Stories like “The Three Wishes” and “Tiny and the Elder Queens” have a classical but gentle fairy-tale feel, and both the line drawings sprinkled throughout the text and the Victorian font heighten the impression of reading through a dusty old storybook plucked from Grandmother’s shelf. The music has that sparkling let’s-play-make-believe feel to it and everything—a charming package all the way around. “The Tales of Merry Woodenspoon are for listeners ages 8 to 80,” the back cover advises; it might also make the perfect (locally created!) holiday gift for the dreamer on your list who loves to spend a snowy afternoon inside, sipping tea and reading quietly.Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Hearts of Oak Lookout Goodness! Is this what the kids are calling punk nowadays? What a cyclical world we live in. Hearts of Oak has the hip/antihip just-out-of-the-garage production of pre-’90s punk, but Ted Leo’s chord changes owe a lot to the super-accessible niceties of Squeeze.
But don’t dismay, Squeeze haters—there’s more to Leo than just head-bopping. A madly devoted Anglophile (his voice often drifts into an affected cockney accent), it’s as if Leo grew up in ’70s London witnessing the birth of punk and new wave, and relishing the Jamaican reggae and ska-infused empire. Just because he really grew up on the East Coast in the ’80s doesn’t mean Leo can’t accompany his Brit homage and jerky guitar playing with political rants akin to Billy Bragg. On “The High Party,” he sings with Bragg bravado: “If there’s a war/Another shitty war to fight for Babylon/It’s the perfect storm in a tea cup/But you must drink it down.” Leo also gets personal with songs about heartbreak, loneliness and being a Yankee in Ibiza.
Thankfully, getting personal doesn’t mean getting wimpy. Most of what’s on Hearts of Oak is powerful, and when it’s not, at least it’s dirty and distorted. (Jed Gottlieb)Al Green I Can’t Stop Blue Note Look at the brains on Blue Note. Last year the label smashed with Norah Jones, this year the execs grabbed hold of Van Morrison and Al Green. What they got out of Al Green is just about a Christmas miracle. I Can’t Stop reunites Green with Willie Mitchell—the producer, writer and arranger who helped create Green’s early ’70s sound. The result is a departure from Green’s ’80s gospel simmer and a return to classic soul form.
Admittedly, it’s a return to form that can sometimes make one recall Robert Cray at his tofu-bland smooth-blues height—a scary and boring thing. But when Green digs deep into his history he unearths tunes like “Play to Win,” “I’ve Been Waitin’ on You” and “I’d Still Choose You,” which give the listener an uncontrollable urge to call up ex-lovers in an attempt to reconcile and, umm, get it on. Green ends with the album’s biggest swagger, “Too Many”—only a soul legend/preacher with his own church could mix burlesque horns with innocent, sweet love. (Jed Gottlieb)Missy Elliot This Is Not A Test Elektra Read Newsweek? Seems Missy Elliot is poised (groomed?) to become the next Britney, or at least the next Queen Latifah. She’s not just a rapper anymore, she’s the next big thing. Why does she sound so yesterday?
Here are “wake up” calls for black responsibility that sound easy more than a decade after Public Enemy made them, and pop references to Michael Jackson (just a squeal), What’s Happening and Diff’rent Strokes. There’s a self-sufficient ode to women and the toys who love them (hello uncredited Susie Bright). Dr. Dre is propped; R. Kelly is quoted. Elliot sounds like an avuncular Stevie Wonder telling kids “it’s all right” if they don’t have “a cellular phone,” and defends large-assed southern women as “big boneded.” She lusts after the “good wood,” references Big Daddy Kane twice for old school cred, and wants to know “why you don’t fuck [her] like before.”
Whatever. It’s about beats, right? Miss Demeanor is best when they’re weirdest—squirrelly, plinking submarine beats—and when her flow does what arms do when they go akimbo.
There’s too little of that here, among the 5th-generation P-Funk homages and the ballads and the club-aimed boomers. But when she hits it, three or four times, she hits it good, and for a couple of minutes, in your kitchen or your car, you can almost imagine how much fun it must be to cruise in Missy’s Escalade for a day. (Brad Tyer)