The Forgotten Arm
Despite the trademarked sweeping chorus that marks the opening track, "Dear John," this latest album from gifted singer/songwriter, critical darling and musicians' advocate Mann strays a bit from the lush, evocative fare of her work on the Magnolia soundtrack and 2002's top-notch Lost in Space. The Forgotten Arm is a more intimate album, evincing a raw, Americana-tinged vibe, no doubt thanks in part to producer, singer/songwriter and soul-hound Joe Henry's fast-and-live recording style. While still tastefully adorned with all manner of instrumentation, the album strives to put the listener at the time and place of Mann's most wholly sustained theme/narrative to date: a seedy, sawdust-strewn, 70s-America carnival circuit, where a broken-down boxer and drug addict meet, meander and then part. Mann conquers the biggest challenge of a concept album — forcing individual songs to cohesively fit a larger story. The result is a collection of gorgeous, slightly gritty tracks that can be enjoyed both singly or as pieces of the whole.
Track to burn: "Dear John"
Crónicas de un Laberinto
You can always count on Jaguares to remain true to their vision. The latest from these gods of Mexican alternative rock, Crónicas de un Laberinto (Chronicles of a labyrinth), is no less cryptic or critical than previous works. And it rocks as intensely as ever, with a musical range that runs from traditional Latin rhythms to full-scale psychedelia.
On the first single, "Hay Amores que Matan" (There are loves that kill), singer and guitarist Saúl Hernández returns to the catchy, tropical-percussion-infused sound of "Como Tú," from the band's "unplugged" album of 2002, El Primer Instinto. Of course, no Jaguares disc would be complete without its usual dose of social commentary. On this one, the corruption and violence in Mexican society get hit hard in lyrics like, "(The system) believed that genocide was a divine act/It's clear that this government is not for me," from the 14th and final track, "Esta Muy Claro" (It's all so clear).
Liner notes include lyrics in both Spanish and English, but that may not help non-Spanish speakers understand what Hernández is saying. His references to scorpions, crystal planets and cannibal witches can be indecipherable in any traditional language. However, those who speak the language of jaguar will feel right at home.
Track to burn: "Todo Te Da Igual"
Urban Lounge Supreme
Groove Gravy Records
L.A.-based producer Rudy Mangual turns Martin Denny/Esquivel-style space-age bachelor pad sounds into blissed-out chill music that recalls Nightmare On Wax's Smoker's Delight in all its hazy shimmer and late-night vibe. Mangual leans heavily on hip-hop and dub for his rhythmic undercurrent, while the rest of the music is suffused with jazz fills and curlicues of Latin flavors. (Mangual knows this music well; his father publishes Latin Beat magazine.) "Palaver" drives a low-riding salsa beat with Spanish guitar and shout of 'Olé.' "Rough Times" is a classic dance track that rides a rumbling breakbeat and horn-bounce that blows up into a John Barry-styled James Bond theme. The cymbal-keyed "Sisha" has a belly-dancer sway, abetted by a jazzy cello and a hooka-fired, Arabian Nights feel. From the rapping of MC Kiwi on "Everybody Loves" to the dub-inflected spaghetti western "Telling Tales," Mangual keeps the proceedings eclectic and bubbling with energy.
Track To Burn: "Rough Times"
A River Ain't Much to Love
Bill Callahan's arrangements have become simpler, even as his songs become more emotionally direct. He sounds as comfortable on his latest as he has on any Smog release, and there's a warmth and strange acceptance that runs through the tracks. Songs such as "Say Valley Maker" and "Rock Bottom Riser" reinforce a sense of salvation and resurrection. That theme is best realized in the steady, droning tones of "I'm New Here," an ostensive ode to geographical relocation wherein Callahan sings, "I'm shedding plates like a snake."
Track to burn: "I'm New Here"