Jun 122008

Portishead, Third

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Artist: Portishead

Album: Third

Label:

Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.4.29

Score: 9/10

After a hiatus of more than a decade, British trip-hop combo Portishead have finally realeased their third studio album.  The appropriately-named Third picks up where their eponymous sophomore album left off.  And while the band won’t be winning any points for titular originality, they certainly make up for their lake of creative nomenclature with an excellent disc which turns out to be worth the wait.

Right from the off, Portishead get right back to craft the same dark, groovy tunes with the album opener “Silence.”  To say that “Silence” is recorded or performed feels off the mark.  Rather, the song is constructed.  Its meticulously layered drums and strings combined with the relentless, repetitive guitar lines give interweave meticulously and the end result is positively infectious.  By the time they drop away to reveal Beth Gibbons’ trilling vocals, the trip-hop tapestry that the band has created has entirely sucked in the listener.

Portishead also take some detours into near-ambience to show that they are still perfectly capable of creating lush, dark soundscapes.  The last track on the album, “Threads”, is a sorrowful, meditative tune which grows from a simple bass-heavy intro into a polyphony overlapping voices, instrumentation, and effects.  It then fades away into a series mournful, rumbling, scooping noises which remind me of an alpenhorn played through an overdriven amp.

One track that was a complete surprise for me was “Deep Waters”.  I was so taken aback when I first heard it that I had to double check my playlist to make sure that I hadn’t accidently added some strange M. Ward cover.  The brief, twangy folk tune is so unlike Portishead that it’s almost jarring.  And yet it’s simple, sincere and utterly gorgeous.

Which makes the immediate transition from jangly strings and vocal harmonies to the glowering industrial beats of “Machine Gun” just that much more jarring.  It’s a little like M. Ward opening for Nine Inch Nails; they’re both great bands, but the switch from one to the other takes one hell of a musical clutch.

As a whole, the album is Portishead through and through.  So little has changed that it sounds as if the span between Portishead and Third might as well have been 10 months as 10 years.  The melodies are simple and brooding.  The percussion and beats are at turns extremely groovy and tastefully understated.  The samples and effects, while occasionally a bit cumbersome, are usually put to good effect.

In short, if Portishead fans don’t already have this album, then they absolutely need to get it.  Anyone who appreciates the so-called “Bristol Sound” or dark, brooding music which wears its electronica influences on its sleeve, then Third is a must-have.  For everyone else, it’s definitely worth a try.  If you’re the shop-by-song sort of person (which increasingly many people are these days, though that’s a rant/essay for another day), then start with “Silence” and “Hunter”.  These two opening tracks give a pretty good introduction to both the up-tempo, danceable and the more introspective, shoe-gazing portions of the album, respectively.   Whatever your inclination towards Portishead, one thing is for sure: despite their decade-long absence from their musical scene, they are still very much on top of their game.

Jun 052008

Artist: The Flight of the Conchords

Album: The Flight of the Conchords

Label: Sub Pop

Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.4.22

Score: 7/10

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A couple of guys from New Zealand pick up some guitars and . . . oh, so you’ve heard the album. Which is a bit of a problem, because once you’ve heard it once or twice, the punch lines really lose their impact. Really it’s the problem with a lot of humor-focused music: Weird Al Yankovich Syndrome. The songs are hilarious the first time, grin-inducing the second, and can be considered good if they don’t elicit eye rolling by the third or fourth time you hear them.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the problem with the debut album from comedy music duo Flight of the Conchords. While this collection of goofy humor and campy genre-parodies is certainly well-done and, at times, hilarious, it gets old quickly. Once you’ve heard all the punchlines, innuendos, and quips, the album loses its luster.

Which isn’t to say that they do their schtick poorly. Quite to the contrary, they’ve got some hilarious tunes and some clever lyrics. (E. g. “you’ve lost perspective like a painting by Escher” or my personal favorite “Do they smoke grass out in space, or do they smoke astro-turf?”) The song-writing duo obviously know how to quip. Unfortunately the occasion bon mot does not a great album make. It certainly helps, but without much else to recommend it, it’s hard to justify listening through the noise to get to the few clever bits.

