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Mid-Year Roundup: 5 Surprising 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 Surprising Albums” and tomorrow will top it off with “5 Disappointing Albums”. 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.

…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Tao of the Dead (Original Review)
Creating an album that many deem to be “perfect” is more of a curse than it is a blessing. Yes, you’ll achieve something not many others can lay claim to, but the weight of that success will likely crush you and ultimately handicap you for the rest of your career. Such is the case with …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, a band whose 2002 album “Source Tags and Codes” remains one of the highlights from the last decade yet continues to be relatively underappreciated in this day and age. Perhaps that’s because it was followed by three albums that pushed really hard to recreate or expand upon the sound that won millions over; all of which failed miserably. Eventually dropped from their major label contract, Trail of Dead continued to push onwards via their own record label, and that along with some fiercely negative reviews caused them to step backwards and take stock of where they were at musically. They pared down to a four piece and with that came a much more stable, stripped down sound that still rocked pretty hard. The high concepts remain though, and they crafted their new album “Tao of the Dead” to be heard as two separate suites, each recorded in a different key. There may be dividers between the tracks, but the record is intended to be heard in a single sitting, and if you take it as such it serves as a reminder that this band is able to do great things when they’re not trying so damn hard. It may have taken them almost 10 years to do it, but it’s starting to seem like the ghost of perfection that has haunted the band is beginning to fade away and the boys might finally be able to reclaim some of the spotlight that was once lost. Buy it from Amazon

MP3: …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Weight of the Sun (Or, the Post-Modern Prometheus)

Cake – Showroom of Compassion (Original Review)
To call Cake “innovative” is to mislabel them. Charming though many of their songs may be, it would appear that longevity is not in their nature. Yet next year they’ll be celebrating their 20th anniversary of being together and allowing John McCrea to constantly sing-speak so many of his lyrics. In that massive amount of time, Cake has only released 6 albums. There was a 7 year gap between their last album “Pressure Chief” and their new one “Showroom of Compassion”, and with the former being such a bland effort on their part, the long wait was probably warranted. They needed the time to remember exactly who they were and why they should continue to make music. Raise your hand if you pretty much forgot that Cake even existed until you heard they had a new record coming out. Spend too much time away, and people will forget about you because there’s so many other musical options available to them. Anyways, “Showroom of Compassion” was like a big welcome back hug from an old friend that you had lost touch with a long time ago. The songs were much stronger than they had been in the last decade, and there were even small signs of sonic progression, with the band incorporating some new instruments and song structures into the fold. On 1996’s “Fashion Nugget”, Cake famously (and ironically) covered Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. With “Showroom of Compassion”, it certainly appears that they will continue to do so for a little while longer. Buy it from Amazon

Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (Original Review)
Unlike Cake, Foo Fighers didn’t take a long time away from the spotlight before returning. Still, they did wait four years between their last album “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace” and this new one “Wasting Light”, which was the longest gap in the band’s 16 year history. With all their powerhouse singles though, it was never tough to keep Foo Fighters at the front of your brain, and Dave Grohl’s constant presence in playing with other bands (see: Them Crooked Vultures and Queens of the Stone Age, among others) kept you guessing about where he’d turn up next. But the Foo Fighters themselves had been suffering a serious slump as of the last 10 or so years despite their moderately successful singles output. There was the rather plain “One By One”, the double album electric-acoustic missteps of “In Your Honor”, an attempt to create something as classic as Nirvana’s “Unplugged” session via the live acoustic jaunt “Skin & Bones”, and finally a painful attempt at pandering to the lowest common demoninator courtesy of the pathetic “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace”. In other words, it was really easy to assume “Wasting Light” would continue the downward trend the band has been on these last few records. Instead, they pulled out all the stops: Butch Vig produced the record and worked with Grohl for the first time since Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic guested on one track, and Grohl built an old school recording studio in his garage. The plan worked, and the new record marks an amazing comeback for a band that appeared to be all but lost. When Grohl screams “I never wanna die” on the album’s closing track “Walk”, he sounds like he means it: Foo Fighters haven’t sounded this alive in a long time. Buy it from Amazon

