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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

Album Review: Band of Horses – Infinite Arms [Columbia]

Band of Horses have gone on record claiming that their new album “Infinite Arms” is a “game-changer” for them. What’s really changed about the group is the lineup. Several band members have come and go over the past two albums, and the only constant connecting the three records at this point is frontman Ben Bridwell. They are currently a five-piece ensemble, and “Infinite Arms” marks the first time these guys have fully collaborated in the writing and composition of the songs. This change in how they do business is also somewhat evident in their sound, as having a full band means fuller sounding songs on the whole, along with the addition of some intense vocal harmonies. If you were expecting some real curveballs like a shift in style, chances are you’ll be disappointed. Of course if you liked what Band of Horses were doing before you might be disappointed anyways.

On their first two albums, Band of Horses found a way to take an unoriginal sound and make it all their own. They were skating the thin line between traditional indie rock and alt-country, coming from the same angle that bands like Wilco and My Morning Jacket have succeeded at before them. What broke Band of Horses away from the pack were two things – a strong ear for invigorating and fun hooks along with the intense and distinctive vocal performance of Ben Bridwell. “Infinite Arms” is unfortunately missing both those elements. Listening to the album is closer to taking a sleeping pill with all the slow acoustic-driven songs. They’re taking a decidedly stronger alt-country angle here than they ever have before, and the couple songs (“Compliments”, “NW Apt.”) that feel like they could have found a stylistic home on the previous two Band of Horses albums feel whitewashed and flat rather than brimming with fun and soaring possibility. A few songs legitimately sound like the entire band was chained to their instruments and told they couldn’t leave the studio until the songs were finished. Following on that same beat, while Ben Bridwell is still the unequivocal leader of the group, his vocals are far more contained and less dominant than they have been in the past. There aren’t any choruses that allow him to stretch his singing wings and soar above everything else. That’s largely due to the subdued nature of the album, not lending itself as well to such expansiveness. Add in these new vocal harmonies, and Bridwell’s signature voice gets lost in the mix more often. The loss of his singular vocal presence at points can be just a little upsetting, but the harmonies actually do far more good than harm in the end.

The experience of listening to “Infinite Arms” can best be equated to watching a beauty pageant. Everything looks and sounds very well put together, and the record does contain some of the band’s most gorgeous songs to date. The problem comes when you try and look beyond that superficial beauty and try to find something deeper. The lyrics won’t help you any, because the generalized platitudes Bridwell has always written (and often covered up by an enthusiastic or unique singing of said lines) are still there, but with fewer acrobatics to distract you from their emptiness. Everything also feels like it’s covered in some sort of glossy sheen that may preserve it in time but lacks the emotional continence to give the accurate impression the band members believe in what they’re doing. Given that Band of Horses have made the leap from indie powerhouse Sub Pop to the major label dens of Columbia, a loss of distinction and the pressure to come through with a money-making hit sort of come with the territory. With “Infinite Arms” they’re submitting to at least one of those two caveats as they tend to sound like any number of country and alt-country bands making music today. Whether or not the album spawns a legitimate hit remains to be seen. The thing is, outside of this new album, all indicators suggested that Band of Horses deserved every shred of success they had gotten. The music world was supposed to be a better place once these guys finally hit the big time. Instead, it feels like they broke down and are now functioning with a chip on their shoulders. The album might be titled “Infinite Arms”, but despite its attempted warm embrace, those arms don’t stretch nearly far enough anymore.

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