Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

John Mellencamp - No Better Than This: B

In the last couple of years, John Mellencamp has experienced a career arc similar to that of Bruce Springsteen. The Indiana native has some serious mid-West cred in reserve, but absolutely zero percent of it is on display on No Better Than This. Instead, the album is most definitely rooted in the Southern blues that would branch off into every conceivable genre we see, today. And, like Springsteen, who has ventured often in his late career into the realms of New Orleans blues and general Southern folk, that suit so close to that side of the Mississippi is one that Mellencamp fits surprisingly well. For however banal and predictable the sounds of No Better Than This are, all credit should be given to Mellencamp for making it all sound absolutely genuine.

There is one clear exception to the roots rock sound on display on No Better Than This. The religious piety that is so often associated with this genre of music is disregarded, and, sometimes, revoked. "I ain't been baptized / I ain't got no church / When I pray to Jesus / It makes matters worse," Mellencamp admits on "Each Day of Sorrow". Within the first track, Mellencamp urges you to always question your faith, and, throughout the album, the afterlife is questioned and the angels, normally seen as harbingers of peace, are coming after him. Once that reversal of the lyrical archetype is revealed, one begins to see that much of No Better Than This is a clever spin on the tone of the album as a whole. "Thinking About You" is played out through a message on an answering machine, an especially moving piece of lyrical brilliance that Mellencamp makes sound far too easy and "Love at First Sight" tells the story of the rise and fall of a relationship, told in a playful manner as the man starts all his verses with the preface, "Let's suppose".

But that's the thing about No Better Than This. The music, itself, is so unremarkable, it's too easy to ignore the sharp lyricism lying beneath. If Mellencamp wasn't so concerned with making up the difference in lyrical divergence with such mediocre musicianship, No Better Than This could be the man's best album. Unfortunately, one of the greatest lyrical achievements of the year is masked by one of its most superficial exteriors, resulting in a lost couldabeen rather than a late-career masterpiece.


Land of Talk - Cloak and Cipher: B+

Cloak and Cipher begins like a rock band's interpretation of School of Seven Bells's newest album, Disconnect From Desire. Then, as the band begins to get more comfortable, they branch out into a sound all their own, and a great one at that. Then, when you listen to the album, again, you realize those first songs are more unique than you had thought, finally making the whole product a beautifully crafted slice of indie rock.

That's an interesting way to experience an album, I'll admit, but that's pretty how I experienced Cloak and Cipher and the advice that I came away with it for others is that, even if you haven't listened to Disconnect From Desire, give Cloak and Cipher a few more listens if it doesn't quite click with you at first. The album's not so much a grower as an album whose context needs to be realized for its full potential to be felt. Once that happens, Cloak and Cipher can be a very satisfying experience.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier: B+

When I first heard that Iron Maiden would continue to write and perform music after their newest album, the first feeling I experienced was of relief. Although it may sound trite, I confess my relief didn't really stem from the prospect of Iron Maiden continuing the make music, but from the implicit conclusion that their newest album, The Final Frontier, would not be their final album.

The reason why that was such an overwhelming feeling was because of the fact that Iron Maiden hold such an interesting position when it comes to professional musicianship. 2010 has already seen its fair share of final statements (Jack Rose, LCD Soundsystem, Daughters) and most of them were forcibly caused, as most are, by either a break-up or the death of a member. I am confident that Iron Maiden can continue to play music until they feel like stopping. They're just as dynamic as they were when they were half as young and still have the personally distinct honor of never releasing a bad song. If they're going to end that legacy on an album, I don't think it's unfair to expect a truly fantastic or at least excellent farewell in return.

If The Final Frontier was that last goodbye, it would not have met my criteria. Don't get me wrong; the album is pretty good. My qualm is that it sounds more like a transitional release than anything else. And no, I don't mean that just because the first song of The Final Frontier is some industrial reverb-swarthed crack at new wave. In fact, that little ditty is probably the album's weakest track (not bad enough to constitute as a "bad" song mind you). No, The Final Frontier sounds transitional, because we finally see Iron Maiden pull away from the homogenized sound that characterized the band's 2000's material, and move towards a different sound. That different sound is, essentially, that of Powerslave. The Final Frontier can be boiled down to this: The riffs of Powerslave with the song structures of the band's aughts material (Brave New World, Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death. Take your pick). "Coming Home" copies this blueprint, verbatim, the beginning flowing from a descending melodic twin guitar lead with a distinct bass presence into the slow and reliable metal trudging on the verses and chorus that wouldn't sound unfamiliar on A Matter of Life and Death. It sounds corny to say, but it may very well be possible that the time the band spent playing their old deep cuts on The Somewhere Back In Time Tour has dusted off a style that Maiden has sanded down for quite some time now.

I don't want anyone reading this to think that I view the aughts material of Maiden to be bad. A Matter of Life and Death was one of my favorite albums of 2006 and I see "Dance of Death" as right up there in quality with "The Number of the Beast" and "2 Minutes to Midnight". When I say "trudging" and "homogenized", I mean that they're less caustic and sporadic and more plodding and epic. It's literally dinosaur rock; moving slowly and irrevocably from release to release and concert to concert, and I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when I hear that slow intro into that bombastically fast verse formula one too many times. "The Talisman" and "The Man Who Would Be King" are, overall, very good songs, but I would be lying to you if I said that I've not once skipped each respective song's first few minutes out of impatience.

