Monthly Archives: June 2011
Beyoncé – 4
Even though its whole dual personality concept didn’t really pan out, I Am…Sasha Fierce, spawned numerous hits, namely “Single Ladies,” but a lot had changed since 2008. In 2011, the pop charts were unquestionably dominated by the heart-on-the-sleeve soul of Adele, while Lady Gaga still had a firm grasp on the public with Born This Way, which boasted eclecticism as one of its main draws. Call it good timing, but Beyoncé Knowles’ aptly titled fourth album, 4, attempts to blend those artists’ qualities by both reclaiming her more soulful bent and extending her reach into uncharted territory. More so than on her earlier works, she’s unabashedly retro, dipping into classic soul, new jack swing, adult contemporary and ’90s R&B. And to help her achieve her goals, Beyoncé smartly brought in forward-thinking producers like The-Dream, Diplo, Kanye West and Frank Ocean to mix things up while still leaving a professional sheen. So it comes as both a surprise and no surprise at all that West and André 3000 drop by for a few verses on “Party,” that “Run The World (Girls)” twitches to a Major Lazer sample, that “Love On Top” features backing vocals straight out of New Edition or that “Countdown” and “End Of Time” ride waves of stuttering horns.
However, 4 plays much straighter than it reads. For the most part, other than the nearly beatless opener “1+1” and the nearly beat-saturated closer “Run The World (Girls)”—tellingly, two of the album’s best songs—everything still feels relatively within Beyoncé’s comfort zone. In the case of the smug kiss-off “Best Thing I Never Had,” this isn’t really a bad thing, but “I Was Here,” simply comes off as trite, just content to go through the motions. But even when 4 appears to play it safe, the most welcome and obvious change is Beyoncé’s vocal approach. Here, she’s never sounded better, going for raw, live-sounding vocal takes, the kinds that are often heard in concert but not necessarily on record. The result is an unexpectedly emotional listen, especially on the first handful of tracks. The bitter “I Care” and heartbreaking “I Miss You” are both fine songs, but “1+1” may be the best track here, an impassioned all-we-have-is-each-other ballad with a surprisingly cathartic Prince-inspired guitar solo at the end. Her singing also pays great dividends for her elsewhere, such as on the infectious sex jam “Party” where she’s able to make a line like “So in love, I’ll give it all away. Just don’t tell nobody tomorrow” come off as strong and sexy, rather than desperate and sleazy. Meanwhile, on “Run The World (Girls),” she truly lets loose, unafraid to sound down right unhinged. But these moments only make you wish that 4 tried more. Considering the big-budget ambition and the hints of inspired weirdness on display, it’s a shame that Beyoncé and her producers don’t travel further down these roads, especially since the more conventional moments aren’t hooky or memorable enough to justify running in place. In any case, 4 comes across as a more mature, nuanced variation of 2006’s more club-oriented B’Day, and, more importantly, it holds some of the most thrilling music of Beyoncé’s career.
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
The curious case of Justin Vernon: a folkie with mono holes himself up in a log cabin, cuts a record to cure what ails him, releases it to popular and critical acclaim and eventually finds himself featuring on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably the musical event of 2010. For a musical project that has its roots in isolation, Bon Iver has certainly found an audience that Vernon could never have anticipated. But with great notoriety comes great opportunities, including the opportunity to collaborate with different people and experiment with different sounds. So while Vernon still writes music that has the intimacy of a singer/songwriter, Bon Iver’s eponymous second album is much more expansive than For Emma, Forever Ago, with unexpected musical twists around every turn.
He hinted at his restlessness with his side project, Volcano Choir, and the Auto-Tune he employed on the Blood Bank EP, but he blows the door wide open here. Humming synths, sighing steel guitar, washes of electric guitar, backing vocalists, skittering drumbeats and even some swooning sax all make their appearance, sometimes even within one song. In fact, without Vernon’s singing, it would be easy to mistake Bon Iver as the work of a different artist. But with this album, that’s just it: Vernon spends a lot of time messing around with the arrangements and production, but he downplays what you’d expect from a Bon Iver record, namely his voice. This isn’t to say Vernon sings less than on his debut, but the emphasis is placed elsewhere. With all the heavy collaboration and instrumentation, the album’s certainly busier than his debut, but this isn’t a dense record. Instead, it ebbs and flows, each soulful guitar or keyboard phrase gently washing over the listener, song after song, even on the album’s most kinetic moment, “Towers.” The same can be said of Vernon’s voice. Rather than the emotional yelps of songs like “Skinny Love,” he simply uses his gorgeous voice as another instrument in the mix, occasionally modifying and multi-tracking it for extra effect.