In stark contrast with the moments of lyrical brilliance, are the times when, having seemingly run out of ideas, the duo simply fills in with non-sequitors, gibberish, and extremely strained end-rhymes. But because it’s a faux-sincere genre parody, it’s meant to be ironic, rather than just artistically lazy. One example of this is the random, entirely non-sensical refernce to a dead budgie in “Leggy Blonde” or the majority of the song “Boom”. (Though, to be fair, “Boom” does have on of the most wry-smile-inducing lines on the album: “She’s so hot, she’s making me sexist. Bitch.”)

One thing which poses a problem for the album musically is that many of the songs are genre parodies. Genre parodies have to be cliched enough that they’re instantly recognizable. This means that, after the lyrics have worn thin, the music isn’t enough to draw the listener back in. Once the overly-sincere social commentary of “Think About It” fades into triteness, the boogie rhythms and synth lines aren’t enough to keep one coming back because we’ve all heard those melodies (or extremely similar ones) before. Once the novelty of Clement and McKenzie riffing on David Bowie in “Bowie in Space” wears off, all you’re really left with is a medley of Bowie parodies and a couple of references to the old glam rocker’s nipples.

The debut from Flight of the Conchords is sharp, clever, and downright hilarious. Unfortunately, once you’ve heard all the punchlines, there isn’t much reason to hit play again. Fortunately, with cheap downloads of the album available via Amazon.com, one needn’t lay down too much cash for an amusing 40 minutes of musical comedy material.

Apr 242008

Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Album: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Label: Mute Reviews

Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.4.8

Score: 10/10

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, the fourteenth studio album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is proof positive that the venerable group is as powerful and talented now as they’ve ever been. The album ties together the dark narrative style of Cave’s lyrics with mythic themes with dark, dirty melodies and complex, evocative arrangements to create a grimly beautiful package. It packs a surreal, visceral punch while still being exceptionally listenable and aesthetically engaging.

One interesting aspect of the album is that it covers the whole breadth of the band’s various styles. While songs like “More News From Nowhere” or “Moonland” walk a fine line between abstract impressionism and absurdity. Others, like the funky “Today’s Lesson” capitalize on Cave’s ability as a storyteller to deliver powerful narratives with strongly mythic overtones. Still others, like “We Call Upon the Author” display a glibly literate sensibility.

As always, however, Cave is at his strongest when he’s spinning apologues. Cave’s ability to create and relay fables is, at times, stunning. One excellent example of this is the title and lead track (and first single off the album), “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”. This groovy retelling of the Lazarus (called Larry) myth looks at it from Lazarus’ point of view. He shows a crazed Lazarus self-destructing and ending up back in the grave. As Cave astutely points out Lazarus “never asked to be raised up from the tomb.” As Lazarus is entreated in the chorus to “dig [himself] back in the hole”, the song portrays a man who doesn’t actually want to be saved and asks the question “what do we really know of the dead and who actually cares?”

The album also has several less narrative, more imagistic songs. The hollow-sounding, muted “Night of the Lotus Eaters”, for instance, is a psychedelic portrait of heroin use (a topic with which Nick Cave has some experience). The lyrics hint punningly at drug abuse (“Get ready to shoot yourself / Grab your sap and your heater”) while painting a fatalistic picture of the “night of the lotus eaters”. The dark bass hook which melodically underpins the entire song sets a dark, vaguely exotic mood, while harmonies and percussion parts flesh out the surreal, almost apocalyptic sound.

