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06 Jul

Mid-Year Roundup: 5 Disappointing Albums From 2011 (So Far)

Every year around the start of July, it becomes abundantly clear via the calendar that we’ve hit the halfway point. Six out of twelve months have passed, and given that amount of time it feels appropriate to look back briefly on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the music we’ve heard thus far. Rather than approach it in a typical “Best Albums” format (no hints as to the “master list” that will emerge in December), I like to instead examine the first half of the year in terms of “surprising” and “disappointing” albums. The differentiation between the two isn’t as simple as good and bad or black and white. There are records on the Surprising Albums list that won’t show up at year’s end as the “Best of” anything, and by that same token, just because a record winds up on the Disappointing Albums list doesn’t mean it’s destined for the bargain bin. In order to achieve the designation of being “surprising”, a record simply needs to blow my expectations out of the water. You turn it on expecting a total crapfest and wind up with something that at the very least leaves you moderately satisfied. A strange turn of events towards the positive side of the spectrum. Opposing that, those albums designated “disappointing” earn that label by building expectations prior to its release and then failing to meet them. Everyone WANTED to like the fourth Indiana Jones movie of the 3 “Star Wars” prequels, but in the end it was letdown city. You earn a reputation for greatness and then slip up for whatever reason. So as to avoid any sort of confusion or suggestion that any list is ordered in such a way that these albums are ranked, I’ve arranged each list to be alphabetical by artist. If you like, feel free to also click onto the links provided to read my original reviews of the albums on these two lists. Today we’ll tackle my list of “5 Disappointing Albums”. If you missed yesterday’s list of “5 Surprising Albums”, you can read that piece by clicking here. I hope you have fun and enjoy these lists, and by all means feel free to let me know what some of your most surprising and disappointing albums from the first half of the year are in the comments section.


Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (Original Review)
It’s just a tiny bit unfair to say that “The People’s Key” was a disappointing album. For devoted Bright Eyes fans, this was more of a record that wanted to give something back after a pair of mediocre-to-bad solo/Mystic Valley Band long players. Oberst was exploring more of an alt-country angle that devolved into frat boy rock after awhile and just wasn’t working. By contrast, “The People’s Key” sought to bring something good back to the Bright Eyes name, maybe for one last time before it gets retired, and does a relatively good job doing so. Oberst’s lyrical witticisms are strong and viable, and the songs themselves are among the most commercially pleasant that he’s ever written. The record is a full step ahead of even the last Bright Eyes album, 2007′s “Cassadaga”. So what makes this record so damn disappointing then? If this is the best album Oberst has been associated with in years (save for Monsters of Folk), shouldn’t this small victory come as a pleasant surprise? On paper, that’s absolutely what it should be. In context, this is more of a pyrrhic victory than anything else. Oberst may still know how to string words together that are jaw-droppingly brilliant, but now they’re colder and more distant than ever. We easily could have and should have given up on the thought that maybe Bright Eyes would return to the days of “Fevers and Mirrors” where he was an emotionally scarred and scared kid, but if that side of the band changed your life, giving up is that much harder to do. Then there’s the concept of “selling out”, which to his credit Oberst hasn’t really done, but the much more rocking and much more easy to digest nature of “The People’s Key” seems to suggest it’s what he wanted. There’s something coldly calculated about this record in how it seems designed to please people. If this truly is the final Bright Eyes record, we definitely know he could have done better, even if it meant torturing his soul for just a little longer. That’s all we really wanted anyways. Buy it from Amazon


