Monthly Archives: October 2010
Fran Healy – Wreckorder
As the frontman for Scottish Britpop band Travis, Fran Healy has never shied away from the simple, straight-ahead pop song. When he sulked, he never despaired like Thom Yorke; when he swaggered, he never was as brash as Liam Gallagher. Even if all this made him and his music less distinctive, it also gave Healy a charming, everyman quality that made Travis more successful and influential than many of its peers. Though Travis’ commercial and critical success have waned a bit over the past few years, Healy’s 2010 solo debut, Wreckorder, doesn’t try much that he hasn’t already done with his band. The album veers closer to the darker shades in Travis’ catalog—the songs are more “Re-Offender” and less “Sing”—but it never really gets any more languid or introspective than the band’s work. In fact, the album is at its most pop-oriented when the songs strongly resemble Travis. “Fly In The Ointment” and “Holiday” sound like sub-Invisible Band tracks, but the sweet “Anything” fares much better. Where Wreckorder is most compelling, though, is when Healy takes a few chances. His duet with Neko Case on the dreamy “Sing Me To Sleep” is a standout, successfully pushing his melodic skills into a more atmospheric setting. The slinky tango of “As It Comes,” featuring none other than Paul McCartney on bass, also hints at Healy’s songwriting maturation. And if there is one thing that he is trying to make clear, it is that he has matured. It’s in everything from his salt and pepper facial hair that adorns the cover to “Rocking Chair”‘s ruminations on morality. At times, he pulls it off. But considering that he shows the most depth, nuance and, yes, maturity when he takes a few risks, Healy doesn’t achieve what he wants to because Wreckorder plays it safe too often. Still, the best moments on this album fight against this tendency and suggest that his songwriting ability will continue to branch out. Those looking for something new from the man may be a tad disappointed, but there is still enough good music on Wreckorder to satisfy fans waiting for the next Travis album.
Pulp – We Love Life
With the release of 1998’s This Is Hardcore, Pulp hammered one of the final nails in Britpop’s coffin. With its sleazy sensuality and world-weary despair, Hardcore stood as a direct antithesis of the nationalism, optimism, and, in some cases, hedonism that often was associated with Cool Brittania-era bands. After the Britpop period, naturally, the public had moved on to the next big thing—in this case, The Strokes’ Is This It and post-OK Computer outfits like Coldplay. So, despite critical acclaim, We Love Life was often overlooked in the grand scheme of early 2000s British rock, and it’s really a shame too because the album more than stands up to Pulp’s best work. Enlisting Jarvis Cocker’s cult hero Scott Walker as producer, the band ditches the claustrophobia of Hardcore in favor of lush orchestration, almost as if We Love Life is the calm after the storm. This isn’t just unique compared to Hardcore but to nearly all of Pulp’s discography. Previously, the band was often dark and seductive, using glam, disco, and post-punk as its foundation. Here, they take a different approach, incorporating a more organic sound—strings, choirs, and acoustic guitars are likely to appear at any given time—and more spacious arrangements. This suggests the album may be lightweight since the group has always thrived in sensual, synth-based soundscapes. Instead, We Love Life finds Pulp integrating its strengths into a new musical context, such as in the stately string-laden pop of “The Trees,” the working class march of “Weeds,” and the cathartic roar that ends “Sunrise.” But the breakthroughs aren’t just musical. Jarvis Cocker’s razor-sharp wit and observational skill are just as integral to the success of the band’s music than ever before, but here he often cloaks his subjects in metaphor. Nothing he writes here is as dark as Hardcore, and even when he seems in anguish as on “I Love Life,” he always seems to find a way out of it, giving the entire record an optimistic tone that differs from much of Pulp’s output. But even though he is mining new lyrical territory, his gift for writing still manages to pull him through, especially on perhaps the album’s best moment, “Bad Cover Version.” Sometimes beautiful, sometimes abrasive, We Love Life is a mature and emotionally compelling work, one that deserves to be heard as often as the albums Pulp released in the heyday of Britpop.
