"A Weekend in the City," Bloc Party
About a third of the way through his band's epic new album, Bloc Party lead singer Kele Okereke asks, "Is it so wrong to crave recognition?" Your response to that question is likely to dictate your reaction to his band. If your answer is "yes," you're not alone -- the London quartet went from being "bloody brilliant" to backlashed in the space of about a week when its first album, "Silent Alarm," came out in 2005, largely on the back of some seriously pretentious interviews and a vague sense that the band was a little too blatant about wanting to be the world's biggest. If your answer is "no," you're Bloc Party's kind of listener. Gone are "Silent Alarm's" throbbing dance rhythms and brittle guitar lines. Instead, "Weekend" brings the big: Big choruses, big drums and big guitar sounds are the bedrock of almost every track, ensuring that Bloc Party would have no problem cutting through the cavernous acoustics of the stadiums they so badly want to get booked into.
I wouldn't bet against Bloc Party landing those bookings. Few bands take to bombast so naturally. Groan-inducing lines like "Saturday night in East Berlin we took the U-bahn to the East Side Gallery," from "Kreuzberg," can be hard to warm to, but the giant sound of the music and Okereke's desperate vocals do a good job of masking the lyrical bluster. You'd have to actively dislike feeling good not to enjoy the driving verses and anthemic choruses of "Sunday" and "I Still Remember" (one of multiple songs that allude to Okereke's sexuality). Not every track reaches those heights, though: "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)" wastes a lot of energy on hollow atmospherics, and the alluring "On" has a weird form/function problem -- the shimmering, seductive rush of the music makes the lyrical nod to the unsavory aspects of coke use ("We are chasing something we'll never catch") seem like a lie.
The truth is that there is nothing remotely humble or homey about Bloc Party. With their devotion to aggressively manipulative musical dynamics (instead of quiet/ loud/ quiet/ loud, they do big/ bigger/ big/ bigger), it's almost as if Okereke and Co. seem determined to take the emotional experience out of the listener's hands -- the vastness of it all leaves no choice but being roused. Are these guys the next U2? Not yet. But U2 weren't U2 on their second album, either.
Favorite track: "I Still Remember"
"Yes, I'm a Witch," Yoko Ono
I don't think I'm going way out on a limb by saying that most people would be hard-pressed to name one Yoko Ono song, let alone a favorite. But that's why Yoko Ono didn't ask "most people" to help out on her new album, which features Ono-approved musicians like Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, the Flaming Lips and Peaches reworking and/or remixing their favorite songs by the world's most famous avant-garde artist. The result is a lot more accessible than you might expect. A few too many of the guests opted to place Ono's idiosyncratic (to put it mildly) vocals on top of static dance rhythms, but the best tracks are the ones in which the guests shine light on the catchier corners of the Ono catalog: Shitake Monkey (what a name!) lays a fetching hip-hop beat over the sunny "O'Oh"; the Apples in Stereo turn "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do" into a playful psychedelic ballad; "Revelations" becomes a stately, hopeful duet between Ono and Cat Power; and Jason Pierce of Brit rockers Spiritualized shapes "Walking on Thin Ice" into a fuzzed-out rocker. If you skip past any track that has a dance beat, "Yes, I'm a Witch" turns into an album of challenging, but pleasing, avant-pop that stands as an excellent, if slightly distorted, introduction to Ono's music.
Favorite track: "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do"
"Children Running Through," Patty Griffin
If you don't want to deal with Bloc Party's hype or Ono's artiness, then Patty Griffin might do the trick. "Children Running Through" is a fine example of the veteran singer-songwriter's gifts, as Griffin's bluesy alto, her carefully wrought lyrics and the spacious, organic arrangements go over like home cooking. As I listened to the album I kept thinking that "Children Running Through" sounded like something we might hear from the Dixie Chicks somewhere down the road.
Favorite Track: "Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)"