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Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Original Soundtrack

[The Null Corp.]

4 stars (out of 4)

I've never numbered among the Trent Reznor devout, habitually greeting even his finest works -- "The Downward Spiral" the most obviously brilliant of the bunch -- with a grudging respect tempered by an instinctive distaste for the (subjectively perceived) nihilism at the music's heart. Reznor always struck me as narcissistic in his insistence that life is a series of hopeless endeavors doomed to failure from the outset, and his techno-goth-noir seemed more often than not rather forced and melodramatic, despite a consistently adventurous sense of the sonic.

Which makes me the perfect target market for the mature version of Reznor -- the seemingly clean and sober audiophile and recording studio mastermind who has fully grown into what were in earlier days mere pretensions to the art of David Bowie and Brian Eno.

Last year's "The Social Network" soundtrack, Reznor's first full collaboration with Atticus Ross, deserved the awards it won (including Grammys and an Oscar), so stirring was its blend of electronica, ambient music and noir-melodic fragments, minus the violent self-pity that seemed to lurk around earlier works like an uninvited, particularly determined odor. Reteaming with Ross for the score of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Reznor has crafted his most pleasing collection of sonic adventures to date. It's like his own personal version of side two of Bowie's evergreen "Low" album, and it comes awfully close to brilliant at every stage of its nearly three-hour duration.

The benchmarks here are the aforementioned Bowie and Eno works, but also, notably, recent work from David Sylvian, in the abstract, ambient, tone-poem realm. Sylvian's "Sleepwalkers" remains just a touch away for Reznor and Ross, but they have entered that heady realm here, to their eternal credit.

As befitting the film version of the late Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson's masterwork, the score is a dark one -- aside from the stirring scene-setter that is a techno-metal take on Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song," replete with Karen O. vocal histrionics, the Reznor/Ross atmosphere is a damp, foggy, shadow-laden, hypnagogic realm. Synths, electronic sounds and percussion, the trademark "toy piano" patch and an unerring sense of the tension-mounting, iceberg-creeping tempo, conspire to let the score unfold with the gloriously disturbing, image-rich logic of the fevered nightmare.

Such a commission plays to all of Reznor's strengths and allows him to cast off some of the grim, tight-lipped self-involvement of his musical apprenticeship. In Ross, Reznor has found a perfect musical mate -- he's Eno to Reznor's Bowie, and one hopes that there is much more water in their peculiar little well.

-- Jeff Miers




The Dreamer, The Believer

[Think Common]

3 1/2 stars

Somehow, Common became ensnared in one of the year's most ridiculous feeding frenzies, as his invitation to the White House for his poetry became controversial for a few lines he wrote in political protest.

Yes, Common -- the Grammy-winning, deeply religious rapper and author, the advocate for underprivileged children -- saw his well-cultivated reputation smeared for days. His response? He created what may be his best album yet, "The Dreamer, the Believer."

The album opens with a stunning new poem from Maya Angelou and closes with a spoken word performance from his father, Lonnie "Pops" Lynn, on "Pops Belief." But in between, Common has a new spark -- the fire of his earlier work combined with the experience he has gained over the years -- fanned by the compelling creations of producer No I.D.

Common takes on all comers in "Sweet," a hard-hitting, classic twist on hip-hop battle rhyming, where he declares, "I am to hip-hop what Obama is to politics." His collaboration with Nas on "Ghetto Dreams" is fueled by an ideal of being "half-hood, half-class." There are also aspirations to wider acceptance here, though, with Common building "Celebrate" around the Kenny Loggins holiday classic "Celebrate Me Home," and his new single "Blue Sky" around ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky." Both work.

With "The Dreamer, the Believer," Common shows that his faith in hip-hop as an agent of change has only deepened.

-- Glenn Gamboa, Newsday



The Kentucky Headhunters

Dixie Lullabies

[Red Dirt]

3 stars

It's been 22 years since the Kentucky HeadHunters raised a little ruckus with its highly entertaining debut, "Pickin' On Nashville," and since then the band hasn't changed all that much. The lineup might have shifted for a while, but the current group consists of four of the five original members.

In other words, the "Lullabies" of the title is a bit of a joke. The HeadHunters are still a bunch of long-haired Southern rockers who like it raw and loud.

"She's in love with the swagger of my low-hung Les Paul Standard," goes one number, summing up the essential vibe of the entire album. If the formula remains largely the same, the group is still getting plenty of mileage out of it -- in fact, this is one of the quartet's stronger, more sharp-witted sets. Riff-heavy rockers and boogie numbers still dominate, but even when they slow it down a bit and turn earnest, they never get mushy -- witness the lovelorn plea to a stripper, "Little Angel."

And with numbers such as "Tumblin' Roses," they show they possess more than a little bit of soul.

-- Nick Cristiano, the Philadelphia Inquirer




Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage

[R.E.M./Athens L.L.C.]

4 stars

R.E.M. calling it quits marked a musical low point for 2011, the year-in-pop, but lovers of this iconic American alternative rock band should take much heart in the fact that the band possessed the fortitude, grace and dignity to leave on a high note, with its fan base still wanting more.

"Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage" performs several tasks. First, it offers a tender goodbye from the band, one that comes with three unreleased tunes that feel like fond farewells. Second, it provides a compelling career overview from a group whose later works were often overlooked by fans who fell so hard for the band's seminal '80s efforts. Finally, "Part Lies..." forms the perfect introductory package for the listener who may not even have been born when R.E.M. became the first major alt-rock act to sign with a major corporate record label, at the tail-end of the '80s.

The new songs, most particularly the epic ballad "We All Go Back To Where We Belong," are excellent, and prove that lack of musical inspiration and a dearth of rich conceptions were not the impetus for the band's decision to kick it in the head and move on to other artistic pastures. And the track listing -- particularly in the "Deluxe Edition," which boasts 52 tracks -- covers every era in the R.E.M. odyssey, from 1982's "Gardening At Night," to later masterworks like "Nightswinning," "Imitation Of Life," "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" and "Oh My Heart."

Parting is sweet sorrow, but beyond any shadow of a doubt, R.E.M. served us well.

-- J.M.

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