Sunday, March 25
Album: Living With The Living
Comments: Indie rockers are a pretentious bunch, what with their beards and their sweaters and their high-falluting attitudes. They like to sit in their ivory towers and throw out musical influences, not as a marker to define their sound, but as some sort of resume of how awesome their taste in music is. These scoundrels are so busy showing how complex their tastes are that they’ve forgotten that they are even in rock bands. This is why Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are such a breath of fresh air in the indie rock scene; they know how, and are not afraid to rock.
I’ve never met Ted Leo, but I am under the impression that he is the least pretentious person in a very, very pretentious music scene. His music, which is punctuated by his Thin Lizzy meets Cheap Trick guitar styling and his high falsetto voice, has always had a very inviting feel to it; I am confident that if Leo were to give up on his punk rock, independent ethic and sign himself to a major label, he’d be a smash. He’s the kind of guy who you could get a beer with and talk about the newest Jet album, or how much you secretly love the new Fergie song. On his fifth studio album, Living With The Living, Leo and Co. maintain their everyman rock swagger and gain a little political perspective, for better or for worse.
While it is by no means a downer of a record, there are a few less songs to inspire beer glasses in the air. Some tracks on this record carry with them a little less tongue-in-cheek and a little more realization, inspired by the tumultuous times in which we live. The best examples of this are the two most political songs on the record; the unfortunate “Bomb, Repeat” and the most excellent “The Lost Brigade”. “Bomb, Repeat” is a real stinker of a song; Ted tries a little too hard to let us know that he is against war, and as a result, we get some 5th grade protest lyrics on top of what can best be described as a System of a Down B-side music backing. “The Lost Brigade” fairs better because of the restraint shown by Leo; he hints, but never gives away his feelings. The song is a seven and a half minute long blast of guitar and choral call and response lyrics. It’s good stuff.
Where Ted and his pals really succeed on this record is when they stay in their wheelhouse, which is stadium sized rock guitar and solid, pounding pop rhythm. The album kicks off with “Sons of Cain”, “Army Bound”, and “Who Do You Love”, which are all as strong as any song in the Ted Leo Catalogue. “Sons of Cain” is textbook Leo, down to the breakdown in the bridge and the Leo screams at the end of the song. “Army Bound” is more politically minded music, but the message is dwarfed by the Clash-esque guitar riffing and bass drum thump. “Who Do You Love” is the standout of the three; Ted Leo is doing his best Bruce Springsteen impression, giving the people a pop song to help them “work for the cities and live for the beach”. Any one of these songs could be stuck in your head at the drop of a hat.
One of Leo’s biggest complaints is that his songs suffer from too much similarity; the standouts stand out, but the rest all runs together. It’s a valid complaint as tracks do tend to run together at times. “Colleen” is nothing special, which is a shame because of the seriously bitchin’ solo in the middle of the song, and tracks like “La Costa Brava” and “The Unwanted Things” are good, but nothing special. But then, out of nowhere, comes the Celtic groove “Bottle of Buckie”. With its groovy fife soloing, mid 90s rock riff, and green isle inspired lyrics, it is a little out of place on the album, but a welcome break in pace.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are many things. Not only are they the friendliest indie rockers around, and one of the only bands around today that are not afraid to rock the hell out (If Ted Leo ever went on tour with the Hold Steady, the world would probably end on account of the massive riffs throwing our earth out of its orbit), but they consistently put out good rock music. Whether you want to get drunk with some friends, or sit and contemplate your life, Living With The Living has got what you need.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Key Tracks: Sons of Cain, Who Do You Love, Bottle of Buckie, The Lost Brigade
Worth The Money: Yes
Friday, March 23
Album: I'll Sleep When You're Dead
Comments: El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a lot of things. It’s dark, both in mood and in concept. It’s challenging, both in its lyrical flow and in its production. It’s, at times, abrasive and harsh; some tracks on this album are difficult to listen to without serious focus at what it being play. It’s also innovative. It’s rich in layers and subject matter. And, it’s the best hip hop album of 2007, no question.
