To think I used to write a 350-500 word review for Splendid every week. Oh, I had grand plans to revive such a practice on this blog, with the allure of being able to review whatever I wanted to.

But I admit I’m rusty. And it’s been an awfully long time since I heard a new album that was either absolutely stunning or, on the other hand, a spectacular disappointment. Just about everything’s been in between: lots of good stuff, but little of it truly great. So, I offer some capsule reviews in a blatant copy of a format practically invented by one of the “Other People” in my list o’ links…

TORI AMOS The Beekeeper

I’m still convinced that her last album, Scarlet’s Walk, a response to America post-9/11 in the form of a mythical travelogue, is (gasp!) better than Little Earthquakes. So what to make of this inevitably ambitious, packed to the gills follow-up? Her concurrently released book, Piece By Piece, offers some insight into individual songs, but I haven’t gotten much out of the conceit of how she’s grouped them into six “gardens” apropos of the album’s track listing--just chalk it up to typical Tori silliness, I guess. This is a good, sensible album, though--once you give the songs (all 19 of ‘em) time to sink in. Sure, she could’ve pared it down to 12 or 14, but apart from wispy closer “Toast”, I can’t think of a single one that doesn’t have something going for it. Even the lyrically decrepit “Original Sinsuality” contains one of her prettiest melodies evah. Cynics complain that her music’s too safe now; they are, no doubt, probably some of the same fools who damned Boys For Pele back in the day for being too weird. Sigh, the gal just can’t win, even when she constructs (in the best, Kate Bush-like way) both novel mini-epics (the rollicking, soulful “Witness” and the creepy-crawly title track) and pop songs as effortlessly gorgeous and tight as “The Power of Orange Knickers”. A-


I so want this to be my favorite album of the year, and maybe with time and patience, it will. For now, it’s conceptually impressive at the very least. He has a wonderful (if polarizing) voice, but as moving as these songs are, I’m not humming them to myself three days (let alone three hours) later. Two grand exceptions are “Hope There’s Someone”, which leads off the album with mournful piano-and-voice before reaching a spine-tingling, tempo-shifting crescendo; and the glorious “Fistful of Love”, a horn-filled blue-eyed soul lullaby that is my favorite track of the year thus far. So, I’ll give the other eight tracks a few more spins and let you know if he transcends the hype. B+

FIONA APPLE Extraordinary Machine

I was going to wait to write about this until you could buy it, but that’s looking less and less likely an option. Besides, it’s been so widely disseminated all over the web (and received so much play on my iPod) that I can’t not talk about it. First off, it’s not as astonishing a leap from When The Pawn… as that one was from Tidal. But, you only have to compare this one’s centerpiece, “Oh Sailor” to “Sullen Girl”, a melodically similar Tidal song, to get a sense of her accomplishment. On first listen, it immediately strikes you how the chord changes, vocal inflections, and ever-so-slightly drunken piano riffs in the new one seem light years beyond the very capable models in the earlier one. The title track (one of two first leaked last summer), is still definitive, oozing damage and defiant proficiency like a sinister monologue inappropriately submitted for a Disney musical. The rest convey a genuine, if prickly talent not necessarily too good for this world--just too problematical for a major record label. Good for her. A


Finally, she quits folksinging herself into a corner. Ever since 1998’s fine Little Plastic Castle, when she was teetering on the edge of selling out, she’s remained fiercely independent, but has lost coherence, gradually obscuring the catchy melodies that made her a folk-rock icon (no one can do it on persona or attitude alone). Opening herself up to an outside producer (Joe Henry) brings her back, at least partially. Not as potent as her peak work, though you could put the very best songs (“Modulation”, “Recoil”) on a mix tape with stuff from Out of Range and Not a Pretty Girl and neophytes wouldn’t flinch. Those who’ve suffered long and hard with her, however, will sense the welcome older/wiser vibe the new ones exude. B+

ERASURE Nightbird

They’re going to outlast Depeche Mode at this point. A comeback album that doesn’t really sound all that different from their vintage stuff, and it’s a comeback precisely because at times, it nearly matches their best stuff. I’m not expecting to hear “Breathe” or the surging, Abba-tastic “Here I Go Impossible Again” on my radio today, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to find them in high rotation along with “Chains of Love” and “A Little Respect” way back when. Unfortunately, there’s the rub: how relevant is a band that are at their best when they repeat themselves? Not very, but though this sympathetic love letter to longtime fans fails to innovative or surprise, it rarely disappoints. B

IVY In The Clear

Five albums in, this underappreciated trio has their formula down pat: chiming guitars, subtle electronics, Dominique Durand’s arresting, tuneful Nico coo, and smart, terse hooks that idealists believe everyone should know. Here’s another ten concise songs that split the difference between the lush, dreamy cadences (“Nothing But the Sky”, “Ocean City Girl”) and ecstatic, organic dance pop (“Thinking About You”, “Tess Don’t Tell”). After the lovely but uneven Long Distance and the marking-time covers album Guestroom, this is easily their best since Apartment Life--not that they’ll ever top that rare, perfect album. But any band with such a formula that still produces music this compelling ten years in should record for at least another ten. A-

AIMEE MANN The Forgotten Arm

Her knack for snappy, literate pop was mysteriously gone (if not entirely forgotten) on 2002’s alarmingly dull Lost In Space. This isn’t exactly a return to the brilliance of her first three solo albums--I listened to it on her website a few times but haven’t exactly rushed out to buy my very own copy just yet. Whereas her songs used to crackle and sigh with all these weird layers and multiple interpretations, now they’re all simple and transparent. This time, they form a narrative of sorts (revolving around a junkie boxer and his girlfriend in the early 70’s), and you can at least sense the ambition that went into it, not to mention how the final songs resonate like those on a concept album should. But her melodies, which were never that varied to begin with, seem more lazy and samey. Sometimes that’s an advantage, as the majestic, rocking “Clean Up for Christmas” agreeably recalls “I Should’ve Known”. Still, as much as I want to like this, I can't deny that success (even on such a meager scale) has sadly diluted her venom and drive. B-