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Mid-Year Review: 5 Surprising Albums

Looking on the opposite side of the penny from yesterday’s Mid-Year Review of 5 Disappointing Albums, today sees an examination of 5 albums released in the first half of this year that have genuinely surprised me. To help clarify, as I also did yesterday, when I use the word “surprising albums”, it’s NOT intended to imply they’re the BEST or my favorites, but simply records that have caught me the most off guard. I was not expecting these records to be as good as they turned out to be, and I hope that if you haven’t heard these albums yet that you make it a point to sometime soon. As it was yesterday, these albums are not ranked, but are listed in alphabetical order to prevent such impressions from occurring. And on that note, what albums have surprised you so far this year? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (Download: Conscience Killer)
After the disaster that was 2007’s “Baby 81”, my confidence in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was shot. Despite the relatively poor reviews their first two albums received, their fuzz-fueled Jesus and Mary Chain-baiting rock captivated me like few other bands at the time did. That they have been on a slow and steady drop in quality since then has been unfortunate. The reality is that I gave “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” a listen more as a formality in preparation for another scathing review attacking their inability to commit to a sound and the lack of passion they’ve been putting behind their songs recently. What happened instead was that for the first time in a long time, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club finally sounded like they were back in a big way. Think of them like pro athletes that slowly spiral into the dangerous world of drug addiction. “Baby 81” was them hitting bottom, and now after a rehab program, they’re back in shape and almost in peak form. Let’s just hope they can keep on the straight and narrow from here on out. [Buy]

Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM
For her entire life, Charlotte Gainsbourg has been living in the shadow of her father. No matter what she’s done, from her acting to her very sporadic music career, people almost always bring up Serge. In 2006, Charlotte released her first album in 20 years “5:55”, and given that she paired up with French pop duo Air, that record sounded like a tribute to her father rather than a statement of individuality. That wasn’t the intention, and thankfully for “IRM” she joined forces with Beck to make a diverse and fascinating record that’s actually the best thing either of them have done in a long time. We see a new side of Charlotte and though she didn’t write the lyrics or compose the songs, her vocal performance stretches beyond anything she’s done previously, and with more emotion too. [Buy]

The Futureheads – The Chaos (Download: Struck Dumb)
The Futureheads seem to have been slipping ever since their self-titled debut album. Of course a band that tends to specialize in short, 2 minute bursts of pure energy and hooks isn’t exactly built on a strategy for longevity. Still, continuing in their tradition of releasing a new album every two years, “News and Tributes” was a solid sophmore effort, but the band fell off the wagon when they tried to compose longer, more serious songs on their last album “This Is Not the World”. As if they’d gotten the message, “The Chaos” brings back to The Futureheads exactly what the title describes. Some of their poppiest, most addictive music since they first burst onto the music scene several years ago. Combine that with a highly combustible and insanely fun live show, and The Futureheads are more than equipped to surprise you in 2010. [Buy]

Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Download: Sun Hands)
There’s been a slow and low build of buzz for Local Natives since their performance impressed so many at SXSW 2009, but I’ll admit to being late to that party. All too many times I’ve heard of bands being called “the next Grizzly Bear” or “the next Fleet Foxes”, only to be disappointed by these supposed next big things. When “Gorilla Manor” was finally released in the U.S. earlier this year, I wasn’t even fully aware of it until the high praise reviews started rolling in. Even then I was hesitant to even give them a try. It took stumbling upon the song “Wide Eyes” by accident one day while randomly surfing the internet to compel me to give Local Natives a try. And boy am I glad I did. The album is nothing short of amazing, and like Fleet Foxes scratched a certain itch for me in 2008, Local Natives satisfy that same part of my brain in 2010. This is an all-too-unheard album from the first half of the year that deserves every shred of recognition it gets, so if you’ve been holding out like I was, buy into these guys. They’re the real deal. [Buy]

MGMT – Congratulations
I’ve made it a point in the past to complain about MGMT. Their 2007 “debut” album “Oracular Spectacular” featured a handful of songs recycled from years old EPs, and it’s those songs that gained the band so much attention. That, along with an extremely poor live show from them I witnessed in 2005 drove my dislike of the band to near extremes. Well, their second record “Congratulations” earns them exactly that from me. Not only is it a full album’s worth of material that was completely written and recorded in the past year, but the songs on it give the proverbial middle finger to the rabid fans of their debut. That they didn’t go for the easy sell and made challenging, psychedelic songs while signed to a major label is seriously courageous. On top of that, the songs are pretty damn good too. Well played MGMT, you won me over and that was something I never saw coming. [Buy]

