Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Monday, May 30, 2011

Boris - Attention Please: B / Boris: Heavy Rocks: B

Boris albums have always been growers for me. I got into the Japanese metal band after doing a presentation about them in school. I got their 2006 album, Pink, thought it was pretty good and bought their 2008 album, Smile, when it came out. I thought Smile was excellent, but, after months and months of listening to it, I realized that it was more than just an excellent album, but a perfect blend of the band’s trademark drones, heavy riffing and pop leanings. It was upon that point that I appreciated Smile much more and boosted it from an A- in my mind to an A+; it would go on to claim the second place spot on my list of greatest albums of 2008. For some reason, the eclectic stylings of Boris have always taken longer to absorb than most.

At this point in my listening experience with Attention Please and Heavy Rocks, the two full-length albums that Boris have released simultaneously as a follow-up to Smile, I have been disappointed, but for different reasons. On one end, you have Attention Please, the group’s foray into lite-metal with explicit propensities for pop and even dance. It is the first Boris album to feature guitarist Wata singing exclusively and her coo greatly softens the brashness that Boris fans have come to expect. And then on the other end there’s Heavy Rocks, a veritable Boris greatest hits album, featuring all the same elements that made Smile great to an almost uncomfortable degree.

Let me first say that I do not dislike Attention Please because it goes in a significantly mainstream direction. Boris fans should have seen this coming, as songs like the “Statement” B-Side “Floor Shaker” and “8” from the group’s 2009 Japanese Heavy Rock Hits series, were tracks that showed the group developing into a more streamlined metal act. Those two tracks I mentioned happen to be fantastic. While neither have surmounted Smile’s drone odyssey, “You Were Holding an Umbrella”, as my favorite Boris song, both are some of the greatest metal songs of the 2000’s, the former sporting an infectious guitar lick and the latter featuring arguably the most cathartic guitar solo in an entire decade. People have been accusing Attention Please of being akin to J-Pop, which is absurd. If anything, it’s the next logical step for the group to take since releasing Smile.

I don’t like Attention Please because it’s boring. As a guitarist, Wata doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the amazing fretwork she has been laying down for fifteen years now, but as a singer, she’s quite anonymous. I imagine Boris called the album Attention Please because it was a pretty radical shift; the fact that it is so comparatively mellow should be enough to make people notice. Unfortunately, though, the novelty of this sedate sound fades as Attention Please goes on. Wata sings in a whisper, so it is logical that the album’s arrangements accommodate her tone. Its tracks are a lot more tempered and, by its second half, it opts for ambient drones that blend into a pointless blob. And then the album ends. While there are some moments of riffage and interesting musical concepts (the sexy pulsing bassline in the title track for one), Attention Please ultimately feels more like Boris diluted than a distinct creative shift. The album comes off as more lazy than adventurous.

My dislike of Heavy Rocks mostly stems from its existence. While listening to the album, it is clear that its purpose was to be a counterpoint to Attention Please, an album that’s Smile-like blend of the group’s disparate styles would satiate fans scratching their heads at Attention Please. It is the second Boris album called Heavy Rocks after all, as if to double down in trying to redeem the group’s metal cred by releasing an album that almost wants to redefine heavy music through this brazen repetition.

While this is an admirable sentiment that I would not normally object to, Heavy Rocks sounds far too much like a Smile rewrite. You’ve got your twelve-minute drone in “Aileron”, your punkish guitar romp in “GALAXIANS” and even your gut-wrenching ballad in “Missing Pieces”. While these tracks are great fun, the similarities to Heavy Rocks’s predecessor become quite stark and the album begins to feel more obligatory than anything else. “Jackson Head” is dumb fun for its repetition of its nonsensical title, “Riot Sugar” erupts into the crisp metal that has yielded some of Boris’s best songs and the breakneck chugs of “Czechoslovakia” sound like prime Anthrax, an approach to songwriting I have never quite heard from the group before. In the abstract, these are still good songs, but it is difficult to ignore the originality elephant in the room while listening to Heavy Rocks. As a result, it too feels like a diluted Boris album.

I’m not worried, though. Boris is such a consistently fabulous group that I could chalk these two up to transitional records and I’d probably be right. Smile was the seamless consolidation of a group’s work with a lot of creative ground to cover. While Attention Please and Heavy Rocks falter significantly, they observe the group going into directions that I wouldn’t find objectionable if they were performed well. It’s unfortunate that it took Boris four years to make Attention Please and Heavy Rocks, the longest time between Boris albums in the group’s career, but my faith in them remains strong. Very few metal bands have been willing to evolve and experiment quite like Boris has, so I think we can forgive them if they release some slipups along the way.


Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys: B+

Before I really got into music and before Ben Gibbard became my arch nemesis by marrying Zooey Deschanel, Death Cab for Cutie defined indie rock for me. Right around the time Plans came out, the inoffensive jangle of hit singles “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” were so omnipotent, I assumed that was what all independent music got off on. A song like “Crooked Teeth”, a bona fide classic in my mind, was vaguely quirky but nevertheless incredibly safe, the musical equivalent of a soft pat on the back. The group’s music never spoke out of turn and addressed love and faith in terms so grand they wouldn’t so much as ruffle the perfectly coifed hair of a JC Penny model. When I later found out that the group’s name was based on a song that Digital Dream Door named one of the strangest of all time, it made perfect sense. Death Cab for Cutie were a group with just enough snark to keep their creativity levels barely above cruise control.

And then “I Will Possess Your Heart” came out. At over eight minutes, the track was the last thing I was expecting to hear from the homely guys who wrote “The Sound of Settling”. It told a story through the perspective a persistent stalker, but Gibbard worded his lines so as to make the narrator sound almost amiable. “How I wish you could see the potential,” the protagonist quietly laments after nearly five minutes of an ominous bassline and light piano. “The potential for you and me.” It was a brilliant expression of a complicated character narrative and the song’s video was just as fascinating, a camera wordlessly following a girl across the world; haunting and yet so ambiguous. The song convinced me Death Cab were capable of making music that could confound as well as comfort. At the very least it signaled a maturation in style.

That newfound darkness, to a certain extent, is injected into all the songs of Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth album, Code and Keys. While no track reaches the creative heights of “I Will Possess”, the album is more consistent in the group’s attempts to stray away from major chords and verses-chorus-verse structures. The chorus of “House Is A Fire” pivots on a strange key, sounding unsure but intriguing amidst electronic percussion I hesitate to relate to Ben Gibbard’s 2003 one-off, The Postal Service. Songs like “Some Boys”, “Doors Unlocked and Open” and first single “You Are A Tourist” are conventional pop songs built around foreboding piano lines and heavy bass. This sonic gloom, along with the album’s improved production, is a welcomed addition to the Death Cab aesthetic that gives the group a much-needed depth.

