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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

Album Review: Bright Eyes – The People’s Key [Saddle Creek]

Conor Oberst says that “The People’s Key” will be the last Bright Eyes album. Presumably he’s not quitting music, but instead feels like the music he wants to make in the future will not be cut from that same Bright Eyes cloth. What’s kind of funny is that Bright Eyes hasn’t really sounded like Bright Eyes in awhile anyways, so the death of the name could be considered more of a blessing than a curse. The blessing of course would be that there’d be no more crappy Bright Eyes albums, though the negative to that means there won’t be anymore great Bright Eyes albums either. It’s been nearly 10 years since there’s been a Bright Eyes record that was more than worth your time, and that came in the form of 2002’s “Lifted…”. That’s not to say the project hasn’t had some special moments in more recent years, but there hasn’t been a front-to-back great Bright Eyes album in awhile. The exact reason why can be a little tough to pinpoint and explain, but many might argue that given the band’s revolving door of members as well as the natural inclination to “do something different” as time passed caused some tumultuous shifts in direction. Also, Oberst has grown up quite a bit since starting the project as an angsty teenager (while being labeled “the next Bob Dylan”), so with age and experience comes new perspectives and emotions.

At least Oberst has kept himself busy. His last two albums have not been Bright Eyes records, but a self-titled solo jaunt in 2008 and a team-up with the Mystic Valley Band in 2009. Both those records were pretty much a continuation of a number of sounds exposed in the last Bright Eyes album, 2007’s “Cassadaga”. Alt-country is where Oberst docked his ship for those years, though “Cassadaga” had a touch more experimental and complicated instrumental elements to it, going for a more widescreen and overblown view by comparison. In the other direction though, the Mystic Valley Band record, “Outer South”, might as well have been a “bro rock” album for all the frat boys to play at their barn dances each fall. Unlike his self-titled solo effort, “Outer South” allowed for the Mystic Valley Band to be more than just a backing band, but instead full-fledged participants on the album – to the point where nearly half the songs weren’t written or sung by Oberst himself. After a nightmare such as that, it was actually very much a relief to hear that there’d be another Bright Eyes album and the Mystic Valley Band might as well go fuck off, at least for the time being. In interviews leading up to the release of “The People’s Key”, Oberst was also touting how he’s “done” with the whole alt-country/Americana phase and hopes that the new record would be something different and interesting compared with what he’s done before. The good news is he’s at least half right.

The very beginning of “The People’s Key” features a couple minutes of spoken word courtesy of Texas musician Denny Brewer. He goes on about the dawn of humanity and how basically reptile-like aliens came here and populated the planet – “really sane” ramblings (/sarcasm) that definitely push a science fiction vibe out there from the start. The song part of “Firewall” kicks in after that, with a closely-picked electric guitar mumbling next to Oberst’s dominant vocal. The tempo never really picks up, nor does that guitar ever break the pattern it establishes from the start, but nevertheless there is a build up because more and more things get added to the mix as time passes. Oberst continues to toss out bits of lyrical wisdom in couplets, and while he doesn’t make too much sense from a full song, widescreen perspective, the wordplay is excellent as always. One particular line in “Firewall” stands out just a touch, and that’d be, “feelin’ close, but keepin’ my distance”. The reason why it stands out is that after listening to the album several times is because those two phrases kind of sum up the record as a whole. Yes, we’re being engaged, but unlike many past Bright Eyes albums, Oberst feels just a little more disconnected and distant than before. A project that began as a painfully personal exercise is now just a series of cleverly arranged phrases that sound really pretty together but don’t amount to a whole lot. Examine the lyrical content of a song like “Approximate Sunlight” and you’ll get gems such as “lick the solarplex of some L.A. shaman” or “the quinceanera dress she bought was unstitched with bullets”, both of which make very little sense in context but are drool-inducingly well written.

