David Banner, James Jackson Toth, Alice Cooper, and More 

James Jackson Toth
Waiting in Vain
(Ryko)


James Jackson Toth is the once (and future?) Wooden Wand. That is, JJT has previously recorded and toured under several Wooden Wand-related band names and aliases (the most foreboding being “Wooden Wand Jehovah” — yikes!). Under different guises, Toth has issued all sorts of avant-folk, touching on free jazz, freak folk and points in between. You’d need a road map to keep up with everything that he’s done or touched; the label-released Wooden Wand CDs number over a half-dozen, with the cassette and CD-R titles more than tripling that number. So it’s something of a revelation that his first “solo” album is shockingly close to conventional.


Waiting in Vain is pretty impressive on lots of levels. Acts that tend toward the avant-garde sometimes seem, for better and for worse, incapable (or at least wholly disinterested) in straightforward music. A dude responsible for a record like Wooden Wand & the Vanishing Voice’s Buck Dharma would, at first glance, seem to have little success in making a Laurel Canyon-style piece of warm country-rock. But Toth succeeds here, with most of the songs being tight, gentle and economical. “Look in on Me” wouldn’t sound out of place on any number of Asylum Records releases circa 1974, and “Beulah the Good” is a wordy but simple folk number that substitutes “country” for “freak.” Who knew that a guy like Toth could make such a peaceful, easy record? His devoted cult may be disappointed in the abrupt shift, but Toth has the songwriting chops to justify the move toward the middle of the road.
Chris Drabick

David Banner
The Greatest Story Ever Told
(Universal Motown)


There’s a song on The Greatest Story Ever Told called “9mm.” It features a hook by Akon, who sings about his gun. It also includes a verse by Snoop Dogg, who rhymes about blowjobs, and a verse by Lil Wayne, who spits a line about outer space or whatever it is he raps about. And that pretty much sums up the Mississippi-bred Banner’s overlong fourth record: If it’s been done before, it’s probably here. You don’t need a Dirty South dictionary to figure out what “Syrup Sipping,” “Fuck You Hoes” and “Ball With Me” are about. (Same goes for the cut that repeats “Punch that nigga in the face” a couple of dozen times.) Between the played-out street beats, tired club jams and keepin’-it-real tales, The Greatest Story Ever Told sounds like a focus-group-approved hip-hop CD for people who’d rather eat at T.G.I. Friday’s than take a chance on the new burger joint down the street. — Michael Gallucci

Alice Cooper
Along Came a Spider
(SPV)


There’s no disputing the fact that Alice Cooper completely altered the landscape of rock ’n’ roll in the ’70s. With a dark, twisted penchant for thematic storytelling, a Grand Guignol flair for stagecraft and one of the greatest hard-rock bands of all time, Cooper invented shock rock and set the standard for concept albums and stage antics (straitjackets, guillotines, giant dentist drills, gallons of fake blood) for the next three and a half decades. Cooper’s last few albums have found him moving away from the metal bombast that marked his ’80s/’90s work in favor of the leaner, meaner pure rock sound that defined his early groundbreaking albums.

On his 25th studio album, Along Came a Spider, Cooper combines his newly revised hard-rock perspective with a conceptual first-person storyline detailing the grisly exploits of a serial killer dubbed Spider to create an album that rivals his first conceptual solo album, 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare. From the opening blast and swaggering sneer of “I Know Where You Live,” it’s clear Cooper is channeling the spirit of Killer and Billion Dollar Babies to achieve their visceral rock impact. To that end, Cooper ratchets up his songwriting to a similarly high level, particularly on the majestic “Vengeance Is Mine,” featuring an incendiary guitar solo from Slash, and the elegiac power balladry of “Salvation.” There’s an even more direct connection to Cooper’s past at the end of Along Came a Spider, but that would be giving away the finale. Suffice to say, Alice Cooper is still capable of telling a chilling tale, backing it with a giddily raucous rock soundtrack and showing the kids (and grandkids) a thing or two about breaking conventions and rattling the rafters. — Brian Baker

People Under the Stairs
The Om Years
(Om)


About 10 years ago, the underground rap act People Under the Stairs was a sensation with the backpack set and operated alongside SoCal contemporaries Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples and Black Eyed Peas. But while those other acts went on to garner national recognition and even sign with major labels, People Under the Stairs got left out in the cold. This compilation revisits that period and shows just how great the early recordings were and what an injustice it is that the group didn’t go on to greater success.

