Aphex Twin – Syro

FINAL MASTER SYRO DIGIPAK.indd

Aphex Twin – Syro

4.5/5

2014

Richard D. James never quite disappeared after the release of Drukqs in 2001. He merely stepped backstage for the past decade or so, continuing to release some little-publicized music under pseudonyms and a handful of Analord EPs in the mid-2000s. But even if the last ten years was short on actual Aphex music, James’ presence could be felt all over. Aphex Twin, one of the singular and most influential electronic musicians of the last few decades, shirked the spotlight just as computers and production software became more accessible and inexpensive than ever before. Couple that with the advent of sharing platforms like MySpace, YouTube and SoundCloud over the years, and suddenly everyone was a DJ or a producer, many of whom digested the Aphex oeuvre as they grew up and used it as a touchstone in their own work. And while on the surface, it may seem like an odd notion to, say, compare the current EDM/post-dubstep scene to James’ catalog, it becomes more obvious when you think of how those DJs marry shards of noise to hooky melodies like AFX did or how someone like Skrillex frequently borrows James’ black humor and spooky sound bites à la “Come To Daddy.”

So how, in 2014, after years of imitation and several pop music generations long gone, would a new Aphex Twin album hold up? As it turns out, damn well. The beauty of Syro is how efficient it is, how it consolidates all of James’ strengths, touching on everything from rubbery funk to soothing ambience to slippery drum’n’bass, without losing his energetic inventiveness and his strong melodic sensibility. It winds up as his most accessible, welcoming record yet. Where Drukqs was expansive and messy, Syro covers just as much ground yet is tight and focused. If there’s any disappointment here, it’s that there’s not much here he hasn’t done before, but that’s so matter because even after years of acolytes, the Aphex style hasn’t lost its luster. In some ways, because technology has improved, it sounds better than ever, with the record grabbing on first listen and revealing intricate manipulations with each play. Lead single “minipops 67 [120.2] (source field mix)” kicks the record off with a virtual tour of Aphex’s many moods, while the slick centerpiece “XMAS_EVET10 [120] [thanaton3 mix]” bubbles along on waves of humming tones, squelching synths, and even a few vocal snippets of James’ family. He’ll get loose and moody with the glitchy chiptune-meets-late-night-techno of “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] [syrobonkus mix],” and he’ll stop for moments of great beauty, like on the fragile piano piece “aisatsana [102],” one of James’ simplest, prettiest tracks, that closes everything out. It’s a record that is successful not for having many distinct highlights or how it stakes out new territory. Instead, Syro excels by having a consistently gratifying vision that works just as well in the background as it does up close. The idea that James can return with an Aphex Twin record 13 years later, after pop music’s most prolific decade, let alone electronic’s, and still sound fresh only reaffirms his command of technique and songwriting. It may not be as head-spinning as Richard D. James Album or as masterful as Selected Ambient Works 85-92, but it’s a great record through and through and an easy choice as an entry point for the uninitiated.

Interpol – El Pintor

Interpol – El Pintor

3.5/5

2014

El Pintor may mean “the painter” in Spanish, frontman Paul Banks’ second language, but it’s also a scramble of “Interpol.” This would seem to signal that the band, now a trio, is ready to mix things up, perhaps taking a cue from the stylistic diversions that bubbled up on the fringes of their eponymous record. Instead, El Pintor reveals that in the past four years—the band’s longest gap between records—the band have lost their bassist but not their identity or sensibility, dwelling in the same seductive shadows they always have. Interpol are often criticized for their singular focus, for how they honed their sound on the brilliant Turn On The Bright Lights, turned up the tempo for Antics, and then haven’t touched the formula much since. (For all the griping about how they ripped off Joy Division in 2002, turns out they’ve got the last laugh: few bands then or now sound particularly like them, proving they were do something more distinctive than their detractors were willing to admit.) If the songwriting is strong, maintaining a style isn’t necessarily a problem. And more than anything, that’s why Our Love To Admire and Interpol are decent but uneven listens: They each offer a sprinkling of tracks that hint at greatness, illustrating that if Interpol just got out of their own way and wrote a great set of songs, they might reach another career peak.