This might be a deal-breaker for some fans of For Emma, but Bon Iver has its own distinctive charms. “Holocene” and “Calgary” are both lovely, slow-building numbers that show the best Vernon’s new sound has to offer; “Michicant” and “Wash.” recall the austerity of his debut, and the surprising closer “Beth/Rest” embraces Phil Collins-esque adult contemporary without a trace of hipster irony. That being said, the dreamy, aquatic flow of Bon Iver sometimes is a bit too transient, with many songs not establishing enough of a tone or identity to keep the record from sometimes feeling like one long, ever-changing song. This extends to his words as well. Compared to For Emma, the lyrics here are often obscured, and even if you have the lyric sheet in front of you, it wouldn’t help an incredible amount. He’s in full-on cryptic (yet literate) prose mode here, so for every earnest, wistful line like “I was unafraid; I was a boy; I was a tender age,” he’ll rhyme it with “Melic in the naked, knew a lake and drew the lofts for page.” This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—his images are often dream-like and nostalgic—but they don’t wind up having too much of an impact, even if they don’t detract from the mood. Ultimately, this album is the sound of a sincere, talented musician tinkering with new toys but not experienced enough with them to create something truly expressive. Despite this, there’s enough beauty here for at least three records, and Bon Iver is nothing if not beautiful.
Beck – Mutations
If Mutations doesn’t sound like a follow-up to Odelay, it’s because it wasn’t meant to be. It was initially designed as another specialty release like One Foot In The Grave, but given the success of Odelay, the presence of producer Nigel Godrich (who was hot off of Radiohead’s acclaimed OK Computer) and the quality of the record, Geffen decided to release Mutations itself. Despite its major-label release, Mutations doesn’t sound particularly commercial—it’s a record of psychedelic folk, rock and blues, with hints of country and Brazilian music. At the same time, though, it’s not defiantly underground the way Beck’s first two indie releases were either. There’s a real warmth in the music here, something that, up until this point, only surfaced rarely on Beck records. Godrich’s production helps achieve this tone, finding just the right pitch between slick and ragged, making the record sound crisp yet human. But it’s not just Godrich: Mutations marks the first album where Beck entered the studio with a full backing band. The result is an inviting and nuanced record, one that is deeper than it initially appears. For his part, Beck turns in a stellar set, including some of the most affecting songs he’s ever penned, such as the somber psychedelia of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” the underrated alt-rock classic “Cold Brains,” and the sighing “We Live Again.” And for an album whose title pays tribute to the influential Brazilian group Os Mutantes, it comes as no surprise Beck dips into bossa nova with the sprightly “Tropicalia,” one of the best songs here. Lyrically, he opens up a bit more than in the past, often leaving behind his trademark non sequiters for a kind of elegiac, even morose, poetry that fits the directness of the music. But for all his talk of doom and gloom, Mutations never despairs, and it really isn’t a downer, not when the musicians conjure such a relaxed atmosphere with such offhanded charm. Although, to an extent, the sound of Mutations is a product of the 1990s, the songs, performances and styles explored here make it feel timeless, the mark of a very good record by any measure.
Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The hyperbolic hype was supposed to crush them after their fantastic debut, and the group members were supposed to spiral out of control, too young to deal with the celebrity lifestyle. And what did they do? They grew up on their own terms, deepening their sound for their sophomore release and broadening their range with their third. They stayed out of the tabloids and continued to release quality music, while years and years worth of British “next big thing” bands came and went, arguably none of which burned as brightly as the Arctics did in their prime. In 2006, bandleader Alex Tuner sang “in five years’ time, will it be ‘who the fuck’s Arctic Monkeys?'” And well it’s been five years’ time, and not only is no one asking that question but the Sheffield quartet have arrived with Suck It And See, an album that finds our boys maturing gracefully as ever.
