It's amazing that the Connells have been allowed to get away with it for so long. The trumpeted global marketplace, after all, rules the rock 'n' roll game no less than it dominates the telecommunications, slag-iron and kiddie-lemonade-stand industries. These days, it's our habit to gild and enjewel a couple hundred hypercareerist music androids while letting everyone else get wiped straight out of business. So whereas there once used to be lots of goodish, low-key rock bands around, supporting themselves comfortably through hometown gigging and the occasional record 'n' tour package, now there are mostly just serfs and lords. Barring, that is, the stalwart Connells. These guys, lucky curs, can still pull in the multitudes for a hometown gig.
They deserve it, too. "Still Life" is pretty much like all their other releases: Engaging, unmistakably Southern guitar-rock with smart, darkish lyrics and an irreproachable melodic sense. "Crown" and "Bruised" hit the hooks jackpot here, while "Dull Brown" and "Grey" and "The Leper" could put in a strong showing in the post-Hootie, pre-post-Ben Folds collegiate-hit sweepstakes. The Connells, however, unlike the previous, lack smarm -- which'll only hurt them in the end. Pray the end isn't close: "Still Life" is LP No. Seven, in Year No. 14. Would you quit a gig this cool?
IF I HAD A HAMMER: SONGS OF HOPE AND STRUGGLE | SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS
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BY MARK ATHITAKIS | A best-of drawn from the folk singer's greatest and most galvanizing work from the '50s and '60s, the 24 old songs (and two new ones) assembled here teach no new lessons; they simply underscore the reasons why Pete Seeger was the best political singer and songwriter of his generation. Devoid of pretense, he was talented enough on the banjo to get his songs across, but plainspoken enough in his vocals to gain your trust. Which is pretty crucial when you consider how provocative these songs were in their day. "Slavedriver --" he barks, about a factory boss on "Talking Union," "-- bet he beats his wife." "Talking Atom" offers great no-nukes storytelling without being didactic. And no amount of cynicism could erase the simple toughness of "We Shall Overcome."
Seeger was always at his best when he got down to specifics, which is why his ballads celebrating love and optimism don't work as well; except for his brilliant Ecclesiastes rewrite "Turn, Turn, Turn," his hopefulness comes off like romanticized cheerleading. But that optimism -- still flowing on the new "Arrange and Rearrange" -- was part of Seeger's charm; he didn't lose heart while everyone else lost their heads. It served him well in times when race, nuclear threats and labor issues mattered -- times not very different from today.
BY MEREDITH OCHS | How much more down-home can you get than listing "chest thumps" and "accidental noises" as instruments on an album? The Gourds sound as if they laze away the hot Austin, Texas, afternoons before gathering in someone's backyard to play their songs amid the sounds of bug zappers and cheap beers being popped opened.
Part artless bluegrass, part rustic stomp and part Mardi Gras revelry, the Gourds forge an engaging sort of slackerbilly. But like many forms of rural music, it is deceptively simple; while these boys make "Stadium Blitzer" sound loose as hell, there is craftwork here, most evident when they rave it up ("Magnolia," "Pine Island Bayou"), slow it down to tear-jerk speed ("Raining in Port Arthur") or throw a pop hook into the midst of their mania ("Dyin' Diamond," "I Pushed Her Down"). The Gourds dig deep into American music and come up with something distinct -- no easy task -- presenting a fresh Americana that's worth getting excited about. If you thought they were drunken louts at the album's opening, by the end of the unlisted track's gospel-whoop, you'll be convinced of their ingenuous genius.
BY BEN AUBURN | Hip-hop seems like it might be in decent shape these days. People are calling Public Enemy's "He Got Game" soundtrack their "best album in years" (never mind that it's their only album in years), and, who knows, maybe "Bulworth" will get people interested in late-'80s West Coast rap again. As in any genre, though, the innovation's happening just off the mainstream's radar, and you can find a good chunk of it on Rawkus Records' new compilation. The two discs of the Lyricist Lounge collection are hosted by De La Soul (disc one) and Kool Keith and Sir Menelik (disc two); you can imagine the different flavors the hosts inspire. Disc two includes the edgy "Maday" by Natural Elements, "The Manifesto" by Talib Kweli and a bouncy "C.I.A. (Criminals in Action)" by a team-up of KRS-ONE, The Last Emperor and Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha. By contrast, De La Soul's set is down-to-earth, though certainly not tame. Cipher Complete get things off to a lively start with "Bring Hip Hop Back," and Sara Jones crosses the hip-hop/poetry bridge with "Blood." The collection's first chart hit, "Body Rock," by Mos Def with Q-Tip from Tribe Called Quest and Tash from the Alkaholics, is a little buried; it's got the biggest names, but not the biggest beats. Each disc closes with a long freestyle -- and, as with any freestyle, it's hit-and-miss. Still, it's always exhilarating to hear these performers at the top of their craft.
FEATURING BIRDS | UP
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BY ADAM HEIMLICH | Rock duo and dramaturgical dyad Quasi has what it takes to become huge -- great songs, tons of personality and a story that could draw journalists to the band like bass to a fat nightcrawler. Alas, those songs are mostly performed on just drums and Roxichord (an electric harpsichord from the mid-'70s), their personality comes across raw and stark in light of the organic production and the story -- they are a divorced couple who sing about breakup and depression -- is something they refuse to discuss with strangers.
Quasi's third album, "Featuring Birds," finds Roxichordist Sam Coomes (late of the San Francisco band Donner Party) and drummer Janet Weiss (who is also a member of Sleater-Kinney) in yet another unhappy, reflective mood. But, as always, their songs partake of an underlying jubilation, expressed in unpredictable one-on-one rhythmic interplay, sardonic lyric wit and "White Album"-style melodies that unfold like time-lapsed flowers. Song titles like "Our Happiness Is Guaranteed" and "Only Success Can Fail Me Now" betray an outlook informed less by despair than by hope. That's the emotion powering the doubly percussive frenzy of Quasi's songs -- in Coomes' and Weiss' frantic poundings, the sheer, analog tones and slapping snare seem to vehemently argue for the possibility of lasting beauty.
BY EZRA GALE | Concept albums are risky affairs. Often, the concept is stronger than the music, and the songs don't fit together well. But Nnenna Freelon's "Maiden Voyage" is rare in that the material merits the concept: Every song featured here was penned, at least in part, by a woman songwriter. Even Herbie Hancock's classic title track, to which Hancock himself adds gorgeous piano accompaniment, features the song's original lyrics written by his sister Jean.
Freelon breathes life into songs from a diverse range of sources -- from Nina Simone and Sippie Wallace to Laura Nyro, Buffy Saint-Marie and Nona Hendryx -- and blends them seamlessly. And the arrangements are as creative as the song choices: Wallace's "Women Be Wise" is performed with only guitar and bass clarinet; Simone's "Four Women" is all-out funk; and Nyro's "Buy and Sell" is hauntingly spare. Freelon's own two contributions, "Sepia Wing" (a lyric arrangement of piano great Marian McPartland's "Threnody") and "Future News Blues," fit in perfectly. Her voice is mesmerizing throughout, sounding alternately wise, seductive, playful and world-weary -- sometimes all in the same song.