Do I even have to tell you how the musicianship is? Steve Harris is unsurprisingly superb, even if, at times, he's too much Robert Trujillo and not enough... Steve Harris. Bruce Dickinson continues to shame singers less than half his age (Some have criticized the guy's performance on this album, accusing his vocal chords of waning, but the most technically fascinating part of the man's voice-- that he can make a squeaky high note sound organic-- continues to inspire awe. If I have one problem with his performance, it's not when he hits those high notes, it's when he double-tracks them on songs like "El Dorado", which just sounds like the brazen smoothing over of vocal kinks that I'm not sure exist). Ultimately, the guitar earns my highest praise, though. Kudos to the band for continuing to have the creative clout to house each guitar solo with a distinctly different groove from the melody and arrangement that preceded it. The breakdown in "The Talisman" isn't even a solo, but it's epic and insatiably clever. If you're interested in The Final Frontier to hear the band shred, A. You already own the album, and B. You're on the right track.

Otherwise, it would still have been a good decision. The Final Frontier won't earn the band many new fans (unless you count the kids and grandkids of current Iron Maiden fans), but it's a good stopgap in a career I hope will continue to expand and reward upon itself. A Matter of Life and Death might have been a better final piece, but, as their current live shows have shown, Iron Maiden don't see themselves as a peddler of more of the same.


Matthew Dear - Black City: B+

Matthew Dear, not for nothing, is a pretty handsome guy. His newest album... isn't. Sexy, bizarre, intense, yes, but if you're looking for an artist to just hand you an album of easy listening dance music with a complacent countenance, you should look elsewhere. Black City is an album that plays so far against type, it may reshape your perspective on how modern dance music should sound.

What makes Black City so irresistible is how Matthew Dear manages to continuously string the listener along. I don't mean this as if Dear is constantly leading you on by teasing at the cusp of a climax or catharsis; in fact Black City is comprised of dozens of them. No, what keeps setting the listener off balance while listening to this album is the fact that, for the album's ten tracks, Dear seems to be constantly perverting the line between the weird and the familiar. It's the kind of music that I would imagine playing in the background at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe; to someone this stuff is normal, but, for you, there is this constant nagging feeling that there's something not quite right. I feel like Arthur Dent when presented with the nine-minute monster of a single, "Little People (Black City)" (What is this guy saying? 'Love me like a clown'? Am I supposed to dance to this?... Okay."). "Ride with me / In my big black car," Dear demands so matter-of-factly in "You Put a Smell on Me" and I can't help but think of Zaphod Beeblebrox exercising his space-age swag in that untouchable black car. It's all tantalizingly delectable, but if there's one thing that Black City won't make you feel, it's comfortable.

Even when Matthew steps off the dance floor and into the heavens on album closer, "Gem", the man can't help but infuse some weirdness into the proceedings. Ultimately, this may be incumbent upon his very style as a performer. Throughout Black City, Dear sings with either one or two other voices accompanying him, singing the same notes just at different octaves. As a result, it never feels like just Dear is serenading you, but two or three are simultaneously, and you can understand how uncomfortable one can feel when all those voices close in for intimacy. For however disturbing it may sound in text, damnit if it doesn't sound creepily compelling on record.

At its worst, Black City sounds like filler from Gorillaz first two albums, and, at its best, it sounds like the kind of gilded trash techno that would score a Samurai Jack episode. You'll hear Matthew Dear sing in an unwavering monotone reminiscent of Stephin Merritt that will sound convincing whether speaking of relationship obligations, surgery or monkeys. Black City may only be truly appropriate music for an intergalactic dance party millions of lightyears away, but, if it never had that inherent eccentricity to it, it might never have been nearly as alluring.


Dark Tranquility - We Are the Void: B

When it came to all the crap metal albums I had been listening to in the beginning of this year, We Are the Void came as somewhat of a relief. Sure, you’ve got that relentlessly atonal screaming and not much songwriting chops in play to make up the difference, but there is just enough song craft and interesting guitar work intact to keep you not totally disinterested. This is recommended for any music reviewer who needs something to get him or her out of the doldrums of the metal scene of the beginning of 2010. If you’re not one, then you’re better of looking elsewhere.


Johnny Cash - American VI: Ain't No Grave: B+

Before starting this blog, I had already developed a relatively extensive rapport of music from past and present. Of course, I was just one music devotee, so there were plenty of artists that I knew existed and I knew others enjoyed, but never got around to listening to. As a result, with Check Your Mode, I have been able to dip my toe into artists and genres both old and new that I would not normally look into.

And so this brings me to American VI: Ain't No Grave, in which I open myself to the life and music of Johnny Cash at the end of both. American VI is the sixth and supposedly last collection of songs from the sessions that Cash had recorded with Rick Rubin at the end of his life that will ever see the light of day. All but one of its ten songs are covers and all of them have that folks-y sound to them that fans of the American series and Johnny Cash have come to expect.

Since Ain't No Grave was released, critics have been accusing Rick Rubin of being over-eager to draw nostalgia from the listener with the after-the-fact accouterments he has added to Cash's mostly acoustic recordings. For the most part, I don't agree with this sentiment. The proverbial sap spile to the maple of nostalgia: unnecessary string arragements, are never an uncomfortable presence on this album. Still, there is no doubt that the best of Ain't No Grave is when the least window dressing is applied. All Rubin has to do is introduce the sound of clinking chains or plunk a low note on a piano to make the title track and album highlight, "Redemption Day", respectively, extremely effective. "Water", which features nothing more than an acoustic and Cash's rosy tenor, is something of pure hushed wonderment as the man describes a tale of temptation amidst a desert landscape.

Like much of the American series, Ain't No Grave is successful in at least converting every song Cash plays into something purely his own. I could not imagine hearing the songs of Ain't No Grave being covered by anyone else, even album closer, "Aloha Oye", whose straightforward and surprisingly spry performance is absolutely lovely, even if it's not the outright tear-jerker Rick Rubin may have intended it to be. At times, Cash sounds vulnerable on Ain't No Grave, at others stoic. But what's ultimately fulfilling about the album is that, even at the end of his life, Cash exuded a confidence and passion in his music that could take others multiple lifetimes to muster.


High on Fire - Snakes for the Divine: B+

The first fourth of Snakes for the Divine is absolutely fantastic. The title track is harrowing from its incredible beginning crescendo to the bass tapping in its chorus. First single and second track, "Frost Hammer", is similarly pummeling, and "Bastard Samurai" proves to be a pretty good holdover. Musically, the band never falters. Drummer Des Kensel's primal thrap is effective with the album's gritty production and Matt Pike's scowl always sounds like Tom Araya after decades of chain smoking. However, as Snakes for the Divine progresses, it goes from an excellent release to a pretty good one, as the band's knack for prime metal songwriting wanes and begins to tread water, creatively.

Overall, Snakes for the Divine is a very good album. I'm just a little disappointed at how much it could have been a great one. Still, for all its flaws, High on Fire has released one of this year's best American metal albums (which isn't too much of a compliment considering how much Scandinavia has been sweeping in this category this year). It delivers in head-pummeling craft, but, as a cohesive product, Snakes for the Divine leaves a little to be desired.


Xiu Xiu - Dear God, I Hate Myself: C+

Yep, it's that kind of album. That title. That cover. I'd like to say that Dear God, I Hate Myself isn't the melodramatic melancholy pity party one might think it would be, but it is. The only reason I'm not giving it a lower rating than just crappy and not lambasting it in an emo-hating tirade is that the album does show some signs of quality amidst the dreck. These moments are quite few and far between, and far too much of Dear God, I Hate Myself is Jamie Stewart moaning over amorphous arrangements. Even the one moment of optimism, "This Too Shall Pass Away (For Freddy)", sounds half-assed and tossed-off, so it's hardly any solace for the rest of the album's depressive nature. Don't bother with Dear God, I Hate Myself. As much as I'd like to say it transcends the emo archetype, it plays right into most of the genre's drawbacks.


Toro Y Moi - Causers of This: B+

Frothy. That's what Toro Y Moi's debut album sounds like. With the onset of every track of Causers of This, I imagine someone cracking open an ice cold can of something or making a cappuccino or pouring whipped cream on something. It's about as glo-fi as you can get in February (snow-fi?), as percussion crackles and hums past your ears in blissed-out glee.

A notable aspect of Causers of This is the technique of having the music drop out at the downbeat of each measure. The effect it creates is similar to what would happen if you were drinking that cappuccino and, suddenly, all the liquid in the container disappeared, then reappeared. I mean, sure you have that liquid back in your mouth, but that doesn't change the jarring surprise of having what you expected to be there disappear, even if just for a moment. The second half of Causers of This relies on this surprise, and the literal effect it has on your ears is indescribable. All I know is that it sucks you into the music, immediately, and the album should be listened to for that feature, alone. As an album, though, Causers of This is great and might be the only album I've ever heard that would be ideal listening for saunas or while steaming vegetables.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What Is The Great Catch-Up?

Since the year started, I have been embarking on an enormous project that will prove to be extremely trying and, at this, point, I'm not particularly sure if I will be able to fulfill. As of now, the mission of Check Your Mode is this: to be your extensive guide to everything related to the music of the 2010's.

That's right. If all goes well, Check Your Mode's archives and activity will end at December 31st, 2019 (but, more likely, January 31st, 2020), with more music reviewed and ranked than any person concerned with this decade will ever want to contend with.

However, unfortunately, the time when I was to begin Check Your Mode was in the middle of college application season, and I just didn't have the time to do anything concerning music other than listening to and rating. Still, I desperately wanted to launch Check Your Mode, so The Great Catch-Up was conceived.

From now to the end of March of 2011, there will be FOUR Great Catch-Ups. The first, of which we are entrenched in right now, will be the recollection of the albums that I failed to review in the first six months of this year. The each album will be posted on the exact date they were released, just six months later. In this fashion, Vampire Weekend's Contra was posted on July 12th, and Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti's Before Today, the final post of The Great Catch-Up, will be posted on November 30th. For any album that was released in between those two, check its release date and check in with Check Your Mode for a possible review.

