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Aural Pleasure

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Traffic and Weather
Fountains of Wayne
(Virgin)
Inclement ‘Weather’

There are few songwriters today who can craft pop lyrics as literate or beguiling in their simplicity as Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Remember the Oscar-nominated song “That Thing You Do” from the terrible Tom Hanks movie of the same name? Well, that was him. Elvis Costello could have written that, but it was Schlesinger who did. “Stacey’s Mom,” Fountains of Wayne’s breakthrough hit, was Schlesinger’s handiwork, too, as were the Wham!-inspired numbers off the soundtrack to this year’s Music and Lyrics. Schlesinger is the maestro of the perfect pop song, which is why Fountains of Wayne’s fourth album, Traffic and Weather, is so disappointing. It is, if anything, perfectly average.

Sure, the countrified “Fire in the Canyon” is a surprise, “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” is sweet (albeit as catchy as a … a … OK, it’s not catchy at all), and “I-95” and “The Hotel Majestic” suggest Schlesinger at least tried to get it right on a few tracks, but, for the most part, Traffic and Weather is about as forced as legitimate pop can get without reducing itself to boy-band levels. Take “’92 Subaru,” which is literally about “coming for you … in my late ’92, baby-blue Subaru,” or “New Routine” in which, “Two men sit in the corner of a diner/Both of them look quite a bit like Carl Reiner.” Maybe Schlesinger has just given up on pushing himself lyrically, but it seems an awful lot like he’s an album away from just making words up when he needs to rhyme something. Seriously, Carl Reiner?

If that’s not bad enough, he’s written yet another song about pot, “Planet Weed,” since, you know, there were a few hundred already. Apparently, on the Planet of Weed, there are “magazines to read…`and` Doritos to eat.” Wow. Sounds … magical.

— Cole Haddon


Freedom Songs

When producer/musicologist Ry Cooder approached Mavis Staples about making an album of songs from the Civil Rights Movement, Staples — herself a participant in that movement — couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to hear such a record.

She had a valid point. The anthems of the Civil Rights struggle are so embedded in the era they represented, they’re like sonic museum exhibits; stirring in a safe, distant way that makes them easy to admire but hard to enjoy. And besides, should enjoyment even be part of the equation for songs that articulated such deep suffering and called out such entrenched patterns of oppression?

In the hands of Staples and Cooder, the answer to that question is an emphatic “yes.” With a loose, live setup that creates a swampy, muted funk groove, this feels like a Daniel Lanois production: so otherworldy in its spacy, polyrhythmic drive, it sounds ancient and contemporary at the same time. It helps that Staples remains one of the great voices in American music, a singer whose every grunt and sardonic laugh conveys moral authority. She and the band rock “This Little Light of Mine” like lives depend on it (which they just might) and turn “Down in Mississippi” into the first chapter of her autobiography (her spoken tale of unwittingly integrating a southern washeteria is priceless). And “Eyes on the Prize” finds new life behind Cooder’s slithering slide-guitar and Staples’s insistence on viewing the title as a slogan that still applies in 2007.

When she makes that implicit point explicit, with the self-penned “My Own Eyes,” the results are weaker and forced. But if her central argument is that Hurricane Katrina revealed a government with a color-coded sense of justice, the rest of this dynamic album provides ample fuel for the long marches ahead.

— Gilbert Garcia


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