Show Review: The Futureheads + The Like [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 6-12-10]

The best surprises are always the ones that you never see coming. Well I suppose that’s the definition of the word “surprise”, but I’d also say that some supposed surprises are easier to predict than others, like a TV show’s season-ending cliffhanger where the hero is in serious danger of being killed. You may be surprised to learn that at the start of a new season, the hero survives and escapes the deadly situation. Of course there’s also the bad surprise, where your hopes are high and are met with ultimate disappointment. But the surprise I’m talking about is the sort where you’ve got little to no expectation at the start, only to be completely floored and blown away by something incredible. Rarely do such surprises happen, and that’s really what makes them so special and immensely difficult to capture. Such a surprise happened to me on Saturday night, and as part of this show review, I’m obliged to tell you about it. But first, some finer details.

The venue is Lincoln Hall, the newest (and one of the hottest…booking-wise) concert venue in Chicago. It’s a late show, and The Futureheads are headlining a bill with The Like and The Static Jacks. After arriving a little late, I learned that The Static Jacks had already finished and The Like was preparing to start their set. My history with The Like has been a short one that I can sum up in a quick sentence. They released a debut album in 2005, which like their band name I moderately liked. They’re now releasing their second record this week. They are an all girl group who make relatively inoffensive but moderately catchy rock songs that primarily deal with the subject of boys and romance. It’s all far more intricate and developed than the almost “Plain Jane” exterior it might come off as, especially if you’re fully aware that a couple core members of the band are daughters of music industry veterans. Ignore that point and just listen to the music, because it’s definitely good enough to have come from a group of clearly talented individuals. That said, as a live act, The Like aren’t half bad either. Boasting a slightly revamped lineup that was established last year, the girls came out and quickly kicked things into high gear. They powered through their set at a dizzying pace, rarely stopping even for an applause break. Stage banter was virtually nonexistent, except to thank the other bands on the bill and the crowd for coming. As for the songs themselves, they were decent. The Like performed them with pluck and aplomb and were mostly engaging in their delivery. There was nothing revolutionary or immensely exciting about how it all went down, but then again neither are their songs. It’s the sort of music you’d expect from these girls, and it’s also good enough to make you wonder why this band isn’t more popular. There’s a catchiness and general enjoyment to the songs, and I honestly believe that’s worth a lot. Most of the songs they played were new ones from their upcoming “Release Me”, and they had a solid 60’s girl group vibe to them. I’ve yet to hear the new record, but based on the live versions of the songs, it has potential. So does The Like’s live show. They may not have blown me away with their set, but I’m confident that as they continue to make new music and do plenty of touring, things will continue to improve. Best of luck, ladies.

Buy The Like’s “Release Me” from Amazon

To the strains of Cheap Trick’s “Hello There”, which prominently features the line “Are you ready to rock?”, The Futureheads emerged on stage prepared to do just that. Whether they’ve been using the song all tour or it was specifically chosen for Cheap Trick’s hometown, it made for an amusing start to what would be a show filled with fun little moments just like that one. “Hello, we are The Futureheads. Prepare to meet your doom,” said frontman Barry Hyde as the band launched furiously into the title track of their new album “The Chaos”. The song itself is much like a time bomb, filled with raw energy and featuring the countdown of “5,4,3,2,1”. As suddenly as it had started, less than 2 minutes later, the music abruptly stopped, and the band did too – frozen like statues in place while the crowd cheered up a storm. After a good few seconds of this, the band ripped through the chorus one last time. If that’s not the absolute right way to start a show, I don’t know what is. “Thank you very much, Chicago. This is the very last stop on our U.S. tour, and I want it to get messy in here tonight. I want you all to go to the bar, grab a bottle of vodka, pour it on yourself, and then set yourself on fire,” Hyde quipped. “That’s the spirit!” guitarist Ross Millard chimed in with the pun. And so it went, clear that not only would The Futureheads rip through their four album catalogue, but they’d do so in the most entertaining way possible. See, unlike so many touring bands today, The Futureheads have the oft-coveted characteristic known as stage charisma, and they’ve got it coming out their arses.