While the album is, like most Bad Seeds albums, extremely lyrically-driven, the instrumental work is also quite extraordinary. The compositions are intricate and engaging, without losing anything in the way of casual listening. Martyn Casey’s bass work is infectiously hooky where it’s prominent (“Jesus on the Moon” and “Today’s Lesson”) and solidly supportive where it’s not (“More News From Nowhere”). Mick Harvey’s guitar work is superb throughout the album. The percussion work is solid and groovy.

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a perfect display of what a group talented, passionate, experienced musicians can do. It’s at turns chilling, grin-inducing, and thought-provoking, and it’s a great listen throughout. For me, it was a welcome change from the decidedly hit-or-miss Grinderman album that Cave put out last year. It’s highly recommended both for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fans and those who might like dark, groovy, lyric-driven rock. Put simply, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a smart, fun album that proves not only the Nick Cave and Co. can rock, but that they’re still capable of producing truly brilliant material.

Apr 032008

Yael Naim, Yael Naim

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Artist: Yael Naim

Album: Yael Naim

Label: Atlantic Records

Release Date: 2008.3.18

Score: 9/10

Israeli singer-songwriter Yael Naim’s self-titled major label debut is a refreshingly original and well-crafted album, which, I have to confess, I wasn’t really expecting.  As the saying goes (or ought to): “never just a disc by its single.”  Whereas the history-making (the first song by an Israeli artist to make it into the American charts) single “New Soul” is a well-crafted, bouncy, piano-driven pop tune, the album is fairly wide-ranging.  Aside from the three languages in which Ms. Naim sings with apparent fluency, the album draws obvious musical influences from folk, jazz, and modern pop (just to name a few) and blends them into something truly original.

The album evokes something of the earnest jazziness of the Antifolk movement.  Songs like the bluesy, exotic “Shelcha” remind me a bit of Regina Spektor’s more recent efforts.  Its dark, mournful sound (to which Naim’s lilting vocals are unexpectedly well-suited) is served well by understated melodies carried in the piano and guitar and relaxed, brush-heavy drums.  Combine this with the foreign (to me) cadence of the Hebrew in which half the song is sung, and it makes for a listening experience that is as interesting as it is enchanting.

Another song that grabbed me is the waltz-time album opener “Paris”.  Once again, part of my interest is probably do the radically unfamiliar cadences of the Hebrew lyrics.  But even beyond that, Naim’s husky voice and the simple, waltzing guitar backing creates a beautiful, almost wistful sound.

As a sidenote, why do so many people cover bad songs?  Some songs just plain suck.  Hackneyed lyrics, lame melodies, weak harmonies, etc.  There’s only so much you can do with such a song without turning it into, essentially, a whole different song.  Britney Spears’ song “Toxic” is one such.  The lyrics are melodramatic and stilted (they’re good compared to some of Spears’ other work, but that’s not saying much), the melody is uninteresting, and the harmonies and backing parts on the original are almost painfully bad at times.

So why did Yael Naim, an artist with some obvious vocal and songwriting talent, cover it on her album?  There’s only so much even the most skilled artist can do with such a carp tune and, to her credit, Naim dresses it up in her dark, husky voice as best she can.  Slowing the tune down and adding slow, snare-laden drums behind it was a nice touch, but it’s still not that great a tune.  It’s a damn site better than the original, but the lyrics are still eye-roll-inducing and the melody’s still boring.  (That being said, I have to admit, I kind of like the static combined with the random flute parts.  That was kind of a cool touch.)  I don’t know, perhaps I’m unduly prejudiced against songs like “Toxic” (I have a particular dislike for that tune, so it galls me whenever it gets covered, yet again), but it seems like there’s a lot better tunes out there with which an artist as talented as Yael Naim could do something truly amazing.

Yael Naim’s self-titled album is really a testament to the artist.  It does a great job of showing off Naim’s vocal ability and her talent for writing beautiful, simple melodies.  Her use of multiple languages (English, Hebrew, and French are all represented) and her blending of several different genre influences make for a sound which is just different enough to be intriguing without, I imagine, losing too many listeners by totally leaving behind Western pop sensibility.  Simply put, the album is a well-crafted, diverse album that shows off a great new artist on the pop scene.  It’s definitely worth a listen and is highly recommended.