El Pintor, on its outset, seems to promise that. It’s punchier; they’ve trimmed the fat that occasionally bloated their recent work, and at 39 minutes, it’s their shortest album yet. The slow-building, uptempo tracks here harken back to Antics, and with the title of “Breaker 1″ deliberately referencing “Obstacle 1,” there’s the sense that Interpol are trying to get back in touch with their glory days, even with the loss of Carlos D. The opening gambit of “All The Rage Back Home” and “My Desire” starts things off promisingly too. The first is a fine example of a latter-day Interpol single, complete with Banks repeating a short phrase (this time it’s “I keep falling/maybe half the time”) as the track crescendos in a torrent of sinewy guitar lines, while “My Desire” relishes in the high drama and frustrated catharsis from Turn On The Bright Lights that’s be in short supply since. No, they never reach the heights of their best work here, yet if these songs are more “Take Me On A Cruise” than “PDA,” so be it. Interpol have always had their fair share of worthy deep cuts, and the rest of El Pintor follows the same pattern, feeling more like a solid, if not immediate, collection of B-sides. Some of those, like the insistent “Anywhere” and the thundering “Ancient Ways” feel comfortable and confident in the way that only a band that’s been working for this long can manage, not exactly fresh but still pretty damn exciting. Plus though the music is still markedly gloomy, Daniel Kessler’s sprightly, high-pitched riffs on tracks like “Same Town, New Story” and “My Blue Supreme” help the record come off a touch brighter, which is some sort of win too, I suppose, because it gives the record a distinctive flair among its predecessors. Again, there’s nothing here Interpol haven’t done before, but they haven’t done it this consistently well for ten years, so there’s a lot of silver lining, even if the highlights aren’t as high. If Interpol can no longer surprise, at least they can still satisfy on a small scale.

The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

brillbruisers

The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

3.5/5

2014

There may not be a more aptly titled record this year. The New Pornographers, a supergroup that, let’s face it, more people probably know than the solo projects of its members, have always trafficked in contemporary renditions of classic pop. But with a title that doubles as a winking threat to the Brill Building, the New York hub of acclaimed ’50s and ’60s songwriters, Brill Bruisers announces itself Pornographers’ most conscious attempt at shirking the retro dressings they’ve played with in the past, even if many of the 13 songs here still begin-middle-and-end with the economy and structure of AM radio. This is still music that’s written then produced, bucking the modern trend that seems to favor the opposite. And make no mistake, this is an expansively produced album—recorded in multiple studios, full of overlapping vocals, splashes of keyboard arpeggios, horns, harmonicas and dissonance. In a world that champions records as huge, diverse and world-beating as Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it might sound downright quaint, but this is easily the Pornographers’ most contemporary and slick album to date. It also may be their most fun. (Coming after the relatively subdued Together, such a technicolor album is welcome.)

From the moment the title track crashes in with its overdriven guitar and candy-coated chants, bandleader A.C. Newman sets his sights on the rafters, and the rest of the record follows suit. “Dancehall Domine” and “Fantasy Fools” bubble with keyboard sequences before erupting in a fit of bubblegum harmonies; “Backstairs” and “Champions Of Red Wine” take some spacier detours, while “Hi-Rise” and “Wide Eyes” recall Wincing The Night Away-era Shins, and the tinny instrumentation on “Another Drug Deal Of The Heart” makes it feel like a discarded track off of Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. Though, as is par for the course for the Pornographers, the lyrics are only fitfully coherent, enough images of weaponry, unrest and violence are scattered about to give this record a uneasy feel that belies the hooks, harmonies and melodies they couch themselves in. That’s nowhere more clear than on Dan Bejar’s “War On The East Coast.” Freed from the late-night lounge of Destroyer’s Kaputt, Bejar creates a sublimely exciting piece of pop, propelling through a vaguely sci-fi/new-wave verse into a glorious hook and back again. Still, for an album as rock-solid and smartly produced as this, and even with the wartime imagery, it also doesn’t have the potency of the New Pornographers’ best music. There’s real craftsmanship to the songwriting here, much like the Spectors and Bacharachs of the Brill Building, but while it will sound great blasting in a car or at a summer party, there’s too little depth here, and it too often winds up leaves the listener cold. Put another way, it’s a record full of good, very catchy songs, yet it’s something that mostly inspires admiration instead of devotion. As apt as the album’s title may be, it’s ultimately ironic: Brill Bruisers doesn’t leave much of a mark.

