Monthly Archives: September 2011
DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, The Better
Unfair as it is, Josh Davis (a.k.a. DJ Shadow) will always live in the, well, shadow of 1996’s Endtroducing….., his peerless, groundbreaking debut. It’s what all his subsequent work has been compared to and, most likely, will continue to be compared to. Because of this, The Private Press, which generally stuck to Endtroducing…..‘s formula, was received well by critics and fans, while The Outsider, which ventured into more conventional hip-hop territory, tended to occasion mixed and negative reactions. Most of the reason for The Outsider‘s reaction, though, was because it was seen as a garbled mess upon its release, trying too many things at once. It seems as if he was in need of some corrective steering, and, sure enough, Davis’ follow-up, 2011’s The Less You Know, The Better, delivers just that. It reigns in The Outsider‘s all-over-the-map jumble, while still remaining eclectic. It’s a return-to-form, but it avoids leaning too hard on Endtroducing…... In short, it’s the album that should have followed The Private Press.
That being said, The Less You Know isn’t up to the same standards of Davis’ best work, so this many end up disappointing those of Shadow’s faithful who have been eagerly anticipating another masterpiece. But that’s okay because this album is still quite enjoyable on its own terms, and just like all Shadow records, it becomes better and better upon repeated plays. There’s still the jazz, funk, soul, ambient and rock samples culled from long-forgotten sources, but they aren’t twisted together as often, even if it makes Davis’ style no less instantly recognizable. Rather than layer genres on top of each other, Davis keeps the songs short and distinct, often working a mood and then moving on to something different on the next track. There are guitar-heavy rock tracks (“Border Crossing,” “Warning Call,” “I Gotta Rokk”), swooning ballads (“Redeemed,” “Sad and Lonely,” “(Not So) Sad and Lonely”), Eno-tinged atmosphere-builders (“Give Me Back The Nights,” “Tedium”), and “Stay The Course,” a bouncing rap track featuring Talib Kweli and De La Soul’s Posdnuos. The album moves at an easy, unhurried pace, and since the music is relatively uncomplicated (at least, by Shadow’s standards), it helps that many songs feature vocal samples, giving some structure to the fluid beats. Though there aren’t any real missteps (though a chunk of the beats unfortunately settle into basic repetition and aimless groove), The Less You Know, on a whole, lacks cohesion. A few songs, such as “Sad and Lonely” and “Give Me Back The Nights” build up such a wonderful atmosphere that the sudden shift to a hard-driving rock song is a disappointment, especially since one of Davis’ gifts is his mastery of mood. It may seem like a minor flaw, but it actually hurts the album more than it should: the songs are already shorter than the average Shadow track, so not only does the music have less time to sink into your skull but the flow of the record is disjointed. It’s enough to keep The Less You Know, The Better from being a shining moment in Davis’ catalog, though there’s enough quality material here to satiate hungry fans who have clamoring to hear another DJ Shadow studio album. Hopefully it won’t be another six years before we hear from him again.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical
After their polarizing sophomore record, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah took an extended break, with little evidence when, or if, they’d ever return. But after a long period of silence—broken up by the occasional live performance and Alec Ounsworth solo record—the band suddenly reemerged with the announcement of Hysterical, their third full-length. This hiatus and reappearance, along with the mixed reaction to 2007’s Some Loud Thunder, means that this is the first CYHSY album to arrive without any excessive hype or pressure. Optimistically, this could mean that this is the record where the band decides to relax and branch out a bit since there aren’t as many troublesome expectations to live up to, and indeed, Hysterical is CHYSY’s most carefully considered batch of music yet. At first, this would appear to me a smart move, reigning in the erratic, meandering tendencies that sometimes marred Some Loud Thunder in favor of something more refined. Unfortunately, John Congleton’s production, while taking advantage of what sounds like an atypically large budget, sucks up most of the band’s manic energy, arguably their most distinctive trait. But the production isn’t solely to blame. Ounsworth’s songs are short on ideas and hooks, arguably his weakest set to date. Sure, there is some diversity here, but while Ounsworth’s decision to write majestic ballads and mid-tempo rockers results in a few lovely moments, these are often drab, lifeless affairs, previously unthinkable from the group that brought us “In This Home On Ice” and “Satan Said Dance.” First the good news: “Same Mistake” and “Hysterical” are joyous romps, even if they’re not quite on the level of past CHYSY highlights; “Ketamine And Ecstasy” injects some of the group’s past energy, and both the propulsive “Into Your Alien Arms” and tender “Adam’s Plane” end in unexpected jams, arguably the hardest the band has ever rocked. But among these isolated moments, the album moves from moody ballad to punchy rocker and back again, all leading to “The Witness’ Dull Surprise,” which has its best descriptor in its title. These tracks are all listenable and have their moments, but they are often predictable and lazy, so even the meandering tracks don’t yield that many interesting ideas, the way they did on Some Loud Thunder. Despite its best efforts, Hysterical never rises above the level of pleasantly conventional. And when you’re Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, sounding “pleasantly conventional” is one of the biggest sins you can make, even if there are enough moments to make this album worthwhile for dedicated fans.
