If you’re not already familiar with my good friend Marissa Nadler’s work, her records are definitely worth your hard-earned money. Each of her most recent full lengths has improved on the one before it, and she hit a new peak last year with her self-titled record. When I talked to her last summer, she mentioned that she recorded around 18 songs for her album, and not all of them made the cut. It was less that they weren’t good enough and more about the way they all fit together. At the time, she also said that the extra songs would appear on an EP that’d be out in the near future. Well, it’s been about 10 months, but the Sister EP will finally be out on Tuesday. It is intended as a companion piece to her self-titled album, however it can also be enjoyed on its own. I’m pleased to be able to present a full stream of the new EP right here. Please give it a listen, and buy it if you like what you hear.
The alternative rock genre is in a painful state these days. Radio stations around the globe that play the genre are dying or already dead, even as bands like Linkin Park and AFI press onwards like there’s nothing wrong. So long as they’re still doing well and playing to huge crowds, they don’t see any problem. That, or they’re aching to grab whatever semblance of popularity they have left. When persons of a certain age get tired of the angst-ridden, guitar-heavy rock, there’s always another generation of pubescent teenagers to take their place. Your teens are a very emotional time, and sometimes you need that angry, scream-riddled music to connect and help you through. And some people never get past that phase. Not to generalize, but the construction worker population of America seems to really like rock music, possibly because it’s the only thing that can cut above the noise of power drills and buzzsaws. Others still prefer it to hear songs from the genre’s heyday, as 90’s songs from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bush, Deftones and Korn all continue to get the bulk of airplay on the remaining radio stations committed to the format. The good news is that not all is lost, and a number of more independently-minded rock bands have been working hard to keep people listening. The rise of The Black Keys, Cage the Elephant and Silversun Pickups have all breathed new life into old sounds, while Mumford & Sons, Foster the People and Death Cab for Cutie have created more sonic diversity. While these groups may be sharply lacking in truly experimental sounds, they’re proving that like some mainstream pop artists, you don’t need to sacrifice tried and true elements to make good music.
Silversun Pickups have had a remarkably easy time reaching mainstream popularity. Their 2005 EP Pikul was quickly adopted by a number of music blogs and independently-minded radio stations, where comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins were evident from the get-go. Brian Aubert’s singing voice is strikingly androgynous, though it has a nasal quality reminiscent of Billy Corgan. The swirling, heavy guitars and power chords bring to mind mid-90’s records like Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The band has confessed that the Pumpkins are an inspiration, though their second full-length record Swoon attempted to break free from that familiar mold just a little bit. Mostly that meant incorporating a more pristine production structure complete with a string section, and extending the lengths of most of their songs to somewhere near the five minute mark. What it lacked was real conviction, and genuine movement or shifts in tempo to justify the song lengths. The band was smart in choosing singles for that record though, as both “Panic Switch” and “Substitution” were probably the best two tracks on the entire record.
For their new one Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups pretty much pick up exactly where they left off. Clocking in at almost 60 minutes, over half of the album’s 11 tracks make it to at least five minutes and two more cross the six minute mark. They can’t get a single idea across in under 4.5 minutes. If your material is good and interesting enough to sustain those sorts of lengths though, it’s not a problem. For this record they brought famed producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Bloc Party) on board, and it appears he holds the key to making Silversun Pickups a better band. A very cursory and inattentive listen to the album might not reveal its unique charms or make the changes from the band’s first two long players evident. Indeed, they still pummel you with a wall of sound, and Aubert’s voice isn’t about to lose its Billy Corgan-ness. However the closer you examine these songs the more you notice the creative and interesting choices made when putting them together. The band has tried out plenty of shoegaze sounds before, but they’ve never come so close to the excellence of My Bloody Valentine as they do on first single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”. Opening number “Skin Graph” has a very familiar flair to it as well, yet does an excellent job managing tempo changes, electronic experimentation, and a memorable hook. Even a very cut-and-dry track like “Mean Spirited” fares better than you might expect because it foregoes a hard-edged and clinical approach in favor of something warmer and more organic. Credit to Lee for softening the production and taking off the excess of polish that was all over Swoon. The band sounds much better when they’re bathed in a choppy fog.
Aubert’s vocals gain a different perspective on Neck of the Woods as well. The past couple Silversun Pickups records he was always at the very top of the mix and leading the way without hesitation. On this album his voice slides where it’s needed and gives other instruments center stage at times. He’s also apparently taken some notes to heart and succeded in taking a bit of the androgyny out of his vocals. The deeper register suits him better than you’d think. So too does incorporation of synths in the band’s overall sound. Listening to “The Pit”, it becomes easy to recognize that for their next record they might explore the possibility of using later period New Order as a source of inspiration. The balladry of “Here We Are (Chancer)” is impressive as well, taking electric guitars somewhat out of the equation in favor of skittering electronic beats, piano and even a touch of piano. All these sonic adjustments across the record don’t amount to a world of difference when all is said and done, but they are very important in how they push Silversun Pickups beyond the flaccid label of being an alternative rock band forever indebted to the Smashing Pumpkins. On Neck of the Woods they’re finally starting to truly separate themselves from the formless pack and earn their place among the remaining and true devotees to the genre. They’re not yet ready to save mainstream rock, but for once they appear to be moving in the right direction.