FKA twigs – LP1

lp1

FKA twigs – LP1

4/5

2014

“Futuristic” is a weird word to use when describing music, precisely because it’s so vague. Does that mean it sounds like it’s made with not-yet-existing technology? Or that it sounds like what we imagine the kids twenty years from now are listening to? Or that evokes sci-fi films that guess at the near-future? As much as a cop-out as the word can feel, though, FKA twigs’ debut full-length, LP1, sounds futuristic to me—not for just one of those reasons above, but for all of them. With Tahliah Barnett’s use of breathy vocals and reverb-heavy production, the album definitely has its roots in the early-2010s R&B and indie electronic scenes, but this music is so slippery that it can’t be pinned down. The production sounds more intricate with each listen: drums scatter and stop, synth lines spring down from the sky and fly off again, drones rise and fall, bits of digital noise jump in a for a split-second before stretching out into something sweeter. Barnett and her fellow producers (who include Clams Casino and Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes) merge disparate styles like UK garage and church hymns, and then turn it into a seductive come-on without getting too fussy about it. That description makes LP1 sound more fragmented and difficult than it actually is, though. This is a sound Barnett’s been fleshing out on the EPs that preceded this record, but she brings it all together here, where the music is formally experimental but the songwriting is refined enough so it sounds immediate and human, even poppy, working as well in the headphones as a slow-jam club set.

“Two Weeks”‘ pulsing hums give its sexual longing a desperation and subtle anguish—which makes it even sexier. “Pendulum” begins almost as a kissing cousin to James Blake, all spare, clipped falsetto, but eventually the dam bursts, creating a climax of quivering effects and layered vocals. Meanwhile, “Closer” rides on a drippy, high-pitched synth whine with Barnett singing like a one-woman children’s choir, belying the vulnerability underneath it.  “Lights On,” though, is all about vulnerability. “The man that you are is defined/By the way that you act in the light,” Barnett coos, carefully gauging each step as she moves to a new lover. Barnett’s words don’t always hit as hard; some of her yearning can get a little broad (“Why you gotta go and hurt me babe?/Why you gotta go and make me cry?” wasn’t particularly evocative when Boy George sang the same sort of thing 30 years ago either). But this hardly matters when the wash of the music helps to develop the lust and heartbreak she sometimes can’t convey lyrically. And that’s pivotal: this is a sensual album that’s actually sexy, not because it can get vulgar (though that helps), but because of how the music creates an emotional intimacy. Rather, if LP1 has a stumbling block, it’s that while it’s distinctive in its own right, it could stand to change it up more from track-to-track. As a whole, it holds together wonderfully, but it’s also the type of album that doesn’t have a ton of dynamic range: If you tuned out for a few minutes before locking back into it, you’d be forgiven for thinking the track hasn’t changed up yet. But that’s no matter, especially this early in her career. What’s important is that Barnett has been building up steam with each successive release, and LP1 is the culmination of her work so far, a formal announcement of a unique talent, one that hopefully continues to push toward the boundaries of commercial pop. Hopefully the kids of the future will be listening to music like this.

