!!! - Thr!!!er
The success of any given !!! song (or album) hinges on how well the band merges their Liquid Liquid-esque jams with their pop songwriting. At their best, they manage something startlingly fun and inventive; at their worst, their music can sound like the numbing backbeat of a dying party. And with their closest (and most famous) contemporary LCD Soundsystem out of the picture, it’s do or die time for !!!, at least if they want to inherit the dance-punk throne. If their fifth album, Thr!!!er, doesn’t quite go so far as to clinch that title, it does at least seem to want to court a wider audience, as the band back off from their dense, gnarled productions in favor of something smoother and stripped down. As a result, Thr!!!er is probably their most accessible record—and it’s also their most unabashedly retro. To be sure, !!! have always worn their influences on their collective sleeve, but from the robotic keyboard tones and swooning saxophone lines that punctuate “Get That Rhythm Right” to the Bee Gees/Prince falsettos on “One Girl/One Boy,” early ’80s electro-funk and synth-pop is the name of the game here. Fortunately, particularly in the record’s first half, they pull it off; this is some of the band’s purest pop, and even though a few of the members have switched up over the years, this is still a band that can work a groove better than most. “Even When The Water’s Cold,” with its lucid guitar leads and bouncing hook, is the obvious single here, that is, if it weren’t for “One Girl/One Boy”‘s glitzy stomp. “Fine Fine Fine,” meanwhile, conjures the sensual menace of early New Romantic bands like Visage, and the rollicking closer “Station (Meet Me At The)” is the hardest, most propulsive thing here. Yet, for a group that always thrived on overloaded arrangements and complex rhythms, Thr!!!er‘s reigned-in approach ends up hurting the record as a whole. Sure, the slinky “Get Your Rhythm Right” benefits, but “Californiyeah” and “Except Death” end up pulling the short straws, since their simple melodies and productions are too slight to sustain themselves in this atypically bare-bones setting. And that low-impact, low-energy feeling permeates the entire album, weighing even the best moments down and keeping them from achieving transcendence. That said, even if the highlights here don’t reach the levels of !!!’s best work, this is still a consistently winning, breezy set of jams, and you could do a lot worse than to listen in. It’s a mixed bag, but Thr!!!er still offers the hope that, one day, !!! will nail all the aspects of their sound on record to create something truly worthy of that throne.
The Dismemberment Plan - Change
While Emergency & I justifiably goes down as the Dismemberment Plan’s definitive album, Change is nearly as worthy of the honor, yet was largely overlooked in 2001 because of the Strokes’ ascendancy the previous month. As it turned out, Change was the Plan’s final studio album before their breakup, but other than the generally more relaxed mood, there’s nothing that suggests this is a group on the verge of creative collapse. Indeed, this record displays them at the peak of their powers, figuring out how to challenge themselves and pulling it off with panache. Travis Morrison referred to Change as a “night album,” something moody, involving and contemplative, and there’s no argument here. Using Emergency‘s ambling, less-structured moments, like “The Jitters” and “Back And Forth,” as a starting point, the Plan delve into more atmospheric, rhythmic territory here, eschewing diversity for focus. And since the music doesn’t style-jump as much, it places more emphasis on Morrison’s wry, poetic lyrics, which are as honest and well-observed as ever, perhaps even more so. There’s an inevitable confessional vibe that comes with a record that feels so introspective, but Morrison gets a lot of mileage out of it, approaching each song a different way. Whether he’s waxing philosophical (“Sentimental Man,” “Following Through”); cataloguing a relationship (“Ellen And Ben”); playing with surreal metaphors (“The Face Of The Earth,” “Superpowers”) or lashing out (“Time Bomb”), there’s an intellectual and emotional heft to these tracks that a lot of modern rock sorely lacks. Yet even if the album was instrumental, Change would still be an engaging album, simply because the Plan are more musically talented than most of their ilk, particularly their virtuosic rhythmic section, drummer Joe Easley and bassist Eric Axelson (check out the live jungle performance on “The Other Side” for instant proof). Because most of this record is about groove and flow, it puts the group’s electronic, jazz and R&B influences into sharper relief, resulting in some truly arresting moments and arrangements like the vibrating keyboard riff in “Superpowers,” the swinging wash of “Sentimental Man” or the spare, acoustic “Automatic.” That said, the Plan can’t help but punctuate the record with tracks like “Pay For The Piano” and the rampaging “Secret Curse” that recall their early post-hardcore work. Given the downcast, lyrically dense nature of the record, it takes more time to get into than other Plan albums, but its rewards are as great as any of the best moments in their oeuvre. If the Dismemberment Plan’s career began with an !, it’s rather fitting, if frustrating, that Change ended it with an ellipsis, one that remained until their reunion 10 years later.
