Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Friday, January 21, 2011

Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes: B

By far, the best song on Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is the album’s first track, “Road Zombie”. Not even two and a half minutes long, it is a propulsive and sexy instrumental consisting of simple but brilliant guitar progressions layered over almost metallic chugging reminiscent of the turn Pennywise made on their most recent album, Reason to Believe. It’s an opening track that completely raises the stakes for what fans and newcomers alike may have thought Social Distortion was capable of, more than thirty years in the game and still able to pull out some new tricks.

The other ten tracks that make up Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, the band’s seventh album, sound nothing like “Road Zombie”, so much so that I will find myself questioning whether or not it’s the same band that transitions from that lead-off to “California (Hustle and Flow)” when I listen to it. To the band’s credit, those other ten tracks sound a lot more like traditional Social Distortion. The only difference in the approach this time around is that they’re embracing their soul and gospel influences, genres whose connections are relevant to the band’s style as far as the blues are one of their major influences. So, they’ve added a choir and some organ, and, in an unwillingness to let these new elements go to waste, the band features that aspect of their sound more prominently, simultaneously distancing themselves from the punk rock that made them worth noting in he mid-80’s.

With this new style comes a new optimism that Hard Times conveys from the playing style to the lyrics. “Life gets hard / And then it gets good,” Mike Ness sings in a croak nearly identical to the one he had in ’83. “Just like I always knew it would.” That lyric perplexed me the first time I heard it. Can you imagine Ness telling that to the protagonist of “Story of My Life”, a rudderless youth who won’t even interview for a job from the shame he feels for his ragged jeans? It’s strange that, in Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, Social D suddenly pretend that the group’s aesthetic had some kind of silver lining, especially considering the group was at the forefront of the transition in modern punk from outright rebellion to collective lamentation.

That isn’t to say that Social Distortion aren’t allowed to be optimistic at times or play anything other than SoCal strut. If anything, like Lemmy has insisted that Motorhead is a rock and roll band, Social Distortion have never pretended not to be heavily influenced by the sounds that are so pronounced on Hard Times. The thing is, the album’s optimism is so heavy and matter-of-fact, it often comes off as stale. When you make an artificial confectionary sugar pun as one of your song titles, you’re almost asking to have your sincerity questioned, and I’m sorry to inform that this is a significant problem with Hard Times. “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown” sounds like a Green Day rip-off and “Bakersfield”, with its spoken-word breakdown, sounds exactly like a Peter Wolf B-side. However, where Wolf is able to counteract the kitsch with self-referential winks and nods, Social Distortion remain stubbornly and characteristically humorless throughout Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, allowing boredom to overtake the listener rather easily.

Hard Times does have some bright spots, as in the avant-punk swing of “Alone and Forsaken”, the gospel throttle of “Can’t Take It With You”, and “Still Alive”, the album’s final track, but it’s hard to come out of the album with a sense that the band isn’t just barely bobbing above the tide of adequacy. My suggestion is to get “Road Zombie”, because that song is quite good despite its brevity, and use your imagination to suggest how Hard Times could have sounded if Social D had followed that initial instinct.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Decemberists - The King Is Dead: B+

After what was an absolute blowout of a musical year, with aughts stalwarts like Kanye West and Laura Veirs pulling out some of their greatest work to face a new and promising decade, we begin 2011 with an album that will be noted as a coming down of sorts from one of the more recognizable groups of 2000’s indie rock. Known for mercilessly erudite and stringent pop, The Decemberists have decided to fall back on the basics after the slightly tepid response from critics for their 2009 rock opera, The Hazards of Love. The result is an album that finds its musical fancy in what can be holistically considered folk, but one that has a foot in many of its surrounding sounds.

The King Is Dead sounds like the genre-flexing of a group of professionals that have assured talents and even more assured musical vocabulary. All the signifiers are there – the steel guitar, the violin, the banjo – and not once on The King Is Dead do you question that the band hasn’t planned nearly every aspect of the record you’re hearing. But, with that complete control, one can worry that the group is far too calculating with their precision, not leaving enough space for their songs to grow, which is an especially grave concern when working with a genre as loose as folk. This quality does hinder The King Is Dead, but not in the way you’d think. The band does very little to strangle their songs of appeal. In fact, this is one of a very few albums in which I cannot pick out one great fault. But this perfection is what, ultimately, hinders The King Is Dead; the album is impenetrably solid, but never does it surprise or move you. Sure, you might be humming some of its melodies the day after you hear them, but I challenge anyone to still care much about this album in a few months’ time. The band may have succeeded in releasing an album that maintains alarmingly consistent quality equilibrium, but its lack of risks can be frustrating.