Spoon – They Want My Soul

Spoon – They Want My Soul

4/5

2014

Can a band be too reliable? Short answer: No. But I get the sense that if Spoon fucked up a little more, they’d get more of the recognition they deserve. To be sure, people like Spoon. They know Spoon. Critics like me regularly pass out acclaim. (Look, I’m doing it again!) “I Turn My Camera On” even showed up in an episode of The Simpsons once. But you rarely hear “masterpiece” or “album of the year” in the context of one of their records. The band isn’t looking to change the game; they don’t swing for the fences. At the same time, Britt Daniel, a pop formalist at heart but a style scavenger by hobby, introduces just enough genre experimentation and dynamic range (helped, in no small part, by Jim Eno and the rest of the group) to keep things from getting too predictable. And so it goes with They Want My Soul, a very good album that hits the sweet spot between the expected and the surprising. Being a Spoon record, there are always moments of ripping garage rock, so there’s the banging “The Rent I Pay” and the skipping, sweetly melodic title track that more than fill that quota. But here, they take a few more deviations than usual, and it’s here that They Want My Soul finds its identity and its point of interest. “Inside Out,” the album’s centerpiece, is five minutes of shimmering dream pop, hard on beats and heavenly synth lines with no recognizable guitars in sight. It’s just as hovering and hook-less as Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s “The Ghost Of You Lingers” but it seeks to comfort rather than unsettle. And even if nothing gets as out of the comfort zone as that, it rubs off on the rest of the album, with the driving “Outlier” and “New York Kiss”‘ mix of brooding and danceable marking a new turn for the band, spiking each track with keyboards and slight electronic manipulations and underscoring the themes of paranoia and fleeting memories that permeate the album. Harassing street preachers and missed lovers stalk these songs, so it’s great to hear They Want My Soul have a little spring in its step with a short, bar-blues cover of Ann-Margret’s “I Just Don’t Understand,” and “Do You,” which finds a line between yearning and catchy effervescence so easily that it winds up being the best track on the album. Again, it’s nothing earth-shattering, but the fact that Spoon haven’t released anything truly close to a disappointment album in over a decade is stunning. They are a band that goes about their business, confident in their powers and skills, making music so sharp and tight and contemporary, it’s easy to forget the band formed twenty years ago and the members are well into middle age. If I’ve sounded too blasé about They Want My Soul, make no mistake, it’s a very good album, more cohesive than Transference while covering just as much ground. And if nothing else, it proves that, as Spoon enter their 3rd decade of music-making, they’re in better shape than many buzz bands at the peak of their careers.

Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty

Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty

3.5/5

2014

Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro) may have filled Black Up with surreal imagery, subtly cutting commentary and pithy insights, but Shabazz Palaces is foremost about music, not words, about Butler and Tendai Maraire’s visionary productions that freely blend styles, live instrumentation and warped samples into something both claustrophobic and humorous. Their follow-up, Lese Majesty, finds them leaning into this side of their personality, crafting a dense, amorphous album of ethereal hip-hop, where Butler’s voice is often used for its sound rather than its content. While he’s still a big presence on Lese Majesty, he’s often relegated to the sidelines, even as the duo head for more quasi-conceptual territory. It’s a strategy that works in spurts. True to form, a lot of the music here is striking and fascinating, adding more electronic and psychedelic elements to Shabazz’ woozy, late-night jazz and R&B. The layered atmospherics of “Forerunner Foray” are indicative of where Butler and Maraire’s heads are at now, with that druggy, fluid flow threading its way throughout the record, from the nitrous blur of “Ishmael” to the similarly fleeting closer “Sonic Myth Map For The Trip Back.” Elsewhere the grinding guitar “Mind Glitch Keytar Theme” charts out new territory, while “They Come In Gold” and the THEESatisfaction-featuring “#Cake” could have easily slipped into Black Up. But it’s “Motion Sickness,” with its sumptuous synth tones and marimba noodling, that’s the best and most substantial track here.

Unsurprisingly, that track is also one of the few to position Butler front and center. And that brings me to the Lese Majesty‘s major flaw: its lack of weight and focus. The 18 tracks here on Lese are ostensibly broken up into seven suites, but it’s impossible to tell just from listening to it—each track bleeds into the next and over half of them clock in at about two minutes or less, meaning nothing sits in one place for long, so the whole album comes across like a shape-shifting DJ set more than a hip-hop record. Normally, this would be fine, but since the productions here are so preoccupied with the wispy, celestial and effects-laden, they sometimes lack a real anchor and can too easily slide right through the listener’s mind. Plus, the short track lengths mean some of the truly transportive instrumentals here, like “Divine Of Form,” barely get going before they disappear into the ether. The beats may be the most compelling thing about Shabazz Palaces, but Butler’s lyrics gave Black Up a heftiness and humanity the alien productions may not have otherwise had, and that’s something simply missing here. Even on the track whose title he lends his name (“Ishmael”), his voice is mostly lost in murky reverb. Fortunately, whenever Butler does get a word in edgewise, the album springs to life, whether it be the unsettling and referential “Solemn Swears,” the playful “#Cake,” or, even something as the “Touch and agree!” refrain in “Noetic Noiromantics.” His voice is otherwise too manipulated to keep tracks like “Colluding Oligarchs” or “Suspicion Of A Shape” from meandering about in their own sonic pool. It’s a disappointment, to be sure, yet even if it doesn’t all hold together, Lese Majesty proves Shabazz Palaces’ restless, creative spirit is as alive as ever, offering its fair share of forward-looking music. In other words, there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t bounce back with something as vital as their debut next time around.

