Monday, February 28, 2011
Thomas Giles, for those who do not know, is the frontman of Between the Buried and Me. Whether you enjoy Giles’s mainstay or not, there is no denying that the band he’s in is one of the more formative metal bands recording music today. They’re schizophrenic, progressive and consistently fascinating. A song like “Prequel to the Sequel”, from the group’s Colors, is a song to be studied for its sharp turns from tunefulness to din to bravado to insanity, even if, in my opinion, it’s not that great of a song. I don’t particularly like Between the Buried and Me, but I cannot deny that they are a group that is never satisfied with not pushing the envelope with every new album they release.
Thomas Giles’s first official solo album (he released an album under the name Giles in 2005) pushes something, and that thing is my patience. As much as Pulse is a surprise coming from a guy who makes most of his money playing in one of America’s most popular metalcore bands, the album comes off exactly like Thomas Giles trying to make a statement about how much of a surprise it is. On Pulse, we hear Giles experiment with electronic, acoustic, metal, and (I kid you not) dubstep. However, the execution of all these songs comes off as exceedingly half-assed and pretentious, as if Giles only made the effort to sound different and then rushed through the rest of the songwriting process.
The worst of Pulse comes right at its beginning, with “Sleep Shake”. Here, among flowing guitar chords and a monotonous drum beat, Giles opens up his album with this line: “It started like a normal day/I jumped and explored the yard/My senses seem tense/Like a bond between two friends/They’ve never really been my friends/Just a common sense of self/But today I feel so strange/Like I’m someone else”. If you didn’t notice, Giles is trying to put himself in the mind of an emotionless robot, but the awkward wording and meaningless similes sound embarrassingly clunky. That, and most of the lyrics of Pulse, circumvent cleverness and go straight for the ostentatious. In “Scared”, when he sings “I’m here for you/I’m here for all of you”, it doesn’t sound like Giles is being benevolent, but, instead, expecting you to be really fucking impressed with how goddamn benevolent he is. But, really, these hollow signifiers are just cover-ups for the fact that Giles can’t write lyrics for shit. At the chorus of “Sleep Shake”, one would assume that he would have to pull out a trump lyrical card to consolidate what I’m sure he thought was genius in those previous verses, but the best he can come up with is “I’ve become different now”. Is it too obvious to say that he isn’t fooling anyone in this regard?
It doesn’t help that Pulse also sounds surprisingly cheap. I say that Giles takes cracks at many genres on the album, but its songs that feature more than just a piano or an acoustic guitar sound downright amateurish. The aforementioned “Sleep Shake” and many of the electronic songs on Pulse have some regard for texture, but their choruses routinely devolve into shooting-for-the-rafters chord-strummers with electronic blips floating around, sounding like a Muse caricature or Dream Theater at their most shamelessly poppy. “Catch & Release” tries to split the difference between the thrash of Between the Buried and Me and Giles’s electronic aspirations and ends up sounding like an irresponsible Shining, and not even Shining is particularly good at that kind of sound. “Hamilton Anxiety Scale” actually sounds promising with its hand percussion and off-kilter bass lines reminiscent of The Mars Volta, but it too cannot help but, like most of Pulse, resign its fate to a stale crash cymbal-laden chordgasm. Few albums exemplify the feeling of displaying free-floating ideas and little else from an artist than Pulse.
However, there is one legitimately good song on Pulse, and, it’s the one that, by far, resembles Between the Buried and Me. “Medic”, placed arbitrarily in the middle of the album between two ambient electronic tracks, is a sleeper cell that reveals itself wonderfully with a quick drum intro and takes off from there into a magnificent landscape of fractured riffing and growling vocals. It’s unexpectedly rousing in the best ways, and, at less than three minutes, ransacks every other song on the album. For all the ambition acrobatics Giles attempts on Pulse, “Medic” makes it abundantly clear where the man’s skills lie. And, ultimately and ironically, I don’t think I’ve heard a song as out of place on an album as “Medic” is on the otherwise inert Pulse.
A part of me does have some respect for Giles for diverging so much from the sound of his main group, especially one that’s ensconced in a genre as rigid as metal is in comparison to other musical genres, but, here, his imagination is stretched far too thin. Pulse is probably the most radically eclectic album I’ve ever heard, but it’s nearly impossible to reward it when it is so consistently awful. Those who haven’t a passing interest in Between the Buried and Me should avoid all of Pulse but “Medic”, and BtBaM fans should just wait for the band’s new album in April and breathe a sigh of relief that Pulse isn’t a sign of Giles permanently striking out on his own (yet…). The moral of Pulse is to get “Medic”, and we should be thankful that the album yielded an ending as happy as that.