If you didn’t notice in the title of this post, Death Grips are signed to Epic Records. They’re officially labelmates with everyone from Drake to Incubus and Meat Loaf. What’s odd is how the group sounds like they should be signed to anything BUT a major label. That’s not to call their material bad, but it’s been a long time since such an odd, fringe-type act was signed to anything other than an indie label. If you want to go underground and weird, transitively sometimes brilliant, you sign to a company that seeks to take that sort of risk without meddling in your creative process. From the sound of their debut album The Money Store, Epic didn’t even try to send them notes. They were probably too scared to. The genre classifiers and wordsmiths have puzzlingly tried to describe Death Grips as being rap rock. Considering there may be one single guitar used on one single track (or not…these sounds could have come from anywhere), the “rock” tag need not apply to this group. No, what Death Grips are doing somewhat defies description. The project is made up of three people: Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride on vocals, Zach Hill on drums and production, and Andy Morin aka Flatlander on production. The goal of Hill and Flatlander as producers is to splice together these beats and electronica elements to compliment MC Ride’s words. But this is anything but traditional hip hop. MC Ride prefers a vocal style closer to that of a hardcore punk band than anything else. He seems to take cues more from Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and Fugazi than Jay-Z, Kanye West or Snoop. Everything is shouted with such a spitfire rage that most of the time you can’t tell what Ride is saying. When you can make out his vocals, you learn they’re primarily nonsensical phrases strung together to complete rhymes. It need not be clever or inventive because the delivery takes care of that for you. Hill and Flatlander take a similar approach when providing the base and beats of each track. Virtually everything comes off like the soundtrack to a 1980’s Nintendo game that’s been chopped and sped up to about three times its normal rate. The record breezes by as a result, 13 tracks in 41 minutes with only the finale of “Hacker” sneaking past the four minute mark. There are so many ideas and experiments packed into that time, it can feel like the sonic equivalent of ADD. The good news though is that every track is a legitimate banger, perfect for the clubs and ripe for remixing. Singles like “I’ve Seen Footage” and “Blackjack” may stay with you for just a little longer thanks to the massive amount of repetition in their choruses, but stick with The Money Store long enough and the charms of each individual track will unveil themselves to you. Perhaps that’s what earned Death Grips the respect of L.A. Reid and Epic Records. This may be the most individualistic and unique act signed to a major label in quite some time, but if they’re successful the great news is they won’t be the last.
On Tuesdays I typically like to give you a rundown of all the new records coming out that you can purchase and hopefully enjoy. This week is no different, but I do want to take a brief second to highlight a record that came out a couple weeks back that’s very much worth your time and cash. NYC artist Natalie LeBrecht has been performing under the name Greenpot Bluepot for quite a few years now, and her reputation for creating otherworldly and dynamic songs has steadily earned the attention of many. One of those people is Animal Collective’s Avey Tare, who agreed to co-produce the new Greenpot Bluepot record with LeBrecht. The final product is Ascend at the Dead End, a very freak-folk, vocal-based album that is unlike almost anything you’ll hear these days. She’s one part Bjork and another part Cat Power, and but in the end such descriptions don’t do Greenpot Bluepot justice. You need to hear the record for yourself. Naturally then, here’s a full album stream for your listening pleasure. Oh, and if you’re interested, you can buy the album here.
Now, I promised I’d tell you about this week’s album releases. In stores today, you’ll find new records from Allo Darlin’, Battles (a remix record), Horse Feathers, Lushlife, Maps and Atlases, Moonface (Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown), Sidi Toure, and Spiritualized, among others. Azealia Banks was supposed to release an EP today as well, however due to her changing management a few days ago, that has been delayed for a bit. She’s apparently planning to re-record some of the tracks to help give them a better fidelity now that she’s come into some money. Good for her, I say. Good for you is today’s Pick Your Poison. I’ll recommend tracks from Andy the Doorbum, Cadence Weapon, Conner Youngblood, Death Grips, Ican Ican’t, Jesca Hoop, and King of Prussia. And hey, in the Soundcloud section you can hear a new song from The Walkmen.
Hard to believe it’s been eight years since Natalie Portman told Zach Braff that The Shins would “change your life” during a key scene in the little indie film that could Garden State. Since then, so much has happened. Braff’s career has flamed out, Natalie Portman’s has not, and The Shins all but disappeared for awhile courtesy of Danger Mouse. Yes, after their early 2007 album Wincing the Night Away became Sub Pop’s biggest selling record ever, James Mercer stepped away from the project to focus on collaborating with Danger Mouse on a side project known as Broken Bells. Obsessive Shins devotees would follow Mercer anywhere of course, and the 60s-styled psych-pop jams that populated the self-titled LP and Meyrin Fields EP made it pretty easy to pick up new fans as well. After the first couple years some began to wonder whether The Shins would ever return, and Mercer didn’t exactly make any promises. Adding fuel to the fire was Mercer’s announcement that keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval had left the band, with Sandoval later claiming he was flat out fired. Whatever actually happened there, the loss of those two amicable and talented musicians would appear to not bode well for whatever The Shins might choose to do in the future. Yet Mercer has always been the man behind the name, writing and piecing together most of the songs on his own anyways.
