Prairieography (True North)
As the boot-scootin' shuffle of Living with a Long Way to Go kicks off Del Barber's new album, Prairieography, it's tempting to say the Manitoba singer/songwriter has gone country, but no: it's safe to say Del hasn't donned a Stetson or a big, shiny belt buckle.
What Barber has done is step up the tempos and fattened the grooves on his fourth full-length album in five years. Working together as producers, he and steel guitarist Bill Western have created a keening, full-band sound that feels warm without being cliché or overtly commercial. Indeed, the assured vibes feel perfectly suited to Barber's songs of living and longing.
There are 14 songs in all here, ranging from rollicking, old-tyme two-steps such as Country Girl to the bittersweet balladry of Peter and Jenny Lee. As the album's title suggests, all of them are shot through with Prairie themes and place names. Most of all, though, the stories here speak to life's dualities -- struggle and opportunity; love and loss; city and country, to name a few -- and together the music evokes rich images of big skies, stark landscapes and warm, well-meaning hearts. ***1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: Big Smoke, Yellowhead Road
-- John Kendle
Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble)
Everything and nothing has changed on the new Against Me! album, the Florida group's sixth. The band still traffics in full-throttle and full-throated punk rock, deploying buzz-saw guitars and shout-along choruses for overt sociopolitical purposes, but on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the quartet has a new rhythm section and, in some ways, a new leader: the former Tom Gabel is now Laura Jane Grace, and most songs address her transformation in explicit, often profane, language.
The vocals are still a gravelly bark, especially on the terrific title track, which opens the album with "Your tells are so obvious/ Shoulders too broad for a girl/ Keeps you reminded/ Helps you to remember where you come from." Grace and fellow guitarist James Bowman still share anthemic riffs inspired by the Clash, Billy Bragg and NOFX (whose bassist Fat Mike sits in on a few tracks), but there's a bit more of the Thermals and Gaslight Anthem here.
The guitars have more gloss than grit, while the lyrics are unvarnished (and often unprintable). This fascinating, brief album flags a bit in its second half, but it's provocative throughout. HHH1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
-- Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Have Fun With God (Drag City)
A companion to last year's acclaimed Dream River, Bill Callahan's new Have Fun With God is a remix record that reimagines each of the eight tracks as though channelled through Kingston, Jamaica. This is Callahan in dub: bass-heavy, echoed examinations of Dream River songs that have been stripped of much of their structure to create something else altogether.
The practice was common in 1970s reggae, when artists such as Burning Spear and Peter Tosh offered both studio recordings and "versions" of the same song. The most influential producers, most notably King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry, helped give birth to remix culture.
Summer Dub samples the phrase, "I painted," and loops it among psychedelic atmospherics, reverb-drenched flute and percussion. At one point the track nearly consumes itself with echoes of echoes. Expanding Dub focuses on the bass-line from Javelin Unlanding, working the track's heavy bottom end while snippets of keyboard and guitars bounce around in the background.
As a stand-alone entity, Have Fun... is a mesmerizing, and utterly strange, listen. Though hardly essential for anyone but hardcore fans, it's a solid stab at the subgenre. Now if only he'd follow this with a Houston-style "chop and screw" rap album. HHH1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: Expanding Dub
-- Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times
A Great Big World
Is There Anybody Out There (Epic/Sony)
Considering how unexpected A Great Big World's breakthrough success with the wrenching ballad Say Something has been, it seems only fitting the duo's debut Is There Anybody Out There? is filled with even more surprises.
Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino, who teamed up when they were both at NYU, shot to the top of the pop charts after they memorably performed Say Something with Christina Aguilera on The Voice, the raw breakup song becoming even more poignant as a duet between Axel and Aguilera.
However, those looking to place A Great Big World into a small, acoustic balladeer box will be shocked by how eclectic Is There Anybody Out There? is musically and lyrically.
The opening piano-driven blast of Rockstar and Land of Opportunity sound influenced by Ben Folds Five with a bit of ELO thrown in. When the band strips back the production on Already Home and You'll Be OK, the earnestness is reminiscent of fun.'s Some Nights, but their far-flung inspirations stretch much further, as Shorty Don't Wait combines country and gospel. Cheer Up! sounds like it came from a children's album, while the anthem of acceptance Everyone Is Gay sounds like it belongs in a Broadway musical.
How this all fits together is probably a mystery to everyone but A Great Big World, but they approach it with such passion and joyfulness that you end up going along for the wild ride and enjoying it. HHH 1/2
-- Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
THIS WEEK'S SINGLES
Shakira feat. Rihanna
Can't Remember to Forget You (RCA/Sony)
With two powerhouse performers involved, this should be an immediate, undeniable hit. It's not. It's actually kind of underwhelming. The ska-pop vibe is enjoyable enough, and stylistically somewhat similar to Bruno Mars' Locked Out of Heaven, but it's not nearly as catchy. Let's hope some stronger remixes are on the way. HH 1/2
Into the Blue (Warner)
The title track to Kylie's upcoming 12th album is a soaring, piano-tinged dance-pop track with an absolutely enormous chorus. At its core, it's meant for the club, but it's far from your typical disposable club record. With a powerful, triumphant feel to it, it's the kind of dance track you could imagine being the theme-song for the Olympics. HHHH
Foster the People
Coming of Age (Columbia/Sony)
With their sophomore album Supermodel set to drop in March, this first single bolts out of the gates, bursting with retro-futurism, an instantly memorable chorus, crunchy guitars, dreamy synths, and more of those delicious ooh-ee-ooh's that made Helena Beat so completely brilliant. HHH 1/2
-- reviewed by Steve Adams