The Flaming Lips - The Terror
With Embryonic, the Flaming Lips pivoted their persona from self-consciously arty teddy bears to self-consciously arty provocateurs. It was a heavy, chaotic and eclectic record, something that challenged the group and polarized the fans roped in by the relatively more cuddly Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. But their messy creativity only emboldened them, and in the following years, the Lips indulged in all matter of nutty experiments and gimmicks that make Zaireeka look like a stuffy gallery piece: 24-hour songs, music-loaded flash drives implanted in gummy skulls, Super Bowl ads, blood-spattered posters and vinyl records, collaborative albums, and that’s just scratching the surface. Of course, barring the entertaining collab album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, most of these projects ended up just being conceptual curiosities, never yielding music as interesting as the fact these things existed in the first place. Many fans cried out for the Lips to quit mucking around and get back to work on their next record, but on the evidence of 2013′s The Terror, it seems all those gimmicks were just ways to distract themselves from dealing with personal turmoil.
Make no mistake, The Terror is the darkest Flaming Lips album yet. With its droning electronics, blasts of noise and helpless vocals, the record doesn’t hide its obsession with anguish, depression and alienation. There’s little respite in Wayne Coyne’s lyrics too: Where Embryonic at least held out the hope that people “can be gentle too, if they decide,” The Terror displays no such sentiment. Instead, Coyne’s voice rarely rises above the surrounding murk, and we get murmurs like “Love is always something you should fear” and “You’ve got a lot of nerve to fuck with me!” Perhaps befitting such a joyless ride, there’s nothing even close to a single here; the record’s basically a giant pile of shifting dynamics (even to the point that, upon a cursory listen, it can seem unwavering). Fortunately for all involved, the album is pretty fascinating, far from the slog it could have been. Carrying over Embryonic‘s early-’80s sci-fi bent, the album sounds like the band is dragging its feet across a desolate desert planet, with all the dreary spaciness and creepy sound design that implies. The pulsing, psychedelic synths that hum through “Look…The Sun Rising” echo electronic pioneers Silver Apples; the self-defeating “You Are Alone” sounds like Coyne at war with himself as he’s drifting off to sleep at night, and the centerpiece “Your Lust” feels like the post-apocalyptic sequel to Embryonic‘s ”Powerless,” jamming off of Steve Drozd’s scorching guitar riff.
While all this commitment to mood and texture means that The Terror is a more consistent, cohesive album than Embryonic (or a lot of Lips albums, for that matter), it also means the band is limiting the palette they paint with. Unfortunately, when dealing with emotions this personal, the Flaming Lips are a band that shouldn’t put restrictions on themselves. One of the reasons, say, The Soft Bulletin works as well as it does is because it’s insanely maximal, turning its heart-on-the-sleeve ruminations into a transcendent symphony. The Terror wants to do the same thing with despair, yet winds up frustratingly distant, since it too-often uses its experimentation to obscure rather than to illuminate the negative feelings. This isn’t to say the Flaming Lips don’t ever touch brilliance here—there are moments on every song that do, and “Try To Explain” and “Turning Violent” are particularly beautiful and heartwrenching—but the album misfires just enough that it can seem like a missed opportunity. Even so, the Flaming Lips are onto something, and if gimmicky art projects are what it takes for them to get to where they need to be next time, then more power to them.
