Well, I know you all missed your fix of musical democracy last week, but fear not, because here’s a dose of voting to quell those shakes. A great lineup this week including new material from veterans Manic Street Preachers, Björk, Travis, and Dolores O’Riordan (formerly of the Cranberries) and a two-disc rarities compilation from the late Elliot Smith. There’s also promising material from newer bands like Maximo Park and The Clientele. And surely you kind, benevolent readers wouldn’t be so cruel as to force the new Bone Thugs-n-Harmony album on me? Not after I did Hillary Duff for you, right? Right?
(Side note: my [short, in honor of upcoming finals] review of the new Arctic Monkeys album is up. Also, since I’ve become entirely smitten with Charlotte Gainsbourg since my friend Ann turned me on to her, I’ll probably be putting up a short-ish review of her latest studio album, 5:55, which just arrived here in the US last Tuesday.)
But without further ado, here are your options for this weeks round of voting:
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Strength & Loyalty
Brakesbrakesbrakes, The Beatific Visions
The Clientele, God Save the Clientele
Electralane, No Shouts, No Calls
Manic Street Preachers, Send Away the Tigers
Maximo Park, Our Earthly Pleasures
Dolores O’Riordan, Are You Listening?
Elliott Smith, New Moon
Travis, The Boy With No Name
The View, Hats Off to the Buskers
Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Album: Your Favourite Worst Nightmare
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.4.24
The only three albums that really matter for a group are their debut album, their final album, and their sophomore album. And of those three, the most likely to be neglected by promising band is their second release. This has, in some cases, been known to make it their final album. This is precisely why I’m happy to hear that, after an impressive debut back in early 2006 with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Arctic Monkeys have stepped up and come out with an absolutely amazing sophomore effort. Your Favourite Worst Nightmare combines all the exuberance of Whatever People Say… with a newfound musical maturity to create one of the best rock albums of the past few years.
Your Favourite Worst Nightmare is packed full of a caliber of rock that would be unexpected in a band this young (none of them are older than 21). The songs are rhythmically complex and remarkably musically inventive, with driving bass lines, infectious guitar riffs, and some truly amazing drumming from the sticks of Matthew Helders. Of particular note, though, are the Sheffield-accented vocals of Alex Turner. The vocals greatly enhance the rhythmic style and quick wit heard on Whatever People Say… and display both Turner’s increasing vocal talent; he’s still no vocal divo but he’s deceptively talented singer, as attested by songs like “Do Me a Favour” and “505”.
One track of particular note on the album are “Only Ones Who Know”, which serves as fine evidence that Arctic Monkeys have, as a band, figured out that songs don’t have to be exuberantly energetic and can, in fact, be soft and down-tempo. It clearly show that the band’s inexperience with recording slower, more ballad-like material certainly doesn’t prove an impediment. “Only Ones Who Know” is lush, musing love song with one the sweetest single moments I’ve heard in a song in a long time, when Alex Turner croons “I hope you’re holding hands by New Year’s eve”.
The rest of the album is largely given over to classic Arctic Monkeys playful exuberence with tracks like the energetic, toungue-in-cheek single “Brianstorm” and the dancy, nostalgic “Flourescent Adolescent”. “The Bad Thing” is perhaps the grooviest song about infidelity I’ve ever heard, with heavily syncopated, swinging drums, a wicked, groovy baseline, and power chord guitars punctuated by wandering solos. The sinister, clever “Balaclava” is, with its dirty guitar hooks and effective use of effective breaks is a seriously energetic track that I, for one, have a hard time taking off repeat.
Arctic Monkeys are certainly a band to watch. If you enjoyed their first LP, than this is an album that you must grab. If you’ve never heard any Arctic Monkeys material before, but like energetic, lyrics-driven rock, then I would highly recommend this album (moreso even than their debut, as I think Favourite Worst Nightmare is the much more accessible record.) And with a brilliant second record out, the last major career hurdle the band has ahead of them is a last album. When it comes, I hope it’s every bit as brilliant as their first two, but I also hope to have quite a few more to look forward to between now and then.
