Reviewed: New Brit imports, the return of Prince and Ben Harper keeps on truckin'

Published March 23, 2006 8:46PM (EST)

The Editors, "Back Room"

Hailing from the musically productive (Ozzy Osbourne, ELO, Duran Duran, UB40) but never especially fashionable city of Birmingham, England, the Editors' rise has been more slow burning than that of their countrymen the Arctic Monkeys, predicated on stellar live shows rather than their recorded output, a style of rock that follows the same Joy Division-inspired template as New York's Interpol. In fact, the Editors' debut, "The Back Room," was released rather quietly last July in England, and has only now reached the United States.

Billboard, along with everyone else, notes the band's "Joy Division 2.0 sound," arguing it "is such a perfect counterfeit that it feels like the genuine article," but Pitchfork Media (rating 6.0) contends that "beyond the workmanlike interpretations of their heroes, it's hard to swallow." The San Francisco Chronicle (five out of five), in contrast, maintains that the band doesn't "so much revive the wide-screen guitar rock of Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division and U2 as rival the originals. Really."

The Guardian (four stars out of five) is at first confused as to whether the Editors' "dueling guitars" are a "thrilling and euphoric post-punk vision of bleakness, or merely the hypnotic sound of two trapped wasps torn between flight or fight," but ultimately suggests that "the longer you listen, the better they become." E! Online (grade A-) takes this advice, and discovers "melodies that crackle with genuine feeling, guitar solos that soar and a singer who loses himself to every bitter word."

Prince, "3121"

After many years as arguably the most important artist in pop music, and just as many years as a deluded, monumentally pretentious laughingstock, it was difficult to know what to think when Prince's 2004 album, "Musicology," turned out to be merely a fairly decent R&B album. What could possibly be next for the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince?

"Despite several lukewarm tracks, '3121' proves that Prince has not lost his luster and could very well return him to the top of the charts," predicts Billboard. Rolling Stone, meanwhile, calls this the "second consecutive album to reassert Prince's funk bona fides." The Guardian, on the other hand, says that "just when you're wondering what could possibly go wrong, everything goes wrong. The genre-hopping collapses in a hail of dribbly mid-tempo R&B and central-casting James Brown pastiches, and the lyrics take a sudden detour to Kingdom Hall." For others, "3121" is, like its predecessor, just all right: "It's nice to know Prince hasn't hit the bottom like other aging artists of his stature," writes Prefix Mag (three out of five). "If nothing else," agrees Pitchfork (rating 6.0), "Prince is slowly regaining the plot."

Ben Harper, "Both Sides of the Gun"

Ben Harper is one of those artists who seem to exist in their own bubble, outside of the demands of contemporary trends, selling millions of records to California college kids while never really troubling the popular cultural radar. It follows that Harper should know his devoted fan base, and as such, on this latest release, he helpfully divides his trademark twin assault of electric stoner jams and campfire-friendly strum-alongs into two separate discs for easy reference and situation-appropriate listening. ("Both Sides of the Gun," get it?)

"To be sure, the quiet side is the more powerful," says Billboard. "It showcases Harper's knack for handcrafted acoustic grooves and haunting melodies." E! Online (grade C+) isn't buying the concept: "The whole deal threatens to take off occasionally, but in the end, it doesn't rise beyond meandering and never lives up to enticing titles like 'Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating.'" But then, pop critics have never really been Harper's target audience, and you get the sense that he is perfectly happy truckin' around the festival circuit year after year and writing albums to keep his hemp-panted acolytes happy. Just in case he isn't, Rolling Stone offers some extra encouragement: "The rap on Ben Harper's music up to this point has been that it's been too derivative. This could be the album where he finally transcends that."

-- Matt Glazebrook

By Salon Staff

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