Pet Shop Boys – Electric
Pet Shop Boys are frequently labeled as a synth-pop or new wave group, and while that’s generally correct, it also gives short shrift to how diverse and rich their music can be. From chilly, extended house numbers to keenly observed pop songs to sunny disco cuts with Latin grooves, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant have bent around the limitations of dance-pop to create intelligent music that’s as good for mulling over as it is for partying. And while 2013’s Electric isn’t a conscious attempt to touch back on all the different styles the Pet Shop Boys covered during their career, it does serve as a nice reminder that they’re capable of such fun, eclectic dance music. It’s also some of their most consistently energetic work, never turning down the tempo for a ballad or mood piece. Starting things off with the fine, borderline-aggressive house cut, “Axis,” the velocity rarely lets up, even when the album strays from extended pieces. There’s no Actually-styled straight-ahead pop songs here, but Tennant’s carefully honed wit and beautifully glassy voice snake their way throughout, whether it be the triumphant centerpiece, “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct,” the goofy “Bolshy,” or the darkly stylish “Fluorescent.” But what’s remarkable is that for a group nearly three decades old, they can still make these songs sound so distinctive and fresh while using such familiar materials. Hell, even when they invite rapper Example on the urbane, late-night disco of “Thursday,” the two artists feel of a piece instead of musicians awkwardly infringing on a different generation. And if that weren’t enough, they even make a successful stab at a Springsteen cover on the pulsing, club-ready “The Last To Die,” just to show off. Some of this vitality is due to Stuart Price, who co-produces here, to mostly beneficial effect, unifying the disparate threads of the record and painting things over with a shimmering finish. Yet it’s that same gloss that occasionally makes the music here feel calculated and cold in ways that keep the songs from reaching their potential. Certainly, a detached, even ironic, distance is a mainstay of the Boys’ style, but there were always emotions peeking below the surface, emotions that never truly bubble up here, even when the melodies and lyrics suggest they’re supposed to. Still, the material’s generally strong enough to shine through any of the sterilization, and even if isn’t exactly up to the standards of the band’s glory days (which, of course it’s not), Electric is an exciting collection of dance music by any measure. To paraphrase “Vocal,” it’s a record that simply feels right and so young, which, in this case, is more than enough.
Jay Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail
It’s been four years since (the newly un-hyphenated) Jay Z’s last record—his longest ever gap between albums—but it feels like he never went away. Mostly because he hasn’t. For one, he’s a celebrity in his own right, half of the nation’s foremost power couple, the “business, man” with an empire beyond hip-hop. And then, it also feels like there hasn’t been a single major rap release in the last half-decade without at least one track he’s guested on, never mind Watch The Throne, his collaborative record with Kanye West, which spawned one of the most popular singles of 2012. In one sense, the five years between records (and the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy) should have given Jay a lot to mull over, perhaps pressing him to try something new, either lyrically or musically. On the other hand, Hov really, really likes to rap about how rich he is, and when something like that becomes second nature, it can be hard to get unstuck from that rut.
So, he attempts to split the difference with Magna Carta…Holy Grail, a record frustratingly at odds with what it wants to be. Surely, as the album’s title and artwork imply, Jay uses high art as his muse here, and while its too conventional an album to suggest that Jay was trying to come up with a gallery piece himself, he certainly meant this to be some sort of departure, an event record that warranted his live performance at the MoMA. He’ll namecheck Mark Rothko and the Tate Modern, and interpolate Nirvana and R.E.M. lyrics as hooks, mixing and mashing popular and fine art in a way that seems like he’s commenting on the state of pop culture, but it really just provides a backdrop to his usual boasts. And that’s one of the major problems with Magna Carta: For all its posturing as some sort of statement record, this is really just Hov treading water. Not that this is always a bad thing. Jay Z is still a clever writer and a versatile MC, so even if he’s a bit set in his ways, his experience in the rags-to-riches-on-riches field means he can string together effortless material like “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford,” tracks that are distinctive enough to keep the album chugging along, yet not strong enough to gun for the career highlight reel. Unsurprisingly, the moments where Jay and his producers Timbaland and J-Roc push themselves tend to be the best tracks, or at least the most interesting ones. “Holy Grail” features a wonderful turn by Justin Timberlake against an cool, easygoing beat; “Jay Z Blue” finds the new father anxiously adjusting to a different lifestyle; he’s plainspoken about shunning religion on the uneasy “Heaven,” and the loose, fun “BBC” feels like a live group freestyle what with the overlapping vocals and asides.
