BUY IT, BURN IT, SKIP IT: Mudhoney, Scarlett Johansson, Islands

Mudhoney then

By Aaron Richter

As we all know by now, new releases hit record-store shelves and digital-download services each Tuesday. So every week self-titled presents a new release you’d be stupid not to own (Buy It), one worth checking out if you’re the curious type (Burn It) and something you might have heard about but probably should avoid (Skip It). Simple, ain’t it?

Mudhoney now

[Photo by Shawn Brackbill]

Buy It
Mudhoney, Superfuzz Bigmuff: Deluxe Edition (Sub Pop)

Even with all the unnecessarily essential extras on this humungo treatment of Mudhoney‘s debut EP, the best thing across these two discs is the opening riff from “Touch Me I’m Sick,” a non-EP track. Dirty. Heavy. Lazy. Simple. Sloppy. Everything we wanted our Seattle rock to be before it turned into the music we love it as today. For the grunge movement’s underachieving stalwarts, “Touch Me I’m Sick” was a rallying crying that is possibly all that casual fans remember of the group, even though Superfuzz Bigmuff–featured as tracks four through nine of this collection–is Mudhoney’s crowning achievement. Those of you who think a two-disc expansion of a six-song EP is a bit excessive are basically right. Disc two is filled with two live shows, the first of which is a spliced-together tape of a show in Berlin. Though songs are obviously repeated in different contexts–“Touch Me I’m Sick,” “Need,” “In ‘n’ Out of Grace” and “No One Has” each appear three times–the first disc plays like a fantastically obsessive early-period greatest hits, buffering the EP with singles, comp cuts and 8-track demos. The record’s photo-heavy liner notes contain an essay by Jay Hinman, who hosted the live KCSB broadcast on this record’s second disc, lifting Mudhoney above the acts that made grunge popular, and another diatribe by Charles Peterson, the photographer who captured Superfuzz Bigmuff‘s iconic cover. Peterson’s recollection of the show at which he snapped some of the group’s most famous shots as well as the bands onstage antics will make you wish more musicians rocked ass as much as these skuzzy bastards.

MP3: “In ‘n’ Out of Grace (Live in Berlin)”

Burn It
Scarlett Johansson, Anywhere I Lay My Head (Atco)

Applause, please. Scarlett Johansson‘s album of Tom Waits covers is actually pretty great. We knew that enlisting TV on the Radio‘s David Andrew Sitek would be Johansson’s saving grace, but damn, at times it’s as if he’s given her a handful of lush, elegant TVOTR b-sides to roll around in. Delicate yet exhilarating, the production draws from an expansive palette that’ll have you listening closer and closer each time through, proving that Johansson’s best vocal asset might be her limited skill. Listen to how she wobbles to nail the cadence and light tone of “I Wish I Was in New Orleans.” Not to be patronizing, but her struggles are endearing, particularly when paired with the song’s eerie dreamland lullaby. To her credit, Johansson shows no fear or precaution about stretching her range as she slips from a reverb-heavy coo on “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” to a husky grumble on the album’s only original track, “Song for Jo,” to a deep androgynous moan on the album’s best cut, “Town With No Cheer.” As her voice bends, she seems more comfortable fading into the mix. Johansson knows she’s no storyteller, so these songs become more about playing with the melodies than conveying Waits’s deranged tales. In the right frame of mind, you could probably listen to this album straight through and not once even notice the vocals.

Skip It
Islands, Arm’s Way (Anti-)

Some might call it creative, quirky, ambitious, arty or memorable. But self-titled just calls it bad. Islands‘ follow-up to the forgettable Return to the Sea looks to embolden the group’s musical scope with string arrangements. But this plea for legitimacy only exposes bandleader Nicholas Thorburn’s limitations as a songwriter. Strings clash with the song structures as if they were added as an overreaching afterthought to these same-as-before choruses and treaded-over melodies. Don’t believe the blog hype on this one. Islands are for suckers.