Mar 202008

Artist: Flogging Molly
Album: Float
Label: Side One Dummy
Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.3.4
Score: 8.5/10

Flogging Molly’s fourth studio album, Float, is a return to form for the band, after 2004’s more slightly more experimental album, Within a Mile of Home. Float features the same sort of solid, energetic Celt rock that fans will be well familiar with, minus some of the genre-blurring goofiness of their last album. This gives it an overall feel much closer to Drunken Lullabies than their more recent Within a Mile of Home.

“Lightning Storm”, for example wouldn’t sound out of place on Swagger or Drunken Lullabies, with its fast-paced, snare-driven drums and sweeping, brogued vocal lines. It effortlessly combines Gaelic-sounding violins with thick guitar power chords and shows off the band’s ability to seamlessly combine the two disparate styles. “On The Back of a Broken Dream” makes good use of rattling, energetic drums and smooth vocal lines to create a similarly effective combination.

As with previous albums, two the band’s biggest strengths are Dave King’s powerful, expressive voice and his distinctive lyrical style. As with previous releases, the lyrics often have a political theme, and usually a fairly straight-forward one at that (“there’s a government whip cracked across your back”). Where the lyrics aren’t political, they cover themes familiar to Flogging Molly fans: love, loss, alienation and the ex patriot experience.

Musically, while sounding closer to their earlier work than their last album, Float seems to make heavier use of Flogging Molly’s Celtic folk roots than previous albums. On most tunes, the electric guitars are relegated to harmonic support and musical texture. Melodies are primarily carried in the vocal and violin lines and the drums are syncopated and snare-heavy. The net effect is that Float is decidedly more of a folk album than it is a rock album, and much more so than its aesthetic predecessors, Drunken Lullabies and Swagger.

Overall, Float, feels like a much mature album than Flogging Molly’s previous works. All of the elements which seemed to be at times at odds with one another come together remarkably well in this latest effort. Swagger‘s blustery rock enthusiasm, Drunken Lullabies‘ political bend and lyrical emphasis, and Within a Mile of Home‘s decided folk slant have all been woven together in a much better crafted manner. Whereas Drunken Lullabies often feels didactic and Within a Mile of Home strikes many as just flat goofy, Float is a well-crafted, well-executed album that brings together a lot of different elements and makes out of them a whole musical cloth.

That being said, Float will not break new ground for fans, but it will give them exactly what they love about Flogging Molly: energetic, well-crafted Celt Rock. Those not familiar with Flogging Molly may want to start with their (in my opinion) superior debut, Swagger before grabbing Float. That being said, Float is a fantastic album which any fan of the genre is likely to enjoy.

Jan 222008

Artist: The Shondes
Album: The Red Sea
Label: N/A (Self-Released)
Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.1.8
Score: 8.5/10

The Red Sea, the debut album from The Shondes was pretty obviously cooked up for the express purpose of making me dance around my room in my boxers at four in the morning. Between its driving, punk-influenced beats; its lilting, exotic violin melodies; and its crying, Dolores O’Riordan-esque lyrics, it’s basically a designer musical drug. And I’ve been doing big, fat lines of it for a week now, and loving every minute of it.

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m so addicted is because it hits a lot of my musical buttons. Punk influences? Check. Slick melodic hooks? Check. Complete disregard for genre boundaries? Check. Wrap all that and more up in a tight, well-presented package and it’s a fair guarantee that I’ll be mainlining it for quite awhile. Unfortunately for the Shondes, not everyone shares my same set of musical cravings, but even without sharing my musical aesthetic, there’s a lot in The Red Sea for any listener.