“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun

mandatoryfun

“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun

4/5

2014

Being that it’s 2014, let’s take a moment to marvel at Weird Al Yankovic’s career. For over 30 years (!), Al’s not just been a successful comedian but a multi-generational cultural touchstone, a force of giggly glee that somehow transcended the novelty of pop music parody to endure, while other musicians, actors, comics and artists fell by the wayside. Granted, Al hasn’t released masterpiece after masterpiece. Musical comedy is already a hit-or-miss affair, and when you’ve been at it this long, you’re gonna have some stinkers. But considering most people in his field only flirt with success before they dissolve into bar trivia and remember-when lists, his continued presence is downright astonishing. I’m not suggesting his career is based solely on luck or nostaligia—rather, it’s quite the opposite. His 14th record, Mandatory Fun, proves why, in his mid-50s, he’s able to still churn this stuff out and make headlines.

First, it’s important to note his parodies rarely have to do with the songs themselves. Other than the backing track and maybe a rhyming title, the rest can go wherever Al wants it to. This means Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” can be rewritten about a boastful repairman in “Handy,” and Lorde’s spectral “Royals” instead espouses the food preservation and alien-signal deflection benefits of “Foil.” And that’s one of the other keys to Al’s, and Mandatory Fun‘s, success: his mix of absurdism and observational humor. No one else is going to write a song about these things, and the disparity between the pristine pop productions and his mundane subjects propels some unexpectedly funny moments, like when the bombast of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” juts up against a static slacker protagonist in “Inactive.” Plus, even when he’s playing with material that’s been worked to death elsewhere, like grammar scolding (“Word Crimes”) or privilege (“First World Problems”), there are enough clever spins on the subjects to make them worth the effort.

It’s Al’s original material where things become a bit more iffy. Try as he might, his songwriting just isn’t always particularly memorable, despite their humorous resemblance to the styles he’s skewering. This means that when the jokes aren’t working, like in the pointless college fight anthem “Sports Song” and the Foo Fighters rip “My Own Eyes,” the tracks don’t have a strong musical center to anchor them. But, as always, there are spots where his material comes together.  There’s the name-dropping, cowbell-loaded, southern-fried rawk of “Lame Claim To Fame” (“I used the same napkin dispenser as Steve Carell at a Taco Bell!”), and the corporate-jargon satire “Mission Statement” uses warm, CSNY harmonies to enhance the cold business-speak. “First World Problems,” meanwhile, goes all in for a Pixies homage (check the “Debaser” riff that kicks it off) and comes up aces. “Jackson Park Express,” the Cat Stevens/Phil Ochs/Ben Folds-ish voyage that ends the record finale “Jackson Park Express” is stuck in the middle. At 9 minutes, Al’s clearly going for the same over-the-top, “I can’t believe this is still going” territory previously traveled by “Albuquerque” or “Trapped In The Drive-Thru,” and while its tale of an imaginary, escalating relationship has its fair share of laughs, it also can’t quite justify its length. But despite these weaker moments, Mandatory Fun finds Weird Al in fine form. Because at his best, and the highlights here often find him around that level, Al’s music is a glorious, inclusive pop culture celebration, and like the album’s requisite polka cover medley (this one’s called “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”), it’s mostly a giant, lively party designed to get everyone together to put a big, stupid smile on your face at all costs. For a mission that began in the Cold War-era, I’d say he’s doing okay.

