by Emily Zimmerman
COMPUTERS AND BLUES
When he started out, The Streets (it's a one-man band, real name: Mike Skinner) put out two albums of brilliantly clever rapid-fire, beat-backed monologues merging hip hop with music hall patter songs in a way that seemed so perfect one wondered why no one had done it before. That made him a rock star, and he started making rather less clever, self-indulgent music about his new social status.
What does an artist, with a rep as a no-longer-funny novelty act do? Smarten up.
Computers and Blues sounds awfully retro '90s, with its breakbeats and repetitive soul-vocal hooks. It plays with the space between dance club hit and weird cerebral chanting. Album opener "Outside Inside" is a manic interior monologue over beats, the rhythm and rhymes sounding almost accidental. It's Skinner's signature flow, minus the broad comedy. And then the first single, "Going Through Hell", is a guitar-driven anthem that it's easy to imagine a clubful of youngsters throwing down to. Skinner negotiates this divide, street fast-talk and club groove, with varying success but lots of great moments.
The album's batting average is brought down by a few truly, embarrassingly awful tracks, like the cringe-inducing "OMG" (adolescent angsting over a crush's social-network updates, not really suitable for a man over 30) or "Blip on a Screen", an ode to a fetus that's not much more than "Whoa, fatherhood. Whoa." Skinner doesn't come off too well when he's trying to describe feelings. His strength is in setting scenes and recreating dialogue. He's a playwright, not a poet.
Skinner has declared that this will be his last album under the name The Streets, and perhaps that's for the best. The Streets put on quite a show - novel, notorious, sometimes brilliant and sometimes unbearable. Computers and Blues is, all in all, a graceful exit.
... AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD
TAO OF THE DEAD
Trail of Dead 2002, a band that would bludgeon your eardrums in the best way possible, have left the scene. In their place stands Trail of Dead 2011, a good arena rock band trying to stay vibrant by releasing a two-track, 45-minute album. Part One could've easily been chopped up into a solid group of self-contained tunes which would've made Tao of the Dead the band's most accessible album. But nooo. Instead, there's interstitial froufrou and all around the grandiose songs. Oh well. It's all right I guess. Four albums into their major label career, AYWKUBTTOD hasn't built much creative momentum but at least they've remained good. /James Brotheridge
JESSICA LEA MAYFIELD
21-year-old Jessica Mayfield has a lot going for her. Mayfield's airy, wistful vocal style sits nicely on top of mournful pedal steel melodies. It's a match for her guileless and cheeky lyrics, such as the brazen couplet on the track "Sometimes At Night": "I broke the little cabana boy's heart /to let you fondle me in the dark." But for all of Mayfield's strengths, her sophomore album is a bit patchy. It starts off strong with songs like the lilting "Our Hearts Are Wrong" but gets bogged down in the middle with a few flimsy tunes you'd be hard pressed to recall, even after repeated listens. At times, the country/folk musician's light-as-a-feather voice would benefit from some low end to anchor it down; producer Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys) would have been just the guy to supply it.
Some critics seem to be in a hurry to anoint Mayfield the next Lucinda Williams. That praise feels premature. /Gillian Mahoney
"Breakin' the Law" off The Babies' self-titled debut is almost textbook -- a hipper-than-hip band takes the title of an instantly recognizable song for one of their own that has only the most tangential connection, if that. That's hipster '60s revival by the numbers. But The Babies works. It sounds like the Brooklyn trio, made up of members from Vivian Girls and Woods, recorded this album live off the floor with minimal overdubs. But the songs themselves are fun, quick and solid guitar-pop. /James Brotheridge
12 DESPERATE STRAIGHT LINES
The story up to now: the young Michael Benjamin Lerner records Telekinesis! with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla and the album turns out chock-full of power-pop gems, mostly inspired by Lerner's relationship with his then-girlfriend. When it comes time to record a follow-up, Lerner's not with that girl anymore. The Seattleite goes to Germany to write 12 Desperate Straight Lines. Sounds like a recipe for a gloomy fucking record, right? Well, some of the songs are rocking sludgier guitars and there's a clear Cure vibe going on, but Lerner doesn't seem to have succumbed to depression. With material that could've made his second effort a break-up record, he stays upbeat. For the sake of his songs, I'm thankful. /James Brotheridge
THIS IS THE LIE
The world's Joey Shitheads are the rarest of breeds. Shithead, frontman for D.O.A., has been on the road in some form or another for longer than I've been alive, a dyed-in-the-wool punk the entire time. Not everyone can keep up with punk music for that long, though. Even looking at Regina residents past and present, you'll see a whole league of musicians who've given up playing loud and fast in favour of alt-country or indie-pop or what have you.
That's where we find Toronto's Rob Moir. His group, the Dead Letter Dept., last released an album back in 2005 on Underground Operations. Now that he's releasing a solo EP, This Is the Lie, he's working in a completely different style from his old work. His ability to simply put a song together carries over. All the pieces are there on the album opener and title track, a balanced acoustic pop song and the highlight of the five songs presented here. Give him a bit more time, and there's no doubt he'll be good enough to work the mentions of his punk past down to 10 words or less. /James Brotheridge