Monthly Archives: July 2010
The Strokes – First Impressions Of Earth
Room On Fire, despite its many virtues and subtle expansions of their sound, simply played it a bit too closely to The Strokes’ debut for some fans. It seems the band felt the same way, overhauling their sound for their third album First Impressions Of Earth, released peculiarly within the first few days of 2006. Running at nearly the combined length of their previous two albums, First Impressions undoubtedly reaches further sonically than the Strokes ever have before, attempting everything from a synth-based ballad (“Ask Me Anything”) to some Pogues-esque wooziness (“15 Minutes”). Even further distancing the album from the Strokes’ past work is David Kahne’s (relatively) bright and slick production, replacing Gordon Raphael rough-around-the-edges sound.
So why is First Impressions of Earth the Strokes’ worst long-player to date? The songs, plain and simple. Whereas, in the past, The Strokes excelled at crafting memorable pop songs even when they explored other genres on Room On Fire, here they are self-indulgent, experimenting with new sounds that too often leave little impact. Same goes for Julian Casablancas’ lyrics. He used to write lyrics that were distinctive even if they had more style than substance (and what are the Strokes, if not stylish?). However, now he has broadened his palette, writing a bit more cryptically about topics other than dysfunctional relationships but often not being able to pull it off. “Ask Me Anything”‘s gentle synth melody would work much better if Casablancas didn’t mindlessly repeat “I’ve got nothing to say” until we have no choice but to believe him, but it’s better than “Killing Lies” which drones on without doing much interesting at all. When the music and lyrics do work, the Strokes sound as good as they ever were. “Juicebox” works a modified Peter Gunn theme riff into a grungy rocker with a soaring bridge; “You Only Live Once” is as bright and fun as the band ever was. Meanwhile, “Ize Of The World” and “Red Light” expand upon the Strokes past work in satisfying ways. Even First Impressions Of Earth‘s most indulgent valleys entertain in spurts (“Vision of Division”‘s alternating lyrical scheme, for instance), but overall the album is not consistent or cohesive enough to be considered anything than an occasionally rewarding misstep.
M.I.A. – /\/\/\Y/\
Since the release of her second album, 2007’s Kala, M.I.A.’s career and personal life went through some seemingly sudden left turns. She toured heavily, became something of a star based on the success of the single “Paper Planes,” was nominated for an Oscar collaborating with A.R. Rahman on the music for Slumdog Millionaire, and gave birth to her first child. But all of this didn’t seem to stifle the ever-industrious M.I.A., who began preparations for her third record /\/\/\Y/\ (pronounced “Maya”) very shortly after everything settled down a bit.
A commentary on information overload in the digital age, /\/\/\Y/\ accordingly sounds just about as hectic as her last few years have been, positively brimming with blistering noise and pounding beats. While this description is not dissimilar to the sound of Kala or even moments on Arular, there has been a bit of a change in approach. Returning to long-time collaborators Diplo, Switch, Blaqstarr (and throwing in dubstep producer Rusko for good measure), M.I.A. still creates club-ready numbers that bend genres together, but the globe-trotting playfulness of her past work is significantly downplayed with a larger focus on experimental techno. Of course, this doesn’t mean /\/\/\Y/\ is no fun at all. In fact, a few of the album’s best tracks push her music to new, exciting limits. “Teqkilla” is six minutes of overlapping sirens, vocal chants, and found sounds that somehow remains purposeful, and the clattering “Born Free” verges on industrial with its aggressive pulse. The pop songs that break up the album don’t play it safe either: “XXXO” is dementedly catchy dance pop, while “It Takes A Muscle” is a not-bad-at-all ragga. Yet, often times, M.I.A.’s sound experiments result in songs where her reach exceeds her grasp. “Meds And Feds”‘ metal-infused ruckus is at first startling, then numbing, then boring. Meanwhile songs such as “Tell Me Why” and “It Iz What It Iz” are interesting in spots but meander far too much to make any lasting impact. While the highs on /\/\/\Y/\ are bracing, they don’t always match the quality of her best work. M.I.A.’s heart is in the project for sure, but the album sometimes sounds a bit too self-indulgent to remain consistently engaging.
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Starting off by playing small shows supporting their self-titled EP, the release of Arcade Fire’s full-length debut Funeral brought the Montreal-based band a stratospheric amount of praise. Not only did they become favorites of critics and fans but they became lauded by such musical heavyweights as U2, David Bowie, David Byrne, and Damon Albarn. It’s not hard to see why, either. Funeral is sweeping and dramatic, dedicated to the band’s family members who had died during the recording and release of the album. As a result, the record deals with mortality, love, and loss and does it through grandiose music that takes as many cues from Talking Heads and Pixies as it does Neutral Milk Hotel and Bowie himself.
But all the unrestrained emotion–Win Butler’s primal singing and shouting, the string-laden loveliness, the transcendent choral harmonies–would be aimless and ineffective if it weren’t for the songs themselves. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” sets the tale of lovers in a post-apocalyptic tundra to an ever-building crescendo; the propulsive post-punk of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” is a fiery indictment of the human condition. Meanwhile, “Wake Up” is a rousing anthem that features over a dozen musicians singing in unison. Yet, Funeral also works in its smaller scale songs as well. Moments such as “Rebellion (Lies)”‘s call-and-response pulse and “In the Backseat”‘s orchestral climax give the album a much-needed balance.
It’s no surprise Funeral‘s immense acclaim and unfiltered emotion galvanized a new trend of similar, big-sounding indie bands in the second half of the 2000s, but they often missed the point. Arcade Fire’s bombast never sounds forced here. They never sound as if they are badgering emotion out of themselves or the listener because, in the end, the appeal of Funeral isn’t its drama but its humanity. Despite its theatrics, it simply sounds like what it is: a group of friends and family genuinely achieving catharsis through music.