New on disc
Lo-fi pioneer Lou Barlow is nothing if not candid. That approach applies both to his literate, heartfelt songwriting for seminal indie-rock bands Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, and the Folk Implosion, and to the barbs he aimed at his former bandmates after they parted ways. And so he uses the title of his first proper solo album to play with his dubious distinction as the godfather of emo. It's a fitting moment for Barlow to toy with his legacy, as he reveals himself here to be a more assured artist and musician than ever before. Much as ''Sea Change" announced a mature and sophisticated Beck, Barlow has outgrown overt cleverness in favor of gorgeously subtle music. Although largely recorded alone with an acoustic guitar and simple tape loops, the album features former bandmates Jason Lowenstein (Sebadoh) and Imaad Wasif (the Folk Implosion). It also showcases engaging ruminations set to lovely melodies, as well as Barlow's more richly resonant vocals, on the delicately melancholy ''Legendary," the simple love song ''If I Could," and the slyly humorous ''Monkey Begun." His understated touch is perhaps best exemplified when he transforms Ratt's ''Round and Round" into a poignant ballad. Barlow has already proved his knack for making moving and amusing music. Now he shows what can result when intelligence and feeling are married with practiced craft.
When Dr. Dre anoints a protege, pay attention. He brought us Snoop and Eminem, and now the Game, a Compton, Calif., rapper he's been grooming. This is probably the most hyped hip-hop debut in years, and while the Game shows serious skills, he comes up short of being the revelation most hip-hop fans were expecting. Much of this sounds like it was assembled instead of created out of inspiration and necessity. Can we get a fabulous stable of producers including Dre, Timbaland, Just Blaze, Hi-Tek, Kanye West, Buckwild, and Eminem? Check. Can we get high-powered guest cameos from 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, and, of course, Marshall Mathers? Check. Can we get the ubiquitous Nate Dogg, whom no rap album seems complete without? Check. Do we have the obligatory shout-outs to Biggie and Tupac on every other song? Check. And it's all put together expertly, but never once do you get the feeling you are listening to greatness in the making. The Game's rhymes are clearly inspired by NWA, which he obviously reveres, but he lacks that group's blunt, vivid originality. He ably spins tales of the street, and on ''Start From Scratch" he shows a conscience, while on the poignant ''Like Father, Like Son" he reflects on fatherhood and mortality. But there's too much de rigueur street bluster without vision or wit. And when he bumps up to Eminem on ''We Ain't," he mimics Shady's flow instead of making his own impression and commanding his territory. Ultimately, the MC clearly can play the game. Now he needs to elevate it.
WE R IN NEED OF A MUSICAL REVOLUTION!
The last time we heard from Canadian vocalist Esthero was six years ago when she was seemingly on the verge of success with a savvy brand of trip-hop and pop. But that seems like eons ago, and now she has reemerged with this EP, a precursor to her next full-length effort due in the spring. On the opening title track, she sets out her creative manifesto as she decries the current state of the music business. Ashanti and Britney get called out, but Esthero sounds like she's disgusted with the whole industry. It's a funky rock track, albeit a bit obvious, and it sets the stage for what is intended as an adventurous musical journey. What follows is diverse and interesting but hardly the revolutionary, groundbreaking sonic exploration Esthero seems to be proclaiming is necessary. ''Everyday Is a Holiday (With You)" features Sean Lennon, and it's an intoxicating, jazz-inflected love song, while the gentle, lovely ''Gone" is an acoustic gem boasting a vivid cameo from the terrific MC/singer Cee-Lo Green. He adds just the proper spice. The rest is a mix of moody shades that accentuate the singer's clear tone and expressiveness. Only the multi-layered, ponderous ''Amber & Tiger's Eye" fails to connect on an aesthetic or emotional level. It doesn't sound like Esthero is going to be the leader of any musical revolution any time soon, but she undoubtedly makes for a fine soldier in the good fight against bland corporate pop.
The Fiery Furnaces
The Fiery Furnaces return after their LP ''Blueberry Boat" with a collection of B-sides and singles that serve as their best introduction to new listeners. The band effortlessly rockets through the first three tracks without pause. Among them is the poppy new ''Here Comes the Summer," easily the band's finest work. Spinning a simple story of love, it's a direct contrast to the spacey tales we've come to expect from the brother/sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger. The accessible tracks continue with ''Evergreen" and ''Sing for Me" as well as ''Tropical-Iceland," a song the band adapted from 2003's ''Gallowsbird's Bark." The album is not without the Furnaces' signature ramblings, which can be found on ''Cousin Chris" and ''Sullivan's Social Club," whose lyrics read more like lessons in elocution. But the fact that the band has proved it can produce pop gems in addition to the quirky sounds they're known for is an intriguing prospect as the Furnaces get ready for their next album.
William Hut & the Fashion Park Rangers
DAYS TO REMEMBER
William Hut is a Norwegian pop star who came to Boston last year and, for a change of pace, made this album with the cream of the local roots-music scene. He had met some of the key figures (Barrence Whitfield and Michael Dinallo, who produced the disc) when they toured Norway. The album leans toward dreamy, atmospheric country-folk, while Hut's shimmering vocals sound like a cross between those of Phil Collins and Gram Parsons. It is compelling music with Hut singing sweetly about seeking salvation (''By the Seaside"), holding on to love (''Don't Let Go"), mending conflicts (''Faded Highway"), and even taking a break from the club scene (''Daydream Fight" has the eerily honest line, ''Tell all the girls that I'm tired of drinking"). It is a quietly spare, self-revelatory record with simply gorgeous contributions from Boston string band the Resophonics (on two tracks) and such eminent locals as lap steel guitarist Steve Sadler, bassist Paul Kochanski (of the Swinging Steaks), and drummer Andy Plaisted. Together they form a rotating cast known as the Fashion Park Rangers, augmented by Norwegian pianist/Hammond B3 organist Bjorn Bunes. The cultural exchange reaps dividends, for this is some of the prettiest music to come along in a while. All songs were written by Hut and Bunes, except for a tender, transcendent version of Hank Williams's ''The Log Train," where the Norwegians show their affection for traditional country.