Kicking Television: Live in Chicago
Nonesuch Records

It’s hard not to get dizzy in such close proximity to the gaping abyss that Jay Bennett left behind when he exited Wilco. While there’s no questioning the outstanding musicianship of latest members Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen, they tend to produce a more rehearsed and calculated sound than the worrisome and ingenious frills multi-instrumentalist Bennett added to the mix.

The difference between Wilco with Bennett and without is analogous to the difference between Michael Jackson’s version of Thriller and a college marching band’s recreation of the seminal ’80s effort—the notes are the same, but the feeling is just different.

That said, it’s a waste of time to indulge too much nostalgia for Bennett’s tenure. The current lineup still includes John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy, and the solid foundation of these three veterans combined with the newer additions gives Kicking Television a full sound and a sparkly edge. The songs are drawn mostly from the band’s more recent material, and if the frequency of audience sing-alongs is any indication, the songs remain the same for Wilco fans, no matter who is (or isn’t) playing in the band. (Caroline Keys)

The Darkness
One Way Ticket to Hell…And Back

Nobody who heard the 2003 debut CD from The Darkness could escape the obvious question: Are these guys for real?

Tapping into the inherent absurdity of 1980s-era hair metal, The Darkness stormed the British Isles—and to a lesser extent America—with a thoroughly entertaining mix of spot-on hard rock homage spiked with hilariously juvenile lyrics and the most outré falsetto singing since Tiny Tim got married on “The Tonight Show.” With the release of their sophomore effort, One Way Ticket to Hell…And Back (and folks, we mean “sophomore” in every sense of the word), the Darkness has answered the superordinate question with a gleaming, full-throated joyride through the pomp-rock territory mapped out by Queen.

Fearlessly walking the high wire between camp and comedy, One Way Ticket flaunts impressive studio polish while setting bombastic new standards for multi-tracked vocal silliness. The music and the jokes both show increasing sophistication. Where the first CD thundered with the Neanderthal rock of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” One Way Ticket presents the domestic drama of “Dinner Lady Arms,” in which the singer begs his overweight girlfriend to take him back. Snigger, snigger.

Even if lightning never strikes twice for these clever blokes, One Way Ticket proves The Darkness is indeed for real, and with any luck, built to last. (Matt Gibson)

Neil Diamond
12 Songs

Just as 1994’s American Recordings album proved Johnny Cash hadn’t lost his touch with dark, salvational renditions, so too does 12 Songs make clear that Neil Diamond hasn’t lost his emotional wherewithal for corny, sincere songs of love and spiritual renewal. Rick Rubin produced Cash’s last albums, one of which includes a cover of Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” and appropriately enough Rubin is the vision behind Diamond’s new release.

To listen to 12 Songs is to hear Neil Diamond again for the first time. “Oh, Mary” draws you in with a rising orchestra topped with Diamond’s enunciated roughness and one-liners thrown out like delicate curve-balls. “Delirious Love” captures the contagious bounce of the classic “Forever in Blue Jeans” and is wickedly steamier. By far the most compelling treasure is the postmortem reflection “Hell Yeah” in which he sings: “This crazy life around me, it confuses and confounds me/but it’s all the life I’ve got until I die/hell yeah it is.”

12 Songs is rock-solid, though by the time you get to the intense love song “Face Me,” Diamond’s melodrama is almost too much to bear. Almost. But this far into the relationship—er, album—he’s hard to resist. (Erika Fredrickson)

I Am the God of Hellfire
Ad Noiseam Records

For fist-in-the-air, sweaty, pulverizing and absolutely uncompromising electronic music, look no further than Bong-Ra. Known to his friends as Jason Kohnen, the Dutch artist has been specializing in Raggacore (dancehall vocals over insanely fast and distorted breakbeats) since 1998, and with I Am the God of Hellfire he’s adding another slab of noise to his already impressive catalog.

I Am the God of Hellfire opens with the pounding but slightly downtempo track “Skool ov Violence,” but quickly ups the aggression with “Redrum” and “Go Tiger!”—the latter featuring vocals from Atari Teenage Riot veteran Hanin Elias. The grinding, apocalyptic basslines and pitch-shifted samples on “White Horse Come Soon” flow into the excellent eight-minute track “Bert is Evil,” wherein minor-key synths, throbbing bass and reverberated dancehall-style ragga vocals complement rapidly chopped breaks.

With nods to hip-hop, rave, hardcore and even the occasional sludgy guitar riff, Bong-Ra (who also runs two labels, Clash Records and Kriss Records, on the side) brings the noise with world-class skill. This is the stuff that freaked out, frenzied dancefloors are made of. (Adam Fangsrud)

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