Songs like “Winter”, for example, with its brooding, jangly guitar lines, soaring vocal lines, and interesting lyrical images is not only a good listen, but warrants coming back for several listens. Similarly, the energetic “At The Water” is a song that begs to be put on repeat, not only for its rollicking energy, but also for the fact that it’s melodically and lyrically rich enough to reward repeat listening. This depth is not limited to a few tunes, but rather is endemic to the album, which features excellent songwriting, catchy melodies, and (with a few exceptions, such as the heavy-handed “What Love Is”) engaging lyrics.

Probably the most interest aspects of the album, however, are not strictly compositional, but rather stylistic. The Shondes have managed to take a diverse set of influences and weave them together into something truly new and unique. On “Don’t Whisper”, for example, exotic, folky violin lines support growling guitars and wailing lyrics to create a song which obviously borrows widely from the musical spectrum, including punk, classic rock, and folk to create something which is intriguing and new. The whole album draws musically from wide enough sources that many individual aspects feel familiar, while the whole is something altogether new and different.
This blending of so many different genres is used to great effect most of the time, though there are times when drawing together so many stylistic threads seems to have gotten in the way. The result is that, while The Red Sea really is a great album, it tends to get a bit confused and muddy at times. “Let’s Go” is a prime example of this. It tries too hard to be too many things at once and winds up sounding a bit like a bar brawl between the Ramones and the Cranberries as reinterpreted by a modern-day Rogers and Hammerstein. That is to say that it’s odd, and quirky, and if it ran with any one of its musical themes, it could be really cool. As it is, it’s random to the point of incoherence.

The Red Sea is a great album from a promising new band, with a unique sound and a hell of a lot of talent. And while it is undoubtedly rough or muddled at times, it’s an impressive first release from a group of great musicians. It’s well worth price ($10 from the band’s MySpace via MySpace’s SnoCap download service) and a sure sign that The Shondes are a band to listen for in the future.

Jan 102008

Philip Glass, Book of Longing

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Artist: Philip Glass
Album: Book of Longing
Label: Orange Mountain Music
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.12.11
Score: 4/10

There’s a joke that’s circulated for years amongst music geeks. It goes something like this: “Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?
“Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Knock Knock.”
“Who’s there?
“Philip Glass. … Knock Knock.”

So when I first heard the Philip Glass was going to be doing a song cycle based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen, I was of a bit of a mixed mind about it. On the one hand, both are quite talented musicians, so a collaborative project might be interesting and hell, it might actually be Philip Glass breaking new territory. On the other hand, that sounds like the kind of dangerous combination that might descend into self-important, self-referential musical blatherings. Alas, the result of the collaboration just goes to show that talented musical minds can, in fact, get together and create something so bad that it almost hurts to listen to. A valuable, if unfortunate lesson, I suppose.

First of all, in a song cycle as lyrically-driven as Book of Longing, the text from which the songs are constructed is of paramount importance. One CAN make good songs out of crap lyrics (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, for example, has nonsensical, ridiculous lyrics and it’s one of the best songs of the late 20th century) but when the lyrics are the point of the whole project, it’s pretty damn important that they be pretty good. Quite frankly, I didn’t think that would be a problem. Leonard Cohen, after all, is the man who penned both “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Hallelujah”, two of the most moving, powerful, and brilliant songs in modern music. The man has proved that he can write with pathos, genius, and craft. Which makes it all the sadder that in Book of Longing he just, well, doesn’t. The lyrics (all taken from a book of Cohen’s poetry by the same name) are usually trite and/or vague and where they aren’t either of those they’re rambling and pointless.

Furthermore, where the lyrics do display some measure of cleverness or insight, it almost always goes unsupported. An example is the song “You Go Your Way”, which features the lines “You go your way/I’ll go your way, too.” That, friends, is a brilliant lyrical hook. In the talented hands of someone like Cohen it could well be developed into a song of amazing depth. Those lines, however, are the only lines in the song. It is, as the poet Dennis Held refers to them, a “notebook line”; it’s the kind of cool little quip that one thinks of and immediately jots down for use later. The trick is, however, to actually go back later and use them in something appropriately larger.