Hiatus

Hey, so you may have noticed (well, I hope someone noticed) I haven’t been updating much lately. Part of that has to do with the fact that in the past year, I’ve graduated college, was looking for a job, found a job, and then am going to my job. But it’s also because I’m working on some other projects alongside Notes On Notes too. So, I thought I’d formally say what’s been pretty much going on anyway: I’m putting Notes On Notes on hiatus for a little bit, while I work on some other writing projects. It’s not going away, and I am still going to update periodically, getting to albums I never got to review from 2013 and posting about things I want you guys to hear or I want to write about.

Also, I’ve been asked before by followers and friends if they could contribute to the site, and I’ve always declined because I used the website as my personal portfolio. But one of the things I’m working on now is a television website that will be submission-based, and when it’s ready in the very near future, I’ll let everyone know here, so I can ask for submissions from all of you. That policy may apply to Notes On Notes, too, in the coming months. So, if you ever wanted to write anything here about an album or concert or something, you may be in luck.

I know Notes On Notes isn’t a big site by any means, but I’ve always appreciated all the followers and comments I’ve gotten over the years, and I want to extend my gratitude.

I hope you are okay. Thank you for reading.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

reflektor

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

4/5

2013

Double albums are a tough trick to pull off (and even when they work, they aren’t always worth the effort put into them), but it’s easy to see why artists love to try them. They seem like such a great idea: a wider canvas on which to paint more. More instruments, more styles, more heady concepts, more everything. Arcade Fire are a band that never shied away from more, and the prospect of a double album almost seemed inevitable. But their gift for grandiosity (and the high that comes with winning a Grammy Award for Best Album) also makes them extra susceptible to the dangers of self-indulgence, so when Reflektor, their intensely hyped fourth album, was released in late 2013, it wasn’t exactly clear how it would end up. With LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy behind the boards, there was no question this would be a more danceable, playful Arcade Fire, one inspired by their frequent trips to Haiti and the Caribbean. This shift in approach isn’t as much of a shock as it seems: Arcade Fire have always been inspired by the nervy propulsion of post-punk and new wave. (Funeral is way more rhythm-heavy than you remember.) But those international influences make this more in line with other globetrotting electro-rock acts like mid-period Talking Heads, and it’s not just because Win Butler directly references “Heaven” on the first side’s skipping centerpiece, “Here Comes The Night Time.” Indeed, Remain In Light seems to provide a lot of inspiration for Reflektor, directly and not, sharing its concerns of identity and technology, its stylistic experiments and jump cuts, as well as the David Byrne-esque vocal and lyrical flourishes Butler occasionally employs.

But where Remain In Light is grand in scope yet focused in execution, Reflektor is just a giant, haphazardly brilliant mess.  It’s not enough that they explore the themes mentioned above—this is an album that also touches on religion, mortality and uses allusions to Greek mythology and Joan of Arc as the basis for extended tracks. The music follows suit, with Arcade Fire trying a bit of everything, dipping into hardcore punk, dub, ragga, disco, African polyrhythms, funk and experimental electronic music, sometimes fusing these together into weird, oblong shapes. None of this feels particularly fragmented or jarring, per se, since the band’s voice and songwriting is distinct enough to keep up the flow. Nevertheless, the parts are far greater than the sum, so the collective wallop of the album is somewhat soft. Where each of their previous albums picked a certain thematic and musical palette and kept picking at it to find nuance and depth, here the smorgasbord approach treats everything more superficially, so the album lacks a clear through-line. Put another way, where, say, The Suburbs was made up of tiny moments that added up to something moving, Reflektor is made up of huge moments that don’t add up to much of anything at all.