Hello there, my loyal readers. Well, in the face of record low voter turn out (hank you Mike and Ann for voting and Josh for your generous attempt to donate your vote to me), we have a tie. (I’ve decided not to accept vote donations, and instead leave it largely up to the readership.) I DO, however, reserve for myself tie-breaking power. And since finals are coming up and I’ll no doubt be in need of some (hopefully excellent) rock to help me bash my way through them, I’m breaking the tie in favor of the new Arctic Monkeys record, Your Favourite Worst Nightmare. Having only heard the single off of it, I’m fully expecting largely similar to their debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which would be pretty welcome. If you’re interested in a taste, you can check out the music video for the single, “Brianstorm”.
Also, speaking of finals, I won’t be soliciting album votes this week since I’ll be taking blogging here light the next few weeks. You’ll get a (probably shortened) Tuesday Review next week, and then I’m going to try and arrange a guest reviewer (from someone who doesn’t have the nastiness of finals to contend with anymore) for the next Tuesday. They’ll be reviewing whatever album they deem fit, with an eye towards a great album that you probably missed.
Also, in case you missed it, my review of Nine Inch Nails’ latest, Year Zero, is up and ready ready for your perusal.
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Album: Year Zero
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.4.17
Breaking with his custom of leaving his fans hanging for a half decade between albums, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor only let his fans languish for two years between With Teeth and his latest release, Year Zero. The new album is an interesting addition to the Nine Inch Nails discography, if for no other reason than it’s the first real NIN concept album. What’s more, the new album comes at the head of a rich alternate world which has sprung up around it. Starting with data found on USB thumb drives left at Nine Inch Nails shows and supplemented with a wide variety of other clues (e.g. highlighted letters on tour shirts spelling out a URL, the album CD revealing a binary-encoded URL when it’s warmed up), Nine Inch Nails has strung along its fans with hints at and snapshots of the world behind Year Zero. It’s a pretty cool alternate reality and definitely a first in the music industry. And it’s paid off, Year Zero is selling amazingly well, “despite” (I would argue that it’s in part because of) the band streaming the whole album for free from their website and releasing .mp3s of the album on bittorrent sites. The album stream is available at the official Year Zero website, along with some other goodies. (If you have a few minutes, check out the music video for “Survivalism”; it’s disjointed, techno-paranoia at its finest.) For more about the Year Zero world, check out the NIN Wiki for a comprehensive examination of the world as it has unfolded so far. If you’re just looking for a taste, check out Another Version of the Truth (click and drag your cursor around on the image) or I Am Trying to Believe.
Year Zero tells the story of a dystopic America which has, in Trent Reznor’s words, “reached the breaking point – politically, spiritually and ecologically.” Reznor paints a dark, vivid picture of this world, with 16 tracks, each showing a different facet of the society. (And, while I often get annoyed at the casual conflation of a band with its lead, it really does make sense to talk about Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor interchangably. This new album especially can properly be said to be all Reznor. He eschewed a studio band and, while his touring band remains in tact, recorded the new album entirely on his own, with production and programming help from long-time collaborator Atticus Ross.)
At first listen, the perspectival focus of the album, with each song portraying a different view of Reznor’s dystopic future world, may sound a little inaccessible. But Reznor does an excellent job of masking the future world that he’s created around the album so that, while it’s certainly there for anyone who wants to listen for it, the songs themselves can also be taken at face value. When they are, the political commentary inherent in the project becomes even more apparent and lines like “no one’s even sure / what we’re fighting for / or who we even are / anymore” get cast in a much more direct light. So while the songs work perfectly in the realm of politically slanted fiction, if taken at face value the lyrics wind up being a bit on the blatant side.
But for as much as Year Zero is wrapped up in the mystique of the alternate world that’s sprung up around it, the album itself is worthy of individual attention. The hour-long LP, the sixth album to bear the Nine Inch Nails name, is a noisy, genre-spanning record with a lot of classic Nine Inch Nails sound wrapped around some decidedly new elements. And while no one will mistake the dark, fuzzy synths and tight drum loops for anything but Nine Inch Nails’ unique brand of industrial goodness, there are quite a few surprises on the album.
One such (pleasant) surprise for me was “The Good Soldier”, which combines industrial beats and distorted guitars with a rather unexpected level of pop sensibility. The dark lyrics (“gunfire in the street echoes out a beat”), when sung in Reznor’s characteristically stoic tenor, move effortlessly from even, repetitive verses to smooth, melodic choruses. They’re backed by instrumentation that similarly moves from harshly industrial, buzz-saw guitar hooks to light, keyboard-driven choruses that honestly wouldn’t sound too out of place in the Top 40.
Though for every song that delivers up a new twist on the Nine Inch Nails song, there are tracks that exude Reznor’s industrial background through-and-through. Take, for instance, “Meet Your Master.” This song would fit in well either with a lot of previous Nine Inch Nails material, most especially that off of the 2005 release, With Teeth. It’s vintage NIN, from the fuzzed-out, distorted guitar noise, to the pounding drum loops, to the occasional screeching guitar solo (hidden here behind a fairly persistent wall of noise), to the bridge with its scratchy, hooky guitar solo which is slowly built up with pounding drums and non-stop bass distortion before dropping away entirely to leave just bare drums to finish the song out.
One song that I really dig is the more conventionally rock-like “The Great Destroyer”. In it Reznor displays a firm grip of conventional rock memes, while still managing to parlay it into wonderfully delirious breakdown of noisy synth-and-drum near-nonsense. I was especially pleased (and slightly amused) to hear Reznor let loose with a high, Jon Anderson-esque vocal break right before the whole song devolves into chaos. It sounds amazingly out of place (it’s more like something from Yes’ Close to the Edge than any Nine Inch Nails album), but somehow still manages to work, after a fashion.
The last track, “Zero-Sum”, is another brilliant track that I would have ever expected to find on a Nine Inch Nails album. And while I have a hard time placing my finger on why, exactly, it’s unexpected, I think it has to have something to do with the raw humanity it displays. From the man who brought us songs like “Closer” and “Head Like a Hole” it’s unexpected to hear such emotional honesty, both in the lyrics and their delivery. From the whispered verses (“and I guess I just wanted to mention / . . . / We will be together soon if we / will be anything at all”) to the simple vocal melody and penitential lyrics of the chorus (“Shame on us / doomed from the start / may God have mercy / on our dirty little hearts.”) This is, perhaps, the closest we’ve come to hearing something truly human from Reznor since “Hurt” off of The Downward Spiral (1994).
This album is particularly interesting because it shows a lot of development on the part of Trent Reznor. While Reznor is, undeniably, a talented songwriter and producer, his talents have traditionally been fairly confined to a certain sector of musical spectrum which is focussed right around the goth and industrial area occupied by his first few albums. This is the first album, as far as I can tell, to have any real breaks from that genre and, while they are limited and mixed heavily with Reznor’s classic themes, they’re almost all well done. (I say almost all because I’m still rather amused at Reznor’s rather random bit of vocal over-exuberance at the end of “The Great Destroyer”).
I certainly find it refreshing, however, to hear the man who really gave the world industrial music as a genre mixing it with other musical ideas and themes. It’s especially nice to hear him doing it so successfully. And while there are some rough seams between the noise and the melody and between the old Reznor and the new, I’m definitely a fan of the album and I definitely hope that it’s the start of a trend of a diversifying Nine Inch Nails sound and some more of this kind of experimentation from Reznor.
So I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about how I rate albums and about how I should tag my posts. First off, album ratings. The way I usually do album ratings is based mainly on my interest and enjoyment of the album. I’m a sucker for clever as well as for interesting and unique, so I’ll tend to rate albums that play to those higher than albums that don’t. I also tend to put a lot of weight into actual musical competence or skill, with the result that an album with great music but poor lyrics will usually come out better rated than an album with poor music but great lyrics.
Also, on a ten-point scale, I tend to 5-orient my ratings so that an album that neither impresses or pleases me nor actively annoys me will probably get a five. That being said, I’m pretty easily annoyed by albums that don’t have anything positive going for them. From past experience, I expect that most of my ratings will be in the 5 – 7 range. Most albums that get released these days aren’t actively bad, but a lot of them aren’t all that good either.