Friday, February 25, 2011
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Monday, February 21, 2011
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Now, it should be enough of an insult to Zonoscope that I ended up spending the time listening to it playing “guess who” with the influences, but what should be an outright slap in the face is that the group I ultimately deduced Cut Copy were carbon copies of was not actually a band from the 80’s at all. It was Yeasayer. If you listen to a song like “Take Me Over” and then hear a song like “O.N.E.” from Yeasayer’s excellent Odd Blood from last year, it literally sounds like the same band is performing both songs. The only clear difference between Zonoscope and Odd Blood-era Yeasayer is that Yeasayer did a much better job of making the nostalgia of the 80’s something quite vibrant. Zonoscope just sounds like the rehash of a rehash, Dan Whitford’s noncommittal deadpan not even trying to compete with Yeasayer’s Chris Keating’s glorious yelp.Zonoscope, is a decent synth pop homage, but, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the short time I’ve run this blog, it’s that there’s quite a bit of decent synth pop homage out there. The first half is slightly promising with the chorus of “Need You Now” being pretty good and “Take Me Over” sounding like a modest party-starter (probably because its synth line is almost exactly that of “You Can Call Me Al”) but, even then, the album sags to instantly forgettable new-wave exercises in its second half. Then the whole painfully mediocre mission statement is summarized in the closer, “Sun God”, which manages, with ease, to take all the things that make Zonoscope banal and pointless; aimless synth throbs and half-assed lyrics (“You got to live / You got to die / So what’s the purpose of you and I”) and space it out over 15 minutes, which gives it absolutely no playback value, but, on the bright side, is a shorter length than the rest of Zonoscope, so it could be a pretty good substitute for the same listening experience. If you want a good Cut Copy album, get Odd Blood and let this one fade into what I would call (but never again) THE BOREVOID.
I’ve never understood the comparisons between Muse and Radiohead. I concede that both bands started with a similar schtick of raging/quiet British alt-rock with soaring vocals, but, as both bands’ careers have expanded over the years, they have become quite divergent. Where Radiohead, in my opinion, have become more insular and spare, Muse are getting very close to eclipsing U2 as the most bombastic band that’s still making music. If you look at the two bands now, the most recent Radiohead output being 2007’s In Rainbows and Muse’s being their contribution to the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack, “Neutron Star Collision (Love Is Forever)”, it’s hard to imagine the connection as little more than cosmetic, as Radiohead and Muse are British bands that have frontmen who like to sing in a higher register.
You know who does sound like Radiohead? Stateless. Yeah, the influences are in and Stateless, a British band, have absolutely no qualms with copping the desolate, sheepish, and vaguely electronic sound that I was surprised to find I could track to its source material within the first track’s first ten seconds. On their second album, Matilda, the band also sounds like Massive Attack. Boil it down to Matilda’s basic elements and you won’t need more than that description before listening to the album. Songs like “Curtain Call” and “Miles to Go” sound like the work of countless bands out there right now, a good portion of which have flushed out their material to significantly better effect.
Another band immediately linkable to Stateless is the British band These New Puritans, which basically denotes that, at times, the band sounds like Radiohead and Massive Attack with a more pronounced Eastern influence. “Visions” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Gnarls Barkley album. All these influences combine to make something that doesn’t ever sound contrived, but, rather, the work of a band with absolutely no defining qualities. Matilda is a pretty good record, but it ranks in my mind as one of the clearest stylistic rip-offs of a single group I’ve ever heard, and when that group is Radiohead, your outfit is not long of this Earth.So Matilda is worth your time if you like Radiohead or Massive Attack, and if you’re OK with that (and if you are, that rating up there would indicate you’re in good company), then the album will be a rewarding experience. The glaring lack of originality shouldn’t outright offend you, because the songs are actually pretty good. The only thing truly offensive about Matilda is that it took four years to make.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Well the good news is that, on Mine Is Yours, the band’s third album, Jonnie Russell does not sound like a strangled dolphin. In fact, ever since their second album, Loyalty to Loyalty, he has been tempering his voice to what now sounds most similar to The Black Keys’s Dan Auerbach. This taming of Russell’s eccentricities is no coincidence, as Mine Is Yours is a clear attempt by the band to hit mainstream success. With Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King in tow, the band has sufficiently rubbed off their rough edges to create something that does not attempt to hide the fact that it is trying to reach for a KOL-type crossover.