Before getting in to the album itself, let me first try to dissect hip hop a little bit. For the purposes of this discussion, lets break hip hop down into ying and yang. One half of hip hop is the kind of thing one hears on the radio; this is hip hop for the masses. This hip hop has got beats that people can dance to, and the kind of catchy hooks that have a way of burrowing themselves into brainstems. Let’s call this Mainstream Hip Hop. You heard that song “This is Why I’m Hot”? That’s Mainstream Hip Hop.
The other half, the darker half of hip hop isn’t really much for dancing or hooks, and you won’t hear a lot of songs about the club, or dropping it like its hot, or any of that. This second brand of hip hop puts more of its emphasis on flow; artists of this second brand like to play with words and internal rhyme schemes to see what they can come up with, the more complex the better. The production is not so much about groove and beat as much as it is about creating a landscape in which for the lyrics to exist; sometimes subdued, sometimes over the top, this production is never happy with stasis, and instead always tries to push itself forward. This is Underground Hip Hop.
I’m not here to say which is better than the other, because both have got their pluses and minuses. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is, without question, in the second category. So if that kind of hip hop doesn’t sound that good to you, if you just want to dance, then this is not the record for you. However, if Underground Hip Hop sounds like something you’d be into, then you need to get your hands on El-P’s latest.
Let’s ignore lyrics and production for a minute, and let’s focus solely on the atmosphere of this record. If the world were to end tomorrow, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead would be the soundtrack to the aftermath (so, yeah, this isn’t really a cheerful album). El-P’s sophomore release is full of dystopian paranoia against the government, his fellow citizens, and anyone who isn’t him. This is a lonely, angry, and fearful record that is focused at the times in which we live; the album supports the idea that something very big, and very bad, is going to happen very soon.
El-P works best on this album as a story teller. On the excellent opening track “Tasmanian Pain Coaster”, El-P takes on the roll of himself and a nameless, faceless wanderer who has been abused by the system and has seen the rust in the gears, and deals with it through substance abuse (umm, yeah, once again, NOT a happy album). Later on in the album, the one-two punch of “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love Story” and “The Overly Dramatic Truth” both focus on love, one painting El-P as a potential savior for a doomed love, the other showing him as broken, flawed Harttigan trying to protect his love by pushing her away, lest she be corrupted by his flaws. El-P is also in prime battle mode, lashing out against war in “Dear Sirs”, an anonymous character who has crossed him “Poisinville”, and driving in NYC traffic on the aptly named “Drive”. And while he is never too concerned about sticking to the beat or making himself totally clear, there is a subtle brilliance in his lyrics, not to mention some seriously good one lines peppered throughout the album (the surface that gave birth to the style is NY/ the jihad recipient sky is too fly).
The production on this album is top notch; a combination of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad and RZA’s ADD style. El-P handles the bulk of the production himself, but he does get some guest help from Trent Reznor, (ok, that makes sense, what with Nine Inch Nails and all) The Mars Volta (who contribute the excellent “Tasmanian Pain Coaster”, making it the best thing they’ve ever done) and Cat Power (What?! Cat Power? Indie folk bands can produce?). Each of the guests bring their own unique style to the record, and it fits with the doomed feel of the album. Each song starts and ends in different places, constantly pushing the beat to its limits with the subtle addition and subtraction of new elements. This kind of innovative production is what makes this album so good, yet so challenging. Because of the original and constantly shifting production, there is not much in the way of catchy melody. This, in the end, is my only complaint against the album; after two listens it is unbelievable, but getting through that first listen can be a struggle.
El-P has made more than just an album. It is a snapshot of the world in which we live; where celebrities believe in aliens, the world seems pretty angry at us, and people way up every day fearing the worst. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is, hands down, the best hip hop record of the year, underground or mainstream, and maybe one of the top 10 best of the last 10 years.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Key Tracks: Tasmanina Pain Coaster, Drive, EMG, Run The Numbers, Habeus Corpses, The Overly Dramatic Truth, Poisonville No Kids Win
Worth The Money: Yes
NOTE: I know I've been pretty M.I.A the last two weeks. I'm working on getting back on track. Look for two Modest Mouse reviews, and a review of Ted Leo's latest. Holla.
