Cat Power, "The Greatest"
Like fellow gravel-voiced indie troubadour Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) in 2004, Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) traveled to one of the holy sites of American music to flesh out her trademark fragile sound with the help of a crack team of veteran session musicians. Unlike Oldham's "Greatest Palace Music," though, Marshall's "The Greatest" is not a reworked "best of" collection, but a brand new set of Cat Power songs, roused into a sleepy sort of exuberance by legendary Memphis soul players like Mabon "Teenie" Hodges.
But how will fans of Marshall's introspective muse react to such a relatively extravagant production? It's a risky move, perhaps, but one that the Guardian (four stars out of five), at least, approves of wholeheartedly: "Bluesy horns needling her truculent voice into life, pedal-steel guitar and mellotron keyboard give this, her seventh album, the sound of a record that has been languishing in a dusty vault since the early 1970s." The Los Angeles Times (three and a half stars out of four), meanwhile, wonders what the fuss is about: "Marshall's perpetual touchstones of romance, yearning and confession perfectly fit these languid to mid-tempo, blues-tinged tunes." And the Observer Music Monthly (four stars out of five) finds that, even with a newly warm and welcoming backing, Cat Power is still far from a straightforward proposition: "she continues to make music that is oddly elusive even -- especially -- when it is shimmeringly, breathtakingly beautiful."
But, for all its "gorgeous" qualities, Prefix Magazine (four stars out of five) worries that "The Greatest" might still be a little out there for some Cat Power devotees, noting "dedicated fans have signed up for the expected aching sadness, not rollicking Dixie and swagger." These fears are echoed by Drowned in Sound (six out of 10), a rare voice of dissent. "Marshall has lost the intimacy that made her last record so engaging, so breathtakingly naked and absorbingly addictive," it says. "She has gone MOR/AOR [middle of the road, album-oriented rock]."
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, "Rabbit Fur Coat"
A number of things can go wrong with the lead singer solo project, not least a sudden desire to indulge a previously unknown passion for free-form jazz. No such worries, though, with Jenny Lewis, frontwoman for Los Angeles indie-types Rilo Kiley. "Rabbit Fur Coat" doesn't stray "too far from Rilo Kiley's breezy folk-pop," says Billboard, with a sigh of relief. Newsday (grade A), on the other hand, sees a big step forward, with Lewis "set to make the leap from indie-rock starlet to alt-folk leading lady with an album that is sweeter than Lucinda [Williams] and more confrontational than Emmylou [Harris], but just as layered and impressive as the best work of either of those legends."
The Independent (four stars out of five), meanwhile, finds simply "an immensely likeable album which uses the pristine harmonies of the Watson Twins to sweeten [Lewis'] sometimes bitter lyrical pills," and notes, "There's a relaxed assurance to the playing which ensures that even a cover as unhip as The Traveling Wilburys' 'Handle With Care' sounds engaging." And Rolling Stone thinks that one of Lewis' collaborators on "Handle With Care" might want to watch his back in the future: "The inviting, country-fried disc makes her a strong contender for [Conor Oberst's] crown as Gen Y's premier old-school singer-songwriter."
Test Icicles, "For Screening Purpose Only"
Are Test Icicles for real? Consider the evidence. There's the name: one of the most willfully dumb in pop. Then there's the painfully hip record label (Domino -- of Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys renown) and British buzz-band status (although, in fairness, two of the three of them are actually American). Add to that some extremely tight trousers, a set of pink neon guitars and an obtuse sound that encompasses, among other things, "post hardcore screeching, metal riffs, Digital Hardcore backing tracks" (according to Play Louder), and you've got something that smacks more of art project than proper band.
Play Louder (two out of five) certainly ends up feeling that "'For Screening Purposes Only' reeks with the all-pervading whiff of vapid irony." "The deafening dialectics often feel contrived," Billboard complains, before coming over all exasperated schoolteacher: "These silly noise-meisters have a gift for melody, but they love chaos and destruction even more." The Guardian (two stars out of five) goes further in its scolding, accusing Test Icicles of "blasting together disjointed bits of guitar, drum machine and vocals to make a virtue of ugliness." The New York Times agrees that "this is music that tries to be over-the-top and uncool: too hard, sometimes," but the paper ultimately finds that "the songs are too contagious and exuberant to dislike."
Perhaps the problem here is that cynical critics are not taking these boys seriously enough; Pitchfork Media (rating 8.1) does, and finds itself scared, but in a good way: "Though the single's called 'Boa vs. Python,' Test Icicles are all cobra. Quick-tempered and ready to pounce at the drop of a double-time bridge." Rolling Stone, though, heralding "a debut that's often brilliantly messy and sometimes just a mess," doesn't really care whether Test Icicles mean it or not: "'For Screening Purposes Only' reminds you that art and ADD can work together just fine."
-- Matt Glazebrook