CD Reviews: Neil Young, Lady Sovereign, Jason Aldean

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Neil Young

It's hard to know what to make of Neil Young's latest album. He's certainly serious about renewable energy, the issue at the heart of this 39-minute infomercial for his 1959 biodiesel-powered Lincoln Continental. And yet so much of the music here is so slapdash, so willfully artless, you can't help wondering if he's putting one over on us.

Atavistic riffing redolent of the proto-grunge half of "Rust Never Sleeps" abounds, along with loads of woozy guitar solos and dashed-off lyrics. "Her engine's runnin' and her fuel is clean/She only uses it 'cause she's a machine/She don't need it, though, just to cruise around town," Young boasts, extolling the virtues of his beloved "LincVolt," over the sludgy blues-rock of "Fuel Line."

In "Johnny Magic," he salutes biodiesel pioneer Johnathan Goodwin. Between the verses, a chorus of singers chants "Johnny Magic, Johnny Magic" in praise of the "motorhead messiah," just as they repeated "Johnny Rotten" in Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)."

It's worth remembering that that old song also included the line "There's more to the picture than meets the eye," an observation that likely applies to Young's new album as well. By laying the Dinosaur stomp on so thick -- and stating his message so bluntly -- he's in effect saying, "Isn't it obvious?" as far as renewable energy and environmental sustainability are concerned. This much is for sure: He isn't, as the title of one glorious "Zuma"-style throwback here puts it, "Just Singing a Song."

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Johnny Magic," "Fuel Line," "Just Singing a Song"


Lady Sovereign

Lady Sovereign used to be a novelty act. A white, pint-size British MC specializing in grime (that pugnacious, peculiarly English amalgam of garage and hip-hop), Lady Sovereign made her full-length debut in 2006 with the deft and brassy "Public Warning." It made her semi-famous, establishing her somewhere between the rapper the Streets, grime superstar Wiley and Sporty Spice on the strange continuum of Things British People Like.

But on her sophomore full-length, "Jigsaw," Lady Sovereign sings almost as much as she raps. "Jigsaw" isn't her answer to Kanye West's "808s & Heartbreak," exactly, but its use of Auto-Tune, its alarming expression of things like "emotions" and "feelings," all done with obvious eye toward the mainstream, demonstrates what can happen when a novelty act is stripped of its novelty. Once on her way to being a female, flyweight division Eminem, she now seems like just another exaggeratedly cockney word-slinger like Kate Nash or Lily Allen.

"Jigsaw" features electro, dance and retro-pop beats embedded underneath Lady Sov's brainy, twisty raps, which occasionally ring hollow. There's a fast, fussy take on the Cure's "Close to Me" (renamed "So Human," and co-penned by "Since U Been Gone" co-writer Dr. Luke) and a track referencing Facebook friending ("I Got the Goods") that already sounds dated. But it's hard to top the inexplicable, English-breakfast-fetishizing "Food Play" ("You could cover me in porridge/Oh, porridge"). It won't change your opinion of Lady Sovereign one way or the other. But it might put you off porridge for good.

-- Allison Stewart

DOWNLOAD THESE: "So Human," "I Got You Dancing"


Jason Aldean

The anthemic title track of Jason Aldean's third album makes no secret as to where his loyalties lie -- gravel roads, rusty old Fords, a waitress slinging bacon and eggs in a diner. Yet listen past these video ready-mades and you'll find a protagonist with more depth than the two-dimensional cutouts that dominate today's country airwaves. Not only does Aldean's heroine have a college degree -- when she finally does throw down her apron, she isn't about to accept life on anyone's terms but her own.

In "This I Gotta See," the supple-voiced Georgia native muses evocatively about his lover's hair ("still wet from her bath"), while in "Don't Give Up on Me," a knowing bit of soul-searching, he confesses, "Lord knows there's a lot I need to change." Passages from the latter -- "Got a dusty Bible on my shelf" -- ring a bit too pat to be credible, and "She's Country," the album's first single, suffers from hoary allusions to a "ragin' Cajun" and a "juicy Georgia peach." For the most part, though, the writing here is so reliable, the flinty guitars and backbeats so assured, that even these lapses are easy to forgive -- or program around.

Produced by Michael Knox, the son of '50s hitmaker Buddy Knox, the arrangements lean more toward twangy Southern rock than commercial country. Even ballads like "Fast" and "Big Green Tractor" pack more punch than most mainstream hits, their harmonics hinting at those of the '70s installments of the Allman Brothers and the Charlie Daniels Band.

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Wide Open," "This I Gotta See," "Fast"

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