The return of The Shins finally became imminent last summer, when it was announced the band would be releasing new music and touring “soon”. The new lineup was also revealed, which included Richard Swift, Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, former Crystal Skulls member Yuuki Matthews and guitarist Jessica Dobson. After five years away, The Shins are finally back with a new album called Port of Morrow. Listening to it, somehow it feels like they never left. This is a record entirely ignorant of time and trends, simply seeking to do exactly what The Shins do best – provide straightforward and catchy indie pop. It makes perfect sense that the album’s first single is called “Simple Song”, because it comes as advertised. The ease at which the song draws you close and plants its hooks firmly within your ears is impressive. Mercer doesn’t need any flash or innovation to come up with something excellent, instead preying on our innate love of easily digestible melodies. It helps that the album is produced by Greg Kurstin, a guy known for taking overblown songs and turning them into something warm and friendly to listen to. Instead of “The Rifle’s Spiral” crushing you with its sheer size, keyboards plink and sparkle, handclaps pepper the background, and Mercer plays the gooey and calm center of it all with his vocals. That balance between grandiose and intimate is not an easy thing to achieve, and Kurstin does an exceptional job with it.
Of course no great record is based solely on the work of a talented producer, and Port of Morrow is no exception. Mercer has always been a dynamo in his own right, and previous Shins outings like Oh, Inverted World! and Chutes Too Narrow prove that without question. Listen closely to past gems like “New Slang” and “Kissing the Lipless” to truly get a grasp on the man’s penchant for clever wordplay that sometimes lacks common sense. “When they’re parking the cars on your chest, you’ve still got a view of the summer sky,” is one such confusing gem from “Know Your Onion!”. Wincing the Night Away had plenty of things in common with the band’s previous two albums, but it was a far darker and more personal record that felt less lyrically adventurous on the whole. A few years and middle age appear to have brought Mercer back to writing about characters again, and though they may not always be the most positive songs, the tempo and pacing are far better than they were the last time around. Even a relatively plain-sounding folk song like “September” gets a huge boost thanks to lines like, “Love is the ink in the well/when her body writes.” The Billy Joel-esque “Fall of ’82” might be considered a little too adult contemporary for some, but its message about friends helping you through troubled times is very well handled and softens the somewhat piddling melody. Sometimes the opposite is true though, as on “For A Fool”, where a Beach House-styled slow waltz only loses a slight bit of its potency due to the clunky hook of, “Taken for a fool/yes I was/because I was a fool.” Perhaps the most fascinating song on the entire record is the title track, which is one part psychedelic experiment and another part torch song. The mixture of the two styles is very well done, as are the lyrics which while obtuse are visually stimulating.
There’s a certain point in an artist’s career where you know they’ve officially gone from indie superstars to mainstream darlings. For The Shins, that moment fully arrived with the release of Wincing the Night Away. It was a steady but strong rise to the occasion, and one that was peppered with disappointment for those that gave a careful listen to the record. They may have still been signed to Sub Pop at the time, but the popularity of that album despite its many faults really suggested the band was headed towards the fate of relatively bland pop-rock a la Death Cab for Cutie. The five year break James Mercer took from the project and the comparatively difficult music Broken Bells made during that time apparently did great things for The Shins. The change in lineup and producers may have been a smart move too, because Port of Morrow is the best record Mercer has put out since 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow. To do it, they didn’t even have to get weird or make significant adjustments to their sound. A great record doesn’t require innovation provided it’s well structured and well written, and The Shins have done both in this case. If they keep this up, they may actually change a lot more lives in the near future, including their own.
Surely you remember the band Chairlift from those countless times you heard their song “Bruises” a couple years ago in an iPod commercial. Don’t remember “Bruises” exactly? Does the line “I tried to do handstands for you” jog your memory? If not, don’t worry yourself too much. The band was in many ways a one-hit wonder, and their 2008 debut album Does You Inspire You didn’t really inspire on the whole. Outside of touring, they haven’t really done much the last couple years, though there have been some changes. Band co-founder Aaron Pfenning is gone, choosing to focus exclusively on his other musical project Rewards after his romantic relationship with bandmate Caroline Polachek dissolved. Polachek now only has multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly to back her up, and that’s impacted Charlift’s sound somewhat. Pfenning’s occasional vocal presence has vanished, as has his guitar work, leaving the band’s sophmore album Something in a very synth-based 80s pop space. And you know what? The results turn out much better for them.