But if “BBC” is a standout, it’s not just because of its quality, it’s because most of Magna Carta…Holy Grail suffers from Jay Z’s performance. If he was really trying something new with this record, it would follow that he’d sound passionate and revitalized, but Jay has rarely sounded less compelling or involved on record. He still has the flow but the energy is all but drained, and it hangs the already-thin material out to dry. At 59 minutes, it’s already a shorter album than many contemporary mainstream rap records, but at times, the sluggish pace can make it feel considerably longer. Prior to its release, Jay Z made a deal with Samsung to pre-release this record exclusively for Samsung phone users, spawning a massive ad campaign of online ads and guerrilla marketing. That’s sort of fitting: For all its artistic aspirations and inspirations, Magna Carta…Holy Grail feels much more ephemeral and disposable than anything worthy of museum preservation.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
It’s a funny thing: Daft Punk are seen as legends today, a universally acclaimed and enormously influential duo that brought house, electro-funk and disco crashing back into the mainstream, spawning all sorts of imitators and admirers from across many genres. But that wasn’t always the case. Electronic aficionados always boosted the band, but the public and even some critics weren’t so convinced of the Frenchmen’s greatness at first. Of course, time was nothing but kind to Homework and Discovery (not so much Human After All because no one was kind to that one to begin with), and eight years later, after they drummed up a decent Tron soundtrack, after Kanye introduced the youngsters to the duo via his sample on “Stronger,” Daft Punk finally returned from the ether, masks and all. When they released Random Access Memories in late spring of 2013, it was the first time they dropped a record as bona fide, four-quadrant rock stars. That newfound status, plus the long gap since their last studio album, virtually ensured that the album would be a dizzying, grandly ambitious listen, and surely enough, RAM is Daft Punk’s most expansive, conceptual music yet. It’s also some of their best.
As the first single, “Get Lucky,” indicates with its disco stomp and slick Nile Rodgers guitar riff, this album is all about paying tribute to some of Daft Punk’s more vintage inspirations. That means ’80s pop, Eurodisco and early electronic dance music run rampant through the album, feeding off each other in a way that sounds unabashedly retro but unusually modern. Perhaps that last bit shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have been making the old sound new for years, yet this is their first attempt at deliberately stamping a date on the music they create, so it’s all the more impressive. Nowhere can this be seen better than on the album’s centerpiece, “Giorgio by Moroder.” As Giorgio Moroder explains his origins as a producer, Daft Punk lay a funky beat that eventually explodes into a swooshing synthesizer epic, a lovely testament to Moroder’s lasting influence on the dance music scene. This affectionate hero worship also brings a level of sincerity and warmth to the record, lending intimacy to the proceedings and grounding the songs no matter how outsized the productions. What remains remarkable about RAM—well, aside from the often exceptional songwriting and productions—is how it never settles for simple nostalgia: No matter how indebted to influences they are, “Get Lucky” and its sister track, “Lose Yourself To Dance,” are some of the best pop songs of 2013 because they sound so fresh and inventive.
