Monthly Archives: December 2011
The Black Keys – El Camino
Back in early 2000s, if you asked somebody who from the trendy garage rock revival we’d be hearing from in 10 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone answering “the Black Keys.” At the time, bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes (and to a lesser extent the Hives and the Vines) were variously dubbed the “saviors of rock ‘n’ roll” or some such nonsense, while the Keys languished in obscurity, never breaking through the way their peers did. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were likely dismissed as a second-rate White Stripes given the groups’ surface similarities (both groups were Midwest color-themed blues-rock duos), but in actuality the Black Keys were always the more traditional of the two, and straight-ahead, gritty blues didn’t appeal the same way the boundary-busting Stripes did. In any case, the Keys stuck it out through the decade, creating an impressive, consistent body of work, building an audience the old-fashioned way, slowly but surely. However, everything changed in 2010: On the strength of the single “Tighten Up,” their sixth album, Brothers, shot them into the public eye, garnering them a Best Alternative Album Grammy and the larger audience they always deserved. And with the White Stripes disbanded and the Strokes no longer fronting a rock revolution, the Black Keys’ breakthrough couldn’t have happened at a better time.
All this begs the question, though: How will the Black Keys capitalize on their newfound success? Well, 2011’s El Camino picks up where Brothers left off, deepening that record’s affinity for retro soul and pop, while still banging out tough, bluesy riffs. In one sense, this is a give-the-people-what-they-want album because it consolidates Brothers‘ strengths into a tighter package, but that gives the impression that El Camino is the sound of a band cashing in, when in reality, it’s the sound of the Keys just having some fun and throwing themselves a party. It’s a bright, energetic album with little time to waste on anything besides fuzzbox guitar and big, crashing beats. (Even the down-and-out folk of “Little Black Submarines” eventually slams into a Zeppelin-esque fury as it closes out.) It’s not that the Black Keys took themselves particularly seriously before, but with the simple, singable lyrics and hooks of songs like the instant classic “Lonely Boy” and the shuffling “Stop Stop,” El Camino sounds like a lost collection of great ’70s rock singles. Part of the album’s power is due to the return of Danger Mouse, who produced 2008’s hazy Attack & Release. He pulls the polar opposite stunt here—everything is bright and alive, with the raucous rhythm section brought upfront. Some longtime fans may scoff at the more crowd-pleasing direction the band went here, but those sorts of people aren’t invited to the party that El Camino throws anyway.
Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records
Unquestionably the holiday album by which all other holiday albums are judged, A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records (later re-released under alternate titles) is a bona fide Christmas classic. Gathering up frequent collaborators including the Crystals and the Ronettes, Phil Spector intended this record to work as both a compilation of Christmas songs and as a pop album that stands on its own, and it succeeds marvelously on both counts. The key to the record’s brilliance lies in both Spector’s patented Wall of Sound production—arguably, this is its finest hour—and the vocalists’ performances, which are exceptional throughout. Many of Spector’s arrangements have become standards, and rightfully so: The songs are both joyful and exhilarating, such as when the Ronettes’ chime in with “ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding” on “Sleigh Ride,” or when the drums thunder in after the refrain on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” And if the musicality of the covers wasn’t impressive enough, the sole original song on here may just be the highlight of the record. Darlene Love belts out “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” with heartwrenching emotion as the musicians (especially Leon Russell on piano) play on behind her, capturing the Christmas spirit and transcending its trappings as a holiday track all at once, much like A Christmas Gift For You itself.
Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
As mysterious and graceful as snowfall itself, Kate Bush’s 50 Words For Snow is a thing of restrained beauty. It’s her first album of original material since 2005’s double LP Aerial (which itself was a sort of comeback), but where that album sprawled over 17 tracks, 50 Words comes from the opposite angle. The first three tracks, taken together, total over a half hour, and there’s only seven songs in all. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bush takes advantage of the extended track lengths to explore sparse, chilly atmospherics. That first trio of songs often employ nothing more than a few haunting piano motifs, string arrangements and, of course, Bush’s stunning voice, which coos as often as it belts. On “Misty,” she even occasionally recalls Spirit Of Eden-era Mark Hollis in the way she suddenly cuts through and rises out of the spacious, jazzy soundscape. (All due respect to the other musicians as well, especially drummer Steve Gadd’s deft touch.) These lengthy, enigmatic songs are supposed to reflect the season of winter, both in the music and lyrics, and in this respect, they succeed more often than not, conjuring up images of ice-capped pine forests and footprints disappearing in the snow.
But if the first half hour or so seems a little too monochromatic, Bush diversifies things a bit in the second half. “Wild Man” offsets twangy keyboards and whispered warnings to the Yeti with strange, soaring choruses; Elton John stops by to trade lines with Bush on the tense “Snowed In At Wheeler Street;” the percussive “50 Words For Snow,” meanwhile, features Stephen Fry reciting the eponymous words and phrases as Bush eggs him on. “Among Angels” then closes things out with a solo piano piece, returning to the same atmosphere from the beginning of the album, albeit with a more digestible track length. So there you have it: Kate Bush stepped way out there to make a series of epics about winter, and somehow it works. Certainly, with her vocal presence and off-kilter synth lines, there’s no mistaking this record for anybody else, but she’s never recorded something so subdued and naturalistic before. Sure, a couple of the tracks may wear out their welcome, but 50 Words For Snow is a compelling, beautiful yet elliptical meditation on the coldest months of the year.
The Roots – Undun
It begins with a death—yes, the unmistakable tone of an ECG flatline greets the listener when the album begins. And that’s a good idea of what the Roots have in store for you on their thirteenth studio album, Undun. But just who died? A man by the name of Redford Stephens. But before you rush off to research the man, you should know he’s a fictional character, and this is the Roots’ first real attempt at a concept album. Though Stephens may be fictional, he could very well be a real person, which is the point. He’s the sort of guy you hear about on the news and who populates many a rap song—a man from humble beginnings who dreams of bigger things but unfortunately ends up on the wrong side of the law. Forgoing an explicit story line, Undun is more a series of ruminations on death, legacy and finding a purpose told through Stephens’ memories and stories. To this end, Black Thought and guests like Dice Raw turn in solid work throughout, telling hard-to-swallow truths and asking probing questions that don’t have easy answers (“When you return to the essence, what is it back to the essence of?”). But it’s not individual lines that stand out here—it’s what the words mean in the context of the record, how the images pile on each other to paint a portrait of a man whose life seemed doomed from the start.
Fittingly, Undun sounds like the morning of a funeral: There are moments of regret, hope and anger, but its tone is always somber and reflective. Jazz and soul still figure heavily into the Roots’ sound, but here there’s a hypnotic, languid flow to the record, even when the hooks have punch and vigor like on “Kool On” and “The OtherSide.” Spacious arrangements, ethereal piano lines and spacy keyboard effects are the norm rather than the exception, and it gives each song a gentle, resigned feel, no matter how impassioned the raps. Because of this, the music can occasionally seem unwavering. It’s fortunate, then, that the record culminates in a surprising five-minute instrumental suite, set off by a track taken from Sufjan Steven’s Michigan. It’s a beautifully affecting coda, one that showcases the band’s vision as much as it flexes their musical muscle. Undun definitely takes some time to digest, so anyone looking for some of the more immediate pleasures of older Roots records may initially be disappointed. However, like any good concept record, it rewards effort and gives back as much as you put in. There aren’t many groups that could pull something like this off without it sounding labored or pretentious, but, then again, there aren’t many groups like the Roots.