First thing’s first, Polachek spends much of Something in the role of a woman scorned. That is to say breakups are on her mind, and that’s not surprising given she experienced one with her former bandmate Pfenning. You’d be smart to be wary of reading too much into any of the lyrics though, as many of them are clearly fictitious or fantasy-oriented rather than literal. She’s not REALLY trying to kill or seriously maim another person, though we can’t really rule out emotional hatchet jobs. There are a few moments of pure passion and love though, as on “I Belong in Your Arms”, which with its tenderness, brevity and addictive chorus makes for one of the album’s strongest moments. It is the “Bruises” of this album, though not quite as catchy or marketable. Mostly what’s stronger on this record outside of the subject matter is the way it gets dealt with. Polachek backs off on some of the more vexing metaphors from the band’s debut and instead tries something more emotionally direct, to excellent effect. She seems genuinely saddened singing the line, “The look in your eye says you don’t love me anymore” on “Cool As A Fire”. The soaring chorus only provides more aid to her excitement as she sings, “Have we met before/amongst the buzzing of billions/clear like yesterday when you look at me and smiled” on “Met Before”. Also impressive is the chorus to “Guilty As Charged”, which rightly claims, “If I gave you what you’re asking for, you know you wouldn’t want it anymore”. Smart, plainspoken and with hints of humor, it appears Polachek has a much better idea of what she wants to say and how she wants to say it – a sharp difference from the debut in which many of the moments felt forced or uninspired.
Equally intriguing about Something outside of the great lyrics are how all the songs are put together. Save for “Met Before” and “Frigid Spring”, there’s very little use of guitar on this record. Synths are the instrument of choice, and that combined with some excessive polish on the production end takes you straight to the 80s. If you were to play this album for someone without telling them anything about it, most would probably guess it was either made in the 80s or is new coming from an artist that was popular in the 80s. Polachek’s voice earns more gravitas on this record versus the last, and she takes those reins and runs with them. She channels everyone from Kate Bush to Laetitia Sadler to Christine McVie and maybe even a touch of Cyndi Lauper at times, and not once does she sound uncomfortable or out of her element. Wimberly is far quieter than Pfenning was behind the microphone, in that his vocal presence is barely felt. His true star turn comes with backing vocals on the occasional track and a pseudo-duet with Polachek on addictive single “Amanaemonesia”. The rest of the time he’s simply that guy crafting the beats or sending a melody soaring just to keep up with Polachek’s strong singing. They are the yin and yang of Chairlift, perfectly complimenting and pushing one another to excel in different ways.
It’s a shame that Something is a record that will probably be just as, if not more ignored than its predecessor. Despite the strong collection of healthy and marketable pop songs, it’s unlikely you’ll be hearing much from the band on the radio or in TV commercials. There’s just a slight element of offbeat weirdness to many of these tracks that can turn off more mainstream audiences, to start. While there’s not a massive difference between Does You Inspire You and Something sonically, that first album at least had several moments that felt rooted in the present, likely caused by more guitars and less synths. Given that The Killers aren’t still rocking their 80s pop-rock sound established on Hot Fuss, it’s relatively safe to say not everything old becomes new again and stays that way. Still, as glo-fi/chillwave continues to survive and mine much of their material from the 80s, so Chairlift can do so in a much bigger and blatant way. Besides, a great pop song is a great pop song, no matter what decade it’s rooted in. This is the record that may not give the band the additional popularity they were hoping for, but it does earn them one crucial piece of success pie – critical acceptance. There’s no sophmore slump for Chairlift, maybe because they were already in a slump with their first album. Something is the record where they rise to the occasion, learn from their mistakes, and hit back at the hearts of the coldhearted. They’re alive and well and will run you over in their car to prove it.
Click past the jump to stream the entire album (for a limited time only)!
Nobody is telling Cass McCombs that he should pursue a career in stand-up comedy. One listen to anything off his last couple records will tell you that the guy sounds clinically depressed. He could use a little lightening up. The irony is that some of our best comedians are severely depressed individuals. They use humor as a coping and defense mechanism, an escape from their otherwise dark lives, be it an abusive parent or navigating schoolyard politics. If somebody makes you laugh you’re less inclined to want to attack them verbally or physically. There’s also a sense of escapism in comedy, because the time spent performing makes you feel validated and appreciated. Watch the very darkly funny TV show “Louie” and you’ll get a great idea of how there’s depth and morbidity behind so much of what we laugh at. Cass McCombs is by no means music’s answer to Louis C.K., but some of his songs are intended to have undercurrents of comedy to them in spite of their pitch black outlook. Even by titling his album “WIT’S END” earlier this year the intention was not to evoke frustration, as it fits into the common phrase “I’m at my wit’s end”. He meant it more in a literal sense, as in the end of wit. Naturally, there was nothing funny about it (or so it would seem). A mere few months later however, McCombs is arguably in a different mood. As a companion piece to that, he’s now putting out his second long player of 2011, this one titled “Humor Risk”. It’s by no means a barrel of laughs, but if you can comprehend a whole lot of subtle witticisms, there are a fair number of moments on this album that will make you smile.
