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Mid-Year Roundup: 5 Disappointing Albums From 2011 (So Far)

Every year around the start of July, it becomes abundantly clear via the calendar that we’ve hit the halfway point. Six out of twelve months have passed, and given that amount of time it feels appropriate to look back briefly on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the music we’ve heard thus far. Rather than approach it in a typical “Best Albums” format (no hints as to the “master list” that will emerge in December), I like to instead examine the first half of the year in terms of “surprising” and “disappointing” albums. The differentiation between the two isn’t as simple as good and bad or black and white. There are records on the Surprising Albums list that won’t show up at year’s end as the “Best of” anything, and by that same token, just because a record winds up on the Disappointing Albums list doesn’t mean it’s destined for the bargain bin. In order to achieve the designation of being “surprising”, a record simply needs to blow my expectations out of the water. You turn it on expecting a total crapfest and wind up with something that at the very least leaves you moderately satisfied. A strange turn of events towards the positive side of the spectrum. Opposing that, those albums designated “disappointing” earn that label by building expectations prior to its release and then failing to meet them. Everyone WANTED to like the fourth Indiana Jones movie of the 3 “Star Wars” prequels, but in the end it was letdown city. You earn a reputation for greatness and then slip up for whatever reason. So as to avoid any sort of confusion or suggestion that any list is ordered in such a way that these albums are ranked, I’ve arranged each list to be alphabetical by artist. If you like, feel free to also click onto the links provided to read my original reviews of the albums on these two lists. Today we’ll tackle my list of “5 Disappointing Albums”. If you missed yesterday’s list of “5 Surprising Albums”, you can read that piece by clicking here. I hope you have fun and enjoy these lists, and by all means feel free to let me know what some of your most surprising and disappointing albums from the first half of the year are in the comments section.

Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (Original Review)
It’s just a tiny bit unfair to say that “The People’s Key” was a disappointing album. For devoted Bright Eyes fans, this was more of a record that wanted to give something back after a pair of mediocre-to-bad solo/Mystic Valley Band long players. Oberst was exploring more of an alt-country angle that devolved into frat boy rock after awhile and just wasn’t working. By contrast, “The People’s Key” sought to bring something good back to the Bright Eyes name, maybe for one last time before it gets retired, and does a relatively good job doing so. Oberst’s lyrical witticisms are strong and viable, and the songs themselves are among the most commercially pleasant that he’s ever written. The record is a full step ahead of even the last Bright Eyes album, 2007’s “Cassadaga”. So what makes this record so damn disappointing then? If this is the best album Oberst has been associated with in years (save for Monsters of Folk), shouldn’t this small victory come as a pleasant surprise? On paper, that’s absolutely what it should be. In context, this is more of a pyrrhic victory than anything else. Oberst may still know how to string words together that are jaw-droppingly brilliant, but now they’re colder and more distant than ever. We easily could have and should have given up on the thought that maybe Bright Eyes would return to the days of “Fevers and Mirrors” where he was an emotionally scarred and scared kid, but if that side of the band changed your life, giving up is that much harder to do. Then there’s the concept of “selling out”, which to his credit Oberst hasn’t really done, but the much more rocking and much more easy to digest nature of “The People’s Key” seems to suggest it’s what he wanted. There’s something coldly calculated about this record in how it seems designed to please people. If this truly is the final Bright Eyes record, we definitely know he could have done better, even if it meant torturing his soul for just a little longer. That’s all we really wanted anyways. Buy it from Amazon

Panda Bear – Tomboy (Original Review)
To those that used “Tomboy” as their introduction to Panda Bear, I feel a little sorry for you. It’s by no means a bad record, but to put it more broadly, it’s like first hearing Weezer via “The Green Album”. Your experience with the artist isn’t ruined, but there are far better entry points you could have taken. With Panda Bear, your one and only spot to jump in was via “Person Pitch”. That was a record not just mindblowing in 2007 when it was first released, but it’s one that continues to shake worlds even today. It was a record fiercely ahead of its time, launching a whole other genre unto itself that wouldn’t fully blossom until over a year later. Plus, it shared some of the spotlight with the Animal Collective record that would soon follow it, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, which is very much its own story too. So it was a very good couple years for Noah Lennox. Where “Tomboy” found him earlier this year was in a lot of the same headspace where those two albums were made, but in a world that had vastly changed its musical landscape since then. What was once ahead of its time and brilliant suddenly registered as being a retread of old ideas and at the very most exploitative of current trends. Panda Bear still stands higher than many of his now similar counterparts on “Tomboy”, but the hope was for less of that and more of an admirable attempt towards keeping the expansion of his sound going with even fresher techniques this time. Was he out of ideas, or just trying to bide some time? We’ll know for sure next time. Buy it from Amazon