James Blake - Overgrown
James Blake’s eponymous debut established him as a producer to watch and a songwriter that needed practice. His mix of dubstep, trip-hop and ’90s R&B suggested a sort of futuristic, metropolitan singer/songwriter, and it resulted in some stunning singles (“The Wilhelm Scream,” “Limit To Your Love”). But his skeletal songs couldn’t always stand up to the surroundings, so the record too often slipped from “ethereal” to “ephemeral,” with many tracks fading from memory. A couple years and EPs later, though, Blake has honed his skills, crafting a thoughtful variation on his signature sound on Overgrown. He shows even more restraint here than in the past, never forcing his studio trickery, pushing a lot of his manipulations into the background. No gobs of reverb or excessively chopped-up vocals here (though both of those certainly show up here and there in small doses), all the better to serve the more straight-ahead songs and productions. Just check the title track for an excellent example of how this album finds Blake improving in every way. It’s still anchored by aquatic beats and Blake’s fragile voice, but listen to how he plays with dynamics, tempering the repeated verses and hooks with a soft musical sweep, deftly incorporating cymbal washes, string orchestrations and piano chords without distracting from the central theme. It’s this smarter songwriting sense that colors the very best parts of Overgrown, like the great “Retrograde,” which builds off a wonderfully swinging vocal loop into some passionate digital soul. But Blake isn’t just a stronger musician—he’s also diversifying. RZA shows up to spit a few verses on “Take A Fall For Me;” “DLM” adds some touches of jazz to his piano-based confessionals, and even Brian Eno stops by on the beat-heavy and (relatively) more aggressive “Digital Lion.” His production and songwriting still aren’t detailed and nuanced enough to keep everything from sounding too monochromatic; however, moments like the claustrophobic house track, “Voyeur,” which could have just as easily fit on his debut, show how far he’s come along, since it demands attention instead of slumping off into the corner. Issues aside, Overgrown is a more mature, assured record than its predecessor, and more importantly, it indicates that Blake may be on the verge of something even better.
The Knife - Shaking The Habitual
Shaking The Habitual is as perfect an album title as you’re likely to see this year. For one, it speaks to the political overtones of the record and its attempts to jerk the public from complacency. Even better, it speaks to the music itself, which is far more challenging than anything the Knife has released before, proving that the seven years following Silent Shout have not dulled their blade (pun, of course, intended). Not to say that the Swedish duo were radio-friendly before or that their sound has remained consistent throughout their career, but Shaking feels like a great leap forward in terms of the kinds of compositions and productions the group is willing to create, and at two discs and nearly 100 minutes, the album’s certainly a sprawl. The first two tracks only hint at the directions they take here. “A Tooth For An Eye” bends steel drums and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s obtuse vocals into a sort of jungle-fever pop, while “Full Of Fire” is a production tour de force, throwing every effect, whip-crack beat and pitch-shift up the Knife’s collective sleeve into a bracing everything-goes dance track.
