Submissions Report #2
Every so often, I’ll review submissions sent to me, usually albums but sometimes singles or EPs. So here we go!
Arthur Fowler – What’s Keeping Me Going
Possessing a voice like a cross between Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and Jack Johnson, but harboring a far greater fondness for virtuosic jamming than either of them, Arthur Fowler is a better player than poet, and What’s Keeping Me Going, his 2014 record, tends to be at its best when it strays from typical lighthearted singer/songwriter confessional pop and favors a looser, musical structure. The washes of chimes, the atmospheric bongo patter and the ribbons of flamenco flourishes ensure that Fowler’s tunes never quite leave the coffeehouse, but that would be okay if these songs exuded a real warmth or rawness. Unfortunately, songs like “Please Try” and the breezy, faux-tropical “Love The Music” feel perfunctory, the kind of good-natured tunes that are easy to shrug off before turning back to your crossword and cappuccino.
What’s Keeping Me Going‘s core, though, is Fowler’s formidable guitar playing and arranging. Is it any wonder that two instrumentals, the bossa-nova feint of “Twilight Breeze,” a kind of sunny come-down interlude, and the sighing epic-tinged folk of “On The Verge,” are some of the best things on the record, when on other pop albums they would just be lovely diversions? To be fair, a few of the vocal tracks stand out. “For The Turnstiles” moves against its slow-burning country strings to lend itself an unexpected richness lacking elsewhere, while “The New York Song” succeeds where his other songs fail by utilizing an assuming, low-key charm. It doesn’t do anything special, but What’s Keeping Me Going is decently pleasant listening, an instance of someone who’s better at soundtracking a sunset walk with a loved one than expressing the sentiment himself.
Return For Refund – Return For Refund EP
Return For Refund’s debut eponymous EP has one big problem with it: familiarity. Their music is firmly in the rote post-grunge camp, maybe with a little more quirky abandon, playing like a cross between Queen Of The Stone Age and Foo Fighters, a style the radio may have adopted in the late ’90s and early 2000s but seems depleted now. On a pure sonic level, Return For Refund aren’t as slick as, say, 3 Doors Down, or whoever, but they also lack a sense for melody and hook, and even when the songs get by on musicianship (as they often do), there’s very little here that doesn’t completely dissipate in the mind as soon as it’s over. Frontman Drew Clementino’s southern drawl may add a little flair but the music here is prone to stolid beats and power chords and pseudo-evocative cliches like the “Hey!” chant that permeates the martial stomp of “Between My Sheets.” It’s not that any these songs are glaringly bad per se—if the opening roar of “The Fields” appeared on local rock radio one day, few would bat an eye—but there’s just very little to mention in them at all (except that there’s one song called “Yolo,” which, even if the song makes fun of the term, doesn’t make it any less silly and disposable.)
On the brighter side, the last song, “Those Bombs,” demonstrates at least a little dynamic range, allowing the song to breath just a bit, easing up on the flat, overpowering heaviness that eats up the rest of the songs and letting Clementino’s words to reveal themselves. Meanwhile, the winding riffs on “Some Is Better Than None” display some post-punk tension that they would do well to exploit in the future. After all, it’s better that they learn what works about their sound now while they’re young, so they don’t end up in another pile of listless grunge acts.
Submissions Report #1
Every so often, I’ll review submissions sent to me, usually albums but sometimes singles or EPs. So here we go!
Tomás Doncker – Big Apple Blues
Tomás Doncker has been kicking around for over 30 years now, in and out of blues circles, jazz ensembles and avant-garde scenes, mainly as a session guitarist. But following a record of Howlin’ Wolf covers, Big Apple Blues acts as sort of a coming out party for the studio vet. Teaming with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Doncker turns in a modern slice of urban blues, folding in elements of R&B and free and cool jazz in with crunchy feedback. While on paper that sounds like wild, freewheeling listen, truth is, Big Apple Blues never has the musical sweep it aspires to, with some lapses in songwriting holding it back from becoming anything special.
