The Roots, "undun" (Def Jam)
If you require a reminder that the Roots are so much more than a backing band, you couldn't ask for a colder cup of water in your face than their latest album. Last seen on record backing John Legend through a tepid set of soul covers, the nearly 20-year-old hip-hop and R&B band more recently made headlines in their day job as Jimmy Fallon's chat-show band; the Roots were reprimanded last week by NBC for playing 16 seconds of Fishbone's "Lyin' Ass Bitch" as GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann appeared as a guest. That lil' prank had value, helping fans recall this band's social conscious, which they showcase here through a gritty cautionary tale of a thug who comes "undun."
Moving "Memento"-like in reverse chronological order, "undun" tells the story of an everyhustler named Redford Stephens. Things end badly for Redford -- like Prince Paul's "A Prince Among Thieves," this album opens with the death of its protagonist, musically coming to life in the opening track behind the beep of a flatlined heart monitor. During the mere half hour that follows, the Roots, with super-serious philosopher-rapper Black Thought in the lead, backtrack through the steps that placed Redford into a bullet's path, ending the album at the story's wordless beginning -- a five-minute, four-part instrumental free-jazz suite for strings and piano constructed around the musical theme of Sufjan Stevens' lulling "Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou)" from his 2003 "Michigan" album.
Indeed, this is no ordinary hip-hop album. The music is supple, fluid, organic, recalling the storytelling era of soul but also the occasional Radiohead dream state. From surreal beginning to surprising end, it's a warm, quiet hip-hop album, telling its story sotto voce in the metronomic lullaby "Sleep" and gentle, modulating gospel shuffle that ends "Make My." Redford welcomes death and makes his transition with only melancholy acknowledgment ("There I go from a man to a memory"), trapped by the circumstances that doomed him ("Turn around and walk away / I wish a nigga could"). Black Thought's firm rhymes bounce effortlessly along the easy beats as he relates Redford's life without making it so specific that "undun" can't be enjoyed outside its lyrical concept. Satisfying, beautiful and ultimately uplifting.
A great new Woody Guthrie tribute was released this fall: "Note of Hope" (429) , featuring more unearthed lyrics by the famed American folk singer put to music by artists as diverse as Jackson Browne and Madeleine Peyroux. The material stems from Guthrie writings between 1942 and 1954, when he was living in New York City, but Chicago artists are well represented. On the heels of his own set of modern-day protest songs, Tom Morello contributes a summer of love vibe to "Ease My Revolutionary Mind," while recent Grammy nominee Kurt Elling gets bluesy on "Peace Pin Boogie." The late Studs Terkel resurfaces, reading some of Guthrie's prose, "I Heard a Man Talking," buttressed by bassist Rob Wasserman. In fact, Wasserman shapes several tracks here, including Lou Reed's appropriately dismal take on "The Debt I Owe" and the title track, a surprising instrumental collaboration with Van Dyke Parks.
Fans of the Kills: Jack White's Third Man Records label this fall reissued a hard-to-find but great-to-hear underground classic, the Flat Duo Jets' "Go Go Harlem Baby" . As dirty and delicious as a rockabilly guitar-and-drums duo can get, the Flat Duo Jets tear through some truly wicked originals and annihilate classics like "Harlem Nocturne" and, yes, "Froggie Went A-Courtin'." Saw-fingered guitarist Dex Romweber is still at, releasing his own "Is That You in the Blue?" on Bloodshot this summer and touring this fall with the Meat Puppets.
One of my favorite DJs, Adam Dorn, aka Mocean Worker, returned to form this fall with a new set of punchy, spirited dance music. "Candygram for Mowo!" (MRI) loosens up what was getting to be a constraining, clubby groove for Dorn. The son of great jazz and pop producer Joel Dorn, this Mowo moves -- it's just as danceable, but the sounds and samples are amended by revered jazzbos such as Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It's as if he's finally found the right balance between the jazz influence of his first two fantastic albums and the later reliance on the thump-thump. Lively, loose and funny -- Mowo like candy!
Holidays, here we come
It's a Smiths Christmas: Tributes to the melancholy '80s greats seem to come along as often as, well, Morrissey solo tours, but next week the American Laundromat label releases a new one, "Please Please Please: A Tribute to the Smiths" rounding up like-minded mopes such as the Wedding Present, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, even Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly for new moaning through the old classics. The vast majority are awed, faithful reproductions that never claw their way above the originals, though Donelly adds some kick to "Shoplifters of the World Unite" and the appropriately overcast band Kitten infuses "Panic" with tension, a thundering beat and the addition of Moz's adopted Los Angeles to the list of nervous burgs.
If you're newly smitten by the Smiths, or if you're the kind of fan who has to have everything, Warner Bros. has released "Complete" , a box set containing all eight full-length albums ("The Smiths," "Hatful of Hollow," "Meat Is Murder," "Louder Than Bombs," "The World Won't Listen," "The Queen Is Dead," "Strangeways, Here We Come" and the only official live album, "Rank") in refreshing remasters reportedly supervised by guitarist Johnny Marr. The set comes in digital, CD and a grand vinyl version, and it is, of course, incomplete, as there are still a couple of albums' worth of extra material and B-sides that could make up the whole picture, but this is certainly a solid "reissue, repackage, repackage" that sounds great on many levels.