However, there are other songs on the album that have a Plans-like obsequiousness. “Underneath the Sycamore”, “Monday Morning” and the title track are laden with timid acoustics and Jason McGrerr’s painfully metronomic drumming (which is a shame because he has proven himself to be quite good on songs like “Meet Me on the Equinox” and “I Will Possess”). These are great songs, but I prefer Death Cab when they go for something greater than the sum of their parts, like on penultimate track, “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” Beginning with Gibbard singing over light organ, the song builds with a faint choir and synthetic percussion until the group strikes a minor chord and the track swells wonderfully in a flurry of Boy Scout chants and Gibbard’s insistence that there is no afterlife.

For all this talk of a discovered negativity, Codes and Keys will probably be known as one of the few Death Cab albums to end on a happy note. “Stay Young Go Dancing” is just about as joyous of a waltz as you can surmise from its title. It’s a great song like the rest of Codes and Keys, but it also shares their marginal confliction. You see, at this point, Death Cab for Cutie have a lot of styles to contend with. I haven’t even mentioned albums of that innocuous back pat pop like Transatlanticism and Something About Airplanes that longtime Death Cab fans were hoping the group would return to after Narrow Stairs. There isn’t really anything like that on Codes and Keys, and, personally, I’m happy about that. It’s no revelation, but the album is an indication that the group continues to move onto something different, a quality of which I am pleasantly surprised to find.


My Morning Jacket - Circuital: B+

I’ve never been very much into My Morning Jacket, mostly because I find that they are a band founded upon contradiction. The first song I heard from the group was “Off the Record” off their 2005 album, Z. It was a breezy indie rock number that went into an electronic-indebted jam session in its second half. The song clocked in at five and a half minutes and that felt just right for a song so poppy and modest. Come to find out, though, that the group is supposed to be a southern rock outfit with Flying V guitars and raucous live shows, and I couldn’t believe it. This was mostly due to MMJ singer Jim James’s voice. It was so soft, so nasally; it couldn’t possible fit over any music that was remotely aggressive.

So now, we find ourselves at My Morning Jacket’s sixth album and I’m still having trouble with that contradiction in their style. The Louisville group seems to have a lot of ideas on Circuital, and the product’s a bit of a sprawl. “Victory Dance” sounds like a Deep Purple raised in Memphis and “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” sounds like acoustic Neil Young. More than any other song I’ve heard in a long time, “Outta My System” sounds like The Who circa The Who Sell Out. With double-tracked vocals, James speaks of the need to get debauchery done early in life so that it doesn’t manifest itself in a “midlife crisis”. “They told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen / Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison / Chalk it up to youth but young age I ain’t dissin’ / I just had to get it outta my system,” James sings at the track’s beginning and I’m immediately reminded of a Roger Daltry-like character lecturing youngin’s only slightly younger than he. I half expect James to say he can see his drug problem going on for miles and miles.

It’s difficult to say whether Circuital lives up to the southern rock thrill that I have often heard is these guys’ trademark. Instead, we have some really good indie rock songs, nothing more nothing less. “You Wanna Freak Out” is light guitar pop in the vein of “Off the Record” that is a highlight late in the album. “First Light” is a classic rocker shaken up by a blaring low-end synth. The winner of best track on the album is a three-way tie between the title track, “The Day Is Coming” and “Holdin’ On to Black Metal”. The title track erupts from an acoustic jaunt into reliable rips of power chords and guitar solos. “The Day Is Coming” features an off-kilter drum pattern with a bass boom that refreshes the verses. And “Black Metal” features a children’s choir and a horn section, two of the least likely components to ever be featured on a black metal song. Nevertheless, it rocks like a raunchy spy film theme sung with dainty falsettos.

Despite the many places that My Morning Jacket explore on Circuital, the group never stretches themselves too thin. It’s a very consistent release and fans of the group’s last two albums will find nothing to object to here. I don’t know if Circuital or My Morning Jacket in general deserve all this critical praise, but I dislike nothing on the group’s newest and enjoy quite a bit of it. One could make the argument that MMJ is having some significant trouble finding a cohesive sound, but I’d be more likely to chalk that up to experimentation rather than indecisiveness. While not exemplary, Circuital will satisfy one’s taste for indie rock that wishes it were a couple decades older.


Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts: B+

While listening to Demolished Thoughts, I cannot help but think, “He would.” A guy like Thurston Moore, an integral part of one of the pioneering indie rock groups of the late 80’s, would write an album that sounds like a collection of acoustic pseudo-grunge songs. Listening to Demolished Thoughts, I am reminded of an excellently produced mid-90’s “MTV Unplugged” performance. I know such a description carries along with it many negative connotations, but it’s true. Demolished Thoughts is a beautiful album that always makes it clear from what era its maker comes from.

Moore’s voice on Demolished Thoughts sounds like J. Mascis at times, others like Marcy Playground’s Jon Wozniak. His notes trail off like Michael Stipe at a low register. He’s adequate and distinct, but quaint and unassuming. The album’s arrangements, however, more than make up for that. Demolished Thoughts is almost exclusively acoustic with a drummer, bassist, harpist and violinist providing the only accompaniment. Its songs are solemn but breathtakingly. First track “Benediction” is languid with swelling violin that comes in at just the right time. When his acoustic moves heavenward to accommodate Moore’s higher register as he sings, “You better hold your lover down,” it’s glorious. The whole album is filled with moments like these; songs so beautifully arranged that, by the end, Moore’s voice only gets a few lines in before the listener is transported back into this agreeable wonderland.

Demolished Thoughts ain’t all butterflies and The Sound of Music, though. Moore strums his acoustic aggressively on “Circulation”, a track that disseminates into booming darkness during its chorus. “Mina Loy” is also dark and an excellent exhibit of Moore’s versatile guitar playing. His work here may not burst into raucous solos, but there isn’t a moment when what and how he plays his six-string doesn’t contribute to the tone of the music.

I almost wish there were more moments like “Mina Loy” on Demolished Thoughts. As I mentioned before, by the end of the album, Moore defects most of his songs to instrumentals and this sometimes makes the tracks blend unintentionally. Still, it’s an impressive album that I don’t think anyone expected from this noise rock luminary, let alone expected to sound this good. What ultimately may be most important about Demolished Thoughts, is that it shows that, at 53, Thurston Moore still has something to prove. How cool is that?


