The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: the smiths

Album Review: The Drums – Portamento [Frenchkiss/Moshi Moshi/Island]

It’s been just over a year since The Drums released their self-titled debut album, and for all the touring they did to promote it, for whatever reason the band had enough time on their hands to write and record a follow-up. This in spite of undergoing a lineup change last fall as well. There are a number of potential reasons for a band to crank out another record so quickly. If you’re like Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox or The Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger or Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, songwriting comes so naturally that it becomes problematic if you aren’t consistently making new music. Other bands and artists will keep creating new music in order to keep the hype cycle going, keeping your name on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Then you’ve got those that did relatively well with their last album, but are being pressured by their label to hurry up and record something new in the hopes of generating more cash while the iron is still hot. Of course some artists have also been operating with a low profile for a lengthy period of time and have built a large catalogue of songs and demos that are just waiting to get that studio polish on them. Where do The Drums fall in amongst these possible options? Well, with their new record “Portamento”, it’s a little tough to say. Based purely on conjecture and the songs on this new album, it would seem that the band probably should have given some more time and consideration when putting together their sophmore record.

What brought The Drums moderate success in the first place was their whistle-happy song “Let’s Go Surfing” off that debut album, a track that was super catchy and embodied the spirit of its title. In fact, “surf rock” is one of the descriptive labels you could affix to the band’s sound, though they go far beyond that. They earned early comparisons to New Order and Joy Division, along with The Cure and The Smiths, essentially amounting to their sound being well within the realm of 80s synth-pop, but again with that sunnier, surf edge to it. The funny part is that in spite of their lighter and brighter pop side, the band is more interested in poking fun at those elements and recent surge in popularity than they are succumbing to their charms. Plus, though the melodies themselves might be charmingly upbeat, close examination of the lyrics reveal a much darker and more depressed side of the band. That’s a big part of where the 80s new wave influence comes in, along with a bunch of bass-dominant songs. There’s a certain script that The Drums followed on their debut that felt wholly unoriginal while still sucking us in and winning us over. Here appeared to be a band on the verge of either making it or breaking it based solely on whether or not they played their cards right.

“Portamento” does very little to change what we’re already familiar with about The Drums. They’re still all about those super catchy 80s-inspired melodies with just a hint of lighthearted surf, but they do throw in a twist or two to project at least some evolution. The songs go a touch darker in mood this time around, whether it’s discussing the absence of an afterlife in “Book of Revelation” and “Searching for Heaven” or emotional unavailability in relationships in “Hard to Love” and “I Don’t Know How to Love”. Yet there’s still a very toe-tapping and easygoing feel to many of the melodies. Instrumentally speaking, the band has broadened their sonic palette just a little, adding in things like vocal looping and a greater reliance on synths which means pulling away from guitars just a touch. Yet it doesn’t work out too well, especially on “Searching for Heaven” where synths and vocals are the only two elements in play. Pinned to start the second half of the record, the track just limps along with little to nothing going for it outside of Johnathan Pierce’s vocals, which come across as oddly off-key and disaffected. It becomes one of the album’s standout moments for all the wrong reasons. While nothing else ever gets quite so poor in quality, “Portamento” is absolutely front-loaded with all the best moments. Either that, or after the first half the second half starts to sound like virtually the same songs over and over again. The tempo stays relatively quick and the choruses keep pushing hook after hook like they’re going out of style, but they’re rendered as blunt and moderately ineffective on tracks like “If He Likes It Let Him Do It” and “In the Cold”.

The good news is that The Drums still have at least a handful of super addictive songs on “Portamento” to keep us on the leash for a little while longer. “Days” is by no means their most creative effort, but it’s tough to not find yourself humming it to yourself a few hours after hearing it. There’s a saxophone that pops up on “What You Were” that is a nice little treat when paired with the brisk pace and dreamy atmosphere. First single “Money” is super fun and super danceable, even if the chorus strikes far too many times over 4 minutes that it begins to feel uncomfortable. Amidst the lowlights the second half of the record brings, “I Need A Doctor” is either a good song or feels a lot like one because it’s sandwiched between two bad ones. “How It Ended” closes the record on a strong note though, practically rediscovering the energy and playfulness of the first half of the album and leaving you wondering why the entire record couldn’t have maintained that same quality.

In a nutshell, if you liked the first Drums record, you’ll likely feel the same way about the second. There are no tracks on “Portamento” that are as strong as “Let’s Go Surfing” was, but there are still plenty of successes on it in spite of that. Even then, it’s easy to call this new record a disappointment, largely because the band appears entirely reliant on big choruses and brisk tempos to get by. They seem to figure that the more times you hear a hook, the greater chance it has of getting stuck in your head. As the old saying goes though, quantity does not always equal quality. Even when you are faced with a quality chorus that doesn’t necessarily mean the more times you hear it the better. If you were to eat your absolutely favorite meal every single day, eventually you’d grow tired of it and desire a little more variety. The small sonic experiments with synths and looping and horns don’t nearly provide the sort of variety you might hope for. None of the songs on this album make it past the 4.5 minute mark, but with how quickly they bounce from verse to chorus to verse, there are times where you just want to check and see how much time is left because it starts to feel like it’s been going on forever. The same can be said about the entire record, which may only be 45 minutes but feels closer to 60. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it moves like a snail when you’re not. The Drums may have approached “Portamento” with good intentions and the hope of sustainability/increased popularity, but the reality of the situation is that they’re trying too hard. Perhaps if they ease back on that throttle just a little, take their time and write more carefully layered melodies, success will find them instead of the opposite.