The Second Great Catch-Up will take place in January of next year and will chronicle the albums released in June, 2010. If all goes as planned, the dates they will be posted will be in concurrence with the date they were released, just seven months later.

The Third Great Catch-Up will take place in February of next year and will feature all of the music of the month of December, 2010. Now, the general layout of the next decade will be that December will feature no reviews (more on that later) and the releases of that month will be posted in January of that next year in the same way that the releases of The Second Great Catch-Up will be posted. However, due to all of the scheduling conflicts, those releases will be posted one month later than usual.

For however well planned out the first three Great Catch-Ups will be, the fourth will be far less calculated. At pretty much random points in the month of March, 2011, I will post all of the reviews of the albums that I missed in the First Great Catch-Up. And if that little bit annoys you, then fuck off. Nobody's perfect.

Now, I want everyone to keep in mind that, during the first three months of next year, new releases will be reviewed and posted in much the same way I post new releases with the Great Catch-Up albums. I plan to branch out as Check Your Mode progresses into writing articles and musical essays, but, for understandable reasons, that may not be feasible for the first couple months of 2011, but, as the site progresses and matures, I hope to create as extensive of a guide as my readers deserve. Thanks to all who have been following, and I hope I can keep this going for as long as I possibly can.


Lower Dens - Twin-Hand Movement: B

Lower Dens don't know how to end a song, nor do they really know how to start one. Nothing on Twin-Hand Movement, the band's debut album, is particularly satisfying, and I believe that is because Lower Dens has very little regard for following any real convention of songwriting. Although I can be quoted as regarding this quality as good, the result of Lower Dens' salutary neglect is a patchwork of decent to great ideas, but that's all they ultimately become: Ideas. A bassline usually sets the groundwork for the guitarists to noodle at their free will in individual speakers while the singer enunciates unintelligible phrases. Before you know it, the song's over without so much as a heed for dynamics or purpose. Take the song "A Dog's Dick" for example. My thought is that Lower Dens jammed around two and a half minutes of a repeating phrase and, during Twin-Hand Movement's mixing, the band decided, "Aww fuck it. Call it 'A Dog's Dick'" to make up for the fact that listeners will never again see those two and a half minutes of their lives.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Still, I think that Twin-Hand Movement shows Lower Dens has the potential to make material of better quality. The album's production is impeccable, allowing every instrument just enough sonic room to breathe and perform, however misguided or meandering those performances may be.

So this is the part when I tell you that I would recommend this album if you wanted something decent to fill silence while you read or ate cereal, but I could name you ten albums from this year alone that could do that job to a much better degree. Twin-Hand Movement receives a rating of above average by the sole virtue that it sounds quite nice; not that it adds anything remotely interesting to your life.


Peter Gabriel - Scratch My Back: B

Oh dear Lord. Peter Gabriel's coming out of the musical woodwork to release an album of covers that is musically nothing more than the man's voice, a piano, and a full orchestra? Sounds to me that Mr. Gabriel is doubling down, going all out to try and seduce my heart to the point that it will be wanting to pull on its own heartstrings for mercy.

When It Works:

Even though Gabriel completely misses the cheekiness in the lyrics with his delivery, his rendition of the Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love" is Scratch My Back's highlight. Of course, he uses the aforementioned strategy to try to get my heart's guard down, but, in this case, the swelling strings surrounding his subdued verses can bring premeditated tears to my eyes. If all of Scratch My Back was made up of songs like that, then there was a pretty good chance my heart would have put out.

When It Doesn't:

Woah, there, Peter. You're coming on a bit strong. I mean the whole point of Scratch My Back is to conjure the sappiest of the sap, but either your cologne is far too pungent, or that final orchestral stab at the end of your cover of "My Body Is a Cage" is a shameless ploy to make one more pass at my heart on an already failed endeavor. Honestly, you had a better chance if you showed my heart your stamp collection on the first date, and everyone knows that stuff's reserved for at least the third.

With the inclusion of those opposing ends of the quality spectrum, Scratch My Back throws almost a perfect game in supplying hit after dud; flirty come-on after slap in the face. I mean did you really think that you needed to throw your hat in the ring by recording the billionth and a third cover of "Heroes"? It's the same cheap thrills that my heart's seen countless times before, and you're going to need to try harder to get in its pants. Then again, that cover of "Apres Moi"? Oh I do declare I can feel my heart getting hot just thinking about it.

So the ultimate question is: Does Pete succeed? By Scratch My Back's end, is Mr. Gabriel sitting at the edge of a proverbial bed smoking a cigarette while my heart recuperates from a night of intense lovemaking? The short answer is no, but Scratch My Back does such a decent job of pulling those heart strings in the right places, my heart might just let Pete get a ground rule double. Key word: MIGHT. My heart is no whore, Pete.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs: A-

When I saw Arcade Fire at Madison Square Garden (the day before their YouTube Unstaged Performance), I was overwhelmed with emotion as I danced and sang along as loud as I could with audience members around me doing much the same. It got me thinking about how the band manages to have such a cathartic effect on people. I don't think the band has recorded a single positive song, yet I and most present were all too eager to smile from ear to ear as we hollered their lyrics at them as tunefully as we could. A couple slow-dancing to "Crown of Love" or me shouting "Working for the church while my family dies!" with a smile on my face seems to coincide with the messages of those songs, but people do it, and with little remorse at that. This is where I believe the majesty of Arcade Fire lies. The band's music offers no solutions for the countless problems their albums and the world offers, but they write melodies that allow people to release their anxieties in a public forum, where their problems seem that much more quaint. It is in this way that Funeral so well embodies adolescent angst, Neon Bible so well encompasses teenage rebellion, and The Suburbs so well characterizes middle-age depression.

