On the Record

808s and Heartbreak
Kanye West

While it’s easy to make fun of the Chicago musician/singer/producer/all-around cultural savior, he always has brought the goods when he sits down to make an album. Following a harrowing year (including the passing of his beloved mother), he turns inside on this dark release. The music is stripped down, relying on synthesized beats (the 808 side), with a lot of heartbreak. This time, we find West closely examining his life and lifestyle, wondering if all the material goods he has acquired over the years have any value, and where he is going to find the strength to continue on with his life. He always has been introspective, but the laid-raw emotions on this collection actually make for some tough listening. Believe me, in this day of expertly crafted plastic pop music, a little honest heart and darkness are appreciated.

The BBC Sessions
Belle and Sebastian

Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian evoke a quickly fading moment in indie rock, when bands reached a kind of apex after decades of mining the music of groups like Velvet Underground. Nowadays, this music is served with enough irony to suffocate any innovative thought, but Belle and Sebastian never have been afraid to lay their hearts bare for their music. These 14 tracks come from the band’s most creative years. A lot of this has to do with how these recordings were made. For decades, the BBC has given bands studio time for “radio sessions.” As they typically only have a short time to record three or four tunes, bands need to be quick and simple—both of which play effectively to Belle and Sebastian’s simple, engaging songs. Basically, if you haven’t experienced the band’s charms, this is a fine place to start.

Trampled by Turtles

Here, the title is more than just a shout-out to the band’s original hometown. It’s also about music that evokes the warmth and cold of Northern Minnesota, both in temperature and in emotions. Playing bluegrass with modern touches, Trampled by Turtles features a timeless sound, all loaded with a heaping helping of honest and evocative songwriting. On the album’s centerpiece, “Methodism in Middle America,” singer David Simonett warns, “Be careful what you say/Because I remember everything”—all to a haunting, droning musical wail. Even when the band cuts loose, there is still a sense of the frost that comes with living and creating in Minnesota. Duluth finds Trampled by Turtles continuing the strong streak of recent albums, which, let’s hope, may mark a move to a bigger stage for them.

I Am…Sasha Fierce

You would think an album with this title would be, you know, fierce. Though Beyoncé makes the right gestures, it all rings pretty hollow. On I Am…Sasha Fierce, the songs easily could be exchanged for any other in her career. And the music, regardless of the motivation behind it, is kind of dull. Though graced with a gorgeous voice, Beyoncé hasn’t shown much of a knack for finding music that really lets her dig deep into the emotions, so it typically comes off as false. It doesn’t help that tracks like album opener “If I Were a Boy” feature lyrics that would make a high school poet blush. Though it has a few moments of OK robo-funk, the ballads dominate too much of the action here—and they quickly meld into a giant wail of not-too-interesting boo-hoo tunes.

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