Bushido Karaoke

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Bushido Karaoke opens with a tinkling bandstand piano and the acerbic voice of a jaded crooner. On "Pelf-Help" Ted Stevens sounds like Bill Medley summoned through Nick Cave and singing into a big square microphone, and the song's "you were much more fun when you were poor" angle is cutting and smart. But the cut also has a tremendous sonic clarity to match its atmosphere, and that's important. The strengths of Mayday's last album, 2003's I Know Your Troubles Been Long, were unfortunately obscured by muddled production and overambitious conception. In contrast Bushido seems to get the mix right. The opener rolls in a country shack ramble of brass, blues chords, fiddle, and fuzz guitar called "Booze & Pills" where Stevens pleads with his girl to give those vices up, unless she wants her heart to eat her kidneys. Evocative wordsmithing has always been one of the high points of Mayday. But on Bushido Karaoke the band also perfects its blend of country music texture, instrumental allusions to indie rock, and literate pop. "Rock and Roll Can't Save Your Life" could be Roxy Music, which makes even more sense when their cover of INXS' "Old World New World" falls in. On Shabooh Shoobah it was a dynamic, tightly wound number that popped with sax and a great bassline. (Remind you of anyone?) In a Mayday light it takes on a melodious country lilt that befits its menagerie of accordion, banjo, and winking harmonica. "Hidden Leaves" wraps imagery of samurais around a waltz worthy of the Old West, "Burned My Hands" eases toward dusty psych-pop with layered vocals and the low notes of a piano that grumble in the half-light, and as the album closes it features the sad, gorgeous ballad "Billy Boy Blues (Day of the Dead)." Perfectly recorded and richly conceived, Bushido Karaoke is Stevens and Mayday's most powerful record yet. It transmits startling visuals from a ghost town floating between Omaha and Council Bluffs.

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