MP3: Panda Bear – Last Night at the Jetty

Radiohead – The King of Limbs (No Original Review)
I have never reviewed a Radiohead album, and by all accounts I probably never will. I bear no hatred or ill will towards the band, and in fact my feelings are closer to the opposite. My primary concern is that once I start writing about the band, I won’t be able to stop myself. I intensely study every single Radiohead album to the point where a day rarely goes by in which I don’t hear one or more in full. I would write a 300 page book on them in 10 days if somebody would commission it. I go from vinyl to CD to mp3 to nitpick little details and discover elements unique to each format. Obsessive is one way to describe it. The point being, I continue to hold the belief that there has never been a legitimately bad Radiohead record (not even “Pablo Honey”), and “The King of Limbs” only affirms such a stance even more. What amuses me is all the anger being heaped upon the band for making an album that’s a completely logical progression from where they’ve been before. Coming off the success that was “In Rainbows” is what essentially screwed them. Say the band had reversed the release order of their last two albums, so “The King of Limbs” came out in 2007 under a “pay what you want” scale and “In Rainbows” was a carefully priced “newspaper album”. My argument is that the reaction to both records would have been noticeably different. In fact, “The King of Limbs” feels like a natural progression out of the “Kid A”/”Amnesiac” days more than anything else, combined with a slice of Thom Yorke’s solo effort “The Eraser”. But the cold hard truth is as follows: after a hugely successful revival and radicalization of the music business that was “In Rainbows”, Radiohead retreated into their own heads and made the record they WANTED to make, fan reaction be damned. They’re really fucking brilliant still, it’s just this doesn’t seem to be the expected or right thing to be doing at this juncture. So people have been bitching and moaning about it, and they’ll continue to bitch and moan about it until Radiohead straightens up and flies right again. The only reason this record should be a disappointment is if you were expecting something truly revelatory or earth-shattering. As for me, that’s what I expect from the band every time. Buy it from Amazon

The Strokes – Angles (Original Review)
After the mess of a record that was “First Impressions of Earth”, The Strokes were on the verge of breaking up. They never officially announced a break up, but given their lengthy hiatus and establishment of other projects, you could easily understand if they pulled a Jack White and woke up one day saying that The Strokes had nothing left to offer the world. What motivated these guys to get back together again was likely more monetary than anything else. The return of The Strokes meant that dollar signs were in their future, as evidenced by a number of sold out shows when they first began to resurface. Shortly after word had gotten around that a new album was on the way, the band put out a new single “Under Cover of Darkness”. Unlike their douchey third album, the song sounded like it belonged in the same sessions as their first two amazing records, and that only pushed hopes and dreams higher that now was the time The Strokes would truly be able to capitalize on their success. Then again, reports were also surfacing of band members calling one another out for things and word that Julian Casablancas came in and recorded his vocals separately from the rest of the band. Not a great sign for personal relationships, but if the album worked then so be it. “Angles” turned out to be a small failure almost entirely because of the band’s inability to fully cooperate with one another. Traverse its 10 songs and you’ll find a handful of different perspectives written into what was supposed to be just one. This disconnection ultimately hurt the album, yet it remains better than “First Impressions of Earth”, which is something of a compliment. Word on the street is that everybody’s friends again and recording for the next Strokes album has been good so far. Start crowwing your fingers now. Buy it from Amazon

TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (Original Review)
The fellas in TV on the Radio had been on a hot streak the likes of which had not been seen since Radiohead pulled off the perfecta trifecta that was “The Bends”, “OK Computer” and “Kid A”. The TVOTR perfecta trifecta amounted to “Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes”, “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science”. All three of those albums were at or close to being named the best albums of their respective years by a number of publications (including this one). Not only that, but those three records were released in a span of 6 years that coincided perfectly with a tour-record-tour-record pattern. Naturally, they were in need of a break. The hiatus came, band members focused on side projects, and after close to a year off they reconvened to craft their fourth full length. Either they needed to take a longer break or have simply run out of fresh ideas, because “Nine Types of Light” represents a new low from a band whose level of respect was at an all-time high. That’s not calling the album bad, that’s saying a couple small blemishes have appeared on what was once a pristine surface. There are a few distinct album highlights, from “No Future Shock” to “Will Do” and the effervescent closer “Caffeinated Consciousness”, but the weakest turns are made via the slowed down, quieter moments. TVOTR can do sleepy ballads very well, as evidenced by their past ones, but when you string a few of them together it starts to drag the entire album down. Such is the case here, even if each one is frought with substance and meaning. “Nine Types of Light” is a step down for the band, but more like a minor half-step than a taller, cliff-sized one. Buy it from Amazon

TV On The Radio – Will Do

Album Review: The Strokes – Angles [RCA]

Any number of labels can be affixed to The Strokes’ sound, and over the past decade they largely have. Their debut record “Is This It?” was (and still is) largely considered to be the beginning of a rock and roll movement in the early 00s where the ideas of the cool, leather-jacketed rock stars making garage rock was as novel as it was revivalist. Sure, they were ripping off a number of bands from the 70s, but listening to a lot of those classic albums and then The Strokes you’ll probably find less in common than you initially thought. But so many Strokes-esque bands did follow in their wake following the success of “Is This It?” that crediting them and (to a slightly different degree) The White Stripes with being revolutionaries doesn’t seem wrong. What’s more amazing is how quickly The Strokes flamed out. After an almost equally great sophmore record “Room On Fire” kept them atop the pile they’d created, by 2006 and their third album “First Impressions of Earth” they came across as a band barely able to remain standing, either in the face of overwhelming pressure or lack of new ideas or drug use or some combination of all three. This disheveled group of guys that looked like they rolled out of bed and accidentally stumbled upon brilliance were suddenly lost when it disappeared and started to get desperate when they couldn’t find it again. Enter critical backlash and a host of other fresh inter-band issues that emerged and the guys felt like taking some serious time away from one another was probably for the best. 2007 was when the hiatus began, and 2009 was when it unofficially ended, though not much would happen until last year. In between, there were side projects upon side projects, from Albert Hammond Jr. continuing to hold down a solo career and Julian Casablancas starting one himself to Fabrizio Moretti’s Little Joy and Nikolai Fraiture’s Nickel Eye. None made much of an impact though, which may be a big reason why the hiatus ended and the period of cashing in began.

From the looks of it, the reason why The Strokes took that extended hiatus was more to avoid killing one another. Interviews with band members all seemed to echo the same thoughts, that it was tough for them to share the stage anymore, let alone be stuck in the same room for even a brief period of time. Still, they pressed on with a reunion, and working with producer Joe Chicarelli probably seemed like a good idea back in 2009. After a few sessions of working with him however, one of the few things the band could agree on was that the pairing was not working out. Instead they went to Albert Hammond Jr.’s home studio and made their fourth record “Angles” there. Even then, the only real way they could get the record done was to have Casablancas record his vocals separately and then send them in upon their completion. One of the bigger changes of this revamped version of The Strokes is that everybody now has an influence over the sound and writing on the album, whereas Casablancas typically handled all of that previously. The reason they called the record “Angles” was to emphasize the different perspectives at play. Considering the surprisingly strong track record of bands making landmark albums under the most stressful and antagonistic atmosphere possible, it stood to reason that The Strokes could very well turn out something immensely great in spite of all the controversy. If The Beatles could do it with “Abbey Road”, why not The Strokes with “Angles”? In what should come as little surprise to no one, The Strokes are no Beatles.

