, then Pelican is for you. I thought instrumental art-metal sounded like a terribly boring idea, but I’m a total dumbass. Throats seesaws to and fro between aggro roar and acoustic sigh, alternately pummeling and embracing you; it’s mood music for people in a very bad mood. You get all the muscle and musicianship, none of the patchouli odor — everybody wins. The album more or less makes up a cohesive whole, so it’s hard to pick a “best song” — or, if you hadn’t noticed, name any particular standout moments — so just start with the first track, “Last Day of Winter” (download), and go from there.
Shelby Lynne – Suit Yourself (2005)
A new Shelby Lynne album always equals a series of articles about how she’s a “rebel” and a “country outlaw” who can’t get on the radio because she doesn’t sound like, I don’t know, whoever’s popular on country radio right now. Tim McGraw? Toby Keith? I have no idea. Anyway, this is a debate that’s been going on for a very long time, and one that extends to other artists who fit (sometimes uncomfortably) under the country umbrella. The basic argument is that real country is artists like Lucinda Williams or Hank Williams III or even Robbie Fulks — all the ‘tude, none of the slick cornballing that you hear on the radio. Purists like to say that Garth Brooks killed country, and that pretty much any artist who’s sold a lot of records in the genre since 1992 is a phony.
Me, I don’t like country music. But I think this argument is a little disingenuous. For one thing, it’s always had an element of the slick and corny — country thrives on that stuff. I guarantee you nothing Garth Brooks has ever recorded (except maybe for that Chris Gaines thing, and that doesn’t count) was as cheesy as Eddy Arnold’s greatest hits. Try to listen to the collected works of Buck Owens without giggling. And what about Dolly Parton? Good Lord, take a look at Rhinestone and then tell me you think Billy Ray Cyrus hurt the genre. Johnny Cash did his fair share of selling out. And don’t get me started on Kenny Rogers.
People who make the “real country” vs. “fake country” argument are generally people who have no understanding of either; they tend to be Uncle Tupelo or Jayhawks fans who imagine a time when it was all about a rugged loner and his guitar, but wouldn’t know Woody Guthrie from Guthrie, Oklahoma. It’s all a pose, just like millionaires in cowboy hats singing about the boot scootin’ boogie.
I suppose what it comes down to is this: Toby Keith may be an idiot, but his songs are catchy and he looks like a star, and that’s why he’s a rich idiot. Shelby Lynne is a great singer with a Dusty Springfield fetish, and some of her songs are great for rainy afternoons when you feel like killing yourself, but for the most part, her music isn’t very interesting. Songs like “Johnny Met June” (download) and “Where Am I Now” (download) are fine, well-written, tastefully performed, and completely unmemorable. It’s “country music” for people who listen to Terry Gross, and — God help me — Garth Brooks seems almost entertaining by comparison.
Imogen Heap – Speak For Yourself (2005)
You may not know her name, but I’d be willing to bet you’ve heard Imogen Heap’s breathy vocals; cuts from the debut of her “other” project, Frou Frou, were all over teenybopper TV soundtracks in ‘03 and ‘04. It’s catchy, melodic electro-pop; sort of a more interesting Dido, or more accessible Kate Bush. I don’t normally go for this kind of thing, but I think Heap does a good job of infusing her loops and samples with genuine human warmth, and it helps that she’s a tremendous vocal talent. For guys with girlfriends who never came home from Lilith Fair, Speak For Yourself should be an album everyone can agree on. Check out “Headlock” (download) and first single “Hide And Seek” (download) for an idea.