Monday, March 12
Album: Neon Bible
Comments: Was it worth the wait?
In 2004, a band from Canada released an album about personal loss. It was an album bursting with intensely personal confessions that were oh so well crafted around tender songs. It was almost uncomfortable; listening to the record was like eavesdropping on the kind of personal conversations that are saved for late nights and hushed voices. But, this was more than a glimpse into a journal; this was a tragic beauty of a pop record, with moments of tender tension and cathartic exuberance. That album was Funeral by the Arcade Fire.
Three, almost four years passed. No new music. No leaked mp3s. Only whispers of progress on a new record. The band that set the indie world on fire and seduced critics across the board with its tortured début had fallen off the grid. Until now. The Arcade Fire’s second album, Neon Bible, is out.
Was it worth the wait?
For all of its success and all of its accolades, Funeral was not a flawless work. Like a lot of albums praised in the indie world, it had its throw away tracks, its moments of bloated grandeur, and its self important feeling persistent throughout. It was a very impressive record, but it was not always a good record. Neon Bible addresses these problems, and stands apart from its older brother right away; it is both an impressive record, and a very, very good record.
It is not perfect. Opening statement “Black Mirror” is too repetitive to reach the grand heights set by the chorus; it’s a song in need of a chord change. The collaborative effort on “Black Waves / Bad Vibrations” is charming, but neither of the half-songs is developed enough. It’s good that the two structures were combined into two songs though; the pieces wouldn’t be able to remotely hold up on their own.
The songwriting has changed. Funeral was an album about struggling with death, and finding not only peace, but personal salvation for the surviving. It was a sad album, but it had hope. Neon Bible moves away from such introspection, and turns its highly focused lens on the world at large. War, murder, destruction, violence, fear, and paranoia. These are the things this record is about. These are the songs of men and women who are afraid and scattered; these are the songs of the common man in a violent and war stricken world. If anything, this album stands as a testament to the abilities of the Arcade Fire. It proves that they can perfectly capture and articulate not only personal tragedy, but world-wide sentiment. This skill cannot be overstated or overlooked; it is the core of what makes the Arcade Fire so good.
But still, the question remains. Neon Bible isn’t as unified of a work thematically as Funeral (and, not for nothing, but I think “Neon Bible” is an absolutely awful name for an album).
Was it worth the wait?
Listen to the slow build of “Keep The Car Running”. With a tight, steady rhythm and harmonious strings, it is a top notch pop song, and is the rare breed of song with no climax; the song slowly swells, only to burst without fanfare and still work. The same can be said for the equally excellent “(Antichrist Architect Blues)”. Listen to the calm subdue of “Neon Bible”. It’s quiet and simple song structure is a defiant shout in the face of larger than life hymns of the rest of the album; it speaks the loudest by barely speaking. Listen to the almost psychedelic beach boy groove on “Ocean of Noise”. Not so much a song title as it is a description of the song; it is a work of Atlantic relaxation punctuated by slow, relaxing piano work that crests so tenderly that when it does crash, it comes as a shock. Listen to the crown jewel of the record, the mammoth “Intervention”. Strings, woodwinds, keys, drums, bass, guitars, and vocals are all introduced and layered on top of a massive pipe organ that provides the bedrock for this war-time anthem. On a record full of big pop ballads, this is the one that dwarfs all others, the kind of song that would even feel restricted in a stadium. It is so large of a song, that it makes me feel small to listen to it. All that can be done is to take in as much as possible, then listen again once it’s over. It will leave you breathless.
While not as unified thematically, Neon Bible is a better collection of songs. Neon Bible is a better album.
It was worth the wait.
Halleluiah, Amen. It was worth the wait.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Key Tracks: Keep The Car Running, Neon Bible, Intervention, Ocean of Noise, No Cars Go, (Antichrist Television Blues)
Worth The Money: I buy a lot of records online through emusic or itunes. Go to the record store and buy this one, packaging and all. It is worth it.