Fortunately, Cold War Kids do a better Come Around Sundown Kings of Leon than Come Around Sundown Kings of Leon. If you haven’t already deduced, Mine Is Yours is, in this critic’s opinion, Cold War Kids’s best album, which is hilarious considering the critical beating the album has received from publications that had once hailed their inception. I’m not going to pretend that Mine Is Yours isn’t a shallow attempt to get played on Hot 97, but the safe and unassuming version of these guys is a shit ton better than what they sounded like when they first came onto the scene. “Skip the Charades” features a guitar line that subtly rips off Silversun Pickups’s “Lazy Eye”, and four of the album’s songs end in reverb-heavy cymbal-crashing, which I’m sure will go over well at Bonnaroo, but I can’t say that it ever sounds particularly cheap or even ham-fisted in its approach. Finally, the album’s production gives the group some space instead of being so aggravatingly bone dry. I know people are going to HATE the electronic experiment, “Sensitive Kid”, but I quite like it, especially during Russull’s gentle falsetto in the song’s chorus.
Many Cold War Kids fans are going to despise Mine Is Yours for being the shameless cash-grab that it is, but it’s not half the atrocity it has been labeled as. You can leave it on when your mom subtly slips it into your car stereo in an attempt to prove to you that she knows what the kids are listening to these days. It’s still bland and it’s still adult contemporary, but come on. It’s adult contemporary. You could do a lot worse.
It is quite a surprise to see how an artist so generation defining and deliriously consistent could make such a decent album bogged down by such poor musical choices. Jack White’s production on marginally well known soul songstress Wanda Jackson’s newest album is the worst product White has put his name on since the White Stripes 2005 misstep, Get Behind Me Satan. But where that record’s fault came from White’s overreaching need to bring in new sounds, The Party Ain’t Over, Jackson’s first album in six years, is impeded by a handful of frustrating production flourishes.
However, before I delve into that aspect of The Party Ain’t Over, I must address an issue I have with the record that is apparent right from the album’s onset, and that is that Jackson’s voice is just not particularly good. Whether it’s draped in reverb for most of the record, or placed in front of a fan like in first track “Shakin All Over”, Jackson’s voice is too reedy and timid to carry the record to any noticeable heights. Which would be fine if White didn’t choose songs for her that required her to feature some sort of sneer. Her performances on that song and the Amy Winehouse cover “You Know I Ain’t No Good” sound forced. The only time her voice truly feels comfortable amidst the material being played is the album’s final track, “Blue Yodel #6”, but, even then, it sounds like an acoustic rip-off of White Blood Cells track, “Now Mary”.
The rest of White’s influence apparent The Party Ain’t Over amounts to bursts of skuzzy bass, occasional frenetic solos and a distinct production on the drums in which it clear that it is White behind the kit. “Busted” and “Rum and Coca-Cola” sound like permutations of tossed-off Dead Weather B-Sides, but that sound that proved to be so successful on that band’s two records cannot save them from both being ill-conceived song choices. “Busted”’s circus-like bounce comes off as clumsy and the calypso of “Rum and Coca-Cola” is yet another case in which Jackson’s voice just doesn’t sound comfortable.
But the most galling aspect of The Party Ain’t Over is the record’s omnipresent horn section. Whether it be in “You Know I’m No Good” or “Nervous Breakdown”, its interjections instantly turn the respectable tracks into cheesy romps that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to The Jungle Book. The worst case is in “Thunder on the Mountain”. I don’t particularly like Bob Dylan all that much, but even I can see that White and Jackson’s treatment of his Modern Times track does the song very little justice. The horn section strips the track of any earnestness and Jackson’s straightforward performance strips out all the personality that justified the song’s long length. A song like “Thunder on the Moutain” is tough to cover, because its enjoyment lies in the rhythm of Dylan’s performance, and to hear Jackson plow through it is a missed opportunity and the album’s biggest folly.
The rest of Party ranges from decent to pretty good, keeping the album from being decidedly crappy. “Rip It Up” and “Dust on the Bible” are probably the album’s highlights, but that isn’t saying much, because I have qualms with them simply for the fact that Jackson sings on them. People expecting to hear another Van Lear Rose, will be sorely disappointed, and White Stripes fans can justifiably point out that it’s been four years since that group’s come out with a proper album (Update: :'( ). The Party Ain’t Over is a very decent record, but anyone buying it will, I’m sure, come to expect something of far better quality.