For the most part, however, Cohen’s lyrics are simply subpar. Cheap, grasping end-rhymes
are the norm, the meter is forced, and the subject matter is generally treated only shallowly. Even songs which have the potential to deal with deep topics, such as the song “Not a Jew”, about Cohen’s Jewish identity, simply fail to do so. “Not a Jew” again demonstrates that there is some of Cohen’s wit and cleverness in these lyrics, but not enough of his effort to really make them something worth listening to. The lines “Anyone who says/I’m not a Jew/is not a Jew” could developed into a commentary on racial identity. Instead they just come off sounding like a petty schoolyard rebuke.

Musically, Book of Longing definitely has its moments. Philip Glass is a talented composer and he knows how to write a good score. Glass is also famous for becoming enamored with and subsequently running into the ground certain musical motifs. His compositional style tends to be repetitive, both within and between compositions, giving his songs (like his contemporary John Williams) a sort of “heard one, heard them all” reputation. Book of Longing is no exception, and any Glass fans hoping that a new collaborative project will have lead him to great, revolutionary inspiration will be sadly disappointed. The scoring is relatively uninspired and the vocal performances are forced. Lines, both musical and lyrical, sound to have had significant violence done to them in order to get them to fit in with the rest of the score and the whole thing sounds choppy and disjointed.

The vocal scoring, especially, leaves a lot to be desired. To be fair, I’d imagine it’s hard to get lines like “The Lord is such a monkey/He’s such a woman, too” (“This Morning I Woke Up Again”) or “Puppet me and/Puppet you/Puppet German/Puppet Jew” (“Puppet Time”) to fit with the kind of serious-sounding, epic orchestral scoring that Glass is so good at. This doesn’t change the fact, though, that the finished product isn’t all that good. The lyrics don’t fit the music (despite the best efforts of some very talented singers), and neither the words nor the music are the best work of their respective creators. The final product is more cringe-inducing than anything else.

In the end, Book of Longing is simply proof that genius and inspiration are not constants and that collaborations will not always be even as good as the sum of their parts. Anyone wanting to listen to the Leonard Cohen’s lyrics or Philip Glass’ music are far better off picking up copies of Cohen’s The Songs of Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts. Both are excellent examples (though not, by any means, the only examples) of a musical luminary in top form, and both are far better than this unfortunate mess of a collaboration.

Jan 022008

Rivers Cuomo, Alone

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Artist: Rivers Cuomo
Album: Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
Label: Geffen Records
Release Date:
Score: 5/10

The very astute comedian Patton Oswalt once pointed out that Edgar Allen Poe was only considered a genius because he wrote prolifically and had occasional strokes of genius. Or, as Oswalt put it, “if you ever have the chance to read Poe’s Complete Works… DON’T”. Unfortunately, Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer fame) seems like he might be edging into similar territory with his recent recording of home demos, Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo.

Alone is, as one would probably imagine from a collection of home-recorded demos, a remarkably mixed bag. It ranges from the clever, melodic “Chess” to the remarkably pretensious few tracks (“Blast Off”, “Dude, We’re Finally Landing”, etc.) taken from space-themed rock opera. And while some of the songs are downright unlistenable (“Superfriend”), others are pretty brilliant. “Longtime Sunshine” was one which particularly grabbed me. It manages to be extremely evocative and sweet despite some awkward vocal rhythms and rough harmony lines.

Largely, though, Alone is the kind of album which will be of interest only to people who are already fans of Cuomo’s work. Even some hardcore Weezer fans might find it a bit hard to get very interested in Alone, since a lot of the material that Cuomo presents is stuff that never made it past the demo stage, I imagine, because they simply weren’t Weezer tunes. The various songs from Cuomo’s rock musical Songs from the Black Hole are prime examples. Not only were they designed to be framed in a format radically different from a Weezer album, but the songs the themselves lack the glib, feel-good punchiness that most people think about when they think of Weezer.

