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Music | Differing greatly in quality, two new CDs from Eminem and Jack Johnson spur hopes of rebounding sales

Issue: "Your right to vote," July 31, 2010

In a 1994 interview, the Christian-rock pioneer Dana Key said about grunge bands that he didn't know "why groups find it necessary to put eight great tunes on an album and then two [tunes] that use the f-word 37 times."

Key passed away in June, but it would be interesting to know what he would've said about Recovery (Interscope), the latest album by the rapper and one-man reality show Eminem.

Recovery went gold in its first week and has topped charts all over the world, inspiring hope that the music industry's steady-and precipitous-decline in album sales may be over.

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It also has a surprising number of strong points: lyrics that deal with serious issues (the death of close friends, divorce and its aftereffects, the struggle of drug addicts to get and stay clean), hooks and beats that creatively incorporate samples and guest vocalists (Rihanna, Pink), good-taste jokes that are actually funny ("I'm the bees knees, his legs and his arms," "They'll never ketchup to all this energy that I've mustered"), and bad-taste jokes (about Michael J. Fox, Ben Roethlisberger, David Carradine, and Elton John) that can at least be said to have the capacity to tweak the politically correct going for them.

But they won't make Eminem's fans any wiser. And every one of the 17 songs uses the f-word.

Granted, none of them use it 37 times. "Cold Wind Blows" comes the closest with 21, "Won't Back Down" a distant second with 10. And thanks to "W.T.P." and "You're Never Over," which use it only (only!) once apiece, the average number of f-words per track comes in just under seven.

The total, however, is 114. And that doesn't include the s-words, the b-words, and the c-words (of which there are many) or the numerous sexual, scatological, and violent images-images that, were Recovery a film, might get it an NC-17 rating and that are somehow made even harsher by Eminem's stridently hectoring delivery. Ironically, only by desensitizing themselves to Recovery's language with repeated exposure can listeners begin to hear what's good about the album.

And by that time they'll probably feel that the payoff wasn't worth the effort.

Another album that music-industry pulse-takers have hoped will pump life into flat-lining sales is Jack Johnson's To the Sea (Brushfire/Universal). And by selling nearly 250,000 copies in its first week-i.e., getting halfway to gold-record status-it appears to be meeting expectations.

It might even exceed them. While not so loud or upbeat as to provoke mutiny among Johnson's core audience, it definitely comes on more loudly and upbeat than any of his previous forays, which were often somniferous enough to function as Baby Mozart for underachievers. To the Sea might not only keep listeners awake but make them productive as well.

Johnson certainly sounds alert. From the opening track, "You and Your Heart," he comes out of the gate so loose-limbed-funky one can only conclude that his loose-limbed-funky friend G. Love has (finally) begun to rub off on him. At other times his newly discovered energy and natural-mystic singing evokes fond memories of young Steve Miller. Indeed, nearly every one of To the Sea's 13 official songs (the iTunes version adds one more, the Japanese version another) sounds like the work of a man with something to prove.

And if his way with words isn't anything special, at least what he's singing about has gotten interesting: There have, after all, been far shallower Luddite musings than "Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology." And the Gordian knots of "Pictures of People Taking Pictures" are worth trying to untangle.

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