No Exit

1. Start with a joke: If this isn't the most anticipated album of the first half of the year, then I'm Amelia Earhart.

2. Follow with dense critical sentence heedless of its own unwieldy syntax: Twenty years after their hip, smart, and pile-driving fusion of rock, pop, funk, and dance music transformed the face of pop and bridged the gap between commercial and critical camps (not to mention reinventing the blond goddess, post-Monroe, pre-Madonna) Blondie has reunited with No Exit.

3. Write a few nice things about record: It sure is nice to have Blondie back. From the second Deborah Harry opens her throat on "Screaming Skin," there's no doubt that this isn't No Doubt. And the best songs on the record --the ready-for-radio "Maria," the creepy update of the girl-group classic "Out in the Streets," the driving "Nothing Is Real but the Girl," the elegant "The Dream's Lost on Me" -- are admirable stabs at bent pop.

4. Write a few mean things about the record: The disspiriting fact of the matter is that although Blondie is not No Doubt, they're also not Blondie anymore. There's no force behind most of these songs, and though it would be easy to pin the blame on Harry (whose voice has lost more than a step), the entire band sounds sluggish, especially on the weaker songs like the wispy "Divine," the pop-blues "Happy Dog," and the tuneless worldbeat pastiche "Dig Up the Conjo." Without the rush that powered songs like "Rip Her to Shreds," "Atomic," and "Hanging on the Telephone," Blondie is just like any other group of aging has-beens: full of good intentions and devoid of intensity. Sometimes this languid post-rock anomie works; the lovely "Double Take" sounds like a Madonna ballad circa 2010. But sometimes the results are more bland than blond. The title track is especially telling: A gangsta update of "Rapture," with guest vocals by Coolio, it could have been a brilliant exercise in musical counterweights. Instead it's leaden and self- conscious.

5. End with soggy pun: In the end, despite its considerable merits, No Exit leaves behind the nagging feeling that the members of Blondie aren't just washed up, but washed out.

-- Ben Greenman

Ani DiFranco
Up Up Up Up Up Up
(Righteous Babe)

There's a tendency in the rock press to revere Ani DiFranco for all the things that merely surround her music: the self-contained record label, the is-she-or-ain't-she-queer? thing that her fans are obsessed with, the voice-of-a-new-generation hype that crops up whenever someone straps on an acoustic guitar and starts singing about poor black folk and the Big Bad Record Industry and falling in love in a world of hate, blah, blah, blah. She's an icon even to those who've only heard of her.

But when you get right down to it, DiFranco ain't much of a brand-new thing: She's Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen all at once, an amalgam of folk-rock's finer moments, or just Alanis Morissette with all the crap removed. She's musically adventurous enough to avoid being forever labeled a folkie (Up Up Up Up Up Up's covered in tons of accordion-organ-banjo dust, funked up enough so that the newcomer might accidentally mistake her for funky) but deep down, the woman's got A Point To Make. But it's not enough for her to stick to the politics of the heart (her strong suit by far, which makes her a rather ordinary songwriter by most standards). She has to begin Up Up Up Up Up Up by singing on "'Tis of Thee" about "the last poor man on a poor man's vacation" who gets popped by the cops; the boys in blue then drag the poor man's "black ass down to the station" and justify their actions by proclaiming they've made the streets safe for all of God's children.

Hell, all us good liberals need a singer-songwriter we can get behind every now and then, but "'Tis of Thee" is just so damn obvious. She's preaching to those who preach to the converted; guarantee you anyone buying this record already knows Racism Is Bad. Or Unemployment Happens To Good People. In "Trickle Down" a small town is devastated by the layoffs at the steel plant, and the images are too familiar ("This town is not the kind of place/That money people go") and dated ("The president assured us/It was all gonna trickle down") to make much of an impact. DiFranco's influences apparently include 1984 issues of Time.

Not that the record's a failure: Half the time the music's interesting enough to render the lyrics mute ... or moot. And DiFranco's warble is beginning to take on jazz-blues hues. But just when you become engulfed in the boozy, woozy music emanating from the speakers, DiFranco throws out one of them deep-and-meaningful aphorisms: "God's work isn't done by God/It's done by people." Is she writing songs or bumper stickers?

-- Robert Wilonsky


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