As backwards-looking as the record is, Daft Punk are still trying out sounds and approaches that they’ve never committed to tape before, so part of that liveliness is due to a sense of exploration. Some of this has to do with the special guest turns: Yes, Giorgio Moroder, but also great turns from Pharrell Williams, a typically chipper Panda Bear on “Doin’ It Right” and Julian Casablancas, who shows up for the brooding, new-wave “Instant Crush,” which is good enough to make you wonder how much better Comedown Machine would have been if Daft Punk produced it. But most of the gleeful invention of RAM comes from how the duo play with structure and style, which reveals an unexpected influence—prog-rock. Take something like “Touch,” which shifts from unsettling, alien atmospherics to a touching Paul Williams ballad to a lavish disco cut to a spacy, psychedelic number and back again. It’s at once deeply felt and out of left field, more so than most anything else in their oeuvre. And when tracks like that are placed alongside catchy dance jams, songs that blend the orchestral and the synthetic, softly exhaling sobbing-robot pop and the interstellar-overdrive-cum-campy-sci-fi-soundtrack of “Contact,” all of the sudden, RAM has more in common with the high-concept, ambitious records of Pink Floyd and Genesis than groups like Air. True, none of this is ever quite as challenging as prog, but it certainly shares prog’s fascination with major statements, grandiose arrangements and over-the-top theatricality. Of course, since the most major statement being made here is “DANCE!,” it’s much more immediately satisfying. And “immediately satisfying” is the name of the game here, because even though Random Access Memories is too singular in Daft Punk’s catalogue to be considered quintessential, it’s their most accessible and one of their most rewarding.
Kanye West – Yeezus
From his music to his fashion sense to how he courts controversy with his every word, few people in the world command the media attention that Kanye West does. He knows it; he’s boasted about it for years, and in a New York Times profile that was published a week before the release of Yeezus, he speaks of his greatness like it’s fact, as if it’s no different from claiming that grass is green. It’s this aspect of his personality that his detractors find hard to stomach, but even they can’t deny his integrity. While other artists tend to ossify their style and sound when they find success, Kanye maintained his stature by setting trends, not adapting to them. He constantly reinvents his music, pushing boundaries and succeeding with remarkable consistency, and the public has followed him all the way. But 2013’s Yeezus is something else entirely. It’s a heavy, chaotic record, rippling with noise; pounding, industrial beats and guttural screams, all swimming in spare, spacious production. It’s just as jarring a stylistic shift as 808s & Heartbreak was, only this one doesn’t work with the safety net of crowd-pleasing singles. There have been weirder, more abrasive albums in rap, but none of those were made by artists with the prominence and global audience that Kanye has. Like Kid A or In Utero, Yeezus is the sound of a major pop musician crafting something that’s firmly out of the mainstream. And even if it isn’t as great as Radiohead and Nirvana’s gamechangers, it’s a challenging, groundbreaking listen, bound to polarize Kanye’s fans, even as it garners him many more. (And just like those two records, Yeezus debuted at #1 in the US.)
The first half of the record, especially, goes for the jugular. The shredded noise and the blunt, Nine Inch Nails-esque synths that begin “On Sight” act as a warning shot for what follows, which runs headlong from the pummeling, visceral “Black Skinhead” to the seething “New Slaves,” where Kanye works himself into a rage, before a lovely Frank Ocean-sung coda blows off some of the excess steam. Even more out-there is the panicked, menacing “I Am A God,” which begins with some dead-serious/dead-funny ego boosts, yet ends with Kanye letting out a series of blood-curdling screams and pants. But as out-of-the-blue as Yeezus seems, it’s really a logical extension of the darker fringes of 808s and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, taking those outliers to their extremes. The second half of the record proves that in spades, as he flirts with 808s‘ Auto-Tuned balladry on “Blood On The Leaves,” while “Hold My Liquor”‘s downcast, confessional feel and use of guest singers calls to mind MBDTF‘s blockbuster therapy sessions. (In fact, if anything is from left field here, it’s the lovely closer, “Bound 2,” which links the past and the present, referencing The College Dropout via an easygoing rap over a classic soul sample.)
Yeezus also recalls MBDTF in the way its lyrics work contradictory themes, how Kanye shuns materialism and embraces it, how he marries the attractive and repulsive, how he sees no difference between the sophisticated and the lowbrow. This would be a fatal error for most artists, but for him, it’s a raison d’être. He wears his flaws and paradoxes on his designer sleeve, and at its best, Yeezus is thrillingly human. In keeping with that flawed, imperfect tone, it’s worth noting that the album was completed only a couple weeks before its release, so it’s raw and rough, full of first-take vocals and just-written, first-draft lyrics. That off-the-cuff feel definitely bolsters the more confrontational tracks like “Black Skinhead” and “I Am God” (How else would the improbable genius of a line like “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” make it to record?). And some of that looseness also rubs off on the laid-back “Bound 2,” where he concedes something as goofy and charming as “You remember when we first met?/Okay, I don’t remember when we first met.” Yet it’s the polemical “New Slaves” that may be the most impressive, with Kanye ripping into the place where racism and commercialism intersect. But along with the highs come some frustrating lows, and Yeezus still suffers from some clumsy, off-putting lyrics that have dotted Kanye’s recent work. Most of this has to do with his attempts to out-provocative himself, and while that leads to some lines that work within the context of the track (“You see, it’s leaders and it’s followers/But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”), it also results in some lame jokes like “Eating Asian pussy/All I need is sweet-and-sour sauce” that come off like Tyler, The Creator outtakes. Generally, though, Kanye’s a compelling enough MC to help smooth over even the weakest material here, and makes a highlight out of the seemingly questionable decision to pair a sample of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” (a song about the lynching of African Americans) with a tale of gold-digging girlfriends.
Rick Rubin’s executive production also makes the album gel much better than it could have. His nothing-but-the-essentials approach pays great dividends here, turning Yeezus into a cohesive, minimalistic wonder instead of an unlistenable mess. The record’s success is equally the result of Kanye’s tremendous vision, though. He’s still the ringleader here, improving his contributors’ beats, making deft use of his guest spots and providing the impetus and creativity for this shockingly offbeat work. For such a dramatic shift in sound, approach and release strategy (no singles, no pre-orders) and even artwork, these don’t sound like unfinished sketches or experiments. This is a full-bodied, fully realized record, even if he let the seams show. Yeezus has the potential to open some minds, influencing countless current and future artists who may not always be exposed to such extreme sounds. Few, if any, hip-hop stars have a catalogue as varied and rewarding as Kanye West’s, and at the end of the day, Yeezus is just another showcase for his impeccable tastelessness.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
It’s tempting to dismiss Vampire Weekend as so much style—and a lot of people seem willing to give into that temptation. Ever since their breakthrough debut, their detractors often liked to point out (and almost always exaggerate) the band members’ perceived affluence, acting as if an artist’s financial status predetermines the quality of their work. It’s the same sort of criticism the Strokes faced in their early days, but the reason it remains a central point of discussion about Vampire Weekend is that they consciously adopted an upper-strata social status as part of their image, and it bled through into their artwork, their preppy outfits and sometimes even the subjects of their songs. Their songwriting chops were always there, but since the group flaunted their fashion, people were often quick to brush the group aside as frivolous. They were musicians who got lucky with a few fluke hits, but weren’t built to last—let alone become a “great band.” And in the face of this criticism, Vampire Weekend soldiered on, absorbing their influences and spinning them into a signature sound over the course of two very good, very smart records, their eponymous debut and 2010’s Contra. Their winning streak continues with Modern Vampires Of The City, a moodier, more substantive VW record that should finally end the debates surrounding the group’s worth. It’s their best album yet.
If Vampire Weekend have a sound they’re known for, it tends to lean towards the raucous, exuberant pop song, something like “A-Punk” or “Cousins.” And while they haven’t erased that side of their personality—check “Unbelievers” or the brilliant, freewheeling “Diane Young”—it certainly takes a backseat to texture and atmosphere, two elements that complement the weightier subjects at hand. Ezra Koenig’s lyrics have always been bookish, both in their expansive vocabulary and their obscure references, but here he tackles Big Topics, chiefly morality. Images of death, time, age and history pop up everywhere here: Some take the more positive route (“Diane Young” salutes those with a lust for life; “Obvious Bicycle” urges listeners to make a mark before it’s too late), while many more are bleak and bewildered (“Hudson” is a cynical look into New York City; “Don’t Lie” shutters at a “headstone right in front of you”). In short, there’s unease everywhere here: unease about the future, unease about your faith and beliefs, unease about if anything is going to get any better. Written out like this, Modern Vampires sounds like it could be a drag, and with Koenig’s tendency to layer his words with detailed, expressive allusions and motifs, it all begs for over-analysis. Yet, the record is engaging, direct and unpretentious, partly because Koenig keeps a lot plainspoken and partly because VW broaden their pallete, while keeping their songwriting as strong as ever.
Rather than make an album full of singles, the songs here are diverse and downcast, full of odd song structures, left turns and a dour tone, even in its uptempo moments. Part of that has to do with the production: bandmate Rostam Batmanglij is behind the boards again, yes, but this time he works with Ariel Rechtshaid, whose work with pop and electronic artists tends to favor some fog in with the polish. Together, they give the record the appropriate balance of fussy studio wizardry and pick-up-and-play directness, which keeps the record grounded, even when it takes risks. Of course, most of it has to do with the tracks themselves. Opener “Obvious Bicycle” signals their intent to try something new: Miles away from the summery “Mansard Roof” and “Horchata,” wistful harmonies and gently struck pianos carry the day, and it battles fellow bookend “Young Lion” for the position of the group’s most unabashedly gorgeous song yet. “Step” is a richer, mature take on VW’s studious, Afro-chamber pop; “Hannah Hunt” bursts from a sweeping, nostalgic look at a cross-country trip to something altogether more pained and cathartic. And even though the record’s more serious tone naturally slows down the tempos, “Diane Young” and “Worship You” still give the rhythm section of Chris Baio and Chris Tomson plenty to work with. Given the all-encompassing themes here, it’s unsurprising that there’s a spiritual quality to this album, too. Sure, the lyrics do some of the heavy lifting on that front, but drones, hymnal choirs and atmospheric reverb abound, not to mention titles like “Worship You” and “Everlasting Arms.” And that vibe culminates in perhaps the record’s best song, “Ya Hey.” Floating on a dub-inspired bassline, martial chanting and some wildly screwed vocals, Koenig questions his faith while reaching out to respect and understand God. It’s complex, compassionate and searching, adjectives foreign to most decidedly black-and-white religious (and anti-religious) professions in pop music. It’s that sort of curiosity and open-mindedness that makes VW both a band of substance and a band for the masses. Modern Vampires Of The City is the album that cements Vampire Weekend as one of America’s best pop groups going today—intellectually stimulating, emotionally gratifying and catchy as hell.
