Monthly Archives: June 2010
Oasis – Heathen Chemistry
Change doesn’t come easy to Oasis. Be it the bloated arrangements of Be Here Now or the electronic and psychedelic accents of Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, the Gallaghers never seemed to find a way to effectively expand the sound of their first two albums while also delivering a consistently great batch of songs. So instead of broadening their horizons, Heathen Chemistry documents Oasis’ attempt at going back to basics as a rock and roll band, even adding songwriting contributions from each member of the band. While it seems that Oasis would be better off returning to their strengths—since, after all, progressing as a band resulted in a number of false starts—Heathen Chemistry still unfortunately suffers from some of the same flaws as their previous albums.
While Heathen has an appropriately rougher sound to compliment their more straightforward approach, there isn’t much punch to it, often feeling just as blunted as their last album. This mainly has to do with the return of producer Mark “Spike” Stent, who also helmed Giants, which, for all its dips into new styles, sounded constricted. In other words, when the guitars should crunch or soar, they thud and feel muted. Of course, this wouldn’t matter as much if the songs were consistently strong, which isn’t always the case either. Yet, when the production matches with the right song, Oasis sound as good as they ever were. Lead single “The Hindu Times” soars with its infectious Eastern-inspired guitar riff and powerful hook; Liam’s short, sweet, country-inspired “Songbird” is just as excellent (also, tellingly, the song that sounds the least like the others). The not-bad-at-all ballad “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” and the heavy “(Probably) All In The Mind” are also fine additions. Yet,”Hung In A Bad Place” and “Little By Little” are so generic that they border on self-parody, and many others follow suit.
The record usually sounds fine while it’s playing, but very little of it sticks in the mind. Considering Noel Gallagher used to write so many great songs that even Oasis’ early B-side collection The Masterplan is among their best albums, Heathen Chemistry can’t help but seem more than a little disappointing.
Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Arctic Monkeys could have been just another band in the legion of British indie acts that followed in the wake of The Strokes and The Libertines, but something ended up being a bit different about them. Following the circulation of a few early demos online, word quickly spread about the Arctic Monkeys through word of mouth. The British press—like they seem to do with a new act every year—quickly declared them the best band in the UK, and a new EP and single release sent hype and expectations for a debut album to levels not seen since Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. And the hype transferred over to sales, with Whatever People Say I Am… becoming (at the time) the fastest selling UK album ever. All this attention gives the impression that Arctic Monkeys’ debut was either vastly eclectic or innovative compared to the music of their peers, which ends up not really being the case. But while the album was overhyped, it still would have garnered attention anyway simply on the grounds that it is very good.
As mentioned before, the Arctics were coming of age during the rise of the Strokes and their British counterpart, the Libertines, the two bands which provided the launch for many a British band of the 2000s. But along with learning a few musical tricks, the band also shares those two bands’ knack for expressing their youthful exuberance. Opener “The View From The Afternoon” frames a day of teenage debauchery in messy, clanging chords; others such as the hit “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” and “Fake Tales Of San Francisco” rely just as much on call-and-response vocals as off-kilter, kinetic riffs and grooves. But the Arctics excel above many of their peers because of two reasons: 1) the band has a propulsive power and a natural knack for songwriting that is evident even on the relatively lightweight tracks (the underage drinking tale “Riot Van,” the excellent “You Probably Couldn’t See For The Lights But You Were Staring Straight At Me”) and 2) Alex Turner’s distinctive lyrics. Throughout the course of the album, Turner observes, celebrates, and mocks the shallow Sheffield nightlife and the youth subcultures that inhabit it, especially in the album’s best track, “A Certain Romance.” Though Turner’s skills don’t quite reach the masterful wit of fellow Sheffield resident Jarvis Cocker, Turner’s style is relatively similar, telling stories and crafting characters from what he sees and hears. The album loses a wee bit of momentum in the middle, but Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not proves that there was much, much more to Arctic Monkeys than just being the first band to become prominent because of the Internet.