The Drums – Money

Buy “Portamento” from Amazon

Album Review: Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See [Domino]

When Arctic Monkeys titled their third album “Humbug”, it was a telling sign. They had recorded the album with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme out at his Joshua Tree studio in the California desert, and appropriately it was a dark, often psychedelic sojourn that divided much of the band’s fan base. Whereas you had previous songs titled things like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Brianstorm”, a song created about a weird guy they met one night while on tour, the last record featured “Crying Lightning” and “Fire and the Thud”, both written with the same sense of sincerity that their titles suggest. The point is, after reaching success as fresh-faced teenagers, Arctic Monkeys had grown up and were politely requesting to be taken seriously. In addition to many fans being turned off by that record, reviews were not strong either, suggesting this change was for the worse. Nearly two years later, the guys seem to have heard and registered that disappointment, creating their fourth record and settling on the title of “Suck It and See”. The phrase has its share of speculated origins, but at its heart is a bit of a joke with sexual undertones. Between that and song titles like “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala”, it seems that Arctic Monkeys are back to their jovial, energetic selves that so many people fell in love with across their first two albums.

It’s fascinating that the first track from “Suck It and See” that Arctic Monkeys chose to release to the general public was “Brick By Brick”, a heavy-handed and psychedelic song fronted by drummer Matt Helders and very much in the spirit of the majority of “Humbug”. If the band was hoping to show some of the lessons they learned from that last album, “Brick By Brick” wasn’t the track to do that with. Taking that same sort of guitar crunch and applying it to some smartass lyrics helps quite a bit actually, as evidenced by “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”. Whether frontman Alex Turner is looking to, “Go into business with a grizzly bear” or “find a well-known hard man/and start a fight”, it makes for an entertaining listen even if it’s not quite catchy enough to be considered a strong single. What’s even more fascinating is how both those tracks are very much unlike the rest of the album. The teaching moment emerges in the thought that perhaps the band isn’t entirely done with some of the sounds and themes of their last record, or at the very least wanted to provide a more varied range of sounds that better encompassed their musical careers thus far.

What actually makes “Suck It and See” a record with serious forward momentum for Arctic Monkeys is how they present most of the songs on it. They’ve taken the focus away from riffing and dark instrumental passages to go lighter and snarkier, though even Turner’s lyrics are pushed farther into the background in the hopes that melody might reign supreme. The mid-tempo opening track “She’s Thunderstorms” is a lovely predictor of what’s to come on the rest of the album, and it has Turner pulling out his best Morrissey impression because it feels warranted. The bass-heavy “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” may have a rather bland (but easily memorable) chorus, but everything else about it is positively spectacular. The bounce and sheer confidence the band shows both lyrically and instrumentally makes it one of the album’s more standout moments. The heavier guitars and massive energy brought to “Library Pictures” is admirable, recalling some of the earliest Arctic Monkeys songs that got them so much attention upon first starting out. Unfortunately this song doesn’t quite have that same sort of impact, primarily because it lacks a strong enough hook to stick with you after it ends. The same could be said for a track like “Reckless Serenade”, but what it lacks in memorability it more than makes up for with rather brilliant lyrics. Couplets such as, “illuminations on a rainy day/when she walks her footsteps sing a reckless serenade” are what help to turn the tide on otherwise forgettable song. Even better is “Piledriver Waltz”, which holds the slow dance tempo its title suggests and espouses that, “if you’re going to try to walk on water, make sure you wear comfortable shoes”. If you’re looking for a true late album highlight though, the title track is the spot to go. There’s a casual loveliness to it, complete with a strong chorus and what might be the two most poetically classic lines on the entire record, “That’s not a skirt girl, that’s a sawn off shotgun/and i can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me”.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Suck It and See” is how Arctic Monkeys appear to have mellowed out just a bit. The lack of heavy guitars and intense energy has given way to a much more pop-driven atmosphere. As a result many of the songs on this album are easy to like, even if they aren’t packed to the gills with hooks at every turn. For sure this is a slow burn album, revealing more and more layers as you listen to it over and over again. In that sense you could also call it a deep album, something that’s typically a product of intellingent songwriting and composition, both of which this record has in spades. If Alex Turner sounds all too often like Morrissey, it’s not your imagination, nor is it if you think you hear a bit of Johnny Marr’s touches in guitarist Jamie Cook’s riffs. If The Smiths were to make a record in 2011, it might sound an awful lot like this, even if the lyrics would have gone in a completely different direction. But this attitude adjustment from Arctic Monkeys does less to bring back their old days as an energetic, youthful alt-rock band with a hunger for stardom a mile wide, and instead reflects more on a band that having tasted fame and fortune now seek mid-career respectability. Turner’s lyrics continue to be the sharpest thing about the band, and the challenges they now face are more structural ones than anything else. A couple tracks on the record either don’t fully fit in or just come off as bland and ineffective. These are the sorts of things that can happen when you avoid taking too many risks and just settle into complacency. Arctic Monkeys are still plenty young and clearly still have long careers ahead of them, so they can probably afford trying a few more dangerous sounds for their next few efforts. Let’s hope they take advantage of that while their iron is still hot.

Arctic Monkeys – Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair

Buy “Suck It and See” from Amazon

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén