Monthly Archives: April 2013
The Flaming Lips – The Terror
With Embryonic, the Flaming Lips pivoted their persona from self-consciously arty teddy bears to self-consciously arty provocateurs. It was a heavy, chaotic and eclectic record, something that challenged the group and polarized the fans roped in by the relatively more cuddly Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. But their messy creativity only emboldened them, and in the following years, the Lips indulged in all matter of nutty experiments and gimmicks that make Zaireeka look like a stuffy gallery piece: 24-hour songs, music-loaded flash drives implanted in gummy skulls, Super Bowl ads, blood-spattered posters and vinyl records, collaborative albums, and that’s just scratching the surface. Of course, barring the entertaining collab album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, most of these projects ended up just being conceptual curiosities, never yielding music as interesting as the fact these things existed in the first place. Many fans cried out for the Lips to quit mucking around and get back to work on their next record, but on the evidence of 2013’s The Terror, it seems all those gimmicks were just ways to distract themselves from dealing with personal turmoil.
Make no mistake, The Terror is the darkest Flaming Lips album yet. With its droning electronics, blasts of noise and helpless vocals, the record doesn’t hide its obsession with anguish, depression and alienation. There’s little respite in Wayne Coyne’s lyrics too: Where Embryonic at least held out the hope that people “can be gentle too, if they decide,” The Terror displays no such sentiment. Instead, Coyne’s voice rarely rises above the surrounding murk, and we get murmurs like “Love is always something you should fear” and “You’ve got a lot of nerve to fuck with me!” Perhaps befitting such a joyless ride, there’s nothing even close to a single here; the record’s basically a giant pile of shifting dynamics (even to the point that, upon a cursory listen, it can seem unwavering). Fortunately for all involved, the album is pretty fascinating, far from the slog it could have been. Carrying over Embryonic‘s early-’80s sci-fi bent, the album sounds like the band is dragging its feet across a desolate desert planet, with all the dreary spaciness and creepy sound design that implies. The pulsing, psychedelic synths that hum through “Look…The Sun Rising” echo electronic pioneers Silver Apples; the self-defeating “You Are Alone” sounds like Coyne at war with himself as he’s drifting off to sleep at night, and the centerpiece “Your Lust” feels like the post-apocalyptic sequel to Embryonic‘s “Powerless,” jamming off of Steve Drozd’s scorching guitar riff.
While all this commitment to mood and texture means that The Terror is a more consistent, cohesive album than Embryonic (or a lot of Lips albums, for that matter), it also means the band is limiting the palette they paint with. Unfortunately, when dealing with emotions this personal, the Flaming Lips are a band that shouldn’t put restrictions on themselves. One of the reasons, say, The Soft Bulletin works as well as it does is because it’s insanely maximal, turning its heart-on-the-sleeve ruminations into a transcendent symphony. The Terror wants to do the same thing with despair, yet winds up frustratingly distant, since it too-often uses its experimentation to obscure rather than to illuminate the negative feelings. This isn’t to say the Flaming Lips don’t ever touch brilliance here—there are moments on every song that do, and “Try To Explain” and “Turning Violent” are particularly beautiful and heartwrenching—but the album misfires just enough that it can seem like a missed opportunity. Even so, the Flaming Lips are onto something, and if gimmicky art projects are what it takes for them to get to where they need to be next time, then more power to them.
James Blake – Overgrown
James Blake’s eponymous debut established him as a producer to watch and a songwriter that needed practice. His mix of dubstep, trip-hop and ’90s R&B suggested a sort of futuristic, metropolitan singer/songwriter, and it resulted in some stunning singles (“The Wilhelm Scream,” “Limit To Your Love”). But his skeletal songs couldn’t always stand up to the surroundings, so the record too often slipped from “ethereal” to “ephemeral,” with many tracks fading from memory. A couple years and EPs later, though, Blake has honed his skills, crafting a thoughtful variation on his signature sound on Overgrown. He shows even more restraint here than in the past, never forcing his studio trickery, pushing a lot of his manipulations into the background. No gobs of reverb or excessively chopped-up vocals here (though both of those certainly show up here and there in small doses), all the better to serve the more straight-ahead songs and productions. Just check the title track for an excellent example of how this album finds Blake improving in every way. It’s still anchored by aquatic beats and Blake’s fragile voice, but listen to how he plays with dynamics, tempering the repeated verses and hooks with a soft musical sweep, deftly incorporating cymbal washes, string orchestrations and piano chords without distracting from the central theme. It’s this smarter songwriting sense that colors the very best parts of Overgrown, like the great “Retrograde,” which builds off a wonderfully swinging vocal loop into some passionate digital soul. But Blake isn’t just a stronger musician—he’s also diversifying. RZA shows up to spit a few verses on “Take A Fall For Me;” “DLM” adds some touches of jazz to his piano-based confessionals, and even Brian Eno stops by on the beat-heavy and (relatively) more aggressive “Digital Lion.” His production and songwriting still aren’t detailed and nuanced enough to keep everything from sounding too monochromatic; however, moments like the claustrophobic house track, “Voyeur,” which could have just as easily fit on his debut, show how far he’s come along, since it demands attention instead of slumping off into the corner. Issues aside, Overgrown is a more mature, assured record than its predecessor, and more importantly, it indicates that Blake may be on the verge of something even better.
The Knife – Shaking The Habitual
Shaking The Habitual is as perfect an album title as you’re likely to see this year. For one, it speaks to the political overtones of the record and its attempts to jerk the public from complacency. Even better, it speaks to the music itself, which is far more challenging than anything the Knife has released before, proving that the seven years following Silent Shout have not dulled their blade (pun, of course, intended). Not to say that the Swedish duo were radio-friendly before or that their sound has remained consistent throughout their career, but Shaking feels like a great leap forward in terms of the kinds of compositions and productions the group is willing to create, and at two discs and nearly 100 minutes, the album’s certainly a sprawl. The first two tracks only hint at the directions they take here. “A Tooth For An Eye” bends steel drums and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s obtuse vocals into a sort of fevered jungle-pop, while “Full Of Fire” is a production tour de force, throwing every effect, whip-crack beat and pitch-shift up the Knife’s collective sleeve into a bracing everything-goes dance track.
It’s here that the album takes some decidedly risky left turns. It’s clear that their time working with tense atmospherics on the Tomorrow, In A Year opera rubbed off on the group, and Shaking will be remembered for the moments that it rejects conventional structure in favor of free-form tracks and moods. The primal “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” feels like some sort of soundtrack to the underworld; “Stay Out Here” has all the trimmings of a house number yet feels more suitable for a paranoid late-night-in than a fun night out, and “Cherry On Top” moves from hovering, unnerving textures to an equally unnerving pseudo-operatic interlude and back again. The deliberate, dark ambient pieces, like the 20-minute “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” and “Fracking Fluid Injection,” feel underdeveloped, and they suck a bit of momentum out of the record, so it helps when the Dreijers’ pop sensibilities chime in. “Raging Lung” squeezes some undeniable hooks from its knotty center, while “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” rides free on a deranged (and downright catchy) groove. If this doesn’t sound at all cohesive, well, it isn’t really. But half of what’s great about the record is how it overwhelms, how its tribal-patter rhythms, abrasive melodies and spooky sound effects suggest a revolution even more than the lyrics or artwork do. As with most scabrous art, Shaking The Habitual is easier to admire than love—it’s unlikely even diehard Knife fans will return to this as often as their other records—but there sure is a hell of a lot to admire.
The Strokes – Comedown Machine
However you feel about Angles, there’s no doubt it lowered expectations for the Strokes. The five years that separated First Impressions Of Earth and that album were filled with solo records and side projects, speculation and anticipation. When that record was revealed to be a decent, if unsatisfying, set, the following two-year wait for their next record was weirdly silent. The Strokes were past their prime, the media collectively concluded, and Comedown Machine was released to little fanfare. The Strokes are no longer the best or most talked-about band in the world anymore—far from it—and, as evidenced by this record, it sounds like they agree. Comedown Machine is filled with lyrics about confusion, regret, aging and settling down. And as the title implies, there’s a sense of deflation at work here, the group resigning themselves to the fact that their glory days have passed them. In other words, where Julian Casablancas once implored, “Please don’t slow me down if I’m going too fast,” he now admonishes that “you’re living too fast.” As such, it’s the softest, most contemplative Strokes album yet, one that sometimes sounds like an entirely different band.
Reuniting with Angles producer Gus Oberg, the band continues their ’80s fascination here—something no doubt fostered by Casablancas, whose solo album favored a new-wave, synth bounce—but it’s somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one side, the Strokes are usually sterling revivalists, since they refuse to shed their own voice in service of retro worship. “Tap Out” and the shuffling “Partners In Crime” come up winners, but it’s “One Way Trigger,” with its a-ha-inspired keyboard line and falsetto vocals, that’s the most memorable, mostly because it’s one of the oddest things the group’s ever done. It’s tuneful yet challenging, designed to make fans uncomfortable the way “Juicebox” did back in 2006, though it’s doesn’t reach the furious heights of that track. And that brings me to the other side of the equation. The Strokes fuss and experiment a lot on this album, but they haven’t written a set of songs strong enough to justify their stylistic diversions. Their ’80s fetish ends up dragging the record down on a few occasions, particularly in the second half, yet even the best songs here don’t feel as fresh or as compulsively replayable as the highlights from any other Strokes record. Part of this is the songwriting, yes, but it’s also the band’s new habit of playing as precisely as possible. They’re all still phenomenally talented musicians; it’s just that their airtight, professional arrangements don’t allow for, say, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr.’s guitars to flower into an unexpected duel of solos. It’s a problem compounded by Oberg’s polished production, which, while accentuating some of the hooks, ends up taking the bite out of many of the messier tracks, like the blustery “50/50,” that call out for some room to breathe. Plus, he still makes the odd, unfortunate choice of obscuring Casablancas’ voice in the mix, losing one of the Strokes’ most vital aspects in the process. Sometimes, the band hits it right, creating two great spins on their signature sound on “All The Time” and “Welcome To Japan,” and the risk-taking pays off with the wistful, torchy “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” and the hypnotic “80s Comedown Machine,” which lives up to the promise of First Impressions‘ “Ask Me Anything.” All of the flitting around reveals a band in transition, unsure of what kind of music they want to make going forward. But that’s just making excuses for a record that could, even should, be better than it is. (First Impressions is just as uneven, but there are far more tracks worth returning to on that album.) Despite the resignation on display on Comedown Machine, it doesn’t sound like they’ve given up, so here’s hoping that the Strokes can figure out what works before it’s too late.