BeyoncéI Am … Sasha Fierce
Beyoncé divides her third album into two discs. One is credited to the comely singer who's sold tons of records over the past decade; the other introduces Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé's diva alter ego, who has no problem getting naked for your video phone. Together, they're supposed to represent the two sides of Mrs. Jay-Z: the pipes-bustin' ballad belter and the hips-lockin' dance-floor grinder. But the setup is clumsy. By the time the sixth ballad on the first disc starts, you're dying to get to the club. Likewise, the five cuts on CD two rewire their robotic beats to the point where you're hoping Sasha will slow things down so you can catch your breath. No surprise that I Am … Sasha Fierce's strongest songs lead each disc. "If I Were a Boy" is Beyoncé's best-ever ballad, a men-are-dicks-but-what-do-you-expect? shrug; "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," propelled by percussive handclaps, makes no excuses. Everything else falls into place. Too bad Beyoncé didn't mix them up a little bit. - Michael Gallucci
Remember the good ol' days when nobody knew what the hell Chad Kroeger was singing about on "How You Remind Me"? There's no such ambiguity on Dark Horse, Nickelback's sixth album of high-octane rock 'n' roll. When Kroeger tells a girl she'd "look so much cuter with something in [her] mouth," there's little doubt what that something is. Same goes for the lady who "didn't make it this far by just shakin' hands" (maybe she had an awesome résumé?). Between the loose women ("S.E.X."), drunken nights ("Burn It to the Ground") and parking-lot enlightenment ("If Today Was Your Last Day"), Dark Horse doesn't stray far from Nickelback's comfort zone. Producer Mutt Lange super-powers everything: guitars, drums, harmonies. Even Kroeger's throat-scraping vocals are pushed into overdrive this time around. All the better to eliminate any trace of subtlety. - Gallucci
Belle & Sebastian
The BBC Sessions
Don't think of The BBC Sessions as a surrogate best-of for this fading Scottish ensemble; you'd be forgiven if you did, given that these live takes aren't markedly different than the studio originals. Rather, consider it a reminder of just how smashingly indispensable Belle & Sebastian were before they started granting interviews, before they helped soundtrack a Todd Solondz film, before Stuart David snuck off to become a novelist and Isobel Campbell absconded to be Mark Lanegan's go-to femme foil.
These golden, souffle-consistency oldies can still stir emotions of long-vanquished twentysomething distress: sexual confusion and societal indiscretions on "The State I Am In," the string-smeared, signing-to-Matador Velvet Underground blues of "Seymour Stein," the wayward-whore soft-focus of "Lazy Jane." Dig those underhand-flung double-entendres that sting when they connect; thrill to Stuart Murdoch's conversationally droll vocal delivery; wallow in the lukewarm slush of kindly guitar strum and trap kit patter. And try your damnedest to forget how fast and far this group has plunged in the past couple years in the name of "artistic progress": velocity, overkill and increased volume. -Ray Cummings
Cosmic Universal Fashion
Sammy Hagar has led a charmed musical life. From his renowned national debut with Ronnie Montrose's surnamed group in the mid-'70s to the wild commercial success of his solo career to his improbable replacement of David Lee Roth in Van Halen, Hagar has stumbled from success to greater success with nary a hitch along the way. Hitchless, that is, until his losing bout with the planetary ego of Eddie Van Halen and his ouster from Van Halen, forcing Hagar back to solo status. With the re-emergence of Hagar's solo career in the wake of his VH departure, the artist formerly known as the Red Rocker has scaled back his sonic ambitions significantly. On Cosmic Universal Fashion, Hagar eschews both his arena-honed sense of rafter-rattling grandeur and his earlier melodic hard-rock populism in favor of a more personal and intimate sound.
