After a few weeks away, with almost no access to the Internet, I'm pleased to see a handful of great new songs right near the top of both the radio charts and the iTunes download chart, including "Over and Over," the unlikely and brilliant collaboration between Nelly and Tim McGraw that I wrote about just before leaving, and "Lose My Breath," which makes up for what it lacks in melody (Beyoncé was snoozing when she wrote this one) with a rampaging beat of martial drum rolls and Bollywood string stabs.
There's also "Vertigo," a great new single by U2 that brings back some of the "Achtung Baby" fire, with the band sounding more relaxed than they have in years. Meanwhile, REM has released "Around the Sun," a stultifyingly dull record. In my mind, REM and U2 were always arch-enemies, constantly vying for importance, relevance, greatness -- but that fight hasn't been competitive for years.
As previously reported in Salon's War Room, a song called "Mosh" has been leaked from Eminem's upcoming record, and it's a brutal, unflinching obliteration of President Bush and his Iraq war. It could also turn out to be the most important protest song written this year -- and I've listened to a lot of them this election season. However impressive the lineup of the Vote for Change concerts, with artists like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and REM, at this point Eminem sells more records and reaches more ears than any of them. And while I have no facts on this, I'd suspect that Eminem has a larger Republican audience than any other artist who has taken such a strong stand against Bush, save maybe the Dixie Chicks.
It also helps that "Mosh" is so articulate, persuasive and powerful in its criticisms of Bush -- although I wouldn't expect any less from one of the greatest storytellers in popular music. "Mosh" moves at a slower tempo than most of Eminem's songs, which was not necessarily a great decision musically -- he's more thrilling in quicksilver mode, spitting out rhymes faster than most of us can think -- but it ensures that every damning word is heard, and heard clearly. This is not a particularly pleasant song to listen to: There's nothing catchy about it, and the beat is a clanging, leaden monstrosity made for marching, not dancing. But Eminem is clearly not out to entertain here, and this song, with its ominous monotony, allows him to do what he does best: pure, seething anger.
The barbs just keep coming: "Imagine it pouring, it's raining down on us/ Mosh pits outside the oval office/ Someone's trying to tell us something, maybe this is God just saying/ We're responsible for this monster, this coward, that we have empowered ... Let the President answer on high anarchy/ Strap him with AK-47, let him go/ Fight his own war, let him impress daddy that way ... Look in his eyes, it's all lies, the stars and stripes/ They've been swiped, washed out and wiped ... If they should argue, let us beg to differ, as we set aside our differences, and assemble our own army, to disarm this weapon of mass destruction that we call our president."
"How's It Gonna End," Tom Waits, from "Real Gone"
"Real Gone" is the first Tom Waits record without piano. As a result, all the Tin Pan Alley harmonies and melodies, which traditionally have formed the base of Waits' songcraft, are gone, leaving just dusty, bluesy faux-rustic folk of the kind that Waits has been increasingly relying on over the last decade or so. But this is no precious, nostalgic roots-rock Americana record. It's a smackdown, a staggeringly powerful record that, despite using all of Waits' usual Beefheartian tricks, is thrilling and alive and deeply, authentically strange. It sounds something like "Rain Dogs" crossed with "Bone Machine" crossed with ... well, with Tom Waits beatboxing into a tape recorder in his bathroom, proving that he's still a badass, as if any of us were dumb enough to doubt it.
Crucially, he's also re-teamed with guitarist Marc Ribot, often imitated but never equaled. "How Is It Gonna End" isn't one of the record's more thrilling tracks -- no Ribot, no bathroom beatboxing -- but it's the kind of cryptic but haunting song that Waits and his wife and constant collaborator Kathleen Brennan write better than anyone else, filled with lines of strange poetry: "Life is sweet at the edge of a razor." Free Download: "How's It Gonna End"
"Track One," Panda Bear, from "Young Prayer"
Panda Bear is a member of the Brooklyn-based Animal Collective, a much buzzed-about band that I haven't had the pleasure of hearing. Panda Bear also possesses a genuinely astonishing voice. Here, accompanied by just his guitar, he sings with the minute control and aesthetic discipline of a raga singer, but in a strange style all his own. Is he singing words? I have no idea. If he is, I can't make out a single one of them, aside from an occasional "my." And it doesn't matter a whit. The impression is of a kind of pre-verbal consciousness, of pure emotion that hasn't yet been processed into words. The heartfelt vocalizing of a fetus, or perhaps of a particularly sensitive mollusk. Free Download: "Track One"
"Another Morning," American Music Club, from "Love Songs for Patriots"
Since the American Music Club dissolved 10 years ago, Mark Eitzel has been pursuing a solo career that, while very occasionally brilliant, has for the most part left him sounding like one of those wordy, husky-voiced, overly articulate middle-aged singer-songwriters -- and the last thing we need is another one of them. Now the American Music Club has re-formed, and, magically, that strange alchemical reaction has taken place by which this particular group of not particularly distinctive backing musicians complements this particular frontman so well, reining in his excesses, covering for his weaknesses, that the frontman sounds better than he ever could on his own. The welcome return, in effortless top form, of a brilliant band. Free Download: "Another Morning"
"Chance Counsel," Richard Buckner, from "Dents and Shells"
Speaking of husky-voiced middle-aged singer-songwriters ... here's another one. Overly articulate, though? Hardly. Buckner's lyrics range from intriguingly cryptic to genuinely unintelligible -- but it never sounds as though he's trying to be clever. However obscure his words may be to a listener (or at least to this listener), I get the sense that Buckner knows exactly what he's saying, and that this is the simplest way he knows of saying it. As a writer, he reminds me of both Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and Califone's Tim Rutilli, two other poets of half meanings and the barely perceived. The general inscrutability of Buckner's words plays off nicely against the basic conventionality of his country-folk-rock blend -- although it's not fair to call anyone musically conventional when he can come up with a melodic phrase as stealthy and beautiful as the first line of this song. Free Download: "Chance Counsel"
"Monkey Gone to Heaven," Frank Black, from "Frank Black Francis"
Apparently the second disc of Pixies frontman Frank Black's new release, on which he covers 13 classic Pixies songs with the help of the producers Two Pale Boys (the first disc contains demos that Black made just before the first Pixies albums was recorded) has angered many of the Pixies faithful. Black was clearly prepared for that reaction -- he is, as he says in the liner notes, "messing with the Gospel." But have a sense of humor, people! That's all you really need to enjoy this disc, which is by turns brilliant and absurd, and completely lighthearted in its often goofy reinterpretation of these canonical songs. One of the best and most amusing moments comes in "Monkey Gone to Heaven," when Black speaks the whole "If the devil is six/ Then God is seven" bit over what sounds like Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" sloppily orchestrated for brass by Charles Ives. Priceless. And awesome. Free Download: "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
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