The theme of The Suburbs is clear. Both Win Butler and Regine Chassagne have lived in the titular location and have stated that they wanted to capture the feeling of living there with their newest album. To this writer, the suburbs the band depicts are that of the 1950's, a time that seemed to house the perfect middle class, always had a seething undercurrent of fear, inadequacy and anger. The setting of the album concentrates on that undercurrent; that maligned convalescence that every person that lives there is in danger of being engulfed by, and, for many, are destined to remain.

At Madison Square Garden, every time the band was about to play a song from their newest, a single beige spotlight would bathe the band in sepia, symbolizing the similarly marginalized blandness the band was trying to depict. That blandness is expressed in the music as well as in the lyrics, of which I will get to in a moment. The old orchestral fanfares that were present on the band's last two albums are all but gone, and Arcade Fire have never sounded more like a rock and roll band. The title track is traditional two-step honky tonk, "Month of May" sounds like an artsy Ramones with a "Back in the USSR" beginning and "Suburban War" sounds like late-career Bruce Springsteen. What is not traditional for the band is the inclusion of synthesizers, which slowly but surely show up more prominently in the album's mix as the album progresses. The symbolic coldness of the instrument plays perfectly into the themes the band wishes to invoke, and they are used tastefully to continuously allow for comfortable listening.

Arcade Fire are also notably more reserved with their playing on The Suburbs. A Funeral-era Arcade Fire might have treated the chorus of "Ready to Start" as a cymbal-throttling affair. Instead, a florid ride cymbal pervades the song's background, sounding like an ominous wind blowing behind Win as he denies the love of someone who thinks otherwise.

The Suburbs also finds Arcade Fire with a different impression of "the kids". In Funeral, the band were those kids, and, in Neon Bible, the group worked with them to stage a revolt against the adults. But, in The Suburbs, the band are adults stuck in suburbia, and treat the kids with condescension for their naivety. "Let's go downtown and watch the modern kids," Win scoffs on "Rococo", later commenting "My God what is that horrible song they're singing?". His besiege continues on "Month of May", where he notes, "Some things are good and some things are right / But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight." "So much pain for someone so young," he sings with seeming compassion before continuing to scorn. "I know it's heavy, I know it ain't light / But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?" Where the kids met in the middle of the town in Funeral, and a more secluded place where no cars go in Neon Bible, the kids of The Suburbs meet in an empty room. Although the kids faced hardships throughout Arcade Fire's first two albums, there was no doubt they existed, but in the suburbs, there is a city with no children in it. With The Suburbs, the band (or the character that they are portraying) have disavowed the innocence of their childhood, and, as a result, the album is more dark than anything the band has released in the past.

I don't agree with the case made in "We Used to Wait", in which Win makes a tenuous argument against modern technology by wistfully reminiscing about when he used to wait for letters to arrive before communication became so immediate. However, the song has such a classic Arcade Fire melodic tunefulness, I can't help but sing along. In that song, the most telling line of The Suburb's intentions are expressed. "Now our lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last." Oh, now I get it. Win and the group are so tepid towards the modern kids, because they feel that things are changing too quickly and they think they'll be lost in the shuffle, and, as a result, they take it out on the harbingers of that future.

And the two songs that most exemplify this sentiment are "The Sprawl"s. The first finds a young Win visiting The Sprawl on his bike. You can feel the contempt in his voice for the place as he explains the visit as "the loneliest moment of my life." A policeman, who Win depicts as "the last offender of The Sprawl" interrupts his insolent narrative and the song drops out. Cut to the next song and Regine's living there, admitting defeat as she laments the shopping malls that rise like "mountains beyond mountains". "Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small," she sings, not unlike "Heart of Glass" in the menace that underscores the song's glitzy facade. "That we can never get away from the sprawl."

It's tough to know how fans will react to The Suburbs. The album neither immediately smacks of a classic like Funeral nor latches to your subconscious like Neon Bible. Ultimately, The Suburbs resembles the 50's recordings that it is influenced by, opting to be an excellent collection of songs and little else. Some might see that as a disappointment, but, regardless, The Suburbs is essential listening, if only to hear a theme masterfully fleshed out by a band of professionals. At this rate, Arcade Fire may be growing up too fast, but that unsureness of the future that is prevalent in all their albums continues to confound us all in singing along, with inhibition all but left behind.


Wavves - King of the Beach: B+ / Best Coast - Crazy For You: A-

There are some albums that would just be stupid marketing to release at any point other than the summer. Just by looking at those covers up there, you can guess that the newest albums from Wavves and Best Coast would fall under this category, as they should. Both Wavves and Best Coast mine a similar sound of sun-bleached melodies laden over punky riffage. Now, those two ratings over there are different, so there are some clear differences between the two albums, but I want you to keep in mind that both releases are excellent summer albums that will be interchangeably effective.

Best Coast is the grouping of guitarist and singer Bethany Cosentino, bassist Bobb Bruno and drummer Ali Koehner, but there is no mistaking that this is purely Cosentino's show. Her voice is Crazy For You's best aspect, as it has this fantastic mix of passion and malaise that seems to ebb and flow with her guitar for some dream-like head-bopping. Based on Crazy For You, Cosentino's life is pretty simple; she can't find that boy she's been wanting, her cat can't talk, the fact that "crazy" rhymes with "lazy" is a godsend, and her honey is, well, I'll let you figure that out. But it's all put into such a fantastic-sounding package, that most lyrical flubs are forgiven. As with any lo-fi artist, some musical aspects literally get lost in the mix. "The End" is the only song where I hear any bass, and you always know there is drumming going on, but the album could lack it entirely, and you wouldn't notice. The guitar fills in the spaces not occupied by Cosentino's voice, of which there is sometimes none. Cosentino's voice is extremely capable of carrying the album, though, making for a very complete release despite some obvious limitations.

If Cosentino is Lizzie from Lizzie McGuire (random analogy I know), then Nathan Williams of Wavves is her brother, Matt. While Cosentino is only concerned with boy troubles, Williams has a little more depth. Sure, he's got girl troubles, but, on King of the Beach, he writes about other things, like not giving a shit, how his friends suck and wanting to go surfing. The music of King of the Beach also has more variety. Bass is present throughout, a hip-hop-like thumping appears a couple times and there are a few more drumfills. Tempos go a little faster more often, and Nathan sounds like Tom Delong when he says "understand" in "Post Acid".

So even though Wavves made the more varied and, honestly, mature, effort, Best Coast has managed to make the better album. I believe this has less to do with Williams' shortcomings and more to do with the fact that Cosentino does what she does so well that it's hard to compete with an artist that plays a niche so well. Both King of the Beach and Crazy For You are portraits of normal people who use the summer for escape, and both albums are escapism at its best. In his words, Wavves is an idiot and, in mine, Best Coast is naive, but both have made excellently flawed material that at the very least gets the job done, even if I may not be listening to it as frequently next month.


Rick Ross - Teflon Don: B-

I have never heard a rapper embody exhaustion quite like Rick Ross. The moment the man appears on any track of Teflon Don, it sounds like he's been on a week-long rapping bender right up to that point, and is attacking the track with the vigor of a death wish. The best moments of Ross's new album are when he plays into that exasperated ethos, rapping hysterically over stubbornly unchanging beats that revolve around ascending key changes.

To Ross's credit, Teflon Don's second half does just that, moving from certified trunk-rattler, "No. 1" through string-laden "MC Hammer" and its doppelganger, "B.M.E. (Blowin' Money Fast)" to the Drake-assisted "Aston Martin Music". However, the approach proves to be a catch-22, because, with so much nonstop hustlin', the album begins to sound like gansta overkill.

Variance is essential, and the songs of Teflon Don that provide it are extremely hit-and-miss. The self-depreciating humor of the Kanye West-produced "Live Fast Die Young" wouldn't sound out of place on The College Dropout (sample lyric: "They say we can't be livin' like this for the rest of out lives / Well, we gon' be livin' like this for the rest of tonight") while "I Got a Bitch" capitalizes on an uninspired "Pimpin' All Over the County" premise and features one of the most half-assed choruses I have heard in my lifetime. "Super High" and "I'm Not a Star" both feature by-the-numbers production cliches, but, where the former relies on a bland R&B/rap hybrid, the latter plays to Ross's aforementioned strengths, to enjoyable effect. The cinematic scope of "Maybach Music III" fits T.I. and Jadakiss's guest spots, perfectly, but Gucci Mane's slow drawl is hilariously out of place on the sonically relentless "MC Hammer".

Lyrically, Ross is just as inconsistent. Other than a few scattershot lines, the man is only particularly quotable on "Free Mason" (sample lyric: "Right now I could rewrite history / I stopped writing so fuck it I'll do it mentally"). His performance overall is pretty unremarkable and can sour easily, like when he unleashes his tone-deaf singing voice on closer, "Money in the World".

The best of Teflon Don ("Live Fast Die Young", "No.1", "I'm Not a Star") can prove to be extremely effective party fodder for the playlist that will accompany whatever is left of your summer. The rest is fine for occasional listens, but would be greatly aided by some serious editing and a more potent lyrical presence. Ross has been on somewhat of a career arc since his first album, so there's a chance he can still improve his craft and finally make a lean product. For, now, treat Teflon Don as another transitory step and take the good tracks and run.


Curren$y - Pilot Talk: B+

The first time I heard Curren$y was in his guest spot on "No Wheaties" from Big K.R.I.T.'s debut album, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. I really enjoyed that verse, the sports-related specificity interesting coming from a voice that sounded like it had no intention of leaving bed let alone picking up a football. So when I heard Curren$y was going to be releasing his debut album, I was intrigued, but was skeptical of whether he could pull off a full album of material playing off such a lazy ethos.

