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Mid-Year Review: 5 Disappointing Albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOMORROW – Mid-Year Review: 5 Surprising Albums

Album Review: Stars – The Five Ghosts [Vagrant/Soft Revolution]

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Stars before, they’re the main band of Amy Millan, who is both a former full-time member of Broken Social Scene as well as a solo artist herself. In Stars, Millan has the added benefit of Torquil Campbell, a guy who more shares the spotlight than tries to steal it. This allows for plenty of back-and-forth singing and harmonizing, all while backed by friendly and often beautiful indie pop instrumentation. What escalated Stars’ popularity amongst the indie community was their 2005 album “Set Yourself on Fire”, a sharp and gorgeous record that featured smartly written songs and just the right degree of production to make the album sound small when it was anything but. Quietly anthemic is a great way to describe tracks like “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Ageless Beauty”, two highlights on an album packed with them. A couple years later Stars would return again with “In Our Bedroom After the War”, which attempted to push their sound to the “next level” mostly by going big or going home. The compositions swelled in size, and suddenly this small band was playing second fiddle to huge orchestral movements and choruses as wide as Canada itself. For a band that had earned their reputation on the idea that big things come in small packages, many long-time fans had adverse reactions to that last album. After yet another sojourn into solo album territory, Millan returned to Stars a few months ago and they officially return this week with their fifth album, “The Five Ghosts”.

The good thing about Stars is that they seem to know that they screwed up with their last record. Whether that was a function of fans telling them so or simply poorer album sales, somewhere along the line they must have realized “In Our Bedroom After the War” wasn’t their best work. To try and get back the magic of “Set Yourself on Fire”, the band brought Tom McFall, who produced that album, back for “The Five Ghosts”. In a similar fashion to your average movie sequel, McFall’s efforts this time aren’t as effective this time around, and in some ways it’s almost like he forgot how to properly produce this band. Much of the new album sounds muddy and clumsily put together, with the vocals shoved to the forefront above all else. It takes away the power that many of these songs might have had otherwise, when you can barely tell there are strings in the background on a track like “Winter Bones” or the synths on “Fixed” get relegated to wallpaper rather than allowing them to shimmer and shake. You listen to these new songs and then go back to “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” to hear the swells of horns and strings and wonder exactly what happened to that band.

Of course some of the problems with “The Five Ghosts” rest on the band too, not just their producer. To their credit, Stars smartly pulled back on the bombastic anthems of their last album, but did they pull back too far? Even compared to the densely layered indie pop of “Set Yourself on Fire”, “The Five Ghosts” feels small. Perhaps that has a lot to do with the somber melodies that populate this new record. This is by far the darkest and most depressing Stars album to date, and the lack of peppy pop songs isn’t helping anyone. But in addition to the dark clouds overhead, many of the songs are similar to one another and relatively pedestrian as far as melodies are concerned. “Coffee house bland” seems to be the name of the game here, where the idea is to keep the sound broad and avoiding risk wherever possible. In other words, Stars aren’t taking any chances towards furthering their sound, and instead they’ve regressed worse than a former alcoholic picking up the bottle again. It’s tragic to hear a band that was once so fascinating and full of life come off as bland and practically neutered.

Believe it or not, there are some good things about “The Five Ghosts”. First off, none of the songs are terrible. There may not be any surprisingly great moments, but there aren’t any abhorrently bad ones either. And secondly, the Amy Millan-centered songs turn out the best in this case mostly due to her vocal performance. Her breathy vocal style lends itself well to the balladry many of these songs contain. Not only that, but she lends a fair deal of weight and emotion to these songs through her voice, something that hasn’t always come across in anything she’s done previously. So really though many of the songs may not be the best Stars have to offer, Millan’s star does particularly shine in this instance, while Torquil Campbell takes a little more of a backseat and lackadaisical approach to his singing than he normally does. Like the tone of the album though, your general impression of it might come off as somewhat gray. To put it another way, a good review quote for the album cover might be, “Eh, it’s alright.” So Stars won’t be making any new friends with this spirit-themed album. A couple highlights do come in the form of tracks like “Changes” and “I Died So I Could Haunt You”, but for the most part results are sketchy at best. Here’s to hoping that yet again Stars can keep their ears to the ground and find a fresher, more adventurous path to take next time around. If not, their visibility as a good Canadian indie pop band might just disappear like the spirits in their album title.

Stars – We Don’t Want Your Body

Buy “The Five Ghosts” from Amazon

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