The King Is Dead, is not a homogonous album, though. When The Decemberists aren’t amicably folking it up, they’re an R.E.M. cover band as in “Down By the River” (It’s the guitar the gives it away, and, lo and behold, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck plays on this and two other tracks). The times when The King Is Dead goes from a B+ to, let’s say, a B++, are when the band gets a little bit dark. The sinister harmonica screech of “This Is Why We Fight” and the tender strumming of “Dear Avery” add a sinister aspect to the album in its final fifth. Colin Meloy’s best lyric on the album is hilariously tossed off in the beginning of “Calamity Song” (“And I believe / California succumbed to the fault line / We heaved relief / As scores of innocents died”).

The only part of the album that had me doing a legitimate double-take, though, was at the end of “This Is Why We Fight”, when the sound of Petra Haden emoting over strummed guitar and the pitter-patter of raindrops permeates the mix for the song’s final minute. It may not be The King Is Dead’s best moment, but it is definitely the most raw; a surprise on an album that could have used more of them. Which is, in itself, a surprise considering the group’s reputation for avid quirkiness. I guess after an arguable pitfall, the group put comfort first for their newest, which, practically, is a valid choice to make. I just hope, with The King Is Dead, that The Decemberists will feel confident enough to move on to making more brainy prog-pop. The album’s replete with pretty little ditties, but I see The King is Dead as a forgettable stopgap between The Crane Wife and whatever comes next from the group more than anything else.


Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde: A- / Tennis - Cape Dory: B+

I don’t think that Fat Possum could have released two albums on the same day that could more drastically beg to be hated by modern music defeatists. If you hate the 60’s fetishism running rampant in modern indie rock, then the newest from Smith Westerns and Tennis may give you the uncontrollable urge to bitch slap an Urban Outfitters cashier.

Band: Smith Westerns

Back Story: After a decently successful debut album in 2009, the Chicago group has cleaned up their production for their newest album.

Charges Against Them: The album is “Beatles-esque”, a signifier I believe is a blatant slap in the face to anything it refers to. Regardless, even I, a person who greets The Beatles with a solid “meh”, can see how the Smith Westerns’ newly-varnished production pays wholesale homage to the band circa-The Magical Mystery Tour. The album’s lyrics sound like a tween’s high-end dump of every lyrical cliché he can think of. Nights are danced away, it becomes alright now, people die young, and people take the long way home. The same song structure is blatantly employed in three tracks, the lazy waltz of “All Die Young” duplicated on “Smile” and “Dye the World”. The cover looks like the floral pattern on my grandma’s couch and, if I may, the swirl effect on it looks quite “Beatles-esque”.

But…: It turns out that Dye It Blonde is loaded with hooks and masterful songwriting. Those above statements may be true, but Smith Westerns know how to make imitation look like flattery. Cameron Omori’s bass licks are supple and provide an excellent backbone for the music, and Cullen Omori and Max Kakacek’s twin guitar interjections absolutely slay the record, earning it the “glam-rock” moniker that has been somewhat attributed to them. Influences on or off sleeve, a good set of songs is a good set of songs, and Smith Westerns are the first band this year to provide that in spades from front to back.

Band: Tennis

Back Story: After spending seven months together sailing on the Eastern Seaboard, married musicians Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley decided to make an album about their travels under the name Tennis.

Charges Against Them: Regardless of how I feel about the quality of Cape Dory, it’s nearly impossible to think of how that cover art was a good decision. It’s going to turn so many people away by its sheer gaudiness, I’m saddened by how much potential money Tennis has lost on that decision, alone. The cover speaks volumes for what the band stands for, which is more of the 60’s soul girl-group revivalism that started with Amy Winehouse, which, to some, means more of the same blah blah dribble dribble. What’s the point?

But…: It turns out that Alaina Moore has a fantastic voice. Pop darlings like Taylor Swift may try to convey teenage innocence in their songs, but Moore actually encapsulates it, swooning as if she were reading aloud from her own diary entries. Plus, do you hear that? That’s just a tad of distortion on Moore’s voice, which gives it a mercurial bent when she goes for those jaunting high notes. You have to give her credit for giving her performance rough edges to smooth out. The songwriting is solid, at best sounding like Beach House and, at worst, sounding like a girl group retread. Cape Dory may sag a bit in its second half, but its bona fides as not just another Dusty Springfield obsessive have been well established.

So what did we learn, today? Not to judge a book (album) by its cover, and that good records can come in some rather stale packages. I didn’t think I was going to like either of these records, but I was proven wrong. My suggestion is to allow yourself to be proven wrong as well.