There are, however, a few tunes which will appeal to people who (like almost everyone interested in buying Alone) know Cuomo primarily from his work with Weezer. The demo version of “Buddy Holly” is particularly interesting in that respect, since it presents a well-loved Weezer track (my favorite, actually) in a radically different fashion. The demo version replaces the bouncy pop-punk vibe of the album version with a slower, more bass-heavy aesthetic combined with a shriller, more organ-like sound on the synth lines. It’s a fascinating way to rehear an old favorite.

Other tunes of note on the album are the covers the Cuomo includes. His version of Gregg Alexander’s tune “The World We Love So Much” is simple and haunting, though lacking a lot of the emotional punch that the song has the potential to deliver. This is largely due to the fact that Cuomo’s rasping whispering and screaming seems quite out of place laid over top of the simple acoustic guitar lines. Cuomo seems much more in his element on version of “Little Diane” (originally by Dion and the Belmonts), where, backed by a full and talented band, he manages to sound evocatively vitriolic and tortured, adding a lot of new life to an old classic.

One interesting part of the album is the extensive liner notes that Cuomo provides for each song. The tone of the liner notes is at turns self-important and self-effacing, but gives a good sense both of Cuomo and his relationship to his music and gives some interesting snapshots of his life and work before and throughout the Weezer period.

Alone seems like it was designed to be “one for the fans”: an album put out to give the long-time audience a look at some of the material that Cuomo was recording when he wasn’t in the studio with Weezer. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions it winds up not even being that. Between the oft-pretentious excerpts from Cuomo’s sci-fi rock musical and the early, extremely rough covers and demos, this is probably of more interest to the very narrow audience of Cuomo himself and any potential Rivers Cuomo biographers out there. Admittedly, there are a few tracks that are well worth hearing (namely “Chess”, “Longtime Sunshine”, and the demo version of “Buddy Holly”), but the album seems mostly to be of more value as biography than as music.

Dec 052007

Sigur Ros, Hvarf/Heim

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Artist: Sigur Ros
Album: Hvarf/Heim
Label: XI Recordings
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.11.6
Score: 6/10

It’s a bit hard to know how to review music from a band like Sigur Ros. First of all, I speak neither of the languages their lyrics are in (Icelandic and an invented language, Hopelandish). Secondly, most of their music is atmospheric and ethereal enough that it’s hard to know quite what to say about it. These two elements conspire to force me to make an embarrassing admission: I can’t tell most Sigur Ros songs apart.

Now not all of them. That one that was on the Vanilla Sky soundtrack got played enough that its minor uniquenesses have burned their way into my brain, and their song “Hijomalind” has a rock beat to it (which kind of stunned me). But they have a repetitive, vocal-driven aesthetic using a language I don’t know. All of their music is very tonal and harmony-focused, so it really feels like it’s more about the texture than anything else. And as far as I can tell, the band only has one texture: “dreary experimental drone.”

Which isn’t to say it’s all bad. I mean, for what it is, it isn’t bad. I have a hard time paying attention to it, which I suppose might be a good thing if one is going for atmosphere over active content. And I know there are subtle differences between songs (“Hafsol” has pizzicato strings, for example), but the style of their songs is such that they always focus on a layered, broad sound which changes only slowly, which makes the general feel of the songs largely the same. That, combined with indecipherable lyrics, means that the album feels largely pleasant, but contentless to me.

There are some high points, however, in that there are songs the texture of which particularly appeals to me. “Samskeyti”, for instance, has some prominately-featured piano lines that I quite like backed by lush strings. The piece slowly grows and changes of its course and it makes for a very pleasant few minutes of listening. It’s not going to win any awards for innovation or technical merit, but it sounds quite nice. It also has the (to my ear) advantage of being free of vocalist Jón Þór Birgisson’s falsetto caterwauling.

