Dashboard Confessional, "Dusk and Summer"
In 2003, when people could still be forgiven for thinking emo was a red creature from "Sesame Street" and not a musical genre, Dashboard Confessional was supposed to be the act that would take the music to the masses. Well, the music went to the masses, but Dashboard Confessional (the brainchild of frontman Chris Carrabba) didn't. Having been surpassed in the public consciousness by similar-minded acts like Fall Out Boy and Bright Eyes, the band has changed track, embracing a sound reminiscent of classic U2, and leading the New York Times to wonder if Carrabba is "waving goodbye to one demographic and embracing another?"
The change in sound has been greeted by generally positive reviews. Billboard spotted the U2 influence, and noted that "the specter of Bono hovers over [Carrabba's] impassioned pleadings," before concluding the album was "an ambitious showcase of maturity." Entertainment Weekly (grade: B) also gave the album more tempered praise, writing as if "Dusk" was, at best, a guilty pleasure: "'Dusk's' hot-blooded, hokey songs might get the better of you this summer, even if you'll hate yourself in the fall."
As is often the case with emo albums, the best reading generally comes from the online community, which, as you might expect, offered wildly varying opinions. The Web site AbsolutePunk.net has a good cross-section of reactions, ranging from scatological fawning ("Chris craps gold nuggets") to utilitarian frustration ("Chris sounds like a washed-up romantic and I can't sing along, which poses a massive problem").
The Pet Shop Boys, "Fundamental"
They may only register a half-remembered smirk from people on this side of the Atlantic, but the Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe) are certified pop culture icons in their native England. And as such, "Fundamental" is being widely regarded as a return to form by the much-loved duo. "This comeback from a band who never really went away is the Pet Shop Boys' best album in over a decade," writes the Observer Music Monthly (rating: 5 stars), "it propels them back into the pop premier league."
Some critics point to politics as the source of the band's renewal. As the Guardian (rating: 4 stars) writes, "The album's title seems appropriate: focusing on New Labour's trials has reconnected the Pet Shop Boys with something of their essence." Pitchfork (rating: 6.5) also picked up on the political thread -- albeit with less enthusiasm. "Much of the album revolves around Tennant's disillusionment with the New Labour government he once supported, particularly Tony Blair's close relationship with George W. Bush," writes Pitchfork, noting, "Much of [the album] seems strangely blank, neither great nor at all sub-par."
North American critics on the whole seem less enamored with the album than their English counterparts. Toronto's Now magazine (rating: 3 N's) followed in Pitchfork's footsteps, offering the boilerplate criticism that "Fans will enjoy it; everyone else should pick up the greatest hits." Billboard, meanwhile, adds that "There is something quite comforting about a new Pet Shop Boys album," and that the group does indeed "offer much comfort on 'Fundamental.' "
India.Arie, "Testimony Vol. 1, Life & Relationship"
After making a big splash in 2003 with her big-selling debut "Acoustic Soul," India.Arie took a step backward on her sophomore disc, "Voyage to India." Arie is earnest in a big way, and with no hit melodies, the relentless self-affirmation didn't go over a second time. Things dont seem to have changed with her third album, the cumbersomely titled "Testimony Vol. 1, Life & Relationship," which has drawn mostly lukewarm reviews.
The highest praise comes from USA Today (rating: 3.5 stars), which gives more credit to the instruments than to Arie herself: "The live instrumentation provides relief from the usual overly produced R&B albums and sets her above the industry norm."
PopMatters (rating: 6/10) also provides some weak support, writing that the album should appeal to those "who seek a motivational guide for living a conflict-free life," but adding the caveat that "by the end of the album, the listener will surely be overwhelmed by Arie's earnestness."
Along those lines, The Independent (rating: 2 stars) offers the most scathing criticism, writing that "The warm glow of self-satisfaction and moral superiority curdles virtually every track." Time Out New York pointed to the "borderline laughable lyrics" as a major problem, but conceded, "There's nothing half-assed about 'Testimony,' so Arie's mushy ruminations get over by sheer force of will. She's R&B's premier motivational speaker."
-- David Marchese