If there is any reason to listen to Native Speaker, the debut album from this Montreal group, it is for the performance of lead vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston. Aside from her ethereal tone and soaring notes, her appeal will become immediately apparent in the first track, “Lemonade”, a song of jitters that coalesces around a chorus that goes, “And what I found is that we/We’re all just sleeping around.” The chorus comes amidst a wash of lightly picked guitars and rolling percussion, an accompaniment that can best be described as dream pop, but hearing Preston sing so candidly about sex, and in the album’s first track no less, and then continue on in later verses (“Well I was joking with my lemonade/I told him to get fucked then get laid.”) is refreshing in contrast to the considerably tame music that surrounds her.
Second and third tracks “Plath Heart” and “Glass Dears” are similarly vocally flippant. Standell-Preston has great fun annunciating the ridiculous line in the second verse of the former, “Didn’t do exactly what you told me/When you scold me/Leads me to implore thee/Golden hole that was surely given/To make beautiful children and push and push and push and push,” and strains her voice to great heights on the latter, making her sound like Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne, but outdoing her sass tenfold. In moments, Standell-Preston hurls herself from a delicate coo to a screech. And with the music surrounding her so spacious I can’t help but picture Preston maniacally grabbing at mist as she sings through each song.
The downfall of Native Speaker is that, as the album progresses, the atmosphere that looms over each track increasingly engulfs Standell-Preston. In every song on Native Speaker, some element of her quirkiness shines through, but from “Glass Dears” on, Standell-Preston’s voice is mixed more as just another instrument. The songs of Native Speaker’s second half are by no means bad, but, frankly, they don’t play to the band’s strengths. The final track, “Little Hands” features no vocals at all, and is, as a result, a whimper of a track buoyed by the jangly guitars that I don’t need to tell how many times you’ve heard. It’s the antithesis of the band that burst out the gate on “Lemonade” and is somewhat of a play-it-safe disappointment from a group that I believe is more than capable of maintaining that bombast for a full album.
The only thing interesting about Grown Unknown is the album cover. The rest is the most generic thing I’ve heard yet this year. The last thirty seconds of the title track, where clapping patterns mix with swooping orchestration, is the only time I actually give a damn, and, even then, it sounds like something Laura Marling could do in her sleep. Other than that, Grown Unknown is just a half-assed attempt to make a record by Laura’s Marling and Veirs, Joanna Newsom and Scout Niblett. And when that attempt comes closer to Norah Jones than anything else, you need to really reconsider what your aspirations are with your musical career.
I, like many people, did not expect half of Kiss Each Other Clean. Being new to Iron & Wine, I perceived the sound of the outfit by looking at its auteur, Sam Beam, and anyone who has seen the guy cannot blame me for thinking that his newest album would be loaded to the brim with folk-tastic audio intimacy. To my credit, like I mentioned, half of Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam’s first album in four years, is just that; finger-picked rambles sung by a surprisingly spry bearded man. The second half of Kiss Each Other Clean, however, is quite different, and is a clear sign of an artist desperate to branch out into different styles than the one he has been confined to for nearly a decade.
So, do the experiments work? Yes. There isn’t a track on Kiss Each Other Clean that I outright dislike. The new sounds range from the playfully indulgent (“Big Burned Hand”) to the keyboard-led ominous (“Rabbit Will Run”). Both new styles have their advantages, and I do not have a clear preference toward either. I will say, however, that I, overall, enjoyed the more traditional songs more than the experimental ones. I was surprised to discover this upon listening to Kiss Each Other Clean, because I tend to gravitate towards the risky, but there is a clear flaw in all the experimental songs of Kiss Each Other Clean that prohibits them from reaching a much higher enjoyment level than, “Oh that sounds kinda cool.” That flaw is that, for however much that initial melody hooks you in on a song like “Monkeys Uptown”, it’s hard to ignore upon closer inspection that the song’s just the repetition of a single melody over and over. Once you see that crucial flaw in half the songs on Kiss Each Other Clean, it’s hard to give the album the love that its ambition may deserve. And once the final track, “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough”, stops abruptly to repeat a coda that builds with barely enough payoffs for seven minutes, you might just have had enough of it.
Without getting too deep into the details of the music, itself, Kiss Each Other Clean is still a very good album. The folkier songs are remarkably consistent, and the songs that manage to find a balance between the new production flourishes and that older sound are the album’s highlights (“Glad Man Singing”, “Godless Brother In Love”, “Me and Lazarus”). Hell, even when Beam goes balls out on “Big Burned Hand”, it’s good fun (and features a great profanity slip as a punch line at the song’s end). Kiss Each Other Clean has so much potential to be a game-changing album, but its clear kinks may have to relegate it to the title of “transitional record”. It’s a little overhyped, but may be worth your time.