It’s here that the album takes some decidedly risky left turns. It’s clear that their time working with tense atmospherics on the Tomorrow, In A Year opera rubbed off on the group, and Shaking will be remembered for the moments that it rejects conventional structure in favor of free-form tracks and moods. The primal “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” feels like some sort of soundtrack to the underworld; “Stay Out Here” has all the trimmings of a house number yet feels more suitable for a paranoid late-night-in than a fun night out, and “Cherry On Top” moves from hovering, unnerving textures to an equally unnerving pseudo-operatic interlude and back again. The deliberate, dark ambient pieces, like the 20-minute “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” and “Fracking Fluid Injection,” feel underdeveloped, and they suck a bit of momentum out of the record, so it helps when the Dreijers’ pop sensibilities chime in. “Raging Lung” squeezes some undeniable hooks from its knotty center, while ”Without You My Life Would Be Boring” rides free on a deranged (and downright catchy) groove. If this doesn’t sound at all cohesive, well, it isn’t really. But half of what’s great about the record is how it overwhelms, how its tribal-patter rhythms, abrasive melodies and spooky sound effects suggest a revolution even more than the lyrics or artwork do. As with most scabrous art, Shaking The Habitual is easier to admire than love—it’s unlikely even diehard Knife fans will return to this as often as their other records—but there sure is a hell of a lot to admire.
The Strokes - Comedown Machine
However you feel about Angles, there’s no doubt it lowered expectations for the Strokes. The five years that separated First Impressions Of Earth and that album were filled with solo records and side projects, speculation and anticipation. When that record was revealed to be a decent, if unsatisfying, set, the following two-year wait for their next record was weirdly silent. The Strokes were past their prime, the media collectively concluded, and Comedown Machine was released to little fanfare. The Strokes are no longer the best or most talked-about band in the world anymore—far from it—and, as evidenced by this record, it sounds like they agree. Comedown Machine is filled with lyrics about confusion, regret, aging and settling down. And as the title implies, there’s a sense of deflation at work here, the group resigning themselves to the fact that their glory days have passed them. In other words, where Julian Casablancas once implored, “Please don’t slow me down if I’m going too fast,” he now admonishes that “you’re living too fast.” As such, it’s the softest, most contemplative Strokes album yet, one that sometimes sounds like an entirely different band.
Reuniting with Angles producer Gus Oberg, the band continues their ’80s fascination here—something no doubt fostered by Casablancas, whose solo album favored a new-wave, synth bounce—but it’s somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one side, the Strokes are usually sterling revivalists, since they refuse to shed their own voice in service of retro worship. ”Tap Out” and the shuffling “Partners In Crime” come up winners, but it’s “One Way Trigger,” with its a-ha-inspired keyboard line and falsetto vocals, that’s the most memorable, mostly because it’s one of the oddest things the group’s ever done. It’s tuneful yet challenging, designed to make fans uncomfortable the way “Juicebox” did back in 2006, though it’s doesn’t reach the furious heights of that track. And that brings me to the other side of the equation. The Strokes fuss and experiment a lot on this album, but they haven’t written a set of songs strong enough to justify their stylistic diversions. Their ’80s fetish ends up dragging the record down on a few occasions, particularly in the second half, yet even the best songs here don’t feel as fresh or as compulsively replayable as the highlights from any other Strokes record. Part of this is the songwriting, yes, but it’s also the band’s new habit of playing as precisely as possible. They’re all still phenomenally talented musicians; it’s just that their airtight, professional arrangements don’t allow for, say, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr.’s guitars to flower into an unexpected duel of solos. It’s a problem compounded by Oberg’s polished production, which, while accentuating some of the hooks, ends up taking the bite out of many of the messier tracks, like the blustery “50/50,” that call out for some room to breathe. Plus, he still makes the odd, unfortunate choice of obscuring Casablancas’ voice in the mix, losing one of the Strokes’ most vital aspects in the process. Sometimes, the band hits it right, creating two great spins on their signature sound on “All The Time” and “Welcome To Japan,” and the risk-taking pays off with the wistful, torchy “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” and the hypnotic “80s Comedown Machine,” which lives up to the promise of First Impressions‘ “Ask Me Anything.” All of the flitting around reveals a band in transition, unsure of what kind of music they want to make going forward. But that’s just making excuses for a record that could, even should, be better than it is. (First Impressions is just as uneven, but there are far more tracks worth returning to on that album.) Despite the resignation on display on Comedown Machine, it doesn’t sound like they’ve given up, so here’s hoping that the Strokes can figure out what works before it’s too late.
Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience
Justin Timberlake is in the interesting position of being predominately referred to and thought of as a musician, even though he’s spent about the same amount of time as an actor. Think of it this way: *NSYNC released three albums and, all told, spent roughly five years on the world stage, then Timberlake released only two more albums of his own with a four-year gap separating them. But every moment in between, after and before those releases (if we’re counting his stint on The New Mickey Mouse Club), he’s spent starring in film and television, becoming a reliably crowd-pleasing host on Saturday Night Live and co-founding a clothing line. With so much else going on, in theory, it would be easy for JT to take his fan base’s goodwill for granted, going in for a cash grab for his inevitable “return to music,” since he could fall back on the rest of his ventures. But, remember, in the public’s eyes, he’s a singer first, so whatever eventually followed FutureSex/LoveSounds had to be good, had to be an “event album,” lest he damage his reputation. To that end, seven years later, he mostly succeeds with The 20/20 Experience, an opulent, blockbuster R&B record whose reach sometimes exceeds its grasp.
Collaborating with Timbaland again implies 20/20 will rehash FutureSex‘s twitchy, electro-disco, when actually, with the assistance of co-producer J-Roc and songwriter James Fauntleroy, this album is warmer and more diverse than its often chilly and calculated predecessor. There’s a loose feel here, where pop song conventions are eschewed in favor of progressive song structures and extended codas reminiscent of early and mid ’70s R&B. (Of the 10 songs here, all but two are over six minutes, and many are considerably longer.) It’s refreshing to see such a prominent pop musician challenge his audience and play with the format like this, and, at times, it pays off. The creepy-crawly nightclub tale “Don’t Hold The Wall,” the is-it-a-stalker-anthem “Tunnel Vision,” and the silky sex jam “Strawberry Bubblegum” generally benefit from the space they’re afforded, morphing into variations of their main themes as they close out. Elsewhere, Timberlake and co. stretch themselves with the nearly beatless closer “Blue Ocean Floor” and the “Let The Groove Get In,” which comes off like a Latin-flavored take on Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” And the the two relatively shorter songs, ”Suit & Tie” and the Southern groove “That Girl,” showcase Timberlake’s effortless charm and vocal ability, even if they aren’t as immediate as some of his past singles.
The major issue throughout The 20/20 Experience, though, is that it isn’t as inventive as it thinks it is, and many of these tracks don’t have enough ideas to justify their runtime. The wannabe psych-soul number “Spaceship Coupe” wears out its welcome long before it crosses the finish line; “Pusher Love Girl” begins superbly but pushes its love-as-drug metaphor far past its breaking point, while “Mirrors,” too, starts off as an exquisite pop gem before dragging on and on past the eight-minute mark. And even a few of the better tracks mentioned above, like “Let The Groove Get In,” would do well with some tightening up. Lyrics also continue to be a struggling point for Timberlake, too, mostly because he can’t quite sell himself as a ladykiller on record (which, for being an attractive Renaissance man, still seems odd). Sure, he doesn’t push the sex machine act as hard as he did in the past, but when he offers that “you can be my strawberry bubblegum/I can be your blueberry lollipop” on “Strawberry Bubblegum,” it’s unintentionally silly. And elsewhere, his attempts at sly pickup lines (“Everyone’s looking for the flyest thing to say/I just want to fly with you”) and mentions of sex on the Moon and a “space lover cocoon” only come off as the ramblings of Prince and André 3000′s clumsy younger brother. Timberlake obviously wanted to make a statement with his comeback, and it’s easy to see why he indulged in the more-is-more approach, but for an album called The 20/20 Experience, it simply isn’t all that visionary or compelling, even if its best moments rank among the best and most beautiful pop music of the year. At the same time, this record’s also evidence that he’s still a major force on the pop scene, and when Timberlake and his collaborators become better editors, they may be able to finally craft something as emotionally profound and sonically adventurous as their inspirations.