Foo Fighters – Walk

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Original Review)
Polly Jean Harvey has always been a tough nut to crack. Her early career played off the “tortured soul” card, and while she was a little more offbeat than her counterparts like Fiona Apple and Courtney Love in the early 90s, the grungy electric guitars and dark lyrics weren’t entirely uncommon. Her evolution since then has been nothing short of fascinating, and perhaps her oddest move came on 2007’s “White Chalk” in which she put down her guitar in favor of an autoharp and piano. The whole thing had a very Victorian Gothic aire to it, only pushed farther courtesy of some increasingly antiquated outfit choices. Her collaboration with John Parish via “A Man A Woman Walked By” was a small return to normalcy for her, though it’s doubtful that the word “normal” has been used much when describing any of her records. The point being that PJ Harvey is often indefinable by nature, consistent only in how she continues to switch things up and challenge herself. “Let England Shake” is another one of those moments, and this time it’s in the form of a concept record detailing the horrors of war. Harvey’s newly expanded instrumental palette serves her well here, and in a way combines some elements from her harsher electric guitar past and her much more delicate and beautiful varied approach of the more present day. In one sense, each new PJ Harvey record is a surprise, because you’re never sure what to expect as she tends to not repeat herself. What wasn’t expected was how carefully and smartly written and composed this album would be, and how after the last few albums of shots that never fully reached the heights of her past glories, here finally is an album that returns her to that force of nature state. She’s come full circle without ever really returning to where she started. Buy it from Amazon

PJ Harvey – Written On The Forehead

tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (Original Review)
Hate is a strong word, but I’m by no means hesitant to use it when referencing the first tUnE-yArDs record “BiRd-BrAiNs”. The project of Merrill Garbus, she recorded that debut album via a crappy built-in laptop microphone and mixed it with some freeware program she downloaded. It sounded exactly like that, and was primarily the reason why I couldn’t stand listening to it. I don’t expect full audio fidelity these days, particularly with the rebirth of lo-fi a couple years back, but there comes a point where the bottom of the barrel gets scraped and that was it for me. Still, for those able to look past the sonic issues with “BiRd-BrAiNs”, it was the introduction of a major new talent, a woman with a powerful voice and smart lyrics who used live shows as her true proving ground. For her second album “w h o k i l l”, Garbus actually made it into a legitimate recording studio and had some backing musicians to help her out. Free and clear of any audio quality issues, I felt that revisiting tUnE-yArDs was the wise thing to do. Turns out it was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far this year. The way the songs on “w h o k i l l” are developed and layered with so many instrumental quirks and matched next to that incredible voice is like a sonic punch to the face. It’s innovative and exciting and catchy and pretty much indescribable genre-wise. Most importantly, it’s everything that debut album was not, or rather, it exposes everything that debut album kept hidden courtesy of a shoddy microphone. Buy it from Amazon

MP3: tUnE-yArDs – Bizness

Album Review: Foo Fighters – Wasting Light [RCA]

Let’s get this out of the way as fast as possible, because if you’ve not already heard about it, you’re going to hear about it ad nauseum for the next several months if you at all pay attention to the Foo Fighters. The stars are lining up for the band on their seventh long player “Wasting Light”, and if you’re nostalgic for the days of grunge or just the earliest of Foo records, this one’s supposed to be for you. Butch Vig, the uber-rock producer that made his name by sitting behind the boards for one of the greatest albums of all time, Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, teams up with Dave Grohl and company once again. That “company” additionally includes a guest appearance from former Nirvana guitarist Krist Noveselic and the full time return of guitarist Pat Smear to the fold (also a former member of Nirvana). The great Bob Mould of Husker Du and Sugar fame also contributes to the record, which was recorded in Dave Grohl’s garage using old school analog tape. All of these things should have you thinking of the 90s, because there’s little to nothing modern about how “Wasting Light” came together. Considering this year marks the 16th anniversary of the Foo Fighters, the band feels that now might be a good time to reflect on their past. Topping it all off is a documentary called “Back and Forth” that chronicles their wild history of touring places, rocking faces and destroying good graces. Wrap all these details up, put them in a box and throw a bow on it, because if you’re a Foo Fighters fan, this record is for you.