“Love Thine Enemy” is “Humor Risk”‘s opening track, and it examines the titular Biblical sentiment from a realist’s standpoint. “Love thine enemy but hate the lack of sincerity,” McCombs intones. Hopefully you’re able to grasp the funny part of that line, showing off how we may do what we’re told in spite of a strong distaste for it. Elsewhere McCombs has a little fun as part of a rather dark tale involving a drug smuggling operation run through the postal service on “Mystery Mail”. After seeing police descend on his house as he was returning home, the main character goes on the run only to have “the smirk is wiped from my smile/I was arrested for hopping a turnstile”. Upon being sent to prison, he contacts his cross-country drug smuggling partner Daniel, who has also been caught. “Daniel was indeed in the lion’s den/not the only lion killer in a California state pen,” McCombs amusingly intones, very much comparing his fate to that of the Biblical saint. He brings that reference back around again minutes later after his friend is killed in prison, singing, “Daniel was a good guy but a saint he ain’t”. Perhaps the most weirdly amusing track on the record though is “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery”, in which the main character seeks to get a mannequin made in his image, and is told a philosophical story by the gallery secretary intoning that not everybody has the distinctive features required to make a good mannequin. It’s a very WTF topic to spend a song on, but it does make for a great demonstration of how not every song needs to be an all-out pity party.
One of the kindest things you could say about “WIT’S END” was how thematically sound it was. That record may have been dark and depressing and slow, but the tone very much matched up and held steady from start to finish. “Humor Risk” runs more of the stylistic gamut. The balance between more uptempo numbers and somber folk songs works well enough here, even when the lyrics don’t always match up. “The Same Thing” is a sunnier acoustic melody, but it examines the dichotomy between love and pain, arguing that such differences are essentially nonexistent. Meanwhile the nearly 8 minutes of “Mystery Mail” is markedly upbeat rock and roll for a song that’s all about drugs, prison and death. Then again, those same topics and rocking melodies worked wonders for Johnny Cash. When you reach a slice of heavy depression like “To Every Man His Chimera”, it may feel like it belongs on the last record, but McCombs’s completely over-the-top vocal performance provides a sly wink against the uber-serious grain.
The grand point of course is that while a number of these new songs aren’t the epitome of lighthearted humor, even some of the more depressing moments are punctuated with energy and playfulness that makes them much more instantly likable. In that way this record also serves as a nice counterpoint to “WIT’S END”, though they’re not complete opposites of one another. This is the easier record to digest, actually perhaps the most normal and commercially viable McCombs has ever gotten over his six previous records. Yet the pleasantries and morbid rib ticklers also vary enough to make them seem like a piecemeal collection rather than a cohesive whole. The songs on “Humor Risk” were recorded in a number of locations around the country, part of the same sessions that yielded “WIT’S END”. This is far better than a b-sides or outtakes collection and none of these songs miss their mark by much, but there’s no real anchor holding the whole thing together. It’s freeing while simultaneously a little disappointing and difficult to engage with given McCombs’s past material. Hopefully next time he can get the balance just right. If he needs some help with that, perhaps he should call Morrissey. I hear that guy has a regular stand-up gig at the morgue.
Hallelujah! The Rapture are back. It’s been a minute since we last heard from them, most notably 5 years ago with the release of their second album “Pieces of the People We Love”. Where have they been since then? Well, as some bands do, there was an upheaval and personnel change that went down, complete with the personal lives of a band member or two taking a hit as well. First it was frontman Luke Jenner that quit tha band, and he had a number of things going on in his life, from reaffirming his spirituality to the birth of his son to the tragedy that saw his mother pass away. Eventually he would return though, and bassist/co-frontman Mattie Safer would quit the band. The reasons and the politics are less important than the band choosing to carry on. Now functioning as a three piece, the boys took their time in recording their third full length. The biggest hurdle facing them was how to continue evolving their sound from the original dance punk mold that has now become old hat. It was wearing super thin on their last album, and it’s even thinner now. Yet dance music itself keeps developing new and interesting quirks, even if The Rapture aren’t ones to try out a certain sound just because it’s popular. A song like “House of Jealous Lovers” was a huge hit when it came out precisely because it was unlike anything else out there at the time. So largely keeping the grooves but tweaking them further away from guitar-based shimmy, “In the Grace of Your Love” marks the band’s return to the big leagues. Back at home on their original record label DFA, the hope is to recapture the hearts and minds of the disaffected dancefloor junkies.
If you’ve heard the first single off “In the Grace of Your Love”, then you know The Rapture have proven they can still write a hit song. “How Deep Is Your Love” plays out like a 6.5 minute manifesto upon which the band rebuilds their church. Guitars are nowhere to be found in the early going, instead the song settles into a strong groove thanks to some briskly paced beats and piano, which together have roots in House music. Halfway through, there’s a breakdown to handclaps and vocals before a frenetic saxophone shifts the song into third gear and carries it home the best way it knows how. That single song is better than anything that appeared on “Pieces of the People We Love”, and while it’s not ahead of its time, by no means is it behind either. What’d be wonderful is to say that the rest of the record is as good as that single song. Unfortunately that’s not the case, but it’s certainly not without a lack of trying.
