Crazy Itch Radio
It's easy to look at Basement Jaxx's string of radio-friendly singles and albums and write them off as "pop electronica," but that would miss the point. Although they have strayed far from their quirky house roots, they approach pop music with the same sense of experimentation and adventure that is now rare in "serious" electronic music. With each album, they push the form to its chaotic breaking point—so much that it now takes five to six full listens to make sense of it all—and with Crazy Itch Radio they've gone off the rails entirely, somehow fusing solid pop tunes with everything from punk rock to opera and Balkan mountain music.
What saves the Jaxx from mediocrity is that they're not perfect. They could easily make a living producing the likes of Robbie Williams (they're opening on his current tour) but they rely on up-and-comer vocalists from the thriving British grime and R&B scenes—looking not to the Billboard charts, but to the street outside their Brixton studio to find grimester Lady Marga, who teaches you some vulgar new slang on "Run 4 Cover," and Vula Malinga, who shone all over 2005's UK hit "Oh My Gosh" and does the same on the lead single, "Hush Boy." Their unpolished but engaging voices slot themselves neatly into the Jaxx's distinctive production style, which fills every available inch with blips, squiggles, and the occasional accordion, yet it all sounds as casual and carefree as if they'd thrown the whole thing together over the weekend. MATT CORWINE
YO LA TENGO
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
Nudged by its revenge-of-the-nerd album title, fans will surely hail Yo La Tengo's 12th studio album as a full-fledged comeback. But though it returns these indie-rock gods to the tuneful hodgepodge of their last great disc, 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, that album was a career culmination and this one is something more down-to-earth—a career reaffirmation.
Usually, that career is seen as a musical mirror held up to the marriage of the trio's two original members, guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan and drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley. But the two meditative relationship albums that followed I Can Hear were so quiet and intimate, they even constricted the group's live shows, the setting where Yo La has always been most expansive.
Although it includes a few noisy changes of pace and is framed by two stunning, 10-minute-plus rave-ups, I Am Not Afraid is generally as low-key and relationship focused as the post–I Can Hear albums. But from the Village Green–era Kinks copy "Black Flowers" to the Velvet Underground & Nico–worthy "The Weakest Part," the songs also reach out as they ruminate, signaling the central couple's renewed commitment to their audience (or at least to their record collection) as a form of group therapy. The most poignant example: "Sometimes I Don't Get You," in which Kaplan lays out a life partner's frustrations with grim honesty, while his lilting falsetto and tender piano-driven melody woo us with their awestruck love. FRANKLIN SOULTS
THE MARS VOLTA
The Mars Volta love you, but they've chosen prog (and jazz fusion, and dub, and "sound manipulation"). It's no fun to admit, but your ménage à trois with Cedric and Omar has seen much better days, and it's only going to get worse the longer you drag it out.
The Mars Volta have always been selfish, and self-indulgent, lovers, favoring masturbatory solos and lyrical nonsense to actual songs. And just when you feel like you're getting close, they pull away again. Amputechture isn't an unexpected infidelity, but merely the latest step in their steady retreat from the world of listenable music.
Okay, this is hard to say, but the Mars Volta don't care about you anymore. I know you spent a lot of money (and hours) on all that vinyl, but this is not the genre-busting postband that seduced you with the Tremulant EP or that awesome first song on De-Loused in the Comatorium. Those were good times, weren't they? But, listen, it's over.
"Vicarious Atonement" opens Amputechture with over seven minutes of noodly guitars, sweeping background noises, and no drums. After that laborious introduction comes "Tetragrammaton," a 16-minute epic whose catchy moment occurs 10:22 minutes in. The entire album is a bath of midtempo "epics," lukewarm guitar arpeggios, digitally delayed Spanglish, ring modulation, pitch-shifted congas, etc.
In the absence of hooks, comprehensible lyrics, or visceral energy, we're left with bloat, free-jazz jamming, and an impenetrable world of self-referential non sequitur. Amputechture is the Mars Volta's first album without an overarching narrative concept, and, although their previous plot lines were hardly discernible without the Cliffs Notes, this one lacks even the vaguest lyrical entry point.
The tragedy is that the Mars Volta are an undeniably skilled ensemble, but they've become Omar's old one-armed scissor (remember those halcyon days of understandable metaphor?), a sharp, but ultimately useless blade, unable to cut it, and, seemingly, unable to cut it out. ERIC GRANDY