Before its release, Turner claimed that this album would be a balance between their three past albums, and that turns out to be exactly correct. Suck It manages to merge some of the rawness of their debut, the expanded emotional and musical palette of Favourite Worst Nightmare and the muggy murk of Humbug, not just musically but lyrically as well. Turner’s words were often cryptic (and obscured) on Humbug, in sharp contrast to the crisp, precise observations of his early work. Here, he makes a compromise between the two, where abstract impressions are always grounded in the real world. Luckily, his wit is still fully intact, whether he is delivering clever turns of phrase (“Called up to listen to the voice of reason and got the answering machine.”) on “Reckless Serenade” or giving incisive advice (“Don’t take it so personally: You’re not the only one that time has got it in for, honey.”) on “That’s Where You’re Wrong.”
This certainly fits the music, which hovers and floats as much as it stomps and sears. Surely, the return of Worst Nightmare producer James Ford makes this effort cleaner than its predecessor, but the Arctics still retain a bit of Josh Homme’s hazy influence here, particularly in the riff-heavy single “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair.” Other rockers like “Brick By Brick” and “Library Pictures” follow suit, with heavy use of distortion and different fuzztones. Still, Suck It creates its identity in its ballads and softer moments, which prove just how much the band’s songcraft has matured. The sighing opener “She’s Thunderstorms” flows gracefully; the lovely “Piledriver Waltz” marries some beautifully sorrowful wordplay to a tentative rhythm, and “Love Is A Laserquest,” despite its silly name, is a thoughtful ballad of yearning and regret. Suck It And See, much like its predecessor, is a grower, unveiling its charms and intelligence with each successive play. And although it’s more consistent than Humbug, none of the songs here particularly feel like Arctics classics, even if many of them are very good, good enough to satisfy any fan and reel many new ones in. Four albums in and yet to release a dud, Arctic Monkeys continue to surprise and defy expectations at every turn, which is the biggest compliment you can give to a group once thought to be a one-shot wonder.
Kaiser Chiefs – The Future Is Medieval
Yet another entry into the canon of unconventional Internet release strategies, Kaiser Chiefs’ fourth studio album, The Future Is Medieval, works like this: they’ve recorded 20 songs; you pick your 10 favorites on their website and pay for the 10-song record.
So, obviously, there’s no official tracklist. (A version of the album ostensibly created by lead singer Ricky Wilson is posted online too, which I suppose is the closest thing to official.) As such, it’s easily one of the most democratically minded albums ever released, but it causes a bit of trouble for me. There are 184,756 possible combinations of this record (double-check my math, but I think that’s correct), taking both the songs and their ordering into consideration. So let’s just get this out of the way now—this review will have to be taken with a grain of salt since, well, nearly everyone’s record will be different. I am just going to review the album as a collection of 20 songs. If this bugs you, then go read something else.
It’s clear The Future is Medieval was not meant as a double album since those types of records tend to sprawl, covering all sides of an artist’s personality and exploring some new sounds. Medieval, however, doesn’t sprawl whatsoever, and other than a few musical quirks here and some jamming there, the Kaisers play it relatively safe, simply providing a sequel to Off With Their Heads. Other than a few pointedly energetic tracks like lead single “Little Shocks” and “Starts With Nothing,” nearly every song here is simple and pleasantly melodic, no anthems on the level of “I Predict A Riot,” “Ruby” or “Never Miss A Beat,” no anthems at all really, which is strange since they’ve always been the group’s strong suit. Instead, Medieval finds the Kaisers leaning hard on their classicist pop tendencies, drawing heavier on XTC and Blur than the Jam this time around (though Paul Weller and co. still supply the music’s foundation). Those comparisons might imply that the album is clever, charming and packed with hooks (and to a certain extent, all those qualities are present), but unfortunately much of this record is lightweight and forgettable, no matter which songs end up on your version. Sure, Medieval has is moments—”Little Shocks,” “When All Is Quiet” and “If You Will Have Me” for instance—but none of these tracks live up to the heights of the Kaisers’ best work. And while nothing here is glaringly awful, many tracks are simply mediocre, pleasant to listen to but disappearing from memory as soon as they end. The lyrics too, while occasionally witty as Kaisers records often go, are still a step down from other of the band’s outings, just simple observations of day-to-day life that don’t add up to something greater. Kaiser Chiefs are to be commended for their innovative release method, but even if you assembled the best set of tracks in the best possible order, The Future Is Medieval would still be a disappointing record.
