Cake, Pressure Chief

Danceability is not the typical descriptor I would give a Cake album, but this one gets your boogie bouncing. It's not just the horns and John McCrea's vocals, though those persist and flourish; it's also the newly phattened backgrounds with Xan McCurdy's heavier bass and Moogy synthesizers, all of which are so expertly paired that none of it comes across as gimmicky. The lyrics have sharpened up, too: "Wheels" captures the exile inherent in a relationship on the rocks (favourite line: "muscular cyborg German dudes"), "No Phone" could apply to any introvert anywhere desperately trying to escape, and while it's a Bread cover "The Guitar Man" paints the perfect picture of a flawed man who just wants to jam. It's still more evolution than revolution; "Take It All Away" is clearly inspired by their earlier cover of "I Will Survive," light songs like "She'll Hang The Baskets" and "End of the Movie" are really stylistic throwbacks and while "Carbon Monoxide" is sassy it's just a little too on the nose. But it's the groove and sheer exuberance of songs like "Dime," "Palm Of Your Hand" and particularly the album's finest moment "Waiting" that simply make you swing and sing, and not a track on this disc feels like a pop sellout in the end. (Content: F-bombs on "Carbon Monoxide.")

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Alice Cooper, Billion Dollar Babies

Who puts snakeskin on an LP gatefold? The same kind of man who would sing about necrophilia, that's who. But don't let that scare you off, necessarily: there's also a fabulous reworking of an earlier track as "Elected" (whose snark and brass section deserve airplay every November), tables turned with male sexual harassment in "Raped And Freezin'" and no doubt a vignette of Cooper's daily life in "No More Mr. Nice Guy," which really must be simultaneously experienced in the so-tacky-it's-great Pat Boone cover. But, yes, the creepy stuff. If you have the stomach for this sort of satire, what's notable is how, uh, tactfully it's approached: there's just enough menace in "Billion Dollar Babies" (and Donovan on guest vocals) to get the point across, just enough implication in "I Love The Dead" to hint not all is platonic. Only "Sick Things" gets a little too literal and "Generation Landslide"'s topical content gets boring and preachy. Nevertheless, do remember this album's not for everyone; there's even a song about the horrors of the dental chair, complete with groans and drill ("Unfinished Sweet"). Sir, at long last, is it safe? (Content: adult themes.)

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Rush, 2112

Given that half this album is consumed by an overwrought, hackneyed high-concept space fantasy of a hapless figure struggling (having rediscovered the guitar, no less) against priestly institutionalized oppressors, what's left? Other than "A Passage To Bangkok," an amusing if hazily transparent marijuana-fueled odyssey, and the licks if not the lyrics of libertarian fetish "Something For Nothing," not a lot. The actual music is well produced and I am the last person on earth who will begrudge a prog band an artistic excess or two in their suites. But even Geddy Lee's generally on-pitch banshee impersonation goes flat at times, particularly in "Tears," and then there's the lyrics and "2112"'s story. Didn't space rock die in 1969? (Content: sly drug references in "A Passage To Bangkok.")

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Tony! Toni! Toné!, Sons of Soul

What a revelation: an R&B act with actual instruments and actual musicship where the samples serve the tracks instead of just being them. And they built on what they learned in the tropics of Trinidad to turn out a unique album that's clearly of its genre but still stands alone in its quality. Lightfooted lead-off "If I Had No Loot" deserved all the airplay it got, and the throwback soul moments of "What Goes Around Comes Around," "Tell Me Mama" and "Leavin'" brilliantly fuse styles both old and new, yet there's no shortage of new jack swing ("Dance Hall," "Fun") and slow jams ("I Couldn't Keep It To Myself" and the knowingly corny "Slow Wine," with honey-on-biscuits vocal advising "let me explain") to round out the cycle. Some aspects aren't so positive: "My Ex-Girlfriend" is misogynistic schadenfreude with a beat, "(Lay Your Head On My) Pillow" is just a little too transparent, the drudgerous "Tonyies! In The Wrong Key" is probably on the wrong record too, and the otherwise dazzlingly smooth "Anniversary" and its 9-minute running time exemplify the album's other collective flaw, that it drags on just a little longer than it ought to. But most of their contemporaries were content to rely on overproduction and undercreation, and many still do, so let this be the analogue antidote. They're truly the offspring of the magic of soul, and I suspect soul overall is pretty darn proud of them. (Content: adult themes.)

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Cock Sparrer, Shock Troops

Oi! The most your typical Septic has ever heard off this album is admittedly its best, the knowing "I Got Your Number," run sped up in Jackass 3D while the team commits hijinx and at least one bodily injury in the exhaust from a private jet. But the punk is fun and the quality isn't suss, and if they lack some of the political awareness of their contemporaries that also means they lack some of their obnoxiousness (and outlasted them too, as "Where Are They Now" did prove). That doesn't mean they won't take prisoners in the process ("Take 'Em All") and it doesn't mean they fail to be topical ("Working," "Secret Army"), but if they're smart enough to know revolution is just replacing one type of oppression with another ("Watch Your Back") then they're smart enough to be more than attitude. As proof, at the end and out of left field comes the atmospheric, almost meditative naval story of "Out On An Island" that easily matches the best output of more outwardly cerebral bands. Even if that didn't sell many records to any audience, this one's still a keeper. The later reissues correct its chief flaw of brevity with even more great tracks; most, including the easily available Captain Oi! CD release, include "Argy Bargy" and the wacky B-side version of "Colonel Bogey" (with a spoon solo!), but the 18-track Taang! release throws in five more as well. All the contemporary reissues also include their only other notable single "England Belongs To Me," which became infamous as an anthem for skinheads who mistook its pride of country for white supremacy. These guys just can't catch a break. (Content: S-bombs on "Take 'Em All" and "Droogs Don't Run.")

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Judy Collins, Wildflowers

Willowy, waiflike and insubstantial, a vocal portrait of its singer, it's still got its charms even if the hoity-toity folksiness comes off as more condescending now and then than quaint. The Joni Mitchell tracks ("Michael from Mountains" and of course "Both Sides Now") are the best, with baroque flair and strings like a chamber trio in the summer sun and Collins' voice suggesting the very flowers you know are woven through her hair. Her own tracks are more morose and melancholic, however (though "Since You Asked" is nicely arranged, at least the verses), and the three Leonard Cohen selections ("Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" in particular) just go breezily nowhere. The oddest conceit is the actual baroque Middle Ages fifth track, which apparently topped the Billboard charts in the 14th century. I suspect she aspired to high art; I suppose there are worse things than ending up high-falutin' instead. The Elektra reissue pairs it with the immediately following "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" which is itself hardly perfect, but maintains all the best musical attributes of this album while managing to be better produced and better written besides. (Content: no concerns.)

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