“Angles” gets off to a promising start with “Machu Picchu”, even if it’s not exactly what’s expected from the band. There’s a distinct 80s reggae pop groove the track settles into that’s part Police and part Men at Work, which is just a little bit odd for The Strokes. Still, those guitars remain distinctive, as does Casablancas’ scratchy vocals, and the jangly chorus is pretty fun and catchy. Speaking of fun and catchy, first single “Under Cover of Darkness” is classic Strokes in the best way possible, and better than anything on “First Impressions of Earth”. As the first new material anybody heard from the band since 2006, it was like a welcome back party, a celebration and an elevator of hopes that maybe things really were going back to “normal”. The synth-heavy intro to “Two Kinds of Happiness” puts that thought to rest pretty quickly though, as for a few brief moments you may mistake it for a New Order or Cars song. The guitars do take over immediately after that intro, though the 80s vibe remains all the way through the soaring chorus that screams U2 to the point where Casablancas actually sounds like Bono if you pay close enough attention. The quick-picked guitar work is one of the best and most exciting things about the track, but considering how impressive previous Strokes guitar work has been, this is really nothing new. “Taken For A Fool” is new for the band though, as there’s a little twist on their traditional sound. The instrumentation is more dense and complicated than normal, in particular the funky bass line during the verse, and the chorus once again goes pretty big but avoids overreaching. Ultimately it makes for one of the best songs on the entire record.

The second half of “Angles” features more experiments and tries to offer hints at potential directions the band could go should they continue onward after this record. When you mix things up like they do here, keeping fans satisfied is a larger challenge and the hope is it doesn’t come off as too left field or just generally unfocused. The synths make a full-on return courtesy of “Games”, a track that sounds like it would have found a better home on Casablancas’ solo record “Phrazes for the Young”. Complete with handclaps and a dancefloor beat, New Order and Blondie did it better back in their day. Ultimately it’s one of the few genuine missteps on the record. The synths hang around for ‘Call Me Back”, though they’re more background fodder in what’s really a sparse ballad that’s intended to showcase vocals and a single guitar. There are no drums, as the staccatto guitar and the bass on the chorus hold a rhythm together instead, playing out like a song that could crack open and explode with a burst of noise and energy but never does. That is left to “Gratisfaction”, one of the most addictive and blatantly fun songs on the entire album, but also one of the most debt-riddled as well. Take Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and mash it together with the double guitar attack and languid vocals of Thin Lizzy and you know exactly where this song came from. Still, the song does exactly as its title advertises, providing gratuitous satisfaction to the masses. “Metabolism” languishes in a mid-tempo paranoid hell, never quite fast enough to burn off the fat that it generates. Think a slowed down combination of “Heart In A Cage” and “Electricityscape” but less catchy or inspired. The Strokes prove they aren’t down for the count though thanks to album closer “Life is Simple in the Moonlight”, a song that’s almost a microcosm of everything that came before it. There’s a little bit of the old Strokes sound, some fresher and more experimental bits, a touch of 80s style synths, and a pretty manic Julian Casablancas. While it lacks bouncy energy, the chorus hook is relatively well put together even if the song is a downer.

“There’s no one I disapprove of or root for more than myself”, Casablancas sings on “Life is Simple in the Moonlight”. The sentiment could be shared by “Angles” as a whole. Most of us want The Strokes to turn in a record that lives up to the reputation they built for themselves, and when they fail to meet expectations we’re particularly hard on them. In this case it seems that they’ve managed to improve on “First Impressions of Earth” with a handful of songs that live up to that impressive legacy. The rest of the album is frought with problems however. The largest issue is how disjointed the whole thing is, jumping from style to style and experiment to experiment with the belief that the whole thing will sound good. “Angles” is aptly named because of the various directions all the band members came from when putting together these songs, but that’s also its biggest flaw – lack of cohesion. If The Strokes were a dictatorship before and are practicing socialism now, they’d be better served by returning the power and allowing the leather-clad Casablancas fist to rule once more. Naturally that was what caused the hiatus in the first place, so to reasonably expect them to do it again is probably a fool’s errand. Then it comes down to how well they can work together. If all five guys can get on the same page without a fistfight starting, there may still be hope left for this band. Otherwise break out the funeral gear because The Strokes will die, leaving only the question of whether it will be sooner or multiple crappy records later.

Buy “Angles” from Amazon

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