Lady Gaga - Born This Way: C+

About a year ago, Joanna Newsom talked to The Guardian about her dislike of Lady Gaga. “I'm mystified by the laziness of people looking at how she presents herself, and somehow assuming that implies there's a high level of intelligence in the songwriting,” she said, later clarifying that Gaga was basically “Arty Spice” and that her music and the way people treat it made her long for the days of Cyndi Lauper. I was surprised by those words from a singer/songwriter that has seldom been so outspoken, but I remember being more surprised by what Ryan Dombal had to say about it after reporting on the story in a Pitchfork article:

Strong words. You could argue that Gaga's success in making people like M.I.A. and Joanna Newsom hopped up enough to consider the idea of art and talk out of turn in interviews basically fulfills her purpose. She's a provocateur, and it seems to be working.”

Proving Newsom’s point to an extent. Others may have dismissed Joanna Newsom’s criticisms for being jealous of Lady Gaga’s success and I would actually agree with that assessment. If you were writing twelve minute long multi-part suites in the form of intricately sequenced triple albums, how would you feel if it turned out all you had to do to be wildly commercially and critically successful was to strap on a meat dress and sing about disco sticks over tinny techno?

Lady Gaga’s at an envious point in her career where she could do whatever she liked and people would call it an artistic revelation. Now, I’m not saying reception to Gaga’s newest album, Born This Way, is like that, but I have a hunch that if she were to release an album of Auto-tuned belches, her fan base would find some way to dance to it and many a music critic would find reason to hail it as the next logical step in her crusade as America’s “provocateur”. Gaga’s at a place right now where it’s just convenient to join her bandwagon and dissent is stifled or debased to that cursed accusation of “jealousy”. Put simply, Lady Gaga is too big to fail.

Before I get into this review, I have one question to ask those reading this, whether they be Gaga fans or not: Do you honestly believe that people will remember Born This Way ten years from now? NOT Lady Gaga, Born This Way. Lady Gaga’s third album released on Interscope. Do you think that people will remember the music on this record in a decade: a tenth of a century? If your answer is in the affirmative or the negative, I urge you to read on. You can probably tell what my answer to that question is.

Let me begin by saying I don’t care about the themes of Born This Way. I don’t care about the obtuse sexual references, the gay pandering or the frequent references to a Black Jesus. You know why? Because Madonna did it almost thirty years ago. I know that it’s taboo to say Lady Gaga owes her entire career to Madonna, cliché even, but it’s absolutely true and needs to be acknowledged. There’s a reason why religious groups were barely frothing at the mouth when Gaga appeared in a latex nun outfit in her video for “Alejandro”, and that was because they thought they had pretty much stated their case about it. Thirty. Years. Ago. Listening to Lady Gaga and watching her videos, I can’t help but think that the Tipper Gores of the world have won, when we find what is controversial to be a slight upgrade from what was divisive decades ago. And Madonna didn’t need to write a whole album to be controversial. She just needed to make one video and that was it. She moved on.

And if you think that I’m somehow glorifying Madonna out of all this, I ask you to name Madonna’s third album. See, even I can’t name that shit.

The lyrics of Born This Way are an easy target for criticism, but I would rather not discuss them in this review. It should be a no brainer that lines like “Put your hands on me / John F. Kennedy” are nonsensical and, when taken seriously, sound even more ridiculous. Ed Comantale’s review of Born This Way for Tiny Mix Tapes does just that and is hilarious as a result, so I definitely recommend reading that if you want to get a full hazing of Gaga’s lyrical talent (although I’m still not completely sure if he’s joking in the piece, which makes it that much more entertaining). However, one could argue that the lyrical content of Born This Way should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, Lady Gaga never pretends that her lyrics mean anything substantive.

Oh wait except she does. All over Born This Way, there are STATEMENT songs that try to either empower or inflame, but they all come off as inert. Equating one’s freedom to one’s hair in “Hair”, while characteristically Gaga in its relation of the superficial to the profound, is a pretty lame way of instilling pride in one’s listeners. And in the unfortunate country experiment “Yoü and I”, Gaga sings in a faux twang, “There’s only three men that imma serve my whole life / It’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.” While that line would make for an entertaining Christmas card, the mission statement is meaningless and yet sung with all the heartfelt relevance of a letter from Saint Paul to the Corinthians. I wouldn’t care so much about this if Gaga made a point of acknowledging how stupid her lyrics were. But throughout Born This Way, she positively refuses, forcing me to apologize for this unequivocal rubbish for her.

It also doesn’t help that the production of Born This Way is surprisingly cheap. I will concede that songs like “Bad Romance” and “Alejandro” were dumb fun because their hooks were so catchy, but it seems like Gaga made a conscious decision to put the production quality of Born This Way on the backburner so she could concentrate on her lyrics… but then forgot to write those as well. However fabulously Gaga fashions herself on Born This Way, the album’s beats are no better than that of Ke$ha, sloppy seconds from a Dr. Luke coke and hookers party. Famous Def Leppard producer Mutt Lange guests on “Yoü and I” but channels more Songs From the Sparkle Lounge than Pyromania. “Americano” and “Scheiße” try to distract from their lazy stereotypes of ethnic music by having Gaga speak in different languages, of which I don’t think anyone was asking more of after “Bad Romance”. Also, did I mention there are seventeen tracks on this thing? To say that Born This Way could have used some editing is a vast understatement.

However, there is a reason why I didn’t just slap an “F” on Born This Way and move on. There are some moments on the album that are fun for what they are. The first couple singles like the title track are tolerable and “Government Hooker” is enjoyable for its superfluous self-censorship and the funny voice of the guy who sings “Back up and turn around” in the song’s pre-chorus. Even though it’s a part-by-part rewrite of “Bad Romance”, “Judas” is a barnburner for the sheer lack of fucks it’s willing to give. The verses pummel your eardrums relentlessly while a skuzzy synth dirties up the mix into an amalgamation of what the Lady Gaga aesthetic utopia could be. Much later in the album, “The Queen” has the faint keyboard chord changes to make it a contender for a decent Olivia Newton John song. However, that track is the fifteenth on Born This Way. There are eleven other songs in between that and “Judas”. The interim is a long fucking slog.