Kings Of Leon – Come Around Sundown
It’s difficult to believe that Kings Of Leon was once commonly described as a Southern-fried Strokes, crafting pop music by merging rough-and-tumble country and garage rock. Yet, the brothers Followill moved away from this over the years toward a more arena-ready sound, and by 2008’s Only By The Night, they had become genuine international superstars with the album reaching the Top Ten in over a dozen countries. Did the merit of Only By The Night really justify its success? Not quite. But regardless of whether or not one embraced the direction the band took, it’s hard to deny why singles such as “Use Somebody” or “Notion” became inescapable in 2009. They were urgent, arena-ready crowd pleasers, with Caleb Followill positioned as a rougher-edged Bono. In light of such success, however, Kings Of Leon is faced with a dilemma. Do they continue proudly into mainstream rock stardom, or do they retreat backwards, trying to recapture the early audience they had all but lost? Well, it seems that fame was all too tempting, and 2010’s Come Around Sundown is their most sweeping, stadium-filling set of songs yet.
Yes, the ghost of U2 hangs over this album, just as on Only By The Night, but unlike that album, there are no real obvious singles here. This isn’t the result of an album that is self-consciously uncommercial—quite the opposite, really. Rather, the majority of these songs never really take off, bouncing around hooks that don’t dig as deep as they should. True to the album art, Come Around Sundown does feel more relaxed than KoL was previously, even if the palette they use is still dark. The songs plod along with a self-assured swagger and rarely differ much from the same general format. The format, of course, being shimmering, reverb-heavy guitar riffs that surround Caleb’s yelping voice, which unfortunately loses more feeling than it should in this slick musical setting. To be fair, this streamlined sound can be exciting at first, but since the songs often feel so similar, it wears out its welcome fast. Where the album succeeds is when the Followills take a few risks. The gospel-tinged lead single “Radioactive” and the doo wop that flavors “Mary” are among the standouts. Elsewhere, the loose “Beach Side” nicely conjures a dreamy atmosphere, but “Back Down South”‘s twangy country accents never add up to much, making the song feel like a missed opportunity. Aside from these tracks, the bulk of the album is frustratingly middle ground: the harder songs don’t have enough bite, and the surfier, more relaxed songs have too much, leaving potentially good tracks feeling bland. Come Around Sundown will most likely please many Kings Of Leon fans converted by Only By The Night. At the same time, however, it is a rather mediocre holding pattern, one that is unlikely to generate the same amount of success the band garnered before.
Avey Tare – Down There
Animal Collective had dabbled in electronics throughout its career, but its music always remained based in organic instrumentation, even if the songs themselves warped these instruments beyond recognition. But after the success of Panda Bear’s sample-heavy solo effort Person Pitch, the group decided to take a different approach. The heavily acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion, released in 2009, used electronica as its foundation, creating a colorful, mesmerizing masterpiece that gave the illusion of pop music, tucking its unconventional structures and sound palette beneath the surface. So it does not really come as any surprise that band member Avey Tare’s 2010 solo album, Down There, is a strictly electronic affair. After all, the digital world is one he is fairly new to and has not explored thoroughly on his own.
What is surprising, however, is just how spacious and vast the album sounds. Animal Collective has made a living off of crafting music with dense arrangements and production—even the slower songs were often bursting at the seams in some form or another. Instead, Down There builds off of the murky, underwater motif that accented Merriweather and the Water Curses EP, but it remains atmospheric throughout, veering closer to ambient pop than any of the aforementioned records. Swirling keyboards, unidentifiable sound effects, and muffled backing vocals all dance above and around Avey’s trance-inducing melodies, giving the album a hazy, dream-like flow. Fortunately, the songs have just enough structure to keep the album from turning into a mass of shifting dynamics, but nothing on here resembles a pop song in the traditional sense, even when the four-on-the-floor pulse kicks in on “Oliver Twist” or the electronics squelch on “Lucky 1.” Avey revists some of Merriweather’s hypnotic pop on “Heather In The Hospital” and “3 Umbrellas,” both of which contain some of the most buoyant melodies on the entire album. As with almost any record released in the Animal Collective canon, lyrics here are not emphasized in favor of how the words sound within the context of the music. The lyrics that do surface through the murk, though, often display the themes of alienation and depression—most notably on opener “Laughing Hieroglyph” and “Heather In The Hospital”—the same tactic Avey has used to give weight to his previous work. If the vocals sometimes distract from the aquatic flow of the music, such as on “Ghost Of Books,” these moments are fleeting and never truly detract from the overall atmosphere. And given that this type of music has the tendency to wander, Avey is smart enough to keep everything tight, holding the album to just over a half hour. Straddling the line between the truly experimental and unabashed pop music is something that can easily slip into uninspired pretension, but after a decade working in this field, Avey Tare is without peer, pulling everything together effortlessly. It isn’t as innovative or as beautiful as his band mate’s work on Person Pitch, but Down There is its own small triumph, the moonlight to Panda Bear’s sunshine.