Still there’s plenty to recommend here, whether it be the smoky, spacious title track or “Ground Zero,” which revels in a slow, ugly grind before shooting off into an electric solo. Even better is “Can’t Say No,” a pounding, kinetic single that has more fuel in its engine than most of the rest of the album combined. And, indeed, rather than overpowering hooks or muscular blues licks, most of the small joys found throughout Big Apple Blues are in the band’s lively interplay, how they jam within the confines of their songs, and Komunyakaa’s lyrics, which oscillate between nostalgic wistfulness and plainspoken politics, giving the record a bit more weight than it might otherwise have. The record’s at it best, though, when it allows some unpredictability show through, like how “Fun City”‘s limber, wah-wah guitar and swinging horns goose the soft-pedaled percussion, or how the album downshifts into “Coney Island,” a lovely, orange-skied homage to ’60s R&B. It’s whenever things begin to slow down, as they do on “This Midnight Hour” and “The New Day,” that the album stagnates. It’s not that these are bad songs necessarily, they’re just wheel-spinning filler, something that sounds okay as it’s playing but floats away from the mind soon after. Plenty of the record could fit that description at first blush, but upon repeated spins, Big Apple Blues reveals itself to have an edge over some of its contemporaries.
Nate Paladino – Good Boy EP
Brokenhearted albums are an underrated art. The general goal, even for self-deprecating artists, is for the listener to empathize—everyone’s experienced all the attendant feelings of bitterness, envy and longing that come with not having your love reciprocated. But there’s a real balancing act that comes with dissecting such negative emotions. Will your rawness and desperation come off as endearing and tragic or as an off-putting, mopey mess? On the Good Boy EP, singer-songwriter Nate Paladino often falls on the wrong side of the equation. Consciously drawing on a broad range of classic American singer-songwriters, like Johnny Cash and Sam Cooke, whose melody for “Wonderful World” he twists here on the opening track here, and ’60s soul crooners, Paladino fancies himself a vintage balladeer, a swooning romantic for the new decade.
In order to separate himself form his influences though, he applies an undercurrent of irony that runs through some of his songs, ostensibly added to conjure some sort of detached cool. He begins with a skipping, retro-tinged ballad called “My Kind Of Bitch,” its title and tale of a relationship gone sour apparently intended to play off of the slick, innocent music in some productive way (a good instinct), but delivered with too much of a smirk, it just plays like an awkward joke. Faring better is “Buy Your Heart,” a gentle, organ-led lullaby that does a better job disguising its damaged words and “Something To Prove,” which occasionally overcome his annoying, affected blues growl to deliver a persistent hook. His lyrics tend to be straightforward in the whiny, I’ll-be-with-you-someday vein, but he confuses a lack of grace with emotional directness, and rather than hopelessly romantic (or even relatably pathetic), he sometimes comes across as creepy. When he swears he will “buy your heart and make you mine,” instead of sounding committed, he’s off-putting, like a song about a stalker that doesn’t realize what he’s doing is wrong. If the songs were better written, these might work as first-person narratives from the POV of an obsessive, scorned lover, but that was doubtfully the intention here. Only in the stark closer “Friend In Need” does he find an atmosphere that befits his gentle, insistent voice. It’s not a particularly great song, but it does suggest a better route forward for him in the future, one where he’s able to be sincere and sympathetic. Plus, Paladino has a way with melody, and as pure music and atmosphere, Good Boy works in spurts. He and his band create a retro allure that’s pleasant enough in the background—it just starts to fall apart on closer inspection.
D’Angelo and The Vanguard – Black Messiah
When D’Angelo’s Black Messiah suddenly appeared in the middle of December 2014, it was shocking. Announced the very day it was released (a growing trend among our more secretive stars), the 14-year hiatus following Voodoo sent the music press spiraling into overdrive. But once that settled down, once the album made its midnight release and everyone took some time to digest it, another shock set in—this album was really good. Not just good for a comeback album, which itself would be a welcome surprise, but D’Angelo good, a record that could stand with some of the best of 2014, even if most of the best-of lists were already published by the time anyone knew this was coming out.
But as abrupt as it was, Black Messiah didn’t just blink into existence. Reports, leaks and interviews with collaborators dating back about a decade confirm that D’Angelo had been piecing together this thing for years, cutting and re-cutting dozens of tracks and eventually settling on the 12 that made the record. And even then, he only released the album when he did in reaction to the nationwide protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of white policemen, when he realized it might be something the country, the black community more importantly, needed right now. Yet what’s remarkable is that, despite the record’s protracted gestation period, Black Messiah is loose and limber, raw and spontaneous, rarely feeling fussed over even if its layered, detailed rhythms and heated release date suggest otherwise.
