Good trill hunting

Minnie Driver's new album is deadly dull, but that doesn't mean it won't be a smashing success. Plus: A moment of pop unity from Nelly and Tim McGraw, and free downloads from "the next Most Important Band in Rock" and Elliott Smith's final album.

Published September 29, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

In my mailbox today: the upcoming record by actress Minnie Driver, "Everything I've Got in My Pocket." It is, in terms of entertainment value, a complete bust: neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad, but merely unexceptional. Her style falls somewhere between Norah Jones and Natalie Merchant, but somehow manages to be more boring than either of them (quite a feat). That means it will almost certainly be a smashing success.

"Twilight," Elliott Smith, from "From a Basement on the Hill"
On Oct. 19, almost a year to the day after Elliott Smith's apparent suicide, Anti Records will release his final album, "From a Basement on the Hill." It will, of course, be tempting to treat the record as an extended suicide note set to song, and, for much of the record, Smith's resigned, alienated lyrics do little to refute that interpretation. But now listen to "Twilight." It's not a happy song, certainly -- a tale of impossible love -- but there's plenty of sweet with the bitter, and his voice strains for the high notes with a vibrancy that is far from resignation. This song even has a hint of excitement, and of that least suicidal of all emotions, hope. Free download: "Twilight"

"Over and Over," Nelly, featuring Tim McGraw, from "Suit"
Nelly's new "Sweat"/"Suit" albums feature appearances from Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, Mase, Lil' Flip, Mobb Deep and more. But the real proof that Nelly's a badass? The duet with Tim McGraw. Just the idea is both brilliant and absurd, but there are a few surprises. The first is that the song is great, the best track on either "Sweat" or "Suit." The second surprise is how similar McGraw and Nelly sound, and just what an effortlessly natural hybrid the track is: The twanging guitar that accompanies McGraw's singing is just inches away from a smooth R&B acoustic guitar line, and the beat is neither country nor R&B, but somewhere in between. A moment of real pop unity. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Banquet," Bloc Party, from "Bloc Party EP"
This dance-punk/art-punk/punk-funk -- whatever you want to call it -- juggernaut just keeps on coming. The Rapture and !!! got the party started, Franz Ferdinand was the first European guest to join, and now London's Bloc Party has barged in behind them. And what did they listen to at this party? Why, the Gang of Four, of course. These bands get their inspiration from many different post-punk groups, but no influence is as overwhelming and pervasive as the music ("angular" and "jagged" are the standard adjectives) of the Gang of Four. Bloc Party isn't doing anything different enough to get too excited (that didn't stop NME from calling them "the next Most Important Band in Rock"), but "Banquet" is a great song that justifies a certain (more moderately worded) amount of hype. This band also features the odd phenomenon of a black man (vocalist Kele Okekure, who has a killer falsetto) singing like Robert Smith, the whitest man on the planet. Free download: "Banquet"

"Autonomy," the Dears, from "Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique"
Speaking of racially confusing vocalists, I was surprised to find today that Murray Lightburn, lead singer of the Montreal band the Dears, is black. Surprised not just because of his Jewish name, but because he too sounds so very white: like Morrissey, or Damon Albarn, but a little more of a crooner than either of them. Apparently I'm alone in finding this noteworthy, because other than a short profile in the Guardian, I haven't found a single review or feature on the band that mentions Lightburn's surprising ethnicity. Intriguing racial dynamics aside, the Dears are an excellent, if unoriginal, band, with an aesthetic described perfectly by the title of their recent "Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique." That E.P. includes the Tindersticks-y "Autonomy," available for free download in the audio section of the Dears' Web site. Two free tracks are also available from the band's 2003 full-length "No Cities Left" (to be reissued next month on SpinART): the slow burning "We Can Have It" and the Blur-ish rocker "Lost in the Plot." Free download: "Autonomy"

"Savages," Shiffai, from "The Chosen One"
Over the last few years, with Jamaican dance-hallers embraced by the U.S. hip-hop mainstream, and Brit grimers like Dizzee and Wiley the favorites of the hip-hop literati, the globalization of hip-hop has become inevitable. But while France, the second largest hip-hop market in the world (and the coolest, as evidenced by the fact that break dancing is referred to as "le smurf"), is dominated by West African emcees, no African rapper has had any significant mainstream success in the U.S. Aside from a few compilations of African hip-hop, it's hard to even find it in the States, and nearly impossible to track it down on the Internet (no doubt this has something to do with the scarcity of high-speed connections in Africa). A rare exception is Shiffai, a Senegalese rapper who has been based in New York for the last four years. Half of his last record, "The Chosen One," is available for download here. Thanks to Fat Planet for pointing this one out. Free download: "Savages"

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By Thomas Bartlett

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

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