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If the cynics of the world united, Thom Yorke would be among the candidates for their leadership.
The Radiohead frontman's lyrics have always been saturnine - the band actually considers "Lucky," a song many would describe as gloomy, to be among its happier tunes - so it's no surprise Yorke's solo album, "The Eraser," follows the same trail. But Yorke's bleak lyrics seem to stand out more on his first solo release than they do on his work with Radiohead.
And the message of his lyrics? These are desperate times.
In "The Clock," one of the album's best songs, Yorke sings, "Time is running out for us, but you just move the hands upon the clock." In "And It Rained All Night," a song describing a stormy night in New York, he sings the refrain, "I can see you, but I can never reach you." Then there's the single, "Harrowdown Hill," in which Yorke cries out the chorus, "We think the same things at the same time, we just can't do anything about it."
Yorke's lyrics seem so effervescent on "The Eraser" because, unlike on Radiohead albums, the songs are stripped down. Well, stripped down as far as Radiohead recordings go.
Although Yorke is without the other four members of the band, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich is at the helm, so the music retains a similar complexity. They combine Yorke's falsetto with alluring piano and guitar chord progressions built over the framework of carefully sampled beats - all of which perfectly balance an audio atmosphere that drifts between enigmatic and sullen, a foggy valley for Yorke's lyrics to venture down. The result produces a sound similar to that of Radiohead songs such as "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box" or "Backdrifts."
Rating: Radiohead fans, cynics and those who enjoy music that pushes boundaries should own this album.
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Jurassic 5 offers a refreshing vibe in the like-minded world of rap stars.
They don't brag about their wealth or fame. They don't pretend to be part of a gangster lifestyle. They don't vituperate about women.
The only moments of self-glorification come when they point out these facts in their lyrics, which they have a tendency to do. But, for a group as talented and independent of mainstream rap as Jurassic 5, it's a minor criticism.
A bigger concern found on the group's latest album, "Feedback," is its obvious attempts to manufacture club hits. The album opens with "Back 4 U," a tune that - with its infectious upbeat rhythm, interwoven recordings from live performances and masterful vocal delivery - is an instant classic in the group's catalog. Unfortunately, it's followed by "Radio" and "Brown Girl," a pair of simplistic club songs that don't live up to the high standards the group has set for itself.
Ironically, "Radio," a song that has mainstream written all over it, features lyrics about the group's dreams of hearing its alternative sound on the radio. The downfall of "Brown Girl" is less poetic, but it fails for the same reason.
Luckily, after getting those disappointments out of the way, the group returns to form. "In the House" is almost as impressive as the group's masterpieces, "What's Golden" and "Quality Control." The waxing-nostalgic "End Up Like This," with its self-deprecating lyrics and DJ Nu-Mark's euphoric musical production, takes its place as rap's equivalent of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."
Even "Work It Out," the group's collaboration with Dave Matthews Band, which seems disastrous on paper, is on target.
"Feedback" doesn't measure up to its predecessor, "Power In Numbers," but it's hard to follow perfection.
Rating: Invite some friends over, play the album, and the night will take care of itself.
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It's hard to imagine that Outkast can keep getting better.
"Aquemini." "Stankonia." "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below." Each album has been hailed as groundbreaking.
How long can the ATLiens keep flying?
They don't appear to be coming down any time soon. "Idlewild," the group's latest album, which coincides with the release of the duo's feature-length film of the same name, lives up to the hype.
Big Boi and Andre 3000 are beginning to sound like the Lennon and McCartney of rap. As with "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," "Idlewild" features Big Boi and Andre 3000 working independently as well as collaboratively.
Unlike "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," the group's latest album seems filled with confidence. Rather than splitting its solo projects into two discs packaged as a double album (a move which seemed the safest way to push the envelope), Big Boi and Andre 3000 intertwine their solo tracks with their collaborative tracks.
And the transitions are seamless.
Big Boi's straight-shooting rap on "Peaches" sits next to Andre 3000's bluesy "Idlewild Blue (Don't Chu Worry 'Bout Me)." Later, Andre 3000 croons on "Chronomentrophobia" before Big Boi flows on the horn-infused "The Train." The combination is the kind no other group would attempt. But it works, flawlessly.
With "Idlewild," Outkast continues to transcend boundaries. It's still a rap group by definition. But in truth, Outkast is in a class all its own.
Rating: It's hard to see how anyone can ignore one of the most important musical groups today.
- Mike Hart