Monthly Archives: March 2011
Beck – One Foot In The Grave
Released on the legendary K Records, One Foot In The Grave, Beck’s third release of 1994, is the polar opposite of his previous two records: a hushed folk album, focused almost entirely on Beck and his guitar. Though Stereopathetic Soulmanure and Mellow Gold revealed his eclecticism and versatility, it was possible to mistake Beck’s music as gimmicky since all the genre-mashing and disjointed production sometimes overshadowed the quality of his songwriting. Here, however, it is clear that he is a musician of considerable depth. While he takes a few noisier detours (“Burnt Orange Peels,” “Ziplock Bag”), One Foot In The Grave finds Beck playing through a series of short, meditative tracks often with minimal arrangements. Beginning with the folk standard “He’s A Mighty Good Leader,” he reworks folk and country structures, making the album sound both modern and timeless. “Cyanide Breath Mint,” “I Get Lonesome,” and the resentful “Asshole” are particular highlights, and vocalist Sam Jayne and producer/K Records founder Calvin Johnson temper the more haunting parts of the album with warm harmonies. This is particularly true of the closing number “Atmospheric Conditions,” whose slide guitar and light percussion camouflage Beck and Johnson’s dispiritedness. Beck would later return to this straightforward singer/songwriterism on Mutations and Sea Change, but those would be cleaner, more expansive affairs. As it stands, One Foot In The Grave is an understated gem of a record, one that showed the scope of Beck’s talents, but also one he would never make again.
Beck – Stereopathetic Soulmanure
Thanks to his special record deal with Geffen, Beck was still able to release a few more records on indie labels. The first of which, Stereopathetic Soulmanure, was released shortly before Mellow Gold on L.A. punk label Flipside. Essentially a clearinghouse of folk and country songs, comedic live recordings and noise experiments, Stereopathetic is undoubtedly the oddest, most difficult and least consistent album in Beck’s oeuvre. It actually feels more like a compilation than a studio album since there is very little that binds together his shifts from Half Japanese-styled primitive punk to old-timey folk. That being said, even though much of this is simply novelty, there are a few left-field classics that surface. “Rowboat” is a gentle Appalachian hillbilly tune (Johnny Cash was so impressed with it, he later covered it on his album Unchained); “Puttin’ It Down” reaches back to Beck’s anti-folk roots, and his humor emerges on “Satan Gave Me A Taco,” a surreal, slow-building country song. This isn’t his brightest moment, and it can really only be recommended to hardcore fans, but Stereopathetic Soulmanure helped confirm Beck as one of the singular talents of the ’90s alternative explosion.
Beck – Mellow Gold
Though he released a few limited-edition cassettes, for all intents and purposes, Mellow Gold was Beck’s debut, the album at which the world at large became acquainted with his slacker persona and free-form eclecticism. At the time, critics tagged Beck as both the Voice of a Generation and a one-hit wonder, thanks to his delirious folk-rap, “Loser,” one of the quintessential ’90s anthems. Although he would later go on to debunk those claims with a long, successful career, Mellow Gold is such a solid debut, so full of ideas, that it’s hard to believe he was ever thought of as a flash in the pan. Beck, at this stage in his career, is commonly referred to as “ironic” and a “prankster,” but while his music and lyrics bristle with humorous contradictions (Did he just sing about a ‘giant dildo crushing the sun’ on a brooding folk track?), these songs aren’t elitist parodies. He blends folk, rap, blues, country and the avant-garde freely and without hesitation, seemingly without effort, but he has a genuine love for these genres, even when he pokes fun from time to time. Aside from the iconic “Loser,” there is the the psychedelic rap of “Beercan,” which matches it in quality; the drowsy folk of “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” and “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997;” and the garage-blues of “Fuckin With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock);” And since the entirety of Mellow Gold was culled from Beck’s cassette recordings, the genres whip from one extreme to another, song to song (most notably from the silly folk of “Nightmare Hippy Girl” to the grinding industrial of “Mutherfuker”). Yet though the production may not tie the record together, Beck’s songwriting ability and colorful lyrics, which aren’t as nonsensical as they initially appear, grant it some cohesion. Mellow Gold also anticipated the following few decades of indie and alternative music where the term “genre-bending” often became the norm rather than the exception. He would continue developing this varied, anything-goes approach, but never again would Beck’s gonzo humor and bedroom experimentalism be on such full display again.