Every song on “In the Grace of Your Love” has some sort of groove to it, and essentially you can throw a full-on dance party with just this album, but not in the way you might expect. The Rapture can’t seem to resist a strong beat, but what they do with that beat keeps everyone on their toes. Rather than playing to what they know full well are their strengths, they use the majority of the new album to mess around with varied textures and instruments for the sake of both mixing it up and proving they’re more than just a flash in the pan. They’re smart to avoid guitar-propelled melodies, instead choosing to place emphasis on the much more current trend of synths. That’s evident straight from the beginning of the record with the hard-charging “Sail Away”. For the energy it tries to bring, there’s not quite enough variation in the melody to hold your interest, but Jenner’s strong vocal performance makes it worthwhile. Also, a weird, psychedelic keyboard breakdown in the final 90 seconds of the song is unexpected and challenging and a step in the right direction. A more guitar-based melody shows up on “Blue Bird”, but it’s not the frenetic strumming that dance punk typically propogates. The drums do all the heavy lifting, while Jenner adopts a falsetto that is more annoying and strained than it is charming. Crafting a dance track out of a few accordion notes and finger snaps is unconventional in itself, and “Come Back to Me” spends its first half doing just that. The mid-track breakdown into something much more sparse and synth-based seems inspired until it never builds to anything and simply peters out. One of the greatest sins on this album comes courtesy of the title track, a song that not only goes nowhere, but has the gall to be so lyrically threadbare that it’s almost a joke. After Jenner repeats the word “heaven” a bunch of times near the middle of the song’s 5.5 minute duration, he resorts to a non-verbal sing-along with the melody via “la la’s” and “whoa’s”.
The second half of the record fares a bit better. The disco funk-meets-horn-section of “Never Die Again” at least has some creative instrumental mojo going for it. Meanwhile both “Roller Coaster” and “Can You Find A Way?” feel Talking Heads inspired, but in completely different ways. Jenner tries to embody David Byrne with his vocal performance on the marked slowness of the former, while the band gets all hopped up and electro-funky on the latter. To close out “In the Grace of Your Love”, the slow jam “It Takes Time to Be A Man” appears to try and hug it out in the style of “Lean On Me”. You just want to find a friend, throw your arm over his or her shoulder, and sway back and forth. There’s a positive message to the song too, and it’d be a lot more effective were the melody not so schmaltzy. Jenner’s voice is not a good fit for a track with this sort of emotional heft and tempo. The song may be trying to leave you feeling good, but it feels closer to an ill-fitting betrayal. Looking at this record purely from a lyrics perspective though, there’s plenty more to find out of place. Given that they’ve always been a dance rock band and that dance music in general doesn’t need anything close to intelligent lyrics to work, The Rapture have never been known for coming up with brilliant wordplay. Considering their variations in style and some of the sonic experiments/risks they take here though, they’ve stepped away from their direct line to the dance floor just a bit and it makes those lyrical shortcomings that much more obvious.
For those blissful few minutes that were “How Deep Is Your Love”, it was easy to say that The Rapture had risen from the dead and returned to take the believers with them into the next realm while everyone else was left behind. The thing is, the band seems to be the ones that were left behind, and they’re now trying to play catch up. They spend much of “In the Grace of Your Love” playing around with variations on different musical styles, virtually all of them worth their salt when tested in the clubs. Yet there always seems to be one flaw or another that makes itself known on an otherwise lovely track. Plus, the shuffling around in song types makes the band seem a little indecisive and uncomfortable. They’re clearly aware that dance punk is not going to work for them anymore, but they’re not exactly sure what will. Once they find that new niche, whether it’s exploiting something fresh and popular or just sticking to a tried and true formula that has been working for bands for decades, they’ll likely be better off. Losing Mattie Safer probably didn’t help much either. If we learned one thing from this new album, it’s that The Rapture are much more versatile than originally thought. Hopefully next time they can use that to an advantage.
Why have the Beastie Boys been so incredibly slow in releasing new material? The last 15 years or so they’ve been moving at a pace senior citizens would admire, and the trio aren’t nearly at that age. Perhaps it’s more the good fortune of having a strong legacy and enough money where you don’t exactly need to make another album ever again. Outside of their strong legacy and continued popularity in spite of their long breaks between records, one big indicator of how well they’re doing financially can be determined simply by examining what they’ve done as a group the last several years. Their last technical “album” was 2007’s “The Mix Up”, notable for being completely instrumental. Their last hip hop record was 2004’s “To the Five Boroughs”, a love letter to post-9/11 New York that saw a scaling back on both their compositional style as well as general silliness. Then there was the fate of “Hot Sauce Committee Part One”. Penciled in for a 2009 release, the Beastie Boys chose to first delay it indefinitely and then skip releasing it altogether once MCA came down with cancer. If you need cash or even just want more of it (especially if you have crazy expensive medical bills), you don’t put off releasing an already complete album like that. The point is, the Beastie Boys are pretty well off. They could quit the music business and live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Instead, they’re once again returning, this time with a re-worked version of what was supposed to be “Hot Sauce Committee Part One” and appropriately calling it “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two”.