It seems now that the music has become only a small fraction of the multimedia monster that is Lady Gaga. I asked whether you believe Born This Way will be remembered in ten years as opposed to Lady Gaga the artist, because I find it impossible to extricate the album from the person who made it, and that’s a huge problem. Even with the most unapologetically personal album of this decade to date, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West could tell stories that you wouldn’t need to be knee deep in his bullshit to relate to. This is not the case with Lady Gaga. If you think she is great for her advocacy of gay rights and her adventurous fashion sense, that’s fantastic and I will support your support of her, but to say that her music reflects these ambitions is disingenuous. Gaga has made a career out of rewriting the same five songs into full albums so she can concentrate on her image as an activist and a populist, and Born This Way is no different. However, I got news for you folks. That’s not a revolution, that’s the music industry at its ugliest.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ponytail - Do Whatever You Want All the Time!: B+

Trying to sound as least pretentious as possible, allow me to explain to you how it feels to be a singer in a rock group jam session. The jam session is a method through which the musicians of a group can warm up and experiment with ideas; steady rhythms and interminable repetition create an environment excellent for creative flow or just playful showing off. While this is an optimal setting for fleshing out musical schematics, it does not leave much room for a singer, whose job at the basic level is to sing over a group’s arrangements. So, in a jam session, the singer tends to be left out of the proceedings and, as a result, through desperation to be part of the process, a vocalist may sing melodies based upon nonsensical words that only vaguely adhere to the key in which the group is playing. Essentially, it’s vocal improvisation, and I haven’t heard a single case when it didn’t sound awkward or detract from the jam session’s purpose.

The lead vocal work of Molly Siegel on Baltimore quintet, Ponytail’s, newest album, Do Whatever You Want All the Time!, very much reminds me of that kind of predicament. A groove will be set by a standard set of guitars, bass and drums, but any momentum or dynamic established would be immediately decimated by Siegel, who will squawk a miscellany of syllables with little care for tempo or tune. Do Whatever You Want sounds like what would happen if someone gave the sound engineer’s 3-year-old daughter the mic during a jam session but then proceeded to lose her for a forty-minute recording. Rarely does this vocal approach sound appropriate within the album’s context and it always causes the album’s songs to drop in quality to some extent. More than anything else, Do Whatever You Want sounds painfully imbalanced.

This is a great shame, because the musicianship on display in Do Whatever You Want is fantastic. Lead guitarist Dustin Wong spins elaborate threads of six-stringed melodics while drummer Michael P, bassist Jeremy Hyman and other guitarist Ken Seeno keep up, excellently. Whether it be through the math rock of album opener, “Easy Peasy” or the fluttery bass of “Honey Touches”, the guys of Ponytail are proficient enough in their instruments that they could convey that sense of wide-eyed cheerfulness if Do Whatever You Want featured no Siegel at all. The album’s song titles also seem to be thought up by that little girl let loose in the studio, but make no mistake: these are professionals at work, bobbing and weaving like the best jam bands that ever were.

There is one moment on Do Whatever You Want in which Siegel proves to be an asset to the group, resulting in the album’s high point. “AwayWay” begins with business as usual for Ponytail until the group slows down halfway through the track. With a slow buildup, Wong and Seeno deliver shimmering guitar lines when Siegel, out of nowhere, sings and repeats a wordless but concise vocal melody, upon which the track then slays. That moment shows that Siegel isn’t incompetent, just misguided. I can only hope that Ponytail can let their guard down enough to allow themselves to utilize such a conventional songwriting technique as logical vocals in the future.

Your enjoyment of Do Whatever You Want All the Time! largely depends on your tolerance for Siegel’s singing. I am a huge fan of melodic death metal, so ignoring obnoxious vocals has become somewhat of a regular practice for me. I can enjoy the fantastic musicianship enough to give the album a solid B+, but, if you are easily annoyed, avoid this thing like the plague. There are moments in songs like “Flabbermouse” and “Tush” when Siegel isn’t featured, only to come barreling into the mix with her insufferable gibberish, so the inconsistency will probably frustrate you more than anything else. Do Whatever You Want is going to seriously piss some people off by its inherently polarizing nature, so looking into it is definitely a risk. I’m still debating with myself about whether going through with that endeavor is all that worth it.


An Horse - Walls: B+

If Walls isn’t the transcendent bastion of coming-of-age adolescence that An Horse intended it to be, it is certainly an indication of the Australian girl/guy duo’s potential to write at least a few songs akin to their ambitions. The songs of Walls are spritely when they need to be and somber when appropriate. Singer Kate Cooper has a precocious voice that bounces along to Damon Cox’s instrumentation with a strangely Brooklyn accent. It comes out when she pronounces those “r”’s in “Dress Sharply”, and gives Cooper a distinct personality on the album, whether that flair was intended or not.

Walls is abound with signifiers of young adult friction like obligatory “Twin Peaks” references and songs about airports. The arrangements are often rudimentary, but when Cox accompanies Cooper’s erudite lyrics with instrumentation just as incisive, the results are exemplary, as on the thumping album highlight, “Trains and Tracks”. Walls is peppered with some great one-liners, and, even when Cooper talks about that airport, she sounds clever and self-aware. “We could count all the planes at the airport,” she sighs in the gentle “Windows in the City”. “But that would mean that you and I were in the same spot.” Unfortunately, Walls features too much inconsequential filler, but, its highlights show that An Horse may yet have their best days ahead of them.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Here We Rest: A-

Based on how gorgeous Here We Rest is, it’s a wonder why Jason Isbell hasn’t become an enormously popular country star with the likes of Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift or even The Zac Brown Band. Here We Rest is troubled and incredibly personal, but this isn’t a Jamey Johnson or Hayes Carll deal where you get some guy twisting country into progressive directions; the former Drive-By Truckers member’s newest album is so elegantly polished, you might want to consider recommending it to your grandmother to make it her album purchase of the year. These are unquestionably pop songs, and they’re performed so wonderfully, it will give you renewed faith in the structure of a song, something that seems to have been eluding me these past few weeks.

Instrumentally, Here We Rest does not surprise. You’ll hear acoustic and slide guitar as well as standup bass and banjo. Isbell has a smoky drawl that seems to sound both weathered and youthful. He employs it to make the arrangements of Here We Rest pleasing and often exemplary. “Never Could Believe” pops with tactile percussion to give the track a rich ensemble flavor. The post-chorus of last and best track, “Tour of Duty”, features a heavenly chord progression that shouldn’t fit within the country setting, but is absolutely heart-wrenching, an excellent coda to the track’s bittersweet subject matter of a soldier returning to civilian life.

But the core of Here We Rest is Isbell, himself. With his personable voice, he can revisit memories and play characters so convincingly, your guess is as good as mine as to which songs belong to which category. The album’s many vocal harmonies are precious, but rarely does Isbell come off as optimistic. From Here We Rest’s onset, he longs to go back to his Alabama hometown through the pines that line the roads. In the first track, he sounds separated from the past that shaped him, and we learn what caused such isolation as Here We Rest progresses. Isbell speaks at length about lost love and drug use, but he covers these topics in ways that incorporate a story. Instead of waxing poetic about a lost love, Isbell decides to pay her a visit. Now, instead of grasping at metaphors, you can feel Isbell’s nostalgia in real time as he catches up with his old flame in the beautiful “Stopping By”. “Darling, I’m not one to judge,” he sings in the bridge of “Codeine” to his lover addicted to the titular drug. “But if I was I’d say you don’t look so good.” It’s a clumsy line, but its imperfection makes the track all the more compelling. His dejection is palpable in the song’s final chorus, when he reinforces for the last time that it is one of his friends that’s feeding his lover’s addiction.

The travails of adulthood pervade every note of Here We Rest, and Isbell conveys them with personal stories of Everyman flair. In an especially poignant expression of weakness, Isbell fears for the future in one of the album’s most touching lines. “All my playground fears have faded,” he sings with trepidation on “We’ve Met”. “Replaced with grown-up nightmares / That have come true.” These are tender accounts from a road to maturity fraught with mistakes, but they’re worded so beautifully, they are instantly forgiven. Chord progression notwithstanding, “Tour of Duty” best accomplishes this, ending Here We Rest with a future as unsure as that of any other character on the album. “I’ve done my tour of duty / Now I’ll try to do what a civilian does,” Isbell sings over tightly strummed guitars and light percussion that convey an air of confidence. It’s a line so simple, it’s silly, but it excellently exemplifies the debilitating culture shock that can demoralize someone that’s been away from their home far too long. It’s a familiar but depressing situation that can ruin the commercial potential of Here We Rest. That is until that chord progression kicks in.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Faust - Something Dirty: B

The only thing more surprising than the fact that Faust has, more or less, been around since the early 70’s is the fact that their newest album, Something Dirty, has the impatience and frustrating inconsistency of a group that formed yesterday. It’s hard to say exactly what number album Something Dirty is in Faust’s catalogue, because there is a whole ordeal about the group splitting into two bands with the same name, both releasing albums that fans debate whether which if any are released by the Faust of kraut-rock yore. And if this creative fissure had any effect on the music that this version of Faust has created, it’s pretty obvious. Something Dirty is a hodgepodge of disparate guitar squawks, jaunting atmospherics and foreign voices so ripe with youthful vigor it often collapses under the weight of its own lunacy.

The reason why I see Something Dirty’s chaos as more or less endearing is because, when I listen to the album, I cannot help but have glimmers of hope that Faust will tout out something cohesive when really cool ideas keep popping up. Regardless of how misguided the songs of Something Dirty are, their components are great in their own right, and, when thrown into a complete package as opposed to an aimless void, the results are astonishing. “Lost the Signal” ebbs and flows beautifully as a ballad sung by a whispery female voice. The chugging guitars and determined percussion of “Dampfauslass II” could be turned into great post-punk. But “Damfauslass II” simply peters out in two and a half minutes, its concept dashed away to make room for the next musical hiccup. Unfortunately, such is the story of the tracks that precede it.

So make a mixtape of melodic sound bytes interspersed with intriguing but ultimately pointless tape fuzz and recorded machinery and you have Something Dirty, an album that would be pretty good if it could stand to pause and focus before thrusting itself into seven-minute ambient odysseys and minute-long affronts to tonality. Something Dirty isn’t an album to be enjoyed, but to be referenced. Through it, we see both how Faust has evolved in the past forty years and what they might think of next. Do groups this old make transitional records? If not, then kudos to Faust for setting the standard.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Robbie Robertson - How to Become Clairvoyant: B+

Let’s be honest; if Robbie Robertson wasn’t in The Band, nobody would give a shit about How to Become Clairvoyant. The guy was in a pioneering rock band, left, got into some controversy over buying copyrights and alienated most of his fan base, so now we’re here in 2011 with his fifth solo effort invading our short term memory and clogging up our bandwidth. Robertson’s a couple years from hitting 70, now, so I don’t really have to tell you how ambitious How To Become Clairvoyant is. Understated production and, with the exception of a cool instrumental and an Eric Clapton cameo, no flourishes, whatsoever. Ya know, “Just a bunch of guys gettin’ in a room and jammin’!” kinda thing. Basically, How to Become Clairvoyant sounds like what your uncle would have made if he decided to realize his dreams of being a rock n’ roller during his mid-life crisis, and, admittedly, that has a slight allure to it. The album is pleasant and slightly better than the other input by washed-up rock stars as of late. Also, I love my uncles. So this one’s for you!


Phideaux - Snowtorch: B-

Just some really lame, really boring prog rock. It’s a shame that it’s so difficult to satiate one’s taste for the expansive and flourished in the modern musical landscape, but, if you’re looking for it, you’re not going to find it here. Snowtorch, more than anything else, makes me wish that Rush would release their newest album, already. Other than that, it’s highly skippable.


Sum 41 - Screaming Bloody Murder: B-

The new census has been released and so comes a new Sum 41 album. Working off the 2000 census, the group had a lot of trouble gauging what the angst-ridden and disaffected youth were listening to and were angry about towards the end of the decade, and, as a result, their attempt to rewrite their past glories in 2007’s dreadful Underclass Hero was a total failure. Working off that dated census, Sum 41 was becoming increasingly desperate to get that demographic riled up to listen to their pop punk tunes, and, now, with fresh data to analyze, they could finally pander to that teenage anguish so that adolescents would, once again, purchase their shit.

Dr. Livingston prepared the cryogenic pods for release. He tenderly typed the release code into the keypad and watched, expressionless, as, one by one, all the members of Sum 41 emerged from their four-year slumber. It took the boys a minute or so to shake off their stiffness from being frozen for so long, but, once they had, they brushed off their tattooed arms like it was 2007 again, and looked to Livingston for what to do next. Without speaking, Livingston walked toward the Information Center, the flaps of his white lab coat moving a second behind him. The boys looked to each other, shrugged and followed him.

The Information Center had not changed since 2000. It was still lined with steel panels, flashing lights and buttons placed indiscriminately along them that’s purpose the group could not begin to understand. They followed Dr. Livingston to the opposing end of the domed room, where a myriad of televisions screens covered the wall and an enormous control panel wrapped around them, covered in innumerable buttons that looked like goose bumps on skin.

They watched as Livingston conferred with Dr. Harris, who sat at the control panel, pressing buttons with seemingly no discretion. After some spoken words, the two nodded to each other and Dr. Livingston made his way to what looked like a printing module positioned on the right side of the room. The module hummed with life as, one by one, sheets of paper emerged from it like a financial calculator. Dr. Livingston grasped and examined each sheet as it came out, his eyes scanning the data quickly as if it were written in binary code.

After about ten minutes of inspecting what looked like fifty sheets of paper, Livingston shifted his gaze from his reading material to Sum 41. With a look of genuine interest, he spoke to the group for the first time in almost half a decade.