Panda Bear – Tomboy (Original Review)
To those that used “Tomboy” as their introduction to Panda Bear, I feel a little sorry for you. It’s by no means a bad record, but to put it more broadly, it’s like first hearing Weezer via “The Green Album”. Your experience with the artist isn’t ruined, but there are far better entry points you could have taken. With Panda Bear, your one and only spot to jump in was via “Person Pitch”. That was a record not just mindblowing in 2007 when it was first released, but it’s one that continues to shake worlds even today. It was a record fiercely ahead of its time, launching a whole other genre unto itself that wouldn’t fully blossom until over a year later. Plus, it shared some of the spotlight with the Animal Collective record that would soon follow it, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, which is very much its own story too. So it was a very good couple years for Noah Lennox. Where “Tomboy” found him earlier this year was in a lot of the same headspace where those two albums were made, but in a world that had vastly changed its musical landscape since then. What was once ahead of its time and brilliant suddenly registered as being a retread of old ideas and at the very most exploitative of current trends. Panda Bear still stands higher than many of his now similar counterparts on “Tomboy”, but the hope was for less of that and more of an admirable attempt towards keeping the expansion of his sound going with even fresher techniques this time. Was he out of ideas, or just trying to bide some time? We’ll know for sure next time. Buy it from Amazon

MP3: Panda Bear – Last Night at the Jetty


Radiohead – The King of Limbs (No Original Review)
I have never reviewed a Radiohead album, and by all accounts I probably never will. I bear no hatred or ill will towards the band, and in fact my feelings are closer to the opposite. My primary concern is that once I start writing about the band, I won’t be able to stop myself. I intensely study every single Radiohead album to the point where a day rarely goes by in which I don’t hear one or more in full. I would write a 300 page book on them in 10 days if somebody would commission it. I go from vinyl to CD to mp3 to nitpick little details and discover elements unique to each format. Obsessive is one way to describe it. The point being, I continue to hold the belief that there has never been a legitimately bad Radiohead record (not even “Pablo Honey”), and “The King of Limbs” only affirms such a stance even more. What amuses me is all the anger being heaped upon the band for making an album that’s a completely logical progression from where they’ve been before. Coming off the success that was “In Rainbows” is what essentially screwed them. Say the band had reversed the release order of their last two albums, so “The King of Limbs” came out in 2007 under a “pay what you want” scale and “In Rainbows” was a carefully priced “newspaper album”. My argument is that the reaction to both records would have been noticeably different. In fact, “The King of Limbs” feels like a natural progression out of the “Kid A”/”Amnesiac” days more than anything else, combined with a slice of Thom Yorke’s solo effort “The Eraser”. But the cold hard truth is as follows: after a hugely successful revival and radicalization of the music business that was “In Rainbows”, Radiohead retreated into their own heads and made the record they WANTED to make, fan reaction be damned. They’re really fucking brilliant still, it’s just this doesn’t seem to be the expected or right thing to be doing at this juncture. So people have been bitching and moaning about it, and they’ll continue to bitch and moan about it until Radiohead straightens up and flies right again. The only reason this record should be a disappointment is if you were expecting something truly revelatory or earth-shattering. As for me, that’s what I expect from the band every time. Buy it from Amazon


The Strokes – Angles (Original Review)
After the mess of a record that was “First Impressions of Earth”, The Strokes were on the verge of breaking up. They never officially announced a break up, but given their lengthy hiatus and establishment of other projects, you could easily understand if they pulled a Jack White and woke up one day saying that The Strokes had nothing left to offer the world. What motivated these guys to get back together again was likely more monetary than anything else. The return of The Strokes meant that dollar signs were in their future, as evidenced by a number of sold out shows when they first began to resurface. Shortly after word had gotten around that a new album was on the way, the band put out a new single “Under Cover of Darkness”. Unlike their douchey third album, the song sounded like it belonged in the same sessions as their first two amazing records, and that only pushed hopes and dreams higher that now was the time The Strokes would truly be able to capitalize on their success. Then again, reports were also surfacing of band members calling one another out for things and word that Julian Casablancas came in and recorded his vocals separately from the rest of the band. Not a great sign for personal relationships, but if the album worked then so be it. “Angles” turned out to be a small failure almost entirely because of the band’s inability to fully cooperate with one another. Traverse its 10 songs and you’ll find a handful of different perspectives written into what was supposed to be just one. This disconnection ultimately hurt the album, yet it remains better than “First Impressions of Earth”, which is something of a compliment. Word on the street is that everybody’s friends again and recording for the next Strokes album has been good so far. Start crowwing your fingers now. Buy it from Amazon


TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (Original Review)
The fellas in TV on the Radio had been on a hot streak the likes of which had not been seen since Radiohead pulled off the perfecta trifecta that was “The Bends”, “OK Computer” and “Kid A”. The TVOTR perfecta trifecta amounted to “Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes”, “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science”. All three of those albums were at or close to being named the best albums of their respective years by a number of publications (including this one). Not only that, but those three records were released in a span of 6 years that coincided perfectly with a tour-record-tour-record pattern. Naturally, they were in need of a break. The hiatus came, band members focused on side projects, and after close to a year off they reconvened to craft their fourth full length. Either they needed to take a longer break or have simply run out of fresh ideas, because “Nine Types of Light” represents a new low from a band whose level of respect was at an all-time high. That’s not calling the album bad, that’s saying a couple small blemishes have appeared on what was once a pristine surface. There are a few distinct album highlights, from “No Future Shock” to “Will Do” and the effervescent closer “Caffeinated Consciousness”, but the weakest turns are made via the slowed down, quieter moments. TVOTR can do sleepy ballads very well, as evidenced by their past ones, but when you string a few of them together it starts to drag the entire album down. Such is the case here, even if each one is frought with substance and meaning. “Nine Types of Light” is a step down for the band, but more like a minor half-step than a taller, cliff-sized one. Buy it from Amazon

TV On The Radio – Will Do

01 Jul

Mid-Year Review: 5 Disappointing Albums

Whether you’re new to the site or have been reading Faronheit in some form or another for a long time now, I feel that it’s worth mentioning today is the site’s official 4th anniversary. Yes, Faronheit has been around since July 1, 2006, and while the first 3.5 years were spent over at Blogspot, at this point I couldn’t be happier with the recent conversion to the dot com status. Granted, those 3.5 years worth of site archives are currently in the wind somewhere and I’m fighting to get them restored and uploaded here so all of you can have access to the complete library of reviews and the like, but for the time being we’re making good with what we have.

Faronheit was originally conceived as an outlet for me to have an open and honest discussion on a global scale with music fans looking to learn about and hear more from up-and-coming artists. Thanks to loyal readers, commenters and the multitudes that email me every day, because all of you contribute in one way or another towards making this site what it is currently. And the artists! They’re first and foremost in all this, so thanks for making music and giving us something to listen to and talk about at endless length.

Now I’ll continue with a tradition that I started with the very first post on Faronheit, which is my Mid-Year Roundup. Today and tomorrow I will highlight a few albums released in the first half of the year that have surprised me and disappointed me. Typically I choose 10 albums apiece in the surprising and disappointing categories, but despite having heard a wealth of very good and very bad music so far in 2010, not a whole lot has caught me off guard in one aspect or the other. So I chose instead to halve both lists to keep things neater, cleaner and more organized.

First up are 5 Disappointing Albums from the first half of 2010. Before we get started, I would like to clarify that the word “disappointing” is NOT intended to indicate BAD. An album can still be good and disappointing at the same time, because for all you knew the listening experience was supposed to be completely mindblowing but was instead only pretty good. Every album that made this list this year also coincidentally is by a band that has released at least two albums prior to their current one. The setup for disappointment in most of these cases is mostly failing to deliver on the promise that previous records had shown them capable of. Hopefully that makes more sense when you examine the list below, which by the way is not ranked and in alphabetical order for that exact reason. I’m also curious to know your opinions on this list, along with what albums disappointed you in the first half of the year. Let me know in the comments.

Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
It never occurred to me to find out the names of the guys in Band of Horses besides singer Ben Bridwell until I heard “Infinite Arms” for the first time. See, it turns out that unbeknownst to me, Band of Horses was pretty much Bridwell’s solo project for the first two albums and the guys he played shows with were pretty much hired hands. Well, after the last album “Cease to Begin”, Bridwell did hire some guys full time to write, record and tour with him. Band of Horses now being a full-fledged band, all the new guys contributed a bunch of stuff to “Infinite Arms”, and suddenly their mojo disappeared. The new songs are blander and aimed at the arena-sized crowds they’re starting to attract. If they got this far with more introspective and personal material, why stop now? I’m not saying that Bridwell should fire the rest of his band, but maybe for the next album they let him go back to what he does best – writing and composing songs on his own. [Buy]

