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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Strokes - 'Angles'

RCA; 2011
Our Take - 9.2

I've always wondered if there is any merit or justification in reviewing or rating an album by its play count on my Itunes.  In 2010, in the case of my two favorite albums-- Spoon's Transference and LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening-- there seemed to be a direct correlation.  I listened to those two albums much more often than any other albums in my discography and they also happened to be the two albums I rated the highest that year.  The opposite is sometimes true-- still looking at 2010, one album I rated exceptionally high was Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me.  Unlike the other two, I listened to this album through and through but have largely left it alone since my initial excitement with the album (I should really give it another spin, it's great). 

Why this is important to think about for this review of The Strokes first full-length in 5 years, Angles, is that I have listened to Angles front to back at least twice as many times as any other album released this year, and I have also given the record a higher rating than any other album to this point.  This probably has a lot to do with how excited I was for this album after such a lengthy span of time without any new Strokes material, but I think it also has a lot to do with how good the individual songs are on the record.  

By now, many people have heard about the tremendous difficulties the band had putting together the album-- "This band is like a house of cards — when one thing falls, the whole thing collapses," says guitarist Nick Valensi, "It's just typical rock-band bullshit — the clich├ęs that keep a group of people who have something special from wanting to continue it."  I'm not going to elaborate too much (well, we'll see) on the discrepancies and difficulties The Strokes had with putting together Angles-- Valensi says it best when he simply states , "It's just typical rock-band bullshit."  But many, including the band themselves had gotten increasingly pessimistic about ever re-forming.  In November 2009 frontman and primary songwriter Julian Casablancas is on the record saying, "We've been trying to do it for years, I'm always available and they know that but getting together is tough."  If that isn't non-committal enough, Valensi, who often has appeared to be the last remaining strand holding the band together said around the same time, "I'm not even sure we're going to make a fourth album at this point."

Too add to the difficulty in putting together the album there are several other factors that need to be taken into consideration-- the scrapped sessions with producer Joe Chiccarelli (closer "Life Is Simple In the Moonlight" is the only remaining track from those sessions, the multi-angled songwriting approach (Casablancas, the primary songwriter of the group, called the new approach "Operation Make Everyone Satisfied."), and the lack of everyone able to be in the studio together-- Casablancas in fact wasn't even really a part of the recording process, he sent all of his vocals through electronic files to the rest of the group

Despite the apparent difficulties in recording, we're left with Angles, a series of ten tracks that are all individually solid (great) tracks from one of the last remaining true "rock" bands.  The band stressed again and again how the album is called Angles because of the varying influences on the record and the scattered songwriting credits, and for that reason I can forgive the band for giving us a record that lacks cohesion.  What is clear with this record is that The Strokes are back, and while not being as groundbreaking of a record as 2000's Is This It? we again see a band gelling and excited about making new music (the rumor mill says that they are already writing and recording new material).  

We get return to form tracks like, "Gratisfaction," and first single, "Under Cover of Darkness," but we also see a band stretching, breaking out of their comfort zone with fantastic takes like, "You're So Right", "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight" and album opener, "Machu Picchu."  With "You're So Right," we get harmonies, something almost unheard of in a typical Strokes record, the track even sounds remotely Radioheadesque, a comparison I never thought I would make, "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight," is almost flawless, and displays Casablancas' strongest and most self-reflective lyrics to date, and "Machu Picchu," contains guitar blips that sound like synths and a tight almost reggae or hip-hop groove that underlines the track. Perhaps the most successful cut on the record is "Taken for a Fool."  Here we see The Strokes at their best (funkiest?), it contains the essential and unmistakable Strokes sound while sounding nothing like they have done up to this point.  The pre-chorus has been stuck in my head since the albums release and won't be leaving anytime soon. 

Each individual track on the record gives us a different dynamic look at the band, even if they wear their influences on their sleeves (The Velvet Underground, Television).  Still, it would be hard to ever mistake a Strokes song for a song by any other artist or group.  There is something about the band that sticks with the listener, and for that reason I'm sure by the end of the year and even in years to come-- that I won't forget about Angles, or The Strokes for that matter.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Radiohead - 'The King of Limbs'

XL/TBD; 2011
Our Take - 7.8

Expectations are always high for a Radiohead LP, and rightfully so.  Simply put they are one of the worlds best, most challenging, and most influential bands.  Since forming in 1985, the band has never really given the world a dud.

I wanted to avoid in this review talking about some of the things that are often discussed with the release of a new Radiohead album-- the way in which it was released, and the comparisons to their previous albums and the stigma that comes with it (OK Computer, Kid A, The Bends).  What I found is that although I wanted to avoid these things that they are almost impossible to avoid, especially comparisons to their previous albums.
The King of Limbs is a good--perhaps even great album.  I will willingly admit that like some of their other work I think it will continue to grow on me with time.  That being said it is by no means their best work.   I've created a hypothetical situation that has helped me think about the album as a standalone work: I imagine how I would rate the review if The King of Limbs if it was a debut from a 2011 buzz band.  If it was I think it would receive unanimously positive, maybe even perfect reviews.  Digression aside, it brings to the surface a valid point-- it is almost impossible not to judge The King of Limbs without discussing some of Radiohead's other now classic albums.  Again, simply put, it just isn't as good.  This fact while incredibly clear, further defines Radiohead as one of the best bands in the world.  Even their average albums are heads above most of of the material that most bands will put out in their entire careers.

With The King of Limbs we are given Radiohead's shortest album to date.  At 37 minutes, it almost feels to be finished before it starts.  The album is 8 songs long and essentially divided into two parts.  In the first four songs the band seems to be challenging the idea of what a song is.  The idea of verse-chorus-verse is largely forgotten in the first half in favor of complex sonics and tricky engineering.  The second, and my favorite half gives way to more traditional songs.  Standout and closer "Separator" leaves us hanging, "If you think this is over, then you're wrong," hinting that this band won't be done putting out great music anytime soon.

My biggest complaint about the album is that it almost feels like a Thom Yorke solo album.  "Morning Mr. Magpie" was played by Thom acoustically in the past and "Lotus Flower" was played with Thom's solo side project Atoms for Peace.  Also, I see this as an album that Thom probably could have made himself.  Ed O'Brien is almost indistinguishable on the album, Colin Greenwood can be heard, but we know Thom has played bass in the past, and Johnny Greenwood can be heard at points but even he seems to be a part of the background.

Overall, this isn't the best or most adventurous album that Radiohead has made but it is one of the better albums put out so far this year.  We hear Radiohead as a mature group, one that has finally been able to relax, and it shows with The King of Limbs. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bright Eyes - 'The People's Key'

Saddle Creek; 2011
Our Take - 8.5

When I was a junior in highschool I dated a girl that listened to to music that I didn't even know existed; music by artists such as Elliott Smith, Rocky Votolato, Nick Drake and Bright Eyes to name a few.  I remember at the time thinking that most of them seemed overly sensitive, whiny even, with nothing really to talk about except themselves.  Without wanting to delve too deep into my flawed psyche at the time, Bright Eyes for me became the figurehead and my major argument against her "style" of music.  Upon reflection, this is probably because of how easy it is to focus on the persona of Conor O'berst-- Bright Eyes' ringleader.  His black hair always swept just-so over one eye, the line-toeing emoisms, reflective poetics, and that unmistakable yelp of a voice.  My opinions shifted quickly about many of the artists she loved but none so more than with Bright Eyes.  Her and I are long done, but I've carried Bright Eyes with me ever since.  

There has been so much written about Bright Eyes and probably more about O'berst.  In Bright Eyes' latest and last album, The People's Key, O'berst says it best, "It's been said we're post-everything," and it is true.  Whether we're talking about O'berst as a rustic soul singer, indie messiah, baby-faced hipster heartthrob, New Dylan, or any other number of descriptions that have found their way to print, one thing is certain: he manages to do it all.  

It has been four years since Cassadaga and O'berst has spent much of his time since couch-surfing across North America attempting to find himself.  After a couple of solo releases and a stint with the super group Monsters of Folk, O'berst returns to the Bright Eyes moniker with The People's Key-- a critically divisive return to form (Pitchfork 5.0 and NME 9 out of 10).  

It is hard to talk about the music on the album without comparing it to other Bright Eyes albums.  Consistency is what I think of often when thinking about the band, especially in terms of the approach.  With The People's Key, we get more of the same, a cohesive theme introduced in the introduction and joined to the first track, a clear vision, and a unique style.  This album continues to explore some of the same mysticism of Cassadaga but elaborates on this concept with the addition of Rastafarian philosophy and cosmic musings.  

Thematics aside, musically the album is great, but so are all (most?) Bright Eyes albums, so where does The People's Key fit in?  It takes a poppier, more electronic shift; this is evident in songs like "One for You, One for Me," and "Shell Games," arguably Bright Eyes poppiest song to date.  Opener "Firewall" is striking-- finger-picked Americana that builds and builds to catharsis with a distant pedal steel guitar, 80's synths, and pounding drums with accented snare work.

But it is in "Ladder Song" when the listener really starts to reflect on why they are fans.  Heartbreakingly simple, the song is contained to just O'berst and a piano. It is painfully close, real and reflective of all of the work Bright Eyes has done to this point.  It almost seems to signal the end of an era and it demonstrates just how much the band and Conor have evolved while maintaining a quintessential Bright Eyes sound.  As a listener, I have changed much over the years, but I know I'll always love Bright Eyes for the same reasons.