Perhaps the biggest indicator that the Beastie Boys were back was the music video they released for the new single “Make Some Noise”, which was part of a larger 30 minute film called “Fight For Your Right Revisited”. For even the most casual Beastie Boys fan there was something worthwhile in the video. Not only did it have a lot in common visually with the group’s breakout hit “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)”, but the new single also boasted an immense list of guest stars such as Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Elijah Wood, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Ted Danson, John C. Reilly, Rainn Wilson, Will Arnett, Susan Sarandon and Steve Buscemi. It may be the most celebrity-intense video of all time for a song that’s both remarkably badass and also very old school for them. Surprisingly, that’s how a lot of “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” comes across – as a relatively vintage Beastie Boys record. They’ve never been the sort of guys to try and outdo or strongly compete against their hip hop peers, but there’s also been very little reason for them to. The voices of Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA are unique to the point where they’re just about the only group of white rappers people can name. As it stands though, hip hop collectives are always less prominent than individuals, though back in the earliest days of the Beastie Boys there was Wu-Tang and NWA making waves. Even then, despite their frequent use of samples the Beasties still had little trouble picking up instruments on stage and playing them live as need be. It was their connection with rock music that actually earned them their original audience of alternative rockers. The loads of guitar riffs on tracks like “Sabotage” and “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” brought them an edge nobody else was doing (but that Cypress Hill, among others, would later pick up on), and those same concepts remain pretty much theirs and theirs alone today. With the more minimalistic “To the Five Boroughs” and the more sample-heavy “Hello Nasty”, the Beastie Boys moved away from some of the elements that held steadfast those first four records, either out of boredom or the general urge to play around with some new things. Where “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” shakes out in all this is as almost a mixture of the more classic and contemporary sides of the group. There are some live instruments, some sampling, and other bits from obscure old records and such. Nothing new per se, but if you’re already a fan then you should know better than to expect any real surprises.
Even the couple guest stars on the album aren’t necessarily surprising. “Too Many Rappers” features fellow Brooklynite Nas and was intended to be the first single from “Hot Sauce Committee Part One” back in 2009. The track was sent to radio in advance of that unreleased album, and as such a slightly tweaked “New Reactionaries Version” now appears on “Part Two” officially. Santigold plays the hip hop staple role of female singing the vocal hook in the chorus on “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”, and it’s refreshing for variety’s sake. Santi herself does a fine job, but it’s also somewhat of a thankless role, so the simple charm is just having her on there in the first place. The rest of the record just has the Beastie Boys doing what they do best, and approaching that style in a wide variety of ways to keep the listener engaged. “Lee Majors Come Again” is one of the more standout tracks on the record, most notable because of how it’s more rock and roll/guitar heavy than these guys have been in a long, long time. It’s also a whole lot of fun in that Beastie Boys sort of way. The music of their youth gets an entertaining throwback jam courtesy of “Nonstop Disco Powerpack”, and a more serious/slower moment shows up via “Long Burn the Fire”. So, like the mixture of old styles and new, “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” is a well-rounded and enjoyable affair, provided you already have a predisposed liking of the trio.
They haven’t mentioned it, nor have many suggested it, but “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” could very well be the final Beastie Boys record. MCA isn’t cancer-free yet, despite reports earlier this year that he was. If his medical problems persist indefinitely, that could be the group’s downfall. But even before the cancer, the glacial pace at which they’ve recorded their last couple albums, plus their collective ages (they’re all in their mid-to-late 40s) could mean they’re getting too old for this shit. The new record doesn’t show their age though, outside of making a lot of the same references in their rhymes as they were more than 10 years ago. They’re still as creatively strong and original as always, and the energy appears there too. It’s also more of a return to form after the relative disappointment that was “To the Five Boroughs”. It may be no “Hello Nasty”, nor does it quite have that “of the moment” gusto their earliest albums like “Paul’s Boutique” and “Ill Communication” had going for them, but it is a gentle reminder that the Beastie Boys have still got it and can flaunt it when they choose to. What’s old can never really be new again, but there’s still a large market for vintage. Some fashions never go out of style, and in that same regard nor do the Beastie Boys.
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.
