“Bad As Me”
There is something astonishing about the near unanimity that characterizes Tom Waits’s acceptance as an important artist and admired fixture in American song, one worthy of comparison to everyone from Gershwin to Dylan. Given that Waits’s most famous characteristic is a voice that resembles sandpaper in a blender, it is a mark of his talent that one generation after the next falls into his thrall. Best of all, following a career that stretches nearly four decades, Waits remains an energetic and agitated musical outlier, pushing boundaries and avoiding compromise.
“Bad as Me” is loaded for bear with a baker’s dozen of terrific compositions. The album’s opener, “Chicago,” is an urgent, aggressive gutbucket blues, and when Waits shouts “All aboard!” the listener has to follow. The ensuing road is rough and ramshackle, but never less than thrilling. On the noir-ish shuffle “Talking at the Same Time,” Waits muses on our current state of war and economic depression, singing in a startling, near-androgynous falsetto. The rough-and-tumble “Get Lost” weds the immediacy of Elvis’s Sun Sessions to brutal garage rock. The titular track echoes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins at his most belligerent and unapologetic.
The album’s closing ballad, “New Year’s Eve,” is a Waits classic. On that track, he audaciously pairs the chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” to a winding multicharacter narrative of his invention. The effect is stunning: Over the course of 41 / 2 minutes, Waits somehow alchemizes eight decades of folk culture into something wholly modern and original. It is a towering song sprung from the mind of a great author, one who began as a faithful follower and graduated into a legend of his own.
— Elizabeth Nelson
Recommended tracks: “Chicago,” “Kiss Me,” “New Year’s Eve”
“Only connect!” goes the famous imperative from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel “Howards End” — a sentiment that also serves as the motivation for Kiran Ahluwalia’s syncretistic new “Aam Zameen,” a lovely and mesmerizing album made with the nomadic Tuareg band Tinariwen. “Common Ground” is roughly how the record’s title translates from Urdu into English, and that’s just what the Indo-Canadian singer and her Malian collaborators achieve with their intuitive combination of ageless Indian rhythms and contemporary Saharan blues.
The opening track, for example, is a cover of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Sufi classic “Mustt Mustt.” Built around an arrangement featuring syncopated handclaps, tabla and keening rock guitar, Ahluwalia’s version owes as much to the late Pakistani singer’s original as it does to the mantric droning of early Fairport Convention or to Skip Spence’s psychedelic touchstone “Oar.”
“Raqba” adds horns and harmonium to the mix to create a beguiling blend of sensuality and sorrow, while “Matadjem — Waris Shah” incorporates wind instruments before gradually building to an ecstatic vocal climax. In “Saffar,” one of several searching laments, Ahluwalia’s hypnotic soprano hovers above the melody like swirls of dust swept up in a desert wind.
Many of the album’s lyrics, which are translated into English and French in the CD booklet, plumb the spiritual depths of rootlessness and abandonment. Others express grief over bloodshed and strife and find Ahluwalia yearning for reconciliation between divided peoples and cultures, urging, as Forster wrote in “Howards End”: “Only connect! . . . Live in fragments no longer.”
— Bill Friskics-Warren
Recommended tracks: “Mustt Mustt,” “Raqba,” “Saffar”
“Audio, Video, Disco”
Justice’s 2007 debut, “†,” was a crossover smash, one of the first albums to predict the current trend of electronic music becoming the new arena rock. Songs such as “D.A.N.C.E.” and “DVNO” — sleazy slabs of synths, the soundtrack of that exact moment when a packed club is at its sweatiest and drunkest — made the French duo of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay stars. They were the link between the stadium-ready house of Daft Punk and the more mindless, blasting beats favored by the current rave generation.
On “Audio Video Disco,” Justice doesn’t attempt to outdo the dilated-pupil debauchery of its debut. Nor does it take the other common path for a high-pressure follow-up and veer off in artier, more experimental directions.
Instead, Justice simply sticks to the same formula, only this time with less fist-pumping bravado. The problem is that bravado is Justice’s entire appeal. If it’s not turned to 11, then it may as well not be plugged in.
“Civilization” and “Parade” feature the key elements in the Justice arsenal — irresistibly chunky synthesizers and thumping beats — and they are presented with crisp clarity. But every time it feels like liftoff is imminent, the duo reins itself in.
“On’n’On” and “Ohio” both march forth with precision and seem like they’d be a perfect complement to a laser light show. But when Justice is at its best, the disco-house assault it creates is sensory overload on its own. And there just aren’t enough of those moments on this album.
— David Malitz
Recommended tracks: “Civilization,” “Parade”