“Apparently, Green Day’s still popular,” he said.

“Huh,” responded Daryck Whibley. “Well, I guess that makes it pretty easy for us, doesn’t it.”

“Pretty much,” responded Dr. Livingston, taking his pair of reading glasses out of his breast pocket and inspecting the data with more detail. “Also, this group Avenged Sevenfold cleaned up and made a pretty successful pop metal album.”

“Uh huh,” responded Whibley, taking out his notepad. He brushed off the permafrost and began taking notes.

“And this band My Chemical Romance released an album in 2004 that made quite a bit of money,” continued Livingston. “They were apparently a little more theatrical, so you guys are going to have to go a little bit more in that direction.”

“Fantastic,” quipped Whibley jotting down the last few words into his notebook. He put it back into his pocket and brushed back his blonde hair, which still pointed directly at the ceiling like when he entered the chamber in 2007. “That all?”

“Yep,” said Livingston. “I think that should get you through an album.”

“Alright then,” Whibley said. With that, he turned to his bandmates, nodded at them and the group began walking out of the Information Center toward the facility’s recording room. Knowing Livingston’s schedule, they would probably have to pump out an album within the week. They walked with purpose, determined to sell out harder on this release than any other they had made in the past. With this knowledge, they definitely had a chance.

Livingston looked on, his expression unchanging as the group turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

“You know, one day, we will have to replace them,” Dr. Harris remarked, turning from his control panel to look at Livingston. “They’re already fifteen years old.”

“I know,” responded Livingston as he too began leaving the Information Center. “I dread it every day.”


The Kills - Blood Pressures: A-

I’m one of the few people who were introduced to The Kills through Alison Mossheart’s Jack White-helmed side project, The Dead Weather. Their first album, Horehound, was the last fantastic product White put his name on. It was dark, perverted and great fun for its sheer lack of fucks to give and chutzpah density. I fell in love with its harrowed greasiness immediately, and it claimed the top spot of my albums of 2009 list with great help from Mossheart’s lead singing performance. Her work was balls-out and uncompromising. A place in my heart was secured for her when she lost all resolve at the close of “Bone House” and positively screamed her last verse with wild abandon like she had nothing left to lose.

As a part of The Kills, however, Mossheart does not come close to the bellowing behemoth featured so prominently on Horehound. Instead, we have a simmering, slinking singer who has less of a personality than a voice to share. She simply sings Blood Pressure’s melodies well and is more than happy to cede some vocal presence to her bandmate, Jamie Hince. “I swear this is the last goodbye,” she sings at the beginning of “The Last Goodbye”, implying a weakness and frailty toward leave a detrimental lover, a sentiment that would belie the mindset of the femme fatale that had a bullet burning a hole in her pocket on Horehound. On Blood Pressures, Mossheart isn’t the centerpiece of her songs, sharing significant space with other melodies and Hince’s guitar lines.

The good news is that the album does not lose much as a result of Mossheart’s loss in prominence, as Hince’s guitar lines and the group’s melodies are fantastic. Blood Pressures is an excellent record, even if it cruises in comparison to The Dead Weather discography. Every track is good for at least one catchy hook, and most have several. “Nail in My Coffin” floats atop a buoyant bass drum and snare pattern. “Damned If She Do” smolders with skuzzy guitar and drum machine and “Pots and Pans” thumps along with a foreboding acoustic and Mossheart’s playful derision of her lover’s high expectations. “Baby Says” is unique for featuring light verses that ceaselessly dive into an ominously jaded guitar riff. Mossheart raises her voice to excellent effect in “DNA”, as she is backed by group vocals that build around the line, “We will not be moved by it.”

My only criticism of Blood Pressures is that it is just a collection of excellent songs from a group I believe could have a more cohesive theme to their records. Regardless, the album is fantastic pop, however dark that pop may be. It is another great addition to the group’s assembly of tracks destined to slaughter when slathered in darkness and cigarette smoke when played on a stage. While not as crazed as a Mossheart project can be, Blood Pressures will not disappoint for its great riffs and nimble songwriting.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light: B+

Like M.I.A. and, I guess, The Field, TV on the Radio has had a rancorous relationship with myself. They’ve been one of those groups to me that I’m sure every music fan has encountered that the people and critics around cannot stop raving about, but I cannot fathom how anyone could find them tuneful, let alone outright enjoyable. Coming into Nine Types of Light, TV on the Radio’s fifth album, I had a very distinct idea of what this group was going to sound like. I was expecting the outrageous, the flamboyant and the needlessly weird. If I didn’t have a heinous headache by this album’s end, I would probably pass out from boredom sometime in its middle.

That gaudy TV on the Radio shows up on about half of Nine Types of Light, which is probably why it is their worst received album to date. The group opts for tempered balladry as much it does for uproarious calamity. To their credit, now more than ever, it sounds like the group has enough of a grasp on their sound that they do not have to constantly puncture pleasure centers to distract from what they lack, which, to me, was always consistency. If it’s not as ridiculous as fans would have liked, it’s undoubtedly reliable, a sentiment that more than exceeded my expectations coming into the record.

I’m not even partial to either style featured here. The more active numbers confound my impression of the group by being fun and hardly grating. “Hey girl don’t mind the noise,” lead singer Tunde Adebimpe intones at the beginning of “New Cannibal Run”. “It’s just the sound of being dragged to Hell.” In that track, he sounds like a crazed Tone Loc over a deviously fuzzy bass line that shows off a humorous side I didn’t know the group could have. Adebimpe is particularly impressive on this album, his voice crisp and expressive enough to be the focal point of most of Nine Types of Light’s tracks. It’s adaptive to the slower tracks on the album as well, giving them a cracked flair even when they’re not necessarily shooting for the rafters. When he sings, “You’re the only one I ever loved,” in “You”, it sounds genuinely heartfelt. The slower songs are great, but my only criticism of them is that, when they get too slow, they sound like dead ringers for The National songs. “Keep Your Heart” and “You” are nearly indecipherable for their double-octave singing and mechanical percussion, and it certainly doesn’t help that both tracks are next to each other on the record. Nine Types of Light is frontloaded with these slower tracks, so it may sound slow to start, but all its songs stand up as solid musical statements.