Tyler, The Creator – Bastard
One of the first full-length releases from L.A. rap collective OFWGKTA, Tyler, The Creator’s Bastard is a mess of juxtapositions: vulgar and shrewd, laid-back and confrontational, dead serious and a complete joke. The album is suitably contextualized as a therapy session, and Tyler revels in causing all sorts of mischief and controversy, or, as he puts it on “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “I go to Obama rallies screaming out McCain.” It’s easy to dismiss him as an Eminem clone, particularly since both of them share the same twisted sense of humor, vulgar alter egos, homophobic slurs and parent issues, but that’s a bit patronizing. Though Tyler isn’t as verbally gifted as Slim Shady, the major difference between the two is where Eminem blurred the line between fact and fiction, Tyler makes it a bit more obvious. In other words, when Tyler imagines throwing a girl “in the trunk, drunk” on the rape-and-coke tale “Blow,” it’s clear he is speaking in character. Hell, on the title track, he readily admits to creating the character Sarah to express anger toward his ex-girlfriend. This doesn’t make Bastard any less compelling though since his words are clever enough to linger in the mind once the shock wears off. Plus, his attempts at sincerity and introspection (the bookending tracks “Bastard” and “Inglorious”) are every bit as interesting as his character studies and dark, exaggerated fantasies. Even more impressive, he produced the whole album himself, creating a languid, relaxed yet vaguely sinister atmosphere made up of hazy synths and blunt beats. Though the lyrical subjects and production don’t vary enough to keep the album from losing a little steam during the second half, Bastard is an engaging listen, hinting at brighter things to come for the young auteur. It’s certainly not for everybody, even if you do know what’s real and what’s put-on, but regardless of what you or I think, I am positive Tyler, The Creator doesn’t care.
The Strokes – Angles
Five years is a long time, but it’s even longer in pop music. The last time the Strokes checked in was with 2006’s hit-or-miss First Impressions of Earth, an album that hinted that the Strokes were bored of being the Strokes, even when everybody else was still imitating them. But a lot has changed since then. Whereas stylish, garage and new wave-inspired bands were all the rage in the first half of the 2000s, they have since largely been replaced by reverb-drenched, grandiose groups or genre-busting, electronic and dance-oriented artists. And more than that, the Strokes themselves have changed. Four of the five band members have either released solo or side projects, all of which were distinct from their main group’s work. So, naturally, the songwriting duties were now going to be spread among the group rather than consigned to singer Julian Casablancas like they had been in the past. With all this in mind, some huge questions faced the Strokes and their fourth studio album, Angles: what would the album sound like? Would the band still sound relevant? Could the band overcome the allegedly tense recording sessions to make a solid album?
Well, the bottom line is that Angels is a decent record, no more, no less. On the whole, it’s a tighter and more cohesive listen than First Impressions but its best moments never truly approach the high points of any of the band’s past records. It simply showcases the Strokes doing what they do best: Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.’s interlocking guitar work, Casablancas’ just-woke-up vocals and the rhythm section of Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti giving the whole thing a propulsive kick. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, and Angles is enjoyable in its own way. “Under Cover Of Darkness” and “Gratisfaction”‘s joyous choruses help make them standouts; Valensi’s “Taken For A Fool” weds tough verses with buoyant hooks, and the fine closer “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” sounds like a lost cut from Room On Fire. Angles goes a little further than just rehash, though, and is as eclectic as the Strokes have ever been. Yet it sometimes has First Impressions of Earth‘s tendency to overcomplicate the songs, so for every interesting experiment like Fraiture’s sinister “You’re So Right,” there is the ponderous “Games,” which loses itself in its synth-y murk. Also, on past albums, Casablancas’ lyrics have always provided memorable lines that help the songs stick in the mind. And while that remains the case here for the most past, his vocals are oddly buried in the mix, often obscuring his words and making it harder to latch onto a couple of songs, even after repeated spins. Those who aren’t satisfied with Angles may take heart that the band reportedly doesn’t seem satisfied with this record either. If they think they have a better album in them, then they can go right ahead. For now, though, the Strokes are back, and even if they aren’t changing it this time, the world is a better place for it.
