"We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank," Modest Mouse
Take one long-running indie rock band fronted by a prickly but talented singer/songwriter (Isaac Brock), add a surprise hit single (2004's "Float On"), throw in a guitar hero (ex-Smith's six-stringer Johnny Marr), and you've got yourself one eagerly awaited album. Modest Mouse's fifth long-player, "We Were Dead," finds Brock and the rest of the mice sticking pretty close to the jumpy rhythms, bent guitar lines and densely worded lyrics fans have come to expect. Only close listeners and guitar fanatics will make much of Marr's addition -- he contributes a host of counter melodies and complementary riffs, but those hoping for some Smiths jangle sprinkled onto Brock's songs will be disappointed. There are other reasons for disappointment too. While the sing-songy refrains and bobbing riffs of "Fire It Up" and "Dashboard" capture the same shaggy dog charm as "Float On," and "Fly Trapped in a Jar" even gestures toward Aerosmith's stuttering white-boy funk, it's hard not to wonder if the extra attention has gotten to Brock. The new album feels tense and closed off, and at an hour long, it's a tiring listen. The combination of Brock's often obtuse lyrics ("Carbon's anniversary/ Parting of the sensory/ Old, old mystery"), which he delivers as if he's attacking or being attacked, and the tight, herky-jerky arrangements come off like the work of a man trying to keep listeners at bay. On older albums, like "The Moon & Antarctica," breaking through Brock's defenses proved worthwhile. I'm not so sure it does this time around.
Favorite track: "Fire It Up"
"Live at Massey Hall," Neil Young
Given that he possesses both unrivaled stature and a legendary trove of unreleased material, it's a surprise that Neil Young waited until last year to get all archaeological on our asses. Another surprise is just how excellent his newly released archival material has proven to be. Last year's stomping, exploratory "Live at Fillmore East" -- taken from a 1970 show -- caught Young in full-on guitar jam mode. Recorded only a year later, "Live at Massey Hall" finds the ever-mercurial one having switched modes, delivering 17 songs solo, alternating between spinning flecks of silver from an acoustic guitar to sending out gentle ripples from behind his piano. If nothing else, "Massey Hall" does a thrilling job of showcasing Young's remarkable songbook. Classics like "Helpless," "Old Man" and "Ohio" are matched by lesser-known gems like "See the Sky About to Rain" and "Journey Through the Past." Everything shines in the unadorned setting, with the fundamental strength of Young's compositions coming through plainly, beautifully. But aside from being a fantastic collection of songs, the album is elevated by its audio vérité feeling: Young's halting, self-deprecating song introductions; his admonition of the cameramen after their clicking shutters throw off his rhythm; the lonesome, cracked beauty of Young's singing voice. They all add up to a portrait of a young man fiercely protective of a gift that allowed him to write such searing, soulful music, and few albums in his vast catalog showcase Young's talent with such simple and forceful clarity.
Favorite track: "Journey Through the Past"
"Sound of Silver," LCD Soundsystem
As the founder of the DFA record label and an in-demand producer and remixer, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy has spent the better part of a decade coaxing hipsters onto the dance floor with electronic music of impeccable provenance (Kraftwerk, Brian Eno) and lyrics of snotty charm. On Murphy's second album under the LCD moniker, his easy-to-follow electronica continues to exert a magnetic pull on the hips, but his predilection for a punch line robs the music of the participatory feeling he seems to be shooting for. Murphy could stand to drop the cool guy crap -- it's telling that the album's best songs, "Someone Great" and "New York I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down," are also its most generous.
Favorite track: "Someone Great"
"Introducing Joss Stone," Joss Stone
Meet the new Joss, same as the old Joss. After two successful albums of divatastic neo-soul, 19-year-old Brit Joss Stone has changed her hair color from blond to red, written a bunch of songs and hooked up with tasteful collaborators like Raphael Saadiq, Common and Lauryn Hill. The company line is that the resulting changes have led to our first look at the "real" Ms. Stone. Maybe that's why the songs have a more modern snap to them after the studied, austere retroisms of her earlier stuff. Stone's voice hasn't changed, though; supple and agile, it's still a thing of wonder. If only some of her vocal magic rubbed off on her personality, because it's one thing to sing the hell out of a song, and it's another to make the music your own. Just last week, another young limey looker, Amy Winehouse, put out her own modern soul album. Stone could sing circles around Winehouse, but I bet it's Winehouse's scrappier, weirder album I'll be listening to a year from now.
Favorite track: "Baby, Baby, Baby"
-- David Marchese