There's a greater feeling of experimentalism on Fashion, beginning with the opening swing and swagger of the title track, which leads into the full throttle jazzy pulse of "Psycho Vertigo" and the insistent menace of "Peephole." Hagar's smartass funny bone inevitably rises on his cover of Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right to Party." He dials up his requisite rock-behind-the-wheel anthemics on the aptly titled "Loud" and even stirs up a little funky blues on "Switch on the Light." In very palpable ways, Cosmic Universal Fashion hearkens back to Hagar's contributions to the first two Montrose albums, where his strong creative persona was more fully integrated into the surroundings. As a result, Fashion finds Hagar blending his classic and contemporary sounds into a most enjoyable hybrid. - Brian Baker
Safe Trip Home
Pry below the surface of Dido's gentle coos and the lush backdrops of Safe Trip Home, the British singer's first album in five years, and you'll hear a woman who's hiding some deep, dark secrets. The lonely and depressed protagonist of "Never Want to Say It's Love" gets through lonely and depressing nights with a bottle of pills; on "Grafton Street," she's stalking some poor chap, driving up and down his street, waiting for him to come home. No wonder Eminem tapped Dido's tranquil "Thank You" for his seething "Stan" - these two share more than an affinity for single-name monikers. Throughout, Dido can't catch a break. The guy she's pining for on "Quiet Times"? Taken. And on "Don't Believe in Love," she's thisclose to ruining the relationship she's in by doubting her commitment to it. It's all gorgeously gloomy and perfect rainy-day music. But it's also kinda boring, like listening to somebody complain about how much her life sucks, oblivious to the fact that she's partially to blame for all her misery. - Gallucci
Wishing You A Rave Christmas EP
The Raveonettes released their third full-length, Lust, Lust, Lust, in February, and found the time to prep and release four new EPs this fall. The Raveonettes Remixed included a trio of free, downloadable remixes that didn't add much to the band's canon. Sometimes They Drop By and Beauty Dies each featured four great new tunes. Wishing You a Rave Christmas is the perfect way to close 2008. Perhaps because they hail from Denmark, the Raveonettes will forever be associated with winter. Their cover of the ubiquitous "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is drenched in delay and faithful to the Phil Spector wall-of-sound original. "Come On Santa" and "Forever in Your Arms" are the type of songs this band is able to churn out in its sleep. "Christmas Ghosts" is a demented lullaby; "Christmas in Cleveland" is a shoegazey winner. The only thing preventing this EP from being perfect is that it doesn't include their "Christmas Song," the best cut on the otherwise forgettable 2004 indie Christmas compilation, Maybe This Christmas Tree. That track ranks up there with the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" as a modern Christmas classic. - Jeremy Willets
Don't dismiss Tom Jones yet. His latest album, 24 Hours, kicks off with the ecstatic "I'm Alive," an uptempo number buoyed by Jones screaming "I'm alive, and I'm doing my thing and singing my song" before busting into a series of "baby, baby, baby" chants. Things subsequently settle down a bunch. "If He Should Ever Leave You" features strings and horns, as Jones croons about a woman for whom he's got a thing. Jones' voice sounds strong on tunes likethe soulful "We Got Love," "In Style and Rhythm" and "Give a Little Love," the album's punchiest number. Too bad the man has to include sappy ballads such as "The Road" and "Seen That Face," saccharine numbers that really disrupt the vibrant energy of the rest of the material. In fact, the album limps to its conclusion with the dull title track and the syrupy "More Than Memories," tracks that do this fiery old man a disservice. - Jeff Niesel
Love Is All
A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night
(What's Your Rupture?)
Maybe you have to be "in the mood" to enjoy the Swedish art-punk outfit Love Is All. But whether you're in the mood or not, A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night is even more insufferable than the band's debut, Nine Times That Same Song, a record that was completely overrated and unlistenable. Sax player Fredrik Eriksson's constant caterwauling was the worst part of that release. He has since left the band, so that isn't the problem here. The real culprit is the atonal croaking of "singer" Josephine Olausson. Imagine actress Amanda Plummer doing an off-key impersonation of Joanna Newsom, and you're getting there. But Plummer's wailings would be preferable to Olausson's delivery on the sickening "Movie Romance" or the maddening "Sea Sick." Give the rest of the band credit; they do their best to sell this tripe, but no amount of revved-up noisemaking can substitute for the lack of melody or Olausson's inability to carry one were one present (and, of course, the guys recruited a new sax player). The whole enterprise may be best summed up on "Last Choice," since Love Is All certainly is mine. - Chris Drabick
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