The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever (Download: Hurricane J)
Keyboardist Franz Nicolay left The Hold Steady before they went to record “Heaven Is Whenever”, and though a moustachioed keyboard guy is never the lynchpin that makes any band go from good to great, something does feel like it’s missing from the band’s latest offering. The advancement of The Hold Steady from “Separation Sunday” to “Boys and Girls in America” was remarkable and pushed the band into new territory that saw them make huge strides in terms of attention and popularity. Their last album “Stay Positive” largely continued on the themes that “Girls and Boys in America” had set up, and while it was slightly less effective, the band remained exciting and prolific. Where “Heaven Is Whenever” goes wrong is when the band decides to abandon the Springsteen-esque progress they’d made on their last couple records and return to the much more guitar-based sound of their early days. If only they’d attempted to take another step forwards rather than looking backwards, I think everyone would have given them a little more leeway. Instead, The Hold Steady for the first time sound creatively exhausted, and Craig Finn’s stories are starting to wear a little thin. [Buy]

Hot Chip – One Life Stand
Hot Chip established themselves as this great electro-pop band building songs that sounded amazing on the dance floor. Examining the hits for a moment, songs like “Over and Over” and “Shake A Fist” were so huge and earned them such a following because they were fun, highly creative bursts of energy you could get down to. They seem to have forgotten that on “One Life Stand”, because the number of club banger tracks has decreased significantly. Yes, you could say the approach is far more nuanced and mature, but mid-tempo pop songs and slow ballads just don’t have the same cathartic release. There are a few great things about the album though, first and foremost among them is the incredibly great video for “I Feel Better”. I’m also all kinds of in love with the closing track “Take It In”. If Hot Chip want to show their more serious side, they have every right to do so, but as LCD Soundsystem has proven time and time again, you don’t need to scale back your beats and tempos to put your emotional depth on display. Hopefully they remember that for next time. [Buy]

Spoon – Transference
Spoon has had such a spectacular run of albums in the last few years that as much as we all might like that streak to continue, we knew it couldn’t go on forever. Their last album “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” may have placed them at the peak of their creative powers, so unless they could continue with that same vigor and intensity, “Transference” was going to be a let down. And so it was, with Britt Daniel & Co. turning in what felt at times like a half-baked album. As the band might put it though, every song is as complete as they want it to be. A small dash of grimy lo-fi here, a purposely missed or incompletely sung lyric there, and a splash of unfocused energy and things sound a little topsy-turvy in Spoon’s world. Good for them for having the courage and spirit to throw most everybody for some sort of loop, and the majority of the songs still work well even with the added quirks. “Transference” will go down as one of the lesser albums in Spoon’s catalogue, and as disappointing as that might be, the record is still interesting and even a bit surprising…just not always in that great sort of way. [Buy]

Stars – The Five Ghosts (Download: We Don’t Want Your Body)
Blandness and repeating yourself are two big things that many long-standing bands have had to fight against. Stars have reached their fifth album, and while their dark and depressing brand of indie pop has worked more often than it hasn’t, “The Five Ghosts” leaves them sounding like they’re no longer dying but are already dead. Many of the songs on the album are downtempo or devoid of any real expression of life, and the ones that do manage to pick themselves up off the floor can’t seem to do so for long. To be clear though this isn’t an album filled with bad songs, just merely okay ones. The positive is that Amy Millan really shines across the entire album from a vocal perspective, while Torquil Campbell seems pushed into a corner where he’s not allowed to be his normal, expressive self. It’s sad in a way, because while Stars haven’t always been the most prolific of Canadian exports, memories of magic from albums like “Nightsongs” and “Set Yourself On Fire” hurt whatever haunting message the band might be trying to get across here. Between this and “In Our Bedroom After the War”, let’s hope Stars find something a little lighter and less same-y sooner rather than later. [Buy]

TOMORROW – Mid-Year Review: 5 Surprising Albums

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