Neon Indian – Era Extraña
Genres and styles are coined every year—probably everyday now, what with the Internet and all—and back in 2009 or so, “chillwave” was the hot new thing. Was it the future of pop music? Was it the flavor of the month? Most likely the latter, especially since it wasn’t particularly different from what was out there, not to mention it was too broad a term, encompassing too many dissimilar artists. (Chillwave was often described as an interchangeable blend of shoegaze, indie pop, and lo-fi electonica.) In any case, it seems many of the musicians lumped in with the style, including Washed Out and Toro Y Moi, recognized it as nothing more than a fad, moving on to more traditional territory with their subsequent releases. The same goes for Alan Palomo and Era Extraña, his second album under the Neon Indian moniker.
Palomo’s debut, Psychic Chasms, was a psychedelic disco, drenched in hushed vocals, blurry melodies and lysergic loops, lyrics taking a backseat to the sunny vibes of the music. On Era Extraña, though, Palomo opts for a darker, more mysterious tone. He still prefers feel over form, but he’s no longer interested in crafting something as cheery anymore. Sure, this isn’t exactly doom-and-gloom theatrics, and the music is still largely danceable, built on dense, warped synths and drum machines. But hold up any song on Chasms next to the noise-ravaged “The Blindside Kiss” or the moody title track, and the differences are immediately apparent. This change is mostly due to a shift in Palomo’s inspirations: Rather than a second helping of Chasms‘ swirling psychedelia, Era Extraña is couched in ’80s synth pop and new wave, styles that tend to have a naturally ultramodern and chilly feel, no matter how lively the melodies.
Fortunately, for the most part, this stylistic shift complements Palomo’s modern sensibilities. The swooning album standout “Hex Girlfriend” sounds like the Human League put into a blender, while “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)” and “Polish Girl” dance away the darkness with their stomping beats and hooky keyboard riffs. Occasionally, Palomo’s ideas outpace his songwriting ability, which lead to a few drab moments like “Fall Out” and “Suns Irrupt” that start out promising but never really get off the ground. There’s also the nagging feeling the songs mesh together a little too well, the record sometimes seeming like one big wash of echoed vocals and swooshing synths. One could argue that’s what some Neon Indian fans love about Palomo’s music, how it’s all atmosphere with just enough structure to support it. Ultimately, though, those fans may be disappointed too because for an artist that’s all about creating vibes, Era Extraña isn’t as successful as its predecessor since the music isn’t as uniformly strong. However, what Palomo explores here has potential, and this record points toward a few interesting directions that Neon Indian could take in the future.
Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV
Even though he never disappeared, Tha Carter IV feels like it’s Lil Wayne’s comeback album. He may have released I Am Not A Human Being during his stint in prison, but many saw it as a holding pattern, anticipating the next entry in the Tha Carter series, where Weezy routinely releases his best material. Instead, he released a stopgap mixtape Sorry 4 The Wait, only increasing the already enormous expectations for Tha Carter IV. In most cases, an artist in this position would pull out all the stops to meet those expectations, or at the very least try to avoid delivering a disappointment. The weird thing is that, when the album finally did arrive at the tail end of August 2011, Weezy not only shows a lack of ambition, he just sounds bored.
Make no mistake: there may be talk of facing haters and making a grand return after his time in jail, but there’s evidence all over the record that Wayne just doesn’t have his heart in it this time, from how his flow lacks personality to how his superstar guests outshine him on almost every song, picking up his slack. Indeed, there’s two tracks where Wayne doesn’t even appear, “Interlude” and “Outro,” tellingly featuring some of the more interesting verses on the album, courtesy of a heavy-hitting roster including Nas, Tech N9ne and André 3000 (oddly uncredited). But all these big names are there to distract you from Tha Carter IV‘s primary problem: Weezy’s words. What has made Lil Wayne famous and successful in the past was never his subject matter, it was his knack for the quotable turn of phrase, spitting clever jokes and rhymes, stringing together surreal wordplay. He retains that style here, but he alternately sounds uninspired or just plain preposterous, like he’s tracing over his own work—and not particularly well. For every line that stuns, there’s one that is utter nonsense. Things might seem fine for a while, but when Weezy says something like “I just built a house on I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck Avenue,” your eyebrow may begin to raise.
A few tracks though, particularly in the first half, are able to overcome to this obstacle, not only because there’s a greater ratio of hits to misses in the lines, but because there is an energy and looseness that makes Wayne at least sound like he knows what he’s talking about. “6 Foot 7 Foot” is far and away the best track. Grooving on an old Harry Belafonte song and full of loose, quirky jokes (“Real G’s move in silence like lasagna” — think about it), it’s the kind of single fans were hoping for. “Blunt Blowin'” follows suit, since Weezy has a bit more of the passion sorely lacking from the rest of the record. Strangely, a few of the R&B moments, specifically “How To Love,” end up being more distinctive, mostly because their smooth melodies end up being much more memorable (and less ponderous) than many of the rap songs. Still, much of the record is flavorless, simply going through the motions, even if a few of the productions here and there are worth listening to. Wayne’s lack of drive throughout the record makes the album a bit of bore, which is perhaps its biggest sin. Tha Carter IV could have been a blockbuster achievement, but Wayne seems to have just shrugged it off. And when listening, it’s hard not to do the same.