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Mary, Star of the Sea
Reprise Records

Ah, Zwan. The band that had everyone curious. "Billy Corgan? Isn't he, like ... drinking absinthe with Trent Reznor or something?" That's fair. Having been last spotted copping the Morpheus-in-whiteface look with some chick from Hole, it was rather universally assumed that Corgan's tight-pants vocals would forever be relegated to some horrible post-relevant goth-rock purgatory. A forgiving God was found in a couple of very unlikely places, however. Namely, David Pajo of Slint, as well as Matt Sweeney of Chavez. Oh, and it looks like Billy dragged a couple of rats in a cage with him -- former Pumpkins drum-junkie Jimmy Chamberlain, and, Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle. Billy's not quite "there" yet, I guess.

So, how'd the music turn out? Eh. Unlike its odd pedigree would suggest, the CD turned out an unassuming slab of power-pop, extremely listenable, but not really anything special. When judging this kind of music, it's all about the hooks, and they're only kinda there. "Heartsong" is a highlight, a really enjoyable ballad with a good melody. The album closes nicely with the gentle "Come With Me." That's about it, though. Nice. The whole Slint and Chavez thing would suggest greater riches, but at least Corgan's found his way out of the Matrix.

-- Brian Arnot


God's Son
Columbia Records

Ah, Nas. The MC that has everyone furious. This is the second or third time that Mr. Osiris has released an album much-hyped as a "return to form," but neither he nor pretty much anyone else is going to come even close to his debut for a while. Thankfully, one thing's for sure: Nas doesn't suck anymore. Not long after he dropped the amazing Illmatic, you might remember Nas as the unintentional purveyor of hilariously titled-and-covered albums such as Nastradamus. Yeah, that bad. Still, this new album has some incredible songs.

Nas has always known he's a master of articulation; he's just finally showing it. Unlike some of his recent spots (the sub-moronic "U Wanna Be Me" from the 8 Mile soundtrack), Nas is rediscovering his mastery. Observe "Last Real Nigga Alive", in which Nas speaks frankly about his baby's mother's affair with Jay-Z, his old beef with Biggie and Raekwon, and his abiding love for his baby, his babymama, Biggie, and Rae, and his ... well, abiding hatred of Jay-Z.

So, yeah, he's still Nas. It seems everyone's ripped him off at one time or another (except his abysmal crew, Bravehearts, who have already taken D12's place in all my jokes about backing crews), and when you have skills like Nas', you're bound to be ripped off. Go get this album, now-like.

--Brian Arnot

Devendra Banhart

Oh Me Oh My
Young God Records

On the way to see Devendra Banhart perform at the 15th St. Tavern in Denver last week, my friends asked me what we were in for. "Imagine someone channeling Nick Drake while Nick Drake is channeling Tiny Tim," I said.

"Ha, ha, ha." They all laughed. Yeah, right.

When the show was over, my friends looked around at one another, nodded, and looked at me: "It really was just like he was channeling Nick Drake while Nick Drake was channeling Tiny Tim," they said incredulously.

Being one to tell people I told you so, I told them so.

Now let's go back to the word 'channeling' and what it is that makes Devendra Banhart not a joke.

With a netherworldly falsetto howl and an uncanny ability to make his guitar sound like Leadbelly on a lute, Banhart is, simply, hypnotic. 'Anachronistic' just doesn't quite get it. It's like he's ... channeling. And then there's this strange feeling that you're watching his music. Maybe that's just me.

Lyrically, Banhart has more in common with post-folk cryptic crooners like Will Oldham and Silver Jews lead man David Berman than he does with the Beck-damaged likes of the anti-folk Moldy Peaches. Maybe it's because he cut his lyric-writing teeth in the San Francisco avant-poetry scene. The full title of his album gives you a sense of the range his imagination grazes: Oh Me Oh My The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit.

And then there's the endless stream of breezily effortless lines like: "My friend has my favorite teeth/ they bend backwards when she breathes" from the almost simple song "Michigan State." Or how about: "I know nature is beside me when he's inside you/ I feel it too/ Here's a picture of my mother/ There's no one like she/ and finally/ I do, I do goddamn/ see."

The spookiness, the lyrical athleticism, the prettiness ... it all adds up to something you not only want to listen to over and over, but also that you probably can't resist, not unlike the tractor beam on the Death Star. But instead of facing Vader and the Storm Troopers, you find yourself having a glass of wine at a hootenanny with Yoda and Ben Kenobi.

-- Noel Black

Bonnie "Prince" Billie

Master and Everyone
Drag City Records

Not since the heavyweight glory of I See A Darkness has Bonnie 'Prince' Billie (aka Will Oldham, aka Palace, Palace Brothers, etc.) approached the all out-thud of such a full album. Though it's generous of the prolific Oldham to share all of his musical forays with the public, he'd do just as well to keep his fans pining the mean times between his more fully-fleshed efforts.

Most stunning on this album of ambient-folk adult lullabies is the perfect "joy and jubilee" -- fingerpicked shouts out to John Fahey and Willie Nelson whose whispered harmonies give it that drop-dead gorgeous gulp that sends you straight to the repeat button for a nappy afternoon loop.

The muse of quietest beauty made this album. Will Oldham is to be envied for having touched her so often.

-- Noel Black

Godspeed You Black Emperor

Yanqui U.X.O.
Constellation Records

For over five years now, Montreal's Godspeed You Black Emperor have been making the soundtrack to the demise of capitalism. Largely instrumental, their electrified orchestral spook aims, unequivocaly, to haunt. On Yanqui, however, their collectivist, anarchist approach to the merry making of musical melancholy seems to have hit the wall of aesthetic idealism, despite the almost always Midas meddling of Steve Albini in the recording booth.

"Though Godspeed is guilty of profiting from hateful chainstore sales, we encourage you to avoid giving money to predatory retailers and superstores," their liner-notes squirm. (For the record: I bought it at an indie shop). But perhaps a name change is in order: God Forbid You Should Make a Living.

--Noel Black

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