Stylistically speaking, hopefully nobody was holding their breath for a return to the sparse folk of early Bright Eyes material. What “The People’s Key” best resembles is actually Oberst’s brash, rock and roll one-off 2002 side project Desaparecidos, though with a bit more of an electro edge. For a Bright Eyes record, it’s the group’s poppiest and easiest to digest album, which is a good thing only if you want it to be. The positive of such a move is that there aren’t really any failed experiments, probably because there aren’t really any experiments. The only real “out there” elements are the aforementioned spoken word bits by Denny Brewer, that pop up multiple times throughout the record, and those sorts of things are pretty much expected from Bright Eyes at this point. Tracks like “Shell Games” and “Jejune Stars” are upbeat in tone and have relatively well-played hooks that stick with you, but one is an almost Spoon-like piano cut while the other slams on the power chords mixed with synths. Amidst the crunchy staccato guitars of “Haile Selassie” is some simply wonderful keyboard work that brings a warmth to the track that’d be entirely missing without it. Similarly, the organ work on “Triple Spiral”, along with the backing vocals, are the two most heroic things about the song, though there’s a lot of great things being done in those 4 minutes that makes it one of the album’s best. What is the true highlight of “The People’s Key” comes in the form of “Ladder Song”, which is classic Bright Eyes in the best possible way. Oberst sitting by himself at a piano, playing a sad ballad that not only makes sense but feels immensely personal. It shows up right near the end of the album, as if in giving his last hurrahs to this project he wanted to look back one last time at where he came from all those years ago. That young and highly emotional kid is still buried somewhere within him, and on rare occasions he’ll poke his head out, but for all practical purposes we’re dealing with a radically changed person from the one that many of us got to know quite well during our own troubled youths. Of course if we’re no longer troubled and he’s no longer troubled, does it make any sense to keep trying to squeeze blood from that orange? Probably not.

The best part of “The People’s Key” is that it’s one of the few Bright Eyes albums that doesn’t feel like there’s any gimmick associated with it. There’s not really any overarching theme or philosophy, though many of the songs do hint at some sort of spirituality or religious context (while never getting “preachy”). Instead, these are straight songs, played well and with a fair amount of enthusiasm, making it the most positive and dare I say delightful Bright Eyes record ever. If the story of this band were the plot of a movie, it’d be like the early days were hell and misery, but as time went on things got better until the happy ending resolution. The thing is, real life doesn’t particularly play out like it does in the movies, and all too often those happy endings either never come or never reach those euphoria-induced states we might originally aim for. That’s not saying the positivity in “The People’s Key” is disingenuous or a bad thing, but instead something more formulaic and bland. These songs are very nice to listen to, and the toning down of the bombast that “Cassadaga” pushed is a welcome thing, but outside of some strongly organized words, not much on this record stands out as overtly excellent. The personal connection that Conor Oberst has typically brought to the Bright Eyes name, even when he’s not necessarily sad, has pretty much been the selling point. No matter what the experiment he was trying, from the sparse folk beginnings to the electro sounds of “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” to the expansive Americana melodies of more recent years, the first-person narrated stories Oberst wrote, true or not, could always be counted on to set him apart from everyone else. By downplaying and largely eliminating those aspects from “The People’s Key”, there’s not a lot of distinction between this music and a lot of what else is out there. The good news is that the album still winds up being better than a few of the other records he’s put out recently, solo, with the Mystic Valley Band or Bright Eyes. At the very least, it’d be nice to see Bright Eyes get some radio airplay and a much larger fanbase as a result of this record. It’s certainly worthy of it, and would be pretty fitting tribute to the band name being retired. That way, all those new young fans can progress through the Bright Eyes catalogue backwards, only to discover what we did those many years ago – here’s a guy that truly understands all the problems in my life right now, and that wounded voice and lyrics of his brilliantly reflect all those things in a way I could never truly express on my own.

Buy “The People’s Key” from Amazon

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