Fittingly, this album tugs at some of the political strings that threaded their way through Voodoo and runs with them. It’s never preachy or heavy-handed, though, with D’Angelo choosing to let the music do a lot of the speaking for him. There’s anger here, bitterness, sadness, all justified, all detailed in clever, evocative turns of phrase that dot the record. Perhaps weirdly, though not particularly surprising for D’Angelo, he and his producers deliberately mask his voice in manipulations and bury his words in the mix on occasion there to emphasize the music’s feel, which is fine and all, but when the lyrics do surface (or if you read along with a printed copy), they are often good enough that you wish you’d be able to make them out more often on a couple of the songs.
But that’s no matter since Black Messiah is primarily a musical triumph, blending and bending genres and time periods together so that the past is constantly feeding off the present and vice versa. D’Angelo kept around much of the same backing he had on Voodoo (now credited as the Vanguard), including Questlove on drums and session bassist Pino Palladino, and brought in Q-Tip and erstwhile Parliament-Funkadelic player Kendra Foster to contribute writing credits. Together they create music that’s not too different than his past work on paper—a mix of classic R&B and funk mixed with some modern rock and hip-hop—but there’s a rougher, more adventurous edge to these tracks, even when the songs are languid and silky. The slinky “Sugah Daddy” finds new wrinkles in D’Angelo’s sex-symbol persona, with him teasing with impish glee; “Betray My Heart” skips and stops, punctuating his every reassurance and coo; then there’s “The Charade,” which is one of his smoothest, catchiest pop grooves, but that just disguises the seething and weariness below the surface: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/Still we only got outlined in chalk,” a line written years ago but feels all too vital in the wake of 2014’s highly publicized police brutality.
It’s the more eclectic tracks, though, that give Black Messiah its forward-thinking identity. The raucous “1000 Deaths” moves past the Sly Stone comparisons to find that D’Angelo has his own sort of riot goin’ on, full of stuttering, pummeling drums and sharp bass exclamation rather than narcotic flow. “The Door”‘s get-up handclaps and twangy riffs feel like it’s some sort of slow jam at a county fair. Or listen to how “Really Love” begins with a deep drone that rises into an orchestral movement, glides on some tense flamenco guitar before settling into a lovely Latin-infused R&B. What distinguishes Black Messiah is how natural all this feels. It can feel like an epic, especially when the “Back To The Future” reprise flows into the dreamy, ascendant “Another Life”, but it never feels self-important or indulgent. (At 55 minutes, it’s about the length of his debut and 20 minutes shorter than Voodoo, which, as great as it is, can be an unwieldy, bloated thing.) It’s impossible to say whether or not this album was “worth” the 14 year gap, just as it’s impossible to determine whether a great, expensive vacation is worth the price. It feels right now, and it will probably still feel right a year from now, and that’s all that matters. D’Angelo had a lot to say for so long, and if he’s the sort of artist who needs to take a while to create the music he wants, especially when it’s this good, so be it.
Flake Music – When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return
1997 / 2014 (reissue)
It’s impossible not to think of Flake Music’s one and only album, 1997’s When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return, without thinking of the band they would become shortly after, The Shins. Considering the achievements of Oh, Inverted World just a few years later, it’s easy to assume this would fare considerably worse in comparison. And yeah, sure, you can look at it that way—the songwriting’s certainly not as distinctive (it’s worth noting that these songs are written by the band as a whole, not just James Mercer, as they are in the Shins), and the lyrics aren’t as sharp, even if Mercer’s style—twisting, complex rhymes in service of open hearts and open wounds—is mostly present.
Yet while it’s true that When You Land isn’t up to the quality of the band’s best work, When You Land surprisingly benefits from listening to it out of context of its release. (Mercer seems to know this too: He decided to remix, remaster and re-release the album in late 2014 on his own Aural Apothecary label.) See, Flake Music don’t sound like The Shins, not exactly anyway (one of the only tracks that does sound like that band is actually called “The Shins,” notably one of the album’s highlights). Instead, at this point, they are closer to a cross between Guided By Voices, early Apples In Stereo and the earnest crunch of post-hardcore and emo acts. It has its charms, but it’s also not entirely different than the ocean of music recorded by indie guitar bands in the late-’90s
So, while at the time, Flake Music came across as a particularly tuneful version of something that was already out there, now it reads like a crystal ball reading of The Shins’ career—”What if they decided to be a punky alt band instead?” The brighter, cleaner remix helps bring out the band’s natural gift for melody even from an early age. “Spanway Hits” and “The Shins” could easily slip into a Shins B-side collection unnoticed; “Blast Valve” and “Vantage” showcase a different, more expansive side of the group, while the brief, ramshackle instrumentals that pop up throughout suggest a certain poignancy and restlessness that would serve the band well later on. Mercer would soon grow tired of Flake Music and begin the Shins as a side project for himself and drummer Jesse Sandoval, but seeing its potential, the rest of the band joined too, and Flake Music soon just became a curio of ’90s rock. But “curio” it may be, that designation seems like a disservice to When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return, which is better than that label suggests, and it stands as a well-constructed, if inessential, record apart from and a part of the Shins’ legacy.
Taylor Swift – 1989
A lot of the buzz leading up to Taylor Swift’s fifth album, 1989, surrounded her claim that it was a final big leap from country to pop. In reality, this sounds like a more dramatic shift than it is, since she already made that jump with her last record, Red, which forwent the usual twang for dabbles in indie pop, stadium rock and dubstep drops. The difference here, then, is more in tone. While Red was warm and playful, with a few country-lite ballads to fill in the gaps between the big singles, 1989 is all steely surfaces and icy beats, a modern pop record through and through, where feel and mood sometimes trump song. Normally, this would be a significant, even fatal, error judgement for an artist like Swift, who made her name on charming earnestness and an endearing clumsiness and relatability. There needs to be a warmth then, something the distant, robotic production of dance-pop rarely offers, in order for her approach to land effectively. And at its worst, some of that distance does harm 1989, like, say, the catchy but generic opener “Welcome To New York,” which, as agreeable as it is, sounds like anyone could have made it, when, love ’em or hate ’em, Taylor’s songs are usually unmistakably hers.
But savvy star that she is, Swift already knew all this, so she pivoted 1989 in a direction that takes advantage of the style, enlisting producers to assist her in making an album full of bangers—nearly every song here is a potential single, and only “This Love” and “Clean” land into ballad territory. It helps even more that she leans into some of the darker shades of her music, bringing the previous subtext of her heartbroken confessions to the fore, even as the hooks keep on coming. Paranoia and obsession tremble throughout 1989, keeping her and her exes up at night, lingering after lost loves and sabotaging new relationships, all befitting the perspective of a woman whose dating life is constantly the subject of public scrutiny. “Style,” for instance, is all bouncy singalong and James Dean references, but is premised on a toxic, misguided relationship of two people who pretend they’re meant to be together. Elsewhere, “Wildest Dreams” finds Swift borrowing Lana Del Rey’s affected disaffection and doomed romanticism, but she cuts the pretension in half so it’s an easier sell; “I Know Places” goes as far as to deride the paparazzi and public as “hunters” and “vultures,” while she imagines an escape route out. Even the closing “Clean” (with production by Imogen Heap, nice to see you), which is ostensibly about getting over someone whose attraction has plagued you for years, uses the language of addiction (“Now that I’m clean, I’m never gonna risk it”) and sounds unsettled and unsure, far from the great exhale her words seem to promise. And though “Welcome To New York” and the incredible, buoyant first single “Shake It Off” try to deflect the demons, the overwhelming impression the album leaves is one of confusion and uncertainty.
If this sounds oppressively, laughably dark, well, it’s all relative—this is still a Taylor Swift album. With the likes of blockbuster pop moguls Max Martin and Ryan Tedder behind the boards, this is immaculately candied pop, spit-shined within an inch of its life, so it never sounds too glum, and even if Swift’s lyrics suggest darkness and dysfunction, her words aren’t abrasive in and of themselves. (Case in point: this is an album that rhymes “fella over there” with “hella good hair.”) It all serves to create one of Swift’s best and most cohesive records yet, and one of the year’s finest pop records, one that goes down so easily that it makes it easy to overlook its considerable craft. The production keeps things moving even when Swift’s lyric and songwriting slip, and her words help inject some messy humanity back into the wintry layers of programming. It’s hard to say where she’ll move next, but that’s the thrilling feeling that comes with an artist in her prime. And since, as of this post, 1989 has positioned her as the only artist ever in the SoundScan-era to have three albums sell over a million records in a single week, I’d say that Taylor is certainly in her prime.
Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In The End
Few bands occasion so much intense love and flippant dismissal (often from the same people, often at the same time) as Weezer. For over 10 years, since the release of the so-called Green Album, critics and fans held out their hopes for a new Weezer album to match the quality of the first two records, but really most of whom just wanted the band to get back to that early sound, an increasingly odd request for a band now decades older. (Even more ironically, the subtext for some of those reviews is that the famously uncool band wasn’t being cool enough, or, rather, that they weren’t being uncool in a cool enough way.) For their part, Rivers Cuomo and the rest of Weezer took a lot of this criticism in stride, just ignoring what they could and following their muse, releasing record after record of varying quality while experimenting with different styles and sorts of jokes. (Remember when they did a song with Lil Wayne?) But Cuomo’s always been the self-conscious type, keenly aware of what his audience expects from him, and after jumping back in with his core audience with a series of tours focusing on their early work, Weezer took the time to craft a new record that would ostensibly get back to their roots. On its face, it seems like all that badgering finally got to the band.
In actuality, Everything Will Be Alright In The End, Weezer’s ninth album, isn’t really a return to form by any means. It certainly talks like it—”Back To The Shack” blatantly apologizes to the fans and promises to get back to “rockin’ out like it’s ’94″—but nothing on here remotely apes the Blue Album or Pinkerton. Even the heartache of the rousing opener “Ain’t Got Nobody,” which on the surface seems like a kissing cousin to their lovelorn early days, is gussied up with crowd-pleasing hooks and big, arena-rock ambition that marked their post-millennial work. Instead, EWBAITE shrewdly attempts to court Weezer’s hardcore audience, not by tracing over their older work, but by marrying the game-for-anything creativity of their recent music and the weight and quirk of the early records. By and large, it succeeds wonderfully. The songs are consistently tight, catchy and memorable, generally falling on the right side of the funny/hokey divide, eccentric without veering into novelty. To be clear, this is a more calculated, occasionally fan-service-y album than we’re used to—with a wife and kids waiting for him at home, he doesn’t really “got nobody to kiss and hug me”—but this doesn’t really matter since the band’s playing to their strengths and working on the most solid set of songs they have in over a decade.
Cuomo once again shares songwriting credit on a couple tracks here, but they feel entirely in his voice, which lends EWBAITE a bit more personality and urgency no matter if he’s writing about himself, a character or how “The British Are Coming.” “Eulogy Of A Rock Band” is a small-scale epic more successful than the similarly minded “Heart Songs” from Red; the time-signature shifts lend “Cleopatra” a surprisingly effective twist, and “Go Away” puts Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino’s easygoing sincerity to good use in a duet. Meanwhile “Foolish Father” and “Anonymous” both end with those sorts of euphoric, reassuring crowd chants that indie bands are so fond of (the former’s reminds me of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” oddly enough). If that sounds like a lot to squeeze into a 42 minute album, it is. In fact, most of the album finds Weezer more ambitious than they’ve ever been, but here it works because there’s a sense they’ve put a lot of effort into seeing all their ideas through. In other words, this is an album where a song called “The British Are Coming” is literally about Paul Revere, and it might be one of their best singles in years. Plus, it has the nerve to culminate in something called the “Futurescope Trilogy,” a near-proggy mini-suite that closes out the record, bookended with interlocking guitar-shredding instrumentals that surround “Anonymous,” a multi-segmented barn-burner that has little competition for Weezer’s most theatrical moment. Holding it all together though is Ric Ocasek, once again proving to be Weezer’s best and most natural production partner, just as he was on Blue and Green. He reigns in Cuomo’s whimsy and plays up his hooks (and his quirks), giving the album bite even when the band gets silly and letting the left turns bristle against the slick pop confections. If EWBAITE doesn’t come close to their best albums, it’s a reassuring reset button—their best since The Green Album or maybe even Pinkerton—and a hopeful push to a bold, new future. When Weezer are good, there’s no one quite like them, and Everything Will Be Alright In The End finds them better than they’ve been in quite a while.
Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
Like Radiohead’s last few releases, the actuality of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Thom Yorke’s second solo album, is somewhat overshadowed by its unconventional release. Announced and dropped on the same day via BitTorrent, with only a few vague hints of a release in the preceding days, it almost seemed as if Yorke was intentionally passing off the record with as little hype as possible, burying it within the news of his main band being back in the studio. That assumption’s unfair to this record, which is much better than a tossed-off collection of experiments, but it also highlights Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes as an unquestionably minor statement. The Eraser, his debut solo record, preceded this record by eight years, and that’s an album of similarly small-scale gems, a deliberate breather from the hullabaloo that surrounds a new Radiohead release. What’s exemplary about The Eraser is how it had emotional directness on its side, with Yorke’s imagery and delivery more intimate and forthright and, in the case of the terrified, urgent “Harrowdown Hill,” explicitly political.
Boxes, conversely, eludes that sort of easy analysis. It certainly sounds like a Thom Yorke record: the dour tone, the hop-skip rhythms, the layered drones and haunting (and haunted) vocals all make their way here in some form or another. Some critics (including me) considered Atoms For Peace’s record to essentially be Yorke’s follow-up to The Eraser, but Boxes really does feels more aligned with its predecessor. The difference is that Boxes showcases Yorke at his least song-oriented, which is both its greatest asset and its greatest liability. In the near-decade since The Eraser, Yorke has spent quite a lot of time in the electronic community, buddying up with Flying Lotus and Actress, calling on the likes of Four Tet and Mark Pritchard to remix Radiohead tracks, and all the while indulging his love of nimble rhythms with The King Of Limbs and Atoms For Peace. It follows, then, that he and producer/collaborator Nigel Godrich have become more versatile, confident DJs in the meantime. So confident, in fact, that Boxes plays as Yorke’s bid for credibility as a serious electronic artist.
Now, of course, electronics and all manner of synthesized effects have made up a great portion of Yorke’s music for over a decade, and he’s helped to cultivate an influential, distinct style of his own (so much so that “Radiohead-esque electronica” makes its way into reviews for other artists from time to time). Yet he also hasn’t made something like the nine-and-a-half minute house-n-glitch of “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” and “Pink Section,” which only feature his voice in chopped, intelligible snippets. (Unless I’m missing something, this is the longest stretch of any Yorke-related music to go instrumental on us.) And even on the more conventional tracks like “A Brain In A Bottle” and “Guess Again!,” he’s rarely eschewed conventional structure so readily throughout a whole record, letting it work entirely off the atmosphere. Much of it works. The music here, if not truly forward-thinking or unpredictable, is frequently attractive and well-crafted, finding a couple new wrinkles in his sound and, as always, using his voice as a counterpoint to the digital detritus that surrounds it. The piano pulse that underscores “The Mother Lode” is sleek and inventive; “Truth Ray”‘s quivering “Oh my God” refrain is surprisingly poignant, and the revelatory closer “Nose Grows Some” might be one Yorke’s most overtly gorgeous works ever.
The problem lies where Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes differs from The Eraser. This album may be more eclectic and sharply produced in some ways, but while the prettiness of the arrangements surface among repeated listens, there isn’t much else here to return to. Any of the intimacy and vitality of its predecessor is replaced by something that’s simply a great mood-setter, but not much more than that. Abstract and intermittently evocative it may be, Boxes doesn’t possess the originality or depth to get by without something more substantial to grab onto, which leaves it a finely sculpted, but not entirely compelling, curiosity. Weirdly, though not completely unsurprisingly, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes shares a similar vibe to Damon Albarn’s first solo record, Everyday Robots, released earlier in 2014—the aching melancholy, the reliance on elliptical structure, the looping tracks. And while both records have moments as beautiful as any of each artist’s best work, they also both feel like missed opportunities, precisely because they don’t dig deep enough to stick. The Eraser was a minor classic because it placed Yorke’s voice and songwriting in a more personal context. Here, we have what amounts to a master musician showing us what he’s been up to lately, and though there’s plenty here to marvel at, it feels more like the work of a hobbyist than an artist.
Aphex Twin – Syro
Richard D. James never quite disappeared after the release of Drukqs in 2001. He merely stepped backstage for the past decade or so, continuing to release some little-publicized music under pseudonyms and a handful of Analord EPs in the mid-2000s. But even if the last ten years was short on actual Aphex music, James’ presence could be felt all over. Aphex Twin, one of the singular and most influential electronic musicians of the last few decades, shirked the spotlight just as computers and production software became more accessible and inexpensive than ever before. Couple that with the advent of sharing platforms like MySpace, YouTube and SoundCloud over the years, and suddenly everyone was a DJ or a producer, many of whom digested the Aphex oeuvre as they grew up and used it as a touchstone in their own work. And while on the surface, it may seem like an odd notion to, say, compare the current EDM/post-dubstep scene to James’ catalog, it becomes more obvious when you think of how those DJs marry shards of noise to hooky melodies like AFX did or how someone like Skrillex frequently borrows James’ black humor and spooky sound bites à la “Come To Daddy.”
So how, in 2014, after years of imitation and several pop music generations long gone, would a new Aphex Twin album hold up? As it turns out, damn well. The beauty of Syro is how efficient it is, how it consolidates all of James’ strengths, touching on everything from rubbery funk to soothing ambience to slippery drum’n’bass, without losing his energetic inventiveness and his strong melodic sensibility. It winds up as his most accessible, welcoming record yet. Where Drukqs was expansive and messy, Syro covers just as much ground yet is tight and focused. If there’s any disappointment here, it’s that there’s not much here he hasn’t done before, but that’s so matter because even after years of acolytes, the Aphex style hasn’t lost its luster. In some ways, because technology has improved, it sounds better than ever, with the record grabbing on first listen and revealing intricate manipulations with each play. Lead single “minipops 67 [120.2] (source field mix)” kicks the record off with a virtual tour of Aphex’s many moods, while the slick centerpiece “XMAS_EVET10  [thanaton3 mix]” bubbles along on waves of humming tones, squelching synths, and even a few vocal snippets of James’ family. He’ll get loose and moody with the glitchy chiptune-meets-late-night-techno of “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] [syrobonkus mix],” and he’ll stop for moments of great beauty, like on the fragile piano piece “aisatsana ,” one of James’ simplest, prettiest tracks, that closes everything out. It’s a record that is successful not for having many distinct highlights or how it stakes out new territory. Instead, Syro excels by having a consistently gratifying vision that works just as well in the background as it does up close. The idea that James can return with an Aphex Twin record 13 years later, after pop music’s most prolific decade, let alone electronic’s, and still sound fresh only reaffirms his command of technique and songwriting. It may not be as head-spinning as Richard D. James Album or as masterful as Selected Ambient Works 85-92, but it’s a great record through and through and an easy choice as an entry point for the uninitiated.
Interpol – El Pintor
El Pintor may mean “the painter” in Spanish, frontman Paul Banks’ second language, but it’s also a scramble of “Interpol.” This would seem to signal that the band, now a trio, is ready to mix things up, perhaps taking a cue from the stylistic diversions that bubbled up on the fringes of their eponymous record. Instead, El Pintor reveals that in the past four years—the band’s longest gap between records—the band have lost their bassist but not their identity or sensibility, dwelling in the same seductive shadows they always have. Interpol are often criticized for their singular focus, for how they honed their sound on the brilliant Turn On The Bright Lights, turned up the tempo for Antics, and then haven’t touched the formula much since. (For all the griping about how they ripped off Joy Division in 2002, turns out they’ve got the last laugh: few bands then or now sound particularly like them, proving they were do something more distinctive than their detractors were willing to admit.) If the songwriting is strong, maintaining a style isn’t necessarily a problem. And more than anything, that’s why Our Love To Admire and Interpol are decent but uneven listens: They each offer a sprinkling of tracks that hint at greatness, illustrating that if Interpol just got out of their own way and wrote a great set of songs, they might reach another career peak.
El Pintor, on its outset, seems to promise that. It’s punchier; they’ve trimmed the fat that occasionally bloated their recent work, and at 39 minutes, it’s their shortest album yet. The slow-building, uptempo tracks here harken back to Antics, and with the title of “Breaker 1” deliberately referencing “Obstacle 1,” there’s the sense that Interpol are trying to get back in touch with their glory days, even with the loss of Carlos D. The opening gambit of “All The Rage Back Home” and “My Desire” starts things off promisingly too. The first is a fine example of a latter-day Interpol single, complete with Banks repeating a short phrase (this time it’s “I keep falling/maybe half the time”) as the track crescendos in a torrent of sinewy guitar lines, while “My Desire” relishes in the high drama and frustrated catharsis from Turn On The Bright Lights that’s been in short supply since. No, they never reach the heights of their best work here, yet if these songs are more “Take Me On A Cruise” than “PDA,” so be it. Interpol have always had their fair share of worthy deep cuts, and the rest of El Pintor follows the same pattern, feeling more like a solid, if not immediate, collection of B-sides. Some of those, like the insistent “Anywhere” and the thundering “Ancient Ways” feel comfortable and confident in the way that only a band that’s been working for this long can manage, not exactly fresh but still pretty damn exciting. Plus though the music is still markedly gloomy, Daniel Kessler’s sprightly, high-pitched riffs on tracks like “Same Town, New Story” and “My Blue Supreme” help the record come off a touch brighter, which is some sort of win too, I suppose, because it gives the record a distinctive flair among its predecessors. Again, there’s nothing here Interpol haven’t done before, but they haven’t done it this consistently well for ten years, so there’s a lot of silver lining, even if the highlights aren’t as high. If Interpol can no longer surprise, at least they can still satisfy on a small scale.
The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
There may not be a more aptly titled record this year. The New Pornographers, a supergroup that, let’s face it, more people probably know than the solo projects of its members, have always trafficked in contemporary renditions of classic pop. But with a title that doubles as a winking threat to the Brill Building, the New York hub of acclaimed ’50s and ’60s songwriters, Brill Bruisers announces itself Pornographers’ most conscious attempt at shirking the retro dressings they’ve played with in the past, even if many of the 13 songs here still begin-middle-and-end with the economy and structure of AM radio. This is still music that’s written then produced, bucking the modern trend that seems to favor the opposite. And make no mistake, this is an expansively produced album—recorded in multiple studios, full of overlapping vocals, splashes of keyboard arpeggios, horns, harmonicas and dissonance. In a world that champions records as huge, diverse and world-beating as Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it might sound downright quaint, but this is easily the Pornographers’ most contemporary and slick album to date. It also may be their most fun. (Coming after the relatively subdued Together, such a technicolor album is welcome.)
From the moment the title track crashes in with its overdriven guitar and candy-coated chants, bandleader A.C. Newman sets his sights on the rafters, and the rest of the record follows suit. “Dancehall Domine” and “Fantasy Fools” bubble with keyboard sequences before erupting in a fit of bubblegum harmonies; “Backstairs” and “Champions Of Red Wine” take some spacier detours, while “Hi-Rise” and “Wide Eyes” recall Wincing The Night Away-era Shins, and the tinny instrumentation on “Another Drug Deal Of The Heart” makes it feel like a discarded track off of Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. Though, as is par for the course for the Pornographers, the lyrics are only fitfully coherent, enough images of weaponry, unrest and violence are scattered about to give this record a uneasy feel that belies the hooks, harmonies and melodies they couch themselves in. That’s nowhere more clear than on Dan Bejar’s “War On The East Coast.” Freed from the late-night lounge of Destroyer’s Kaputt, Bejar creates a sublimely exciting piece of pop, propelling through a vaguely sci-fi/new-wave verse into a glorious hook and back again. Still, for an album as rock-solid and smartly produced as this, and even with the wartime imagery, it also doesn’t have the potency of the New Pornographers’ best music. There’s real craftsmanship to the songwriting here, much like the Spectors and Bacharachs of the Brill Building, but while it will sound great blasting in a car or at a summer party, there’s too little depth here, and it too often winds up leaves the listener cold. Put another way, it’s a record full of good, very catchy songs, yet it’s something that mostly inspires admiration instead of devotion. As apt as the album’s title may be, it’s ultimately ironic: Brill Bruisers doesn’t leave much of a mark.