Robert Christgau:
Expert Witness

Lee Ranaldo and the Dust / The Dismemberment Plan / The New Pornographers / Spoon / Arcade Fire /
The Hold Steady


Lee Ranaldo and the Dust:
Last Night on Earth

(Matador)

There’s a sweetness to Ranaldo’s new music that his better-known band would have drowned out. And not only is this slept-on follow-up graced by melodies that band’s tunings would have buried—beauties sometimes—but his singing, while still talkier than even the alt-rock norm, has turned tender, elegiac, lyrical. His guitar’s mellower and more reflective as well. Perennial alt-NYC sideman Alan Licht sounds right at home. So does the drummer, one Steve Shelley. Play loud, so its lyricism reveals itself—which doesn’t stop it from building to the avant-jams his better-known band specialized in and the play-loud dictum was invented for. A MINUS


The Dismemberment Plan:
Uncanney Valley

(Partisan)

Appreciated by old fans and dismissed by “critics,” a word still loosely applied to anybody permitted to post music reviews on a website someone else runs, this reunion album means so much more than the average so-called comeback not just because Travis Morrison is smarter than most “critics” and possibly you and conceivably me, but on this evidence better balanced. He’s happily married with a kid. He’s not vaguely a punk anymore. His musical side will never consume him again. But he’s still both a punchy lyricist and a guy who’ll grab a good hook wherever one pokes out its business end. The centerpiece follows the grateful marriage song “Lookin’” with the cautionary parenthood song “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer,” a tribute that’s also a pledge not to follow in Daddy’s footsteps—first “He had me and then he threw his dancin’ shoes away,” then, if only Daddy was still around, “I’d hand him my baby girl/And play some rock and roll.”
A MINUS


The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers

(Matador)

So arch and so in-your-face about it, they remain a case study in obscurity as banality with an attitude problem. Yet the Brill Building tease of the title parses. All 13 tracks including the foreshortened “Another Drug Deal of the Heart” are in-your-face lessons in pop song construction, fetching verse intensified by disarming bridge powered by dynamite chorus if that’s the pattern—they vary. Guitars are extraneous and electronics rule—old-school synths rather than EDM rhythms, but electronics nevertheless. So let it roll over you and find somebody else to do your meaning for you just like they’re too arch to suggest in so many words. If it helps, I did find some Inspirational Verse that applies, kind of: “They say we can’t make this stuff up/But what else could we make?” A MINUS


Spoon: They Want My Soul

(Lorna Vista/Republic)

Britt Daniel’s voice is so unyieldingly masculine it could make you miss the soulful self-pity of a Gavin Rossdale. So what keeps me playing his long-delayed return to the majors is the sound effects. Hums and handclaps and whistling. Vibraphone gurgle and harp arpeggio and Fairlight fanfare. Drum rolls and digital clickety-clacks. Piano plinking, piano freaking, organ swells, keyb distorts. Guitar colors of every description—pseudo uke! fingering squelch! neck strum! There’s a falsetto moment. There’s a duet vocal. You too can be glued to your chair waiting for the next surprise like it’s a hidden joke on a Fountains of Wayne album. Start with “Knock Knock Knock,” which is jammed with them. Or if you prefer, just light up and spend 40 minutes giggling when you least expect it. B PLUS


Arcade Fire: Reflektor (Merge) Big plans for a big party vanish into the ether as the night soars virtually on (“Here Comes the Night Time,” “Normal Person”) **

The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (Razor & Tie) Living off the low life too long (“Wait a While,” “Almost Everything”) **


Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter at @rxgau.
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