So, for that reason (and because, debatably, a couple of tracks could be cut down a little), Reflektor is the weakest Arcade Fire album to date. But give it a few spins, live with it a little, and each of those individual moments emerge as bits of genius that redeem the record in a big way. The opening title cut marries Murphy’s expansive yet pointed production and Arcade Fire’s fondness for drama (plus a Bowie cameo); The raw “Normal Person” is their best rock song since “Power Out;” “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is epic, R&B-infused post-punk, and the creepy, tear-stained synth-funk of “Porno” is their most fascinating experiment. Yet nothing gets the blood boiling like “Afterlife,” which, with its searching, desperate chorus, is the most from-the-gut cathartic song they’ve penned since “Intervention.” This plethora of ideas reveals a band in transition, and it’s often thrilling to hear this band try to sate their ever-ballooning ambitions, even if it’s not quite all there. But after three albums whose quality ranged from “masterpiece” to “near-masterpiece,” releasing a record that’s “very good” is no crime, especially when that slip comes from overreach rather than complacency. It may be a shaggy dog album, but it only confirms Arcade Fire’s position as one of the best bands of their generation.

The Dismemberment Plan – Uncanney Valley

uncanneyvalley

The Dismemberment Plan – Uncanney Valley

3.5/5

2013

The uncanny valley is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the uneasiness that comes with dealing with simulations that imitate human features and movements closely, like mannequins or CGI animations, but are unnervingly different. In that sense, intentional or not, Uncanney Valley ends up being the perfect title for the Dismemberment Plan’s fifth album and first in 12 years. Without a doubt this is a Dismemberment Plan record—Travis Morrison’s mercurial vocals and Joe Easley’s elastic drums confirm that—but there’s something…off. (And it’s not just the misspelled album title.) That “something” can be mostly attributed to the fact the band is a decade older and that 2013 is a much different year than 2001. Whereas a twentysomething Morrison spent the Plan’s early albums working through his anxieties and trying to cope with maturity, he’s now a man on the verge of middle age. With his concerns lying elsewhere, it makes some sense that the music is different: the band members are older and more comfortable with themselves, so it follows that their music is more comfortable too. This is still the same restlessly creative band of yore, but there isn’t the same urgency below the surface, that off-the-cuff inventiveness that made their best work sound so bracing and personal. That has a lot to do with the production, which is more expansive and polished than ever, snapping in samples and sound effects in and around songs like a puzzle, with every sound cleanly organized and mixed, even when it seems to come out of nowhere. In short, the Dismemberment Plan has never sounded this much like a well-oiled machine, yet once you get over the initial shock, Uncanney Valley ends up emerging as a sweet, hopeful, if not great, epilogue to the band’s story.

It’s their shortest album, and that focus keeps things tight and accessible, even when the band navigates through their trademark stylistic turns, playing like a streamlined, ironed-out version of Emergency & I. That directness has its perks, though, especially given Morrison’s ear for off-kilter hooks: the jerky vocals make “No One’s Saying Nothing” a brighter, smoother take on Emergency‘s “A Life Of Possibilities;” the effervescent “Waiting” and skipping “White Collar White Trash” are great, skewed pop, and “Lookin'” is the simplest, prettiest song in the Plan’s catalogue. Uncanney is still too weird to be their version of Weezer’s Green Album, the 2001 comeback that heralded that band’s current status as goofy pop formalists, but it still suffers from one of Weezer’s major late-period issues. Now, Morrison shares some of Rivers Cuomo’s endearing/annoyingly corny humor (the “When I say…you say…” sequence on “Let’s Just Go To The Dogs Tonight;” the sexcapade satire “White Collar White Trash”) and fondness of earnest sentiment that can border on cliché (the sort-of cheesy but very hooky “Go And Get It”). It’s not so much the stab at humor itself that’s the problem—in a world drenched in irony and emotional distance, it’s weirdly a bit refreshing to hear him going for broke on silly dad-jokes—it’s that because of it, the whole album comes off as slight. And that’s especially disappointing considering Morrison was a damn fine lyricist, who found comedy in everyday tragedy and vice versa, and while there’s hints of that here (especially in “Waiting” and “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”), it’s generally tossed aside for something altogether flat. That might be a deal-breaker for some listeners, the way it was for Weezer’s fans, but the relative consistency of the songwriting here should help quell the discomfort. After all, it’s hard to argue with more Dismemberment Plan, even if what you were served isn’t what you ordered. Keep an open mind, and you might just go home happy.

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