How much do you honestly recall about the last couple Foo Fighters albums? “The Pretender” was arguably their best single in awhile, off their last album “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace”, which aside from that song was one of the worst Foo records ever. Not counting the live and unplugged retrospective “Skin and Bones”, 2005’s double album “In Your Honor” tried to split off the band’s personality into two halves, one of which was the hard charging stadium rock band and the other being a group of soft spoken guys with a penchant for quiet ballads. Actually a better way to think of it is that since their self-titled debut in 1995, Foo Fighters have gotten progressively worse. While their popularity hasn’t waned much if at all, a fair amount of that support has been earned from a number of factors including the ability to crank out halfway decent singles, continued support on radio for their “classic” songs, and a highly dynamic live show. Others have theorized that much of the band’s power lies inside of Dave Grohl himself, and that his beard and oft-jovial sense of humor are key things that have kept them afloat for so long. Whatever it is, a large group of hardcore fans are always excited to hear about a new Foo record, in particular since “Wasting Light” is their first new one in four years.

It’s only appropriate that “Wasting Light” should start with a track called “Bridge Burning”, as if the Foo Fighters are admitting they’ve destroyed a lot of relationships with their fans by turning out a lot of crap the last 10 years. Of course that’s not REALLY what they’re saying, but it could be interpreted that way. Instead, with some machine gun percussion and killer power chords, Grohl comes out of the gate spitting fire. “These are my famous last WOOOORDS/My number’s up, bridges will BUUUUUURN!”, he screams in the most visceral way possible. Somewhere in the first verse he also makes mention of the “king of second chances”, and by the time the addictive and hard-hitting chorus comes around a second time, you pretty much want to give the guy exactly that. Of course if we’ve learned one thing from the past couple Foo Fighters albums, it’s to never get too invested too early because they really like to front-load things. First single “Rope” comes next and continues to hold strong with that sharp as nails guitar attack and a chorus that’ll stick with you. Funny once again are the number of lyrical parallels to the band being in peril and needing fans to throw them a rope to save them. Again, that’s not the genuine meaning, but interpretation should be 9/10ths of the law. Because they can’t all be super high energy stadium rockers, “Dear Rosemary” tapers off that pace just a little, coming in as a head-bopping mid-tempo catch-all with Bob Mould popping up in a support role. Mould’s call-and-response portion of the song with Grohl marks one of the best parts of the track, which legitimately sounds like something Husker Du might put out, with a structure that’s interestingly similar to The Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes”. At this point, Foo fighters haven’t strung together three songs this strong since the start of 1999’s “There Is Nothing Left to Lose”, and with it brings a cautious layer of optimism that maybe this whole “returning to their roots” thing isn’t entirely bullshit.

If you’ve seen the official music video for the track “White Limo”, in which Lemmy from Motorhead drives the band around in the titular vehicle, then you know what a kinetic scream-fest it is. Throw some megaphone-like filter on Grohl’s voice and stir the mosh pit to a frenzy, because this might be the most aggressive and metal thing Foo Fighters have ever done. It’d be more expected as part of one of Grohl’s side projects Probot or Them Crooked Vultures, but it’s a whole lot of fun as part of “Wasting Light”. The streak of excellence has to stop somewhere though, and “Arlandria” is where the quality shows a noticeable dip. Listen to enough Foo Fighters songs, particularly from the last two albums, and you definitely notice the difference between what’s vital and what’s pedestrian. “Arlandria” is in the latter category, despite its energy and quiet-loud dynamic. The same could be said about “These Days”, notable for the way it plays things off like a ballad but still features an explosive chorus that’s clearly intended to power up the weaker sauce everyplace else. That was a trick employed a number of times on “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace”, and we know full well it didn’t work then either. It may not carry the same punch as the first handful of tracks, but “Back & Forth” does make the most of the very little actually going on in it. “Now show a little backbone why don’t you”, Grohl growls just before striking up a pleasantly strident chorus filtered with engaging harmonies. Well, the band was showing some backbone, but they seem quick to self-sabotage and fall back into old patterns on a whim. What makes “A Matter of Time” one of the more important tracks on the record is how it both spits in the face of convention yet simultaneously embraces it. Yeah, that strident and catchy chorus still hits over and over again until you submit to it, but initially getting there and in between the bag gets far more mixed thanks to some extended verses and general false alarms. It’s not revolutionary by any means, but it is more complicated compared to the other parts of the band’s catalogue.