So, basically, my reservations on TV on the Radio are fucked. They are a really good band, and, if Nine Types of Light is any indication, they are definitely capable of writing albums as good as people seem to think Return to Cookie Mountain and Dear Science are. That it’s just a really good album will most likely disappoint longtime fans of the brash expansionism the group seemed to take pride in the decade they’ve been around. Extricated from its makers’ legacy, Nine Types of Light is worth your time, and I’m more than content to wait and see what comes next. The album may not win TV on the Radio more fans, but it buys them more creative time to work on their next opus. The good news is I’ll be eager to hear it when it’s released, now.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dirty Beaches - Badlands: B

Do you know how difficult it is to review an album that has no songs on it? I mean you try to make the best of things by describing sounds temporally or in reference to some sort of palette, but when an artist gets in a room and just strums a guitar and howls for a bit, it’s really tough to validate that. Dirty Beaches’s debut album Badlands is such an album, and, because Alex Zhang Hungtai, the man behind the group, refuses to write songs on his album, then I refuse to write about it in any other way than in reference to songs:

“Lord Knows Best” is the only actual song on Badlands. It has a nifty little piano line and Hungtai’s words other than his repetition of the song’s title are actually intelligible. “Lord knows best,” he sings. “But I don’t give a damn / ‘Bout anyone / But you.” Not bad, Hungtai. If you wrote more stuff like that I’d actually enjoy your debut album.

The rest works is a bell curve in terms of songability with “Lord Knows Best” being in the middle. Everything else is just really tedious guitar strumming and yipping vocals filtered through something seriously awful to the point where every new elements sounds like a swarm of insects. You can hear the bass in “True Blue”! Do you care? I don’t.



Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tim Cohen - Tim Cohen's Magic Trick: A-

Here’s an interesting line with which to start off an album: “What’ the matter / You never seen a man on fire?” The first track of San Francisco indie rocker Tim Cohen’s second solo outing bursts out the gate from the moment you press play with that line, getting in a quick laugh that sets the tone for the genial candor the man provides throughout Tim Cohen’s Magic Trick. The track is a standard indie acoustic strummer, but you cannot help but pay the utmost attention to Cohen’s lyrics for that excellent opening line.

Tim Cohen’s Magic Trick is, for the most part, an indie folk album in the vein of first track “I Am Never Going to Die” with splashes of ‘50’s pop ala Roy Orbison thrown in. Cohen’s penchant for the well phrased and humorous is always the album’s main draw, but it is not meant to be a comedic release or even a send-up of folk trends in the vein of The Magnetic Fields’ 2010 album, Realism. Instead, Cohen’s lyrics give the songs of Magic Trick warmth, building upon his character rather well as the album goes on. Whether exuding comfort or comic relief, he’s a personality worth listening to, and he consistently pleases at molding rhetoric to complement his songs.

The album’s instrumentation is standard but well produced. It rarely indulges itself or diverges from its layout of acoustic guitars, lush bass and hand percussion. When it does, those new elements tend to stick out but in a way that aids their respective songs. The electric guitar on “The Spirit’s Inside” makes it sound more like a fun take on Ariel Pink’s take on a 60’s AM radio. The organ in “Top on Tight” adds to the song’s playful nature and the warped synth in “Hey Little One” makes the track more hectic to suit its painfully short length. Because Cohen’s voice does not have a very high range, he often has female voices backing him up, which often steps up the beauty of his songs, as is the case with “Hey Little One” and the heavenly coda of “I Looked Up”.

So bottom line is to come for the personality and stay for the brilliant songwriting. Though his influences are far from revolutionary, Cohen has the ability to take these recognizable elements and infuse them with a dry wit that grants them much uniqueness to spare. Whether he’s dismissing love in a monotone on “Legendemain” or flipping the tunnel of love concept on its head in the song of the same name (“We are two speeding trains / In the tunnel of love”), Cohen sets himself apart from his lo-fi scuzzmuffin colleagues in his predilection for legitimate songwriting. The guy’s rather prolific, working on many side projects such as The Fresh & Onlys to keep fans thoroughly satisfied with his distinct brand of folk. So, if you like Tim Cohen’s Magic Trick, there’ll plenty more where that came from.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Live Album Roundup: May 16th 2011

Mastodon - Live at the Aragon
Released: March 15th, 2011
Three words: “Thank you Chicago.” That’s all Mastodon say throughout their 2009 performance at the Aragon Ballroom. The Atlanta quintet has not been known to mince words, to say the least, and I had heard criticisms from people who had seen the group on their tour in support of Crack the Skye that they were too dry in their performance. In Live at the Aragon, Mastodon play the entirety of Crack the Sky, one song from Blood Mountain, one song from Leviathan, two songs from Remission and a Melvins cover. While I can get on the group for their unwillingness to deviate from their set formula, it’s hard to argue with such impeccably performed renditions of some of the most complicated metal of the past decade. People criticize Mastodon for lacking in the vocal department live (I know, because I laughed at them a lot in this video before I became a fan of the group), but the guys actually do a very good job of keeping up with the material. The “Fire in the eye” part of “Divinations” ain’t easy to perform and the guys pretty much pull it off. They’re workmanlike in their execution, but the material is so complicated, it’s just a treat to hear them perform it all so flawlessly. While the album other than Crack the Skye most represented on Live at the Aragon is my least favorite of the group’s (I find Remission too crude), the show is a harrowing hour that’s definitely worth any casual metal fan’s time. A-

Green Day - Awesome as Fuck
Released: March 15th, 2011
When I saw Green Day last summer, what I was most surprised by was how much time the group could spend going through the material from their last two albums without once playing a track released before 2004. People may have their qualms with those albums, but I actually think both are quite good, and was humbled to find that the crowd knew the words to lesser-known tracks like “Murder City” and “Jesus of Suburbia” just as if not better than I did. Awesome as Fuck will probably increase the disdain people have for Green Day for its gimmicky title and refusal to go the full Monty (You’ll notice it says Awesome as F**k on the cover), but the truth is it’s a really good live rendition of hits throughout their career being played among older songs that may even surprise longtime fans. The regular 3-hour Green Day show is cut down to a lean hour that is heavy on new material towards its opposing ends. In the middle, though, deep cuts like “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” and “Burnout” prove to be the album’s highlights for their astonishing adaptability to the arena. Billy Joe Armstrong’s all over the place, screaming his lungs out one moment then whispering tunefully the next. Awesome as Fuck is a compilation of songs from a lot of shows, so him screaming out the names of various cities can be a little confusing, but the album is a solid affair, a very good audio representation of some pretty incredible shows. B+