The group is up front about its old-school vibe (“I live an analog lifestyle,” Thes One boasts in “The Suite for a Beaver, Part 1”), and that sensibility infuses everything from the positive, Native Tongues-inspired lyrics to the organic musical approach. “Jappy Jap” features a great bass riff and some deft turntable scratches, and “Acid Raindrops” belongs on the soundtrack to a lazy summer day. After the 20-song onslaught of disc one, however, the 11-song second disc is a bit anticlimactic, especially when the band indulges in instrumentals such as “Sunroof” that find it drifting from its engaging approach. — Jeff Niesel

Dr. John and the Lower 911
City That Care Forgot
(429)


Dr. John has spent most of his career making hoodoo party music that’s just as suited to toking up as it is to getting down. So it comes as a small surprise to hear the piano-pounding boho get all worked up and pissed off on City That Care Forgot, his best album in 30 years. Still, it’s not a great shocker, seeing that Dr. John lives in New Orleans and it’s kinda hard not to get angry at all the bumbling that’s happened there in the wake of Katrina. “The road to the White House, paved with lies,” he sings over and over on “Promises, Promises,” one of 13 songs that keep the music bubbly and bouncy while the words seethe and rage. Pals like Eric Clapton, Ani DiFranco and Willie Nelson help out, but it’s Dr. John’s usual gumbo of bayou beats and rollicking swamp rock that keeps City That Care Forgot simmering. — Gallucci

¡Forward, Russia!
Life Processes
(Mute)


¡Forward, Russia!’s music occasionally gets overshadowed by the pair of exclamation points in its name and the fact that members wear matching shirts onstage with the moniker emblazoned on them — which is perhaps a representation of the notion that the live performance has often trumped the recordings in the past. This album, the follow-up to 2006’s breakout Give Me a Wall, takes the band out of its Leeds hometown and transports it to Seattle, where it recorded with Matt Bayles, a producer best known for working with metal bands like Mastodon and the Blood Brothers.

That reverberating weight is felt on some of the tracks here, particularly the massively compelling “We Are Grey Matter.” But Bayles’ work with Minus the Bear is most evident here. The difficult-to-categorize songs are put together with precision and complexity, layering big-sounding guitars with steady beats and moments of post-punk dance fervor. The first single, “Breaking Standing,” takes the more straightforward approach, in a manner similar to ¡Forward, Russia!’s debut, but other tracks on the record really showcase what ¡Forward, Russia! is capable of and how much the band has transcended the buzz-band pull quotes of Give Me a Wall. — Emily Zemler


Nurse With Wound
Huffin’ Rag Blues
(Jnana)


Like Throbbing Gristle, Nurse With Wound has always had a perverse fixation with exotica records of the 1950s. With sped-up Shorty Rogers rhythm tracks and big-band TV-crime-show themes surfacing on releases like 1988’s The Sylvie and Babs Hi-Fi Companion and 2000’s Alice the Goon, NWW found a template for its liveliest sound collages by debasing musty lounge music through studio fuckery and tape cut-ups. Its latest, Huffin’ Rag Blues, revisits this easy-listening nightmare territory especially with the demolition-derby funk-bop of “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’,” which may be one of the swankiest NWW jams ever, but too often settles for limp female-crooner numbers, delivered so passionlessly it wouldn’t sound out of place on a satellite radio feed for Starbucks. It’s unfortunate, since the instrumental backing of snarky guest-vocalist Freida Abtan is smoky dark-alley noir-jazz of the finest degree. Aside from sounding tone-deaf and utterly bored, Abtan also has a habit of emitting embarrassed “This is so stupid”-type laughter during her vocal warbles, making you wonder if this record is another stylistic parody piece from the NWW canon of influences or a cynical stab at producing grating music sans the experimentation.

Many of the instrumentals are also weak. “Groove Grease (Hot Catz)” is flavorless upscale dinner jazz, equipped with erotic moans and cologne-stank come-ons — a fitting soundtrack to those cheesy softcore flicks shown late at night on Cinemax. The track that follows, “The Funktion of the Hairy Egg,” is 14 minutes of the same kak, but with casket creaks in place of orgasms. Though things pick up with the aforementioned “Bruisin’” and “Black Teeth,” a free-associative street rant about shooting heroin and puking on a bus in the 1960s that brilliantly mocks the Tom Waits-style brand of gruff vocal pomposity, most of the record lacks the crazed adventurousness we’ve come to expect from the ever-alchemical Stapleton clan. Huffin’ Rag Blues is essentially adult contemporary for aging art fags, so don’t be surprised to find it displayed at a Borders listening station next time you’re out. — Steve Newton

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