!!! – Thr!!!er
The success of any given !!! song (or album) hinges on how well the band merges their Liquid Liquid-esque jams with their pop songwriting. At their best, they manage something startlingly fun and inventive; at their worst, their music can sound like the numbing backbeat of a dying party. And with their closest (and most famous) contemporary LCD Soundsystem out of the picture, it’s do or die time for !!!, at least if they want to inherit the dance-punk throne. If their fifth album, Thr!!!er, doesn’t quite go so far as to clinch that title, it does at least seem to want to court a wider audience, as the band back off from their dense, gnarled productions in favor of something smoother and stripped down. As a result, Thr!!!er is probably their most accessible record—and it’s also their most unabashedly retro. To be sure, !!! have always worn their influences on their collective sleeve, but from the robotic keyboard tones and swooning saxophone lines that punctuate “Get That Rhythm Right” to the Bee Gees/Prince falsettos on “One Girl/One Boy,” early ’80s electro-funk and synth-pop is the name of the game here. Fortunately, particularly in the record’s first half, they pull it off; this is some of the band’s purest pop, and even though a few of the members have switched up over the years, this is still a band that can work a groove better than most. “Even When The Water’s Cold,” with its lucid guitar leads and bouncing hook, is the obvious single here, that is, if it weren’t for “One Girl/One Boy”‘s glitzy stomp. “Fine Fine Fine,” meanwhile, conjures the sensual menace of early New Romantic bands like Visage, and the rollicking closer “Station (Meet Me At The)” is the hardest, most propulsive thing here. Yet, for a group that always thrived on overloaded arrangements and complex rhythms, Thr!!!er‘s reigned-in approach ends up hurting the record as a whole. Sure, the slinky “Get Your Rhythm Right” benefits, but “Californiyeah” and “Except Death” end up pulling the short straws, since their simple melodies and productions are too slight to sustain themselves in this atypically bare-bones setting. And that low-impact, low-energy feeling permeates the entire album, weighing even the best moments down and keeping them from achieving transcendence. That said, even if the highlights here don’t reach the levels of !!!’s best work, this is still a consistently winning, breezy set of jams, and you could do a lot worse than to listen in. It’s a mixed bag, but Thr!!!er still offers the hope that, one day, !!! will nail all the aspects of their sound on record to create something truly worthy of that throne.
The Dismemberment Plan – Change
While Emergency & I justifiably goes down as the Dismemberment Plan’s definitive album, Change is nearly as worthy of the honor, yet was largely overlooked in 2001 because of the Strokes’ ascendancy the previous month. As it turned out, Change was the Plan’s final studio album before their breakup, but other than the generally more relaxed mood, there’s nothing that suggests this is a group on the verge of creative collapse. Indeed, this record displays them at the peak of their powers, figuring out how to challenge themselves and pulling it off with panache. Travis Morrison referred to Change as a “night album,” something moody, involving and contemplative, and there’s no argument here. Using Emergency‘s ambling, less-structured moments, like “The Jitters” and “Back And Forth,” as a starting point, the Plan delve into more atmospheric, rhythmic territory here, eschewing diversity for focus. And since the music doesn’t style-jump as much, it places more emphasis on Morrison’s wry, poetic lyrics, which are as honest and well-observed as ever, perhaps even more so. There’s an inevitable confessional vibe that comes with a record that feels so introspective, but Morrison gets a lot of mileage out of it, approaching each song a different way. Whether he’s waxing philosophical (“Sentimental Man,” “Following Through”); cataloguing a relationship (“Ellen And Ben”); playing with surreal metaphors (“The Face Of The Earth,” “Superpowers”) or lashing out (“Time Bomb”), there’s an intellectual and emotional heft to these tracks that a lot of modern rock sorely lacks. Yet even if the album was instrumental, Change would still be an engaging album, simply because the Plan are more musically talented than most of their ilk, particularly their virtuosic rhythmic section, drummer Joe Easley and bassist Eric Axelson (check out the live jungle performance on “The Other Side” for instant proof). Because most of this record is about groove and flow, it puts the group’s electronic, jazz and R&B influences into sharper relief, resulting in some truly arresting moments and arrangements like the vibrating keyboard riff in “Superpowers,” the swinging wash of “Sentimental Man” or the spare, acoustic “Automatic.” That said, the Plan can’t help but punctuate the record with tracks like “Pay For The Piano” and the rampaging “Secret Curse” that recall their early post-hardcore work. Given the downcast, lyrically dense nature of the record, it takes more time to get into than other Plan albums, but its rewards are as great as any of the best moments in their oeuvre. If the Dismemberment Plan’s career began with an !, it’s rather fitting, if frustrating, that Change ended it with an ellipsis, one that remained until their reunion 10 years later.
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 jungle-fever 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.