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Some great albums come along unassumingly, while others have a mythology all their own. Wilco’s fourth album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot falls into the latter category. Amongst other things, during the tumultuous recording sessions, tensions grew between primary songwriters Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy, culminating in Bennett’s departure from the band. Even more, the album was considered too uncommercial and, therefore, unfit for release by Reprise Records, causing the band to buy out their master tapes from the label for $50,000. Yet, amongst all this turmoil was the music itself, co-produced by Jim O’Rourke, simultaneously challenging and accessible, still using rootsy alt-country and folk as a starting point. Wilco’s previous album, Summerteeth, suggested the band wanted to branch out, and YHT more than lives up to that promise. It is an inviting rock record, one that uses experimental flourishes to rope the listener in by accentuating the emotion in each track. Because of this, it’s hard to see why the album was seen as self-conscious commercial suicide by Wilco’s old label, especially since there are such clear singles like the wide-eyed pop of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the warm, melancholy “Jesus, Etc.,” and the twangy “I Am The Man Who Loves You.” But many of YHT‘s best moments come from when Wilco take greater risks. Opener “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is a remarkable seven minutes of free-associative relationship woes set to atonal found sounds, clattering drum lines, and pretty piano breaks; the resigned “Poor Places” ends with roaring feedback and an audio tape loop, only intensifying the tension. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot didn’t exactly set a distinct trend like other landmark ’00s records—no one asked for a country-folk OK Computer—but it remains one of the most rewarding and distinguished albums of the era.
R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
Accelerate did something important for R.E.M.: it made them sound like a band again. Its back-to-basics feel made it their first album that felt fresh since the loss of drummer Bill Berry in the mid 90s. It didn’t return them to the forefront of alternative music by any means, but it showcased them as mature craftsmen, the work of rock musicians around long enough to apply what they’ve learned, even if they aren’t pushing the envelope. In this sense, R.E.M.’s 15th album, Collapse Into Now, follows suit, but it’s a very different beast all together. While Accelerate was all energy and ringing guitars—hearkening back to their rough-hewn classic Lifes Rich Pageant—Collapse Into Now takes a more varied approach, equally focusing on the softer, folky side of the band’s personality as their tougher rockers. The album also has a distinct haze in its production, ebbing and flowing even when the band turns up their amps. In short, like Accelerate, it’s another record that is pieced together from R.E.M.’s past, but even if there is nothing terribly exciting or fresh on Collapse Into Now, its familiarity can be comforting and rewarding all the same. The folky balladry of “Oh My Heart” and “Everyday Is Yours To Win” sounds like outtakes from Out of Time or Automatic For The People, complete with mandolin riffs and string sections; “Mine Smell Like Honey” and “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” are brash anthems that recall the band’s late 80s work; and the druggy closer “Blue” brings it all together, going off on its own tangent entirely. Bringing in old friends and contemporaries like Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder to sing on a few tracks also reinforces the idea that the band isn’t concerned with trying to sound modern, as does Michael Stipe’s referring to both his age and the younger generation in his lyrics. Taking stock of their past and accepting their maturity is a step in the right direction, and if they dig a little deeper to create something more inventive, there may be more mileage in R.E.M. yet.
of Montreal – thecontrollersphere [EP]
Kevin Barnes chanted three phrases at the end of 2007’s “Faberge Falls For Shuggie,” two of which—”skeletal lamping” and “false priest”—became the titles of of Montreal’s next two full-length albums. On these albums, Barnes (mostly) performed in the guise of his transgender funk freak alter-ego Georgie Fruit, who seems to revel in all sorts of transgressive behavior and kinky sex, two big topics of discussion in the lyrics. Now, using the third and final phrase from the chant as a title (and perhaps thereby completing the Georgie Fruit trilogy), Barnes releases thecontrollersphere, a bewildering, messy EP that even further warps the cosmic R&B of the band’s recent work. It takes the Georgie Fruit more-is-more approach to its logical conclusion, a dense patchwork of musical textures and styles, never staying in one place for too long. 2008’s Skeletal Lamping was comprised almost entirely of multi-segmented suites, but on thecontrollersphere, it often sounds as if segments are playing simultaneously or smashed together, often to the detriment of the songs.