Billy Joel - Live at Shea Stadium

Released: March 8th, 2011

Fuck the haters; Billy Joel is one of the great American songwriters. Modern hipsters like to associate him with the bloated past, but the guy has come to represent New York’s vigor for forty years now, writing dozens of classics and at least one perfect album. True, the guy hasn’t released any new material in nearly twenty years, but the three live albums he’s released since ‘93’s River of Dreams are performances that show that the man’s fantastic songs have aged rather well. Joel can still sing the high notes in the chorus of “She’s Always a Woman” and can play that insane piano riff in “Angry Young Man” with nearly no mess-ups. The guy’s wit is also just as sharp as ever. “You gettin’ married?” he asks a couple I can only assume had gotten engaged during “She’s Always a Woman”. “Get a prenup,” he responds, the irony in proposing during that song not lost on him. As Shea Stadium’s last concert before being torn down, Live at Shea Stadium is a star-studded affair. Garth Brooks, John Mayer and Paul McCartney are competent on their respective songs, but none compare to Tony Bennett, whose duet with Joel on “New York State of Mind” is picturesque. As for the rest, it’s just Joel and his band, free to arrange his classics around any way he likes. 12 Gardens Live may be the better Joel live album to use as a novice’s introduction, but Live at Shea Stadium is still a great product if only to hear Joel reliably tell the crowd not to take shit from anyone by the concert’s end. A-

Deerhunter - Live from SoHo

Released: February 15th, 2011

I wasn’t as keen on Deerhunter’s latest album, Halcyon Digest, as a lot of other people were. While I thought it was very good, it never struck me as exemplary, too vulnerable to filler and shoegaze-y laments. Live from SoHo, Deerhunter’s iTunes-exclusive live EP, takes all the best moments of Halcyon Digest and drenches them in so much sticky atmosphere, it’s a wonder that this recording took place in an Apple Store once you get in the thick of it. With the exception of the bouncy “Rainwater Cassette Exchange” from the group’s EP of the same name, the songs performed on Live From Soho have a consistent style, which doesn’t suggest murkiness in sound, but professional cohesion in the musicians. “Desire Lines” transitions beautifully into “Hazel St.” and, true to the jamming nature of the show, closer, “He Would Have Laughed”, is expanded to over ten minutes before being cut abruptly short, as it does in its Halcyon studio version. These guys definitely have their shit down pat, and if you were already a Deerhunter fan, Live from SoHo should be all the more reason to go see them perform. Halcyon Digest didn’t knock my socks off, but Live from SoHo has inspired me to go see them before their true masterpiece is made. A-


Big K.R.I.T. - Return of 4Eva: B+

I should have seen this coming. After blowing up my car’s speaker system over the summer, “Country Shit” was released as an official single in late September of 2010. This was not particularly surprising, as the track was definitely the highlight of Big K.R.I.T.’s debut, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. However, the single’s cover was a little off-putting, given the context. The picture that was made to exemplify the toughest hip hop song of the year was not of the Mississippi rapper making some badass pose or even standing around some lavish cars like he does on the cover of his newest mixtape, Return of 4Eva. Instead, a single called “Country Shit” had the cover of K.R.I.T. facing away from the camera, a look of contemplation, almost shame, completely betraying the track’s braggadocio. The picture looked less like a countrified victory lap and more like an apology in the vein of the cover of Gucci Mane’s The State v. Radric Davis.

After listening to Big K.R.I.T.’s newest mixtape, Return of 4Eva, released a year after K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, I understand why K.R.I.T. looks far from proud on that cover. During the shooting for that cover, K.R.I.T. was most likely in the midst of writing Return and knew that the song was nothing like what he would release next. His appearance on that cover looks now to be him disavowing the boasting featured so prominently in the track, the rapper embarrassed by the song’s virile immaturity.

Return of 4Eva has no brutal barnburners like “Country Shit”, nor does it have any aggressively dedicated songs like “See Me On Top” or even mid-tempo tracks like “Hometown Hero”. The most aggressive Big K.R.I.T. gets on Return of 4Eva is the ominous bassline to “Time Machine”. Other than that, he’s in full-on relax mode, more comfortable to spit motivational rhymes and critique the rap industry over soul hooks like that of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here tracks “Neva Go Back” and “They Got US”. The man premises “American Rapstar” with a speech about how you have to listen to his songs in full to truly understand them. A song title like “Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism” gives off some pretty intense holier-than-thou vibes. K.R.I.T. has a preference for elevated criticism on Return of 4Eva and you get the impression that he wants you to be ashamed of yourself for expecting something as juvenile as another “Country Shit”. Return is Big K.R.I.T. trying to be taken seriously, and, unfortunately, he’s a lot less fun as a result.

However, the songs of Return of 4Eva are good for what they are. About half of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here was made up of serious reflections on the world, his home state and hip-hop, so it’s by no means bad that he’s continued down this route. Songs like “Amtrak” and “Lions For Lambs” would fit well on his debut for their catchy laid back hooks and inventive production. Despite its heavy-handed title, the aforementioned “Another Naïve Individual” is a genuinely affecting track, K.R.I.T. telling various establishments he refuses to be pinned down as an African American stereotype. He’s relatable when he talks about how his mom didn’t want him to rap about faith in “The Vent” and when he builds up a lavish beat only to tear it down as an interrupted dream in “R4 Intro”.

The problem I have with Return of 4Eva is that it has no ballast, no significant shift in style between the romps of self-awareness. As a result, the hazy beats and pleasant rhymes tend to blend together in the album’s second half, their melodies not memorable enough to warrant second listens. Luckily this doesn’t happen enough to turn Return into a bad album, but it definitely keeps it from being the magnum opus many have made it out to be. It also doesn’t help that the times when the album tries to be somewhat rowdy fall awkwardly flat. It’s hard to get past the chorus of “Sookie Now” (add another “sookie” and you got the song’s hook), inconsequential David Banner verse and all. “I put that on my sub” is a strange hook to build a song around, and, unfortunately, K.R.I.T. lacks the charisma to pull off the track titled “My Sub”. Ultimately, many of Return’s songs lack distinction, a quality that can be crippling to an album made up of twenty-one tracks.

So my criticism of Return of 4Eva isn’t so much that K.R.I.T. is trying to separate himself from the shameless posturing of his compatriots, but that he’s trying so hard as to make himself sound self-satisfied and to detract from the core elements that made K.R.I.T. Wuz Here so refreshing. The album does yield a new and interesting face of K.R.I.T., but it is in the moments when he opts for lavish production that sounds like the work of genuine party starters. The beat that K.R.I.T. creates around Return’s intro is ultimately made to be a joke, but it’s invigorating to hear him explain what he calls the “R4 movement” over it, even if it’s for a fleeting moment. “Shake It” is a similarly excellent jam in which K.R.I.T. shows off his suave side, and it’s a triumphant success. The song is one of Return’s highlights and I would be happy to see K.R.I.T. expand upon that style in his next release. However, based on the great seriousness K.R.I.T. attempts to get across on Return of 4Eva, I wouldn’t hold my breath.