I think I tend to rate EPs higher than full-length albums, mainly because it’s easier to put together 20 – 25 minutes of good music than it is to put together a full hour. Also, my standards for the coherence and flow of EPs are a lot more lax than for LPs. I’m a big believer in the idea than album should, in some sense, work as a whole, while shorter compilations (EPs and singles discs) are largely spared that expectation.
I’m actually really interested to see how my scoring of various artists and genres shapes up. I’m honestly entirely skeptical about the “scoring” idea of albums, but I fully plan to do it anyway, if for no other reason than to see how much scoring habits change, what they wind up looking like across genres, etc. I highly encourage readers to pay less attention to the scores, really, and much more to the reviews themselves which, I hope, will be of more help and interest.
The other order of business is I’m still trying to work out some useful tagging best practices. I want the tagging system to be helpful for people looking for posts on a certain topic. I’d also, however, kind of like it to be useful not only in tracking bands, but also in tracking labels and band personnel. To that end, I’m considering including tags for every member of a band in every post which is about that band itself or a review of that album. Tangential mentions of a person’s name or of a band will get the post tagged with that name or that band name. Mentions of record labels will do the same.
The problem with this kind of tagging is that I can easily see it getting kind of out of hand. Personally, I’d also be interested in tracking names of producers, recording studios, etc. But that would probably wind up making for a very noisy tagging system which wouldn’t really be of much help or interest to anyone.
Anyway, just a few thoughts on the operation. Any thoughts/comments/questions? I’d be very interested in reader input, especially on the tagging issue. Do you think you, as a reader, will ever use the tags? (E.g. to locate posts about a certain band or about a certain person or band that the person’s been in?) How much tagging do you want? Would you prefer I err on the side of too many tags or too few? Are you interested in musicians, record labels, genre tags? I crave your input.
I snagged the new Grinderman album a few weeks ago and I have to be honest: I really don’t know what to think of it. It sounds like Nick Cave and his former Bad Seeds are trying to go all Tom Waits / coked-out blues-rock on us in his old age. The album is packed full of a dark, bluesy enthusiasm that marks a pretty significant change from earlier Nick Cave material.
I must say that I’m gratified to see that Grinderman’s lineup consists entirely of former Bad Seeds members. (In fact, it turns out that it’s just the latest iteration of Nick Cave’s solo quartet, renamed.) Nick Cave has the great ability of attracting and keeping them. (Taking notes, Mr. Trent Reznor? Mr. Fagan, Mr. Becker?) And the result of these long-time collaborators getting back in the studio is an extremely raw record of messy blues-rock.
The album is full of rough, energetic melodies (which are relatively hookless, instead tending towards a less patterned sound most of the time, giving several of the tracks a thoroughly improvised sound) and joyously noisy, clattering percussion. Cave’s vocals are in top form, comfortably alternating between moaning and fire-and-brimstone preaching through his oft-clever lyrics.
And with all that being said, I’m having a hard time figuring out why it is that I’m just not interested in the album. I mean, it has all the right elements: musically interesting, lyrically well-crafted and often clever (I’m a sucker for clever), and just generally a disc full of darkly energetic blues-rock. And yet I just can’t seem to get into it. It’s good, certainly, and it’s even the kind of thing that normally I’d be all over. But for some reason it just doesn’t do it for me. I’d much rather listen to some Tom Waits or some old Bad Seeds-era material. Who knows, though, maybe the album will grow on me the more I listen to it.
If raw, bluesy, dark, or noisy are your thing at all, then Grinderman might be an album to grab. They’ve got a couple songs streaming for your listening pleasure over at their myspace, so you can listen before you buy. I particularly recommend “Love Bomb”.
Well, once again Democracy has spoken and it has decreed that I’ll be reviewing Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero for next Tuesday. Which is advantageous, since, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Reznor and associates, you can listen to the album for free online. (Just click on “Listen to Year Zero” in the upper right-hand corner.) You can also check out the video for the single, “Survivalism.”
Also, for those of you clamoring to read my review of the new Bright Eyes album, it can be found here, or simply by scrolling down to the next post.
And now, without further ado, your voting options for next week:
Arctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare
All Smiles, Ten Readings of a Warning
Bill Callahan, Woke on a Whaleheart
Dntel, Dumb Luck
Charlotte Gainsburg, 5:55
The Go Find, Stars on the Wall
The Nightwatchman, One Man Revolution
Patti Smith, Twelve
Avey Tare & Kira Brekkan, Pullhair Rubeye
Three More Shallows, Book of Bad Breaks
Artist: Bright Eyes
Label: Saddle Creek Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.4.10
Cassadaga is a fairly significant turn for Bright Eyes in several ways. It marks a distinctive shift in the group’s sound (comparable in scope to that heard on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) towards the Country / Western / Alt Country area of the musical spectra. And for lyricist / songwriter Conor Oberst, it displays a level of political and social awareness not present in previous efforts. And like all new paths, this one starts out with some noticeable rough spots. The political commentary is occasionally shallow or reductionist, the country twang is occasionally done up a little too much, the intense self-reflection and self-reference (hallmarks of most of Bright Eyes’ work) occasionally takes a turn for the decidedly pretentious.
The net result, however, is a moving, often charming, and intensely personal look at the world. The tone of the album is at turns introspective, narrative, and observational, giving a sense (present in a great deal of the rest of Bright Eyes’ corpus) that the band really is a mouthpiece for Oberst’s view of the world. And while how autobiographical the album is remains an open question, it certainly has a biographical feel to it. This intensely personal tone (as well as several of the lyrical and musical themes of the album) is set early with the single, “Four Winds.” This rocking, alt-country track serves as a far more fitting opening to the album than the plodding, introspective, “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed).” “Four Winds” manages to neatly wrap most of the important facets of the album in one track, which makes it the ideal single. Religious and social commentary (“The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Koran is mute”) mix with personal reflection and a recurring theme of wandering and a search for truth. And with a intensely rhythmic, heavily country-influenced sound, the song also gives the listener a musical sense of what to expect in the rest of the album.
And what the listener has to look forward to is largely positive and quite varied for the extent to which it fits into the orchestral Country feel to which the band commits. This is hardly a surprise given the diverse cast of talented musicians Oberst has managed to collect. Notables include M. Ward, Gillian Welsh (along with long-time associate, guitarist David Rawlings), Ben Kweller, Jason Boesel (of Rilo Kiley fame), and Janet Weiss (formerly of Sleater Kinney). The result of this collaboration is a rich musical complexity that not only makes for a pleasant, interesting listening experience, but means that Cassadaga rewards repeat listening with the kind of depth that always turns up new musical tidbits.
One track which epitomizes this musical depth is the deceptively simple-sounding “Classic Cars.” At first, this introspective character sketch sounds to be a fairly typical and unnoteworthy alt-country combination of vocal-driven melodies supported by guitar-heavy harmonies. But beyond Jason Boesel’s varied, interesting, and almost-unpatterned drumming and the excellent guitar lines laid down by Mike Mogis and David Rawlings, there’s some excellent piano work (courtesy of Nate Walcott) and Gillian Welsh’s smooth, unwavering alto singing backup. The net effect is a rich, interesting track that begs to be put on repeat.
But the boons brought by this impressive musical cast aren’t limited to one or two tracks, but rather heard all over the album. The dark, orchestrally percussive “Middleman” features catchy, bluegrass-inspired guitar hooks and some incredibly groovy work by a sizeable percussion section. “No One Would Riot for Less” builds slowly from a simple accoustic guitar melody (which would sound right at home on any of Bright Eyes’ early albums) to a cathartic major turn accompanied by orchestral harmonies, organ, and lap steel guitar. The wonderfully-named “Soul Singer in the Session Band” features superb vocal and guitar work from bluesman M. Ward in support of Oberst’s lyrical, moaning voice.
Lyrically speaking, this album is paradoxically both one of the most self-referential and yet most socially aware Bright Eyes album to date. While most of the songs are couched in an autobiographical mood, Oberst finds time to take jabs at the political and social structures. And while I’m always skeptical of such commentary in music (it’s easy to do, but incredibly hard to do well), Oberst does manage it without too much melodrama or pretension. Admittedly, there are some cringe-worthy lines, but I can forgive a contrived reference to “democracy’s shackled hands” in light of the more subtle (“Get your revolution at a lower price”) and better developed (the social and religious jabs in “Four Winds”).
When one comes right down to it, the album is kind of a “one for the fans” affair. For all its new Country trappings, Bright Eyes is much the same as it’s always been: a group of talented musicians serving largely as a mouthpiece for frontman Conor Oberst. There are a lot of musical bits of stylistic nostalgia harkening back to previous albums (“Coat Check Dream Song” is syncopated and synth-y enough that it could easily have been a Digital Ash in a Digital Urn b-side) and many of Oberst’s favorite lyrical memes crop up throughout. As a result, if you like Bright Eyes, you’re probably going to dig Cassadaga. If, on the other hand, Conor Oberst and his troupe rub you the wrong way, then the occasional pretension and consistent self-reference will probably get old pretty quickly. That being said, this album is far more interesting from a strictly musical point of view than previous Bright Eyes releases. The scoring and song-writing is more complex and the resulting sound is rich and engaging, with the kind of depth that is likely to keep listeners coming back for more.
One reason why Metacritic.com is frustrating is because it’s a great idea, in theory, but their methodology of reducing a composite of reviews to a single score is a bit simplistic. All the ways in which it is simplistic is a rant for another day. I really only mention that so that I have a way to explain why the metacritic scores for the latest Hilary Duff album and the latest Bright Eyes album are, as of right now, equal, with both albums scoring a tepid 73. Can it really be that the music review community thinks that Dignity and Cassadaga are really works of similar merit? And what’s worse, the user reviews have Hilary Duff rated much better than Bright Eyes. I’m prepared to turn my artistic elitism up to 11 on that score and just say the users are idiots, but it does raise the interesting question of what, exactly, is a person doing when they qualitatively evaluate a piece of art like an album?
Of course the easy response to this is simply that taste is everything and, perhaps, I’m deceiving myself if I think that there’s any real, objective, qualitative difference between the two albums. But can’t an album as devoid of musical or lyrical content as Dignity be said to be actually inferior to a rich, engaging, musically interesting album like Cassadaga? Or are any comparisons we make simple subjective expressions of taste? I mean, if the latter is the case and no one really can make qualitative artistic judgements, then what’s the point of reviews in the first place?
Or perhaps there’s a more subtle, compatibalist argument to made: that the quality of an artistic work can be assessed in an intersubjective fashion, with people assessing it based not on strictly personal, but rather on cultural, social, traditional or some other grounds. It’s subjective in the sense that it’s not some sort of empirical, strong-evaluative measurement or judgment, but it’s also not simply a radical, “I-think-this-is-good-and-no-one-else-can-tell-me-otherwise” subjectivity. To take a Gadamerian line, maybe what I’m doing when I review music is saying neither “this is an album of a certain quality” or “I liked found this album pleasing to a certain degree” but rather “here’s how I found this album to relate to my sense of the tradition”?
Anyway, I’m still miffed that Duff and Bright Eyes are getting the same kind of mixed reviews over all. Also, in other news, the M. Phil program I’m in is apparently turning me into a full on Philosophy dork.
I grabbed a copy of Wincing the Night Away, the latest album from indie folk-pop band the Shins, a few weeks ago, but I really didn’t get much of a chance to listen to it until just the past week or so. I’m totally smitten. It’s everything I liked about Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, but with a clearer lyrical focus, a more polished sound, and a much greater sense of musical maturity. James Mercer’s songwriting is in top form, delivering his uniquely surreal still-lives, and the melodic trifecta of Mercer, Martin Crandall, and Dave Hernandez delivers some of the catchiest damn melodic hooks I’ve heard in a long time. Add to all that the fact that I’ve always had a music-crush on the simple, folky, understated drumming of Jesse Sandoval and it’s an album that’s managed to dig into my brain and put down some serious roots. Seriously, to continue an ill-conceived metaphor, I think it’s building some sort of nest in there. In other words, it’s really quite catchy.
If you’re a Shins fan who doesn’t have it yet, then, well, what are you waiting for? Get thyself to a record store. Or, you know, grab it from Amazon. For everyone else: you should all seriously consider grabbing a copy. If you like folk-influenced pop-rock, have an affection for the surreal or the imagistic, or just enjoy melodically and lyrical interesting music, it’s well worth the purchase.
Video for the first single off the album, “Phantom Limb”