From the first brutal second of the crushing “Black Lion Massacre,” it seems that Barnes is pushing his music toward a sort of punishing no-wave-inspired rock, something he threatened in interviews in years past. Actually, the track turns out to be a red herring because much of thecontrollersphere simply plays like a convoluted version of of Montreal’s last few albums, albeit with less memorable melodies and many failed experiments. “Flunkt Sass vs the Root Plume,” “L’age D’or” and especially “Slave Translator” all have their moments, but Barnes simply tries too much, stunting their growth, not allowing the songs to get off the ground. The only real standout is the centerpiece, “Holiday Call,” which escalates into a Bollywood-esque dance freak out. Barnes clearly needed to get these ideas out of his system (and it’s good he did it on an EP and not a studio album), but if this is indeed Georgie Fruit’s last stand, it’s for the best—Barnes has pushed his persona as far as it can go.
Radiohead – In Rainbows
This is the case of an album whose story almost overshadows the music itself. During Radiohead’s longest break in between studio albums, the band began to slowly post mysterious encoded artwork and fragments of lyrics on their website, piquing the interest of both the press and public. Then without warning, Jonny Greenwood made a startling announcement. Not only was the new album (now called In Rainbows) coming out in 10 days as a direct download, but you could pick what you wanted to pay for it—even get it for free. The subsequent buzz was near-deafening, with everyone from analysts to fans dissecting just what this bold marketing meant for the music industry and for the band, almost forgetting the impending release of the record itself.
With all of this hubbub, necessary or not, In Rainbows could have easily been remembered for its release strategy. Fortunately, not only did the album turn out to be good, it turned out to be a masterpiece. It’s not as visionary as OK Computer or Kid A, nor does it deliver the anthemic catharsis of The Bends. Instead, In Rainbows is the band’s version of a romantic record, more unabashedly gorgeous and emotional than anything they have released. Of course, this being Radiohead, things aren’t so cut and dry. These aren’t gushing, adoring ballads but songs of alienation (“Reckoner”), unrequited love (“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” “All I Need,” “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”) and the pitfalls of casual sex (“Nude,” “House Of Cards”). Sonically, it’s their most rock-oriented since OK Computer, and though it is not as complex as that record, In Rainbows has a cleaner, tighter sound befitting a record so direct. Indeed, not only is the ringing piano on “Videotape” and clattering percussion on “Reckoner” delivered with a punch, but Thom Yorke’s lyrics are more straightforward than they’ve ever been, helping underscore every emotion the music evokes. In Rainbows is also a spiritual successor to OK Computer in that its experimentalism mainly runs beneath the surface, unveiling smaller details over time. Coming off of a long break and the somewhat uneven Hail To The Thief, perhaps the biggest surprise of this fantastic seventh record was that it proved Radiohead to still be at the top of their game.
Adele – 21
Just as her Grammy Award-winning debut, 19, was named for the age she was when she wrote it, electric soul singer Adele Adkins returns a couple years later, fittingly, with 21. But though the title may imply some sort of maturation from her first album, 21 only provides continuations of the themes, both musical and lyrical, that 19 offered. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it definitely fulfills the expectations of her fans—but surprises are indeed in short supply. Initially this doesn’t seem like a problem because the album is front-loaded with many of its best songs. The brilliant, stomping “Rolling In The Deep,” with its soaring, explosive chorus, sets the bar very high, a bar, unfortunately, that the rest of the album doesn’t quite ever reach. Granted, a few songs come close, especially the insistent, Ryan Tedder-penned “Rumour Has It,” and are solid, potential singles. Yet, despite a few standouts like the spare “Take It All” and the passionate closer “Someone Like You,” 21 loses momentum in its second half as unmemorable mid-tempo rockers and ballads start to take precedence. Even the bossa nova re-imagining of The Cure’s “Lovesong,” though pretty, is far less interesting than that description makes it seem, too relaxed and restrained to maintain any real emotional heft. And as the arrangements become less inspired, more light is cast on the lyrics, which almost uniformly deal with yearning for a lost lover, something that grows tiresome and repetitive over the course of an entire record. Luckily, what saves even these tracks from mediocrity is once again Adele herself and her endlessly impressive voice. Her emotive delivery, from belting to whispering, greatly improves these otherwise lacking songs, ones that would be a chore to listen to in a lesser singer’s hands—or, I guess, throat. This is undoubtedly a fine follow-up, one that will please her fans and attract plenty of new ones, but one hopes that next time around, Adele has a set of songs that are worthy of her enormous vocal talent.