How To Destroy Angels - Welcome Oblivion
No matter what he does, Trent Reznor will never quite be able to escape the specter of Nine Inch Nails, his massively influential ’90s band. This isn’t to say that he necessarily wants to step out of that band’s shadow, but as many Academy Award-winning scores and Call Of Duty: Black Ops II songs he writes, reviewers like me will always come back to NIN simply because everything he’s done feels like an extension of that group. (See Thom Yorke’s solo career and my Atoms For Peace review for another example.) This isn’t meant as an insult, either. The Social Network and Girl With A Dragon Tattoo scores cultivated their own identities out of Reznor and longtime producer Atticus Ross’ signature sounds–digital dehumanization in the former, anxiety and hopelessness in the latter. Naturally, these scores leaned toward the more atmospheric and ambient sides of Reznor’s catalogue and his production met the challenge, crafting evocative soundscapes for the characters (and audiences) to wallow in. It was only a matter if time before he attempted to bridge this sort of mood music and his confrontational, song-based work.
Enter Welcome Oblivion, the first full-length record from Reznor’s sometime side project, How To Destroy Angels. Consisting of Reznor, Ross, Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig, and artist Rob Sheridan, the group sketched out their ideas on a few EPs over the last few years, and Welcome Oblivion is their attempt to bring it all together–and the result is promising but ultimately half-baked. The issue isn’t so much the approach (elliptical, unsettling electronic dissonance meets sometimes warm, sometimes angsty female vocals) but the compositions themselves. Every track here has a few good ideas, yet these ideas are often run into the ground, not strong enough to justify the occasionally extended tracks they are shoved into. And with Reznor and Ross’ typically exacting production, there’s no feeling of spontaneity to help counteract the monotony when things get limp. Witness how the frustrated “Too late, all gone” begins to build up tension but it feels passionless, simply fizzling out instead of provoking the listener like it should. Elsewhere though, Welcome Oblivion begins to meet its potential. The sullen “Keep it together” conjures some of the creeping, crawling vibes of Reznor’s past work, while “Recursive self-improvement” manages to remains stressful and compelling through the course of its run. And on the pretty “Ice age,” Maandig (who really ends up being the album’s saving grace with her gorgeous, humane voice) lilts above a skipping acoustic riff, providing some needed contrast from the rest of the record. Again, these moments are the exceptions, though it has to be said, even at its most disposable, Welcome Oblivion doesn’t offend. But since Reznor has so much experience toying with these sounds, once the group tightens up the songwriting, there’s no reason they couldn’t produce something truly distinctive. For now though, it ain’t great, but it’s enough.
David Bowie - The Next Day
The critical trope regarding David Bowie is that he’s a shape-shifter, anticipating and pioneering musical trends throughout his career, with few concessions made to what he’s done before. Whether he be in the guise of folkie-hippie, androgynous glam-rocker, soulful crooner or avant-garde mad scientist, he’s always had an edge over a lot of his contemporaries in knowing just what styles to mine and experiment with, helping to his popular and critical clout for the early, most prolific part of his career. But in the 10 years since Bowie’s last record, 2003′s Reality, a lot’s happened, not just in the world but to the music industry. Since then, the Internet’s become a major force in music distribution, and with the advent of instantly self-released albums, file-sharing and rapid-fire blogging, it can be difficult to know exactly which buzzes to pay attention to and what’s here to stay, even if you have your finger on the pulse. To this end and to his credit, Bowie doesn’t try too hard to engage with the present on The Next Day; in fact, the album often sounds utterly divorced from modern trends. As the cover, a jarring modification of Heroes‘ artwork, indicates, he’s looking to his own past for inspiration in hopes of finding something fresh to work with. It sounds like a tall order, but the degree to which it succeeds is what makes The Next Day Bowie’s best album in about 30 years.