Of course the show wasn’t all about witty banter, even though it did include some great commentaries on the USA vs. England World Cup match earlier in the day (“our goaltender must have had olive oil on his gloves or something”) and Chicago (“I love the architecture here. You’ve got a lot of things that spiral, and that’s fantastic. I especially love your carparks [parking garages]. Chicago has the best carparks in the world.”). No, speaking specifically for the music, The Futureheads delivered a performance that was directly relational in energy to that of their songs. Fast, fun, upbeat, and markedly faithful to the original recordings. That is to say, the tempo and vocal harmonies weren’t off in the least, and that just made for a better show. The music itself kind of pushes you in that direction initially anyways, but the band and their great, loose energy drove it home. They also covered every necessary song in their entire catalogue thus far, and smartly pulling much of the material from their first album and their most recent one. Particularly great were renditions of “Meantime”, “Decent Days and Nights” and “First Day”, all of which held up to the lofty standards they presented on record initially. The new songs fared quite well too, in particular “Heartbeat Song”, “Struck Dumb” and “Jupiter” – though my favorite of the new stuff probably came with “The Connector”. In addition to that, crowd participation was heartily encouraged, whether it was clapping along with the beat, doing the “bouncy dance” (jumping up and down mindlessly), or splitting the room in half for a sing-along game to “Hounds of Love” that saw The Like and The Static Jacks returning to the stage to help out. More often than not, those “this side sings one part, and the other side sings another part” games are foolish ploys that never work out as well as you might hope. While the crowd-infused version of “Hounds of Love” wasn’t exactly perfect, it worked about as well as it could be expected to.

After powering through a 16-song set, The Futureheads said goodnight, but then naturally said they’d be back in a minute for an encore. True to their word, they weren’t gone for more than 60 seconds, and when they came back, they played the very first song they ever wrote, “Le Garage”. From the sound of things, the band only intended on playing a 2-3 song encore. What wound up actually happening was a different story. The venue might only have been 3/4ths full, but what crowd was there only wanted more. Given that it was the last night of their U.S. tour, the band looked like they didn’t want to leave the stage either, so they played a couple more beyond what they had originally planned for. It got to the point where they claimed they’d never done a 5-song encore before, but something that night coaxed them into it. They may have played 21 songs total, but given the speed at which they ripped through them, only about 90 minutes had passed and most of us were having the time of our lives. Still, all good things must come to an end, and after powering through “Man Ray”, The Futureheads called it a night once and for all.

At the beginning of this now lengthy piece, I talked a little bit about great surprises. The ones that sneak up on you when you least expect them and knock your socks off in a great way. The Futureheads’ live show was one of those moments for me, not just a stand-out highlight of my concergoing year thus far, but perhaps the most dynamic and fun time I’ve had at a show in a few years. This coming from a band that I had a moderate liking for going in and felt that if they just did their harmonies right that’d be good enough. Instead they went very far above and beyond any expectations I could have had and earned a spot among my favorite live acts. Their U.S. tour may be over, but if you’re from Europe and you’ve not yet seen The Futureheads, make sure to check and see if they’re coming to your city sometime soon. At the end of their set, Ross told the crowd that it was their first show in Chicago in four years. He also said they’d be back sooner than that next time. I certainly hope that’s true, because I’m now eagerly looking forward to the next time The Futureheads come to town.

The Futureheads – Struck Dumb
The Futureheads – Skip to the End

Buy The Futureheads’ “The Chaos” from Amazon

Set List:
The Chaos
Walking Backwards
Heartbeat Song
Struck Dumb
Decent Days and Nights
I Can Do That
First Day
Skip to the End
Back to the Sea
Sun Goes Down
The Beginning of the Twist
Carnival Kids
Hounds of Love
Le Garage
The Connector
Work Is Never Done
Stupid and Shallow
Man Ray

Album Review: The Futureheads – The Chaos [Nul/Dovecote]

Around the grand year of 2004, there was a sharp influx of British bands making waves on U.S. shores. Call it a mini or secondary British invasion, but with bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party leading the way with stellar debut albums, this “angular” movement quickly gained momentum. As we saw in the years that followed, that momentum quickly petered out thanks to poorly crafted sophmore albums and the ever-changing tastes of music fans. The Futureheads were part of this group of British bands, and while they may not have gotten quite the press that some of their counterparts did, their self-titled debut album was nothing to scoff at. In certain circles, primarily critical ones, The Futureheads were a beloved band whose energetic punk style and effortless vocal harmonies made them unique and fun. That their most talked about moment to date is their cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” is something of a testament to how quickly their star rose and faded, even if their second album 2006’s “News & Tributes” wasn’t bad. That record was a bit slower and broader than their debut, and fans responded with timidity and indifference. The band’s last record “This Is Not The World” took an even further step away from the unique sound of their debut in favor of going as broad and pop friendly as possible. It was a gambit that failed admirably, and though they may not have faded into obscurity as a result of it, the album definitely didn’t do them any favors. With their new album “The Chaos”, The Futureheads seem to be looking to turn things around and get back to basics.