That so many of Sigur Ros’ tracks feature Birgisson’s falsetto so prominately is really unfortunate. The man has a nice voice when he chooses to use it, but when he sings like he has his jumblies in a vice it gets really old really quickly. His falsetto is thin, often nasally, and usually fairly tinny, none of which make for pleasant prolonged listening. A good example of this is “Heysatan” which would be a lovely song if it weren’t for Birgisson’s occasional forays into screechiness.

All in all, Hvarf/Heim is Sigur Ros, love it or hate it. Textually rich, but melodically uninteresting, “experimental” only in so far as it is a style peculiar to this group, and, uh, well, very Icelandic. The songs are long, meandering, and often pleasant, though hardly inspiring. The lyrics are in two non-English languages (one of them entirely invented). All in all, it makes pretty good background music, and if Birgisson could be convinced to keep his voice in a reasonable register, then it would be great atmospheric or background music: easy on the ear but demanding little of the attention.

Oct 252007

Jimmy Eat World; Chase the Light

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Artist: Jimmy Eat World
Album: Chase This Light
Label: Interscope
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.10.16
Score: 6/10

When a band releases a new album after a multi-year hiatus, the tacit expectation that it’s going to be awesome or horrible. This is, of course, an unfair expectation, but it actually tends to be right more often than it’s wrong. One either gets a brilliant album like Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero or a disc full of trash like the unfortunate Zeitgeist by the Smashing Pumpkins, to use two modern examples. This is doubly true when the album marks a fairly dramatic shift in sound. Which is exactly why the thorough-going pop mediocrity of Jimmy Eat World’s sixth studio album Chase This Light is so frustrating.

First of all, this is not the Jimmy Eat World that soaked the airwaves when I was in high school. It’s an altogether poppier group which has drifted enough in their sound that they’re almost as close to Maroon 5 as they are to themselves, circa 1999. Their newfound pop stylings, while sometimes catchy, are obviously unfamiliar territory, and the quartet mostly blazes through it with bland, obvious hooks and lyrics that are, at best, kiddy-pool deep. The whole album is shot through with base competence.

The best that can be said about the album is that it does have a few catchy riffs and lyrics. Unfortunately the band seems unable to string enough of them together in one song to really make a truly great pop tune. They’re all well-performed, reasonably formulaic, and almost all have a standard enough sound to feel familiar even on a first listen.

Of course the most notable thing about the album is that it really is a pop album. There are some strands left from the pop-punk beginnings of the band, but it seems like for the most part they’ve lost what rock they had. Songs like the boppy, glitzy “Here It Goes” leave no doubt that neither rock nor punk are on the agenda anymore. The opening track and first album single “Big Casino” starts with probably the heaviest riff on the album, transitions into an Ataris-esque pop-punk verse, and then into a call-response pop chorus. Except for a few brief moments throughout the album, this pop composure never breaks.

The album is, throughout, typified by mediocrity, both musically and lyrically. True pop is obviously new territory for the band and while they have the basic themes down, and know enough to string together riffs and vague, but resonant lyrics to make a tune, they’ve done nothing on Chase This Light to reassure the listener that they’re still capable of the catchy brilliance of their earlier work. Songs like “Firefight” bounce along homogeneously, with little variety or inventiveness. The lyrics aren’t well-crafted enough to make much sense, much less convey any kind of real message. The drums are energetic, but invarient. The guitar lines are simple and repetitive. The over all effect is reasonably competent and, as such, is fairly indicative of the entire album.

Jimmy Eat World fans might be interested in hearing the new direction that band have taken their sound. Hopefully it’s a sound they’ll pursue and refine. I’d love to hear them do pop music with the same kind of creative energy as some of their earlier punk-influenced stuff. As it stands with Chase This Light they’ve shown that they can do the kind and quality of pop music that we’ve all heard before. I’m hoping next time around they’ll give us something more: a reason to celebrate their entry into the genre.