Paul McCartney, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard"
Music critics were drooling in anticipation when Paul McCartney announced he would be working with avant-garde pop producer Nigel Godrich -- the man who helmed critically lauded and experimental albums by Radiohead and Beck -- on his next album. The result of their collaboration, McCartney's just-released "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," seems to be exactly what critics were hoping for, and working with Godrich proved to be exactly what McCartney's music needed. Together, according to Billboard, they've created McCartney's "most rounded and assured piece of work in many years." The New York Times says that "Godrich pushed him to deepen the songs, and he followed the advice," and applauds McCartney's decision to play all 13 instruments on his own, saying that he has found "his best backup band since the Beatles: himself." Going totally solo meant taking greater responsibility and thus greater risk, but as Entertainment Weekly notes, he succeeds gracefully, creating an album that reflects "an artist honestly following his muse -- always a compelling event." McCartney appears liberated to not simply ape his former Beatles glory but try something unique, a solo album with, as the Guardian cheers, "a sense of purpose, lovely tunes in abundance, and charm." The Guardian gave it four stars, as did Rolling Stone, which raves that McCartney sounds as "wistful and full of yearning as ever, effortlessly lending these songs a rich sense of emotional conviction."
The track "Riding to Vanity Fair" comes in for special praise from a number of critics, with the Guardian calling it "bracing" and the Times saying it's "one of the most pensive songs he has ever recorded: a wounded response to a rejected friendship, with strings tugging downward as an undertow." The Los Angeles Times agrees, saying, "This is the intimate McCartney in the vein of his 1970 solo debut or 'London Town,' and the comfort allowed him to be as unguarded as he's ever been." The All Music Guide says the vibrancy of the album also bodes well for things to come: "Spend some time with the record and it becomes clear that McCartney is far from spent as either a songwriter or record-maker."
-- Joe Charap
Devendra Banhart, "Cripple Crow"
Since his debut a few years back, warble-voiced folk singer Devendra Banhart has drawn mixed critical reviews, and that's no less true with this new album, "Cripple Crow." The first sentence of the Times review kinda sums it up: "Devendra Banhart is amazing. No, he's annoying! Amazing! Annoying!" A number of reviewers, like Popmatters, just can't say enough good things about the album: "Like Bob Dylan and David Bowie before him, Banhart is onto something inspiringly idiosyncratic and instantaneously infectious. He is making music that demands not only to be heard but also to be heeded and held dear." But Rolling Stone can only spare three stars, despite calling the album "intermittently terrific" and saying, "Banhart's eccentricities -- notably his impressionistic lyrics and a quavery croon that suggests Robert Plant as well as esteemed dead guys like Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley -- enliven meandering tunes that alternately kiss you on the cheek and just kind of curl up at your feet." And Spin laments: "Banhart brings the peace and love, but not the understanding ... he can no more convincingly render his outlook than a fish can describe life in a tank." The difference in takes appears on the micro level, too: The song "I Feel Just Like a Child" is either "charming, fully realized" (Rolling Stone) or a "sing-song along" (Spin).
There are plenty of points of agreement, though. Pitchfork singles out "Dragonflys," and the Times calls it one of the best songs on the album, saying, "It's totally dippy, but the lines are lit by real charisma. You could make fun of it from a distance, but not when you're actually taking it in." The album also seems to make a step forward, production-wise, though everyone agrees it's probably too long -- Billboard gripes, "What has become increasingly clear is that Devendra Banhart needs an editor. Especially on the latter half of the new 22-track 'Cripple Crow,' Banhart can't tell himself 'no' and reserve undeveloped but good ideas for some other album." Pitchfork, in what is finally perhaps the most balanced (though very positive) assessment, agrees about the length, but writes, "Still, Cripple Crow is undoubtedly impressive, vastly singular but entirely accessible, and an inspired listening experience where Banhart again proves himself one of the more talented and charismatic forces in modern folk."
-- Scott Lamb
Sigur Rós, "Takk ..."
Sigur Rós' latest, "Takk ..." -- in which they decided to sing in a real language (Icelandic) rather than the made-up one they've previously used (Hopelandish) -- is being well received by the critical masses. According to Pitchfork, "Takk ..." is "a warmer, more orchestral take on the band's defining sound, and easily their most instantly accessible record to date." The Guardian agrees, giving the album four stars and saying "Sigur Ros's sudden accessibility doesn't tarnish their mystique, but deepens and colors it." The ever-hyperbolic Brits over at New Music Express employ some pretty outrageous language to describe "Takk ...": "If you imagine the noise God makes just before he eats a slice of cheese on toast, then comparably, that's how satisfyingly yearning the 65 minutes of 'Takk ...' sounds." And the paper only gave it an eight out of 10!
And while many reviewers seem to think that Sigur Rós is sticking with the formula of earlier efforts, Entertainment Weekly (which gave the album an A-), says that although "they keep doing exactly what they do best, we revel only in the smallest variations." EW even goes so far as to say "'Takk ...' "almost rocks," but modifies that bold pronouncement by saying it rocks "as much as tiny ice-crystal elves from the magical land of Narnia can rock, but still." Whoa, close call. Ditto from Billboard, which acknowledges "there are no surprises in its technique or approach," yet exclaims, "Sigur Rós has succeeded in making a startlingly beautiful record." All Music Guide awarded the album four stars and conceded that it is "still very much a Sigur Rós album, due in large part to the ever-present, otherworldly vocals, but also because the only real changes are the activeness of some arrangements." The indie reviewers at CokemachineGlow.com also recognize that the record is "in the same ethereal vein as its predecessors," but nevertheless contend that it's "well-constructed, thoughtful, emotionally provocative and cathartic." Only the L.A. Times seems a bit bored with the whole thing, concluding that "Takk ..." represents "too little progress and too much mood."
-- Joe Charap