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Damon Albarn is a lot of things but lazy isn’t one of them. The last Gorillaz album, 2005’s Demon Days, spawned a couple crossover hits—especially “Feel Good Inc.”—and Albarn solidified himself as a major part of the pop world for a second straight decade whether or not he was the face of the band. But rather than rest, he released The Good, The Bad & The Queen with his British supergroup in 2007 and then wrote the music (and again collaborated with Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlett) for Monkey: Journey To The West, a Chinese opera. If Blur’s last album, 2003’s Think Tank, seemed dominated by Albarn’s sole influence in the absence of longtime guitarist and songwriting partner Graham Coxon, all of these new projects served to confirm a change of approach—Albarn’s newfound habit of stepping out of the spotlight. It was a notion hinted at by Gorillaz’ past records, where even if he is the brains behind the operation, Albarn isn’t the face of it, or at least he shares the credit with others.
So it doesn’t come as a surprise that Plastic Beach, the much-delayed third Gorillaz album, continues this trend and saturates nearly every track with diverse guest leads. This means that chamber orchestra Sinfonia ViVa, Bobby Womack, and Snoop Dogg sit alongside Lou Reed and The Clash’s Paul Simonon and Mick Jones. Collecting such an eclectic and idiosyncratic group of talents under one umbrella may suggest that Plastic Beach is an erratic, unfocused listen—which is occasionally true—but it is surprisingly cohesive due to Albarn’s master collaborative skills.
In fact, some of the most successful moments on the album are the products of ambitious collaboration. “Stylo,” a demented electro-disco number, features an explosive vocal from Bobby Womack, and De La Soul, who previously contributed to Demon Days‘ hit “Feel Good Inc.,” return for the sweet pop of “Superfast Jellyfish.” Meanwhile, Swedish electronic group Little Dragon duet with Albarn on two of the album’s most gorgeous tracks, “Empire Ants” and “To Binge,” and Mos Def navigates the spiraling orchestration courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble on “Sweepstakes.” Add to this the couple of tracks where Albarn sings solo, Plastic Beach offers plenty to digest in its dizzying display of talent.
True, some may have qualms with the fact that Albarn himself is pushed off into the background for much of the album. After all, he is the voice of the band, and many of the songs that sound closer to Gorillaz’ past work (“On Melancholy Hill,” “Broken,” and the superb “Rhinestone Eyes”) feature no collaborations at all and are uniformly more pop-minded than most of the record. So, ultimately, Plastic Beach ends up being the least accessible Gorillaz record—this one won’t churn out a “Feel Good Inc.,” or a “Clint Eastwood”—and easily the most eclectic. But the collaborations certainly don’t hurt the record, and given the high quality of Plastic Beach, it is unlikely that any fan will be disappointed regardless of what one feels about Albarn’s new musical direction.
Liars – Sisterworld
Liars have always been tied to a location with each album, gaining influence from the various places they wrote and recorded, be it deep in Brooklyn or deep in the woods of New Jersey. But Sisterworld, their fifth album, is their first body of work that comments so directly on a specific place, which, in this case, is Los Angeles. Liars have constructed songs about the spaces and groups that LA inhabitants create for themselves to maintain a sense of belonging in the face of city living. To this end, the band creates an intriguing view of LA, filled with deadbeat slackers and creeps, but then again Liars have always excelled at creating insular and frightening worlds.
Beginning with crawling vocals and a mournful oboe line, the songs suddenly crashes down with panicked shouts and bashed-out chords. “Scissor”‘s mix of the hazy and the abrasive signals Liars’ intent for the rest of Sisterworld, which acts as a mix between their 2006 album, the atmospheric Drum’s Not Dead, and 2007’s Sonic Youth-inspired Liars. Songs like the woozy “No Barrier Fun” and disease-obsessed “Drip” contrast interestingly with the abrasive punk “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant” and “The Overachievers,” a scathing pair of songs attacking violent creeps and slacker hipsters, respectively. Yet the album is strikingly cohesive. Liars may have taken off from different starting points, elaborating on the distinct sounds of their previous records, but each song winds up at the same conclusion, making the album seem of a piece. By broadening and sharpening their sound, Sisterworld ends up being one of Liars’ best records, continuing their streak of being one of the most interesting and original experimental bands around today.