No matter what you think of Pilot Talk, there is no denying that Curren$y succeeds in maintaining his lethargic persona throughout the album's thirteen tracks. In fact, it often sounds like Pilot Talk was recorded directly from the man's couch, rhymes spit in between games of Madden '09. "Some of the good things weed can do," he says in the beginning of "Breakfast" and it is clear that Curren$y believes there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. The man's monotone can get so unwavering, it's often difficult to distinguish between verses and choruses. Overall, it's a pretty effective strategy. However, I will say that the moment a guest appears on Pilot Talk with any semblance of ardor (Snoop Dogg, Devin the Dude), they immediately overshadow Curren$y no matter how hard the guy tries to be spirited in his apathy.

Ultimately, the best of Pilot Talk is when Curren$y breaks his chemically-induced repose. "I'm so sorry if I don't look happy to be here," he raps in what would be his equivalent of a scowl on "The Day", "In your label office, but they say I can't smoke weed here." Hey, in this case, the ends justify the means, and if Curren$y is so eloquent roasted, I can only imagine what he's capable of fumed.


Miniature Tigers - Fortress: B

Chamber pop artists have begun to form a symbiotic relationship lately. First, we had Grizzly Bear bassist, Chris Taylor, producing The Morning Benders' new album and now that band's frontman, Chris Chu, mans the boards for the second album by this Arizonan group. This information is critical to the understanding of Fortress, because it seems, at every turn, the album sonically borrows far too liberally from its producer's mainstay, and, ultimately, fails to carve out a definitive path for the band that made it. Not to say that Fortress is a bad album. I just found it incredibly frustrating how few times I could find a sound on Fortress I couldn't immediately trace back to The Morning Benders.

Reverberating percussion tumbles, harmonies disperse and, for the most part, Miniature Tigers go through the motions as they tentatively transitions from mid-tempo strummer to slightly less mid-tempo strummer. The best moments of Fortress are the ones that surprise, and there are only three moments where that genuinely happens. The first is in the piano interlude that begins "Lolita" before the band descends into business as usual. The second is the song title, "The Japanese Woman That Lives in My Closet", whose actual song doesn't come remotely close to living up to such a brilliantly ridiculous title (but, to be fair, only a clever black metal band could flesh out a song that would exploit that song's potential, properly.). The third is "Coyote Enchantment", whose female chanting of the title's first half is wistful, but, more, importantly, fun. I like the way the song's synth stabs puncture the album's omnipresent reverb, and it's a break in form that is much appreciated, even if it inspires more laughter than awe.

Fortress finds Miniature Tigers wearing their Shins and Morning Benders influence prominently on their sleeves, but the band has neither the harrowing vocal presence nor the believable sincerity of either. The band would be better served if they took more risks akin to the last couple tracks of Fortress. After all, we don't want to water down the mix too badly for the band that Miniature Tigers will inevitably produce in the future.


Stam1na - Viimeinen Atlantis: A

Stam1na make terrible music videos. Coincidentally, they've made one of the best metal albums of the year. Go figure.


Yeasayer - Odd Blood: A-

Somehow, Yeasayer became the most polarizing band of the year. Although they don't so much as hold a candle up to last year's reigning champion (Ga ga ooh la la) there was something about the band's sophomore album, Odd Blood that was a revelation to some and got under the skin of others. Based on that rating up there, you can tell I'm in the former camp, and, I'll be honest, I don't see why so many have problems with the album. Pitchfork takes any chance it gets when they cover the band's performances at festivals to comment on how bad first track, "The Children" is, Ian Cohen going as far as to say that it is "a prime candidate for the worst song of any major indie act in 2010", but I find the so-called "robo-fart voice thing" to be a pretty good song and a suitably strange introduction to a suitably strange album.

The rest is all excellent, but there are a few missteps when certain genre acrobatics don't quite fit right. However, I don't believe Odd Blood deserves all the intense derision it has received since its release. Chris Keating has a knack for housing this energy in his voice that can sound elegiacally passionate at times and voice-crackingly fervent at others. The album's songs have varying degrees of weirdness, but a bass-driven funk prevails throughout, always keeping you grounded in the familiar when the treble gets a little overwhelming. It's all recommended listening if only to see what all the fuss is about. After that point, Odd Blood will no doubt have you rooting for one side, and I hope it's mine. Eh, it's better than watching Twilight.


Hot Chip - One Life Stand: B+

For however much of a contender for best song of the year "Take It In", the final track of Hot Chip's new album, is, the band do a pretty good job of watering down that epiphany throughout the rest of the album. Songs like "One Life Stand" and "I Feel Better" are pretty good placement fillers, but songs like "Slush", "Brothers" and "Alley Cats" are so boring and pointless, it's one of those few times that actually warrants a remix album. If it weren't for "Take It In", One Life Stand would receive a lot less attention from me. However, that it maintains my interest enough to not be extremely relieved by the time that final song begins, it is a complete project that finishes just barely above average.


