Tortoise and Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "The Brave and the Bold"
To paraphrase Spinal Tap, it's a case of "none more indie" with "The Brave and the Bold," a collaboration between post-rock instrumentalist stalwarts Tortoise and veteran all-round alt-country entertainer Bonnie "Prince" Billy (aka Will Oldham). Play Louder (two out of five) acutely observes the music snob fantasy nature of the hookup when it notes that "the prospect of Will Oldham (the sacred cow of all things generously bearded and lo-fi), teaming up to record a covers album with Tortoise (the elder statement of jazz-flecked post-stuff), must be enough to get the retiring and worthy denizens of indie rock up in a (albeit rather asexual) salivating froth."
The San Francisco Chronicle (three out of five), for its part, finds the project suitably mouthwatering: "If there's someone out there who can say this CD is not intriguing, I'd love know what they're listening to." The New York Times, on the other hand, responds to the rather earnest reputations at work here with a suitably philosophical take on the record's deeper meaning: "It advances no cultural or historical theory. It is not meant to accompany psychic healing or political protest, and it has no real connection to anyone's alternative-anything movement. There are so many things it isn't, that it barely is."
Moving on to the actual tunes, Billboard echoes most reviewers in saying that "The Brave and the Bold" begins promisingly enough "with a deliriously peppy romp through Milton Nascimento's 'Cravo E Canela' and an ominous, starkly pretty version of Springsteen's 'Thunder Road.' " Those tracks aside, however, Play Louder is far from convinced: "The rest of the record seems to have been cursed by the participants simply losing steam, making unsurprising choices that might be reverently interpreted, but are done so with a distinct lack of imagination."
Sia, "Colour the Small One"
It's been a somewhat tortured path to a first U.S. release for Australian singer Sia Furler. Previously known - if at all - as a vocalist for British purveyors of coffee-table electronica Zero 7, it took a soundtrack slot on the cult HBO show "Six Feet Under" to alert Americans to her existence (a grown-up version of the "O.C. Mix" phenomenon, perhaps). And thus, two years after the fact, Sia's second long-player, "Colour the Small One," arrives on these shores.
For E! Online (grade A), at least, it's been worth the wait. Praising the "stately, soulful downtempo music," E! finds an album "that is as lovely as it is seductive." Billboard concurs, noting that the aforementioned "Six Feet Under" cut "Breathe Me" is merely "one of numerous emotional highs on 'Colour'" and commenting that "Sia's songs are quiet, intimate and melodic."
Pitchfork (rating 7.3), meanwhile, observes in Sia's solo work a departure from the dinner-party-friendly sounds of her former employers Zero 7 that is "hardly easy listening." Ultimately, though, it is the poppier moments that stay in the mind for Pitchfork: It concludes that the album's "kaleidoscope of pain and progress is unable to hold on to all that it reaches for, but delivers moments of brilliance and daring that upstage the pop divas she'd rather not be associated with." Rolling Stone (two and a half stars out of five), on the other hand, struggles to remember anything at all about "Colour the Small One": "Sia's murmured croon, imprecise diction and tendency to overdub herself into marshmallow-mouthed mush reduces her presence to an indistinct blur."
Duncan Sheik, "White Limousine"
Briefly big in the '90s singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik makes grown-up music for grown-up people, the sort that requires an audience to sit quietly and appreciatively during its performance, as noted by blog the Modern Age in its review of a recent show (halfway down page). Ominously, Sheik's latest recording, "White Limousine," is described as "his most mature to date" by Billboard. On it, the singer apparently showcases "his talents as a folk troubadour, pop craftsman and all-out rocker," and leaves Billboard warmly applauding "an artist who has followed the muse, not the money -- much to the benefit of himself and his fans."
Spin, by contrast, would rather Sheik hadn't followed his muse quite so diligently, observing that the singer has "embraced Buddhism," and, possibly as a consequence, "writes songs that only the blandest of New Age yuppies could love, ones that haven't progressed musically since O.J. was on trial." Still, despite the presence of tracks like the "blatantly awful 'Shopping,'" Spin can't find it in its heart to be too cruel to poor old Duncan, pointing out that, while the "music is stagnant, White Limousine is so well-intentioned that it's hard to hate the album completely."
Well-intentioned enough, in fact, for Sheik to include software with the album that allows listeners to remix the record to their personal satisfaction, thus, presumably, making everyone happy. The Boston Globe explains how the software works here, while in the same newspaper, Sheik talks about "White Limousine" and his Buddhist New Year's resolutions ("to do more jumping-jacks," apparently).
-- Matt Glazebrook