1) Electrelane, “Rock It to the Moon” (Mr. Lady)
A dog barks quietly, holding time at bay; a Farfisa organ traces a small circle. A guitar breaks the stasis, voices complain from a distance, drums neatly set the first tune on its track. Before you know it you’re on a deserted beach in some European spy novel with DJ Shadow providing the fog and ? and the Mysterians the chase music. By the second cut this four-woman instrumental combo from England has gone back to “Batman Theme,” which takes them into the same “Endless Tunnel” the forgotten San Francisco band Serpent Power got lost in in 1967, though here it opens into an amusement park. Deep in the background, you begin to pick up people talking. In the indecipherability and allure of what they’re saying, the specter of Julee Cruise floating by seems like the most natural thing in the world. You realize you have no idea where the band will go next, or what unresolved 20th century image it will turn up — a Hans Bellmer doll under a police spotlight, Lauren Bacall walking out of a room, Bobby Kennedy waving to a crowd with that somber look he’d get, as if he knew.
2) “The Executioner’s Last Songs: Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts Consign Songs of Murder, Mob-Law & Cruel, Cruel Punishment to the Realm of Myth, Memory & History to Benefit the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, Volume 1″ (Bloodshot)
Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Even when they’re for a good cause? Could it be that the finer the cause — and the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project is not only a good cause, it has shocked the state and the nation with its success, which is to say with its proof of the inherent corruption of capital punishment — the worse the tribute album? Steve Earle’s florid “Tom Dooley” is par for his course, but with Neko Case, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family and Dean Schlabowske of the Waco Brothers, how else explain why such imaginative and inventive performers fall so short of the likes of “Knoxville Girl,” “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” — songs that are in their blood?
3) “Birthday Girl,” directed by Jez Butterworth (Miramax)
To a soundtrack that draws deeply from music for personal hygiene commercials, Nicole Kidman turns into Meg Ryan.
4) and 5) Dave Van Ronk, “The Folkways Years, 1959-1961″ (Smithsonian Folkways) and “No Dirty Names” (Verve Folkways, 1966)
When he died Feb. 10 at 65, Van Ronk left behind a well of generosity and affection. Many of those who passed through the Greenwich Village folk milieu in the 1960s, perhaps most, learned the classics from him — “In the Pines,” “Careless Love,” “Spike Driver’s Moan,” “Betty and Dupree” — but as “The Folkways Years” makes plain, what set Van Ronk apart from those with whom he shared his place and time was not his ability to bring the old music to life. Only rarely, as on the shattering “Zen Koans Gonna Rise Again” from “No Dirty Names,” one of his few original compositions — the sardonic title instantly dissolving into a chant of self-loathing as “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” looked down from his railroad flat at the junkies hustling their women in the doorways — did he sing anything you couldn’t have heard someone else sing better. Van Ronk was different because he was what so many people think they want to be, if only they could find the time: a man whose life was a gesture of welcoming, a storyteller whose stories allowed those who were listening to imagine that they themselves were in the story, at the same time sitting back in the warmth of Van Ronk’s presence, listening to their own adventures.
6) and 7) “Big Bad Love,” directed by Arliss Howard (IFC) and “Big Bad Love: Music From the Original Soundtrack” (Nonesuch)
As director, co-writer and actor, Howard takes Larry Brown’s 1990 short story collection and finds a single tale, or quest: the attempt of a fucked-up middle-aged man in Mississippi to turn himself into a writer without betraying … no, not his inviolate self, but the people he loves and who love him. Beginning with Howard, who as the male lead has the rare talent of disappearing into his own skin, the cast is extraordinary: Debra Winger as the writer’s bitter ex-wife, Angie Dickinson as his disappointed mother, Paul Le Mat as his let’s-party best friend, Rosanna Arquette as Le Mat’s girlfriend, alive on the screen as she hasn’t been since long before the black hole she hit with “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the passionate woman of “The Executioner’s Song” and “Baby It’s You” stepping out of a 20-years-older version of herself. The direction is all about sunlight and bar shadows, so naturalistic that when what looks like a spear flying the flag imbeds itself in the writer’s wall and naturalism flips into surrealism, you accept it without thinking. But Brown’s book, the material that drew Howard to the movie, is not as strong as what Howard and others brought to it. Watching, you know there’s more to the people in his picture than its story will let them say.
As the film moves on, you hear Fat Possum blues — Asie Payton, T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough — the way you notice the film’s kudzu, as part of its landscape. There’s an ugly confrontation between Howard and Winger in a juke joint; what I took away from the scene was a blond woman in a beehive hairdo dancing gracelessly and soulfully as R.L. Burnside’s band hammered out “Snakedrive.” But Burnside’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” is a man dressing up in someone else’s clothes — and not such great clothes, either. It takes you out of the movie. The few seconds of Dylan’s “License to Kill” coming out of Billy Bob Thornton’s Jeep in “Monster’s Ball” — it’s just a long scratch on the soundtrack — has more bite than any number given full shape in “Big Bad Love,” maybe because Howard respected the music too much, and his own prerogatives as an artist too little.
8) “Evangeline Made: A Tribute to Cajun Music” (Vanguard)
Aren’t tribute albums terrible? John Fogerty, Linda Thompson, Linda Ronstadt, Nick Lowe, David Johansen and Richard Thompson really love cajun music. It’s “hand made.” It “comes from the heart.” It sounds slick.
9) Catheters, “Static Delusions and Stone-Still Days” (Sub Pop)
Hard noise from Seattle: one step into the fast takeoff of “Search and Destroy” Stooges, two steps past the cruelty of Eater’s “1977 original punk” (as Thora Birch puts it in “Ghost World”) and out the other side, into a momentum that is its own reward, the kind of thrilling punk drive Green Day never quite caught. The first notes sound like a revival, an homage, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to be sucked into this maelstrom as if it’s happening for the first time.
10) Josh Ritter, “Golden Age of Radio” (Signature Sounds)
On the front of the disc you’re looking from the rear of a schoolbus, every seat filled with a young teenager with long brown hair sitting straight and still. “Golden age of radio,” it says along the bottom, and you wonder: What song on the bus’s radio was it that froze these kids? What song would break the ice? But except for “Harrisburg,” with a bad-news melody worthy of Will Oldham, the songs here are all words, and they wouldn’t know.
Corretion: In the Feb. 11 item about Jim Roll’s “Inhabiting the Ball,” I wrote that, regarding the performance of the song “Handsome Daniel,” the lyrics of which were written by novelist Denis Johnson, “Johnson could put more in this song than the person who’s singing it now.” The verses were in fact sung by Roll, his guitarist and his drummer.