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May 9, 2003

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Recently listening to this album with a friend of mine, I made the comment that I kind of like its sound. Her response was something like, "Apparently, you haven't ever heard good R&B." While perfectly understandable, it should not be used to dismiss the new album from some of nu-R&B's best soul-men.

Blackstreet's Level II is an album full of contrived and confused statements about sex and flirtation that have little value beyond mild party humor and the pleasure of hearing catchy production so polished and clean you can eat your pizza off of it. Maybe that's why I kind of like it, for the same reason I like Jordan Knight and Justin Timberlake. It's the music fan's version of pre-faded jeans. The emotional honesty is contrived and fashioned into something catchy and disposable, and the gratuitous use of the vocoder (think Peter Frampton) is just a cherry on top.

I mistakenly thought track one, "Ticket to Ride," might be a Beatles cover, or at least a Beatles reference. However, this was not the case. "Here's your ticket to ride/You can have iced-out things/Lots of chains/Girl it's official/You're priceless to me." In math class, we refer to this logic as a "contradiction." These guys bring up another classic dichotomy of preference in "Don't Touch My Ass," saying, "I'm a titty man/But shorty when I saw your fan/It stuck out like a garbage can."

In "Friend of Mine," Blackstreet cools things down a bit and provides the following relationship analysis: "Your reality is different and it's all in your mind/I even admit she's just a friend of mine/She's just a friend of mine/She'll be the first one to give me some annnnggggggggg!" It's too bad I have no idea what is meant by this because I bet it's interesting. Finally, no track is quite as entertaining as the single from Level II, "Deep," where things begin to get very romantic: "We'll do it in the shower/For about an hour/Move over to the counter and/Bang you out (vocoder: 'Scream my name!')."

No doubt these boys have come a long way since "No Diggity," their 1996 radio hit. All kidding aside, the production, primarily handled by Teddy Riley, who is perhaps most well known for his work on Michael Jackson's Dangerous, is at times very good, albeit fairly generic. And even though it will probably be rare for me to listen to this album in the future, I will remember it fondly for its semi-interesting beats, thick and creamy bass lines, soul-influenced organ tones, and its beautiful, romantic imagery of sweet annnnggggggggg.

-Nicholas Buchholz

I have always been attracted to the incestuous Chicago music scene, which seems to give birth to new groups monthly, consisting of unique arrangements of the same 20 or 30 musicians. Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, Isotope 217, and The Chicago Underground Duo may be the most well known, but there are dozens more. Azita Youssefi is not exactly a newcomer to the city's music circles: she was a primary component of both the Scissor Girls and Bride of No No, but her new solo outing officially interlocks her with the big players in the city, including Tortoise members Jeff Parker and John McEntire and Isotope bassist Matthew Lux (who can also be seen in the movie High Fidelity, playing bass with Jack Black's Sonic Death Monkey).

Although Parker, McEntire, and Lux have such signature sounds, Enantiodromia only hints at their previous work, as Youssefi is the only credited songwriter here. Her work has a unique flavor to it, and although I don't wish to pin it down as one thing or another, I can best describe it as a mix of Steely Dan and U.S. Maple with much less noodling, all focused around Youssefi's piano. Tracks like "You're Not Very" (featuring Chicago Underground Duo coronet man Rob Mazurek), and "Birds" are written around heavy, dense clusters of piano chords and Parker's perfect and sour guitar embellishments, all executed at tugboat tempos, which complements Youssefi's smooth and oddly unsettling vocals. McEntire's understated trap kit work stands out on more upbeat tracks like "On the Road" and "Ooh ooh Johnny." Two solo, instrumental piano pieces, "Departure of the Boats," and "Show Theme" provide a different interpretation of the sound of the more layered songs.

-N.B.

After a furious major-label bidding war, Interscope won the rights to release Fever to Tell, the debut album from Brooklyn's very own Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Having previously issued just two EPs worth of material, the Yeahs have been riding the buzz of their live shows for over a year now. After their second EP Machine flopped both critically and publicly, the Yeahs now stand in a position to determine their future as a band. Fever to Tell will either cement their reputation as one of many over hyped New York bands or serve as proof that the Yeahs earned every bit of press they received.

The album begins with the roaring "Rich," in which Nick Zinner loops a short guitar lick around Brian Chase's staccato percussion, leaving open spaces for Karen O to fill with a combination of singing and shouting. "Date with the Night," the first single, is one of the more punk songs, but is carried along by the syncopated high-hat from Chase's drum kit. The middle of the album finds the Yeahs sticking to the art-punk thing without much variation in either musical or lyrical style. The turning point of this album comes at the eighth track, "No No No." For the first time, we see O dropping the sex-kitten act she's been fronting for the whole album and sounding more vulnerable than assertive. Chase and Zinner provide a perfect backdrop for this change of heart, with quiet drums and simple chords during the verses and then exploding into punk fury for the chorus.

Extending this lyrical and musical shift further is "Maps," a song whose melody is based on a single looped note and more layered guitar. The chorus finds O pleading "Wait, they don't love you I love you," a sharp contrast to the opening line of "Cold Light": "Cold light/Hot night/Be my heater, be my lover/And we can do it to each other." "Y Control" finds Zinner playing around with his loop machine again, setting the stage for the plaintive closer "Modern Romance," the sparsest song on the album. The melody consists of two chords strummed on Zinner's guitar, and has Chase playing a subtle snare and cymbal beat, all of which is background for O lamenting, "There is no Modern Romance."

With Fever to Tell, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have proven that they are deserving of all the hype they receive. Shifting gears between art-punk and melancholy pop, Fever to Tell displays what we already knew about the Yeahs and then some. While the first half of the album will provide excellent touring material, it is the last few songs that make this album one of the best you'll hear all year.

---Dave Lawlor

This one comes with the increasingly irrelevant Billy Corgan seal of approval. Apparently, The Children's Hour has opened for Zwan, and I suppose it's further confirmation that Corgan is losing his mind. There's not much to say about this debut record except that it's vaguely pretty-in the way that most acoustic guitar-based records inherently are. At least the band is appropriately named. These songs sound like the musical accompaniment to some as-yet-unwritten bedtime story. Lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Josephine Foster coos and whispers sweet nothings with an uncommon, matronly touch. The guitar is gently plucked, giving the songs a casual if unremarkable candor.

The real problem is that The Children's Hour fails to make much of an impression. Their somnambulant compositions hang in the air, refusing to commit. The prettiness is often undercut by Foster's wavering voice, and there isn't enough self-conscious experimentation to give the music any edginess. But perhaps most unforgivable is the band's complete lack of identity. You feel like you've heard this record a thousand times from a thousand different bands, and you'll be damned if you can recall the names of any of them. In the end, The Children's Hour winds up with an album full of forgettable lullabies that will put you to sleep before you've even had a chance to listen to them.

The Children's Hour will celebrate its record release this Saturday, May 10, at the Hideout.

-Jon Garrett