After the hard-hitting first part of “Wasting Light” and the mixed bag in the middle, the good news is that the tail end of the record brings things around full circle and offers something of a redemption to the band. “I Should Have Known” is the Krist Noveselic guesting track, and it’s about the closest thing you’ll get to a full ballad on the entire record. Given that it’s a song about the sudden death of a friend and with all the Nirvana connections, it’d be easy to assume the track is about Kurt Cobain. Grohl said that when he was writing the song Kurt didn’t really enter his mind until much later in the process, because he intended it as a tribute to another friend of his. That friend, a former roadie for Foo Fighters, died of a drug overdose. That doesn’t make the track any less meaningful or sad, and the lyrics can apply to just about anyone that has lost a close friend. The grand, sweeping strings do tend to recall some of the more obtuse, grandiose stuff on the last couple Foo albums, but they’re used in a much more subtle manner this time, which helps in just the right ways. For a finale, you can’t get a much more perfect song than “Walk”. The way the end of the record is structured is reminiscent of a movie plot wherein the main character nobly sacrifices himself for the greater good. The hero dies and leaves everyone torn to pieces, but once his death has passed, there is a peace and sunshine across the land. The future has never looked brighter now that the conflict has been resolved, and so we can “learn to walk again” as the lyrics suggest. Not only that, but Grohl is so ecstatic about life, that he screams, “I’m on my knees/I never wanna die/I’m dancin’ on my grave/I’m runnin through the fire/forever, whatever, I never wanna die” with such passion that you can’t help but believe him. This is triumph. This is the fist-pumping anthem that leaves you feeling like a million bucks. This record ends not with a whimper, but with a legitimate BANG.

By and large, 2011 is probably going to be remembered as the year rock made a serious comeback. Not only is the crop of new indie artists trying good and hard to revive the boom of the 90s, but the mainstream is embracing such notions as well. Foo Fighters are currently in the right position at the right time, and their new record “Wasting Light” is just the sort of kick in the teeth this resurgence needs. There are multiple ways to look at this though, and not all of them feature rose-colored glasses. One easy argument is that this record is an act of desperation, with Foo Fighters calling in favors and “the big guns” to help restore a flailing career. The antithesis to that point suggests that maybe the band cares less about churning out quality records so long as the stadiums stay filled and the merchandise keeps selling. Neither of those points is likely correct. In what’s truth but could be bad or good depending on your viewpoint, “Wasting Light” is not really anything new from the Foo Fighters. They’ve had the same sound and been turning out virtually the same record since the very beginning. Yeah, you know a Foo Fighters song when you hear it, and it’d be equally nice to hear them try and go completely off grid experimental, but that’s sort of what side projects are for. Additionally, the band probably considered their acoustic adventures and their symphony-heavy songs on more recent albums to be “experimental” no matter how commonplace they might otherwise seem to you and me. Listen to a record like “The Colour and the Shape” and then “Wasting Light” and it’s simple to point out the hard-driving guitars and massive choruses are cut from the same cloth. For those of us that regard those early Foo records as their classics and most vital though, in so many respects this is the first time in a long time that the band sounds like they want to recapture that spark they lost 10 or more years ago. This is by no means a perfect record, especially with the sagging middle portion, but it’s not completely off-base to put it in the same category with those first three essentials. And so, marketing ploy or not, desperate attempt to regain favor or not, “Wasting Light” still deserves your time, attention and maybe a few of your hard-earned dollars. Just remember to exercise your rock hand before turning this thing up, because you’ll get cramps if you hold up those devil horns for too long.

Wasting Light by Foo Fighters

Buy “Wasting Light” from Amazon

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