Don't you believe it

Fantasia is no Aretha, no matter how well she charts; Jeff Tweedy's guitar steals the show on Wilco's new album. Plus: A free download from the world's only great Mormon band.

Published July 7, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

I've just arrived back from a month-long tour, and an intimidating pile of unopened CDs awaits me on the kitchen table. So much music, so little time -- I haven't even had a chance to listen to the four new Rufus Wainwright songs that were released digitally last week. Unless something's gone terribly wrong, expect to see one of them in next week's column.

I did find time today to check out Fantasia Barrino's "I Believe," which entered the history books by becoming the first debut single ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart. As a general rule, you'll find that people who make their living by playing music (or who attempt to) view the "American Idol" phenomenon with distaste bordering on disgust. I'm no exception, and I've avoided watching the show, both because I know that most singers I care about wouldn't make it past the first round (imagine the amusement and derision that would greet Tom Waits or Devendra Banhart, were they to compete), and because I know how easy it would be to get sucked in and start to really care. You might point out, and quite rightly, that Waits and Banhart are not pop singers, but I don't think that the "Idol" format is a way to create enduring pop stars either, unless you think that, say, the Spice Girls fill the bill. Great pop stars, from Frank Sinatra to Prince to Madonna, have always had more going for them than chopsy, crowd-pleasing vocals and the ability to cover Barry Manilow and Gloria Estefan with aplomb. The great ones have had a distinctive vision all their own.

And that, I had been led to believe, was exactly what Fantasia Barrino had. People whose musical taste I respect have solemnly told me that Fantasia is not like the rest of the "Idol" winners, that she's "a real artist." Having listened to "I Believe," I have to respectfully disagree. This is a horrible song, horribly produced and indifferently sung. "Chain of Fools" and "Summertime," are slightly better, but not even close to good enough to justify the implicit comparisons to Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday that the choice of those two songs inevitably invites. Fantasia has a pleasantly gritty voice, and is thankfully not as trigger-happy with the melismas as Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera. But the second coming of Aretha she is not. If she had simply been signed to a major label, and had never appeared on "American Idol," this song would have zero impact.

Enough of pop idols. Here are five songs that I've enjoyed over the last few weeks of minivan travel. I should note that as a group they tend toward sappy adult-alternative music, but I'm in a sappy mood today, so here goes.

"At Least That's What You Said," Wilco, from "A Ghost Is Born"
It's to be expected that Jeff Tweedy will be the dominant voice on any Wilco record, but I was surprised to find that on their latest, "A Ghost Is Born," it's not Jeff Tweedy the singer but Jeff Tweedy the guitarist who dominates. Tweedy hasn't been much of an instrumental presence on past Wilco releases, but throughout the first half of this record he performs a series of clawing, swooning guitar solos, exploding with a kind of energy and intensity that his singing has never had. Sadly, the songwriting is a little flat. Wilco's last release, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," wasn't quite as high-impact a record for me as it was for many people, but amid all the clutter and disorder those songs had moments of unexpected grandeur and profundity (glimpsing a perfect sunset down a city alleyway) that these new songs never approach. I've had a hard time choosing which track to feature, not least because my two favorite songs on the record, "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Less Than You Think," are both more than 10 minutes long, and so are available only if you purchase the full album. It's on these two tracks that producer and experimental-music don Jim O'Rourke's influence on the project is most explicit, particularly in the way that "Spiders" plays off the overtone-centered minimalism of O'Rourke favorite Arnold Dreyblatt (featured a few weeks back in this column). So obviously I think you should download the whole record, if only to get those two songs. Failing that, try "Hell Is Chrome," "Muzzle of Bees" or "Wishful Thinking," which comes the closest to the "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" sound. But if you only want to download one track, take the first one, "At Least That's What You Said." Even though Tweedy gets off some choice lines ("You thought it was cute/ For you to kiss/ My purple black eye/ And even though I caught it from you/ I still think we're serious), it's a fairly unmemorable song until his guitar takes over a few minutes in. From there on out, it's bliss. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Red Night," Pure Horsehair (Garrett Devoe), demo
Bert Jansch, the most prodigiously talented of the British folk revival guitarists, had (or rather, has -- it's easy to forget that Jansch is still alive and making albums) a distinctive style of playing and writing for the guitar, simultaneously lithe and boxy -- the boxiness perhaps reflecting that, of all Celtic-derived folk music, English folk is the squarest, the most firmly grounded. Garrett Devoe's fingerpicking strikes a similar balance on this song, and like Jansch he mixes British and American folk styles seamlessly. "When I write a song," Devoe (who performs as Pure Horsehair) told me, "I aim for a space outside of the present, a place I want to inhabit -- sometimes for pause and relief, sometimes to instigate and agitate." This simple song, with its spare, poetic lyrics, taken from a dream, evokes for me a feeling of peace as well as a feeling that it comes from a great distance away, whether in time or in space I don't know. Devoe's singing, both fragile and resonant, is perfectly non-demonstrative, with all the ease of someone singing to himself. There are a number of other songs available for free download in the audio section of Devoe's Web page, all worth hearing. He seems to be basically unknown at the moment, but I very much doubt that that will last. Free Download: "Red Night"

