Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

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.


Massive Attack - Heligoland: B+

Some may cringe at the mention of this, but I believe that Heligoland is the sound of an artist getting comfortable. The album finds Massive Attack playing slower songs with more atmosphere and a lot less urgency. Its songs convey emotions ranging from the yearning to the depressed, and you can put the smart money on the fact that the only thing Massive Attack will not sound like is energetic. Which, to me, is fine. However much you can try to pan the band for its rapturous ennui, Heligoland never gets boring. "Girl I Love You", which features an excellent vocal performance from frequent Massive Attack collaborator, Horace Andy, is a slow-burn album highlight. The song, itself, never gets particularly close to lifting off, but boy does it have a hell of a time at the launching pad. Heligoland is nothing if not placid, but it makes for good musical accompaniment even if it doesn't perform well on the dance floor.


Pantha du Prince - Black Noise: A

Say you're starving for dinner, because you've been playing a sport all day and you haven't eaten a thing since breakfast. You arrive at home and immediately plop yourself at the dinner table, where your favorite meal is being served. Your face brightens spectacularly and you serve yourself, cutting a piece of whatever that food is and holding it up to your mouth to be devoured.

Now freeze. Do you feel that savory moisture in your mouth? The one that seems to coat your gullet and swish as you move your tongue around? Try speaking; you may find that the moisture adds an increased tactile nature to your speech. That feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment that your body produces is what the definition of delicious is to your mouth as Pantha du Prince's Black Noise is to your ears.

Not a single moment of Black Noise is wasted. Although that's a given with any album, there is literally something going on at all times and different elements are constantly being worked towards your listening pleasure. Unlike other products that can say the same, you can single out each individual element of any track of Black Noise and dissect its importance to the song's whole to your liking. In other words, few other albums have sounded so complete while sounding so transparent.

Percussion is integral to the tangible nature of Black Noise. Marvelous textures are created through the use of seemingly ordinary sounds. "Ablangz" is the most prominent example, as much of the song's percussion sounds like what would have happened if you recorded yourself dumping the contents of the sea shore pictures in those "Find Five Objects" children's books on a marble floor. The song's melodies are crafted by seemingly tapping vases of various sizes all while a confident bass line coerces the song forward. At the risk of sounding like a creep, I want to note that sometimes I like to place my hands on the speakers of my laptop when listening to "Ablganz" to literally feel the track's sonic richness bubble at my fingertips.

Most of Black Noise can be characterized in the way that I just described. Moods ebb and flow, Animal Collective's Panda Bear lends his voice, and, at some point, a Frenchman rambles on about what I can only imagine is his list of sexual exploits. The album may feel a little on the long side, but that's not really a substantive qualm, because, if you give it your time, you'll be wishing Black Noise was longer.


Sade - Soldier of Love: B+

"Soldier of Love"

Anyone looking for a reason why Sade, at 50 years old, looks so youthful, may want to look to her music for answers. On her first album in ten years, the songstress barely raises her voice, only doing so to tell us she's a soldier on the title track. For the majority of Soldier of Love, Sade remains admirably reserved.

She most definitely gets down, though, on Soldier of Love. Make no mistake: This is baby-making music. Whether it be through the stoic posturing of the title track or the loving caress of "Morning Bird", Sade will either make you feel like the most loved person on Earth or jealous as fuck of the guy she continually admires. "Baby Father" is a cute and heartwarming ode to fatherhood, "In Another Time", a reassurance to that wronged woman out there, and "Long Hard Road", that token track that reassures all that redemption will never come easy.

Sure it may all start to congeal after a while, but the combination of this album and a kettle of camomile and you'll be wondering where the hell your Sunday afternoon went in no time. It seems a little strange that it would take Sade so long to make Soldier of Love, but it's a welcome return. Besides, if I ask questions, the album will just smooch me and give me a well-deserved hug.