No Age – Everything In Between
So many noise pop/rock bands have sprung up in the last few years that the style has nearly become synonymous with indie rock. While a sizable amount of these bands’ output is good, it often lacks something to distinguish it from the pack. Fortunately, almost as if to show these up-and-comers how it’s done, No Age returns with Everything In Between, and it’s everything you would expect from the band: instantly memorable hooks; energetic, earnest vocals; and guitars that screech and hiss. Sure, they have been cranking out this type of thing since for two albums already, and on the surface their approach here isn’t much different than 2007’s Nouns. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because even on the relatively more expected tracks, No Age are tighter and more tuneful than ever. “Fever Dreaming” and “Depletion” are kinetic, punky rockers, while “Valley Hump Crash” and “Chem Trails” are some of the finest pop the band has ever penned. Everything also finds the band diversifying their sound ever so slightly. The piano-laced instrumental “Positive Amputation” verges on post-rock, “Skinned” hovers over rippling percussion, and “Common Heat” is a calm(er), sincere ballad. This sincerity, both in the lyrics and Dean Spunt’s vocals, is what sets No Age apart from their contemporaries. It’s what gives their music the depth that continues to make this noisy duo more than just a fleeting lo-fi sensation. With Everything In Between, No Age prove themselves once again to be at the top of their class, even with new competition pouring in everyday.
Sufjan Stevens – The Age Of Adz
Remember when Sufjan Stevens was a prolific record maker? In the early 2000s, rarely a year passed without a new Sufjan album, and these weren’t slap-dash lo-fi affairs either (with the possible exception of his debut, A Sun Came). These were often immaculately arranged chamber folk epics created by a man so ambitious that we could believe him when he told us he would write an album for each of the fifty states. Fast-forward to 2010, and a few things have changed: Stevens has readily admitted that the Fifty State Project was a publicity stunt, and barring his 2009 neo-classical effort, The BQE, Stevens hasn’t released a new studio album since 2005’s Illinois. Then without warning, Stevens became prolific again. He released the All Delighted People EP, an hour-long affair built around shape-shifting extended tracks that moved beyond his patented indie folk. Only a few days later, he announced his next studio album. Still, if there were any lingering hopes that Stevens was going to return to his former sound on this next album, he finally put them to rest with The Age Of Adz, a restlessly ambitious song cycle that synthesizes indie electronic and classical orchestration. In fact, only the opening song, “Futile Devices,” with its chiming guitar and hushed vocals, could fit in comfortably with his past work.
To his considerable credit, Stevens’ gift for melody shines through on every track here, even if the approach has shifted dramatically. “Too Much”‘s glitchy pop bears comparison to Dntel (and recalls Stevens’ own Enjoy Your Rabbit), at least until it devolves into a stew of spiraling orchestration and decaying keyboards. Meanwhile, album highlight “The Age Of Adz” sounds like Stevens put Illinois‘ “Chicago” into a blender, what with its anthemic choir harmonies and spacious vocal asides. But if Adz isn’t ever really a difficult listen—Sufjan isn’t trying to scare anyone off—it suffers in a way that his earlier albums have not. While a good majority of the songs in his catalog haven’t been explicitly personal, Stevens’ arrangements and songcraft have given many of his songs the intimacy of confessionals. Here, many of the tracks are lyrically heartfelt, but the affected vocals and dense, experimental music make Stevens sound oddly distant, especially as the music often obscures his words. However, when he is emotionally clear, as on “I Want To Be Well” and “All For Myself,” the music beautifully complements his songs’ humanity. Taking advantage of the extended track lengths (the album runs 75 minutes and only 11 tracks), he also indulges himself in musical flights of fancy that unfortunately don’t always go in interesting directions. This is nowhere more apparent than on the last track, “Impossible Soul.” At a gargantuan 26 minutes, Stevens begins with series of gentle but static melodies and an embarrassing Auto-Tune interlude before landing on a genuinely memorable anthem fifteen minutes in. That’s the album in a nutshell. There is a lot of good music here but too often it is buried beneath meandering codas and unfounded experimentation. Make no mistake, Sufjan Stevens is an extremely talented musician; he has great ideas and the musicianship to execute them. Yet, The Age Of Adz is a transitional album, one that will hopefully mean more in the long run as long as Stevens remains prolific and learns how to successfully merge these new sounds into his music. As it stands, though, the album is frequently beautiful yet can’t help but feel a bit disappointing.