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Rock/Pop

Check your head

A duo of discs about presidents and politics

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Published 10/29/2008

Of Great & Mortal Men
43 Songs for 43 Presidencies
Sandard Recording Co.

Thievery Corporation
Radio Retaliation
ESL

Just in time for the election comes Of Great and Mortal Men, three Cali-based lo-fi singer-songwriter types — Christian Kiefer, Matthew Gerken (of Nice Monster) and Jefferson Pitcher (ex-Above the Orange Trees) — presenting 43 songs depicting something about the character of each respective POTUS. Highlights include Lincoln's pyrrhic pronouncement of "Union, union," amid other (mostly) delicate lo-fi odes that flesh out these leaders from the confines of line drawings on currency and the clichés of being power-drunkards who cheated on their wives while steering the country. What comes across in the warbly shanties and tipsy arrangements (violins, glockenspiel, etc.) is empathy and condemnation, but mostly a kind of awesome ambivalence.

Some stories are true (Harry Truman did sell clothes before his political career); some are false (Jimmy Carter was not abducted by aliens). But they all stylize and personalize history with a cheekiness that makes the album a bit akin to Christopher Guest directing "Oval Office Week" on the History Channel. The round-robin format and dearth of guest musicians (Low's Alan Sparhawk, Smog's Bill Callahan) gives the whole lot a hootenanny feel, while the accompanying hundred-page book makes the three-disc set feel like a syllabus to the coolest community college class ever.

On the other end of the political spectrum, D.C. downtempo dons Thievery Corporation turn the smarty-pantsed (and matching shirt and jacket) posturing of their Banana Republican stoner world-beat into another easy-listening fit of leftism. The beats are still alternately chill and warmed by a ragga glow with hooka-whiffs of ethnic spices. But the voices (Femi Kuti among them) are more pointed and political, not unlike, say the Clash, circa Sandanista: that is, thematically honed but sometimes limited to sounding like honky reggae also-rans. The LP isn't as "fall-on-their-sword" psychedelic as previous attempts to mature their breezy downtempo; production-wise, there are more acoustic instruments and less run-on musical sentences. But for all their inferred polemics (they are from D.C.; this is an election year; Femi Kuti is agit-afro-pop royalty), TC are like the George Clooneys of downtempo. Their early affability made them stars, but they're capable of more ambitious fare, even if this disc is really more a respectable Michael Collins than a slam-dunk Syriana: that is, poignant but still suave, and better because of it; user-friendly despite its flaws.

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