(Note: an official 13-track physical release (including one new song) was announced a week after this review was originally posted, but this article still stands as my assessment of the record. In 2012, in the U.S., the album was repackaged and re-titled as Start The Revolution Without Me, swapping out “Out of Focus,” “Long Way from Celebrating,” “Dead or in Serious Trouble,” and “Coming Up for Air” for “On the Run,” “Cousin in the Bronx,” “Problem Solved,” and “Can’t Mind My Own Business.”)
Beck – Odelay
After his two indie detours, Stereopathetic Soulmanure and One Foot In The Grave, Beck returned to the major leagues with Odelay, an astonishing work that proved his music inimitable. Taking the genre-transcending formula of Mellow Gold to dizzying new heights, Beck manages to tackle even more here, from easy listening to white noise and certainly everything in between, sometimes within one song, sometimes within a few seconds. Surely anybody can put a hip-hop beat over a country song but the astonishing thing about the record is that nothing seems out of place—it all seems like it’s supposed to fit that way, even when the sounds are at their most fragmented. This has much to do with the Dust Brothers’ production as Beck’s songwriting. Unlike their groundbreaking work on Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, the Dust Brothers don’t provide the music’s foundation but instead add small touches and samples, lending Odelay a surprising cohesion, unlike the abrupt shifts on Mellow Gold. By and large, though, Beck is the real focus here, his songs thrilling and compelling no matter what style he writes in. Sure, each song is rooted in a certain genre, but he bends, twists and transcends each style, creating unpredictable combinations that bristle with invention. Even when he plays it straight, such as on the folkier numbers “Jackass” and “Ramshackle,” Beck’s songwriting continues to shine, despite the aid of postmodern gimmickry. His words still resemble free verse, but his imagery is both funnier and more evocative than it was on Mellow Gold, which only adds to the richness and infectiousness of the record, whether it be the cowboy pastiche on “Sissyneck” or the “two turnables and a microphone” hook of “Where It’s At.” Though genre-mashing would later become the norm rather than the exception, few would take the same approach as Beck did here, perhaps fearing accusations of copycatting—this album is so distinctive, it would be difficult to use as a starting point without simply replicating its achievements. As a result, Odelay remains one of the best and most original albums to arrive out of the ’90s alternative movement.
The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
Just as the Strokes named their debut Is This It, the Vaccines shrug off their considerable hype by dubbing their first album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? But as much as the British press wants to force the “Next Great British Group” label on them, the Vaccines aren’t it. The main reason is that all the former great British guitar groups always had something new to say, either musically or lyrically; however, this group doesn’t stray too far from the expected, quilting together choice elements from their favorite bands (The Strokes, Interpol, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Ramones) to create a friendly sound that’s attractive, though not exciting. It’s garage-y pop rattling with enough noise and reverb to keep it from the top of the charts but not abrasive enough to satisfy noise pop fans. In a sense, the Vaccines come across as a punchier Glasvegas (another NME favorite), replacing the majestic sweep of that band with a more direct attack. But even if they aren’t original, it doesn’t mean that the London quartet isn’t talented. Singles like “If You Wanna” and “Post Break-Up Sex” deliver the goods in neat, catchy packages; “Blow It Up” and “Wetsuit” have a relaxed charm, and “Nørgaard” is C86-inspired pop-punk. And though the lyrics may deal with jaded lovers and broken relationships, the Vaccines deliver anthem after anthem, the whole thing coming off like a carefree drive into the sunset. What Did You Expect certainly sounds fine while it’s on, but there’s not a whole lot to return to since the band members aren’t strong enough songwriters to create something truly compelling. What we do have here, though, is potential, and with sharper writing and more originality, the Vaccines could one day become the great guitar band everyone wants them to be.