A big welcome back to The Kills. It has been three years since their last record “Midnight Boom”, and while it certainly seems like a normal gap between albums, a lot has happened to the duo since then. Okay, well maybe not so much to Jamie Hince. He’s been spending a lot of time developing his relationship with supermodel Kate Moss to the point where they’ll be getting married in the near future. But running away from the paparazzi is work in and of itself, so that gives him something to do. Alison Mosshart is the real go-getter, joining up with Jack White and his motley band of dudes as frontwoman for The Dead Weather. They certainly attracted more attention than The Kills ever have, and they made not just one, but two albums and did lengthy tours to support each. At their rate of production, it wouldn’t have been surprising if The Dead Weather became a main project for all the members involved, leaving any other groups in the dust. Jack White is never content to sit in one place for too long though, and while there’s no apparent new Raconteurs record on the horizon, he’s got Third Man Records to run in the meantime. So Mosshart is free to do her own thing and her Kills bandmate Hince could probably use some extra cash to help pay for his wedding. They got together in Michigan, brought back the good old “Midnight Boom” production team, and recorded their fourth long player “Blood Pressures”.
The first 15 seconds of opening cut “Future Starts Slow” is exclusively drums of the loud and booming kind, something you wouldn’t normally hear from The Kills given their lack of an actual drummer. They’ve always had beats, be they from a drum machine or in pre-recorded samples, but never quite so vivid or dominant. Once Hince’s guitar comes grinding in and he launches into a dual vocal with Mosshart though, things immediately feel familiar in that Kills sort of way. The dark, almost witchy guitar fuzz of “Satellite” is eerily reminiscent of The Dead Weather, to the point where if you replaced Hince’s backing vocals with Jack White’s there really would be no difference. By way of contrast, “Heart Is a Beating Drum” is very distinctly a Kills song, though it stretches capacity to allow for little elements that made each of their first three albums stand on their own. The choppy, glitchy nature of “Midnight Boom”, complete with skittering percussion, meets the bluesy elements of “No Wow” and “Keep On Your Mean Side”. Unlike those previous records though, Mosshart’s lead vocal is a sheer force unto itself, definitely proving she’s learned a thing or two about her own abilities while off on her side project adventure. Amid washes of reverb, “Nail in My Coffin” starts off at a pretty strong pace, and it only picks up more steam as it works into a frenzy towards its conclusion. It also boasts one of the catchiest choruses on the entire record, even if a bunch of “oh oh ohs” aren’t the most lyrically above board.
Things on “Blood Pressures” start to take a hit right around “Wild Charms”, a Jamie Hince-fronted ballad that sits smack dab in the middle of the record. It brings the album to a screeching halt, but spares us from true torture by having a running time of a mere 75 seconds. Hince isn’t a bad singer, he just can’t seem to muster up the same passion and intensity that his partner in crime does every time she gets a microphone in front of her. Just because the song is a slow ballad doesn’t mean it needs to be sung like you just don’t care. The way you sell sweeping and slow sadness is best exemplified on “The Last Goodbye”, in which Mosshart dives into a deep croon that’s more 1950s than anything else. For The Kills it’s completely atypical, made even more so by the muted piano and sweeping strings. Just being dropped down towards the end of the record on its own little island is fascinating enough, but as it’s preceeded by a couple mediocre tracks that push it to stand out that much more. Though it fails to actively fit in with everything else, it does very much show that The Kills can be successful on a number of different levels beyond just moody, minimalist blues rock. Speaking of which, the spiky “You Don’t Own the Road” brings back that familiar Kills style, with Mosshart audibly sneering as Hince claws away at his electric guitar trying to wrangle it in. The record ends on a higher point with “Pots and Pans”, a track that essentially mixes everything that came before it in a bowl and stirs it up, It’s a plodding number appropriate to close out any record, and the use of a dusty acoustic guitar, drum machine and some signature electric makes it just a touch more refined than most everything else. Call it a testament to the subtle progression of the band over these four albums.
Though it might like to be, “Blood Pressures” is not quite the best Kills record to date. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince do sound refreshed and excited to be back, but despite that most of the songs lack the pop edge of their previous effort “Midnight Boom”. While it is slower and less marketable overall, the small adjustments the duo have made are worthwhile and justify their continued existence, Mosshart’s vocals stand out more than ever, dropping the hint that maybe Hince should keep quiet just a little more next time. The increased reliance on percussion or percussive elements is intriguing as well, particularly in the first half of the album where it practically rules over the catchiest and best songs. Finally there’s the songwriting, which has picked up significantly since the last album. Prior to now, The Kills have used mantras to burrow into your brain. The nonstop repetition of the same lines in “URA Fever” or “Tape Song” were fine because they were backed by equally memorable melodies. There’s a whole lot of verse-chorus-verse all over “Blood Pressures”, and it makes you want to pay closer attention to what they’re actually singing about instead of simply falling back to a hook. Good for The Kills for taking that progressive and more intelligent stance. It doesn’t quite clear them of the near crime scene that occurs for a couple moments in the later part of the record, but it makes them less grisly. The Kills may not win over any new fans as a result of this new album (outside of the ones showing up on account of The Dead Weather), but for those of us already familiar with their previous efforts, there’s certainly enough promise here to keep us coming back so long as they’re still willing to throw it out there.