Wednesday, March 7
Here's the deal. I haven't had a good time to sit and write up any reviews. I considered doing a quick hit of the albums I wanted to do, but they're both worth taking a good look at. So, I guess I'll just get to them when I have more time next week. I'll probably go on some kind of review rampage. Maybe. Maybe? Okay, probably not. Whatever, reviews next week.
Here's how it MIGHT go down
Sunday: Do Make Say Think/Arcade Fire
Monday: Do Make Say Think/Arcade Fire
Tuesday: Modest Mouse
Thursday: Iggy Pop/Moe.
Saturday: Iggy Pop/ Moe./ Reliant K/ Mr Dogg Classic
Tuesday, March 6
Saturday, March 3
Artist: Smoke or Fire
Album: This Sinking Ship Comments: I’ve always had a problem with the term “sophomore slump”. How pretentious are we to say that a group is slumping, to write a group off altogether, just because their second album might not have been as good as their first? For average bands, there really is no way to win. If they make the exact same album twice, then they get slammed for being repetitive, uncreative, and are basically reduced to one-trick-pony status in the eyes of critics. However, if a band tries to change their sound up too much on their second record, they get slammed for tweaking with the formula that made them good in the first place (I made this point in my review of Clay Your Hands Say Yeah, but I feel it bears repeating). It’s such a catch-22 that I don’t even like to use the term if I can help it.
Comments: I’ve always had a problem with the term “sophomore slump”. How pretentious are we to say that a group is slumping, to write a group off altogether, just because their second album might not have been as good as their first? For average bands, there really is no way to win. If they make the exact same album twice, then they get slammed for being repetitive, uncreative, and are basically reduced to one-trick-pony status in the eyes of critics. However, if a band tries to change their sound up too much on their second record, they get slammed for tweaking with the formula that made them good in the first place (I made this point in my review of Clay Your Hands Say Yeah, but I feel it bears repeating). It’s such a catch-22 that I don’t even like to use the term if I can help it.
I even have a problem with the word “slump”. I’m no word-smith, but my understanding of the term is that it is saved for people who are in a consistent funk after pre-achieved excellence. Well, who the fuck are we to say that a group is slumping after only two records? Give me one great record, then 4 bad ones, and then I’ll say someone is slumping. I think the big problem with sophomore albums is this; you have your whole life to write your first album, and only 18 months to write your second one. If you give an average man a lifetime, he will write something magnificent. If you give an average man 18 months, you’ll get something, well, average. In my eyes, that is exactly what happened to Smoke or Fire.
Starting with “Shine”, the album starts to get a little tougher, a little less polished, a little more sloppy, and, in my opinion, a little better. “Shine” starts off with a harsh minute and a half instrumental blast before launching into the actual song. It’s got some weight and some real feeling when they scream “Given the chance, we would shine!”, and it’s almost worth the time it took to get there, but not quite. "Shine" is another example of a song that could use some editing. “Art Imitating Life” is able to blend the pop sensibility with their harder edge in a very appealing way. This song reminds me of old Rise Against and what made them so good. The roughness continues with “Cars” and “Breadwinner”, and these songs make good on some of the promises made on their first record.
This album limps out of the gate and stumbles along before finally falling into place on the last four songs on the record. All in all, like I said in the second paragraph, this is a good record. Smoke or Fire is proof that an average band can make truly above average music, but they are also proof that this is by no means a guarantee. That being said, this is a good record for them, and for all its faults, I hear good things in their sound. It won’t be the success that Above the City was, but This Sinking Ship is by no means a slump.
Rating: 6.5 out 10
Key Tracks: The Patty Hearst Syndrome, This Sinking Ship, Art Imitating Life
Worth The Money: Yes for fans, maybe for average Joes.
Here's the schedule for the next week of reviews
Tuesday - Do Make Say Think
Thursday - Arcade Fire
Saturday - The Stooges or Moe.