The Watson Twins - Talking to You, Talking to Me: B

One of my favorite internet videos is that of a man playing music for a wedding whose life becomes a lot more complicated quite abruptly and quite hilariously at the hands (or elbow) of one of his patrons. I love mindless displeasure as much as the next guy, but the reason why I find myself uncontrollably laughing every time I watch this video is because I find the music prior to the incident so abhorrent for its maligned homeliness, I get some sick satisfaction out of its creator receiving his just desserts. The music in question is the kind of cheesy wedding music I have always hated as a kid and have savored the thought of destroying along with "The Macarena" and "The Electric Slide" to make way for the embarrassing music of my generation. "Tell Me Why", the ninth track off The Watson Twins' Talkin' to You, Talkin' to Me comes so close to that repugnant adult contemporary, I have no other recourse but the gnash my teeth every time I listen to it.

But thank God the rest of Talkin' to You, Talkin' to Me isn't like that, because, if it was, Infinite Body would have some stiff competition for worst album of the year. Instead, the album is quite pleasant even if it refuses to push any envelopes. "Modern Man", "Harpeth River", "Forever Me" and "Devil in You" all have this nice reverence to dulled jazz, but never go headlong into Norah Jones territory. Talkin' to You is nothing if not consistent, so you very well could find it worth your time... provided you immediately delete "Tell Me Why" upon getting it (and don't forget to empty the trash. That shit will come back.)


Overkill - Ironbound: B- / Heathen - The Evolution of Chaos: B- / Orphaned Land - The Way of the OrWarriOr: B-

The 2000's were fraught with old, washed up metal bands resurrecting themselves from the limbo of public consciousness and making records of original material, but, more likely, making records of covers and proceeding to collect their tour earnings. Some, like Metallica, made longtime fans question their legacy, then, in my opinion, regained those fans' trusts whiles others, like Megadeth, had arguably never left in the first place. I mention the biggest examples, but there were countless groups like Tesla, Poison, Night Ranger and Def Leppard who took advantage of the decade's fetish for the past in order to make a few extra bucks (although I will mention that Def Leppard's attempts were far less craven than that of their counterparts).

And so it seemed that, with the release of albums by Overkill and Heathen, that trend was going to continue. Heathen's last album was released in 1991, so The Evolution of Chaos was seen by many as the band's comeback album and Overkill had always released albums no longer than two years between each other since 1985, and Ironbound found the band, like a stubborn mule, trudging on into a new decade.

Despite both albums being awaited with bated breath by fans of both bands, both The Evolution of Chaos and Ironbound sound just as waterlogged and hackneyed as anything Kiss or Foreigner would have cooked up in the mid-aughts. Double bass rumbles, guitar solos spray at you and not a damn thing sticks. It's all very listenable, but the music doesn't have much character, attempting to just blind you with technical skill as opposed to engaging you to enjoy the album with the band.

I can understand why Overkill would release something like this, as, after releasing seventeen albums in twenty five years, ideas are bound to get recycled, but Heathen have little excuse for what they've come up with. As I have criticized some Megadeth albums for being too much grit and not enough art, Heathen just hope to dazzle you into liking The Evolution of Chaos without your blood so much as coming to a simmer.

Now, it seems unfair to group Orphaned Land with Heathen and Overkill, because they have been around for far less. Still, for however young they may be and however different their style of metal is, my overall reaction remains the same. To their credit, the band does have a good song in the opening track, "Sapari", but the rest of The Way of the ORWarriOR is so long, convoluted and cluttered with unnecessary guitar solos, guttural screams and suites, that I'm face-palming long before the album's first half even ends.

I want to reiterate that neither The Evolution of Chaos, Ironbound nor The Way of the ORWarriOR are sonically displeasing. In fact, the fretwork on The Evolution of Chaos could be in the running for the best of the year. But if these bands don't learn to write more songs instead of solos and concepts, they're going to be doomed to careers of mediocrity. Some may be OK with the relentless guitar wank, but it must be kept in mind that there is a great difference between musicians and niches.


Gil Scott-Heron - I'm New Here: B+

Much like your standard poem, the songs of I'm New Here remain strictly centered around an often literal premise and leave abruptly when it's clear that premise has been transferred to the listener. Whether it be accompanied by a sample of Kanye West's "Flashing Lights" or acoustic fingerpicking, Gil keeps his music trim of frills and indulgences, preferring to let his excellent wordplay serve as the focus, and causing most of I'm New Here's songs to be less than three minutes. Lyrically, my favorite song is "Where Did the Night Go", whose subject cannot bring himself to write to his long lost love a letter past the words "Dear baby, how are you?" and whose delivery is impassioned and believable. However, as an overall product, "The Crutch" is I'm New Here's highlight. The thump of the song's percussion is menacing as Gil describes a battle scene with brief but harrowing detail. His best line is an alliteration. "Ba boom boom" he whispers along with the beat. Simply put, it's chilling.

I would be giving I'm New Here a higher rating if it were not for the pointless asides in between songs that sound recorded directly in the studio. They disrupt the flow of the album, and I don't get anything out of them that could be more telling than what a full song would sound like with their combined running time. Still, a minute and eight seconds of dud on an album brimming with talent is nothing to shake a fist at, so I'm New Here is a great listening experience even though you'll have to turn your attention away from it at certain intervals.