"Venus," Low, from "A Lifetime of Temporary Relief: 10 Years of B-sides & Rarities"
In celebration of their 10th anniversary as a band, Low (to my knowledge the only great Mormon band in the world, but please e-mail me if you know others -- I'm interested) has released this box set of B-sides and rarities. And there's a lot to celebrate. That simple sound they came up with 10 years ago -- glacial tempos, infrequent chord changes, spare snare and high-hat drum parts, perfectly tuned vocal harmonies held perfectly still (brief glimpses of eternity), and an overall aesthetic of austerity -- has been refined and tinkered with but remains essentially unchanged. And it doesn't need to be changed, because it's perfect. Luckily, they've made one track from the collection, the unusually jaunty "Venus," previously available only on an out-of-print 7-inch from 1997, available for free download. Free Download: "Venus"

"Golden," A Girl Called Eddy, from "A Girl Called Eddy"
When this song by Erin Moran, aka A Girl Called Eddy, appeared on the Anti Records Web site a few weeks ago I downloaded it, listened to about 30 seconds of overwrought, cheesy piano pop, and then threw it in the trash. I decided to give it another shot a week later, remembering what a consistently great roster Anti has been building up (Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Joe Henry, Tricky, etc.), and reading that not only were Robert Smith and Jarvis Cocker fans of A Girl Called Eddy, but that former Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley had produced the record. Hawley's slick production is actually one of the worst parts about this track, though -- all the sounds are bright and harsh, and the sudden rock bombast on the chorus is ridiculously tasteless and feels like a crass attempt to make the song radio-friendly. Why listen, then? For the melody, which is McCartney-esque both in its slowly unfolding lyricism and its innate cheesiness. And the melodramatic lyrics ("So take the purple and take the black/ And take all the colors of heartache back/ And throw them into the sea/ And say you love me), which are either absurd or, if you're in a sappy mood (which I already told you I was), quite touching. I hope that A Girl Called Eddy can find a better producer in the future, and perhaps learn to emulate some of the vocal restraint of Aimee Mann (to whom she is often compared), or for that matter of Paul McCartney. In the meantime, this is far from perfect, but she's clearly a talent to watch. Free Download: "Golden"

"Both Sides Now," Joni Mitchell, from "Both Sides Now"
As a rule I try to feature just recently released music in this column, or older music only if it's free. But I need to make an exception for this song, from Joni Mitchell's 2000 album, "Both Sides Now." I can't say that the idea of this record was all that appealing to me -- covering standards and long-ago hits accompanied by a full orchestra (with soprano saxophone solos! Ick!) sounds like the sort of thing aging pop stars do when they run out of ideas. But it's been a long time since something hit me as powerfully as Mitchell's voice does on this recording, which I heard for the first time last week. It kept me going through a difficult week of touring. Mitchell wrote and recorded "Both Sides Now" nearly 40 years ago, but I find this new version far more moving. For all its brilliance, Mitchell's earlier music is often too tricky and complex for my taste. Her speed of thought was always dazzling, but she sometimes got caught up in it herself and let it overwhelm the heart of her music. Here, all the trickiness is gone. She's now singing this song from a place of immense calm and understanding. The level of warmth, compassion and wisdom in this performance is really overwhelming for me -- as you can probably tell, by that absurd list of adjectives I just wrote. Enjoy. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

By Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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