Tony Visconti’s updated production and a few stylistic quirks aside, there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been released during Bowie’s ’70s heyday (and not just because all the German landmarks he name-checks on the lovely, yearning “Where Are We Now?” recall his Berlin era). The record is rife with the sort of theatrical pop, sweeping balladry and driving dance-rock—the title track feels like a streamlined take on Heroes‘ wicked “Beauty And The Beast”—that often characterizes his work. Yet, as retrogressive as this album can be, this isn’t “music legend with his edges sanded off” the way so many late-period, comeback records are. There’s familiarity here, but his approach sounds anything but dated. If anything, Bowie’s sensibility sounds right at home in the early 2010s, perhaps because his penchant for dramatic, over-the-top productions fits with the current crop of artists inspired by him in the first place. Plus, of course, it helps that he’s written a fine, eclectic and surprisingly consistent set of songs. The breakbeat drums and ripping riffs that power “If You Can See Me” give it a jumping, nervous kick; the neo-psychedelic “I’d Rather Be High,” “How Does The Grass Grow?” and the decidedly melancholic “Dancing Out In Space” are delightfully off-kilter pop; the soaring, gospel-tinged “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” imagines a cross between the singer/songwriter-isms of Hunky Dory and the soulful Thin White Duke, while the drone dirge closer “Heat” references his challenging, minimalist work. Sure, these aren’t classics on the level of “Moonage Daydream,” “Heroes,” or “Life On Mars?” here, and a few of the tracks don’t live up to the others—namely “Boss Of Me” and the tepid “Valentine’s Day”—but even these are solidly constructed and never detract from the record’s flow. The Next Day is no groundbreaker, but it’s an often thrilling collection of rock songs and the most vital David Bowie has sounded in years.
Atoms For Peace - Amok
At first glance, whether or not to call Amok Thom Yorke’s second solo album seems like a tough call. On one hand, he isn’t solo here at all; he has Atoms For Peace, a backing band of considerable pedigree: Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass, acclaimed drummer and frequent Beck collaborator Joey Waronker, session percussionist Mauro Refosco and, as always, producer Nigel Godrich. But even as this new blood gives this record a more organic, diverse feel than The Eraser, a few facts can’t be ignored. For one, Atoms For Peace only exists at all because Yorke assembled these musicians to play Eraser tracks on tour with him. Plus, the reprise of Stanley Donwood’s black-and-white cities-in-ruin artwork indicates this is a direct sequel to Yorke’s debut. And besides, the music here is still mostly in line with Yorke’s post-millennial work, where melancholy electronics and skewered beats reign supreme. So, essentially, there’s no escaping that Amok plays as a dressed-up Yorke album, no matter how tight and funky the rhythm section. But where The Eraser emphasized his voice, and his words largely eschewed abstraction for personal and political meditations, this album runs perpendicular, preferring sound and feel to structure and directness. The music is still based in atmospherics and repetition, but Amok was largely culled from jam sessions rather than pieced together on a laptop, so even the relatively structured singles like “Default” and “Judge, Jury and Executioner” have a loose feel to them. This playful, exploratory bent sees the band messing with different approaches, and, at times, it pays off: “Ingenue” plays with decaying synth lines; “Dropped” rides an odd, staccato keyboard riff, while the beginning of “Before Your Very Eyes…” feels like a fresher take on The King Of Limbs‘ groove-oriented first half. Unfortunately, Atoms For Peace never truly give themselves over to a jam, nor do they focus on song structure, leaving a few meandering moments, like “Stuck Together Pieces,” to fall uneasily between the two extremes. Additionally, the album’s commitment to downplaying Yorke’s vocals ends up sucking a good bit of the humanity from these tunes, so nothing here hooks you in like “Black Swan” or has the emotional resonance of “Harrowdown Hill.” Of course, being the master musicians these men are, there are no real missteps here either, and Amok is consistently listenable on the whole, even if there aren’t too many specific moments to return to.