The most noticeable thing about “The Chaos” on first listen is that the songs are faster, leaner and more experimental than most of their past two albums combined. That’s apparent right from the get-go, when the opening song and title track counts you down with a “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Let’s Go!” and proceeds to speed through 4 minutes with a vigor The Futureheads haven’t done in awhile. “Struck Dumb” fares even better as it incorporates more of the band’s trademark harmonies and witty lyrics while also keeping you slightly off balance and wondering where the next left turn will be. Unfortunately the 2.5 minutes of “Heartbeat Song” come next, and the more tempered and radio-friendly side of the band rears its ugly head once again. The song’s not terrible, but it’s probably the weakest thing that this album has to offer. One of the more exciting tracks comes in the form of “The Connector”, which functions much like a carefully crafted circuit that gets hit with a shout’s worth of vocal harmoniy every few seconds. It makes for one of the more memorable and exciting Futureheads songs to date. Where a song like “I Can Do That” goes wrong is by combining some fast-paced guitar chords with a chorus that repeats the song’s title over and over again. It’s eerily reminiscent of the Kaiser Chiefs, and this band is better than that. A solid guitar solo and halfway decent verses help but don’t completely pull the track out of the gutter. The same goes for “Sun Goes Down”, though the final minute of the song which descends into fuzzed out madness complete with screaming is a welcome twist. Much of the rest of “The Chaos” is classic first album Futureheads, replete with energy, bursts of great harmonies, and curveballs when it comes to song structure. They have an uncanny ability to throw you for a loop and then wrap up a song just as you’re starting to get your bearings straight. If this album has one clear standout highlight, you’ve got to wait until the very end to hear it. The first 40 seconds of “Jupiter” are done completely a capella before guitars come in and bring an odd energy to the song only made odder by the harmonies that develop out of the verses as if the band’s been struck by ADD momentarily. There’s a breakdown at the end of the song where everything comes to a stop and you’re left with just a slow, quiet vocal, but things burst to life once again for one last slap through the chorus before shutting down completely. That, combined with the 90 seconds of pure a capella that serves as a hidden track make up the most brilliant 6 minutes The Futureheads have given us to date. It’s exciting, unpredictable stuff that’s energized and thrilling and gives a clearer picture as to what smart direction the band could move towards next.

Don’t call it a comeback just yet, though The Futureheads never really left in the first place, but “The Chaos” provides a clear reminder of exactly why this band got noticed in the first place. It may be a return to form, and in fact some might view it as the band trying to reclaim their past, but what this record really has to offer is both the acknowledgment by the band that they’re now fully aware of where their strengths lie, and also a few ideas of where they could head in the future. For fans of the band that felt let down by the past couple albums because they didn’t live up to the promise of the first one, now might be a good time to have another look at The Futureheads. They’re not quite operating at the absolutely brilliant level of their debut as there are some shades of the last two records still hanging about, but it’s a remarkable show of strength by a band that many had abandoned after the broader and simpler material just wasn’t their fancy. Should you be new to this party and have yet to discover what The Futureheads are offering, now seems as good of a time as any to get on board with these guys and their manic punk sensibilities. “The Chaos” is a fun record almost all the way through, and the title provides much truth in advertising as well. Invest yourself in a copy of it should you be so inclined.

The Futureheads – Struck Dumb

Buy “The Chaos” from Amazon

P.S. – The Futureheads are currently on a short U.S. tour. If you’re able, go see them live!

The Futureheads U.S. Tour Dates:
June 2 – Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
June 3 – Baltimore, MD @ Ottobar
June 4 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
June 5 – Hoboken, NJ @ Maxwells
June 7 – Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
June 8 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
June 10 – Toronto, ONT @ Mod Club
June 11 – Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick
June 12 – Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall

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